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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Supreme Court Vacancies and the Sheriff of Nottingham

February 23, 2016

Justice Scalia’s death creates a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The next president may have more to fill. Deciding cases as if it were the Sheriff of Nottingham, The Roberts Court is having a major impact on the economy. How those vacancies are filled will make a big difference to all of us.

Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham come down to us from a medieval fairy tale and retellings in print and on film. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain the role of Sheriff of Nottingham type figures in our contemporary world. As fewer people have real power, those who run the government must shovel favors to them. Given how wealthy they already are, they won’t appreciate any but very large rewards. But what government does for the public leaves less for these powerful patrons. So rulers employ modern Sheriffs of Nottingham. It’s what Bueno de Mesquita’s group calls the dictator’s game: by starving the public, dictators have more for powerful supporters – and the more they demand.

Kevin Phillips detailed the enormous benefits that corporations seek and government directs toward corporations and their leaders. Spending on politics has huge returns, driving the fruits of government to the favored few, and dismantling government wherever business prefers to operate in the dark.

Many of us have been fighting against special favors for corporations that exploit workers, the environment and the general public. But it gets worse. As the story of Robin Hood implies, holders of great wealth and power fear the people will take their ill-gotten gains from them. To prevent it  they block opponents from voting, minimize their votes by gerrymandering, and pour large funds into preserving their power while starving the population of public services.

The Supreme Court has been helping. Despite enormous gains by the wealthiest in America, and the declining share of the general public, this Court consistently moves economic benefits from the public to business, from the victims to the predators. The Court reversed the meaning of a 1925 arbitration statute to derail a plethora of state consumer protections and made it almost impossible to sue. Instead, the Court allows corporate defendants to choose who will decide the dispute, and at what cost. The Court undercut both state and federal standards of liability for injury to consumers, securities fraud and the damages available if plaintiffs win. And the Court is waging a battle to strip the unions of power to protect workers.

At the same time, the Court unleashed the full power of corporate treasuries on politics. Those corporate treasuries had barred from politics since early in the twentieth century. And the Court allowed states to make it harder to register to vote by increasing the cost and time to register – making it harder for working class, poor or physically challenged Americans to vote. The Court allows gerrymandering to reshape American politics, and has supported other efforts to entrench political incumbents. The Court topped all that by removing the requirement that covered states pre-clear voting changes, the one weapon of the Voting Rights Act that had worked.

Historians and political scientists tell us that pattern of disparities often leads to the breakdown of democracy, the loss of self-government. Sometimes it leads to violence, like the Black Shirts, Brown Shirts, Death Squads, and the security services of people like Putin. Sometmes the plutocrats simply invite a dictator to take control. Great disparities are dangerous. Instead of moderating these outrages in the name of American tradition, the Court has been making the problems worse, increasing disparities and letting them take over American politics. This Court is a danger to American self-government.

That’s where the 2016 elections matter. Whatever policies candidates claim to support, their judicial picks will have a big impact on what really happens to ordinary Americans and the future of self-government in America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 23, 2016. An expanded essay can be found here.

 

 


Scalia’s Legacy

February 14, 2016

As my dear friend Vincent Bonventre has written, “All good Americans are saddened by the news that Justice Antonin Scalia has died.” But this is also a moment to consider his role on the Court.

For me, the principal fact is the disclaimer by Justices Thomas and Scalia that democracy has anything to do with the work of the Court. He was consistent. Stopping the counting of votes and overruling democracy in Bush v. Gore, repeatedly deciding that gerrymandering could not be determined by the courts, voting to limit access to the ballot, and overriding legislation designed to protect the equal right to vote where it had been most flagrantly denied. And of course Scalia joined the majority in the infamous Citizens United decision.

These are all part of the Court’s Republican tilt in recent years. This has not been a Court for all Americans, enforcing fair and neutral ground rules for everyone, but specifically a court with its foot on the scale making sure that the Republicans win, the Republicans control the Congress, and Republicans place an imprint on the law.

In the coming term, there are cases awaiting decision that will decide whether an independent, non-partisan commission can be charged with redistricting, what counts as gerrymandering and what is barred as retrogression in minority rights under the Voting Rights Act, among others. The Court in similar cases has been governed by a 5-4 conservative majority. In the present term, it is unlikely to be able to decide many of them, leaving lower court decisions intact, but not setting precedent for future cases. In effect, whatever the lower court decisions, the questions will remain open for the Supreme Court to decide in the future when it is back to full strength or otherwise has a majority that can reach a decision.

There are other areas of law to consider. Justice Scalia has been a consistent member of a pro-business majority that has emasculated consumer protections in state law as I have described in my new book. He also wrote the decision that emboldened gun-rights radicals to intimidate federal officials, fought against rights for gays and lesbians, and helped block even the mildest of efforts to integrate public schools.

Political scientists tell us that those are all areas which have a great deal to do with the stability of democratic regimes, a subject on which I will write most in a future post.

Scalia’s sincere emphasis on textualism sometimes led him to support “liberal” outcomes as George Kannar long since demonstrated. But most of his decisions tracked conservative views far more than textualism or originalism would have supported.

So Scalia’s absence will make a big difference on the Court. The long run implications, of course, are up to the President and the Senate. No need to repeat all the scenarios here. But whether the Court can be turned before doing more damage matters a great deal to the future of the republic. Stay tuned and, of course, plan on voting for president and senators.


The Court’s attack on the “ever-normal granary”

June 30, 2015

I’ve been celebrating like many of you over the marriage equality and Obamacare decisions last Thursday and Friday. But my own celebrations are tempered by the realization that these two cases don’t symbolize any shift on the Court. Kennedy’s libertarian philosophy has paid dividends in the gay rights controversy for years. But the decision last November to hear the case challenging whether federal health exchanges could provide subsidies to those without the money to buy a health plan unassisted, turned into a trap.[1] The scale of damage that would have been done by blocking the subsidies made it impossible even for opponents of the program to shut it down. Nothing in the decision suggests that Kennedy had a change of heart about having wanted to declare it unconstitutional, and nothing suggests that Roberts had a change of heart about narrowing the commerce power, even though he had approved the individual mandate in the statute as a tax. Twenty years ago, Thomas wrote he would consider going back to the Court’s very restrictive definition of federal powers before 1937 when President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointments changed the Court’s philosophy. Apparently Scalia and Alito are on Board with him.

That brings me to raisins.

Horne v. Department of Agriculture,[2] looks like the Supreme Court is maneuvering to get us back to the era when it throttled government economic policy. Horne held unconstitutional a program to keep the supply of raisins on an even keel.

Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration had the dream of an “ever normal granary” for farmers. Their prices were spiking in both directions, making farming very difficult especially for family farmers whose resources to endure periods of low prices were limited. The statute was passed in 1937 to create the “ever-normal granary,” in order to deal with the effects of the great depression, stabilize prices, preserve supplies against shortages from drought or other natural causes and to protect farmers against “disastrous lows” from bumper crops.[3]

The result was a program to store portions of crops in government facilities when supply exceeded demand and release them in periods when yields were too low. It was a program designed by farmers for farmers.

The Horne decision used the takings clause to overrule part of that nearly eighty year old statute which had been designed to help pull the country out of the great depression of the ‘30s.

If one simply reads the words of this Roberts Court decision, it looks easy to get around. Government could use a regulation or a tax. And there are other ways to make this decision seem appropriate and unthreatening.

But I don’t believe it. This case has been part of a decade long set of challenges looking for a way to take down federal agricultural marketing policies. The attorney for the Hornes was a well-known conservative activist, professor and former judge. I doubt he handled this case just because he sympathized with the Hornes.

Similarly, when the Rehnquist Court decided United States v. Lopez in 1995 on federalism grounds all the constitutional scholars said it was insignificant, a shot across the bow but portending nothing. Within a few years it was clear they were wrong. The Court started declaring civil rights statutes unconstitutional as violations of principles of federalism that are nowhere in the language of the Constitution.

This case is not a one off. The Court has been developing takings doctrine so that it can be used to block federal regulation of the economy and the environment. The conservative faction on the Roberts Court is trying to develop legal tools to return the U.S. to a period in which we are a congerie of 50 small states instead of a single proud country. And if that happens, family farmers especially may be sorry to be free of federal regulation.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 30, 2015.

[1] Linda Greenhouse, The Supreme Court’s Reality Check, NY Times blogs, June 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/26/opinion/the-roberts-courts-reality-check.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Flinda-greenhouse

[2] Horne v. Dep’t of Agric., 2015 U.S. LEXIS 4064 (2015).

[3] Mordecai Ezekiel, Farm Aid-Fourth Stage, The Nation, February 26, 1938, Vol. 146, No. 9, p. 236-238, available at http://newdeal.feri.org/nation/na38146p236.htm.


The American Melting Pot

February 17, 2015

I’d like to share with you some thoughts that came out of a short piece I was asked to write about the Roberts Court. I’d like to dedicate this commentary to Yusor Abu-Salha, who spoke on NPR’s Story Corps about how wonderful the U.S. is, where people of all backgrounds share one culture, shortly before she, her husband and sister-in-law were killed in Chapel Hill because they were Muslims, and to all the others, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and all who have been murdered or tortured because they had what bigots defined as the wrong parents or beliefs.

You might think that the melting pot is the result of a lot of individual private decisions. But you’d be mostly wrong. Actually the melting pot is the result of a series of very public decisions. We made the decision, centuries ago, to provide a public education to everyone. That put us in the forefront of the world as an educated, progressive, productive and egalitarian society. We made the decision almost two centuries ago to provide public coeducational schooling. That put us in the forefront of the world in creating decent and progressive gender relations. We made the decision long ago to provide an education to immigrant children alongside the children who had been born here. That made us one people, regardless of where we came from. And all the private decisions in the great American melting pot took place in a world defined by our public schools.

Finally in the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that we would treat race the same way that we had treated gender, language, religion and ethnic differences – that is, we would bring everybody into the same public schools. That opened the melting pot to still more of us so that our racial divisions are less sharp than they were a century ago – nowhere close to erased, but less sharp.

Chief Justice Roberts famously wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”[1] But he wrote that in connection with a decision to prevent a pair of school districts from bringing people together across racial lines. No melting goes on with Roberts at the stove.

When decisions are made that advantage the majority, Justice Scalia makes it plain he thinks that’s just normal; he sees no need to ask whether anyone was discriminating or intending to treat minorities differently.[2] But there’s no vice versa for Scalia – any decision favoring racial minorities is automatically suspect for him. Indeed, he and Thomas have described “legal protection from the injuries caused by discrimination” as “special protection” and “favored status.”[3]

In 1782, French immigrant Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, famously wrote that immigrants “melted” easily into Americans, and freed themselves from the slavery of the Old World.[4] The same year, the Founders of our country adopted our motto, e pluribus unum, Latin for out of many one. Our Founders did all they could to welcome immigrants, making e pluribus unum a reality for us. That has been our country’s glory. That welcome has peopled our continental expanse, brought to our country the most talented and driven from all parts of the world, and allowed us all to share in the benefits of each other’s talents and accomplishments. That welcome has allowed us to build a country without the hostilities that have torn and still so blatantly tear other countries apart. There is nothing more truly American than e pluribus unum. And nothing more central to the development of our great country than the melting pot, even if some of those who now lead our highest institutions can no longer see it or enjoy its savory aroma. It was left for the British writer Israel Zangwill in 1909 to put the immigrants into “the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” adding, “Into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”[5]

The Founders worked specifically to welcome Muslim immigrants to America. They would have been proud of the Abu-Salhas and ashamed of Craig Hicks, and would join us in cherishing the diversity of people who share decent lives in America and praying for that mutual respect everywhere.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 17, 2015.

[1] Parents Involved v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 748 (2007)

[2] League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 515-18 (2006) (Scalia, J., dissenting in part).

[3] Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 645, 652-53 (1996) (Scalia, J., dissenting).

[4] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782).

[5] Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot: Drama in Four Acts (1909).


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