L. Phillips Runyon III – Personal freedom and the common good

L. Phillips Runyon III

L. Phillips Runyon III FILE PHOTO

Published: 05-16-2024 9:02 AM

We’re all disagreeing about a lot of things these days, but I hope we can still say that the three words most critical to our democracy are “We the people,” and not “I’m No. 1.”

Sure, we have a Bill of Rights that guarantees the protection of individuals from the kinds of oppression our founding generation faced from the British monarchy. But when you really parse the wording, you see that many of the protections are for the entirety of the “people” – the right of the people to assemble, the right of the people to a free press, the rights of the people to freedom of religion and to petition the government about their grievances, and the right of the people against unreasonable searches and seizures. By contrast, other rights talk about individual “persons” – the right against double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment and not to testify against oneself.

And then there’s the right of the people, not a person, to defend themselves during militia service, which, of course, involved as many people as the militia could muster against a government that might try to oppress them, like the British monarchy had done for generations. Then came the Heller decision by my old law school professor Justice Antonin Scalia, and that was sort of the watershed moment where “I’m No. 1” usurped “We the people” as the controlling mantra of constitutional interpretation – and where personal freedom surpassed the common good when it comes to modern American life.

And now we’ve just barely survived the deadly manifestation of “I’m No. 1” by the never-mask-or-vaccinate attitude of so many individualists during the worst of the COVID era. Because in the interest of exercising their personal freedom, they jeopardized the common good by infecting and surely killing many of their fellow citizens who unquestionably didn’t need to die.

Personal freedom is a glorious thing when it’s just your person who’s affected, but when it has a devastating impact on others, particularly thousands of others, that’s nothing but criminal selfishness.

There’s also a corollary I want to hit before finishing up here. That’s the one about leaving lots of the people’s issues of national importance to the individual states to determine for their residents. So, despite that providing for the “general welfare” is specifically delegated to the legislative branch of our federal government, the states’-righters think the intent of our governing document was to leave even things as broadly fundamental as reproductive rights, voting rights and immigration regulation to each state to determine.

That means some states can ban reproductive rights entirely, make voting more-restrictive for their minority residents and essentially ban the entry of new residents altogether – as they’ve done.

I seem to recall an earlier time in our history when the mantra of states’ rights was used for another nefarious purpose. That was back when the South went to war over being concerned that their states’ rights to preserve the enslavement of other Americans was in jeopardy.

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It’s too blatantly supremacist and misogynistic these days for many of these folks to admit their intent to prevent certain citizens from voting, to keep their female residents from controlling their own reproductive rights or keep their cultures free from foreigners, but calling it states’ rights disguises those goals sufficiently to make it sound like a legitimate governing philosophy.

So, until we can break free from the me-me-me of selfish personal freedom and get back to the we-we-we of the people’s common good – that’s protected by uniform national laws adopted by our congressional representatives – we’re going to continue having state politicians, assisted by unelected federal judges, appealing to our worst human instincts. Their personal motives are dressed up to seem respectable and responsible, but their real intentions are as transparent as the clean air I hope we the people still have the right to breathe.

L. Phillips Runyon III has practiced law in Peterborough for 50 years and was the presiding justice of the 8th Circuit Court for 27 years.