Thursday, February 18, 2016

(Scalia's) Death and distance in West Texas

One side story of Justice Antonin Scalia's death that captured media attention this week was the tale of how he came to be declared officially dead.  Scalia died, of course, at a remote West Texas ranch, and when the ranch's owner, John Poindexter, found Scalia's body Saturday morning, Poindexter began to try to reach a local official who could declare the justice's death.

NPR describes what happened in "The Trials of Pronouncing Antonin Scalia Dead in West Texas."  Apparently, a Justice of the Peace or County Judge (chief administrator of county, elected) must pronounce death, but no such officer was readily available in Presidio County, population 6,976, where the ranch was located.  Jeanette Duer, the judge of neighboring Jeff Davis County, explains:  
Our county has 2,400 square miles. We have about 2,400 people. We have one justice of the peace who does the inquest. If she's not available, it falls to me, as county judge.
The NPR story, by journalist Tom Michael, describes the sequence of events on Saturday:
I was reporting from a candidate forum in neighboring Brewster County. Officials from all three counties were in attendance. David Beebe, the justice of the peace for Precinct 1 in Presidio County, was there, too. Shortly after 1 p.m., he received a request to handle an inquest for "a dead body" back in his county. 
The call came from Juanita Bishop, the justice of the peace for Precinct 2, who is nominally closer, but she was at a work-related event more than 120 miles away in Fort Stockton. 
Beebe responded he was also far away, too, busy at the political forum. The deceased wasn't identified. Bishop said she would find an alternate. In this border county, sometimes the dead body is an undocumented migrant. Identification can take weeks; death can wait. 
Bishop contacted the third choice, Presidio County Judge Cinderella Guevara, who was also unable to make the drive to Cibolo Creek Ranch. Connecting with the county sheriff there, she officially handled the inquest — over the phone — pronouncing Justice Scalia dead just before 2 p.m. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedures allows justices of the peace to pronounce death via phone when deemed reasonable.
This all sounds pretty alien to the four-fifths of out nation's population who live in metropolitan areas of one size or another, but the barrier of distance is a fact of life for folks in rural places--especially the very sparsely populated ones like West Texas and other parts of the western United States.  Michael's story actually begins by observing that West Texas's 
large, sparsely populated counties ... can be a problem when people need county services, especially emergency services — and it doesn't matter if you're an ordinary citizen or a Supreme Court justice.
I find Justice Scalia's death in such a locale ironic given that he was consistently dismissive of the burden of distance in both voting rights and abortion cases--including very recent ones out of Texas.  Read more here and here.  If he was watching from a heavenly perch the Saturday events surrounding pronouncement of his death, maybe he finally "gets" the burden of distance and the lack of services that marks rural communities.  When it comes to death, some of those burdens afflict not only rural locals, but also affluent urban visitors like Scalia himself.  

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