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 »


Economics, Lawyers and the Risk to American Democracy

April 1, 2014

Ever notice that I frequently talk about economics. What’s a lawyer doing talking about economics? I did read and study economics but there are other reasons why economic issues are dear to this heart.

Lawyers do lots of different things. But for many of us, law is a helping profession. We work with people who are headed for bankruptcy and other events that will turn their lives upside down. We do our best to help them avoid personal tragedies – or pick up the pieces. We don’t think of clients as numbers but as people, most of whom we like and respect. We learn not to think of financial reverses as a judgment about their character, decency or personal value. It happens for all sorts of reasons, often beyond our clients’ control. When it is a mistake, it is often a part of learning how to do business or operate in this world. Some of the world’s most successful people have been through bankruptcy. Up close and personal, we care.

So the national recession wasn’t just a set of numbers for me. It was a catastrophe in the lives of many people. They were passengers on the national ship on a foggy night when the captain  crashed into another vessel. Millions of people went overboard, leaving their jobs and belongings behind. Rescuing people isn’t a choice; it’s an obligation just as it was not optional whether to pick our friends up from the wreck of the Achille Lauro. An S.O.S. has a clear and obligatory meaning.

But there is another reason. One could trace it to a famous French aristocrat who visited and wrote about the U.S. in the 1830s but statistical studies beginning after World War II keep making the point that poverty and inequality are both hostile to the survival of democracy. Historians studied the failure of democracies on multiple continents and reached the same conclusion. Others with different methodologies keep reaching similar conclusions.

It’s not a surprising conclusion. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many were worried that we would lose our system of self-government, and some advised President Roosevelt to take dictatorial powers, but he refused. Now science has come to support common sense. Poverty can be dangerous, not only to individuals but to society. It makes people desperate and when they are, all bets are off.

With that knowledge, it is painful to me to watch Congress leave the victims of corporate shenanigans in the dirt as if they were so much trash. And as an attorney, it is particularly painful to me to watch the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts doing everything in its power to play the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich. Many of those decisions are complex legally as well as economically but their effect on the fairness of the contracts we sign daily and on the lives of many people are extensive and often tragic. To me, the Roberts Court is threatening our democratic patrimony.

The personal suffering would be enough. The risk to our country is hard to bear.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 1, 2014.


Supreme Poison: Adultery and States’ Rights

November 16, 2013

A week ago my students and I went to the U.S. Supreme Court and saw the argument in Bond v. United States.

Carol Bond tried to poison Myrlinda Haynes because of an affair with Bond’s husband. Local authorities wouldn’t bother helping Haynes but sent her to the Postal Service, because poison was found in her mail and the Postal Service has the power to prosecute crimes involving the mail. The Postal Service set up a camera and caught Bond in the act. Postal inspectors arrested Bond and a federal grand jury indicted her for violating the Chemical Weapons Implementation Act.

The United States is a party to the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Congress passed a statute to implement the Convention which prohibited “knowing possession or use, for nonpeaceful purposes, of a chemical that can cause death” or other harms. Treaties and state failure to execute them were a major reason for the Constitution, which gives Congress power to pass laws that are necessary and proper for carrying them out.

But attorneys for Bond smelled an opportunity to narrow national power, arguing such crimes were local and reserved to the states. Read the rest of this entry »


Our Common Stake in Affirmative Action

October 15, 2013

The Court just heard argument in another affirmative action case. It is often put as if it is all about them and the rest of us are just losers as the result of any affirmative action for African-Americans. But do we have a stake in affirmative action, or whether African-Americans remain a permanent underclass? Read the rest of this entry »


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