Category Archives: Constitution

Abortion, Free Speech And Crime

It turns out there really is no such thing as a “single issue.” Life and reality are complicated. And inter-related.

Leave aside, for purposes of today’s discussion, the inconvenient historical research confirming that the real impetus of the “pro-life” movement was the desire to protect segregation, not fetuses. Leave aside also the breathtaking hypocrisy of people who obsess over those “unborn babies” but are entirely unconcerned about toddlers in cages at the border, the children drinking unsafe water in Flint and elsewhere, the children without enough to eat….Etc.

Let’s just talk about those dots we Americans don’t like to connect.

Let’s begin with free speech. Almost everyone claims to be a staunch believer in free speech–until, of course, someone is saying something with which they disagree, or even worse, fails to say something we want them to say. In North Dakota, lawmakers have passed a law to “protect the unborn” by requiring doctors to lie to their patients.

That was a bridge too far even for the famously timid and nonpolitical American Medical Association.

One of America’s leading medical organizations has filed a lawsuit to block a North Dakota abortion law requiring doctors to tell women that a medication-induced abortion can be “reversed,” an assertion medical experts say is scientifically unsound.

The American Medical Association has joined the Red River Women’s Clinic, the last abortion facility in the state, and its medical director, Kathryn Eggleston, to argue that the law violates doctors’ constitutional right to free speech by forcing them to lie to patients. The plaintiffs also contest an existing provisionin North Dakota law that requires a doctor to tell a woman that the abortion will “terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being,” a statement they argue is ideologically biased and “forces physicians to act as the mouthpiece of the state.”

It’s the second time this year the AMA has sued over an abortion-related issue. In March, the organization filed a lawsuit in Oregon over a provision in the Trump administration’s new rules for the federal family planning program–rules that would, among other things, ban doctors and other health professionals from referring pregnant patients for abortions.

I can’t help wondering why we haven’t heard from all those opponents of national health care who are terrified of government control over their medical providers.

It isn’t just that efforts to deny women personal autonomy require intrusions–infringements–of other constitutional liberties. There are equally inconvenient sociological “dots” to connect as well.

Crime rates in the U.S. have fallen by about halfsince the early 1990s. A new working paperfrom the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that legalized abortion following the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 accounts for 45% of the decline in crime rates over the past three decades.

The paper’s authors, Stanford University economist John Donohueand University of Chicago economist Steve Levitt, take new data and run nearly the same model they used in their influential — and controversial — 2001 analysispublished in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, where they first suggested an association between abortion and crime.

In the 2001 paper, they found that legalized abortion appeared to account for up to half of the drop in rates of violent crime and property crime to that point. They also predicted crime would fall an additional 20% over the next two decades. Levitt featured the research in the 2005 bestseller Freakonomics. The new paper also looks at violent crime and property crime.

When you think about it–assuming you do think about it– it makes sense. As the authors put it, “unwanted children are at an elevated risk for less favorable life outcomes on multiple dimensions, including criminal involvement, and the legalization of abortion appears to have dramatically reduced the number of unwanted births.”

The authors examine crime in states that legalized abortion before Roe; crime in states with high and low abortion rates after Roe; differences in crime patterns in states among people born before and after Roe; and differences in arrest rates within states among people born before and after Roe.

If we really wanted to reduce the number of abortions, we would create a society that supported women and nurtured children–a society in which birth control was easily obtainable and babies were not additional, resented burdens to impoverished mothers.

But that might require connecting some dots……

 

Turnout, Vote-By-Mail And Gerrymandering

The Supreme Court, in an indefensible 5/4 ruling, has declined to stop political parties from engaging in extreme gerrymandering. (Thankfully, allowing the Trump Administration to add a citizenship question to the census was evidently a bridge too far….)

Readers of this blog have read my previous analyses of partisan redistricting, and I won’t repeat them here. I will simply link to the opinion, including Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent, with which I entirely agree.

That said, here we are. The Court has narrowly declined to enforce “one person, one vote,” and the remedy for that shameful refusal must come from voters. That means that the 2020 election becomes even more important than it already was–impossible as that may seem.

As I have noted before, in order to overcome a gerrymander, the “minority party” in a district that has been drawn to be safe for the majority party needs massive turnout. That’s hard, but it can be done. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats in numerous districts turned out in sufficient numbers  to overcome the considerable advantages built in by the GOP.

Although it may be the most effective, gerrymandering is only one of the voter suppression tactics employed by Republicans who recognize that they are increasingly a minority party. If the Court will not provide a tool for challenging partisan redistricting, Democrats–together with independents and any remaining rational Republicans–must engage in grass roots efforts that encourage, rather than suppress, turnout.

One of the most effective of those efforts is conducting the vote by mail, as this recent article documents.

“The ballot belongs to the voter, not the government,” said Phil Keisling, the former secretary of state of Oregon. “As long as it can be done with safety and integrity, it’s the obligation of the government to get it to me. It’s not my responsibility to qualify for it and get it.”

Many states are taking that goal seriously, and to meet it, they are taking steps to abolish the traditional polling booth….

In Washington, Oregon and Colorado — and any minute now, Hawaii, where the governor is about to sign a new law — there are no longer traditional polling places. (California is also rolling this out county by county; by the 2020 election, half of voters will get a ballot at home.) The states mail ballots in bar-coded envelopes to every registered voter several weeks before the election. It’s automatic; the voter doesn’t need to request it.

Those states are blue or purple, but home voting is also growing in red states. Voters in 28 of Utah’s 29 counties automatically get ballots at home. Nebraska and North Dakota also use it, to varying degrees. And nearly half of states allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by home voting. It allows voters to mark their ballots at their leisure and either mail it back or drop it in a ballot drop box. (Most use a drop box, which is why it’s not entirely accurate to call it vote-by-mail.) Some states allow voters to track the progress of their ballots electronically.

Not surprisingly, home-voting states have high turnout, and there is some evidence that when political subdivisions shift to voting by mail, turnout increases.

Between the midterm elections in 2014 and 2018, Utah rolled out home voting and had the greatest rise in turnout of any state. The five California counties that switched to home voting in 2018 increased their turnout more than the rest of the state.

Obviously, there is not time between now and November of 2020 to institute vote-by-mail or the myriad other changes that would increase turnout by making voting more convenient–making Election Day a holiday, instituting same-day registration, etc. The challenge for those of us who are appalled by the mounting efforts to deny citizens a genuine voice in governance (efforts that have included packing the courts with rightwing ideologues) is obvious: we must devote massive time and effort to getting out the vote in 2020.

We need a citizen tsunami sufficient to overcome the blatantly rigged districts the Supreme Court has declined to rule unconstitutional.

Huge turnout would likely allow Democrats to eject not just the corrupt and unfit Trump Administration, but also wrest control of the Senate from McConnell, and clean out the GOP’s state and local enablers. Americans can then focus grassroots efforts on electing politicians who will commit to drawing fair districts.

If that tsunami is big enough, it might even allow old-fashioned Republicans appalled and dispirited by what the GOP has become to retake their party.

If that doesn’t happen…history will record Mitch McConnell’s capture of the Supreme Court  and the GOP’s unhindered voter suppression as a successful coup d’etat.

“No Brainer” Trump…

Several media outlets have reported on Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of a measure to outlaw flag burning. Congresscritters repeatedly introduce these bills, despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled years ago that flag burning is protected under the First Amendment.

Ed Brayton commented on Trump’s history with the issue.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump said that anyone who burns an American flag — you know, all four of them in the entire country over the last few decades– should be stripped of their citizenship and be put in jail. Now two Republicans have proposed yet another bill to make flag burning illegal and he’s endorsing it on — where else — Twitter:

All in for Senator Steve Daines as he proposes an Amendment for a strong BAN on burning our American Flag. A no brainer!

Coincidentally, No Brainer is the Secret Service’s code name for him.

You would think that an administration’s Press Secretary would try to intercede to protect freedom of expression, since all media–even rightwing outlets–rely on First Amendment protections to do their jobs. But of course, this is the Trump Administration, which has hired spectacularly dishonest specimens to fill that post. (My favorite description of departing Sarah Huckabee Sanders was penned by Bret Stephens of the New York Times, who wrote that Sanders “combined the sincerity of Elmer Gantry with the moral outlook of Raskolnikov.”)

Since no one currently serving in this administration seems to “get it,” let me see if I can explain the way free speech jurisprudence works in language that thinking people  (a category that rather clearly excludes the current occupant of the White House) can understand.

The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects the exchange of ideas against government censorship. All ideas. Even awful ideas. Ideas that piss people off. Government doesn’t get to decide which ideas get transmitted, period. (Your mother, on the other hand, can censor you. So can your boss. The Bill of Rights only restrains government.)

Government can prohibit actions for a whole host of reasons, but it cannot pick and choose among messages. If there is an ordinance banning outdoor burning in dry weather, for example, or laws criminalizing the theft of a flag belonging to someone else, people violating those laws can be punished, because those measures don’t implicate an exchange of ideas. They are what lawyers call “content neutral.”

The rules are different for actions we call “symbolic speech.” These are actions that are clearly intended to communicate ideas. A silent march by Neo-Nazis–or any group of activists– doesn’t require verbal expression to send its message. We get it.

Flag burning offends us precisely because it sends an unmistakable message of disrespect for the country.

Brayton illuminated another common misunderstanding of what the First Amendment  does and does not protect, in a post about a Tennessee police officer who had advocated killing gay people.

Grayson Fritts, the Tennessee sheriff’s deputy/pastor who gave a sermon calling for LGBT people to be put to death, has been given a buyout and allowed to resign rather than be fired. And his boss says that’s because firing him would violate his First Amendment rights. I’m virtually a free speech absolutist, and I can say without hesitation that he is totally wrong….

If he was just a preacher who said that, I’d excoriate him for it but still support his constitutional right to say it. But as a government employee whose job is to administer justice fairly and equally, it’s a clear violation of his oath of office to think that some of the people he is charged with protecting and serving should be murdered by the state because he doesn’t approve of them. There is no free speech issue there.

A zoning administrator handing out religious tracts on the job is violating the terms of her employment, and a President trying to stifle views with which he disagrees is violating the terms of his. Free speech jurisprudence doesn’t protect them.

When elected officials–from the President on down–are abysmally ignorant of the constitution they swear to uphold, we’re in a world of hurt.

More Confirmation Of Civic Ignorance

One of the most obvious–and infuriating–characteristics of the Keystone Kop administration that Trump has cobbled together is its utter cluelessness about the government they have been installed to manage.

One of the most consistent complaints I hear from reasonably well-educated Americans is amazement that there is still a base that sees nothing wrong with an Education Secretary who clearly knows nothing about public education, a Secretary of State who consults his bible in order to formulate foreign policy, an EPA Administrator who says we need not worry about climate change for another fifty years…and so on and so on.

Not to mention a President who is clearly unacquainted with any part of the U.S. Constitution and who would be challenged to answer questions on a 6th grade civics test.

Much of the answer is, of course, Trump’s appeal to white nationalists who are willing to support anyone who hates the same people they do. But another, significant part of the explanation is the large numbers of uninformed voters, citizens who have no idea how their government is structured or how it is supposed to operate–who have no clue what the rules might be, and thus are unaware of the (multiple) times when those rules are being broken.

Yes–I am once again going to pontificate about the civic ignorance of far too many American citizens. (And yes, I know it isn’t just civic ignorance–a recent, widely reported poll revealed that 56% of Americans believe that Arabic numerals should not be taught in American schools…it’s hard not to cry.)

When it comes to my persistent distress over civic literacy, however,  I now have the American Bar Association to confirm my rant.

According to a new national poll conducted by the American Bar Association, less than half of the U.S. public knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while almost one-quarter think it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 16 percent believe it is Clarence Thomas.

The nationally representative poll of 1,000 members of the American public found troubling gaps in their knowledge of American history and government, as well as constitutional rights. One in 10 think the Declaration of Independence freed slaves in the Confederate states and almost 1 in 5 believe the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution are called the Declaration of Independence instead of the Bill of Rights.

 ABA President Bob Carlson reacted to the survey:

Making sure that people living in America know their rights and responsibilities is too important to leave to chance,” said Carlson. “Moving forward, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Public Education will launch an educational program based on these survey results, to re-acquaint the public with the law and the Constitution.

“We cannot be content to sit on the sidelines as democracy plays out in front of us. For the sake of our country, we all need to get in the game,” he said.

So, what were the findings that shocked officials of the Bar Association? Let’s start with the “good” news:

The U.S. public expresses strong support for freedom of speech. Eighty-one percent of the public agrees that people should be able to publicly criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader and three-quarters agree that government should not be able to prevent news media from reporting on political protests. Fully 80 percent of the public agrees that individuals and organizations should have the right to request government records or information. And 88 percent correctly say that the government does not have the right to review what journalists write before it is published under the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, this strong endorsement of free speech is accompanied by public confusion over what the First Amendment actually protects.

Nearly 1 in 5 said freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment and 20 percent said the right of people to peaceably assemble does not fall under the First Amendment. More than half incorrectly think the First Amendment does not permit the burning the American flag in political protest under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that forbid flag-burning, ruling first in 1989 that under the First Amendment a person cannot be penalized for such action.

There’s more, of course.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents, for example, knew that the term “the rule of law” means no one is above the law, but fully 15 percent believed  it means “the law is always right.”

The public also demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge about the rights and responsibilities accorded under the Constitution. Less than half know that only U.S. citizens can hold federal elective office, more than 1 in 5 believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for paying taxes and more than 10 percent believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for obeying the law. A little more than 1 in 6 think that due process of law is only available to U.S. citizens. And 30 percent believe that non-citizens do not have the right of freedom of speech.

To view the whole, sad survey, you can download it here.

As for me, I’m going to pour myself (another) drink.

 

Who Counts?

Talk about gaming the system. Gerrymandering is bad enough;  anyone who has read this blog for very long has encountered my periodic rants and explanations of how legislators choose their voters in order to ensure that the voters don’t get to choose their legislators.

I actually came across another example recently, one of which I had previously been unaware–prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering occurs because the census counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, even though they can’t vote while imprisoned and most return to their homes after being released. Census data is the basis of redistricting at all levels of government, so the specific location of populations is critically important. Thanks to the drug war, among other counterproductive policies, the United States has an enormous prison population. Counting prisoners in the wrong place undermines the Supreme Court’s requirement that political power be apportioned on the basis of population.

As the Prison Gerrymandering Project puts it, the process of drawing fair and equal districts fails when the underlying data are flawed.

Which brings us to the critical importance of the census.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in an appeal from lower court rulings  prohibiting the Census Bureau from adding a citizenship question to the upcoming census. Observers reported that the five conservative judges seem likely to reverse the lower courts’ three separate decisions, all of which found the question and the manner of its addition illegal.

If they do, it will be a nakedly political decision and will further undermine what is left of this Court’s legitimacy.

Why do I say that?

First of all, because there is no legitimate reason to ask the question. The census is supposed to count “heads”–the number of people in a given area. There is no current use of census data that requires knowing how many of those residents are citizens. (Wilbur Ross’ lame justification was that this information would somehow protect the voting rights of African-Americans. Not only is there no logical nexus between that goal and the census, this administration has not previously shown any solicitude for the rights of minority voters–quite the contrary.)

There is, of course, a different and blatantly obvious reason Republicans want to add the question: it will hurt Democratic cities and states and benefit Republican ones.

Experts, including several who previously headed the census bureau, have testified that addition of a citizenship question would significantly reduce the response rate of immigrants, both legal and illegal. The undercounts that result would be the basis of the 2021 redistricting, and would reduce the political power of states with large numbers of immigrants, most of which lean Democratic. (The exception is Texas, which sets up an interesting dynamic.)

The Census is also the basis upon which federal monies are distributed back to cities and states for multiple program purposes. Guess which ones would get more and which less?

The three federal judges who have considered the issue have all ruled that Ross failed to follow the legal procedures governing the addition of a question to the Census.

In one of those decisions–a 277 page enumeration of the flaws in Ross’ attempt to subvert the accuracy of the count–the judge found that the addition of the citizenship question was “unlawful” because of “a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut” violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, including cherry-picking evidence to support his effort.

“To conclude otherwise and let Secretary Ross’s decision stand would undermine the proposition — central to the rule of law — that ours is a ‘government of laws, and not of men,’ ” Furman wrote, quoting one of the country’s Founding Fathers, John Adams.

There are two pending cases in this year’s Supreme Court term that will go a long way toward affirming or destroying the rule of law in our country: the combined partisan gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina, and the Census case.

The fundamental issue in both is whether America will insist on fair elections in which all citizens’ votes count, or whether partisans will be allowed to continue gaming the system.