The Courts Stand Up for Impunity

June 27, 2017

In one of the last cases to be decided this term of Court, the Supreme Court described the death of Sergio Hernandez as “a tragic cross-border incident.”[1] Indeed. I want to make clear that I care deeply about this case. Several friends and I helped write an amicus brief to the Court about it.[2]

Sergio Hernandez was 15 years old. The Court continued, “According to the complaint,” which the Court must accept as true at this early stage of the proceedings, “Hernandez and his friends were playing a game in which they ran up the embankment on the United States side [of the Mexican border], touched the fence, and then ran back down.” Border Patrol Agent Mesa caught and detained one of Hernandez’ friends but “Hernandez ran across the international boundary into Mexican territory and stood by a pillar that supports a railroad bridge spanning the culvert” between the c ountries. At a distance – the Court wasn’t precise but the culvert was up to 270 feet wide – Agent Mesa shot and killed Sergio Hernandez though the Agent was in no danger.

Notice the issues that the District, Appellate and Supreme Courts have been “struggling” with.

First, the Court had to deal with whether the Constitution itself authorizes a remedy when Congress has not provided one for the violation of constitutional rights. In other words, do our rights exist at the pleasure of Congress? That’s known technically as the Bivens question.

Second, do foreigners have any constitutional rights or may American officials kill them at pleasure? The Court of Appeals had decided that Sergio had no rights under our Constitution.

Third, even if Sergio’s rights were violated, did the Agent have “immunity … from civil liability.” They would have immunity if “their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established … constitutional rights.” So the fourth question is whether killing foreigners across the border violates any clearly established rights?

Along the way the Court commented that some of the issues in the case  are “sensitive and may have consequences that are far reaching.” Sounds like the Court was thinking about foreign relations. The Bible just says “justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”[3]

The Court finished by noting that the case “result[ed] in a heartbreaking loss of life” but thought the Court of Appeals should think about those issues before the Supreme Court reached any final resolution about the issues in the case:

  • whether foreigners have any rights that American officials are bound to respect;
  • whether there is any remedy for murder;
  • whether murder by a government official is a clear violation of a constitutional right?

Abroad, and we use the same term when describing behavior in other countries, people who are protected from any responsibility for the harm they do are described as having impunity. It does not describe freedom. It describes lawlessness, in countries run for crime bosses and rapacious masters.

Think now about shootings of Americans in America by police officers, shootings of Americans with their backs turned, with their hands up, with their house keys in their hands. Are we now a nation with impunity? Does freedom still live here or are too many people here forced to bow, scrape and beg those with the power to kill. If there are people who, in the language of Dred Scott, have “no rights which … [American officials are] bound to respect,”[4] does that mean that they and we are treated like the slave in Dred Scott?

[1] Hernandez v. Mesa, U.S. Sup. Ct. No 15-118, decided June 26, 2017.

[2] Brief for Amici Curiae Legal Historians in Support of Petitioners in Hernandez v. Mesa, U.S. Sup. Ct. No 15-118.

[3] Deut. 16:20.

[4] Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 407 ((1856).


Can American Democracy Survive Trump?

June 13, 2017

Will democracy in America survive?

First remember that democracy matters. No human institutions are perfect but democracy makes it possible to remove officials without going to war. Democracy doesn’t mean anyone alone can make good things happen. Democracy reflects the collective power of people. Collectively, if the rules are followed that protect speakers, publishers, candidates and fair elections, democracy gives us the possibility – though nothing is certain – of throwing the bastards out. That’s important.

The survival of democracy depends on leaders, institutions, and the circumstances that bring out the best and worst in us. What chance do we have?

We should have been warned when Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for dictators in Russia, the Near East and Eastern Europe, when Trump invited an enemy to break into a candidate’s email and interfere in an American election, and suggested his supporters use their “Second Amendment rights” to put him into power. We should have been warned when Trump put people with strong ties to hostile powers at the top of his Administration and gave them access to American military and intelligence secrets. We should have been warned when Trump put an attorney hostile to justice in charge of the Justice Department and installed many military leaders in his government. We can’t rely on this casino mogul turned would-be strongman to preserve American democratic government.

It’s unclear whether our institutions will protect us. The Turkish military protected Turkish democracy for a century, but that tradition is now gone. Members of Trump’s party control both houses of Congress where their commitment to their party compromises their commitment to democracy. Congress seems unlikely to protect us. The Court is dominated by members of the President’s party and their treatment of the Constitution’s due process clauses has been more a threat to decent citizens than a limitation on the powers of would-be dictators.

The circumstances in which we find ourselves have ripped democracies apart across the globe. The concentration of wealth and power we have long seen and condemned abroad has become a reality here. The more that wealth and power are concentrated, the more that the wealthy and powerful circle their wagons to protect their ill-gotten gains against the rest of us, spewing nonsense about supposed trickle-down economics as if it were fact and counting on people’s gullibility. Concentration also makes people desperate, and desperation fuels the mirage of lies and makes too many of us complicit in our own subjugation.

Without reason to rely on the leaders, institutions, or circumstances, that leaves us. Can we square our shoulders and steady our minds to resist the steady babble of nonsense and not just listen to the words but watch what those in power are doing?

When you look at behavior instead of giving a pass to the mogul in the White House, you begin to notice that his actions belie his words. He has no sympathy for coal miners or others who have been shunted aside by changes in the economy but only to protect his friends’ wealth and power from us. Birnie put his finger on the problem and Trump now aggravates the concentration of wealth and power that are taking apart the lives we thought we’d built. So-called “free markets” protect the marketeers. So-called “trickle down economics” protect the concentrations from which the trickles are supposed to flow. And the flood of inconsistent tweets boggle the mind and conceal the reality.

Can we uncover the deceptions with strong minds and clear eyes while the casino mogul in the White House gambles our birthright.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 13, 2017.


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.


May 23, 2017

Justice Kennedy has added some suspense regarding the future of gerrymandering, and therefore the future of Republican domination of state and federal legislatures. For my discussion on The Hill.com, click on Will the Supreme Court Draw the Line on Gerrymandering.


Freedom for the Boss; Drudgery for the Rest of Us

May 16, 2017

I keep looking for ways to talk with supporters of the Administration. President Carter started the deregulation frenzy. That has become half of the Republican cut-and-deregulate refrain ever since, consistently repeated by the current White House and the Republicans in Congress. I’d like to focus on the things that will affect those of us who are, financially speaking, ordinary, middle-class Americans.

Here are changes the Administration and congressional Republicans are considering that affect working conditions:

  • The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has been postponing and considering cutting down a Labor Department rule that limits “workers’ exposure [to] toxic material, which can cause a deadly lung disease.”
  • The same White House Office is also “considering a proposal to roll back protections for workers in construction and shipbuilding.”
    • Those rules allow our employers to save cash by risking our health.
  • The Working Families Flexibility Act … would give employees a choice between taking time off or being paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours in a week.”
  • Either way, Republicans oppose changing overtime rules to raise eligibility for overtime above the current $23,660 per year.
    • Those rules allow our employers to save cash by shortchanging us.

Here are some that affect the health of financially ordinary Americans:

  • The Administraton has already taken steps to “roll back healthy school lunch standards”
  • The new head of the FDA “has invested in or consulted for dozens of healthcare companies” which suggests that the Food and Drug Administration won’t be much help in preventing unnecessary complications and expenses.
  • The House health care bill would eliminate Obamacare requirements that insurance plans cover prescriptions drugs and mental healthcare. Like all insurance, drug and mental health care coverage are intended to protect people from unplanned changes in the costs of survival.
  • Senate Republicans narrowly lost an effort to roll back a regulation that “limit[s] methane emissions from oil and natural gas drilling.” Methane is even more damaging to the climate than carbon.
    • Those rules risk our health for the sake of other people’s profits.

On savings for retirement:

  • “Trump’s Labor Department delayed the so-called fiduciary rule, ordering financial advisers to act in … [your] best interest[s] … [if you] are saving for retirement.”
  • The CHOICE Act would allow the banks that brought us the crash of 2008 to opt out of regulations adopted after the crash and intended to prevent another. And the bill renames the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and “reduces its power to enforce pre-existing consumer protection laws.”
    • Those rules risk our financial security for the sake of other people’s profits.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the Supreme Court show little respect for working men and women.

  • With Breyer’s help they have blessed “Professional debt collectors … [who] built a business out of buying stale debt, filing claims in bankruptcy proceedings to collect it, and hoping that no one notices that the debt is too old to be enforced by the courts.”
  • The Court continues to apply a 1925 statute intended for interstate business transactions to consumer contracts and the Court bars state regulation entirely.

What Republicans continue to give us is freedom for the boss and drudgery for the rest of us. As the old folk song has it, “same song, second verse, could get better but it’s gonna get worse.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 16, 2017.


What’s to blame for our divided nation? The cause can also be the cure

May 10, 2017

My views of the legal contribution to American polarization and what can be done about it have now come out as

“What’s to blame for our divided nation? The cause can also be the cure” [click here] on TheHill.com. Enjoy.


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.


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