A question for Brett Kavanaugh: who gets a second chance?

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Who gets a second chance?

Let me tell you a tale of two Bretts. The first is supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh. In 2018 Kavanaugh was credibly accused of committing sexual assault when he was a 17-year-old; a culture war promptly broke out. Liberals largely argued that the accusations should preclude Kavanaugh from a lifetime appointment on the supreme court. The right, meanwhile, cried “cancel culture”. Even if Kavanaugh was guilty of what he was being accused of, they argued, what you did as a teenager shouldn’t ruin the rest of your life.

Related: Biden’s pick for supreme court reform panel is a conservative Kavanaugh defender

“I do not understand why the loutish, drunken behavior of a 17-year-old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge,” Rod Dreher, a senior editor of the American Conservative editor tweeted, for example. “I am not the same person I was at 17. This is a terrible standard to establish in public life.”

Kavanaugh himself argued that his teenage years were irrelevant. “If we want to sit here and talk about whether a supreme court nomination should be based on a high school yearbook page, I think that’s taken us to a new level of absurdity,” he scoffed during the hearing.

Now let’s meet the second Brett. From birth Brett Jones’s life was marked by violence; his biological dad was an alcoholic who abused Jones’s mother and his stepfather was also abusive. In 2004, when he was 15, Jones was arrested for stabbing his grandfather to death in a domestic dispute. He was sentenced to life without parole and has been locked up ever since. Jones should obviously be held accountable for what he did. But being held accountable is very different from being written off as incorrigible. Does Jones’s crime mean he is beyond rehabilitation? Should Jones, who is now 31 and has spent the majority of his life in prison, be denied an opportunity to prove that the person he was at 15 is not the same person he is today?

On Thursday, the supreme court effectively decided, yes, he – and other juvenile offenders – should be denied that opportunity. In a 6-3 ruling upholding Jones’s sentence, the supreme court found that you don’t have to show that a juvenile murderer is beyond rehabilitation before sentencing them to a life behind bars. Kavanaugh, who wrote the majority opinion, claimed this decision was simply following precedent. However, as justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her blistering dissent, the supreme court had previously found that judges shouldn’t impose juvenile life without parole except for very rare cases where the child had found to be beyond rehabilitation.

“How low this court’s respect for [respect for precedent] has sunk,” Sotomayor wrote. “The court is willing to overrule precedent without even acknowledging it is doing so, much less providing any special justification.”

Sotomayor further noted “many aspects of Jones’ crime seem to epitomize unfortunate yet transient immaturity”. There’s little evidence Jones is a monster. There’s a lot of evidence that he had a traumatic childhood. Since being convicted he’s maintained a good record in prison and worked to get his GED.

Jones, let’s remember, wasn’t asking for much. He wasn’t asking for a lifetime appointment on the supreme court. He wasn’t even asking to be released. As Sotomayor noted, the only thing that he, and the almost 1,500 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences were asking for, was “the opportunity, at some point in their lives, to show a parole board all they have done to rehabilitate themselves and to ask for a second chance.” Kavanaugh, the guy who wept angrily when people judged him for his past, decided that these people shouldn’t get that opportunity.

I don’t know if there’s any better example of “cancel culture” than deciding that you should be able to lock kids up for life and not give them a chance to prove they have changed. And yet, many of the people who usually rail against “cancel culture” are surprisingly silent about this decision. It’s a reminder of how fundamentally dishonest many of these “anti-woke warriors” are. What a lot of those people really mean when they talk about “cancel culture” is that people like them shouldn’t be held accountable for their mistakes; they should get second, third, fourth chances. As for everyone else? Who cares if they barely even get a first chance in life?

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Philip Roth’s biographer is accused of sexual assault

The publisher of the bestselling Roth biography by Blake Bailey has temporarily halted the book’s shipping and promotion.

Caitlyn Jenner is running to be Republican governor of California

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The week in PTO-archy

In Taiwan you get eight days of paid time off (PTO) if you get married. So one cunning couple got married and then quickly divorced and then quickly remarried. In the span of five weeks, they had four weddings, three divorces, and racked up a lot of PTO. Impressive! But not quite as impressive an Italian hospital worker who apparently skipped work for 15 years but still somehow got paid. BRB, looking for a job in Italy.

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