Sunday, July 15, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh's Situational Ethics

      In law, as in politics, where you stand may depend on where you sit. Brett Kavanaugh's on-and-off relationship with the U.S. presidency demonstrates that he is a creature of situational ethics, far from the judge of unbending moral principle as his admirers claim.
      Kavanaugh was a 30-something Republican lawyer on the make when he signed up with independent counsel Kenneth Starr for the impeachment of the popular-majority elected Democratic president Bill Clinton for lying about sex. His admirers emphasize that Kavanaugh argued for omitting from Starr's report the salacious details of Clinton's relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
      Despite his sensibilities about sex, Kavanaugh had no political scruples about the nakedly partisan drive to impeach Clinton for a peccadillo and remove him from office. The Senate, it will be remembered, rejected the perjury charge on a 45-55 vote and deadlocked 50-50 on the obstruction count, far short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction.
      History now judges the Clinton impeachment as a mistake. A decade later, Kavanaugh himself appeared to have second thoughts, at least to some extent, as seen in a law review article published in 2008 now attracting close attention after his nomination to the Supreme Court.
      With George W. Bush's presidency about to end,, Kavanaugh reflected on his five years-plus in the Bush White House as staff secretary or associate counsel to call for shielding the president from legal investigations. "Congress might consider a law exempting a President—while in office—from criminal prosecution and investigation, including from questioning by criminal prosecutors or defense counsel," Kavanaugh wrote in the article published in the Minnesota Law Review.
      A decade earlier, the Supreme Court in Clinton v. Jones (1997) had refused to find the president constitutionally entitled to such immunity. Kavanaugh stopped short of disagreeing with the Court, but he admitted that his views back then, "in retrospect," were "a mistake." In a sentence now startlingly prescient, Kavanaugh concluded, "A President who is concerned about an ongoing criminal investigation is almost inevitably going to do a worse job as President."
      By the time of the law review article, Kavanaugh was a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, appointed to the bench at the young age of 41 by Bush, a fellow Yale alumnus. The Republican-controlled Senate confirmed his nomination on a 57-36 vote in spring 2006 after Democrats had delayed the confirmation for three years by citing his partisan record in the Clinton impeachment and the Bush White House.
      Kavanaugh complained in the law review article about the confirmation process and called for ensuring "prompt Senate votes on executive and judicial nominations." With a Democrat in the White House eight years later, however, Kavanaugh appeared to have forgotten his previous recommendation. He watched from the sidelines, in public silence, as the Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider President Obama's nomination of Kavanaugh's D.C. Circuit colleague, Merrick Garland, to the Supreme Court.
      In the law review article, Kavanaugh had called for the Senate to adopt a rule requiring a vote on "every judicial nominee" within 180 days of the nomination. The Senate's tactic drew no public objection from Kavanaugh's chambers.
      President Trump passed over Kavanaugh's pre-judicial record in announcing his decision to nominate Kavanaugh for the vacancy created by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's retirement. His many supporters mostly follow suit: they see in his 12 years on the federal bench the very model of a judge's judge. They also profess no concern whatsoever that Kavanaugh will be less than independent of his presidential benefactor if confirmed.
      The question is hardly academic, with Trump under investigation at the very moment. "I don’t know of any justice who has staked out as strong a position on presidential immunity even from questioning as Judge Kavanaugh has,” Walter Dellinger, a former acting U.S. solicitor general in the Clinton administration, remarked to The New York Times.
      Michael Gerson, a colleague of Kavanaugh's as a Bush speechwriter and now a syndicated columnist, pooh-poohed any worries about Kavanaugh's independence. Kavanaugh, Gerson wrote, knows that the Court itself may have to impose restraints on Trump's "lawlessness and bullying" and "has the character and patriotism to act upon it."
      Kavanaugh showed no such character in accepting the nomination with Trump at his side. Instead, he fawned over the president, gratuitously and as the worst kind of toady. "No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination,” Kavanaugh said. Trump surely lapped it up, but the assertion is palpably false and surely beyond Kavanaugh's personal knowledge besides.
      Moments later, Kavanaugh also complimented Trump by saying that he had the opportunity to view the president's "respect for the judiciary." Apparently, Kavanaugh paid no attention when candidate Trump accused the judge in the Trump University case of being biased against him because of the judge's Mexican heritage. And apparently Kavanaugh also missed the president's various criticisms of the several federal judges who ruled against his travel ban.
      Those are not the words of a justice prepared to stand up against Trump's megalomaniacal view of his powers as president. Critics naturally view Kavanaugh not as the strong-backboned jurist that his former colleague Gerson believes him to be, but as a likely servile apologist for the president in any potential legal challenge to his powers.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

At Supreme Court, Weaponizing the First Amendment

      No aspect of American exceptionalism deserves patriotic celebration more than our beloved First Amendment with its open-ended promise of freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of religion. Our birthright as Americans includes the freedom to say what we what, think what we want, and believe what we want without needing permission from the government.
      In the 90 years since the Supreme Court first incorporated the First Amendment against state and local governments, the Court has enforced its provisions in the service of free expression from sea to shining sea. But the Supreme Court ended its 2017 term with a pair of decisions that allowed groups with no real interest in free speech to turn the First Amendment into a weapon against democratically enacted policies protecting union rights in one instance and reproductive rights in the other.
      The Court not only entertained but validated phony "compelled speech" claims in the two decisions: Janus v. AFSCME and NIFLA v. Becerra.. In Janus, an Illinois government employee, Mark Janus, wanted to get out of paying a fair share of AFSCME's costs in representing him and other non-union members in collective bargaining and grievance procedures, as allowed under Illinois law. In NIFLA, the national trade association representing anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers wanted to get  two centers in San Diego County out from under a California law that required them to give pregnant women accurate information about the availability of the full range of pregnancy-related counseling and services from state agencies.
      Compelled speech claims have an honored history at the Supreme Court. Marie and Gathie Barnett won a place in U.S. Reports after they refused, as Jehovah's Witnesses, to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag while elementary school students in West Virginia during World War II. Speaking for the 6-3 majority in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Justice Robert H. Jackson famously and quotably declared that in the United States "no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
      The majority opinions in the two new decisions pay obeisance to this principle, but it is window dressing for policy-driven results in both. The conservative bloc's true agenda, is palpable in the anti-union subtext in Justice Samuel Alito's opinion in Janus and in Justice Clarence Thomas's relative indifference in NIFLA toward pregnant women's interests in full information about their medical and legal options.
      The groups supporting Janus made no secret of their true intention of trying to weaken public sector unions and weaken their influence in election campaigns. In one fundraising letter, the anti-union Freedom Foundation promised that a ruling for Janus "should take the government unions out of the game for good."
      In NIFLA, the conservative justices' own policy preference was evident in Thomas's effort to reconcile the new decision with a seemingly contradictory ruling that was part of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). Back then, the Court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring doctors to inform a woman before an abortion about supposed health risks from the procedure and to give the woman information about the fetus: no compelled-speech problem found. Thomas was part of the majority on that part of the ruling, but a quarter-century later he drew the line at requiring the pregnancy centers to post a simple sign that low-cost public programs were available.
      Thomas explained that the Pennsylvania law was about informed consent before a medical procedure and the California law merely a plug for the state's programs. But as Justice Stephen G. Breyer explained in his dissent, pregnancy and childbirth are medical procedures: the California law, no less than the upheld Pennsylvania provision, was aimed at making sure pregnant women had complete information.
      Breyer aptly warned that the decision threatened other consumer protection provisions: as one example, he cited a California law requiring hospitals to inform new parents about child safety seats. And just two days later the Court told the federal appeals court in California that NIFLA might be grounds for striking down a local ordinance requiring cell phone providers to warn users that keeping a cell phone in a pocket might result in radiation exposure in excess of federal guidelines.
      In , Alito dissembled just as Thomas did by failing to make clear that the agency fees Janus and others were required to pay could not be used to pay for the union's political advocacy outside the collective bargaining context. As Justice Elena Kagan explained in dissent, "no part of those fees could go to any of the union's political or ideological activities." 
      The fallout from Janus will be broad and direct. The ruling invalidates laws in 22 states that allow public sector unions to charge agency fees to non-members. The unions in those states will take a financial hit, just as the anti-union funders for Janus wanted, and the hundreds of contracts negotiated with agency fees for non-members included presumably reopened.
      The 5-4 splits in the two decisions speak less to constitutional law than to raw politics. In her dissent in Janus, Kagan rightly complained that the majority was "turning the First Amendment into a sword and using it against workaday economic and regulatory policy." The First Amendment, she said, "was meant for better things."

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Supreme Court's Willful Blindness on Travel Ban

      None are so blind as those who refuse to see. That well-worn adage applies perfectly to the Supreme Court's willfully blind decision to uphold President Trump's travel ban despite its evident anti-Muslim animus and its transparently pretextual national security rationale.
      To be clear, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. recited much of the evidence of Trump's anti-Muslim prejudice before getting his four Republican-appointed conservatives to go along with upholding Trump's Proclamation 9645, his third iteration of travel restrictions aimed mostly at Muslim-majority countries. Trump issued that proclamation in September 2017 after federal appeals courts had struck down his first two executive orders — so-called EO1 and EO2 — as unconstitutional or illegal or both.
     Trump claimed complete vindication within minutes after Roberts announced the Court's decision in Trump v. Hawaii at the end of Tuesday's court session [June 26]. But his ears should have been burning. Roberts disclaimed any role for the Court to "denounce" Trump's statements, but he recited what any reasonable observer would have regarded as a damning summary.
      Speaking for two of the four Democratic-appointed dissenters, Justice Sonia Sotomayor showed no such reticence in detailing Trump's "deeply offensive" comments dating from his September 2016 campaign promise of a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States . . . ." From the bench, Sotomayor continued with details that spanned six pages in her written opinion. She ended with Trump's retweet in November 2017 of virulently anti-Muslim videos posted by a British political party with an explicitly Islamophobic platform.
      Sotomayor, joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg but not the other two liberal justices, acknowledged Roberts' point that the issue for the Court was not whether to denounce those statements. The "dispositive" issue, she explained, was whether a reasonable observer would conclude from all this information that the proclamation's "primary purpose" was "to disfavor Islam and its adherents by excluding them from the country." 
      Surely, Sotomayor concluded in a tongue-lashing like none other ever delivered from the Supreme Court, the answer to that legal question was yes. Trump, she noted "has never disavowed any of his prior statements about Islam," despite "several opportunities to do so." And so, she went on, the proclamation cannot be upheld against the charge of Constitution-violative religious animus by the putative national security concerns. The "unassailable fact," she explained, is that the proclamation "is contaminated by impermissible discriminatory animus against Islam and its followers."
      For Roberts and the other Trump-excusing justices, the issue was not the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom but Article II's grant of executive power. Other presidents had imposed country-specific travel bans, Roberts noted: Reaagan on Cuba, Carter on Iran. The Court's decision, he noted, must avoid shackling some future president from acting on a real national security concern. But for Sotomayor that was the point: a future president must be prevented from acting on unconstitutional animus, just as the Court in Korematsu should have prevented FDR from interning Japanese citizens on trumped-up fears of national security.
      A note about the religious liberty at stake: not the religious freedom of the beyond-our-borders traveler or asylum applicant, but the religious freedom of U.S. residents and citizens to interact with friends, relatives, colleagues, and others without governmental discrimination. Lost in the Court's decision was the University of Hawaii's ability to meet with scholars from the affected countries, a U.S. citizen's ability to welcome his mother-in-law from another of the affected countries, and — in the other case, from the Fourth Circuit — the International Refugee Assistance Project's ability to aid asylum applicants from the affected countries.
      Sotomayor rightly dismissed the administration's attempts to find legal justification for what originated as and continued as an anti-Muslim travel ban. The conservative majority swallowed the administration's line that a worldwide interagency review of travel security in other countries justified the inclusion of the countries that remained from EO1 and those added since. As Sotomayor noted, this review was a scant seventeen pages in length. 
      In a separate opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by his pragmatic liberal colleague Elena Kagan, voiced disbelief about another of the administration's claims in defending the travel ban. At oral argument, Solicitor General Noel Francisco emphasized that the proclamation included waiver provisions that he assured the Court would be applied in generous good faith. 
      Wrong, Breyer noted, in his opinion issued two months later. The number of waiver applicants approved so far is a minuscule percentage of the total: 430 out of more than 6,500. In addition, he noted, the administration has yet to issue formal guidance for consular officers to follow in exercising their supposed discretion to grant waivers.
      Breyer suggested a remand rather than a ruling so that lower federal courts could examine the actual implementation of the proclamation. The conservatives had no interest, but the opportunity may yet arise: a Muslim advocacy group filed a federal court lawsuit on Friday [June 29] challenging the proclamation on a facts-on-the-ground basis. 
      Still, Sotomayor was surely right with her final words. "Our Constitution demands, and the country deserves, a Judiciary willing to hold the coordinate branches to account when they defy our most sacred legal commitments," she wrote. "[T]he Court's decision today has failed in that respect. . . "

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

For Liberals, Little to Cheer in Kennedy's Final Term

      Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave liberal advocates and interest group little reason to cheer in his final term with his opinions and votes and no special reason apart from his previous record to mourn his decision to retire after 30 years on the Supreme Court. The news of Kennedy's decision spread as Court watchers were still digesting a batch of major 5-4 decisions in which Kennedy had helped give the Court's conservative bloc the clout to uphold President Trump's travel ban and strike down a 41-year-old precedent beneficial to public sector unions.
      Kennedy's final term is a useful reminder that even though he came to the Court as President Ronald Reagan's third choice — after the ill-fated nominees Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg —  he still came as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican with conservative DNA. He helped shift the Court to the right in his initial terms by providing pivotal votes needed to limit remedies in federal job discrimination cases until Congress and President George H.W. Bush enacted a law overturning two of them.
      Kennedy emerged as the swing-vote justice much beloved by liberal interest groups only in 1992 when he provided a critical vote, to widespread surprise, to uphold the abortion rights ruling Roe v. Wade in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). In succeeding years, he gained further acclaim from the political and legal left with decisions in several areas, most famously in three landmark decisions guaranteeing political and legal rights for gays and lesbians.
      That was then, and this is now: in the 2017 term Kennedy was a reliable vote for the conservative bloc in virtually all of the most closely divided decisions. Three years ago, he was celebrated as the author and the critical fifth vote for the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that guaranteed marriage rights for same-sex couples nationwide.
      Among his six majority opinions in the 2017 term, however, Kennedy's first was a major blow to liberal advocacy groups. He led a 5-4 majority in Jesner v. Arab Bank that protected foreign corporations from suits in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute for human rights violations abroad. He also discovered and highlighted the purportedly anti-religious comments by Colorado civil rights commissioners in the gay wedding cake case that resulted in his 7-2 opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop in favor of the Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple's wedding celebration.
      Among his other four majority opinions, three were cut from different cloth. The 9-0 decision in Byrd v. United States protected Fourth Amendment rights for unauthorized drivers of rental cars. The 6-3 ruling in Hughes v. United States gave guilty-pleading defendants in federal court the benefits of post-plea reductions in Sentencing Guidelines. The 8-1 ruling in Lozman v. Riviera Beach made it somewhat easier to sue on free-speech grounds for retaliatory arrests.
      In contrast to the decisions most celebrated by Kennedy's liberal admirers, however, not once during the 2017 term did Kennedy give the four liberals the fifth vole they needed to advance their views or to blunt the conservative juggernaut. And Kennedy actually led the dissenters in the liberal bloc's most important 5-4 victory: the decision written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in Carpenter v. United States to require police to get a search warrant to obtain cell phone records needed to track a suspect's whereabouts over an extended period.
      Out of 18 5-4 decisions, Kennedy gave his four Republican-appointed conservative colleagues the fifth vote they needed to prevail in 13. Those cases include decisions to enforce mandatory arbitration in the workplace, uphold Ohio's aggressive purge of voter registration rolls, and — in a Kennedy opinion — to uphold states' ability to tax online sales. Only in the term's final decision, the water rights dispute in Florida v. Georgia, did Kennedy provide the fifth vote for the mostly liberal majority that Breyer led in giving Florida a second chance to protect its oyster beds from Georgia's water-hungry farmers.
      Kennedy's final opinion in U.S. Reports will be the toothless two-page concurrence he wrote in the travel ban case, Trump v. Hawaii. He wrote, as though in an advice column instead of a judicial decree, that it was "imperative" for government officials to obey the Constitution even if they had broad discretion "free from judicial scrutiny."
      Three weeks earlier, Kennedy had led the Masterpiece Cakeshop Court in ruling against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission because of stray comments by commissioners that Kennedy viewed as anti-religious. But Kennedy said not a word about the explicitly anti-Muslim comments that President Donald Trump made on the campaign trail and in the White House in advance of adopting a travel ban targeting mostly majority-Muslim countries.
      Gay rights is one of several elements of Kennedy's legacy for liberal interest groups to celebrate. He protected racial preferences in higher education with his decision in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016). In the same year, he protected abortion clinics from overly intrusive state regulations in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016).  He also widened the scope of the federal Fair Housing Act in Texas Dep't of Housing & Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. (2015). And he helped protect juveniles and intellectually disabled offenders from the death penalty with his opinions or votes in a series of cases early in the 2000s.
      Yet Kennedy's conservative DNA came to the surface in his final term, just as it had done in such pivotal recent decisions as the gun rights ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and the campaign finance ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010). But make no mistake: a Trump-nominated and -confirmed successor will shift the Court, sharply and lastingly, toward the extreme positions that the political and legal right has been advancing for the past two decades. The fight over his successor will be fierce, as well it should be, for the stakes for law and justice are high indeed.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

On Gerrymandering, Court Needs Constitutional Resolve

      The Supreme Court blinked twice before its decision in Baker v. Carr (1962) opened the door to the one-person, one-vote revolution that made political equality a constitutional rule in the United States. The Court in 1932 found no requirement for congressional districts to have equal population and in 1946 turned aside a challenge to malapportioned state legislatures by bowing to Justice Felix Frankfurter's warning against entering "the political thicket."
      That history helps explain the Court's hesitation over the past three decades to rule on legal challenges to the discredited centuries-old practice of political gerrymandering. Better understood, however, history teaches that the Court need not hesitate — as it did last week, in two separate decisions. Instead, with constitutional resolve, the Court should follow the example from the 1960s and adopt a workable legal framework to force needed reforms onto an unwilling and self-interested political system.
      The Court in the 1960s needed only two years to establish the now familiar rules that govern redistricting cases. Just one year after Baker v. Carr, Justice William O. Douglas wrote the 8-1 decision in Gray v. Sanders with its famous declaration that political equality "can mean only one thing — one person, one vote." One year after that ruling, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote also for an 8-1 Court in Reynolds v. Sims (1964) that states with bicameral legislatures must apportion seats in both chambers on the basis of population, not geography. "Legislators represent people," Warren wrote, "not trees or acres."
      The gerrymandering issue cries out for the same kind of constitutional clarity, but for 30 years now the justices have worried instead about how to fashion a "manageable" standard for courts to apply in determining how much politics is too much in the redistricting process. Ever since the first of the false-start gerrymandering cases — Davis v. Bandemer in 1986 — the Court has needed to hitch up its pants just as the Warren Court did instead of wringing its hands.
      The Court could declare firmly that representative democracy can mean only one thing: people elect their representatives; the representatives do not get to pick the people they represent. And a democratic republic does not allow a political majority to rig the system today in a way that preserves its majority status into the future.
      The districting plans challenged in two cases last week would be thrown out under that simple, easy-to-understand standard. But instead, with seeming partisan evenhandedness, the Court last week turned aside a Democratic challenge to a Republican gerrymander in a Wisconsin case and a Republican challenge to a Democratic gerrymander in a Maryland case. The partisan manipulation in both cases was blatant and extreme, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. led two unanimous decisions that sent the challengers away with nothing to show for their evident political injuries.
      The Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, rejected on the technical issue of legal standing, was a particular disappointment for political reformers, who thought they had the silver bullet needed to take aim against partisan gerrymanders. The plaintiffs showed that a Republican-controlled legislature and Republican governor had redrawn the state's 99 Assembly districts in a way that allowed them, through three election cycles, to gain solid legislative majorities significantly disproportionate to the party's overall vote totals in legislative races.
      The plaintiffs had devised a parameter that they urged the Court to use as the "manageable" standard needed to determine when a political gerrymander goes too far. Their so-called "efficiency gap" calculated each of the major parties' "wasted votes" — that is, more votes than needed packed into a "safe" district and other votes "cracked" apart and scattered into the opposing party's districts. By showing that the Republican-drawn plan resulted in many more wasted Democratic votes than wasted Republican votes, the plaintiffs won a lower court decision invalidating the state map and ordering a new one to be drawn either by the legislature or the court itself.
      A half-century ago, Warren steeled a nearly unanimous Court to confront the political evil of malapportionment. Roberts instead led a unanimous Court in ducking a political evil that, thanks to computer-drawn maps, bids fair to worsen in the next election cycle. To duck the Wisconsin case, Roberts found that the plaintiffs had failed to establish legal standing by proving that their individual districts were improperly drawn. In the Maryland case, Roberts' hand was evident in the unsigned opinion that found Republicans had been too slow in fashioning a freedom-of-association claim to challenge the total recomposition of what had been one of the GOP's few congressional districts in the predominantly Democratic state.
      Encouragingly, Justice Elena Kagan showed the necessary constitutional resolve in a concurring opinion joined by three liberal colleagues but, unfortunately, not by the handwringing justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Kagan went along with Roberts on standing and may have helped influence him in giving the plaintiffs the chance to try their case again rather than throwing it out, as conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch urged.
      The Court, Roberts declared, "is not responsible for vindicating generalized partisan preferences." Kagan disagreed. "Courts have a critical role to play in curbing partisan gerrymandering," she wrote. She also envisioned the possibility that the Wisconsin plaintiffs could better develop an "associational theory" for the case that would entail a different theory of legal standing and open the door to a statewide remedy. On that, not-too-sturdy reed hangs the hope of devising, after too long a wait, a judicial remedy for a political evil that the Constitution, properly understood, does not countenance.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

At Supreme Court, Justices Clash on Right to Vote

      Viewed in strictly political terms, the Supreme Court's decision on Ohio's aggressive program of removing nonvoters from registration rolls was easy to predict  and the predictions proved to be right. Five Republican-appointed conservative justices voted to uphold a program that the state's Republican secretary of state touted as having removed 1 million people from voter rolls over three election cycles. But four Democratic-appointed liberal justices found the program to be in violation of a federal law that prohibits deregistering voters "by reason of a failure to vote."
      Writing for the majority in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute [June 11], Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrapped himself around what he saw as the clear meaning of overlapping statutory provisions from two federal laws passed a decade apart aimed, respectively, at making it easier to register to vote or actually to vote. He and his conservative colleagues saw in those laws permission for Ohio to warn non-voters that they would be removed from registration rolls unless they returned a mailed notice to prove their current residence.
      Unsurprisingly, given human nature, the vast majority of Ohioans who received those notices tossed the notices without returning them. Those who failed to vote in the next two elections were purged from the registration rolls: more than 1 million, by Husted's count, from the time of his election to the post in 2010 up to the beginning of the legal challenge to the procedure in 2015.
      Alito concluded a complex dissection of the two federal statutes involved by insisting that the liberal justices' dissent amounted to a "policy disagreement" rather than a different reading of the statutory provisions. He was right, but wrong in his diagnosis. The justices' policy difference turns not on the mechanics of updating registration rolls, but on the priority that the liberal bloc places on the right to vote itself.
      The liberal justices seem to have a better appreciation than the conservatives of the many hard battles fought to win and protect the right to vote from Seneca Falls in the 19th century to Selma in the 20th. As seen in the Court's decisions upholding voter-ID laws, the conservatives have too readily accepted the unsubstantiated fear of voter fraud spread for partisan reasons by Republican politicians and conservative interest groups. The liberal justices see the right to vote as too important to sacrifice to the partisan interests of those with an un-American distrust of the expanded franchise.
      Given Ohio's importance as a battleground state, the Court's decision is politically significant of itself in its implications for future elections. But it takes on more significance by giving election officials in other states a roadmap if they want to emulate Ohio's Jon Husted in bragging not about registering more voters but about removing once-qualified voters from registration rolls.
      Alito's claimed fidelity to congressional enactments strains credulity given the stated goal of the first of the two federal laws at issue. The National Voter Registration Act, enacted in 1993 and better known as the Motor Voter Act, was most prominently aimed at increasing voter registration. The law required states to allow would-be voters to register at sites used for obtaining driver's licenses or obtaining public assistance.
      Along with those provisions, the 1993 law also required states to establish a "general program" for updating voter registration rolls — specifically by making "a reasonable effort" to remove voters who become ineligible by changing their residence. But the act's Failure-to-Vote Clause specifically prohibited removing any registered voter "by reason of the person's failure to vote."
      The Help America Vote Act, enacted in 2002 with the Florida vote-count fiasco in mind, was aimed primarily at helping state and local election officials upgrade and safeguard their voting and vote-counting machinery with the assistance of a new federal agency, the Election Assistance Commission. The law also included a provision that either reinforced or merely clarified the Failure-to-Vote Clause by providing that no registrant be removed "solely by reason of a failure to vote."
      Writing for the four liberal dissenters, Justice Stephen G. Breyer argued that Ohio's procedure removed registered voters "by reason of" their failure to vote: the very reason they were selected for what he called the "last chance" notices. Alito countered by emphasizing the adverb "solely" in the later law: removed only for failing to confirm their residence, not for non-voting. Breyer had what ought to have been a convincing rebuttal: the state's effort to verify residence was not "reasonable," as the 1993 law required.
      Out of more than 1.5 million notices mailed out, fewer than one-third were returned, Breyer noted, with 60,000 confirming a change of address and 235,000 verifying their listed residence. It was unreasonable, Breyer argued, to assume that the 1 million-plus Ohioans who tossed the notices without returning them had moved. Indeed, he mocked the idea that 13 percent of Ohio's voting population had moved in a matter of years. "[T]he streets of Ohio's cities are not filled with moving vans," he wrote.
      In a separate dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor cut to the chase by noting the disparate impact of Ohio's procedure: 10 percent of voters removed in African-American neighborhoods in Cincinnati compared to 4 percent in a majority-white suburban neighborhood. Alito's terse response: Sotomayor's concerns were "misconceived." The question naturally arises: what part of voter suppression do the conservatives not understand?

Saturday, June 9, 2018

In Wedding Cake Case, an Advance for Gay Rights?

      Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened her dissent from the Supreme Court's decision in the gay wedding cake case by saying that she agreed with "much" of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's opinion for the 7-2 majority. Among other losers, David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, went further. "We lost the battle, but we won the war," he wrote in an op-ed for newspapers.
      Gay rights advocates in fact walked off with a win of sorts in this week's Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission [June 4], but it is only a beginning, not the end of the war with anti-gay religious conservatives.
      Kennedy opened the substantive sections of his opinion by picking a winner between same-sex couples seeking goods and services for their weddings and Christian business operators unwilling to serve them because of "religious and philosophical objections." Writing with black-letter law certitude, Kennedy declared, as a "general rule," the primacy of civil rights law. "Such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law," he wrote.
      In advance of that general rule, Kennedy made clear that gay persons and gay couples can be — "and in some instances" must be — protected in the exercise of their civil rights. "Our society has come to the recognition," Kennedy wrote and read forcefully from the bench, "that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth."
      A victory, to be sure, but only in those 19 states that include protection for sexual orientation in their public accommodation laws. In the others, same-sex couples denied service have no recourse even if a business operator does not couch bias in religious terms.
      In this case, Charlie Craig and David Mullins end with little to show for the indignity they suffered back in July 2012 when the devout Christian baker Jack Phillips dismissed them from his Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver. Instead of dwelling on that indignity, however, Kennedy focused on what he and six other justices saw as the "clear and impermissible hostility" that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the state's court system showed toward Phillips' religious beliefs.
      That hostility consisted in part of remarks by two civil rights commissioners from the two meetings back in 2013 when the seven-member commission considered the staff's recommendation to find Phillips guilty of having violated the state's anti-discrimination law. One commissioner suggested, in Kennedy's summary, that Phillips needed to change his "personal belief system" to do business in the state. The other declared, more provocatively, that religion had been used through history to justify discrimination — including slavery and the Holocaust.
      Kennedy and the others — all but Ginsburg and her dissenting colleague Justice Sonia Sotomayor — found these remarks objectionable, all the more so because no commissioners objected and the state never disavowed them. Further evidence of hostility was the commission's decision not to charge three bakers with civil rights violations by rejecting a customer's religion-based requests for a cake with explicit anti-gay marriage inscriptions.
      Those cases were readily distinguishable from Phillips' even if the rationale was poorly expressed by the commission. And Ginsburg found the commissioners' comments similarly no reason for absolving Phillips for the refusal to serve Craig and Mullins. But Kennedy and the others were so confident in their view that they invalidated the commission's order with no remand to allow reconsideration with the claimed hostility toward religion removed.
      Despite the reversal, experts at the annual meeting of the progressive American Constitution Society this week [June 8] saw more silver lining than cloud. "In many ways, the decision was exactly what we needed--legally and politically," said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. With the reversal, "religious conservatives feel they have been seen and heard," Minter said, and further to the good they have been "deprived of the opportunity to feed a grievance strategy."
      In a quick confirmation of the civil rights groups' optimistic reading of the decision, the Arizona Court of Appeal cited Kennedy's "general rule" in a decision on Thursday [June 7] rejecting a Phoenix stationery store's plea for an exemption from serving same-sex couples. "If appellants . . . want to operate their for-profit business as a public accommodation, they cannot discriminate against potential patrons based on sexual orientation," the court wrote in Brush & Nib Studio LC. v. City of Phoenix.
      Kennedy closed his opinion with an even-handed admonition that future cases of the sort "must be resolved with tolerance, without undue respect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market." But religious conservatives responded to the decision with exultant claims of victory belying the hoped-for tolerance. In Tennessee, a hardware store owner in a small, remote county posted the kind of sign that Kennedy had warned against: "No Gays Allowed."
      The Supreme Court has seen this story before: the "all deliberate speed" rule to dismantle racial segregation in public education turned into decades of resistance and foot-dragging. With an ambivalent victory, gay couples can expect the same for the foreseeable future.