Democracy Amid the Battle of the Oligarchs?

November 16, 2015

The Court recently decided that states can restrict campaign solicitation by judges but only judges. It left all the rest of its protections of economic privilege in place.

Inequality in the United States is making democracy increasingly unsustainable and unlikely. It also seems unlikely that Americans in sufficient numbers will rebel before it’s too late. The gun rights folk will, if anything, protect the current distribution of wealth, and enforce their prejudices. Liberals aren’t sufficiently united – there are race liberals, economic liberals, and big money liberals. That’s a big tent, not a movement. Conservatives believe in democracy in towns they control, and join the attack on giving the ballot to anyone else. They put institutions that they rule – specially chosen tribunals, faceless and ruthless markets – ahead of democratic government, hiding their contempt for democracy behind the claim that government, democratic government, is the problem. So behind all the hoopla of the Tea Party there is a real threat that this government of, by and for the people will perish from the earth.

Then what? At the turn of the last century democracy was rescued from abroad, by unrestricted immigration that turned into a tide of votes – organized by totally corrupt political parties but organized effectively. The corruption temporarily led the wealthy to put cleaning up government ahead of cleaning the pockets of the poor.

But here’s the point, when the wealthy and powerful take control of the whole shebang, political money, jobs, the media, only the wealthy can take it down. That means that democracy will return only when the wealthy battle each other – and when the Gods fight, the heavens rain fire.

What could start such a battle among the wealthy? Kevin Phillips wrote about the way that different national Administrations shifted wealth among sectors of the economy – from mining and manufacturing to oil and finance.[i] So one option is to take sides among the giants. We argue about football teams. Why not fight about who gets wealthy; maybe they can be sufficiently provoked to provide a little democratic space. Remember it was the kings of Spain and Portugal who restored democracy to their domains, not the Republican army.

Short of that, we could play for the patronage of the moneyed people, trying to figure out what little we can do for them so they will brush us the crumbs off their table. Welcome to the so-called democracies of Central and South America, often described as clientilistic democracies by political scientists. Democracies they are not. They are competing bands of hirelings and sycophants fighting for the right to root for the winning team and pick up the t-shirts, ball caps and plastic trophies of victory.

So are you on the oil, gas and pollution Koch brothers team? The casino team of Sheldon Adelson? The financial teams of Warren Buffet or George Soros? The electronics team of Bill Gates? Step right up ladies and gentlemen; it’s going to be a war of the Gods. There’ll be droughts, fireworks, earthquakes, and lots of blood, folks, so get yourselves on the right team.

We could try to pull the Supreme Court off the ramparts of privilege and regain control over the use of money in politics. Or we could hope for the best ‘til Brutus assassinates Caesar – though that could lead to consolidation of tyranny as it did for the Romans.

Can we rally to save the planet and save democracy? As we used to say in Brooklyn, before the Dodgers finally won the Series, “ya gotta b’lieve.”

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics (NYU Press 2016). He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 10, 2015.

[i] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (Random House 2002).

Environmental Time Wasted

July 28, 2015

A news director at this station, about a decade ago, wanted me to engage in what some call pack journalism, to talk about whatever was occupying the press’s attention. I understood his point; people’s interest was already peaked. Plus the more people talk about the same things, the more it tends to sink in. But I’ve never liked piling on. If you heard it elsewhere, I feel no need to restate it. I like to bring up something else, or a different perspective. I feel more useful that way.

This week I’d like to bring up a case much less talked about than the Supreme Court term’s blockbusters on same-sex marriage and medical care. Those are very important decisions. But here’s another worth examining. On June 29, the Supreme Court decided Michigan v. EPA. According to Justice Scalia and the conservative majority, the case was about whether the EPA needed to consider the costs of regulation. According to Justice Kagan and the liberal dissenters, the case was about whether the EPA needed to consider costs separately before considering specific regulations.

Sometimes court decisions lead one down the rabbit hole with Lewis Carroll. According to Justice Kagan, the EPA did consider costs. It took costs into account in the specific regulations for each type of power plant. It considered costs by adopting ways to mitigate the cost of the required measures to catch up with up-to-date emissions control systems. It decided against more stringent controls because it decided they would not be cost-effective. And it elaborately examined the quantifiable costs and benefits. The problem: it did all that in the wrong order. The result – the rule is on hold now; the agency will have to do some work to show it studied cost the way the Court wants it done before it can reimpose regulation.

That’s one of the main purposes of taking administrative agencies to court – delay can be worth a lot of money to business and industry even if they will eventually have to comply. In other words, regulations can protect the public, but courts can delay them.

Barely mentioned was how much mercury and other toxic pollutants coal fired power plants could send into the air we breathe. Scalia and the industry said there were merely several million dollars damage to the public per year. Kagan and the EPA said the damage was in the tens of billions. Of course much of the damage cannot be measured in dollars anyway – it is about lives damaged and destroyed by mercury and other toxic pollutants.

Republicans have been fighting for years against regulation of mercury emissions. Democrats just as long have been fighting to clean the air of the kinds of things that could damage our health and our ability to lead productive lives. But consistency is the hob-goblin of little minds: Republicans would do everything possible to control addictive drugs that damage our lives, health and minds – they are used by bad people. But Republicans would not control pollutants that damage our lives, health and minds – they are emitted by good people. Democrats, of course, the reverse.

So which congressman, and which justice, is in whose pocket? Some of them apparently define good and bad people by the money in their pockets instead of the things they do to others. Whatever happened to equal justice?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 21, 2015.

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,

[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

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.

Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.

Religion, Health, Corporations, and the Court

July 8, 2014

Last week the Supreme Court decided, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, that Hobby Lobby, and other closely held profit making corporations, could claim religious exemptions from federal law, and they could withhold some forms of contraception from their health plans.[i]

RFRA was a reaction to a 1990 decision about Native American use of peyote at religious ceremonies in which Justice Scalia wrote for the Court that the First Amendment did not require a religious exemption for the “incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision.”[ii] The rule could not be targeted at any religion; it had to be “neutral.”

That seemed like a reasonable attempt to create a fair rule. But many of us reacted that there was nothing neutral in a set of rules that banned peyote but permitted wine at religious exercises, or in generally applicable rules that had obvious and discriminatory effects on Native Americans. It was a good example of how apparently neutral rules could be designed with large discriminatory consequences – think Sunday or sabbath closing laws or rules about the ways we can dress that do or don’t prevent us from wearing a yarmulka, a hajib, or a pendant with the symbols of our faiths. So Congress passed RFRA. It said people should be able to practice religion their own ways unless government had a compelling interest in making everyone conform to the general rule and there was no less restrictive way of accomplishing that purpose. RFRA was understood as restoring the rule of a Warren Court decision, Sherbert v. Verner.[iii] Read the rest of this entry »

The Anti-Union Court

July 1, 2014

The Court decided yesterday in Harris v. Quinn that at least some of the employees who work under a collective bargaining agreement don’t have to share in the costs of negotiating that agreement. The Court says it violated their First Amendment rights. How many unions and employees it will apply to is still unclear but this is not the first move the Roberts Court has made in that direction.[i] Sometimes the patterns matter much more than the individual decisions, whether good or bad. Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 264 other followers