Ben Carson vs. Sonia Sotomayor, Round Zero

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 29 2013 1:51 PM

Ben Carson vs. Sonia Sotomayor, Round Zero

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U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks during a Commonwealth Club event at Herbst Theatre on January 28, 2013 in San Francisco, California.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ever since I joined the bonfire around Ben Carson's interview on Hannity—the one with the NAMBLA gaffe, you remember it—the occasional critic has told me to look back at the substance of the comment. Carson was making a typical slippery slope argument, asking where people would stop once they started redefining marriage. And, yes, Justice Sotomayor asked a question about this at Tuesday's oral argument. It's probably worth it to excerpt that exchange.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Mr. Olson, the bottom line that you're being asked -- and -- and it is one that I'm interested in the answer: If you say that marriage is a fundamental right, what State restrictions could ever exist? Meaning, what State restrictions with respect to the number of people, with respect to -- that could get married -- the incest laws, the mother and child, assuming that they are the age -- I can -- I can accept that the State has probably an overbearing interest on -- on protecting a child until they're of age to marry, but what's left?
MR. OLSON: Well, you've said -- you've said in the cases decided by this Court that the polygamy issue, multiple marriages raises questions about exploitation, abuse, patriarchy, issues with respect to taxes, inheritance, child custody, it is an entirely different thing. And if you -- if a State prohibits polygamy, it's prohibiting conduct. If it prohibits gay and lesbian citizens from getting married, it is prohibiting their exercise of a right based upon their status. It's selecting them as a class, as you described in the Romer case and as you described in the Lawrence case and in other cases, you're picking out a group of individuals to deny them the freedom that you've said is fundamental, important and vital in this society, and it has status and stature, as you pointed out in the VMI case.
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Right: The question is whether you accept some social science. One difference between a guy who wants to have six sister wives and a guy who's always been attracted to guys? The available research suggests that the second couple will raise well-adjusted children. The current thinking on pedophilia (to get back to Carson's NAMBLA) rereference is that, like homosexuality, it's innate. But that leads you to the question of child-rearing and other norms, and the homosexuality-pedophilia comparison withers away.

Sotomayor and Olson tried to reason this out. Carson just sort of assumes the worst. In his book—which is actually competing with Sotomayor's on the bestseller list—he suggests that the effort to "redefine marriage as between two men or two women or any other way based on social pressures" played a part in the "dramatic fall of the Roman Empire." That's just ahistorical: gay marriage was a legal deviance in the pagan era, banned by Constantius and Constans more than 100 years before the fall.

Look: Being very good, world-historically good, at one thing does not make you a cross-platform expert. Donald Trump is very good at hosting TV shows in which celebrities humiliate themselves, but doesn't seem to know much about public policy. Carson's a brilliant neurosurgeon and a political dilletente. And that's okay! But this fact hurt him after one too many soft-focus Fox News interviews.

UPDATE: Now Carson says he'll bow out as John Hopkins' commencement speaker. That's going to gild the narrative of Ben Carson, Seeker of Truth Betrayed by the Liberal Media, right?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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