There’s a classic scene from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Butch has to fight a much bigger, stronger, meaner but stupider lug for control of the gang. It’s pretty good. Watch it here if you don’t recall.
I thought of it when reading about the current knife fight between the Republican-controlled West Virginia Legislature and the state Supreme Court, which has a majority of Democrats. Both appear to be hopelessly corrupt, either in terms of old-fashioned I-paid-ridiculous-sums-to-redecorate-my-chambers money corruption or as in “all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and we want absolute power” corruption.
None of what follows is made up:
The Legislature and the court are at war, for various reasons, but one of them must be that they are controlled by different parties and in today’s America we’ve sorta lost the knack of compromising across party lines.
The account I’ll pass along, via Slate, starts with the stunning fact that the West Virginia Legislature impeached the entire West Virginia Supreme Court for spending too much on redecorating their offices. But, though impeached by the state House, they haven’t yet been tried in the state Senate. This turns into a lawsuit over whether the impeachment is improper, which gets appealed up to the Supreme Court, which currently consists of zero justices who are not currently impeached.
Some acting justices have been appointed and they have ruled that the impeachment by the House was improper. That was the state of play as of the writing of the Slate story I’ve linked to at the bottom.
Before I could post this, the effort to move on to the impeachment trial in the state Senate failed. The defendants (starting with the impeached chief justice) didn’t show up, nor did the guy who was supposed to preside over the Senate trial.
I won’t spoil all the twists this takes, and it ain’t over yet, and if you don’t live in West Virginia (and maybe if you do) it’s pretty hilarious — or perhaps tragicomic.
On a more serious note, it’s a hyper-example of what happens in a two-party system when the two parties can’t or won’t compromise and see everything as an all-or-nothing take-no-prisoners fight to the death.
As you may know, I’m a Constitution history nerd. In 1986, in preparation for the bicentennial of the Constitution, historian Michael Kammen wrote a history of that holy document titled “A Machine That Would Go of Itself,” which refers to the quasi-religious belief in the Constitution as so cleverly constructed and checked and balanced that it provided an answer to all our important national questions.
Kammen wasn’t endorsing the “go of itself” view; he was describing as a matter of American history and myth that the belief in the “go of itselfness” of the Constitution, and the respect that that created among us, the governed, was an important secret sauce in the long history of the system.
I’m pretty worried that the magic of that myth is wearing thin. My own belief that, cleverly designed as it may be, our system has always relied on a set of unwritten and not-really-enforceable norms that puts limits on how thoroughly our two parties will go to demonize and crush each other.
That said, here’s the Slate account of the knife fight in West Virginia, which leaves off before Monday’s events where the impeachment trial had to be scrapped, or put on hold — or whatever you may decide to call it.
And here’s a report from West Virginia TV news of the events of the day the impeachment trial in the state Senate had to be postponed.
Don’t know whether to laugh or cry.