The fallout from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion, which could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade, keep falling. In the wake of the leak, there are two separate conversations the country should look into.
The national debate about the possible ramifications of such a decision should foster crucial conversations in society about life, choice, women’s health care, moral relativism, family, social safety nets, adoption and youth at risk – to name a few. Unfortunately, the result of the leak has been to foment anger and angst, fear and frustration, false choice and contempt, political rancor and partisan rhetoric – rather than fostering deeper dialogue.
There should also be a conversation about the leaked draft notice and the need for integrity, trust and restraint from institutions and individuals.
Separating the leak itself and the content of the op-ed — and possible implications — is important for this conversation.
What the leak cost the Supreme Court
Trust is the currency of the kingdom at the Supreme Court. Leaks, controversies and clicks are the currency of far too many politicians, supporters and media organizations. Assessing which coin and currency is most valuable to American society will determine whether or not our future freedom is at stake.
Many have focused on the repercussions of Roe’s overthrow in order to justify the leak. (Based on early assessments, it appears the leak likely came from one of the clerks.) Others jumped on the bandwagon, saying the “clerk” had the guts to leak the document and that Politico has right to post it.
The Deseret News convened a roundtable in Washington, DC, for such a conversation. The Atlantic’s staff writer McKay Coppins emphatically said: “It’s a no-brainer that you’re publishing this story as a journalist.” His comments drew nods of approval from the other two panel members, according to a Deseret News article about the event. The panel then continued their conversation on the ethics of journalism.
Poynter, the journalism think tank, had this to say about Politico: “When faced with an unprecedented leak like this, news consumers are understandably skeptical in this age of misinformation and disinformation. When the journalists behind the work do not report that they have gone through an ethical process, consumers may conclude that ethics does not matter to journalists.
Coppins said the concern to protect the institutions covered by journalists would have undone some of the most important revelations of the past half-century, such as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.
To be clear, writing a first draft is NOT a violation of national security or a cover-up, nor an offense subject to investigation or impeachment. Therefore, there was no legitimate reason to undermine the credibility and moral authority of the High Court by circulating a leaked draft. Drafting such drafts, for and against each decision, is the job of the members of the Supreme Court. The court is the last civil institution that maintains a positive balance of trust on the part of the American people. The price of in-trust withdrawals from the company’s bank account by the lessor and Politico will prove the most costly.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts called the leak a “singular and flagrant” breach of trust. Roberts inferred that this was not an act of bravery, but treachery to the branch of government where such trust is truly the currency of the kingdom.
The value of the hold
There are lessons from Watergate that apply in this case. Several years ago, I interviewed legendary journalist Bob Woodward several times in preparation for an event, sponsored by the Deseret News, which I would be moderating at the Newseum in Washington, DC. The event was titled “Integrity and Trust”.
Three words that Woodward repeated to me countless times during those interviews and from the stage at the Newseum still ring in my mind as a lesson for today: “Restraint always works.”
Woodward explained how he and his partner regularly wanted to publish the Watergate story early in their investigation. Their editor reiterated the need for more work, more investigation, more sources, more dialogue – rather than rushing.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. The restraint still works.
Neither the clerk who leaked the document nor Politico who conducted it exercised proper restraint or consideration for anything or anyone beyond their own self-interest.
Politico noted, without actually acknowledging it, that this was the first time in our nation’s history that a Supreme Court opinion had been leaked and published before a ruling was issued. This precedent suggests that issues of restraint and trust are central to judicial discussion.
It should be noted that not only has the Supreme Court not rendered a decision in the leaked opinion case, but also that the Supreme Court still has other crucial cases to decide over the next six weeks – including including rulings on religious freedom, affirmative action, prayer, and the Second Amendment. Without trust, it will be extremely difficult to have frank conversations and rigorous debate between the nine judges. The judges are likely to be less outspoken, more cautious, less open-minded and more defensive, with the cloud of a comment making headlines the next day.
Unfortunately, a void in trust actually prevents persuasion and enlightenment from happening. Our justice system requires such trust and such conversations within the court and between judges.
It matters where this lack of restraint and breach of trust takes America. This worries me greatly. We have “tested” our democracy in civil war, economic collapse, race riots, assassinations, world wars and pandemics – but we have never tested our democracy in the absence of trust . Trust in institutions, trust in leaders and mutual trust are necessary for a constitutional republic to endure.
With instant access to information and the ever-accelerating rush and rush to judgement, we often forget that restraint still works. National media, political pundits, and each of us as individuals on social media could benefit from a little more restraint.
What those who put country first teach us
There is another lesson from Watergate that could rightly be applied to both the backer and Politico. Woodward spent years frustrated with the answers he received from President Gerald Ford about the final chapters of the Watergate scandal. Woodward had been convinced for more than 25 years that Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was the final act of corruption and collusion. Surely Ford had made a deal with Nixon – a pardon for the presidency. Still, Woodward’s journalistic instincts made him feel that Ford wasn’t telling the whole story. He was right.
After meeting with Ford regularly for several months, Woodward once again asked the former president why he pardoned Nixon. Ford replied, “Why do you keep asking me that?” Woodward replied, “Because I don’t think you really answered the question.”
The aging Ford then explained how he completely rejected any idea of winning the presidency in exchange for a pardon. He wasn’t about to accept this historically evil deal of selling his soul for power. Instead, Ford described his internal thought process of assessing the state of the nation. The country was exhausted and filled with distrust of the government. Ford acknowledged that if Nixon were imprisoned and tried, it would lead to several more years of conspiracy theories, angst, anger and frustration. He feared that the important work of the country would remain unfinished and that the distraction of such a trial would further fracture the nation.
Woodward told me his view of Ford had shifted 180 degrees that day. He viewed Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon not as bribery, but as the ultimate act of courage and selflessness.
Ford asked the right question. He didn’t ask, “What’s best for me?” Instead, he asked, “What’s best for the country?” He seemed to recognize in a very real way the need for the nation to move forward. Ford also knew that such a move would be the worst thing for his own political power. He was absolutely right, it was good for the country and bad for him. Ford’s popularity plummeted from 71% to 49% almost overnight, and he lost the presidential election to Jimmy Carter.
Most historians, regardless of political persuasion, agree that Ford’s ending of the long night of darkness for the country was the best thing for the country.
The state of our nation
As a country, we continue to be plagued by palace intrigues, scandals, political backstabbing and partisan power struggles. If only public officials, media companies and elected officials would ask, “What’s best for the country?” before plunging headlong into the black hole of mistrust.
Without restraint and a willingness to demand what is best for the country, we will deplete the already diminished trust account of America’s “kingdom coin.” Such a breakdown of trust will put the nation at risk.
The greatest crisis for the country is that the mistrust perpetuated by government institutions, major organizations, political leaders, individual actors and the media has begun to fray the fabric of trust in our communities and even in our personal relationships.
The restraint still works. Asking what is best for those you lead, serve, or love will make the nation rich with the currency of the relational domain that matters most – TRUST.