Scalia: Federal Drug Laws Were a Mistake

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The Supreme Court justice told a Senate panel that the unintended consequence has been lower quality judges

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia isn't a supporter of legalizing drugs. But he does believe that passing federal laws against them has done harm to the U.S. government. "It was a great mistake to put routine drug offenses into the federal courts," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal went on to report Scalia's belief that the laws forced Congress to enlarge the federal court system, and diminished "the elite quality of the federal judiciary."

This isn't a new problem. Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained as far back as 1989 that the war on drugs was overwhelming the federal judiciary. In 1995, Kathleen F. Brickley, an academic, found that "the Federal system is strained to capacity due, in large part, to the government's war on drugs."

Said an nonpartisan immigration nonprofit last year, "Federal prosecutors along the Southwest border with Mexico -- many already strained by the rise in their immigration caseloads -- are facing a new challenge: how to handle a sharp jump in drug cases. Justice Department data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse show that during the first four months of FY 2010 drug cases in this region had surged by almost a third (30 percent) from what they were just 16 months ago and were up by 7 percent over levels at the end of FY 2009."

The federal War on Drugs is diminishing the quality of our federal justice system. As far as I can tell, no one contests that conclusion. It would be one thing to bear that cost in exchange for a policy victory. After decades of failure, however, no one even expects the drug war to be won.

Returning drug policy to the states would be a first step in the right direction.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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