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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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).


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.

 

 


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.


Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman and the Voting Rights Act

November 25, 2014

Yesterday, President Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, a Black Mississippian and two white New Yorkers, murdered fifty years ago, working to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi. They were among many who lost their lives in that struggle.

Schwerner’s widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, said the best way to honor her husband “and all the others killed or injured in the struggle for voting rights and the dismantling of Jim Crow would be the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act and its aggressive enforcement.”[1]

At the last hearings on renewal of the Voting Rights Act, witnesses made clear that efforts to rig the process against African-Americans continue unabated, moving polling places, changing district lines, reorganizing forms of government so that Blacks could still be excluded. Because the Voting Rights Act gave the United States Attorney General power to reject changes, those efforts had not succeeded.

In Shelby County v. Holder,[2] Justice Roberts used the Act’s success against it, saying it is no longer needed because the statistics are better. Pamela Karlan, a highly-respected Stanford Law professor, told Congress:

“ if you have a really bad infection and … the doctor … give[s] you a bunch of pills, and … tell[s] you, ‘Do not stop taking these pills the minute you feel better. Go through the entire course of treatment because, otherwise, the disease will come back in a more resistant form.’ … [T]he Voting Rights Act is strong medicine, but it needs to finish its course of treatment, and that has not yet happened … [as] you have heard from other witnesses. ”[3]

Those other witnesses made clear that the efforts to undo electoral integration continues almost unabated and would come roaring back if allowed. The Court stripped the pre-clearance provisions from the Voting Rights Act and the disease came roaring back just as Prof. Karlan predicted.

Should we care about African-American voters? Absolutely. Morally, they’re people like us. Democracy has no right over peoples denied the vote.

And for our own self-interest. Martin Niemöller said of the Nazis:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 

As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain, the power of dictators is built on shrinking the number of people to whom he or she owes her power, and then rewarding those folk big-time.

You have no stake in southern white racist politics. If you’re Democrats, you have no stake in Republicans winning by excluding African-Americans. In Congress and state legislatures, people of good will are allies. We cannot win on the nonracial issues important to us if we allow our African-American fellow citizens to be excluded from the vote.

Those who wrote and ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments understood that having won the Civil War they could lose the peace if African-Americans could be prevented from voting in the former Confederate states.  We all have a stake in a society where all are represented because that is our chance for a just society in which government is not just of, by and for people who think they’re better than the rest of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 25, 2014.

 

[1] Jerry Mitchell, Presidential medal to honor 3 slain civil rights workers, JOURNEY TO JUSTICE, The Clarion-Ledger, November 18, 2014, available at http://www.clarionledger.com/story/journeytojustice/2014/11/10/presidential-medal-of-freeom-given-three-slain-civil-rights-workers/18826791/, or http://on.thec-l.com/1ugJ0pp, visited Nov. 24, 2014.

[2] 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013)

[3] Statement Of Pamela S. Karlan, in The Continuing Need For Section 5 Pre-Clearance, Hearing Before The Committee On The  Judiciary, United States Senate, One Hundred Ninth Congress, Second Session, May 16, 2006, Serial No. J–109–77, S. Hrg. 109–569, at 5.


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