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The Court recently granted atheist Michael Newdow permission to represent himself in his suit to remove "under God" from the Pledge.

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Send in the Clowns: Atheist Reverend to Argue His "Under God" Challenge Before High Court

By Erin Murphy

Long before the miracles of modern media, one of the preferred sources of American entertainment was watching trials and arguments at court. The Supreme Court’s latest ruling in the infamous Pledge of Allegiance case may bring that practice back into style.

The Court recently granted atheist Michael Newdow permission to represent himself in his suit to remove "under God" from the Pledge. Newdow — lawyer, medical doctor and founder and reverend of the First Amendmist Church of True Science — doesn’t technically have standing to argue before the High Court because he has been a member of the bar for less than the required three years, but the Court agreed to let him argue anyway.

Apparently, the justices just couldn’t pass up the chance to have a go at the self-styled Rev. Dr. Newdow in all his grandeur. After all, Newdow has argued that his wife tricked him into fathering her child by date-raping him on a camping trip; that the family law system ruins people’s lives by mistakenly overemphasizing the best interests of the child while overlooking the rights of the parents; and that the Supreme Court’s traditional opening of "God save this honorable Court" is unconstitutional and offensive to atheists. Faced with the monotony of lawyers who drone on and on about actual law, who could blame the justices for wanting to have a little fun?

Undoubtedly, Newdow believes the Court was swayed by his insistence that his own atheist perspective is needed to achieve the deeper passion and more lucid understanding the issue demands. This assertion appears a bit disingenuous for a couple of reasons. First, it seems unlikely that Newdow could not find one qualified attorney among the millions of atheists whose rights he claims to be protecting. Lawyers have been called many things as a group, but God-fearing is seldom one of them. Second, in this day and age, it is a rare lawyer who doesn’t possess the ability to passionately argue something he doesn’t believe in. If Newdow genuinely thinks zealous faith in a client’s case strongly correlates with courtroom success, swapping stories with a few public defenders ought to rid him of that misconception.

Of course Newdow, who expects to win his case 8-0 (Justice Antonin Scalia has recused himself), is certain he is the best man for the job — and thus rings true the old adage that lawyers who represent themselves have fools for clients. Not that Newdow is necessarily unqualified for the job; his success to date suggests quite the opposite (of course, bear in mind that succeeding in the Ninth Circuit often has little to do with law). But Newdow’s insistence upon pro se representation is symbolic of what all his arguments inevitably are about: himself. It wouldn’t be enough to win the war if he couldn’t get credit for all the battles, too. After all, he has had to face the burdens of unconsensual fatherhood, the oppression of the family court system, and now the indignity of his daughter hearing the word "God" at school. And look at the toll these hardships have taken — the inadequacies of the legal system are now forcing the good doctor to squander his mere $3 million savings in pursuit of his long-overdue audience before the nation’s highest court. If Newdow turned the star role in his self-aggrandizing drama over to an understudy at this late hour, he might make the rookie mistake of letting the message overshadow the medium.

At the very least, Rev. Dr. Newdow taking on eight of the greatest legal minds in the country — again, Justice Scalia has recused himself — promises a good show. And anyone who doesn’t make the courtroom’s limited seating need not lose hope — Newdow is planning encores with cases challenging the use of Congressional chaplains, inaugural prayers and the national motto "In God We Trust." True, there may be something troubling about the justices’ wisdom in devoting their limited time to the gripes of a whining millionaire. But at least Americans can find some solace in that our system of justice still ensures that any idiot can get his day in court.

Erin Murphy is a student at Georgetown University Law Center and an intern at the Center for Individual Freedom.

[Posted December 4, 2003]

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