Supreme Food Court

Jim Washburn fits Triangle Square into a conservative black hole

Photo by Tenaya HillsHow dark can it get? How long can it last?

Oil-smoke black, and for a very long time, evidently.

It isn't enough that the Bush years have brought us death, debt, dishonesty and dishonor enough to linger years after he's left office. It isn't enough that elections are rigged, districts gerrymandered and science rewritten as Karl Rove and Tom DeLay usher in the Thousand Year Righteousness.

Now President George W. Bush is poised to name two or more judges to the Supreme Court, assuring that the nine folks who have the last word in America will still be rendering nutty, anti-democratic verdicts long after I'm dead.

Everyone expected Chief Justice William Rehnquist to retire at the end of this session, and he almost certainly will leave the bench, or slide off it, sometime during Bush's tenure. He's older than rope, has cancer and has the look of a man who'd rather spend his remaining days buttering Pop Tarts than trying to comprehend what the hell Grokster is.

By some accounts, O'Connor wasn't enjoying the big bench lately either and only tarried this long in the hopes Rehnquist would fold and she'd be made chief justice. That hasn't happened, so she's fulfilling a lesser wish, one expressed at a dinner party on Election Day 2000. When the early returns projected Al Gore as the winner, she was heard to exclaim, "This is terrible," and stormed off to the buffet table, leaving her husband to explain that she wanted to retire but couldn't bring herself to do so if Gore was the president who'd choose her successor.

But, you know, sometimes dreams come true, especially if you hold the one deciding vote that aces out a half-million Gore voters. O'Connor's was the swing vote that put a Bush in the Rose Garden, leaving her free to retire at her leisure, though now is certainly a prudent time. The Ruling Right has been so openly mendacious that even Red Staters are starting to see the weevils in their pancake mix. Despite DeLay's ultra-gerrymandering in several states, Republicans could conceivably lose the midterm elections, making it harder for Bush to push a justice as scaly as Scalia through Congress.

Though O'Connor was named to the bench by Ronald Reagan, helped hoist Bush to power and has made her share of right-tilting decisions, she is what passes for a moderate these days. No matter how Republican congressmen rail at the "liberal court," the fact is that seven of the nine justices were appointed by Republican presidents, and most are pretty damn conservative. These are the folks who prevailed in ruling that actual innocence isn't grounds enough to save you from the death chamber, and who were the dissenting voices when a bare majority ruled that the U.S. must join the rest of the civilized world and stop executing minors. O'Connor was with the pro-juvenile-death camp on that one, agreeing with Antonin Scalia's opinion that the feds shouldn't trample on a state's right to kill kids.

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You have to spend a lot of time watching the Supremes to understand what "states' rights" means to conservatives. It apparently means that a state's sovereignty should be superceded by federal jurisdiction only in the direst of circumstances, like, say, if someone rich stands to lose money or if the citizens get too uppity about this freedom stuff.

For example, to a Scalia, federal environmental laws should not overrule a state's laws, except now, under Bush, when federal law favors polluters, in which case, screw you Mr. State. The same variable logic applied in Bush vs. Gore, when Florida's judges suddenly needed federal correcting when it looked as if the recount was going Gore's way. There's also the medical marijuana matter: even though it's the will of the citizens in 10 states that persons with medical needs can use pot to alleviate their pain, the court agreed with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that a cancer-ridden grandma growing weed in her back yard somehow constituted untoward "interstate commerce" requiring a home invasion from federal agents.

You've gotta love conservative logic: if you manufacture an assault rifle that's misused (like there's a proper use for a product labeled "assault") to kill 20 kids, you're not liable. But before they're gunned down, if those kids use software you designed to download songs for free, you areliable?

Before going on recess (careful on the monkey bars, Antonin!), the Supremes ruled in the entertainment industry's favor that Grokster and others could be held liable if their products facilitate copyright infringement. The implications may be far-reaching, since iPods, home computers, VCRs and probably even your ears can facilitate copyright infringement. Does this mean that every time someone—gun industry excepted—comes up with a new product, they have to make sure it can't be put to illegal uses? Goodbye, Zip-lock bags!

In its last week, the court made several rulings that aren't as exciting as Roevs.Wadebut will still affect our lives. One decision that got little notice maintains that companies owning high-speed Internet lines don't have to share them with competing services. So if your phone or cable lines are owned by SBC and SBC doesn't feel like carrying Earthlink, no more Earthlink. In theory, they don't have to carry contentthey don't like, which means that huge corporations can ultimately stifle the Internet the way they have every other mass medium. Anyone with an alternative agenda may have to use smoke signals.

* * *

The ruling that did get plenty of attention was the one on eminent domain, which affirmed the government's right to seize your property, not just if there was a compelling public need—like to build a school or highway—but if some private entity has a plan for your land that the government likes.

Which brings us to Triangle Square, even if nothing else will.

You probably haven't been to Costa Mesa's $62 million ghost town recently. If tenants were teeth, Triangle Square would be gumming the cars passing by. It's had a vacancy problem since it opened in 1992, and now it's dropping anchor stores like they were anchors: Whole Foods Market—a rousing success at some 155 other locations—failed and bailed there three years ago. This January, Niketown laced up its shoes and ran. The Virgin Mega-Store announced last week that it's getting the mega-hell out on Sept. 22. Even with those stores, the center was only producing one-fifth of the $1 million in tax revenue it was expected to generate.

This wasn't the plan when Costa Mesa city officials used eminent domain to force the land's mom-and-pop owners to sell because developers had a "better" idea. Though a city-created center across the street was riddled with vacancies, Triangle Square, they said, would be like a European city-state, drawing people to it and reinvigorating Costa Mesa's downtown.

The high court's decision to rubber-stamp government's right to create such municipal monstrosities had to be a tough one: on the one hand, they want to limit government's power; on the other hand, that power was being used to benefit the whims of rich developers.

Chalk one up for rich developers, though the court's decision is being reviled on the right as a liberal power grab. The court's more liberal members did indeed vote aye, while O'Connor wrote a strong dissent, noting "all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner . . . the beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."

A wild card like O'Connor—who would unexpectedly sometimes put the public good first—may be a thing of the past. The consensus is that Bush's first choice to replace her is Alberto Gonzales. Does absolutely everybody in this administration fall up?Wolfowitz, Tenet, Negroponte, et al. do something idiotic or scandalous, and they're either rewarded or promoted—or both. After it was revealed that Gonzales had penned the policy paper asserting the president's authority to hold prisoners without trial, that the Geneva Conventions are "quaint" and that torture is just ducky, you wouldn't expect them to hide him in plain sight. But they made him attorney general—and now potentially a justice on the very court that rejected his reasoning on Bush's extrajudicial authority.

And the really creepy thing is that even though Gonzales has been at Bush's side for more than a decade, ardently supports the death penalty, did the bidding of the energy industry and took Grandma's weed away, conservative groups are up in arms because Gonzales isn't conservative enoughfor them. They may have to look in a cave to find someone less progressive, and then feed him Bible pages and raw meat and have a guy in a Ted Kennedy mask beat him with a rolled-up copy of the Bill of Rights. Then we'll see some real justice meted out.

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