The Supremes Are Already a Partisan Court

October 30, 2018

The violence of this election season is heart-rending, outrageous and dangerous, but so many of us have been predicting and warning about I’m at a loss for words. So, instead, I’ll turn to what I had planned for today.

Chief Justice Roberts told people at the University of Minnesota that the Supreme Court will serve “one nation,” “not one party or interest.” The judicial branch, he said, “is, must be, very different” from the political branches. He commented that the justices have a century-old tradition of shaking each other’s hands before taking the bench to hear arguments. “It’s a small thing,” Roberts said, “but it is a repeated reminder that … we do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle, we do not caucus in separate rooms, we do not serve one party or one interest, we serve one nation.” In fact, this Court has already become very partisan, Roberts’ sugar-coating to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Constitution, by the way, calls them judges, not justices, perhaps because we don’t always get justice from judges. Judge Kavanaugh’s rant and assumption that the Clintons were at the base of Dr. Ford’s allegations reflected his deeply partisan career. Whatever happened between Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, assuming a Clinton conspiracy in the absence of facts is the very definition of prejudice. That’s become standard Republican behavior – if they don’t like the facts, they just claim a conspiracy. That alone makes it impossible to believe Democrats will get justice from Kavanaugh.

The problem goes much deeper. The Roberts Court has done everything possible to make sure that Republicans control government, regardless of the will of the people. Republican gerrymandering of legislative seats built large victories in the House of Representatives and many state legislatures while the voters were turning against them, thus reversing what the public voted for. That’s why they did it. But the Roberts Court protects their gerrymandering.

The Roberts Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. Witnesses testified about continued efforts to close or move polling places, put fewer polling booths in Democratic than Republican areas and strike large numbers of legitimate but likely opposition voters from the registration rolls. The enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act were actively blocking those efforts. The Roberts Court turned that on its head: because those provisions of the Act had been working, they weren’t necessary any more – a non sequitur any elementary school child would have understood.

The Court stripped voting rights from people who lacked government issued photo ids despite the costs to some voters, in wages and fees, to get the documents required. States could have eased those burdens except that the point was to prevent legitimate voters from voting, to make it harder for the disabled and the poor to vote, all in the absence of any evidence of relevant voter fraud. Election specialists have pointed out in vain that mailed and computer voting present much more serious problems. But state legislatures addressed neither of those problems. They were intent, instead, on stripping rights only from voters they expected to vote for the other party.

And the Court flaunted its political partisanship in cases like Citizens United, by freeing corporations to use their enormous resources in politics, while stripping political resources from unions who represent the factory workers and other regular people who are suffering now.

There’s nothing even-handed about all that. It’s a direct attempt to take the power away from the people and hand it to Republicans, who are otherwise losing the support of the public. There’s nothing legitimate about rigging elections.

Republicans warn that Democrats, if they win, might politicize the Court. That’s a joke. Republicans have already politicized the Court. If Democrats succeed in restoring the balance, that will be a big blow for a fair court. That’s why all our votes matter.

— A version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 30, 2018.

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Trump and the Swamp

June 6, 2017

Trump promised to drain the swamp. We can agree that the swamp is the predominance of special interests over Americans of ordinary means. Bernie Sanders won many hearts and minds by refusing to take big money. Trump claimed independence from big money because he had so much. Clinton lost many votes because she accepted large speaking fees and contributions. A large populist wave by financially ordinary Americans swept the country.

People credited Trump’s promise to drain the swamp. With Trump in power, we’re entitled to look at his actions. Indeed we should.

Most Democrats long tried to take big money out of political campaigns. With some exceptions, like John McCain, Republicans worked to protect the use of money in politics. In the McCain-Feingold Act, Congress managed to compromise between their positions. But the Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, invalidated restrictions on campaign contributions, and held in Citizens United, that corporations could contribute funds straight from corporate treasuries. Heard anything lately from the White House about campaign finance regulation? I didn’t think so.

Trump wants to lower the tax and regulatory burdens on the wealthiest people and companies. He claims in justification that the extra costs harm American workers. I recognize the heated debates about those claims. I’ve repeatedly explained in this commentary that putting more money in the hands of the wealthiest people and corporations is unlikely to spur investment or improve the position of American workers. It won’t help American workers because corporations can and do spend extra money everywhere, including abroad. It won’t help American workers because extra wealth can be and is spent on nonproductive goods or investments. And it won’t improve the position of American workers because there is no shortage of capital in this country, so putting more in in wealthy or corporate pockets is like pouring mud into the Mississippi.

Eliminating regulations will also put money in wealthy and corporate hands but hurts everyone else. Unions have been big proponents of safety regulations because they protect the health and safety of workers, and, we should add, of consumers and citizens.

Trump’s proposed budget also pulls up the safety net and hands the savings to corporations and the wealthy. The safety net protects people when they fall on hard times, when illness drains their bank accounts and strains their budgets, when corporate decisions leave workers struggling to find new jobs and forced to feed families on minimum wage jobs. These have direct and indirect costs for all of us. Losing a job can be temporary but it can also be a fall into a rabbit hole that sucks out everything we’ve invested in our homes, our retirement, and stresses, even breaks up our families. In 2008 those factors spread and took a lot of us down. The safety net was intended in part to help slow or stop economic downturns. 2008 overwhelmed what was left of the safety net but Trump would make it worse.

And health care decisions don’t just affect the most vulnerable. None of us want people spreading serious or medicine-resistant strains of TB, Zika, MRSA and other communicable diseases. Effective strategies against communicable disease involve keeping the diseases out of the population to the extent possible.

In Trump’s budget, the savings from all these cuts go to the 1/10 of 1%, the wealthiest of the wealthy, the very people who should be giving back rather than sucking at the public til. Trump promised to drain the swamp. But Trump IS the swamp.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 6, 2017.


Beyond Channeling Money

August 9, 2016

This is the sixth and last in a series on Money in Politics

Money finds ways to influence the political system despite our efforts to prohibit or replace it. It’s like a balloon that bulges wherever it can, or water that finds any path to cause trouble. Limits on contribution and gifts matter. But prohibitions aren’t enough. They just force politicians to spend more time looking for money and find ways around the limits. Even public funding for election campaigns isn’t a magical solution that will banish every problem in a puff of public green.

There are many problems we can solve to improve the rules of self-government. Employees deserve some protections. Employers can and some do pressure workers, make them go to some candidates’ talks, or give them work to do in political campaigns. Employer requests are hard to resist for fear of demotion, or other damaging consequences. We restrict sexual invitations to workers to avoid subtle or not-so-subtle intimidation. For similar reasons, employees deserve political protection on the job.

Still, we need more than prohibitions and public money. Parties were once the people’s answer to the power of money. Without parties, the wealthy and well-connected would rule. Parties were promptly corrupted, so Americans adopted primaries. Primaries shifted power to individual candidates and their organizations, and shifted power from the center of the voting population to majorities of primary voters, who tend to be much more extreme. That offers what Barry Goldwater, in his losing 1964 presidential bid, called “a choice, not an echo.” But it can also polarize politics and create a politics that almost nobody wants.

Most important for the future is how we prepare ourselves. We’ve been telling each other since the Revolution that we need an educated public. Unfortunately, many schools no longer educate people in relevant ways. We graduate students who have little idea who or how government is run, what our history is, or any understanding of the economic and social issues of our time. We complain that immigrants will not respect our ways, but leave the majority of natural-born Americans ignorant of how America came to be America. We need to do better.

What I see as truly encouraging is that this election has drawn many people into politics out of a real sense of public duty. I remember earlier waves like those that Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the civil rights and feminist movements drew into politics. I hope those of you whom Hillary, Bernie and Obama drew into politics will stay active and not become discouraged because all our dreams cannot be achieved quickly. I hope you’ll enjoy mixing with others door to door, in community meetings, house parties, barbeques, and otherwise staying in touch with the people.

I do think we can make life better. I don’t think we should expect a political heaven on earth. A large part of politics is about resolving differences of perspective, interests and needs – many of them legitimate on all sides. It’s not just about getting things done. It’s also about disagreement, conflict and compromise. Few of us ever get complete victories, and probably shouldn’t. But finding decent solutions to problems that divide people is also the challenge and one of the truly honorable tasks of democratic government.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 9, 2016.


Dealing with Citizens United: Second in a Series on Money in Politics

July 12, 2016

Last week we discussed the importance of taking political campaigns back from big donors. This week we begin examining the complexity of reinstating limitations without damaging what should be protected speech.

Citizens United[1] angered people about corporate legal rights. People want to remove those rights wholesale. But that view of the Court’s mistake raises far more serious First Amendment issues than most people understand.

Removing corporate protections would require distinguishing corporations that should be protected – political associations, broadcast, digital and print press – from those that should not be protected. That’s not easy. If corporations release “news” reports or take positions, are they press or stockholder associations? What would broadcasters’ or newspapers’ protections depend on? What would legitimate or prohibited explanations of corporate needs and positions be? First Amendment law developed around clear rules to prevent judges or legislators from deciding who can speak about what. Removing First Amendment protection from corporations cuts deeply against the First Amendment grain.

Constitutional rules, however, can be limited for compelling reasons. Citizens United revealed fundamental problems with the justifications, like corruption, for financial limits on participating in campaigns. Quid pro quo corruption is clearly illegal but regulation went well beyond it. Money can divert legislators’ attention from constituent needs toward donors’ needs, but can also expose misbehavior, or champion voters’ interests. Attorneys’ ethics prohibit us from engaging in deals or accepting gifts that create conflicts of interest – but it’s harder to define legislators’ conflicts where the donors or their allies are constituents. So the meaning of corruption has been vulnerable to attack and narrowing by the Court.

Large donations can entrench office-holders against challengers. But they can do the reverse by helping unseat legislators. The Court hasn’t been very receptive to that claim.

Political equality is a right, including rules surrounding voting, vote counting, and apportionment of districts. But just as clearly, economic equality is unacceptable here. The logical conclusion of economic equality would be a never realized vision of communism. Demanding some economic equalization in politics would force the Court to balance the extent to which economic equality can be required by political equality. That’s not a problem with a specific solution. And the Court is skeptical of allowing legislatures to define the balance because they have conflicts of interest. In any event, legislation doesn’t look promising in Congress or in most states. I’ve argued that the Supreme Court must consider equality in shaping economic rules, but that’s harder where it requires narrowing First Amendment principles. So financial equalization is hard to define and harder to argue.

Well-respected Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig, argues that campaign finance restrictions would prevent legislators from becoming too dependent on a few powerful donors.[2] Dependence leads legislators to shirk their duty. But legislators shouldn’t be independent of their constituents or powerful voices. So, once again, what’s the right balance? Who is and is not entitled to participate in the political debate? And how much is too much, or too little? Moving beyond Citizens United will have to be done thoughtfully.

In any event, four of members of the Citizens United majority remain on the Court. Justice Kagan is new. People who know her well tell me that she is a First Amendment absolutist, which liberals would have applauded before Citizens United, and she is not likely to overturn it. So the decision will be with us for a while.

Next time we’ll look at the proposed amendments.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 12, 2016.

[1] Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

[2] Lawrence Lessig, Republic Lost (2011); Ian Shapiro, Notes Toward a Conditional Theory of Rights and Obligations in Property, in Stephen E. Gottlieb, Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton and Robin L. West, Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications 914 (LexisNexis 3d ed. 2015) (“defin[ing] freedom in terms of the multiplication of dependent relationships”); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (2011); BRUCE BUENO DE MESQUITA, et al,  The Logic Of Political Survival (2003).


THE POWER OF MONEY: First in a Series on Money in Politics

July 5, 2016

This post is re-released to include a new report by the Roosevelt Institute. During the previous two months, I participated in the Demos Legal Convening at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Scholars Strategy Network meeting on Purchasing Power at the Soros and Ford Foundations. The meetings focused on reducing the impact of money in politics, which will be the subject of several of my next commentaries.

Money creates dependence on the narrow group of people who can fund campaigns.[1]

In turn, money affects elections. The best work I’ve seen is not yet public but confirms our intuitions – money increases the votes candidates get and affects how the elected vote. Scholars have even been able to trace which legislators switched votes on legislation.

The economic impact is huge. By non-enforcement of antitrust laws and providing regulatory breaks, political protection enables companies to take advantage of the public. Here, Albany politicians arranged to have themselves showered with gifts by creating a market payable in contributions by corporations seeking permission to build casinos. That’s also why the state ignored the evidence of harm casinos do. On the national level, political protection for favored corporations and industries has had enormous consequences.

The Roosevelt Institute estimates that the financial sector alone cost the public “between $40,000 and $70,000 for every man, woman, and child in the U.S., or between $105,000 and $184,000 for the typical American family”! No new taxes. Just regulatory bonanzas that take our money and put it in company pockets, because of the benefits our elected representatives do for them.[2]

Instead of facilitating productive activity, the financial sector now threatens prosperity, overcharges for brokerage services, ruins lives through predatory lending, misallocates talent to socially unproductive employment, re-orients corporate behavior “to short term speculation that costs jobs, wages, and productivity growth; and choos[es] poor investments that put people’s retirement incomes at risk. …”[3] It’s had a huge impact through private and public pensions, mortgage financing, credit derivatives, asset management services and predatory lending, imposing the resulting costs and financial instability on society and on the poor.[4]

Compare those figures with the costs of political campaigns. Reported expenses for the 2012 federal election cycle including both the presidential and congressional races exceeded $6 billion. But compare the $6 billion with the trillions that the financial sector alone has cost. We are talking about a return to investment of thousands of times, even when the cost of lobbying is added.[5] The costs of political campaigns are small change by comparison. Which is why investing in politics is such a good deal for those looking for big profits at public expense.

That’s why in an upcoming commentary, I will talk about public financing of political campaigns. If you want to spend your money to fill corporate deep pockets, that’s your business. But I’d rather get a lot more value for mine.

— This commentary was originally broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 5, 2016.

[1] Lawrence Lessig, Republic Lost (2011); Ian Shapiro, Notes Toward a Conditional Theory of Rights and Obligations in Property, in Stephen E. Gottlieb, Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton and Robin L. West, Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications 914 (LexisNexis 3d ed. 2015) (“defin[ing] freedom in terms of the multiplication of dependent relationships”); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (2011); BRUCE BUENO DE MESQUITA, et al,  The Logic Of Political Survival (2003).

[2] http://rooseveltinstitute.org/overcharged-high-cost-high-finance/ (page 3 of the downloaded report).

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 4, 40-42. And see generally www.OpenSecrets.org.

[5] For studies of the return to lobbying without, however, including the cost of campaign finance, see Lee Drutman, Lobby more, pay less in taxes, http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2012/04/16/lobby-more-pay-less-in-taxes/ (note that their studies are examples, not totals); Steven Strauss, Here’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Lobbying For Your Business, http://www.businessinsider.com/everything-you-always-wanted-to-know-about-lobbying-2011-11.


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