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.


The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


Is Democracy in America Coming Apart?

December 6, 2016

I wrote Unfit for Democracy to warn that American democracy could collapse in coming decades. But the problems are coming home to roost sooner than I expected.

How the economy treats people matters. That was the starting point for my work and, since World War II, for political scientists studying the survival or breakdown of democracy. But the American economy has been leaving lots of people behind. In my book I argued that the Supreme Court was diluting the value of ordinary Americans’ economic rights in favor of the wealthiest people and corporations. I feared the danger to democracy as people became more and more desperate.

I also worried the Court wasn’t enforcing the Bill of Rights for ordinary people and feared would-be dictators could take advantage of it. And I worried because the Court permitted politicians to fix the voting mechanisms to make fair elections almost impossible.  Changes made after the 2010 census allowed Republican-dominated legislatures to lock Democrats out of Congress and the majority of state legislatures for the foreseeable future. That Court-sanctioned gerrymandering now blocks fair representation in Congress and in many states. Trump kept claiming that the system was fixed, implying that it was fixed against him, but the Court allowed the Republican Party to block access to the polls in many states.[1] The election was partly fixed, in favor of the Republicans and Mr. Trump.

I also worried that legal changes underlying changes in the media and the primary systems were contributing to the polarization of America. As Jim Hightower once titled a book,  There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. I thought that was dangerous.[2]

Now we are finding out that only a quarter of Americans still believe that it is important to live in a democracy. And we’ve elected a president who befriends autocrats – autocrats who destroyed democratic governments, censored the press, put opponents in prison, and took over.

Once that happens, the people who wanted to break the system down have no voice in what the new system does. Autocrats around the globe become kleptocrats – they steal from everyone for themselves and their friends. In commentary earlier this year I described that as the Sheriff of Nottingham syndrome – the sheriff from the Robin Hood legend who took from the poor to fill the pockets of King John. Corruption in democracies doesn’t hold a candle to what autocrats do to their people financially, how opportunities suddenly depend on the dictators’ favor, how freedom disappears, real freedom, the freedom to walk around out of prison and take care of one’s family. Those folks who were so ready to break the system are likely to be among the first broken by it.

The Court won’t protect us. Those with power have no motive to protect us, but only to keep their own advantages. The rich will have more, not less control. Just look around at how Trump is deepening the threats:

  • His worldwide set of conflicts of interest become opportunities for Trump enterprises in the pattern of third-world kleptocracies;
  • He proposes to cut benefits for ordinary Americans, leaving more for himself and friends;
  • He selects America’s wealthiest to run our economy;
  • He rants about asserting “Second Amendment rights” at the polls as if menacing people at polling places advances democracy;
  • He rants about throwing people in jail – starting with his political opponent – though that threatens democratic competition;
  • He seems to think that winning means he can do whatever he wants.
  • And he and the Republicans seem to believe recounts are legitimate only for themselves – not to protect and enforce the voters’ choices.

If American democracy collapses, it will be the biggest victory for the world’s worst people. As Trump pounds on the pillars of democracy, we will have to do all we can to preserve the American democratic way of life.

[1] Unfit for Democracy, at 195-204.

[2] Id.  at 153-67; Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 GEORGIA STATE L. REV. 339 (2008).

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 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.


Personality and Presidents

October 11, 2016

I walked by a group talking about the election and a young woman was saying she would never vote for Hillary because of her personality – I forget the word she used. So I stopped and asked her if that was the most important thing in a candidate. She responded “Yeah” like wasn’t it obvious and went on talking. I moved on shaking my head about her naiveté. This president is going to have to deal with Russia, China, the Muslim world, climate change, and her personality is the issue? The next president is going to have to be cool under pressure, not shoot wildly from the hip, and understand the stakes, the pressures, the possibilities and the limitations of what we can accomplish, and her personality is the issue?

I know some people want to feel like they could have a beer with the president. I think George Bush would have been great to sit down with over a beer. From all accounts I think he’s probably a really nice guy, and easy to get along with. But he was so unprepared to deal with foreign affairs that he made mistakes that will reverberate for decades, if not centuries. I want someone who is preoccupied with what he or she needs to know – which doesn’t tend to make good drinking conversations.

I’ve never met Clarence Thomas but the people I do know who know him tell me he is a really nice guy to be around – including, despite the Anita Hill affair, some of the women who have worked for him. But I think he has been a disaster as a member of the Supreme Court. I did meet Chief Justice Rehnquist, more than once. Sweet guy, at least toward me. But I’m convinced he led the Court in disastrous directions. I’ve also met Breyer. He’s much more often on my side, so Steve, please take care of yourself and stay on the Court. But as far as I’m concerned, if I sat down with Breyer it would be all about business. I didn’t like his apparent manner. I say apparent because what do gestures and expressions or tones of voice really mean about someone’s congeniality when you don’t really know them?

Culturally we often think people who look over their glasses are being haughty – but former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance who wore reading glasses and generally looked over them when talking with me, was very helpful regarding things my office and I were trying to do on behalf of the disadvantaged, and in the process I learned to like him as much as I respected him, which was a lot.

I’m not sure I’d even want a president to take the time to have a beer with me. I’d want her to be focused on what she needs to know to manage any of the life and death problems that are on her desk. I know presidents do take time out to meet people and try to seem connected. But I don’t have the need to take their time. The most connected thing Obama has had to do is to grieve with the families that have lost loved ones, soldiers, children, spouses, and I know he has been as deeply affected by that experience as any president. He’s got more important things on his mind than chatting with me.

Lobby him? That’s not social; that’s business. Beer? That’s my problem, not hers. Personality? Give me a break.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 11, 2016.


Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff, Part II

September 6, 2016

Last time I read a portion of a dissent by Justice Sotomayor.[1] The Supreme Court of Utah had held that the Utah police had violated the defendant’s constitutional rights. The United States Supreme Court overruled that decision. In the portion of her opinion I read you last time, Justice Sotomayor explained what happens, not always, but what often happens when police stop people. And she explained what the Supreme Court authorizes police to do. Justice Sotomayor explained the ways that stops of people regardless of innocence of any crime, let alone any crime deserving jail time, can injure decent citizens. I didn’t have time to read you the last part of her opinion, so I will read it now:

This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes,[2] many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner.[3] But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.[4] For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk”—instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.[5]

By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere.[6] They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.

***

I dissent.

Justice Sotomayor was born in New York City to parents from Puerto Rico. After compiling stellar records at Princeton and Yale Law School, she became a prosecutor, eventually going into private practice. She spent six years as a federal judge, another decade as a federal appellate judge, and joined the Supreme Court in 2009. She writes from every angle of the criminal justice system, as an experienced prosecutor, attorney, member of the community, and judge. Her citations are to decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Before she left the Court, Justice O’Connor wrote a stinging dissent to one of the decisions Justice Sotomayor cites.[7] She was coming to understand the enormity of what the Court has authorized. But this is the Court we have. Is this the Court we want?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 6, 2016.

[1] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2069-71 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[2] [Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Div., Investigation of the Newark Police Department 8, 19, n. 15  [2069]  (2014), online at https://www.justice.gov/sites /default/files/crt/legacy/2014/07/22/newark_findings_7-22-14.pdf.] at 8,

[3] See M. Gottschalk, Caught 119-138 (2015).

[4] See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow 95-136 (2010).

[5] See, e.g., W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); J. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963); T. Coates, Between the World and Me (2015).

[6] See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274-283 (2002).

[7] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 360 (2001) (O’Connor, J., dissenting).


Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff, Part I

August 31, 2016

I want to read you a portion of a recent dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in which she explains what I think many do not understand about what happens when police stop people on the street.[1] I will skip her citations but you can read them on the website. She wrote the last part of her dissent for herself alone. I think it is well worth your hearing that portion of her dissent in Justice Sotomayor’s own words:

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens.

Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.[2] That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law,[3] but it may factor in your ethnicity,[4] where you live,[5] what you were wearing,[6] and how you behaved.[7] The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.[8]

The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal.[9] The officer may next ask for your “consent” to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline.[10] Regardless of your answer, he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.”[11] If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “‘feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.’”[12]

The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fastened.”[13] At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.”[14] Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check.[15] And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future.[16]

More next time.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 30, 2016.

[1] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2069-71 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[2] Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806, 813 (1996).

[3] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1, at 21 (1968).

[4] United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. S. 873, 886-887 (1975).

[5] Adams v. Williams, 407 U. S. 143, 147 (1972).

[6] United States v. Sokolow, 490 U. S. 1, 4-5 (1989).

[7] Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119, 124-125 (2000).

[8] Devenpeck v. Alford,  [2070]  543 U. S. 146, 154-155 (2004); Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___,  (2014).

[9] See C. Epp et al., Pulled Over, at 5 (2014).

[10] See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U. S. 429, 438 (1991).

[11] Terry, 392 U. S., at 17.

[12] Id., at 17, n. 13.

[13] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 323-324 (2001).

[14] Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 566 U. S. ___,  182 L. Ed. 2d 566, 573 (2012); Maryland v. King, 569 U. S. ___, 186 L. Ed. 2d 1, 30 (2013).

[15] Chin, The New Civil Death, 160 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1789, 1805 (2012); see J. Jacobs, The Eternal Criminal Record 33-51 (2015); Young & Petersilia, Keeping Track, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 1318, 1341-1357 (2016).

[16] A. Goffman, On the Run 196 (2014).


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