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.

 

 

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Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama

March 31, 2015

In Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, decided a week ago on March 25, 2015, the Supreme Court reversed and sent back the lower court decision. The federal district court had thrown out a challenge to Alabama’s 2012 redistricting. That court held that the redistricting was not a racial gerrymander. The Supreme Court said the lower court used the wrong standard.

It’s important to understand what a decision like that does. The Supreme Court did not decide whether the redistricting violated the Constitution or not. It did not decide whether Alabama or the Black Caucus should win. It sent the case back to Alabama with instructions on how to figure out who should win.

The redistricting was accomplished by Alabama statute signed May 31, 2012, before the 2012 election. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit later that year. The Court held a trial in mid-2013 and reached a decision throwing out the challenges in December of 2013. In 2014 the Supreme Court decided to hear the case. That Court now sends it back for more legal work.

This case was unusual for how quickly the case resulted in an opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. Even so, after three years of legal proceedings the case is hardly over and could still take years before a resolution.

At the beginning of the proceedings, before any decision in the case, Alabama sought pre-clearance from Attorney General Eric Holder, under the portion of the Voting Rights Act which required Alabama to get the approval of the U.S. Attorney General for the electoral changes. That was called preclearance. In this case Attorney General Holder decided not to object to the districting. Only after Holder pre-cleared the statute did the judicial process get moving. But, while the case was in the lower court, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.[1]

Regardless of whether Alabama and Holder or the challengers had the better argument in this case, Holder pre-cleared the districting quickly but it took approximately three years for the courts to reach an inconclusive decision along the way toward ultimately deciding whether the districting is OK. The difference of course is several state and national elections. So, although it didn’t matter in this case, the time difference illustrates that one important result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 that the pre-clearance provisions are unconstitutional, is that challengers may have to wait much longer for justice.

Secondly, this 2015 decision was written by Justice Breyer. He wrote for five members of the Court, joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan. Committees often make poor writers. In this case, although Kennedy merely signed Breyer’s opinion, Breyer had to write an opinion to satisfy Justice Kennedy and consistent with Kennedy’s prior opinions. The result is a legal analysis that is hard to pin down and could be used creatively by either the majority or the dissenters in future cases. In that respect, Justice Scalia’s criticism is surely right – this decision won’t stand up.

That doesn’t mean Justice Scalia is right on the merits. It does mean the Justices have not understood the concept of gerrymandering, have not taken seriously enough the work of political scientists to analyze gerrymandering and put the concept on a much stronger, and precise foundation.[2] Law without science is often hollow.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 31, 2015.

[1] Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U. S. ___ (2013).

[2] See Brief Of Amici Curiae Professors Gary King, et al, 2006 U.S. S. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 30, in League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399 (2006). See also Stephen E. Gottlieb, In ‘Vieth,’ Court Continues to Misunderstand Gerrymandering, N. Y. Law Journal, August 19, 2004, at 4.


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