News & Politics

What Has the Supreme Court Been Smoking?

Unbelievably, the Supreme Court has ruled that anyone living in public housing can be evicted if their family members or guests use drugs -- even if they are unaware of the abuse.
In an infuriating blow to reason, logic, fairness, compassion and equal justice, the Supreme Court ruled last week that people living in public housing can be evicted for any drug activity by any household member or guest -- even if the drug use happened blocks away from the housing project and even if the tenant had no inkling that anything illegal was taking place.

Chew on that for a second. The highest judicial body in the land has said -- unanimously -- that it's OK to toss people who the court acknowledges are innocent out of their houses for crimes they didn't commit and didn't even know about. The generals in the drug war are getting mighty desperate -- and silly.

The justices did not just uphold the constitutionality of the "One Strike and You're Out" eviction policy, first implemented by the Clinton administration in 1996; they also rushed to its defense, calling it "reasonable," "unambiguous" and "not absurd."

But try to tell Pearlie Rucker that the law's not absurd. She was the named defendant in the case the court ruled on, a 63-year-old great-grandmother who found herself and everyone living with her facing eviction when her mentally disabled daughter was caught possessing cocaine -- three blocks away from Rucker's apartment. Or to co-defendant Herman Walker, a disabled 79-year old man, who now stands to lose his home because his full-time health care worker was found with drug paraphernalia in the apartment. You'd think that if the Supremes didn't understand the hardship of poverty, they'd at least understand the hardships of old age.

When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had struck down this draconian policy, it ruled that it perverted the intent of the law, which was meant to improve the lives of public housing residents -- not destroy them.

The high court's opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist no less, tried to buttress its cold-hearted argument by claiming that so-called "no fault" evictions are justified because drug use leads to "murders, muggings, and other forms of violence." But he failed to point out how locking up innocent people solves that. Or what social ills will be avoided by Pearlie and Herman being cast out on their innocent rear ends. Surely even the most brutal and utilitarian calculus would at least balance the cost of punishing so many blameless victims against whatever perceived good is achieved.

But, no, the justices couldn't be bothered. In adopting such one-sided reasoning and hyperbolic "Reefer Madness" rhetoric the Supreme Court is following in the fear-mongering footsteps of the administration, whose latest whacko anti-drug ad campaign tried to draw a link between teenage drug use and violent acts of terrorism.

In reality, two of the four plaintiffs in the case before the court were elderly women whose grandchildren were caught smoking pot in a housing project parking lot. I have a feeling the grandkids were far more interested in the munchies than in murder and mayhem.

The ruling is not only a galling example of drug war lunacy, but also a gut-wrenching reminder of just how differently America treats its rich and its poor. The multi-million dollar homes of Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side of Manhattan have more than their share of kids struggling with drug problems. But as concerned as these kids' parents are, you can bet that their problems are not compounded by the additional worry that the entire family will be tossed out onto the street because their kid is seen smoking a joint three blocks away. Why should we hold poor people to a standard of accountability most of us could never meet?

"A tenant who cannot control drug crime," wrote Justice Rehnquist in the majority opinion, "is a threat to other residents and the project." I wonder if the Chief Justice would apply the same condemnatory logic to Gov. Jeb Bush, who also lives in public housing and was also unable to control his troubled daughter.

Indeed, our political establishment, whether ensconced in plush public housing or not, is filled with people unable to "control drug crime" by a household member. But none of them -- including Sens. Ted Kennedy, Richard Lugar, and Richard Shelby, and Reps. Dan Burton, Spencer Bachus, John Murtha, Duke Cunningham and Maurice Hinchey -- were punished for the sins of their kids. What's more, unlike the thousands of poor and minority drug offenders who have had the book thrown at them, these lawmakers' lawbreaking offspring were frequently granted special treatment.

Take the amazing case of Rep. Burton's son, Dan II, who, in 1994, was arrested for transporting seven pounds of marijuana across state lines with the intent to distribute. He pleaded guilty and received probation, community service and house arrest. Soon after, he was discovered growing 30 pot plants in his apartment but skated on the charges once again -- a federal felony carrying a mandatory-minimum sentence of five years in jail having been miraculously transformed into a state level misdemeanor.

It's not surprising that poor kids are routinely sent to jail while rich kids are given a slap on the wrist and a ticket to rehab, or that poor parents are thrown out of their houses for not knowing what their kids are doing while powerful parents are given our sympathy and understanding. But it is unjust. And isn't that ultimately what the Supreme Court is supposed to be about: dispensing justice?

Since Rehnquist and company were too busy taking hits from their double-standard bong, it's now up to Congress to undo this discriminatory policy. Here's a thought: Why don't Ted Kennedy and Dan Burton call a joint Senate-House hearing on "One Strike and You're Out" no-fault evictions. They can call Jeb Bush, Pearlie Rucker and their respective daughters (one taken to rehab, one taken to jail) as the first witnesses.