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'More Perfect' podcast looks at the human dramas behind big Supreme Court cases


Every week at this time, we share a little bit about a podcast that we are really into from the NPR network. This week we're featuring More Perfect from WNYC Studios. It's the show's fourth season, and it tells the human dramas behind big Supreme Court cases. Julia Longoria is the host of More Perfect, and she joins me now. It's great to have you with us.

JULIA LONGORIA, BYLINE: So nice to be here.

KHALID: So the story of the Supreme Court is something, I understand, you have been invested in personally for a very long time, since childhood. You were a self-described Supreme Court nerd in high school, competing in the national We the People competition. I confess, I did not know that existed. So what is it about the Supreme Court that has kept you engaged enough that you wanted to host an entire podcast about it?

LONGORIA: Yeah. I grew up in Miami, Fla. Both my parents are Cuban refugees, and it was a pretty conservative environment. And just learning about the court - to me, it seemed like it really could be a place above politics, which - today, politics have seeped into the court and maybe have for as long as it's existed. But I find it to be a place where ordinary people clash with some of the biggest arguments and ideas in our country. And that just makes for really incredible radio documentaries about people's lives intersecting with the biggest stakes possible.

KHALID: So I want to ask you about one of the people at the center of these cases. We're going to spend a few minutes talking about episode one of your new season. It just dropped. But my understanding is the man that this first episode centers around - Al Smith - is actually a story that you have been wanting to tell for a very long time. Tell us about that.

LONGORIA: I first read about the case in high school. It involves a man named Al Smith, as you say. He was a Native American man from southern Oregon who ingested peyote in a Native American church ceremony and then was fired for doing so because peyote was illegal at the time in Oregon. And so he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. And the court actually said, no, you can't break a drug law for religious purposes. And to me, growing up in a Catholic environment where, you know, we have wine at mass, it seemed a little odd. I was so eager to talk to Al Smith, so I started making phone calls. I learned that Al Smith actually died in 2014. But in a stroke of incredible luck, this law professor at the University of Oregon had spent hours sitting with Al Smith in the '90s, and he had recorded his interviews.


GARRETT EPPS: A feast of MiniDiscs.

LONGORIA: You just hear this man come to life.


AL SMITH: These huge buildings that I had to live in.

KHALID: Was he who you had pictured?

LONGORIA: He wasn't really. I mean, he's a complicated man in that he grew up at a time when the U.S. government was making a concerted effort to separate Native children from their culture. And so he was put in boarding schools.


SMITH: I started running away, I guess, fourth grade maybe. I walked on the railroad tracks.

LONGORIA: As a teenager, he became an alcoholic.


SMITH: High school was, like, kind of the beginning, then, of alcohol.

LONGORIA: His transformation happened in Alcoholics Anonymous.


SMITH: So that was the beginning of the change in my life.

EPPS: Yeah.

SMITH: I had to learn to live all over again and how to behave different, how to treat people, how to treat myself.

LONGORIA: And that's when he rediscovered, as he puts it, his grandmother's god.


SMITH: I can remember my grandmother used to pray in Indian every night, see?

EPPS: You didn't know what she was saying.

LONGORIA: Yeah, I guess I hadn't pictured such a nuanced and complicated person. But of course he is.

KHALID: So, Julia, in your episode, there's a pretty dramatic retelling of what happens in court, and we're going to play a portion of it - it's about six minutes - and then I want to talk to you about it on the other side. The first voice you all are going to hear is this law professor at the University of Oregon who had these rich archival recordings with Al Smith.


EPPS: What's it like to sit there, you know, and watch the Supreme Court debate with your lawyer or with the other lawyer about your case?

SMITH: Well, you're a bump on the log.

LONGORIA: Al sat through the whole thing.

SMITH: Got a certain little section they set you in, and you sit there. And they sit up there and perform.


WILLIAM REHNQUIST: We'll hear argument next - No. 88 12 13, Employment Division of Oregon v. Alfred Smith.

DAVID FROHNMAYER: Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice. And may it please the court.

LONGORIA: They had Oregon's lawyer, the attorney general, go first.


FROHNMAYER: Government's interest in controlling peyote and similar hallucinogens is real. It is compelling. And it's...

LONGORIA: His job is to lay out the compelling state interest that Oregon had for denying Al Smith his benefits.


FROHNMAYER: To further the health and safety interests of its citizens.

LONGORIA: He said peyote is dangerous to the people of Oregon. The feds had labeled it a Schedule 1 substance at the time for a reason.


FROHNMAYER: Peyote is unquestionably a dangerous and powerful hallucinogen.

LONGORIA: Plus, law enforcement can't play favorites with one religion over another. Justice Antonin Scalia chimed in on this.


ANTONIN SCALIA: There is a problem in just allowing all religions to use peyote, but not allowing all religions to use marijuana.

LONGORIA: What about marijuana religions, LSD religions? The attorney general said, look, you have to be able to create a general rule, with no exceptions, that everyone has to follow. This is when Justice John Paul Stevens pipes up.


JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Your flat rule position would permit a state to outlaw totally the use of alcohol, including wine, in religious ceremonies.

LONGORIA: What about wine at Catholic Mass?


FROHNMAYER: That's a different question.

STEVENS: Why is that different?

FROHNMAYER: The issue of sacramental wine is different because, at least at the present, it is not a Schedule 1 substance.

STEVENS: So you mean it's just a better-known religion?

FROHNMAYER: No. It has nothing to do with...

LONGORIA: The difference, Oregon's lawyer says, is that you don't drink wine at mass to get drunk, but you do ingest peyote for its hallucinogenic effect.


REHNQUIST: Mr. Dorsay, we'll hear from you.

LONGORIA: Then Al Smith's lawyer, Craig Dorsay, got up to speak.


CRAIG DORSAY: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court.

When you are arguing, it feels like you're only about 10 or 15 feet from the dais.

LONGORIA: He remembers this day pretty vividly.

DORSAY: You actually physically can't see the entire court 'cause they're kind of wrapped around you. Since Scalia was new, he was on the end on my left side and Kennedy was on the end on the right side. And they were asking most of the questions. And, you know, head is kicking around to try and look directly 'cause you want to engage with them.

LONGORIA: And he told the court, for starters, this comparison to wine at church - you're thinking about it all wrong.


DORSAY: I think if Indian people were in charge of the United States right now, and you look at the devastating impact that alcohol has had on Indian people and Indian tribes through the history of the United States, you might find that alcohol was a Schedule 1 substance and peyote was not listed at all. And we're getting here to the heart of an ethnocentric view, I think, of what constitutes religion in the United States.

LONGORIA: In other words, Christianity is getting a pass while Native Americans are being persecuted. Plus, he says, a small amount of peyote isn't proven to be harmful. It's actually been helpful for recovering alcoholics in the Native American Church. So Oregon has not proven their supposedly compelling state interest of protecting people's safety.


DORSAY: The state has failed to meet its burden under the First Amendment to justify what we believe would be the total destruction of this religion.

LONGORIA: But the justices push him on other points. Here's Sandra Day O'Connor.


SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR: How about marijuana use by a church that uses that as part of its religious sacrament?

DORSAY: See, I think we can get into a lot of examples. And I don't want to go down that road too far because we don't have the facts here. But the fact is..

She said something like, I bet you don't want to go down that road, and there was laughter, you know, in the courtroom. And that's where we knew we had kind of lost her.


SCALIA: Why can't the state consider it...

LONGORIA: And then Scalia pushes back saying, shouldn't governments be able to make general rules like this, that everyone has to follow regardless of their beliefs, with no exceptions?


SCALIA: So long as it does it generally and doesn't pick on a particular religion.

DORSAY: The problem is is this law and the neutral, quote-unquote, "prescription" does affect a particular religion only.

And Scalia, at one point, said, well, you would agree.


SCALIA: Well, I suppose you could say a law against human sacrifice would - you know, would affect only the Aztecs.

DORSAY: You know, I was kind of at a loss for words about how to respond.


SCALIA: I don't know that you have to make exceptions. If it's a generally applicable law...

SMITH: To me, it was, like, showtime for them. Who in the hell is Al Smith, and who in the hell is he, you know? They could care less of who I am. It's like, how in the hell did they get so high and mighty? We, the common people - you know, just, they don't know you or you or me or anybody else.

REHNQUIST: The case is submitted.


KHALID: We're back with Julia Longoria. She's host of More Perfect from WNYC Studios. And, Julia, you know, the court in that case ruled 6-3 against Al Smith, basically saying that Al Smith can't break the nation's drug laws because of his religious belief. And so fast forward, and we are now seeing a lot more religious freedom cases coming up in the courts. And it seems that in many cases, the court now is ruling in favor of people's religious freedom. So what has changed?

LONGORIA: You know, over the years, the politics around religious freedom have changed, and the people suing in the Supreme Court aren't coming from minority religions like the Native American Church. They're largely coming from majority religions - Christians saying that they want to sidestep anti-discrimination laws to deny services to same-sex couples. You know, the court is having conversations about Masterpiece Cakeshop, about these, you know, Christian cases right now. In the background, they're talking about Al Smith's case.

KHALID: But it seems like the court is not ready to totally overturn the Smith decision.

LONGORIA: That's right. Justice Samuel Alito in a concurrence in a recent case, he said it's time to overturn Al Smith's case. But other justices seem more reticent. Amy Coney Barrett said, well, if we get rid of Smith, what's the new standard we're going to have as a court when we look at these cases? So it doesn't seem that the court is going to overturn Al Smith's case anytime soon, yet they are ruling in favor of religious people. So it seems like they're kind of having their cake and eating it too.

KHALID: So before we go, I want to ask you about the second episode in your podcast season. It focuses on Justice Clarence Thomas. And, you know, he has been the focus of a lot of news headlines recently for his lack of ethics disclosures. You, though, focus on a different aspect of his life, his - how his views on racial justice have evolved. And you described him at one point is being one of the most powerful Black men in America, which I thought was really interesting.

LONGORIA: Yeah. I mean, you know, he's the justice who's been on the court the longest right now. In five more years, he could be the longest-serving Supreme Court justice ever. And with a new conservative majority on the court, his decision, you know, commands the court in a lot of cases. And so, you know, with all the revelations coming out with his relationship with Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, it's tempting to think that Clarence Thomas, you know, is selling his opinions to the highest bidder. But when we dug into his past, we actually found that Clarence Thomas thinks he's doing what's best for Black poor people in America. I mean, here's a clip of him talking about how he feels misunderstood by people in his own race.


CLARENCE THOMAS: It pains me deeply, more deeply than any of you can imagine, to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm. All the sacrifice, all the long hours of preparation were to help, not to hurt.

KHALID: I mean, you found out a lot about how his own views on race and racial politics have evolved.

LONGORIA: Yeah. In college, we learned Clarence Thomas actually was a bit of a Black nationalist. He listened to Malcolm X on records and could recite his speeches from memory. But reading his opinions through that lens was really fascinating. I think because Clarence Thomas holds so much power in our country, it's important to try to understand what he's doing from all angles.

KHALID: Julia Longoria hosts the fourth season of More Perfect from WNYC Studios. And remember, next Sunday, we're going to share another podcast that we love from the NPR Network. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.