Kevin Drum Smackdown Watch: Judge Scheindlin Didn’t Care If Stop-and-Frisk Reduced Crime

“Wow this is a terrible @kdrum post,” says Adam Serwer about my comment on yesterday’s court ruling putting a halt to New York City’s stop-and-frisk program. When Adam speaks, I listen! Here’s the offending bit:

If stop-and-frisk really is the reason crime has dropped so dramatically in the Bronx, then a judge would be justified in weighing this against the legal issues on the other side. Even decisions based on fundamental constitutional rights aren’t rendered in a vacuum.

Adam correctly points out that Judge Scheindlin didn’t consider the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk in her decision, so in this case, and with this judge, it wouldn’t have mattered if the policy reduced crime. Point taken.

What happened here is a common blogging sin: I used a specific case to make a general point without making it clear that I had switched gears. In general, even fundamental constitutional rights are never absolute. There are different shades of violation and there are competing interests, and judges routinely take those into account. That was the point I wanted to make.

Now, even in this case, the judge’s ruling was hardly absolute. She ruled that New York’s policy was so extreme that it amounted to effective racial profiling, and that was flatly unconstitutional regardless of whether it reduced crime. But a modified program would be OK, and it’s possible that the degree of modification might depend on how effective various versions of stop-and-frisk are. If not for this judge, then quite possibly for another one. For that reason—not to mention the effect it should have on policy in the first place—the actual reason for New York’s crime decline really does matter. Apologies for the confusion.