This Dishonorable Court

June 11, 2019

Last week we talked about ways to block appointments that could make this Court even worse. Is it worth it?

First, if allowed to fester, patterns of Court decisions can last for long periods.

In 1876, the Court denied any federal jurisdiction to prosecute racially motivated violence intended to change political control of government, setting the stage for segregation and intimidation which the Court finally began to address 64 years later. In 1883 the Supreme Court held that Congress had no power to ban racial discrimination in public accommodations. That remained the law until Congress and President Johnson took the Court on in 1964, a reign of discrimination and violence which continues to corrupt race relations.

Later in the nineteenth century, the Court set itself against the economic ideas of the Populists, Progressives and many state governments. That finally changed in 1937, after almost half a century, by which time President Roosevelt was on his way to appointing the entire membership of the Supreme Court.

Republicans like to blame the Warren Court for everything they don’t like but it was the Burger Court, with four Nixon appointees, that decided Roe v. Wade. Abortion foes still struggle to reverse it after nearly half a century.

In other words, patterns of judicial decisions can last for long periods despite concerted efforts to reverse them.

Second, what the Court has been doing under Chief Justice Roberts is very damaging to American decency and democracy.

In an infamous case, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that even if evidence turns up after a defendant had been convicted and shows that the defendant was probably innocent, the conviction was still final and no hearing to consider the new evidence is required.  So the petitioner, Leonel Herrera, was executed. We call the members of the Supreme Court “justices.” But justice had no sway in their thinking. The Court has revisited the issue several times, but it has not changed the law.

Instead the Court keeps getting worse, moving political power away from ordinary Americans. They let states monkey with election arrangements to prevent opposition supporters from voting. They protect partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts in order to protect incumbent parties.

While eviscerating ordinary voters’ rights, they protect the use of corporate cash to control the political process while attacking the political voice of American workers by shredding their unions’ economic base. That combination of support for corporate power and decimation of everyone else’s has been catastrophic for the electoral strength of ordinary Americans.

Beyond its blatant political partisanship, the Court repeatedly attacks the pocket books of ordinary Americans, protecting corporations from responsibility for the harms they do to customers and workers, protecting them from antitrust laws, undercutting employee wages and hours laws, and making us responsible for contract provisions that we may never have seen much less read or understood or had any realistic choice to decline.

The conservative majority has not been friendly to environmental protections that affect our air, water and warm our globe. Heaven forbid corporations should be responsible for the damage they do.

Past experience indicates that these decisions and the damage they are doing to American democracy and the economic system can fester for a very long time. But these problems are time bombs, so the nation can’t wait.

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The Census Case

May 7, 2019

Too much is happening in this world, but the census deserves discussion because it affects how we handle everything. New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood argued in the U.S. Supreme Court that the coming census will undercount the population and do significant damage to the people of New York and elsewhere.

I sued the Census Bureau over the 1970 census and lost. So few people had sued the Bureau, that loss made me an expert. A town in Indiana gave me a first-class plane ticket to help them at trial on the same issue. Who else were they going to get?

In court, on the case I had brought, the federal judge told me I’d have to have an overwhelming case to get relief against the Census Bureau. The Justice Department Attorney in Washington, D.C., responded, under his breath, that indeed I did. I was a bit more humble.

The problem was that we were attempting to predict the effect of the Bureau’s shift from exclusive reliance on an army of census takers knocking on doors to a mailed census form for people to fill in. Although I was suing in Washington, I was working for the St. Louis Legal Aid Society. We were convinced the changes would undercount our clients, so that many of the programs they relied on would be underfunded. As Chief Justice Burger explained in another case, a public education was largely unavailable to many of our clients. Without that, the census form would be difficult to fill in, if they filled it in at all.

The Census Bureau had studied the issue, and without getting into the weeds, I knew the studies they relied on, and the strengths and weaknesses of those studies. By the time they got me to the trial in Indiana, I realized the Indiana team did not have a witness that could deal with the issue.

This time the Bureau is asking people to file their census forms online. And they are asking about citizenship. The citizenship issue runs into the words of the Constitution. Article I, section 2, written in 1787, says the people should be counted “according to their respective Numbers.” It doesn’t refer to citizens or residents. Just Numbers. The reason of course was slavery. Slaves weren’t treated as citizens. But white southerners wanted the value of their votes increased by what the Constitution called “three fifths of all other persons,” i.e., slaves. Slaves had to be counted. So, the language and the original meaning are clear that everybody, citizen and noncitizen alike had to be counted.

In this case, the Bureau opposed adding a citizenship question because it would degrade the accuracy of the population count. Their view was based on a number of studies. But Secretary Ross overruled the Bureau without the benefit of any research and in the teeth of the experts’ views.

Regardless, several conservative judges argued that what the Secretary wanted to do was common sense. Science, statistics, data, who needs it? They treated science as if it just obfuscates reality much like those people who deny the science behind climate change, or the medical science behind vaccinations, or the biology behind changes in species over time. Science is taking a beating, but we will bear the pain. And since the census is about the health of American democracy, self-government will take the licking.

Population trends don’t favor the candidates preferred by five members of the Supreme Court so they’d rather throw the lawsuits out than allow the census to reflect the changes. Chief Justice Roberts said, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” just dedicated judges. Don’t hold your breath.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 30, 2019.

 


Problems Proving Obstruction and Conspiracy

April 2, 2019

Two statutes add to the many issues that complicate the status of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

One defines obstruction of justice as “imped[ing] the due administration of justice.”[1] It has been treated as necessary that one have specifically intended to obstruct a proceeding. One can prove that someone like Trump intended to impede justice either by statements of intent or actions that make it obvious. Obstruction is about such things as Trump’s dismissal of Comey and urging an end to the investigation. It would have been cleaner if Trump had recused himself from the investigation. But he didn’t dismiss Rosenstein or Mueller or order either Comey or Sessions to end the investigation, only encourage them to. Was that enough? It probably would be if you told a police officer to get lost. But, even though Congress is not limited by the same rules of evidence, Supreme Court decisions about evidence of intent will complicate things. Let me come back to that in a moment.

A second statute makes “[A]ny conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of government . . .” a violation of federal law.[2] Participants must agree, intend, and do something to further the conspiracy. Once again, intent might be proven by explicit statements, or by actions that make it obvious.

The Supreme Court, however, is not a friend of the obvious. It ratcheted back the law of conspiracy in an antitrust case saying that it is not enough to show that two people or companies acted as if they were acting in concert. The Court wants something closer to an explicit statement or admission.[3]

The Court doesn’t like to infer intent from behavior, except for infering intent to favor African-American efforts to equalize their opportunities with those of whites. The Court decided that many electoral district lines were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in favor of African-Americans based on the shapes of the lines, even where the more obvious purpose was political gerrymandering which, to this day, they refuse to condemn.[4] But the Court resists finding that white officials disadvantaging minorities did so intentionally.[5] In one case they would not even get to the evidence, writing that such discrimination by high public officials was “implausible.”[6]

Intelligent attorneys would stop short of explicit statements or admissions. Politicians and criminal conspirators often make agreements based on unstated understandings. Trump came much closer to the brink than an intelligent lawyer would have. But notice the absence of any explicit quid pro quo. There’s no “release the recordings, Mr. Putin, and we’ll deliver the EU.” There’s no “let us help you violate our laws to get information on the Democratic National Committee or candidate Clinton.” It wasn’t even in the form of requests that they do some illegal things in the U.S. Instead the evidence we know about was all encouragement – saying that would be great, we hope Putin does it, or we predict he will. Trump’s statements are not explicit. Lawyers recognize that circumstantial evidence is often the most reliable but this Court thinks big shots and major corporations should be protected from it. Here, the evidence we know about is ambiguous – does it indicate a joint endeavor or simply knowledge of Putin’s actions?

The strength of the evidence will depend in part on whether Congress is willing to ignore the Court. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court had its favorites and its scapegoats even before Trump’s appointments made it worse. None of that makes Trump blameless but it does mean that there will be battles over the evidence if there is any attempt to impeach.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 2, 2019.

[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1503, 1505 and https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obstruction_of_justice.

[2] Hass v. Henkel, 216 U.S. 462, 479-480 (1910).

[3] Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

[4] See, e.g., Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996); Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996).

[5] See Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989); and see also League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC] v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 517 (2006) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part).

[6] Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).


Take America Back

March 18, 2019

It is painful to see the forces of hate killing men, women and children on many continents and here in many states, in schools and public places, taking apart the work of what we have been honoring as the greatest American generation who spilt their blood for the America they loved. It is painful and frightening to see the effort of the alt-Wrong to rip apart the free world that this country took the lead in creating. It’s painful to see terrorists crediting an American president as their inspiration for murder.

When I was a small boy, American men were fighting, and dying, in the Pacific, Africa, Italy and, after the landing in Normandy, through France and Germany. They were struggling for freedom, democracy and brotherhood. As the war ended, Truman sent Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, to the UN. Truman sent her there to make clear to the world the depth of America’s commitment to building a robust and sustainable free world. She chaired the seventeen-­member UN Commission on Human Rights and led that body in the development of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You could have drawn much of it from our own Constitution. These were American ideals on the world stage.

In 1948, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Vinson held racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional. Then in 1952 the NAACP brought five cases to the Supreme Court challenging segregation and seeking to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that had upheld segregation in 1896. The Truman Administration told the Court that the US was being attacked around the globe because of segregation and that segregation complicated American foreign policy. Obviously important, the case was reargued after President Eisenhower took office and Chief Justice Vinson had died. Eisenhower’s Justice Department submitted its own brief to the Court, and it underscored the arguments of the Truman Administration that this country needed to end segregation. The Supreme Court agreed; in Brown and a series of cases it made clear that American government could make no distinction of race, creed or heritage in its treatment of Americans.

Americans cheered Brown and made clear it was a popular decision. We believed what they said in the Declaration, that “all men are created equal.” Americans fought a Civil War over that principle. By the time of Brown, this country had embraced people like Jesse Owens, Marion Anderson, and Ralph Bunche among many others. With some obvious and vocal exceptions, Americans embraced the end of segregation. That is the America embraced the world over, admired for its principles and its heart. That is the America that took all of us to its heart regardless of which country our ancestors came from, which faith they brought. That is the country that our ancestors embraced with both love and pride, the America they wanted to be part of and contribute to. That is the America they wanted for us. That is the America we need to take back.

An America with neither mind nor heart clearly needs a trip to see a Wizard of Oz. An America with a man in a position of power who gloats that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” with impunity is an America which actually does need to deport someone, and to wall out the orange-haired imposter before he corrupts our genetic inheritance.

— A version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 19, 2019.


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.


Kavanaugh on Investigating the President

October 9, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh is now supposed to be called “Justice Kavanaugh.” The Constitution refers to members of the Supreme Court as judges. Whether the term “justice” will be appropriate depends entirely on his behavior. Of that I am doubtful. I think there was no justice for Dr. Christine Blasely Ford.

There is strong evidence that Kavanaugh will solidify a majority for repealing a half century of progress on voting rights, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-discrimination law and protections against our becoming a police state.  Kavanaugh invariably parried questions about his views with recitations of prior law, showing only that Kavanaugh could explain the cases, but never denying his likely impact.

Nevertheless, Trump and his Senate sycophants would have nominated and confirmed someone equally damaging to American law. More ominous are Kavanaugh’s views about whether it is OK to investigate a sitting president.

Kavanaugh joined the investigation of President Clinton on matters stemming from his relations with Paula Jones. That suit was dismissed because it didn’t claim Clinton violated the law. It was brought, however, for purposes unrelated to the suit, namely to enable fishing expeditions on Clinton’s behavior. That’s called abuse of process.  Those questioning Clinton eventually found Monica Lewinsky. By contrast to Trump’s behavior, she was a willing participant. In those days Republicans were puritans.  Kavanaugh pursued Clinton with gusto.

Then, with Bush in the White House before the election of President Obama, he told an audience at Minnesota Law School, that he had changed his mind. He wrote that defending against the Paula Jones litigation took Clinton’s attention off the growing threat from al Qaeda and similarly weighty matters. So Kavanaugh concluded that there were good reasons not to sue sitting presidents. He added that impeachment was always available. Left unsaid, however, was that to be more than a partisan political tool, impeachment must rest on investigating to determine what happened.

Unlike the Clinton investigation, the investigation of the Trump campaign is about the violation of multiple laws, both constitutional and statutory – whether Trump’s campaign worked with a foreign country to tamper with an American election and support that country’s interests in exchange for putting Mr. Trump in the White House. The Mueller investigation provides an independent, nonpartisan basis for considering impeachment. Without Mueller, we have only partisanship – a partisan whitewash or a partisan indictment.

So, Trump’s selection of a judge who doubts the legitimacy of investigating a sitting president strengthens his attacks on the ongoing investigation. That’s not news, given Trump’s tweets about pardons and remarks about firing Mueller. But we don’t allow people to be judge in their own cause. What we already know about the Trump campaign justifies a deeper look. And Trump’s effort to control the investigation can amount to impeachable behavior. For Democrats to take back the Court, the law and the cause of justice, they will have to defeat Kavanaugh’s senatorial supporters and elect a Congress prepared to prevent presidential abuse. In other words, the battle isn’t over and the stakes just got larger.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 9, 2018. This is a revised and updated version of commentary originally prepared for broadcast on September 18, 2018, pulled because of the Kavanaugh hearings, rescheduled for September 25 but pulled again at the last minute because of new developments in the Middle East. The earlier version was posted here.

 


Supreme Court Justices and the Biblical Injunction on Gleanings

October 3, 2018

During the Jewish High Holy Days, we read from the biblical book of Leviticus where God enjoins the ancient Hebrews to leave the gleanings of their fields for the poor. I began to think about the conservative members of the current Supreme Court.

Though it’s 5000 years later, stick with me. Conservative nominees, including Judge Kavanaugh, have been telling us that decisions begin and end with the words of the law, a claim we call textualism. How can a textualist obey the ancient biblical injunction about gleanings?

Gleanings are what’s left in the fields after the harvest. Are textualists absolving us from caring for the poor, and, if not, how do they suggest we accomplish it?

Most of us don’t have gleanings – we’re not farmers. Are only farmers responsible to the poor, allowing the rest of us to take comfort from their work. That would be a “strict” textual solution but it’s not very satisfying since the Bible repeatedly stresses our obligation to the poor. Then how should we do it?

Led by Scalia, textualists often point to specific examples of how it was done when the authoritative texts were laid down. Of course, that means ancient solutions become less and less relevant. Scarcer and scarcer gleanings are left for more and more of the poor and they are harder and harder for the destitute to reach. So, the textualist philosophy gradually cancels the maxim itself. The textualists’ approach means the poor can go hungry as gleanings decline in the modern world.

An obvious solution is to identify the objectives of the biblical passage about gleanings and figure out how it might most appropriately be done. Scalia fought that idea. He railed against the possibility that the principles or values that underlie legal injunctions might be interpreted by judges. Liberals might try to figure out how to care for the poor instead of declaring the injunction unworkable. In other cases, liberals might try to assure accurate trial results, not merely obedience to traditional formalities. The defendant lost but had a chance so it’s over.

The late Justice Blackmun once cringed when a father beat his son so badly that the boy’s brain was destroyed and he became almost literally a vegetable. “Poor Joshua” he wrote and was lambasted for letting his sympathy affect his judgment. You may remember that Justice Sotomayor was subjected to the same attack. Sympathy, in the textualists’ view, negates legality. Since when, however, should one be ashamed of sympathy for the unfortunate? Since when is justice defined by not caring about the impact of the rules we create on the people who have to live with them?

Textualism camouflages abuses written into the legal system by justices without principles, as if “the law,” and not the judges, were doing all the damage. It’s time to disqualify judges for lack of empathy. Does the law have no gleanings to offer? No principles of caring and just behavior with which to help fill in the gaps and the changes in legal meanings that take place over time? I have never believed that the written law is responsible for the harm done by judges who mangle it with closed hearts and eyes blind to reality.

Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s latest nominee, continues the charade of denying that their cramped sense of justice is crucial to the decisions they make. Regardless of what the FBI finds about what happened to Dr. Ford, Kavanaugh has not justified our confidence by evasively blaming everything on his reading of past decisions.

 This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 25, 2018.

 

 


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