Sunday, September 22, 2019

For Same-Sex Couples, No Equality Under 'Special Rules'

      Back in the day when anti-LGBT campaigns were in fashion, opponents tried to rally the public against gay rights with campaigns built around the powerful if misleading slogan, "No special rights." The anti-gay groups used the slogan to stall or block anti-discrimination measures by arguing to lawmakers and voters that equal treatment under the law would give gay folk a privileged status instead of the legitimate birthright guaranteed to all Americans.
      Decades later, LGBT advocates achieved a landmark victory with the Supreme Court's decision in 2015 guaranteeing equal marriage rights for same-sex couples nationwide. Four years later, however, some same-sex couples are discovering that their ostensibly equal rights come with an asterisk: "special rules" that grant them fewer rights than opposite-sex couples enjoy.
      Within recent days, the U.S. Department of State and the Arizona Supreme Court have given their stamps of approval to policies that reduce same-sex couples' unions to second-class marriages under the law. The victims of these decisions are same-sex couples shopping for wedding invitations in Phoenix and a married gay couple in Maryland seeking to establish U.S. citizenship for their Canadian-born infant daughter.
      The Arizona court's 4-3 decision in Brush and Nib Studio LC v. City of Phoenix marks the first time a state court has squarely held that a company serving the public has a constitutional right to violate an anti-gay discrimination law. The stationery store, owned by two self-identified Christians who cite religious beliefs in opposing same-sex marriage, sued the city in state court claiming a First Amendment right to refuse to print customized wedding invitations for same-sex couples.
      Writing for a majority that included four Republican-appointed justices, Justice Andrew Gould concluded that it would amount to unconstitutional "compelled speech" to require Brush and Nib's owners to customize invitations with the customary request to join in celebrating a marriage that they disapprove of. The dissenting justices, the Court's only Democratic-appointee and two Republicans, contended that the city's ordinance regulated conduct, not speech, with only "incidental" effect on the store owners' speech rights.
      Supreme courts in three other states have rejected similar claims by anti-gay marriage business owners: a baker in Colorado, a photographer in New Mexico, and a florist in Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the Colorado baker in its  decision Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in 2017 only by finding that the state agency's decision to fine the baker was tainted by religious bias.
      The Washington Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision in the florist's case after the U.S. justices sent the case back with instructions to reconsider the case in the light of Masterpiece Cakeshop. In short, the Arizona court's decision, filed on Monday [Sept. 16], breaks new ground by throwing same-sex couples under the religious-liberty bus when claiming rights to equal treatment under state or local anti-discrimination laws.
      The Maryland couple's dispute with the State Department marks the most recent skirmish for married same-sex couples raising children born through some form of assisted reproduction. Roee Kivit and Adiel Kiviti, Israeli-born U.S. citizens who married in California in October 2013, used a gestational surrogate to give birth to their second child, a daughter, in Calgary, Canada, earlier this year.
      K.R.K.'s birth certificate accurately lists Roee and Adiel as parents, not the surrogate mother. But the State Department has refused to issue a passport showing K.R.K. to be a U.S. citizen, just as a child of married U.S. citizen parents ordinarily would be even if born abroad. The State Department is ignoring the couple's marriage by invoking an immigration law provision that limits citizenship for an out-of-wedlock child born outside the United States.
      For an unmarried couple, a child born abroad to U.S. citizen parents is entitled to U.S. citizenship only if both parents satisfy a durational U.S. residency requirement: specifically, at least five years' residence in the United States prior to the birth. Adiel does not satisfy that requirement: he became a lawful permanent resident in 2015 and a U.S. citizen in 2019.
      Lawyers from Lambda Legal, representing the couple, argue in a 22-page complaint filed earlier this month [Sept. 12] in federal district court in Rockville that the State Department policy is contrary to law and unconstitutional as well. The policy, the lawyers argue, discriminates against the couple because of their sexual orientation and serves "no rational, legitimate, substantial, or compelling government interest."
      Admittedly, children born to married same-sex couples pose novel issues for the law, but the Supreme Court has already issued one ruling that, in effect, requires states to treat same-sex couples just as they would treat opposite-sex couples. The summary 6-3 decision in Pavan v. Smith (2017) required Arkansas to list two married lesbians as parents on their child's birth certificate: the biological mother as well as her female spouse.
      The Court noted that a married opposite-sex couple would both be listed as parents of a child born through assisted reproduction, even if the husband was not the biological father. The ruling emphasized that the Court's marriage-equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, entitles same-sex couples to marriage "on the same terms and conditions as same-sex couples."
      The State Department policy flies in the face of that command and illustrates the need to continue educating and pressuring officials at all levels of government to give same-sex couples the full measure of equality under the law. Until that day, the fight for LGBT rights is not yet won.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Roberts Court Indulges Trump on Asylum Rules

      The Supreme Court played the role of President Trump's lap dog once again last week [Sept. 11] by allowing the administration to put into effect new asylum rules that effectively nullify the federal law guaranteeing asylum applicants the chance to make their case in U.S. immigration courts.
       Trump trumpeted the Court's action, with two liberal justices dissenting, as a "big win" for the administration. The Court's brief, unsigned order in Barr v. East Bay Sanctuary Covenant greenlighted new rules that a federal judge in San Francisco had found to be inconsistent with U.S. asylum law and that a federal appeals court had blocked pending the government's appeal.
      Apart from the merits of the issue, the episode is significant as the administration's most recent instance of asking the Court for "extraordinary" relief in high-profile legal disputes after losing in lower courts. Under ordinary procedures, the losing party in a lawsuit is not entitled to stay the effect of a lower court decision while pressing its appeal.
      The Trump administration, however, has resorted with what one expert calls "unprecedented frequency" to asking the Supreme Court to stay adverse decisions in lower courts  with the outcome on appeal uncertain. Steven Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin, shows in a new law journal article that the Trump administration has sought extraordinary relief from the Supreme Court more than 30 times in the past three years, more than twice the number of such instances by the previous two administrations over the previous 16 years.
      The Court's decision to allow the new asylum rules marks the second time in less than three months that the justices let this most lawless of presidents put into effect a policy on a highly charged political issue that a lower court had blocked. The justices divided 5-4 in an unsigned order issued on July 28 that allowed the administration to transfer Defense Department funds to Trump's southern border wall after Congress refused to appropriate funds for that purpose.
      In that instance, the Court gave a reason of sorts for its action. The unsigned, one-paragraph order noted "strong doubts" that the environmental groups challenging the reprogramming of military funds had legal standing to vindicate Congress's authority over federal spending. Vladeck criticizes both the administration's tactics and what he calls the Court's "acquiescence" in the unusual practice as short-circuiting ordinary appellate procedures to the disadvantage of private parties challenging the government.
      Ostensibly, the Court's rules requires an applicant seeking a stay of a lower court decision pending appeal to show it will suffer irreparable injury without a stay. Vladeck notes that Roberts has written that the government suffers an irreparable injury when blocked from putting its policies into effect during a legal challenge. Private plaintiffs unsuccessfully challenging a government policy do not get that kind of solicitude if they complain of irreparable injury while they suffer the effects of the challenged policy.
      The Trump administration has had what Vladeck calls a "middling" success rate on these extraordinary requests. Along with the latest wins on asylum rules and the border wall funding, the administration was also allowed to put into effect its limits on transgender military service members despite four lower court rulings to block it.
      The justices also favored the administration by blocking the federal judge in the census case from deposing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross under oath about his reasons for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. On the other hand, the Court refused to let the administration rescind the Obama policy known as DACA — deferred action for childhood arrivals —  pending a final decision in the cases challenging the administration's action.
      In the most recent instance, Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited Vladeck's study in criticizing the Court's receptivity to the administration's pleas. "[G]ranting a stay pending appeal should be an 'extraordinary' act," she wrote, quoting a prior decision. "Unfortunately, it appears the Government has treated this exceptional mechanism as a new normal. Historically, the Government has made this kind of request rarely; now it does so reflexively."
      Vladeck implicitly argues that the full Court should be objecting to the administration's tactics. The Court, he notes, has made "no suggestion . . . that the Solicitor General is abusing his unique position, is taking advantage of his special relationship, or is otherwise acting in a manner unbecoming the office he holds."
      The administration and its supporters defend the practice by complaining that federal district court judges have been freer than in the past in issuing nationwide injunctions to block administration policies pending appeals. Attorney General William Barr noted in an op-ed in the The Wall Street Journal that federal judges have issued 40 nationwide injunctions during the Trump years, but issued only 20 such rulings during the eight years of the Obama administration.
      Jonathan Turley, a frequent legal affairs commentator and law professor at George Washington University Law School, similarly sees the administration's tactics as a response to nationwide injunctions, which he says create "a dysfunctional element in the court system and a more direct avenue to the Supreme Court for the government." Some of the justices, he adds, appear to be "losing patience with national injunctions by trials . . . ."
      The Roberts Court has been less than evenhanded in the area. The Court took no action to allow the Obama administration to put its so-called DAPA policy — deferred action for parents of Americans — into effect after a federal judge in Texas issued a nationwide injunction to block the policy. The Court's solicitude toward Trump's policies is further evidence, alas, that the five Republican-appointed justices did not leave their party registration cards behind them after donning their judicial robes.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

In Carolina, GOP Nixes Racial Justice on Death Row

      North Carolina's legislative and gubernatorial elections in 2012 turned out to be matters of life or death for six of the 143 inmates currently awaiting execution on the state's death row.
      The elections that allowed the Republican Party to gain the governorship along with control of the state's legislature resulted less than a year later in the repeal of the state's widely hailed Racial Justice Act. That law, enacted in 2009 and signed by the Democratic governor Beverly Perdue, gave death row inmates a new path to overturn their death sentences by proving racial discrimination in the verdicts or sentences that condemned them to execution.
      Four inmates succeeded in reducing their death sentences to life imprisonment under the law before the Republicans repealed the law.  Perdue had vetoed a GOP-backed repeal in 2012, but the new Republican governor, Pat McCrory, signed a repeal after the Republicans voted again in 2013 to kill the law.
      The repeal included a provision eliminating any relief for inmates not yet final when the repeal took effect. Now, the North Carolina Supreme Court is considering whether the legislature violated constitutional rules in sending those four inmates back to death row and in blocking hearings for two other death row inmates pending at the time of repeal.
      The state high court, with a 6-1 majority of Democratic appointees, heard nearly four hours of arguments in the six cases over two days late last month (Aug. 26 and 27). The arguments from the inmates' attorneys made clear that the racial bias in the four reversed cases might have been strong enough to warrant relief under strict federal constitutional rules even without the easier path under the repealed state law, which required proof only that race was "a significant factor" in verdict or sentence.
      The four reversed cases all came from Cumberland County, which includes the state's sixth largest city Fayetteville. The county's overall population is around 55 percent white and 35 percent black. But the juries in all four cases were all white, thanks to tactics that state prosecutors are instructed to use to justify excluding black jurors.
      In Marcus Robinson's trial, for example, prosecutors rejected half of the qualified black jurors, but only 14 percent of the others. One black juror was disqualified after acknowledging that he had not graduated from high school and that he had difficulty reading — questions not asked of white jurors.
      In Christina Walters' trial, prosecutors excluded 10 of the 14 qualified black jurors, but only four of the 27 qualified white jurors. Tellingly, Walters' two white attorneys failed to preserve objections under the Supreme Court precedent, Batson v. Kentucky (1986), that bars the use of race in exercising peremptory challenges to exclude potential jurors.
      The trials of the two other inmates who won temporary reprieves from their death sentences, Quintel Augustine and Tillman Golphin, followed that pattern. In the arguments last month, one of the North Carolina justices openly acknowledged that the state has done very little to put Batson into effect. The non-profit Center for Death Penalty Litigation has reported that more than half of the state's death row inmates were sentenced by juries with no or little minority representation.
      For Andrew Ramseur and Rayford Burke, the repeal of the Racial Justice Act came as their cases were pending and not yet ruled on. Ramseur's trial in 2010 came against the backdrop of racial sentiment akin to the kind of public hysteria associated with the lynching era. One commenter on the local newspaper's website remarked, "He should be hanging from the nearest traffic light as a warning to the others." At trial, four rows for courtroom spectators were cordoned off by crime scene tape, ostensibly to protect Ramseur.
      In the oral arguments last month, attorneys for the inmates fashioned several arguments to challenge the legislature's authority to strip the inmates of the relief they had won before the Racial Justice Act was repealed or to deny hearings for the other two. The exact issue was unprecedented, as Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's death penalty project, wrote in her brief for Robinson. “Never before has any legislature enacted a statute designed to remedy suspected systemic racial bias in capital sentencing,” Stubbs wrote, “only to repeal such a statute when the racial bias was found.”
      The closest precedent in North Carolina law is a 19th century decision that blocked the legislature from superseding a post-Civil War amnesty granted to former Confederate soldiers for crimes committed under orders during the war. Lt. Col. James Keith was accused of massacring 13 civilian prisoners, but the state supreme court ruled that he was entitled to the benefit of the legislative amnesty even though later repealed.
      The inmates' other arguments centered on traditional constitutional principles against ex post facto laws or double jeopardy. They also argued that the provision specifically nullifying any relief that the inmates had already won amounted to an unconstitutional bill of attainder — the term for legislative imposition of punishment.
      The state's lawyers responded, somewhat weakly, that the inmates still had avenues to seek new trials or new sentences even without the repealed state law. In four hours of arguments, the justices seemed to be inquisitive more than argumentative, but the political tinct to the cases suggests that the state is arguing uphill before the Democratic-majority court.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Courts Taking a Bite Out of Establishment Clause

      The Supreme Court took a bite out of the constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion in June by allowing a Maryland state agency to display and maintain a 40-foot Christian cross on public land as a World War I memorial. Writing for the majority in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. based the decision on the premise that the so-called Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, had historic significance as a memorial to fallen wartime service members apart from its symbolic affirmation of Christian doctrine.
      Alito's opinion tracked the central argument that Neal Katyal, the former acting U.S. solicitor general, made in defending the Peace Cross on behalf of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Katyal emphasized that the cross had acquired an "objective meaning" as a memorial to the millions of service members from all sides killed in World War I, including the 49 men from Prince Georges County killed while wearing U.S. uniforms.
      Civil libertarian supporters of church-state separation had expected the Court, with its conservative Republican majority, to allow the cross to continue standing where it has stood for 90 years, but hoped for a narrow ruling that would maintain limits on how far the government can go in favoring or endorsing one specific religion. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement on the day of the ruling, June 20, describing it as a "narrow" decision.
      The Court sent a signal a week later, however, that the decision portends a relaxed view for future Establishment Clause challenges beyond the specific facts of the Peace Cross case. In a brief order issued on June 28, the justices told the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision to bar the city of Pensacola, Florida, from maintaining a stand-alone, 34-foot Christian cross in a public park in the city. 
      The wooden cross at issue in Kondrat'yev v. City of Pensacola was erected in 1941 by the National Youth Administration to serve as the focal point of what was to become an annual Easter sunrise program — in short, the setting for an annual religious service in a government facility. The appeals court found the cross to run afoul of the Establishment Clause in a decision issued in September 2018, but the Supreme Court gave the city a partial victory in its appeal by ordering the appeals court to reconsider its decision in the light of the justices' ruling in American Legion.
      By the way, the city of Pensacola's official seal includes a Christian cross as its central image. A cross is also the central image in the official seal that Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, adopted in December 1944. The Lehigh County seal is the focal point of an Establishment Clause suit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation but rejected on Aug. 8 by a panel of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
      In his opinion for the appeals court, Judge Thomas Hardiman, a two-time runner-up for a Supreme Court seat, applied American Legion in finding no constitutional violation. Hardiman conceded that the plaintiffs suffered legal injury as a result of "direct and unwelcome contacts" with the official seal, but he read the Court's new decision to give a presumption of constitutionality to "longstanding symbols" that incorporate religious imagery
      At the Supreme Court, attorney Michael Carvin, representing the American Legion, conceded that some governmental displays of a Christian cross would likely violate the constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion. In answering a question from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Carvin adopted Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's suggestion in a decision in the 1980s that a Christian cross atop city hall would be unconstitutional, because, as Carvin explained, "it constitutes proselytizing."
      Carvin went on to reject some of the hypotheticals suggested by the other side in the Peace Cross case. "If they're putting up crosses at every courtroom, every DMV window, and all the parade of hypotheticals we've gotten on the other side, I can certainly understand why somebody would believe that they're trying to convert you to Christianity." he told the justices.
      Pensacola and Lehigh County both seem to have gone too far, under Carvin's reasoning and under the Court's fact-specific decision in the Peace Cross case. The Bayview Park cross in Pensacola serves as the stage for a religious service. The Framers of the First Amendment surely would have deemed it improper for the government to use public funds to build a church or an outdoor facility for the specific purpose of holding religious services.
      The city seals in these two municipalities also offend church-state separation by incorporating the preeminent symbol of Christian doctrine, just as much as a Christian cross atop city hall would give official imprimatur to one religion over all others. The non-believing Lehigh County plaintiffs complained of seeing the seal with its Christian cross, for example, when paying real estate tax bills or reporting for jury service, analogous to Carvin's hypothesis of a cross on every DMV window.
      The self-styled religious freedom advocates who defend these governmental displays of Christian symbols are no friends of the religious freedom embodied in the First Amendment. The Framers wanted nothing to do with government-established religion, but the self-styled originalists on the Supreme Court have lost sight of that original understanding of the Establishment Clause and may be leading lower courts to go farther afield from that original understanding as well.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Trump's Responsibility for El Paso Massacre

      President Trump's perfunctory denunciation of "racism, bigotry, and white supremacy" after a young white supremacist's massacre of Mexicans in El Paso would have been too little, too late even if it had been believably sincere. But Trump's frozen features as he read prepared remarks from a teleprompter [August 5] made clear to everyone, white supremacists included, that he was merely going through the motions.
      Trump has been guilty of racist conduct from his earliest days in the family business, as seen in the settled fair housing discrimination case in the early 1970s. Moreover, he has used racist rhetoric from his first days as presidential candidate and, after his election, as president to hold and rally his political base--as, for example, in calling for three black, natural-born U.S. citizen members of Congress to go back to where they came from.
      With his re-election campaign under way, Trump now can ill afford to alienate any part of his political base, including those who make no secret of the racist views that motivate their anti-immigrant outbursts. Trump regularly promotes these views at his political rallies, as documented in a compilation by USA Today. The newspaper found that in 64 rallies since 2017, Trump had referred to Central American and Mexican migrants at least 500 times in "incendiary terms," such as "invasion," "animal," and "killer."
      Admittedly, Trump's reckless encouragement of anti-immigrant sentiment would not qualify as legal incitement for Patrick Crusius's deadly shooting spree in predominantly Hispanic El Paso [August 3]. But the president bears a degree of moral responsibility for propagating and normalizing the kind of anti-immigrant views that turned the young community college student into a vigilante taking up arms against what the white supremacist fringe calls "white replacement."
      In fact, Crusius aped Trump's terminology in what is believed to be his online posting before the shooting that he was trying to stop "the Hispanic invasion of Texas." That description of present-day immigration from south of the border can come from no other source than Trump: in three decades of sharp debates about immigration policy in the United States, anti-immigration politicians and advocacy groups had never before couched the issues in terms such as those Trump has used.
      Trump sought to absolve himself of any responsibility, legal or moral, by blaming Crusius' crime on mental illness, the favored explanation from the gun lobby and their supporters for mass shootings. With no psychological training nor any evident ability in self-analysis, Trump is peculiarly unqualified to diagnose Crusius at a distance. Indeed, mental health experts quoted in news coverage appeared to agree that Crusius showed no symptoms of diagnosable mental illness.
      As for policies to address mass shootings, Trump used his prepared remarks to bat away the natural thought that perhaps guns are to blame. "Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger. Not the gun," he recited. Statistics cited by the CNBC journalist John Harwood on Twitter suggest otherwise. Of the 40 deadliest mass shootings in the United States since 1949, 26 have occurred in the 15 years since the Republican-controlled Congress allowed the assault weapons ban enacted in 1994 to expire in 2004: only two during the decade when the assault weapons ban was on the books.
      With public opinion coalescing around some kind of legislative response, Trump appeared at week's end to be accepting some form of stronger background checks for gun purchasers. Even if enacted, stronger background checks might do very little to prevent the next mass shooting. Apart from a higher minimum-age requirement, Crusius seemingly had nothing that he would have needed to list on an application that would have disqualified him from purchasing an otherwise legal weapon.
      Trump went so as to claim credit for the yet-unenacted proposals to keep guns away from or take guns away from people who pose dangers to themselves or others. "“I think we’re going to come up with something, something really good, beyond what’s done so far," he remarked, referring to background checks or so-called red flag laws.
      As for an assault weapons ban, however, Trump saw no prospects. " “I can tell you is there is no political appetite for that at this moment," he told the White House press pool in unscripted remarks on Wednesday [August 7].
      The week ended with Trump reportedly resentful of the less-than-glowing reviews he received for his visit to El Paso, highlighted by the stinging criticism of his mugging for the cameras as Melania held an infant orphaned by the killing of his two parents in the massacre. As a reminder, President Obama showed more presidential leadership seven years ago after the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. He was somber and respectful at a vigil two days later and, four years later, was shown in photographs to be tearing up as he talked about the episode.
      Racism and violence have been inherent in Trumpism from the start of his preposterous claim to make America great again. Note that the crime Trump claimed during his campaign he could commit with legal and political impunity was itself a gun crime: shooting someone on Fifth Avenue in New York City. One step to try to prevent the next mass shooting would be at the least a change in presidential rhetoric or, better, a change in the presidency itself. For that, it appears a country in grief must wait yet another year.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Time to Make the Supreme Court Great Again?

      President Trump and the Senate's Republican leader Mitch McConnell have both listed Trump's record-setting appointments of more than 140 federal judges as one of Trump's most important accomplishments in office. Many of those judges, like Trump's two Supreme Court justices, were confirmed by party-line votes in the face of strong opposition from Democrats and liberal advocacy groups, but the issue of judicial appointments went all but completely unmentioned in six hours of Democratic presidential debates last week [July 29, 30].
      The American Constitution Society (ACS), the liberal counterpart to the conservative Federalist Society, led a coalition of groups in urging CNN moderators beforehand to ask the assembled Democratic hopefuls about Supreme Court and judicial appointments, but to no avail. Media commentators noted critically afterward that the CNN moderators appeared to be selecting issues with an aim to highlighting disagreements among the Democrats instead of their shared disagreements with Trump and his policies.
      With the debates over and judicial appointments unmentioned, a truncated debate broke out on Twitter over the political value or risk for Democrats in making the Supreme Court and judicial appointments an issue in the 2020 campaign. Historically, a half-century of presidential campaigns shows that Republicans from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump have made the high court their winning issue time and again; Democrats have tried only weakly to use the issue to mobilize Democratic and independent voters.
      Democrats can and must do better in 2020, according to leading groups on the legal left. They want the eventual Democratic nominee to go beyond bland promises to appoint justices in the style of Brennan and Marshall and to go all in by backing structural reform, such as increasing the size of the Court, to neutralize the Republican justices' current majority.
      Aaron Belkin and Sean McElwee, director and polling director respectively of Take Back the Court, argued in an article written for Salon that Democrats must "recognize and reckon with the fact that the high court is a political institution that has been hijacked by the GOP to advance a partisan agenda on behalf of corporations and billionaires." Belkin and McElwee go on to say that it is "an imperative that  Democrats make the case to voters that democracy cannot be restored unless the court is reformed."
      Belkin and McElwee do not cite particulars, but the Court's end-of-term decision to close federal courts to legal challenges to the unpopular practice of partisan gerrymandering may leave it peculiarly vulnerable to attack for being uninterested in protecting voters' rights. Belkin and McElwee in fact promise a forthcoming report that will show Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to vote just as conservatively as his conservative colleagues and his reputation for centrism "wholly at odds with his record."
      Among the two dozen Democrats currently in the running for the presidential nomination, 11 say they are open to expanding the size of the Court. One of those, Pete Buttigieg, has gone further by expressing interest in the proposal by two academics to expand the number of justices to 15. The balanced bench proposal by the two professors calls for five justices from each of the two major political parties and the other five chosen from sitting federal appellate judges by the other 10 by either unanimous or supermajority vote.
      Any discussion of changing the size of the Court will lead opponents to draw parallels to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ill-fated "Court packing" proposal at the beginning of his third term in the White House. Present-day advocates of structural reform will be hard pressed to counteract the lesson drawn from that episode, but the distinction can be drawn by noting, for example, McConnell's role in blocking President Obama's nomination of the widely respected moderate appellate judge Merrick Garland in 2016.
      McConnell's role in keeping the vacancy open through the November election allowed Trump to use the issue to great effect, according to post-election exit polls. The Supreme Court was the most important issue for 21 percent of voters, according to the CNN poll, and more than half of those voters went for Trump.
      Democrats in 2020 need to make the Supreme Court their issue. They can do that by emphasizing the role that the Roberts Court has already played in weakening protections for workers and consumers and the role that an unreformed Court could play in undoing policies to address health care, climate change, and gun safety. Democrats should also promise to take judicial appointments out of the hands of the Koch Brothers-financed Federalist Society and promise to appoint fair-minded judges with no ideological agenda other than protecting liberty and justice for all.
      Senators from both parties are certain to accuse the other party of politicizing judicial appointments. History shows that Republicans have done that for 50 years, but Democrats not so much. Four of the Republican-appointed justices on the current Court were confirmed in party-line votes by historically narrow margins, with fewer than 60 votes each. All four of the Democratic-appointed justices came to the Court with reputations as judicial moderates and won confirmation by wide margins: Sotomayor and Kagan with more than 60 votes each and Ginsburg and Breyer with 96 and 87 votes respectively.
      It is time to make the Supreme Court great again. That could be and should be a winning message for Democrats in 2020, with or without a cap.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

In Border-Wall Dispute, Divided Court Bows to Trump

      The Supreme Court's newest justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both presented themselves to the Senate and to the American public as committed originalists and textualists, always true to the text and original meaning of the U.S. Constitution. But they showed those professed views to be mere pretense on Friday [July 26] in a behind-the-scenes separation of powers dispute between Congress and President Trump.
      Gorsuch and Kavanaugh voted along with their three Republican-appointed colleagues to allow the Trump administration to violate the text and spirit of the Constitution by diverting money Congress appropriated for the U.S. military to the building of President Trump's wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Court's 5-4 decision came on what the administration called an emergency request to lift an injunction issued and upheld by two lower federal courts and openly flouts Congress's constitutional control over federal spending.
      In their new book on the Kavanaugh confirmation, conservative journalist Mollie Hemingway and conservative activist Carrie Severino describe Kavanaugh's record on the D.C. Circuit appeals court as always faithful to "the text and original meaning of the Constitution." In fact, Kavanaugh's 300 opinions on the D.C. Circuit dealt mostly with the stuff of statutory interpretation and administrative rulemaking, not constitutional law.
      The dispute before the Court last week, however, was a pure question of constitutional law on provisions covered in the first week of Con Law I: Separation of Powers. Trump was claiming the authority to spend military appropriations on the non-military purpose of constructing the wall along the United States' southern border.
      The Constitution clearly gives Congress the power of the purse. "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of Appropriations made by law," according to Article I, section 9, clause 8. The president has no free-wheeling power to spend money unless Congress appropriates the money for the purpose at issue.
      This elementary separation-of-powers issue reached the Court in a case brought by the Sierra Club and a coalition of southern California communities. They sued Trump in federal district court in San Francisco, contending that the administration had no authority to redirect DOD funds to the border wall project.
      For legal standing, these plaintiffs claimed the border wall would harm the environment and interfere with their recreational interests. They argued that these claimed harms would satisfy the so-called "zone of interests" test often required to establish legal standing. But they also argued that a long line of precedents granted plaintiffs to challenge allegedly unauthorized governmental action without any need to satisfy that test.
      Those arguments satisfied Judge Haywood Gilliam, the Obama appointee designated to hear the Sierra Club case. He issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the transfer of funds on June 28; a few days later, a three-judge Ninth Circuit appellate panel rejected the government's request to stay Gilliam's injunction. The government headed straight to the Supreme Court, with its five-justice majority of Republican appointees, including the two named by Trump.
      The administration claimed authority to "reprogram" DOD funds to the border wall project under a section of the Defense Department appropriations act: specifically, section 8005 in the act. That section allows transfer of funds for "unforeseen" needs as long as the funds had not been "denied" by Congress. Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued implausibly in a written brief that the need for border wall funds was unforeseen and the funds for the wall had never been "denied" though vigorously debated in Congress and cut in half from the administration's request.
      Francisco went on to argue that the plaintiffs had no legal standing to enforce the limits on the president's discretion in reprogramming funds. But the administration had argued, in a separate case in federal district court in the District of Columbia, that the House of Representatives itself had no legal standing either. A Trump-appointed judge, Trevor McFadden, dismissed that suit in May on that ground.
      The Court's decision came in an unsigned, one-paragraph order issued late Friday afternoon granting the requested stay pending the government's appeal before the Ninth Circuit and later appeal to the Supreme Court itself. One of the "reasons" — no others were listed — was the government's "sufficient showing at this stage that the plaintiffs have no cause of action to obtain review of the Acting Secretary's compliance with section 8005." A weak reed, indeed, on an arguably inapplicable technicality.
      The four liberal justices voted to deny the stay. In an opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the administration had failed to show "irreparable harm," as ordinarily required to stay a lower court decision and short-circuit the appellate process. As a compromise, Breyer would have allowed the government to let contracts but not to begin actual construction.
      Trump issued a gloating tweet within the hour: "Wow! Big VICTORY on the wall!" From the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Court's ruling "undermines both the Constitution and the law." From all that appears, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are working from a different version.
      So too, Trump himself, as seen in his explanation of presidential powers to a group of young conservatives last week [July 25]. "Then I have an Article 2," he told the young people wrongly, "where I can do whatever I want as president." The Supreme Court, sadly, missed a good opportunity to correct the president's misstatement, but apparently this Court will pretty much let this president do whatever he wants.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

In Final Months, Justice Stevens Had Regrets

      Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens was fondly remembered after his death last week [July 16] as a judge's judge, a generous boss and mentor, and the very embodiment of courtly manners. The outpouring of tributes is an unpleasant reminder, however, of the Court's transformation in the final years of Stevens' long life from a safeguard for liberty and justice into an instrument of the Republican Party's legal and political agenda.
      Stevens aired his own regrets about that development in candid comments when NPR's Nina Totenberg asked him in May whether he thought the current Supreme Court had taken a radical turn to the right. "Yes," Stevens replied. "I really do. I think some of the decisions really are quite wrong and are quite contrary to the public interest."
      Stevens was President Gerald Ford's nominee for the Court based on the recommendation of Edward Levi, the former president of the University of Chicago who served as U.S. attorney general in Ford's accidental presidency. Ford had asked Levi to recommend a candidate who could win confirmation easily based on academic and legal credentials.
      Stevens' credentials were impeccable and, in contrast to most of the Republican nominees in the years since, completely apolitical. The Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Stevens in a 98-0 vote, within weeks after Ford nominated him. Today, Stevens would have been vetted by the Federalist Society and his name never put forward.
      Stevens arrived at the Court after five years on the federal appeals court in Chicago, his record well regarded and his judicial demeanor and temperament unquestioned. He was a registered Republican and Midwestern conservative with not the slightest hint of an ideological agenda as the successor to the outspoken liberal justice, William O. Douglas.
      In his recently published memoir The Making of a Justice, Stevens stresses the importance as a judge to "learn on the job." And he did. In his first term on the Court, he joined two other centrist justices, Byron White and Potter Stewart, in casting the pivotal votes to allow the resumption of capital punishment four years after the Court had outlawed the death penalty as arbitrary and discriminatory. The ruling in companion cases prohibited mandatory death penalty laws but allowed capital sentencing schemes that gave juries sufficient guidance to guard against arbitrariness.
      Thirty years later, Stevens confessed that the legal experiment he helped launch had failed. Dissenting in an early method-of-execution case, Baze v. Rees (2008), Stevens voted to find the death penalty unconstitutional based on what he described as "my own experience." Stevens said he had concluded that the death penalty amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment because it represented "the pointless and needless execution of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purpose."
      Stevens also changed his stance on another major issue during his tenure: affirmative action. He voted early in his tenure in Bakke v. Regents (1978) to bar a quota-like admissions system at the University of California-Davis medical school. A quarter-century later, however, Stevens cast a pivotal vote in the 5-4 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) to uphold a more narrowly tailored use of race in admissions at the University of Michigan law school.
      On and off the bench, Stevens was unfailingly polite, but he was sharply critical in any number of dissenting opinions. He famously complained in Bush v. Gore that the 5-4 decision to cut off the Florida recount prevented the country from ever being sure about who won the 2000 presidential election. A few years later, he dissented from Chief Justice John Roberts' decision in Parents Involved v. Seattle School District (2007) to limit school districts' ability to adopt pupil assignment policies to promote racial balance. In his dissent, he opined that none of the justices on the Court at the time of his appointment would have joined Roberts' opinion.
      Stevens retired from the Court in 2010 at age 90, one of nine justices to serve past that age; he marked his 99th birthday in April during the round of interviews for his memoir, nearly four years after he had become the longest lived justice ever. As noted in this space before, among several other long-serving justices Stevens stands out as having retired of his own accord when he sensed his stamina failing. Douglas was literally forced off the Court by his colleagues in 1975: so too with Stephen Field in 1897 and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1931.
      Despite his age, Totenberg found Stevens mentally sharp and physically fit. But he was openly discouraged about the Court's current course. The Court, he remarked, "seems to be more ideological than it has been since the 1930s." The mantra that the justices are judges, not politicians, is "harder and harder to believe," he lamented.
      With the term's most important decisions of the term yet to come, Stevens observed somewhat hopefully that Roberts "occasionally takes a different position from the other Republicans." Asked if there was one takeaway from his book, his third,  Stevens obliged. "The world is changing much faster than I anticipated," he answered. For better or worse, Totenberg asked. "For the worse, I think."

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Closing the Door to Establishment Clause Challenges

      The Supreme Court's eventual decision to leave a 40-foot Christian cross standing on government land as a memorial to U.S. soldiers killed in World War I was a foregone conclusion once the justices agreed to hear the case. Church-state separationists braced themselves for defeat with hopes that the Court would inflict as little damage as possible on the constitutional precedents limiting government support for religious displays and religious institutions.
      With the result fully anticipated, experts and advocates on both sides of the issue largely overlooked the damage that the ruling actually does to potential Establishment Clauses in the future. Taking language in the various opinions at the broadest sweep, the ruling in American Legion v. American Humanist Association [June 20] virtually closes federal courts to Establishment Clause cases by leaving potential plaintiffs with no grounds to object in the mine run of cases.
      Justice Samuel Alito's opinion in the case stops just short of formally overruling the much maligned decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) that set up a three-part test for judging government practices or policies alleged to amount to establishment of religion. In its place, Alito's opinion appears to prohibit only government practices that amount to coercion and gives a constitutional pass to longstanding government actions—as, for example, the 90-year history of the Peace Cross on a centrally located traffic island in suburban Bladensburg, Maryland.
      The Lemon test, adopted with only one justice dissenting, directed courts to determine whether a government practice had a secular purpose, whether a reasonable observer would see it as an endorsement of religion, and whether it resulted in government entanglement with religion. The test has been much maligned through the years, but seemingly only because the second prong actually put some teeth into what church-state separationists views as the religious neutrality promised by the Establishment Clause.
      Applying the Lemon test not at all strictly, the Bladensburg Peace Cross fails, just as the federal appeals court for Maryland ruled in the decision that the Supreme Court reversed. Anyone living in or visiting Bladensburg surely would view an immense cross standing on government property at a gateway to the city as an endorsement of the Christian faith. Try to imagine the monument standing on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and try to think of it as something other than a singular endorsement of Christianity among any other religious faiths.
      Alito cast the cross as a universal symbol for those lost in World War I, but he overlooked not only the Star of David tombstones for Jewish soldiers but also the actual history of the monument. The Christian pastors who spoke at the dedication in 1925 viewed it in exactly those terms, as symbolic of Jesus' sacrifice at Calvary, which they likened to the sacrifices that fallen soldiers made in defense of liberty worldwide.
      In a separate opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch drew an important corollary from what he called the Court's decision to scrap Lemon. Gorsuch found it wrong for the Court, in a string of prior decisions, to have allowed Establishment Clause plaintiffs standing based on what he called their status as "offended observers" under Lemon's second prong. "With Lemon now shelved," he wrote, "little excuse will remain for the anomaly of offended observer standing . .  ."
      The individual plaintiffs in the case—one Bladensburg resident and two members of the American Humanist Association or an affiliated group -- would have been knocked out of the case on Gorsuch's premise, perhaps the humanist association itself as well. The government entanglement with the Peace Cross was relatively minimal: a six-figure expenditure by the Maryland-National Capital Park Commission over the years to maintain the monument.
      An earlier Roberts Court decision would cut the legs off an Establishment Clause challenge based solely on the expenditure of government funds. It was Alito who wrote for the Court in a decision, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2007), that virtually eliminated taxpayer standing to object to government expenditures to promote or endorse religion generally or one faith over another. The 7-2 ruling in that case gave the Bush administration free rein to reprogram White House expenditures to a newly created Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives tasked with promoting faith-based groups nationwide.
      In the new decision, Alito found the Peace Cross unobjectionable based in large part on "its historical importance." As constitutional logic, this reasoning would have undercut any number of important Supreme Court decisions. Imagine if the Brown v. Board Court had given racial segregation a constitutional pass because of the long-standing acceptance of the practice. School-sponsored classroom prayer would also pass muster under what Justice Brett Kavanaugh characterized as Alito's "history and tradition" test unless a court viewed the government-supported conformity as coercive.
      Oddly, Alito revives the idea of the "offended observer" as an additional reason for leaving the Peace Cross undisturbed. Many people, he argued, would view "destroying or defacing the Cross" as "aggressively" hostile toward religion, not neutral. In many other settings, the Court has correctly disregarded the risk of public criticism in weighing its responsibility to enforce the Constitution against prevailing public sentiment.
      The muted reaction to the Court's decision included a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union calling it a "blow against the separation of church and state." But even the ACLU failed to remark on the new barriers the decision appears to erect to enforcing the Establishment Clause.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

On Census, Trump Eyes Executive Order Amidst Chaos

       President Trump threw a tantrum on Twitter after the Supreme Court's decision [June 27] that blocked the administration for now from including a citizenship question as part of the 2020 decennial census. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., hardly a critic of executive branch power, rejected in Department of Commerce v. New York what he called the "contrived" explanation that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave for including the question in the census form distributed to all U.S. households.
      The Census Bureau, along with Justice Department lawyers, responded to the decision a few days later [July 2] by instructing printers to start printing the questionnaire without the citizenship question. The government had told lower courts and the Supreme Court that the "absolute" deadline for starting the mammoth print job was June 30. Nevertheless, Trump falsely called the announcement "fake news" in a tweet and insisted the administration was still working on a way to include the citizenship question.
      Trump then gave his tweet substance by instructing the Justice Department to come up with some way to get the question in. Justice Department lawyers had to scramble their Fourth of July plans as they went before two federal judges, tails between their legs, to explain the new instructions from their client. By close of business Friday [July 5], the government's new rationale for the citizenship question had yet to emerge, but Trump had raised the possibility of circumventing the courts with an executive order to instruct the Commerce Department to put the question in after all.
      Ross's contrived explanation for the citizenship question, rejected by Roberts and the four liberal justices, rested on a letter from the Justice Department formally requesting a citizenship question supposedly to aid enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The letter came only after Ross personally asked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to get a letter that he could use to justify the question — a letter that Roberts later dismissed as "pretext."
      Ross was forced to contrive an explanation because there is no legally or statistically legitimate reason to include the citizenship question apart from the illegitimate political motive to discourage responses from people living in the United States who are not citizens or are uncertain of their citizenship status. The Constitution requires an "actual enumeration," not an incomplete count. Experts at the Bureau of the Census, part of the Commerce Department, countered Ross's insistence on adding the citizenship question with documented studies showing the question could result in a seven-figure undercount, primarily among Hispanics and non-citizens.
      The Census Bureau answered Ross's continued pressure by showing that a citizenship question would do more than depress the response rate. It would also produce "less complete and accurate" data, they warned: some non-citizen households might lie; others might be mistaken about their status. A better option, the statistical experts advised, would be to match census responses with administrative records already maintained by the government showing citizenship status.
      In a separate opinion written for the four liberals, Justice Stephen G. Breyer related all this information in concluding that Ross's decision was "arbitrary and capricious," administrative law jargon for no good. Roberts would not go that far. Instead, he stopped just short of calling Ross a liar by stating that the secretary's explanation was "incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency's priorities and decisionmaking process."
      Trump further contradicted the administrative record on Friday [July 5] with a new explanation for the citizenship question. "You need it for Congress for districting,” he told reporters in an on-the-run question-and-answer session. “You need it for appropriations — where are the funds going? How many people are there?" That answer in effect validated the allegations by plaintiffs in the two cases that the citizenship question was aimed at reducing the population count in areas with substantial Hispanic communities, all for the purpose of reducing representation in Congress and cutting federal funds to some extent.
      The Supreme Court's decision came in the government's appeal of a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman in a case initiated by immigrant rights groups and joined by New York and other states. A federal judge in Maryland, Judge George Hazel, had similarly ruled against the citizenship question. Hazel added to the government's legal problems on Friday by deciding to expand the case before him into a racial discrimination case. Furman and Hazel had both rested their rulings on administrative law grounds without finding that the administration was intentionally seeking to reduce the population count of minority groups.
      In New York, Furman issued an order noting that the government had acknowledged that his injunction "remains in place" and that it had promised to notify the court before taking any steps to insert the citizenship question. With that said, Furman found no need for a status conference in the case pending further information on the proceedings before Judge Hazel. In Maryland, plaintiffs' attorneys were urging Hazel to issue an extraordinary order prohibiting the administration from saying anything to suggest that the census would include a citizenship question.
      The chaotic maneuverings were aptly described by election law expert Rick Hasen as "amateur hour," but some cynical observers saw a method to the administration's madness. With enough confusion, the response rate among Hispanic communities might be depressed even without the citizenship question. And the question remained whether the administration could get the case back before the Supreme Court and persuade Roberts in the end to go along after all.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Republican Justices Boost GOP on Gerrymandering

      The Supreme Court's stunning decision to bar federal courts from hearing suits that challenge political gerrymandering whether practiced by Republicans or by Democrats has the misleading appearance of political evenhandedness. In a legal coup executed by five Republican-appointed justices, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. slammed the federal courthouse door shut last week [June 27] to voters of any political stripe who object to having their votes count for nothing through the political skullduggery of partisan redistricting.
      Roberts took pains in announcing the Court's decision in Rucho v. Common Cause to make clear that the 5-4 majority was turning aside not only Democrats' challenge to a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina but also a challenge by Republicans to a Democratic gerrymander in blue state Maryland.
      History refutes any implication of political evenhandedness on the part of the Republican justices. Through three-and-a-half decades of political gerrymandering cases, all of the cases to reach the Court except Maryland's Lamone v. Benisek have been challenges to Republican-drawn district maps. In each of those cases, Republican mapmakers were credibly shown to have drawn congressional or legislative districts primarily for the purpose of helping elect Republicans at Democratic voters' expense: Indiana in Davis v. Bandemer (1985); Pennsylvania in Vieth v. Jubiler (2004); Texas in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (2006); and Wisconsin in Gill v. Whitford (2018).
      Current political conditions reinforce the point that Republicans will benefit from federal courts being ordered to stay out of political gerrymandering cases. At present, Republicans control legislatures and gubernatorial offices in 20 states, while Democrats lag behind with unified control in only 12 states. More to the point, Republicans have been more aggressive in drawing district lines for political advantage in red states than Democrats have been in blue states.
      Indeed, Democrats and liberal advocacy groups have provided much of the political muscle behind the efforts that Roberts commends in his decision to create bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to draw district lines. Thus, as political journalist David Freedlander remarked on Twitter, the likely effect of the ruling is for Republicans in red states to respond by "gerrymandering Democrats to a fare-thee-well"  and for Democrats in blue states to respond "by setting up a nonpartisan redistricting commission."
      Even in the two instant cases, North Carolina Republicans were guilty of a more serious offense than the Maryland Democrats. Partisan motivations were not disputed in either case. Maryland's Democratic governor Martin O'Malley acknowledged the new congressional map was designed to eliminate one of the state's two Republican House members. In North Carolina, state Rep. David Lewis, one of the chief legislative mapmakers, stated that his map was designed to preserve the Republicans' existing 10-3 edge in U.S. House seats.
      Lewis made no secret of his motivation. "I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats," he said. He offered the 10-3 map, he explained, only because he found it impossible to draw a map that would reliably elect 11 Republicans in a state closely divided between Republicans and Democrats.
      Roberts' answer to such political chicanery is to throw up the Court's hands and leave voter lambs to the mercies of political wolves. Reviewing the cases, Roberts wrongly concludes that history is destiny: the Court's failure in four cases to settle on a judicially manageable standard for gerrymandering cases proves, he says, that there is none.
      Writing for the Court's four Democratic appointees, Justice Elena Kagan followed Roberts' hand-down with an extraordinary fifteen-minute dissent, her voice cracking at times with emotion and as she said at the end "deep" sadness. She opened with a dramatic flair. "For the first time ever," she said, quoting her opening passage, "this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities." She answered Roberts by noting that lower federal courts have managed to rule on gerrymandering cases even if the Court's conservatives think they cannot.
      To be sure, it is not the first time that the Court has left a constitutional violation unremedied in the area of reapportionment and redistricting. To its lasting discredit, the Court in 1946 rejected a federal court suit by voters in Illinois seeking to force the state legislature to reapportion congressional districts as required by federal law to have equal populations. Justice Felix Frankfurter provided the pivotal vote in the 4-3 decision in Colegrove v. Green by urging his colleagues to stay out of what he called a "political thicket."
      Frankfurter is remembered today, unfavorably for the most part, as hard to get along with and indifferent to violations of constitutional rights. He remained on the Court long enough to see Colegrove overturned by a 6-2 decision in the seminal reapportionment case, Baker v. Carr (1962).  Chief Justice Earl Warren is today far better remembered and more honored than Frankfurter for leading the Court into remaking the political landscape by entrenching a seemingly obvious democratic principle: one person, one vote.
      After retiring, Warren claimed the Baker v. Carr line of decisions as the most important accomplishment of his 17 years as chief justice. Roberts, at age 65 and perhaps less than halfway through what could be a 30-year tenure, already ponders his legacy. This decision will be part of a legacy that mocks Roberts' insistence that the Court has no Republican justices nor Democratic justices and that, equally, mocks the promise carved in marble above the entrance to the Supreme Court building: "Equal Justice Under Law." 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Thomas Declares War Against Stare Decisis

       Clarence Thomas has been taking pot shots at Supreme Court precedents ever since he joined the Court 28 years ago, but now has declared war against the legal doctrine known as stare decisis that calls for following precedents except in special circumstances.
       Thomas took the gloves off in a separate 17-page opinion last week [June 17] as he joined the Court in declining to overturn the so-called dual sovereignty doctrine, which permits a state and the federal government to prosecute a defendant for the same criminal episode without violating the Double Jeopardy Clause.  The 7-2 decision in Gamble v. United States proved to be a disappointment to the various critics of the dual sovereignty doctrine, including criminal defense lawyers and civil liberties groups on both sides of the political aisle.
       Thomas himself had previously been one of those critics, but he opened his concurring opinion by disavowing his past view. "I agree," Thomas wrote in a newfound realization, "that the historical record does not bear out my initial skepticism of the dual-sovereignty doctrine."
       Some other judge with a less exalted view of his own wisdom might take this episode as a lesson in judicial modesty, but not Thomas. Instead, he proceeded to reject a well established doctrine endorsed by all of the other justices, including the two newest justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, in their recent Senate confirmations.
       In Thomas's view, the Supreme Court is constitutionally bound to give a precedent no weight whatsoever if the prior decision is, in his 20-20 hindsight, "demonstrably erroneous." Among those erroneous decisions, in Thomas's view, are such landmarks as the abortion rights decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) and the more recent marriage equality decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).
       Thomas himself pledged allegiance to stare decisis in his Senate confirmation hearing back in 1991. He told the Democratic-majority Senate Judiciary Committee that he had no agenda to overrule precedent if confirmed. That promise was enough to help persuade 11 Democrats to join in the 52-48 vote to confirm Thomas despite the widespread assumption that he would vote to overrule Roe v. Wade at his first opportunity if confirmed.
       In fact, Thomas argued for overturning a prisoner rights' precedent in a case argued in his full month on the Supreme Court. Later in the 1991 term, he joined with three other so-called conservatives in the dissenting opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that forthrightly called for nullifying constitutional protection for reproductive rights nationwide.
       The author of that dissenting opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, is often quoted for his observation that stare decisis is "not an inexorable command." Rehnquist made that remark as the author of the 6-3 decision in Payne v. Tennessee (1991) that overturned nearly brand-new precedents to allow victim impact statements in death penalty cases. Two new justices, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter, provided the pivotal votes for scrapping the prior decisions.
       The adherents to stare decisis agree on one proposition at least: a prior decision should not be overturned merely because of a change in personnel at the Supreme Court. Instead, as set out by Justice Antonin Scalia for a 5-4 majority in Montejo v. Louisiana (2009), the Court should consider overruling a prior decision based on "the workability" of the prior standard, "the antiquity of the precedent, the reliance interests stake, and of course whether the decision was well reasoned."
       Scalia once remarked that, in contrast to his own view, Thomas did not really believe in stare decisis. In this new opinion, Thomas drops all pretenses and issues what amounts to a call to arms for conservative activists to take aim at prior decisions willy-nilly
       In his confirmation hearing in 2005, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. famously remarked that overturning prior decisions amounts to a "jolt to the system." In Payne, Rehnquist touted stare decisis as promoting stability, predictability, and respect for the law.
       Thomas begs to differ. "[T]he Court's stare decisis doctrine," Thomas writes now, has the effect of "giving the veneer of respectability to our continued application of demonstrably incorrect precedents." The multi-factor "special circumstances" test, Thomas argues, "invites arbitrariness into judging."
       The current, universally acknowledged approach to stare decisis might have made sense, Thomas now argues, in a common law system that relied primarily on judges to develop the law. "Our federal system is different," Thomas explains, because the Constitution limits the Court's role to "faithfully interpreting laws enacted by [the political] branches." Thomas goes even further by quoting the revered English jurist Blackstone as himself calling to disregard precedents if "flatly absurd or unjust."
       The precedents that Thomas has found unworthy in the past include roughly three dozen that legal commentator Jason Rylander listed in a compilation in 2004. The list would be longer today. Three days after his Gamble concurrence, Thomas went so far as to call explicitly for overruling the 33-year-old precedent in Batson v. Kentucky (1986) that prohibits prosecutors from racial discrimination in jury selection. Thomas's call came in a dissenting opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi [June 21] that Justice Neil Gorsuch joined except for the attack on the prior ruling.
       Thomas's disquisition on stare decisis, if published as a law journal article, would have attracted some attention of course. As an opinion in U.S. Reports, however, the impact may be greater by encouraging various conservative advocacy groups to further politicize federal courts and the Supreme Court itself to the long-term detriment of law and justice in the United States.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

For Criminal Justice Reform, Go Local

      Voters in two suburban counties outside Washington, D.C., joined the growing criminal justice reform movement last week [June 11] by ousting two longtime prosecutors in favor of candidates who promised if elected to make fundamental changes in prosecutorial policies. Subject to Virginia's off-year general elections in November, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano will join the growing number of criminal justice reformers elected around the nation as local prosecutors, notably in such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Orlando, Fla.
      Dehghani-Tafti, a former public defender who had worked on exoneration cases for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, won 52 percent of the vote in defeating two-term incumbent Theo Stamos for the Democratic nomination for commonwealth attorney in the close-in suburban jurisdiction of Arlington County. Steve Descano, a former federal prosecutor, won 51 percent of the vote to oust three-term incumbent Ray Morrogh in the well-to-do outer suburban jurisdiction of Fairfax County.
      Campaigning in Democratic strongholds, neither Stamos nor Morrogh presented themselves as old-style, law-and-order prosecutors. Stamos took credit for reducing the incarceration rate in Arlington County, while Morrogh campaigned under the slogan: "Effective. Fair. Progressive." Still, the Washington Post's story viewed the results as bellwethers: "Voters endorse new mandate on criminal justice," the headline read.
      Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the Los Angeles-based advocacy group Fair and Just Prosecution, estimates that more than three dozen reform-minded prosecutors have been elected in recent years. In comments to the Post, Krinsky described the election results as evidence of "a growing new normal in the world of prosecutions." More and more communities and more and more voters are "tired about the old thinking in the criminal justice system," Krinsky explained.
      Andrew Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who also edits the daily report on criminal justice for the Marshall Project, similarly sees a trend in favor of reformers in local prosecutor races. "Clearly, a big part of the criminal justice reform movement over the past five years has been directed at these races as people realize how powerful local prosecutors have become at the local and state levels," Cohen says.
       Cohen cautions, however, that elections cannot guarantee thoroughgoing reform of themselves. Several of the high-profile reform-minded prosecutors, such as Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kimberly Foxx in Chicago, and Aramis Ayala in Orlando, encountered opposition as they sought in office to turn away from punitive, sentence-maximizing prosecution policies.
       Ayala, who is African American, declared her opposition to the death penalty upon taking office in 2017 after ousting the incumbent state's attorney in Florida's fifth most populous county the previous year. Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, responded by reassigning capital cases from Ayala's office to another state prosecutor — a move that the Florida Supreme Court upheld on a 5-2 vote. Politically battered, Ayala announced late last month [May 28] that she will not seek re-election in 2020.
       Krasner, a former federal public defender and longtime criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, won election as district attorney in Philadelphia in 2017 in a campaign that drew opposition from the city's police union. In office, Krasner stopped prosecuting marijuana possession cases and instructed prosecutors to stop seeking cash bail for defendants arrested for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. Some judges overruled some sentence recommendations as too lenient and resisted Krasner's initiative to shorten probation sentences.
       Kimberly Foxx, who is African American, won election as Cook County state's attorney in 2016 after having helped craft a criminal justice reform agenda as chief of staff to the Cook County Board president. In office, she has promoted bail reform by instructing prosecutors to agree to release on recognizance where appropriate and has raised the threshold for prosecuting theft offenses as felonies. The local police union has criticized Foxx's policies as soft on crime.
      With more than 2,400 local and state prosecutors nationwide, the three dozen or so reformers elected in recent years according to Krinsky are far outnumbered when district attorneys gather for conventions and training sessions. But Krinsky's group is promoting a comprehensive reform agenda under the title "21 Principles for 21st Century Prosecutors" that calls for, among other changes, de-escalating charging policies, making plea bargaining more transparent, and reducing use of cash bail.
      Krinsky acknowledges that the agenda "hasn't taken hold everywhere," but she believes that a "new paradigm" is beginning to form. "We are seeing candidates commit to the principles and commit to implementing them in office," she says.
      Listed twelfth among the 21 principle is an exhortation to "address racial disparity," which the report says "exists at every stage of the justice system." The audience for that recommendation is overwhelmingly white, according to a recent study. Among 2,437 elected local and state prosecutors in office in 2014, fewer than 5 percent were African American, according to the study.
       African Americans are also underrepresented among federal prosecutors, according to my review of the current officeholders. Among 93 U.S. attorneys nationwide, Louis Franklin, U.S. attorney for the middle district of Alabama, appears to be the only African American; my count found four Asian Americans and three Hispanics, all the others white.
       Congress and President Trump are also on board the criminal justice reform movement, at least to some extent. Trump was taking unwarranted credit last week [June 13] for the First Step Act, the federal sentence-reducing law he signed in December 2018 after it moved through Congress with bipartisan support. Among other provisions, the law retroactively reduced crack-related sentences for 1,150 offenders: a significant even if modest step toward moving away from "Incarceration Nation."

Sunday, June 9, 2019

On Supreme Court Reform, No Consensus

      Credit law professors Daniel Epps and Ganesh Sitaraman with thinking outside the box to try to save the Supreme Court from the historically unprecedented degree of politicization of the past several decades. But their offsetting proposals to depoliticize the Court are respectively needlessly complex or mind-bendingly unsettling in comparison to a potentially workable solution already adopted in many states.
      Epps, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and Sitaraman, a professor at Vanderbilt University in my former home town of Nashville, Tenn., have gained wide attention by detailing their two proposals in an article for the Yale Law Journal now being circulated on-line in draft form. Epps and Sitaraman go way beyond the other pending reform proposals, such as adding justices to restore balance on the Court and enacting term politics to de-politicize confirmations. Instead, they open their article with a blunt demand for "a complete rethinking of how the Court works and how the Justices are chosen."
      The two professors call their proposals, respectively, the Balanced Court and the Lottery Solution. The first of the proposals borrows the requirement for political balance in appointments to federal regulatory agencies: the Supreme Court, under this proposal, would consist of 10 justices, five from each of the two major political parties, who would then select by unanimous or supermajority vote five more from the pool of federal appellate judges to sit with them two years later for a period of one year.
      The Lottery Solution would go one step further by creating the "one Supreme Court" as specified in the Constitution by randomly selecting nine justices from the pool of federal appellate judges to sit for two-week periods. For good measure, the professors pair this proposal with the oft-discussed idea of a supermajority requirement to overturn a federal statute  not by a 6-3 vote as generally proposed in the past but by an even stronger 7-2 vote.
      These proposals were among others discussed in an opening plenary session when legal progressives gathered in Washington last week [May 7] for the annual convention of the American Constitution Society (ACS). Attendees were greeted outside the Capital Hilton by earnest ACS members handing out cards with the printed message: "It's Time to Unite Around Supreme Court Reform." The card listed the three narrower reforms: expanding the Court, enacting term limits, and adopting a code of ethics for the justices.
      Before considering the various proposals, it is necessary to explain how what is widely described as the Supreme Court's crisis of legitimacy has come to pass. Epps and Sitaraman list several factors, but the most important and chronologically the first is the overt politicization of the Court by a succession of Republican presidents and over time the Republican Party writ large.
      For the last half century, five Republican presidents — all except Gerald Ford  have used Supreme Court appointments deliberately to politicize the Court, unsettle precedent, and pursue a partisan conservative agenda. Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have not responded in kind.
      To be sure, the four Democratic-appointed justices  Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan — can all be described as liberals or progressives. But all of them with the possible exception of Sotomayor commanded wide support in legal and judicial circles before their appointments as consensus seekers rather than doctrinaire ideologues.
      Ginsburg and Breyer won Senate confirmation with 96 and 87 votes respectively, Sotomayor and Kagan each with more than 60. Compare that to the under-60 vote confirmations of Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. In a fair process, President Obama's blocked nominee Merrick Garland would likely have won confirmation  thus, McConnell's decision to deny him any hearing whatsoever.
      Indeed, Supreme Court watchers who do the numbers have shown that none of the four current Democratic justices is as "liberal" as the most "conservative" of the Republican appointees: notably, Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, and now Alito. The two Trump appointees, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, can be expected to be equally conservative after being blessed as Supreme Court nominees by the ultraconservative Federalist Society.
      Epps and Sitaraman define the current crisis as "the rise of a Court polarized on party lines." They cite as additional factors the deeply divided political environment and the rise of competing schools of legal thought  think, originalists versus living constitutionalists  with opposing views corresponding to the two major political parties. The combination of these factors, in effect, lead Epps and Sitaraman to despair of any possible reforms other than a complete transformation of the Court as we know it.
      Thus, they give no consideration to the kind of nonpartisan merit selection systems adopted in a number of states, including my home state of Tennessee. At the federal level, one reform  outlined here for the first time as far as I know  could be the creation of a nine-member Supreme Court nominating commission, with two members each appointed by the party leaders in the House and the Senate and perhaps a ninth by the president.
      The president, under this plan of mine, could nominate as justice only a candidate deemed qualified by a two-thirds supermajority of the commission on the basis of professional qualifications, judicial temperament, and legal views. Epps and Sitaraman, I suppose, would view this idea as ineffective in reducing the now hard-wired politicization of the Supreme Court confirmation process.
      The ACS panel produced no consensus around any of the reform proposals. Epps and Sitaraman reject expanding the Court as inviting a tit-for-tat response in the future; they reject term limits as more likely to increase rather than reduce the politicization of the confirmation process. The lack of consensus on the legal left likely dooms any of the reforms, especially if Republicans think they will continue to have the upper hand in these debates. Thus, the message for Democrats and legal progressives is simple and direct: Elections have consequences; the path to Supreme Court reform begins and ends at the ballot box.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

At Harvard, Defending Truth in Age of Trump

      Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany and leader of the Free World since President Donald Trump abdicated that role, came to Harvard University last week [May 30] to accept an honorary degree and to plead with Americans to rededicate ourselves to among other principles "the maxim of truth."
      Harvard's founders adopted truth — in Latin, Veritas — as the school's motto in 1640, four years after Pilgrim settlers founded the college in a former cow yard in a sylvan wilderness. The Harvard shield, with the letters of veritas superimposed on three opened books, adorns interior and exterior walls throughout the campus in what is now the 21st century metropolis of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
      Truth was on the minds of several of the speakers during Harvard's week-long "festival rites," to borrow the phrasing from Fair Harvard. Trump, a member of Harvard's extended family through his government major son-in-law, Jared Kushner, A.B. 2003, was not in Cambridge, but he was the unnamed target of thinly veiled swipes from Merkel and several other speakers for his ongoing war against truth.
      Merkel, in her 14th year as chancellor but politically battered by immigration politics, embraced global multilateralism in a 35-minute speech that would have been welcomed by any of the previous post-World War II American presidents but not by the "America First" Trump. "More than ever, our way of thinking and our actions have to be multilateral rather than unilateral, global rather than national, outward-looking rather than isolationist," Merkel declared. "In short, we have to work together, rather than alone.”
      Seventy years earlier, in a very different country from today's United States, the American secretary of state George Marshall had spoken from the same spot on Harvard's campus to propose what became the Marshall Plan: the $13 billion rebuilding of war-torn Europe by a prosperous and victorious United States. Merkel listed the benefits of what she called "a transatlantic partnership based on values such as democracy and human rights," specifically "an era of peace and prosperity, of benefit to all sides, which has lasted for more than 70 years now."
      Merkel received standing ovations at several points in her speech, perhaps the longest when she called on her audience "not to describe lies as truth and truth as lies." Calling on the audience to "be honest with ourselves," the former research chemist declared, "What better place to begin than here in this place, where so many young people from all over the world come to learn, to research, and to discuss the issues of our time under the maxim of ‘truth.'”
      Two days earlier, former vice president Al Gore had the importance of truth on his mind too as he delivered a 28-minute speech to graduating seniors and their families on Class Day [May 28]. Gore, participating in his 50th class reunion along with me and 500 other class of '69 classmates, used part of the speech to preach the importance of addressing what he labeled the "existential crisis" posed by climate change caused by dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as though it is an open sewer.
      Without mentioning Trump by name, Gore also turned to domestic politics and what he saw as the threat to democracy in the age of Trump. "Veritas— truth — is not only Harvard’s motto," Gore declared, "but it is also democracy’s shield. And the right to pursue truth is the most fundamental right of them all, and that right is now at risk."
      "And as a result," Gore went on, "freedom itself is at risk, more so now than it was 50 years ago. The system of checks and balances that has protected the integrity of our American system for more than two centuries has already been dangerously eroded.”
      Truth was also on the mind of another classmate, Robert Post, professor and former dean of a certain unnamed law school in southern Connecticut, as he reflected in a speech to former classmates on the unrest and rebellion that marks the class of '69 in history and Harvard lore. That rebellion, Post recalled, was "infused with a constructive appreciation of the authority of disciplined thought and expertise." But today, he went on, contemporary populism in the United States and elsewhere comes with "profound disdain for the authority of knowledge."
      "Apparently the infinite gush of information now cheaply and easily available on the internet has made every person an authority on every possible subject," Post said. "The upshot is that truth is no longer the product of patient inquiry and disciplinary craft. It is instead merely the opinion produced in the echo-chambers of like-minded partisans."
      Post acknowledged the reasons for the growing distrust of elite centers of knowledge such as Harvard: for example, the growing economic inequality in the United States and the loss of upward economic mobility. The distrust, he went on, can be seen in "the refusal to credit scientific judgment" in matters such as climate change and vaccinations and in the "utter disrespect of economic theories in controversies like Brexit" — or, he might have mentioned, Trump's trade wars.
      Truth, it has often been said, is "the first casualty in war." And thus it is in the uncivil war between red state Trump supporters and blue state opponents. But this son of Harvard left the campus with renewed hope for what Fair Harvard describes in closing as, "Calm rising through change and through storm."

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Trump Loses Two Rounds in Subpoena Fights

      President Trump has no legal basis whatsoever for opposing the enforcement of subpoenas by congressional committees seeking information from his accountants and two of his banks about his business dealings. That much is clear from the two rulings issued this week [May 20, May 22] by federal judges flatly rejecting the arguments from Trump's lawyers alleging a congressional overreach into the personal affairs of private citizen Donald J. Trump.
      Despite an untenable legal position, Trump is using his accustomed tactics of delay, evasion, and obfuscation to try to confuse the public about the stakes in the dispute. More tellingly, he also is clearly trying to run out the clock on the congressional efforts to learn more from his business records about possible wrongdoing before his presidential campaign and potential conflicts of interest with his presidential duties.
      Trump's strategy may succeed, thanks in part to the time required for the promised appeals in the two cases. In addition, Trump surely believes that the Republican-majority Supreme Court will rescue him with temporary stays even if, as widely expected, he loses the two appeals. Court watchers are already speculating that the five Republican-appointed justices, all of them schooled in executive branch positions and invested more in presidential than in congressional power, are quite likely to side with Trump in any showdown with Congress.
      In the first of the two rulings, Judge Amit Mehta, a federal district court judge for the District of Columbia, issued a 41-page opinion rejecting Trump's request to block the accounting firm Mazars USA from complying with the House Oversight Committee's subpoena for Trump's business records. With a Democratic majority for the first time in Trump's presidency, the committee issued the subpoena after hearing testimony from Trump's former lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen that Trump "routinely" altered the valuation of his assets to better suit his financial purposes: inflating the supposed value in loan applications and deflating the stated value in tax filings.
      Two days later, U.S. District Court Judge Edgardo Ramos in Manhattan similarly upheld the enforcement of subpoenas issued by two House committees, Financial Services and Intelligence, for financial records from two of Trump's banks, Deutsche Bank and Capital One. The committee's stated purposes were to investigate "possible foreign influence" in the U.S. political process and possible money laundering abroad. 
      Ramos and Mehta, appointed by President Obama respectively in 2011 and 2014 and both Senate-confirmed by voice vote, made mincemeat of the arguments from Trump's lawyers that Congress was out of bounds in demanding Trump's business records. In his written opinion, Mehta acknowledged the Supreme Court's 19th century decision in Kilbourn v. Thompson (1880) that found a congressional investigation had ventured into judicial territory by examining the operations of a real estate partnership in the District of Columbia. 
      Mehta stressed, however, that the subsequent Supreme Court decision stemming from a congressional investigation into the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s took a broader view of congressional power. The Court in that case, McGrain v. Daugherty (1927), reversed a lower court decision that questioned the investigation by holding, instead, that an investigation is legitimate if "the subject . . . was one on which legislation could be had."
      The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have taken that approach ever since, Mehta noted. "[N]ot once has a court found a congressional investigation unconstitutional because directed at the personal affairs of a private citizen," he wrote. He dismissed the pleas from Trump's lawyers that the Oversight Committee's investigation was politically motivated and not plainly directed at some legislative purpose. 
      The court's role, Mehta explained, was not to question political motives or possible legislation. He noted, as a telling example, that the congressional investigations into the Watergate scandals yielded a laundry list of major enactments:  the Ethics in Government Act, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, the War Powers Resolution, and the Independent Counsel Statute. He also specifically found that two of the issues listed by the Oversight Committee — Trump's possible violation of the Emoluments Clause and possibly false disclosures to the Office of Government Ethics —were indeed "subjects on which legislation could be had." 
      Ramos, delivering his ruling from the bench, also made short shrift of Trump's arguments by declaring the two committees' subpoenas "likely lawful" because of "a legitimate legislative purpose." He added: "Put simply, the power of Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process."
      By week's end, supposed constitutional experts from the political and legal right were delivering talking points that insisted Congress had no general powers of investigation. On that score, they disagreed with the Framers themselves, who referred to Congress as "the grand inquest of the nation." The Framers borrowed that phrasing from William Pitt the Elder, who coined it in the English House of Commons as he launched an investigation into Robert Walpole's ministry.
      Anthony Lewis, the New York Times's celebrated legal affairs columnist, recalled that history in a column written in 1974 as President Richard Nixon was invoking executive privilege to resist congressional investigations. Nixon's stonewalling ended badly for him. As a legal matter, Trump's arguments fare no better even as he — of the hush-money payments to his former paramours — declares, "I don't do cover-ups." This cover-up may hold long enough to spare him political damage, but one way or another Trump appears likely to have to answer to Congress and to the courts.