Court rules that OK's amendment constraining courts is unconstitutional (Updated)

In 2010 the voters of Oklahoma were presented with a proposed amendment to their state constitution that would ban all state courts from using international or cultural laws to arrive at rulings in cases before them. A US District court has now ruled that this amendment violated the US Constitution’s 1st Amendment protections:

An amendment that would ban Oklahoma courts from considering international or Islamic law discriminates against religions and a Muslim community leader has the right to challenge its constitutionality, a federal appeals court said Tuesday.

The court in Denver upheld U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange’s order blocking implementation of the amendment shortly after it was approved by 70 percent of Oklahoma voters in November 2010.

Muneer Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Oklahoma, sued to block the law from taking effect, arguing that the Save Our State Amendment violated his First Amendment rights.

The intent of the authors of that amendment and of the 70 percent of OK voters who cast their ballot in support of it is pretty clear: courts are supposed to be guided by US and State law. You know… the laws that we, the citizens of the United States through our elected representatives, write and pass ourselves as opposed to laws written and passed by people who are not US Citizens and do not necessarily hold our values.

Now, there are some issues I’m taking with the arguments advanced by the defenders of this amendment. The amendment’s text actually reads in part, “The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia law.” When arguing before they court, the backers of the amendment said the intent is to ban all religious laws, and that Sharia was just named as an example. Hey, I consider myself a backer of this kind of amendment, myself, but the clear language of this amendment makes their arguments factually untrue. The law says “[s]pecifically…shall not consider…Sharia law.” Sounds like more than an example to me. Still, the 1st line quoted from the amendment makes the general statement about religious law so the specific mention doesn’t make it more likely that Sharia would be affected than any other.

US courts – at every level – should be relying on US-passed laws for the basis of their rulings and nothing else. To have a judge consider laws passed in England or Italy when making a ruling is a travesty of justice. The people involved in the court case deserve to be judged by laws passed here in this country and none other. The District Court made a point of noting that the backers of the law couldn’t point to an instance where an OK court had applied international law or Sharia law in a case, implying that the amendment was a protection against a non-existent threat. I’d counter-argue that I don’t need to wait until my kitchen is on fire before I buy a fire extinguisher. It’s perfectly permissible to law down the rules within which the court must act so that everyone – defendants, plaintiffs, and judges alike – know in advance the playing field upon which they must hold the contest. To suggest that they can’t because no judge in OK has ever done it is simply wrong in my opinion.

As to anyone who might be happy about this amendment getting struck down, I’d like to pose a question. When the day comes that you’re in court for something and the judge pulls out a piece of Roman Catholic law or a Papal Bull to form the basis of his ruling, are you going to be as happy with that? If the Supreme Court were to do the same when the subject of Roe v. Wade comes up, will you support the court’s looking to non-US legal precedent and law then? I’m guessing not. If that’s how you feel, then we should be on the same side and be looking for the courts to concede that the people have the right to constrain them to using US law alone for their rulings.

Update: In reading that last paragraph again, I feel it’s necessary to clarify to whom I’m speaking. I’m talking to people who are happy the amendment was struck down because they don’t think we need to explicitly constrain judicial scope to US law only, not people who think the amendment should have been struck because it was badly worded. Which it was.

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2 comments

  1. The ruling was a good one. Not because we should be looking to Sharia, Papal Canon, or Indonesian law, but because the amendment was a crappy piece of writing that included the two references to Sharia, and thus contained the seeds of its own destruction. Frankly, the legal advisors pushing the breathlessly-named “Save Our State Amendment” should be ashamed of themselves for not seeing this one coming.

    You are, of course, correct in your assessment of what the law’s *intent* should be, and that is to limit our legal system to our own precedents. And simply striking the two Sharia references should make the amendment acceptable.

    Unfortunately, we can’t do that, in most if not all states. The amendment has to be taken as written, or not at all. As an aside, the fact that it was perceived that such an amendment was even needed is more of an indictment of the unpredictability of our legal system, than of the transient fears of the populace. I mean both conditions exist, but fears are normal and understandable. Unpredictable courts are not.

  2. Wow, what’s this? We agree again! I just had a conversation with an acquaintance who’s a lawyer and I told him that people are scared to death of the legal system because it seems to be anybody’s guess as to the outcome; that it seems to be a matter of whether the judge feels good that day or not.

    And I agree, too, that this amendment was poorly written. It was completely unnecessary to even mention Sharia by name – or any other religious law – to get the effect they were looking for.

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