Economics, Lawyers and the Risk to American Democracy

April 1, 2014

Ever notice that I frequently talk about economics. What’s a lawyer doing talking about economics? I did read and study economics but there are other reasons why economic issues are dear to this heart.

Lawyers do lots of different things. But for many of us, law is a helping profession. We work with people who are headed for bankruptcy and other events that will turn their lives upside down. We do our best to help them avoid personal tragedies – or pick up the pieces. We don’t think of clients as numbers but as people, most of whom we like and respect. We learn not to think of financial reverses as a judgment about their character, decency or personal value. It happens for all sorts of reasons, often beyond our clients’ control. When it is a mistake, it is often a part of learning how to do business or operate in this world. Some of the world’s most successful people have been through bankruptcy. Up close and personal, we care.

So the national recession wasn’t just a set of numbers for me. It was a catastrophe in the lives of many people. They were passengers on the national ship on a foggy night when the captain  crashed into another vessel. Millions of people went overboard, leaving their jobs and belongings behind. Rescuing people isn’t a choice; it’s an obligation just as it was not optional whether to pick our friends up from the wreck of the Achille Lauro. An S.O.S. has a clear and obligatory meaning.

But there is another reason. One could trace it to a famous French aristocrat who visited and wrote about the U.S. in the 1830s but statistical studies beginning after World War II keep making the point that poverty and inequality are both hostile to the survival of democracy. Historians studied the failure of democracies on multiple continents and reached the same conclusion. Others with different methodologies keep reaching similar conclusions.

It’s not a surprising conclusion. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many were worried that we would lose our system of self-government, and some advised President Roosevelt to take dictatorial powers, but he refused. Now science has come to support common sense. Poverty can be dangerous, not only to individuals but to society. It makes people desperate and when they are, all bets are off.

With that knowledge, it is painful to me to watch Congress leave the victims of corporate shenanigans in the dirt as if they were so much trash. And as an attorney, it is particularly painful to me to watch the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts doing everything in its power to play the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich. Many of those decisions are complex legally as well as economically but their effect on the fairness of the contracts we sign daily and on the lives of many people are extensive and often tragic. To me, the Roberts Court is threatening our democratic patrimony.

The personal suffering would be enough. The risk to our country is hard to bear.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 1, 2014.


Worst Supreme Court decisions in Two Decades

December 31, 2013

What’s the worst thing the U.S. Supreme Court has done in two decades?

Bush v. Gore? The very name evokes tragedy.  Thousands dead in Iraq for a war we shouldn’t have fought. Thousands more dead in Afghanistan because the Supreme Court’s choice for president sent military support to Iraq instead. The Court’s presidential choice also encouraged savage, predatory business behavior that we’re still paying for. It put off any reckoning with the environment for a decade, more if you include the House of Representatives’ current intransigence.

That’s quite a record for a single U.S. Supreme Court decision. You might have to go back to Dred Scott v. Sanford which helped bring on the Civil War to match the impact of Bush v. Gore, although if we go back that far, disasters you’ve probably never heard of, like U.S. v. Cruikshank and the ironically named Civil Rights Cases, were responsible for a century of murder and mayhem with impunity in the segregated south. But Bush v. Gore certainly ranks with the biggest – and worst. Read the rest of this entry »


What Makes American Democracy Successful?

December 24, 2013

We are justly proud of democracy in America. But what makes a democracy morally great and what makes it successful?

Many countries have elections but aren’t successful democracies. Their elections are about which families will reap the spoils of election victories. Successful democracies focus on taking care of the whole peoples of their countries. Lincoln spoke about government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Speaking about democracy, we often concentrate on government “of … [and] by the people.” But Lincoln’s last clause – “for the people” – defines the difference between success and failure; between government and kleptocracies; between governments that get things done and governments that imitate the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich.  Read the rest of this entry »


Mandela by Comparison

December 10, 2013

 I want to explore an important comparison that has not been addressed about Nelson Mandela.

There have been many great twentieth century leaders. Some like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi never became presidents or prime ministers. But three did – Mandela in South Africa, Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Franklin Roosevelt here. Nehru and Roosevelt held onto power until they died in office.

In Roosevelt’s case I’m glad he did. Read the rest of this entry »


Supreme Poison: Adultery and States’ Rights

November 16, 2013

A week ago my students and I went to the U.S. Supreme Court and saw the argument in Bond v. United States.

Carol Bond tried to poison Myrlinda Haynes because of an affair with Bond’s husband. Local authorities wouldn’t bother helping Haynes but sent her to the Postal Service, because poison was found in her mail and the Postal Service has the power to prosecute crimes involving the mail. The Postal Service set up a camera and caught Bond in the act. Postal inspectors arrested Bond and a federal grand jury indicted her for violating the Chemical Weapons Implementation Act.

The United States is a party to the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Congress passed a statute to implement the Convention which prohibited “knowing possession or use, for nonpeaceful purposes, of a chemical that can cause death” or other harms. Treaties and state failure to execute them were a major reason for the Constitution, which gives Congress power to pass laws that are necessary and proper for carrying them out.

But attorneys for Bond smelled an opportunity to narrow national power, arguing such crimes were local and reserved to the states. Read the rest of this entry »


Casinos and the Board of Elections

November 5, 2013

When this is aired, I will be in Washington, D. C., where my students and I went to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear cases argued that we have been studying. Since it is also election day, I had to fill out an absentee ballot. On the ballot, the casino proposition leads the group of ballot propositions. Governor Cuomo had “submitted a concurrent resolution to the State Legislature to amend article I, § 9 of the State Constitution to allow for ‘casino gambling regulated by the state.’”[1]

Having been twice approved by the legislature, the proposed amendment is being submitted to New York voters. But the State Board of Elections added the following language to the proposal for the obvious purpose of encouraging voters to support it:

“for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.”[2]   Read the rest of this entry »


To Fight Brush Fires or the Whole Enchilada

October 22, 2013

Should we fight against the brush fires or tackle the whole enchilada? I’ve often wondered about that. People find it easier to tackle the little pieces. I’ve heard that Napoleon, retreating in Russia, broke the retreat into a series of small objectives to keep up his men’s confidence. But then we know the man in charge had his eyes on the big picture – getting out of Russia before he lost his entire army.

There is no guy in charge of the whole world. Americans like to brag that we’re the greatest. And many of them think we can accomplish anything and, if we don’t, the president’s to blame. I don’t share that misconception. Even in the U.S. no one is really in charge. Politics, democracy, is about conflict and compromise. And no one is in charge.

So how do we deal with environmental problems before it’s too late? Read the rest of this entry »


Our Common Stake in Affirmative Action

October 15, 2013

The Court just heard argument in another affirmative action case. It is often put as if it is all about them and the rest of us are just losers as the result of any affirmative action for African-Americans. But do we have a stake in affirmative action, or whether African-Americans remain a permanent underclass? Read the rest of this entry »


Our Stake in Each Other’s Welfare

October 8, 2013

Do we have a stake in each other’s future or only in our own? That is a central question of American politics. The Tea Party’s tossing of the entire American budget into the sea over the issue of Obamacare is an effort to say no, we have no stake in each other’s welfare. To claim a stake in each other’s welfare is socialism. Although the political waters warrant silence from many elected officials about it, that same cry has been leveled and is being leveled against other American efforts to help each other. Social security, socialism. Medicare and Medicaid, socialism. Indeed, there is no logical reason to draw the line there and many don’t. National parks, socialism. Veterans’ benefits, socialism. Head start, socialism. Why stop there? Public schools, socialism. Public hospitals, government health departments and laboratories, socialism. It’s all socialism in the heads of the true believers. So let me repeat that question – do we have a stake in each other’s future or only our own? Read the rest of this entry »


War and the Separation of Powers

September 10, 2013

In 1950 Harry Truman sent troops to Korea without consulting Congress. Republican criticism did not withstand American hostility to Communism and American nostalgia for give ‘em hell Harry. It became a precedent. Read the rest of this entry »


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