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.

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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.

 

 


Kavanaugh

September 18, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh no longer seems a shoo-in for appointment to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh has now been accused of attempted rape. Let’s be clear – there has never been a time when rape was just juvenile misbehavior. Rape is and has been a crime for centuries. Nevertheless, I doubt this president will make a better nomination, a point Akhil Amar, an old friend on the Yale Law faculty, made eloquently on these airwaves recently. If the Republicans can put another person on the Court, whoever it is will solidify a majority for repealing a half century of progress on social, procedural and political rights, repealing gay rights, women’s rights, anti-discrimination law and a host of protections against our becoming a police state.

Beyond the question of who Trump’s nominee is or will be, the larger question for both the Court and the country is the impact on the November congressional elections. Control of Congress is crucial not only for its legislative output, but also for eventually retaking the Court.

At the hearings, Kavanaugh invariably responded to questions about his own views with descriptions of prior law, showing only that Kavanaugh could explain the cases, which no one doubted. More interesting were his shifting views about whether it is OK to investigate a sitting president. It seems pretty clear that he believes it’s a bad idea to investigate and prosecute sitting presidents outside the impeachment process. But he hasn’t told us whether it is unconstitutional.

Kavanaugh joined the investigation of President Clinton on matters stemming from his relations with Paula Jones. The civil suit brought against Clinton was eventually dismissed because it did not claim Clinton violated the law. That suit, however, was brought for purposes unrelated to the claims in the suit, namely to conduct fishing expeditions on Clinton until they found something that might be illegal. That’s called abuse of process.

Those questioning Clinton eventually found Monica Lewinsky. By contrast to Trump’s behavior, she was a willing participant. The Republicans went after Clinton because it was sex and in those days Republicans were puritans.

Kavanaugh eventually wrote that defending against the Paula Jones litigation took Clinton’s attention off the growing threat from al Qaeda and similarly weighty matters. So he thought there were good reasons not to sue sitting presidents. But he did not slam the door shut. He expressed no view on the constitutionality of investigations or prosecutions. And he commented that there was always impeachment, which, if it is to be more than a partisan political tool, must be based on investigation 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 to support that country’s interests in exchange for putting Mr. Trump in the White House. Whether or not a president can be prosecuted while in office, 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, for Trump to nominate a candidate for a crucial vacancy on the Supreme Court who doubts the legitimacy of investigating a sitting president, looks a lot like deliberate interference with the ongoing investigation. That’s not news, given Trump’s tweets about pardons and remarks about firing Mueller. But Trump’s efforts to control the investigation of his own behavior, making him the judge of his own case, offends a sense of justice. And that is directly relevant to the November elections. This president must have a Congress which is prepared to serve its constitutional function of preventing presidential abuses of power.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 25, 2018, but pulled at the last minute because of new developments in the Middle East.


Anthony Kennedy And The Future Of The SCOTUS

July 4, 2018

Welcome to Iran. Iran has a Guardian Council of men in long robes. We have a Guardian Court of nine judges in black robes. Both decide who rules. The Guardian Council of Iran decides who is allowed to run. The Guardian Court decides which party wins by blessing the vote rigging that favors Republicans – by blessing gerrymandering after the Republicans rewrote voting districts to favor themselves; by blessing registration requirements that Republicans erected to block anyone likely to vote Democratic from getting or staying registered and from voting; and by removing the protections of the Voting Rights Act against discriminatory devices in the former Confederate states and wherever discrimination had been the rule.

The Guardian Court competes with Iran’s Guardian Council for political control by limiting what labor unions can spend[1] and by overruling limits on political spending by corporations.[2] It tilts the whole electoral environment toward the rich and powerful and against workers and consumers.

The U.S. Guardian Court is nearly as effective as the Iran Guardian Council, even without Russian help. And the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy will make it worse. He was the only conservative who understood that vote rigging is inconsistent with a democratic constitution and sometimes acted on that understanding. With a less principled replacement, the current court will present an even bigger barrier to protecting American democracy.

This isn’t about law and all about partisanship. It’s not, in Roberts famous example, like an umpire calling balls and strikes. It’s an umpire in one ball club’s pay, corrupt even as courts across the globe are gaining the confidence to insist on clean elections. To put it another way, the U.S. court system is being corrupted by the rewards of capitalism.

Still more is at stake. Roe v. Wade,[3] protecting a right to abortion, is at stake in the changes in the membership of the Court along with a panoply of labor, consumer, environmental and civil rights protections.

Discouraged? This is the worst time to be discouraged. We can take the country back. But first we must win two elections, the 2018 legislative election and the 2020 presidential election.

Winning the 2018 legislative elections on both the state and national levels can reduce the damage. Fairer state legislatures can insist on fairer elections. Congress has the power to regulate national elections to block states from using unfair rules. And it can block Trump’s plan to abuse the census to further turn the Republican minority of voters into national dominance.

Along the way, winning in 2018 can prevent any more bad nominations to our court system. It can block the Administration’s abuse of everyone from workers to women to immigrants.

Winning in 2020 will make all that easier and it will make it possible to get the Court back. Yes I said we can get the Court back; we can end the rule by the US Guardian Council that masquerades as a Court.

The Constitution does not specify the number of justices on the Supreme Court. That is set by law.[4] The number of justices has been set as low as five and as high as ten.[5] Although a controversial proposition, it has been argued that the number can be changed by the simple process of nomination and confirmation.[6] Either way, it is not set in stone.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed to increase the number when the Court was blocking his efforts to deal with the Depression. In the event, the Court backed down without any change in the number. But the point is that it can be done and should be.

This is a time to get fired up by the efforts of the capitalists, corporations and wrong-wing religious groups to use the courts to take our country away from us. We can take it back. We must and will take it back.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 3, 2018.

[1] Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 4028 (2018).

[2] Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

[3] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[4] 28 USC § 1.

[5] Act of Feb. 13, 1801, § 3, 2 Stat. 89; Act of March 3, 1863, ch. 100, 12 Stat. 794.

[6] Peter Nicolas, “Nine, Of Course”: A Dialogue On Congressional Power To Set By Statute The Number Of Justices On The Supreme Court, 2 NYU J.L. & Liberty 86 (2006).


Unions, Anarchy and the Court

February 27, 2018

The Supreme Court, the one in Washington, heard argument Monday in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The case challenged whether unions, elected by a majority of the workers as their bargaining agent, can charge what are called agency fees, that is, fees for the work they do negotiating for better wages and working conditions. The argument against the unions is that the unions might advocate things that some workers disagree with and, therefore, worker dues are being used in a way that violates their freedom of speech.

The question is how far the Court majority is likely to take us toward anarchy. But first, three short paragraphs of explanation of the terms involved. Unions are selected in a carefully supervised process to be the exclusive bargaining agent for the workers in the shop. The union officers are elected in turn by the membership. The officers are always on those electoral hooks. The union can be decertified if people conclude that the workers no longer support that choice. And the officers can be defeated at the next election.

Unions are exclusive bargaining agents because a plurality of competing unions can’t represent the workers as effectively. Employers could just deal with compliant unions and leave the others out on strike. The responsibility to share the cost of the bargaining unit is necessary because without it, workers can be “free riders,” getting the benefits of their unions’ efforts while refusing to pay for it. That would undermine the unions’ ability to do their work.

From the perspective of the challengers to the part of union dues that supports collective bargaining and handling of grievances, those expenses are as political as lobbying and candidate support. For them, elections don’t matter, just whether union leaders say and act in ways that individual workers dislike. Their argument is that they shouldn’t have to pay.

So now I want to talk about the next case. Obviously many people object to the use of their tax dollars by President Trump to say things that they believe are horrendous, not to mention all the things he does that many taxpayers object to. Can they demand freedom from paying for his press officers and for any portion of his salary which is used for the purpose of making speeches, twits or statements. The logic is similar. The question is how far this union case can take us toward anarchy?

The same argument can be extended to the statements of whichever party opposes their own beliefs. Can taxpayers sue to defund all the press offices, and all the speechwriters, and the congressional TV studio?

There are problems with taxpayer suits. The Supreme Court might bar the door, but the principle is the same. And there are organizations and other parties who could probably make arguments that they are more injured than an ordinary taxpayer.

The same issues come up on the state and local levels too.

We might also raise the same questions about the Court itself. It is taking American law in directions many Americans strongly disagree with. There are costs involved in preparing opinions and publishing them. Do they also violate taxpayers’ First Amendment rights?

The Founders believed that elections solved the speech problem. But the Court views it differently. For the Court, corporations have First Amendment rights to speak for a majority of their boards, with the funds of their consumers. The dissenting board members, shareholders and purchasers, however, have no right to object to the use to which their funds are put.  Unions, by contrast, can’t speak for a majority of their members, despite the fact that they have available to them an electoral process that consumers don’t.

The logic of where the Court appears to be going is not law and order. Instead it is about anarchy. There is no law or government if each of us is a law unto ourselves, including those uses of speech that are necessary to the various jobs that officials and representatives have. There are anarchists in this country, and the gun owning, self-proclaimed “sovereign citizens,” are among them. The Republican Party, however, is anything but. Their party stands for social control. The issue for them is not authority itself but who controls what. Anarchy is anathema to majorities of both major parties and inconsistent with democratic government. But the Court may not understand the connection and the implications of what they are doing.


The Innocence Project

December 26, 2017

I want to talk about people we are less used to talking about around Christmas.

Several times a year I am guaranteed to have a good cry – whenever I get the latest bulletin from the Innocence Project. Without fail they describe at length someone who spent decades in prison, sometimes on death row, for crimes they did not commit. As a human being I am always heartbroken. As an American who believes that we all have a right to liberty, I am both sick and outraged.

And once freed, what education, training or experience do they have? Did they have a chance to start a family and are any left to warm their hearts? The dislocation of freedom is immense. I’ve met men in prison afraid to come out. Those lost decades freeze the soul as they scar past, present and future. Freedom is precious. It also unravels.

I am outraged because there are too many in this country, too many with the power, to keep people in prison, even execute them, even after it has become clear that they were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Justice O’Connor, bless her heart, saw that as unacceptable, although we didn’t always agree on the facts. But the Supreme Court has not yet found the character or the will to conclude that it is unconstitutional to hold an innocent person once that becomes clear, or to sit tight and deny a hearing once evidence has been found that makes it improbable that the prisoner was guilty. The Court has refused to find a right to DNA evidence when that could prove innocence. And prosecutors repeatedly do everything they can to withhold evidence that could result in justice instead of in conviction. The Supreme Court has even said that there are no penalties for withholding evidence even when it is in clear violation of constitutional obligations.

As an American, it is an understatement to say that is no source of pride. As an attorney and a human being, it is a source of disgust – and fear. A legal process that ignores justice is a threat to us all. The purpose of the Bill of Rights and of the Fourteenth Amendment is to protect us all from the abuse of law to polish the prosecutor’s reputation or prejudices instead of serving the cause of justice. Unfortunately attorneys know that the criminal process is more like a canning factory than an effort to separate the innocent from the guilty, truth from lies, and fairness from abuse.

The ACLU and the CATO Institute, otherwise often on opposite sides, come together in support of truth and accurate decision-making. But when the issue is the rights of people accused of crime or the rights of people who have been imprisoned, too many eyes glaze over, not from tears but indifference. Yet those rights, if and when they are honored, are what differentiate us from a police state where people can be imprisoned because of their politics, their parentage or their refusal to kowtow to the unreasonable demands of authorities. These are part of the central meaning of being an American.

The people whose title is Justice of the United States Supreme Court who vote most consistently to protect the right to life of fetuses are the least likely to protect life in any other context. That is hypocrisy under black robes. The behavior of callous prosecutors and unqualified Supreme Court justices is an American disgrace.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 26, 2017.


From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.


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