The Census Case

May 7, 2019

Too much is happening in this world, but the census deserves discussion because it affects how we handle everything. New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood argued in the U.S. Supreme Court that the coming census will undercount the population and do significant damage to the people of New York and elsewhere.

I sued the Census Bureau over the 1970 census and lost. So few people had sued the Bureau, that loss made me an expert. A town in Indiana gave me a first-class plane ticket to help them at trial on the same issue. Who else were they going to get?

In court, on the case I had brought, the federal judge told me I’d have to have an overwhelming case to get relief against the Census Bureau. The Justice Department Attorney in Washington, D.C., responded, under his breath, that indeed I did. I was a bit more humble.

The problem was that we were attempting to predict the effect of the Bureau’s shift from exclusive reliance on an army of census takers knocking on doors to a mailed census form for people to fill in. Although I was suing in Washington, I was working for the St. Louis Legal Aid Society. We were convinced the changes would undercount our clients, so that many of the programs they relied on would be underfunded. As Chief Justice Burger explained in another case, a public education was largely unavailable to many of our clients. Without that, the census form would be difficult to fill in, if they filled it in at all.

The Census Bureau had studied the issue, and without getting into the weeds, I knew the studies they relied on, and the strengths and weaknesses of those studies. By the time they got me to the trial in Indiana, I realized the Indiana team did not have a witness that could deal with the issue.

This time the Bureau is asking people to file their census forms online. And they are asking about citizenship. The citizenship issue runs into the words of the Constitution. Article I, section 2, written in 1787, says the people should be counted “according to their respective Numbers.” It doesn’t refer to citizens or residents. Just Numbers. The reason of course was slavery. Slaves weren’t treated as citizens. But white southerners wanted the value of their votes increased by what the Constitution called “three fifths of all other persons,” i.e., slaves. Slaves had to be counted. So, the language and the original meaning are clear that everybody, citizen and noncitizen alike had to be counted.

In this case, the Bureau opposed adding a citizenship question because it would degrade the accuracy of the population count. Their view was based on a number of studies. But Secretary Ross overruled the Bureau without the benefit of any research and in the teeth of the experts’ views.

Regardless, several conservative judges argued that what the Secretary wanted to do was common sense. Science, statistics, data, who needs it? They treated science as if it just obfuscates reality much like those people who deny the science behind climate change, or the medical science behind vaccinations, or the biology behind changes in species over time. Science is taking a beating, but we will bear the pain. And since the census is about the health of American democracy, self-government will take the licking.

Population trends don’t favor the candidates preferred by five members of the Supreme Court so they’d rather throw the lawsuits out than allow the census to reflect the changes. Chief Justice Roberts said, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” just dedicated judges. Don’t hold your breath.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 30, 2019.

 

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Problems Proving Obstruction and Conspiracy

April 2, 2019

Two statutes add to the many issues that complicate the status of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

One defines obstruction of justice as “imped[ing] the due administration of justice.”[1] It has been treated as necessary that one have specifically intended to obstruct a proceeding. One can prove that someone like Trump intended to impede justice either by statements of intent or actions that make it obvious. Obstruction is about such things as Trump’s dismissal of Comey and urging an end to the investigation. It would have been cleaner if Trump had recused himself from the investigation. But he didn’t dismiss Rosenstein or Mueller or order either Comey or Sessions to end the investigation, only encourage them to. Was that enough? It probably would be if you told a police officer to get lost. But, even though Congress is not limited by the same rules of evidence, Supreme Court decisions about evidence of intent will complicate things. Let me come back to that in a moment.

A second statute makes “[A]ny conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of government . . .” a violation of federal law.[2] Participants must agree, intend, and do something to further the conspiracy. Once again, intent might be proven by explicit statements, or by actions that make it obvious.

The Supreme Court, however, is not a friend of the obvious. It ratcheted back the law of conspiracy in an antitrust case saying that it is not enough to show that two people or companies acted as if they were acting in concert. The Court wants something closer to an explicit statement or admission.[3]

The Court doesn’t like to infer intent from behavior, except for infering intent to favor African-American efforts to equalize their opportunities with those of whites. The Court decided that many electoral district lines were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in favor of African-Americans based on the shapes of the lines, even where the more obvious purpose was political gerrymandering which, to this day, they refuse to condemn.[4] But the Court resists finding that white officials disadvantaging minorities did so intentionally.[5] In one case they would not even get to the evidence, writing that such discrimination by high public officials was “implausible.”[6]

Intelligent attorneys would stop short of explicit statements or admissions. Politicians and criminal conspirators often make agreements based on unstated understandings. Trump came much closer to the brink than an intelligent lawyer would have. But notice the absence of any explicit quid pro quo. There’s no “release the recordings, Mr. Putin, and we’ll deliver the EU.” There’s no “let us help you violate our laws to get information on the Democratic National Committee or candidate Clinton.” It wasn’t even in the form of requests that they do some illegal things in the U.S. Instead the evidence we know about was all encouragement – saying that would be great, we hope Putin does it, or we predict he will. Trump’s statements are not explicit. Lawyers recognize that circumstantial evidence is often the most reliable but this Court thinks big shots and major corporations should be protected from it. Here, the evidence we know about is ambiguous – does it indicate a joint endeavor or simply knowledge of Putin’s actions?

The strength of the evidence will depend in part on whether Congress is willing to ignore the Court. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court had its favorites and its scapegoats even before Trump’s appointments made it worse. None of that makes Trump blameless but it does mean that there will be battles over the evidence if there is any attempt to impeach.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 2, 2019.

[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1503, 1505 and https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obstruction_of_justice.

[2] Hass v. Henkel, 216 U.S. 462, 479-480 (1910).

[3] Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

[4] See, e.g., Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996); Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996).

[5] See Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989); and see also League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC] v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 517 (2006) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part).

[6] Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).


What Happened at the Supreme Court Gerrymandering Argument

October 13, 2017

Based on the U.S. Supreme Court argument in the Wisconsin Gerrymandering case, I am optimistic that we may get some very much needed reform. To see why, click here for my commentary on TheHill.com.


Blame the Supreme Court for America’s sharp political divide

August 24, 2017

August 24, 2017

In the 19th century the Supreme Court set the stage for a century of murder, intimidation and voter suppression in the southern states by nearly obliterating the application of constitutional rights to state behavior, In the 20th century, the Court’s nationalization of constitutional rights long met liberal dreams. The Court now seems poised to use the national application of constitutional rights language to satisfy conservative dreams. Both ways close the states’ rights escape valve and therefore magnify the contentiousness of national politics. And all of those choices have enormous moral costs. I elaborate on TheHill.com, at Blame the Supreme Court for America’s sharp political divide.

Happy reading, Steve


Super Precedent or Too Big to Lose

July 18, 2017

It was difficult to sit through all the sanctimonious claims of doing law by adhering to precedent by a succession of Supreme Court nominees and then read its decision in BNSF R. CO. v. Tyrrell in which the Court overruled International Shoe v. State of Washington. Senators have been grilling the nominees for years about adherence to precedent. We heard about ordinary precedent, long standing precedent, and precedent that has been used and cited numerous times.

International Shoe was decided in 1945 by legendary justices. Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone wrote the opinion. He was joined by Justices Douglas and Frankfurter, as well as justices Reed, Murphy, Rutledge and Burton who are less well known to the general public. There were no dissents. Justice Hugo Black concurred on the ground that the attack on the jurisdiction of the State of Washington was so frivolous it should have been dismissed out of hand. Justice Jackson was a member of the Court but recused himself and took no part. Effectively it was unanimous.

If ever a case was used and relied on it was International Shoe. Lexis, a legal database reported that International Shoe had been cited by nearly 22,000 judicial decisions at all levels of the American legal system, plus some 13,000 other sources. It showed no negative treatment.

International Shoe provided that companies could be sued either where the claim arose or where they did sufficient business to make it fair to sue them there.

Montana’s Supreme Court held that the defendant corporation could be sued in Montana “because it has over 2,000 miles of railroad track and employs more than 2,000 workers in Montana.” It other words, the company is quite busy in Montana. But the U.S. Supreme Court held that the corporation could only be sued at its home office.

In their freshman year, law students are drilled on International Shoe. Endless pages in textbooks are devoted to International Shoe. A pretty important decision indeed. But the Roberts Court didn’t like it.

Justice Sotomayor, as she often does, explained:

The majority’s approach grants a jurisdictional windfall to large multistate or multinational corporations that operate across many jurisdictions. Under its reasoning, it is virtually inconceivable that such corporations will ever be subject to general jurisdiction in any location other than their principal places of business or of incorporation. Foreign businesses with principal places of business outside the United States may never be subject to general jurisdiction in this country even though they have continuous and systematic contacts within the United States. … What was once a holistic, nuanced contacts analysis backed by considerations of fairness and reasonableness has now effectively been replaced by the rote identification of a corporation’s principal place of business or place of incorporation.  The result? It is individual plaintiffs, harmed by the actions of a farflung foreign corporation, who will bear the brunt of the majority’s approach and be forced to sue in distant jurisdictions with which they have no contacts or connection.

In other words, these companies are too big to lose. The more places a company does business, the further it can make plaintiffs travel. Even if plaintiffs can get to court over the hurdles placed by this Court, they will have to sue far away in unfamliar places. No barrier is strong enough to protect those companies which are already wealthy enough to give back to the society that protects them.

These cases have been decided under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendments. The word “due” means appropriate. It is an invitation to craft a jurisprudence that maximizes fairness to the parties. But the Court has been going the other way, grounding judicial power on happenstance, not fairness.

The Roberts Court is not doing law. Instead it has its own economic policy. It doesn’t seem to have noticed that voters in both parties have been demanding populism in economic policy. But who elected the Roberts Court?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 18, 2017.

 

 


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