What should we expect of law, judges and judicial nominees

April 8, 2017

People often ask me whether something is constitutional. I often respond by asking what they mean. Our Constitution is only as good as the people handling it. Beyond that it’s a piece of paper, that bends, folds and tears. The Founding Fathers often referred to constitutional language as parchment barriers.

All law is about prediction. What will the Court, or a judgment do and will the president or the governors enforce what they decree? The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments became meaningless for decades after President Hayes removed the troops from the former Confederate states. Brown really meant something when Eisenhower sent the troops to Little Rock.

Sure, I think the Constitution should mean more; it should protects us. But I have only the power of argument. When I argue in the courts, I don’t just tell them what I think is right – I argue in ways I think will influence the court I am addressing. I learned that lesson years ago after writing a brief on behalf of several political scientists to explain an aspect of the 1st Amendment. We were only appearing as friends of the court, but our views carried the day on the Court of Appeals. One of the judges wrote that his reasons were well stated in our brief. Of course I thought that judge was a genius. But though we won on the Supreme Court, the grounds of victory had nothing to do with our brief. Plaintiff’s attorney crafted his argument to fit the specific concerns of the justices who would support our position. We eked out a 5-4 victory but when those justices left the Court, it was quietly overruled. It all depends.

Republicans pronounce that sympathy is no part of law, but then where is justice? They claim bound to follow only ancient dictionaries to tell us how two-century old language should be read now, assuming the ancients wouldn’t lift a finger about our problems. Or they claim to rely on precedent. But precedent isn’t self-justifying. We distinguish the authority of Brown v. Board of Education from the  horror of Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson because Brown accurately stated enduring values and the others did not. That’s a judgment about decency and has nothing to do with balls and strikes. This is not a baseball game; language interpreted without decency and humanity slanders the people who wrote and adopted it. Nominees hiding behind precedent hide their heartlessness behind smokescreens and deny the obvious, that their values, or lack of them, will determine how they see and shape the law.

Gorsuch could not tell you that because his sense of good and evil are far from what most Americans would accept. So he and his supporters rely on empty jargon about precedent. But judges exercise judgment about precedent just as they do about language. That’s why we need judges with good judgment, not judges claiming to be logicians with computers who derive answers automatically, unthinkingly and without reference to consequences. That refusal to care is the bastardization of law. When Justice Blackmun protested a decision that left no one  responsible for the helplessness of a small boy, he wrote “Poor Joshua” with understated eloquence. Poor Joshua indeed. Law, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, needs a heart.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 4, 2017.


Chemicals, Infertility and Morals

March 27, 2017

You’ll be subjected to rolling commentary on innumerable aspects of the Gorsuch hearings. I prefer, as I often do, to address deeper aspects of our competing value systems that underlie the surface of our political battles. One is the human impact of our treatment of planet earth.

Human behavior is injuring our environment. But nature has ways of winning the battle. It turns out that our fertility is as fragile as the eagles’ before DDT was banned, that endocrine disruptors and other environmental toxins are damaging our ability to reproduce – they’re in our kitchens, pesticides and other purchases.[1] That can be a powerful counterattack against the human activity that is warming the globe. If we become infertile and our population plummets, America will become a sad, lonely, vulnerable place, and, quite likely, conquered by any healthier peoples left.

Nevertheless, I’m sick of making consequential arguments, to tell people that if we don’t do this or that, bad things will happen. I think the arguments I’ve been making are air tight. But the science floats over people’s heads. A women, well-enough educated to know better, told me that she chose not to think about the environment because it was too big to deal with. Her comment made clear to me that reason doesn’t reach nearly enough people. Science won’t solve anything unless we accept and act on it.

So let’s address the moral issue. No one, no business, no company or corporation has the right to put toxins in the environment, chemicals that can make it impossible for people to reproduce or kill or maim those of us alive, or make us produce deformed and handicapped children – no one and no company has that right. And they don’t have the right to change the subject, throw smoke in our eyes, saying something else is the problem when they aren’t bothering to check. We’ve had enough lies. This is not a football game where deception is a winning strategy. In human life, deception is sinful, immoral, totally unacceptable. Taking risks with other people’s lives and making excuses for it is criminal.

If there is an economic problem, then, as many labor leaders have suggested for decades, let’s share the work, or create other jobs that don’t do damage – jobs aren’t an excuse for hurting people. Hurting people isn’t a job; it’s a crime. People aren’t entitled to work at criminal enterprises.

The Cabinet and the President and the Members of Congress and the state and local governments aren’t entitled to commit the crime of murder by poisoning the environment. Pro-lifers and liberals should be united on the environmental front given the enormity of the killing, of adults, children, fetuses and sperm. We’ve all seen multiple films with populations at risk and the starship or other craft working hard to prevent destruction of civilizations. The authors of those stories were trying to portray the immorality of destroying civilizations, and they were warning us of the likelihood that we would face that problem.

How many of us are moral enough to deal with this issue? Isn’t it criminal to support the rape of the air, land, food and water that give us life? Isn’t it criminal to carelessly poo-poo the dangers? How many of our corporate and elected officials are criminals?

Those with so little respect for the lives of fellow human beings must repent, stop and stop those who do, immediately and completely.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 21, 2017.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/opinion/sunday/are-your-sperm-in-trouble.html.


How Can We Protect American Workers

March 11, 2017

Trump’s power, and his policies on jobs, immigrants, religious and ethnic hatreds and the Alt-wrong are all related.

Scholars of intolerance tell us that threat breeds hate. I suspect that all we can say about why immigrants and Muslims are really good people only makes those who feel threatened feel more threatened, because instead of talking about their needs we’re praising someone else.

So I want to talk about the needs of Americans who feel threatened economically and what can be done regarding their economic losses, recognizing that the disfunction in American politics is partly due to the desperation of workers who’ve lost once good jobs.

Protecting American workers is crucial both because people suffer when they can’t find good jobs, and because desperate or threatened people take dangerous risks at the polls and elsewhere. We must protect workers both for their sakes and for ours; it’s much the same thing.

It’s our job because government fiscal, tax, programmatic and other policy decisions daily determine how many jobs there are. Some people can make their own opportunities, but, to be fair, most good, decent, hard-working people can’t.

What can we do about it? Sometimes it helps just to set out the options. Here are the choices I can see:

FDR created unemployment compensation and Nixon proposed a negative income tax – safety-net approaches based on direct income transfers. Many object, including those who benefit from handouts, tax loopholes, deductions, farm price supports, subsidies etc. – the tax code and the budget are replete with them. But direct financial transfers are one possibility.

A second approach is to pay for jobs indirectly through trade policies. All three presidential candidates talked about that. I understand the fear of foreign competition even though there are reasons to look for other solutions for American workers: limiting foreign imports hides the cost in the price of things we buy, and isolates the American economy from developments elsewhere. It also might not work; actual hiring decisions would rest on other people’s decisions. But we can’t overcome the fear if we can’t commit to other steps, and all the talk about the risk to Social Security fans that fear.

A third approach, the conservative free market approach, is not really a solution for the working person at all – it simply puts the monkey on workers’ backs to find jobs or starve.

A fourth approach is to create new jobs by government action – fiscal stimulus, infrastructure development, and investment in science and education, all of which call for construction, maintenance and technical jobs. That’s what Obama called for but Congress drastically whittled his effort down.

Why can’t government be employer of last resort? That would automatically support a minimum wage, create better communities, and make life better for all of us. It’s not the free lunch some people worry about; it’s a job. What’s so terrible about giving people what Tom Paxton called “a job of work to do”? There’s plenty to do if we were willing to invest in our people, our workers, our infrastructure, and our environment. Sometimes spending a little can make the community more attractive and the economy zing while providing a decent income to people who need a job.

Some countries use all of those methods and have quite robust economies.

Those are the alternatives I can see: the free marketeers’ defining it away as the workers’ problem, the safety net approach of income transfers, paying indirectly through trade policies or subsidies for the appearance of helping workers, or creating jobs through fiscal stimulus or hiring people to do needed work. My preference is to put people to work – that way protecting others is good for us all. One way or the other, standing up for each other is essential.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 7, 2017.


Polarizing America

January 31, 2017

I’d like to give my spleen a break for a week and talk about some of the dynamics that are polarizing  America, that neither side can solve because the problem is structural. Law has contributed with crucial changes regarding political parties, the media, the draft and residential segregation (which Brown did not prevent). I’d love to hear good suggestions for countering the polarizing effects of those legal changes.[i]

Primaries originally broke up state monopoly parties. We’ve long known that primary elections push candidates apart to appeal to their parties’ most committed voters. After 1968 the primary system became the exclusive method for nominating presidents, pushing the parties further apart.

In broadcasting, three networks controlled radio and television until Congress changed copyright rules, allowing cable television expansion to over a hundred channels, and niche broadcasting to separate audiences. The courts and Federal Communications Commission also killed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present a balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. Then Congress made it almost impossible to hold any internet company responsible for even the most outrageous falsehoods published on their systems. Those media law changes made it unnecessary to pay any attention to opposing views. Plus, instead of limiting damages for defamation, as Justice Marshall suggested, the Court gave media much more complete protection.

At the Federal Housing Administration, officials long refused to insure mortgages to African-Americans, regardless of income. That prevented African-Americans from joining the march to the suburbs, drove disinvestment in their existing neighborhoods, and pushed us apart.

The end of the draft has been huge. The military had drafted people without regard to wealth, class, or geography. President Teddy Roosevelt said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[2] And indeed the soldiers came home with lifelong buddies from all over America. Arguments about the Vietnam war ended the draft and led to the so-called volunteer army, which doesn’t reach the same cross-section of America. That changed our attitudes toward each other, and how polarized we’ve become.

There were good reasons for the changes to the nominating system, the media, and the draft but the combined price has been to polarize us. Polarization matters. It blocks our ability to listen to each other, even to care about each other. And if we can’t care, the very notion of public welfare, what’s good for all of us, seems like self-pleading.

The market can’t pick up the slack; it fails in many ways. Worse, for market ideologues, democracy, the major counterforce to the market, seems illegitimate. In other words, the stakes are huge – the legacy of our Revolution, our Constitution, and our collective welfare. Somehow, we have to break down polarization, and restore what used to bring us together or find substitutes – for public schools, military service, media that reached across aisles, and integrated housing and communities.

I doubt the cat can be put back in the bag, especially in this polarized environment, but I’d love to hear good suggestions.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 31, 2017. For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[1] For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).

[2] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America from the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).


Lessons from a Century of Voting Reforms

December 31, 2016

Let’s discuss voting issues today.  Well more than a century of experience has gone into the way we vote. That century should be a source of confidence and concern because none of us is old enough to remember why all the rules are in the statutes.

If you’ve seen the 19th century election day paintings, people came to the polls with pieces of paper and dropped them in the ballot box. That made voting very public. Some states required an open, public ballot. That can be a protection but it also made voters vulnerable. Employers and landowners could and did retaliate economically. As political machines took root, they bribed, threatened and attacked voters to get what they wanted. Parties produced colored ballots that voters carried to the polls. They held their ballots up on their way so everyone could see and then dropped their colored ballots into the box. That satisfied the local machines. And it meant that elections were widely corrupted. Can you imagine a local gang, party operative or factory boss telling you whom you had to vote for and backing that up with beatings and bribes? Unfortunately that’s well-documented, both in big cities and small towns.

The secret ballot was developed around the turn of the 20th century to help solve that problem. It put the names of all the candidates on a single piece of paper so it wasn’t obvious who the voters supported. The idea was imported and known as the Australian ballot. Coupled with it was the development of election machinery, hardware like the lever machines we used in New York for quite a long time. But the election statutes reflect lengthy experience with attempts to defeat the secrecy and the security of the machines. So rules required inspecting, securing and sealing the machines, and identifying the voters at the polls based on permanent books of signatures. We had moved quite far from the chaotic march to the polls with random pieces of paper.

Some lessons from that history: It is easier to control the polling place itself than what happens at home or at work, where people might confront orders backed with threats or bribes on how to vote. But that doesn’t work without a way to verify what you did, and enforcing the secret ballot makes it hard to tell how you voted. Thank heavens most of us now have secure polling places. The secrecy and security of the ballot are essential.

The problem of imposters at the polls has largely been solved. But absentee ballots remain a security concern because of the opportunity for others to see, bribe, trick or intimidate the voter. Obviously there are some people who need absentee ballots, but early voting is a safer procedure for those who can get to the polls.

Now in the age of computers we seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel because we have forgotten what the problems were. But programmers, computer engineers and indeed their professional association, the IEEE, has made clear that touch-screen and internet voting cannot be secured given what we know now. Therefore, given current technology, New York’s choice of scanners with paper ballots is the safest available choice IF we do sample post-election checks of the machines against the paper ballots. We should not shift to a new system given the existing state of knowledge and tools. But sample checks should be universally required to keep the system honest, and Jill Stein is right to demand recounts to check the integrity of the system.

Selfies, on the other hand, are a problem. They create the ability to verify who one voted for. That, of course, is why people take them. But it makes it possible for nefarious groups to bribe or intimidate voters. We developed the secret ballot to protect voters and keep elections clean and honest. We need to stick to it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 13, 2016.


Postmortem

November 15, 2016

I feel like I’m in mourning. The presidency has been taken by a con man and we all deserve better – those he’s duped as well as the rest of us.

  • Trump was “elected” by an “electoral college” system designed in the 18th century to protect slaveowners by augmenting their votes with 3/5 of their slaves.
  • He was “elected” by a Court unwilling to protect the voting rights of all American citizens.
  • As in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but George Bush became President, the 2016 popular vote went to Mrs. Clinton. President Bush proceeded to make colossal mistakes in foreign affairs for which this country will spend a century paying.
  • Trump was elected with the votes of people who had suffered financially over the past two decades – but they voted for the very people who refused to lift a finger to provide jobs, people who don’t believe government should do anything, including good and important things, and for whom blocking anything Obama wanted to do was more important than helping fellow Americans. With Republicans benefitting from that cynical and deceitful strategy they are back in control of Congress. Good luck to the coal miners, autoworkers, steelworkers and others – they’ll need it.
  • We will now have a dirty old man in the White House as a “role model” for the worst behavior toward women.
  • And his rhetoric threatens to take apart the signal achievement of America – our mutual respect across faith, national origins, class, race, and counting – an achievement central to the status and future of the very people who voted for hate.

I am worried, crestfallen and embarrassed. What is there to do?

First, I have become a supporter of Supreme Court term limits. Rehnquist spent 34 years at the Court, Stevens 35, Scalia 30 and Thomas has been there 25. Erwin Chemerinsky, widely respected dean at the University of California at Irvine School of Law wrote:

The idea is that each justice would be appointed for an 18-year, non-renewable term. A vacancy thus would occur every two years. Vacancies that occur through resignation or death would be filled by appointing someone to serve the unfinished part of the term.

That way the Court would not be dominated by political decisions made decades ago.

Second, I would not confirm any new justice until there is agreement to reverse the decision that allowed states to monkey with their election rules to disenfranchise voters, and until there is agreement to adopt one of the mathematical rules that precisely measure gerrymandering, the level of favoritism to either party – known as symmetry or wasted voters. Some will object that those decisions are for the justices. Nonsense – the appointments clause is the political check and those decisions put the justices’ prejudices ahead of self-government and assured Republican victories, roles no judge should be playing. Those decisions were partisan, self-serving and should be ruled unconstitutional.

Third, we need to get across to people that refusing to vote because there is someone else we like better is a very bad choice because it has very bad consequences. In a democracy, to live and work together we have to be willing to compromise. It’s part of the deal.

Finally, we need to organize. 2018 is two years away and Congress will be at stake again. True patriots don’t give up.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 15, 2016.


Against whom the rebellion?

November 8, 2016

This is my last chance to talk with you before the polls close.

Republicans have argued since the 19th century that the market solves all problems. Democrats by contrast solve economic problems by investing in the people and the infrastructure they need to get their work done – things business can’t partly because of competitive pressures and partly because they can’t reap the benefits of projects that help the general public.

Because getting things done requires both the president and Congress, split government favors the Republicans. Democrats need both branches and both houses of Congress to pass the laws  that make their economic programs possible. Looking back to 1994, there have been only four years in which Republicans did not control at least the Senate.

There is a well-justified need to rebel against the way the economy and the government have been treating you, and the Republicans should bear the brunt of that rebellion.

They insist that investors would use tax breaks to create new jobs in this country. In fact, tax- break beneficiaries can invest the money anywhere. So when Republicans give wealthy businessmen more money, we just get the risk. Their friends get tax breaks; workers get laid off. Their friends close factories; workers look for jobs. Their friends freeze wages; workers look for second and third jobs just to keep going. Their friends downsize for efficiency, leaving workers unemployed, unhappy, and looking for a way to earn a living.

The economy is organized for the guys on top. Dealing with it, making America truly great for all of us, takes more than the Republican nostrum of lowering taxes. Businesses invest where they find markets, workers, infrastructure, and where they’re attracted by the comfort or the cultural life for themselves and those they want to hire. Taxes have little to do with it.

That’s why Obama’s and Hillary’s investment in infrastructure and emerging industries is a better deal to create jobs and opportunities for everybody. There are many reasons to invest in America – unless we let it fall apart, let our infrastructure crumble, and don’t keep it up to date.

Whether Trump understands real estate, where he’s managed to lose lots of other people’s money, Trump clearly doesn’t understand the economy. The old trope about taxes won’t grow the economy. And his promises are cynical because people won’t invest in outdated, high cost, low return industries when there are better opportunities, no matter how much he yells about it.

Which gets back to something else Trump doesn’t understand. Government needs to work on shifting the risk, to make it easier for the vast majority of Americans to find new sources of income, if necessary to move where the jobs are, on more than a hope and prayer of avoiding homelessness. That’s not in the big generalities that so-and-so will fix things. That’s in the details. You work on those; you study those; the job isn’t all in the bluster.

We’ve had enough of Republicans blocking every effort to build the economy, protect its workers and take care of all the people. It’s time for a smart rebellion – not a wild swing with eyes closed.

So do vote if you haven’t already. It matters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 8, 2016.


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