Category Archives: Constitution

Avoiding The Merits Of The Case

My years as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU gave me the kind of education that schooling just can’t supply. It was during that time that I first recognized how few Americans knew even the most basic principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights; for example, there was–and probably still is–a belief that the majority always rules.

I can’t count the number of Hoosiers I encountered who insisted that if a majority of citizens wanted a book banned or a public prayer said– why, that should be the law. The idea that the Bill of Rights enumerates things government cannot do –even if a majority wants government to do them–was both a foreign concept and an unpleasant surprise.

When the issue involved criminal procedure, people expressed widespread disgust at “stupid rules” (for example, the Fourth Amendment) that allowed an occasional defendant to “get off on a technicality.” (“Occasional” is the operative word; aside from television episodes of “Law and Order,” that’s a pretty rare occurrence.)

I thought about those negative attitudes toward “technicalities” a while back, while I was reading a New York Times column by Linda Greenhouse on the standing doctrine. Standing actually is a “technicality” in the sense that when the doctrine is too expansively applied, it allows a court to ignore the merits of a case–to sidestep the issue that is being litigated.

I’m copying a fair amount of the Greenhouse column, because the concept of standing is unfamiliar to most Americans, and its significantly expanded use by the Courts is far more dangerous than the likelihood that fidelity to the Fourth Amendment will free an accused felon.

Pop quiz No. 1: What do the following have in common: an abortion clinic in Louisiana; the county of El Paso, Tex.; and two individuals who don’t want to buy health insurance?

Answer: All are plaintiffs in federal court.

The Hope Medical Group for Women, in Shreveport, La., is the petitioner in the June Medical case now at the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of Louisiana’s latest effort to shut down the state’s few remaining abortion clinics.

El Paso County is suing the Trump administration to stop construction of a new section of border wall on its southern border with Mexico that will be paid for in part by siphoning off millions of dollars that Congress intended for a project at the Fort Bliss Army base, the county’s biggest employer and economic engine. This case is not yet at the Supreme Court, but is most likely headed there.

And Neill Hurley and John Nantz, the two men who object to being told to buy health insurance? They and a group of red states led by Texas are in the Supreme Court defending the lower courts’ conclusion that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which no longer carries any penalty for noncompliance, is unconstitutional.

Pop quiz No. 2: Which of these are the only plaintiffs that the administration’s lawyers are not trying to throw out of court?

Answer: The ones who don’t like Obamacare.

And how are Trump’s lawyers trying to keep the other issues from being decided by the courts? By arguing that the plaintiffs lack standing —the right to bring the lawsuit in the first place.

Courts have developed a three-part inquiry for deciding whether a plaintiff has standing, designed to ensure that a lawsuit presents the “case or controversy” that Article III of the Constitution requires for the exercise of federal court jurisdiction. Did the plaintiff suffer a real injury? Was the injury caused by the defendant? And can a victory in court actually bring relief? These questions appear to invite simple yes-or-no answers. But a few minutes’ reflection shows that they are far from value-free, and finding the answers requires the exercise of judgment.

For example, El Paso County claims that even before a dime has been diverted from Fort Bliss and spent on the wall, it is already suffering damage to its reputation that will cost it business investment and tourist dollars.

The District Court Judge agreed with El Paso that “reputational and economic injuries”  were real, and sufficient to establish standing, and that the injuries were traceable to the government’s proposed action.The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, however, granted the administration’s request for a stay of the injunction, finding a “substantial likelihood that appellees lack Article III standing.”

Greenhouse goes through the arguments for and against standing in each of the other cases; the explanations demonstrate both the dishonesty of the administration’s positions and the pliability of the doctrine.

“Actual damage” is in the eye of the beholder, and when the beholder is an unqualified partisan put on the bench by Trump and McConnell, standing becomes a “technicality” that can be used to neuter constitutional guarantees.



Indiana’s Supermajority–Ignoring Citizens Again

Where to start?

The Indiana Lawyer describes the issue: 

Despite opposition from nearly all of the organizations and individuals who testified, a bill that would allow the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor over certain cases that a local prosecutor declines to prosecute has advanced out of an Indiana Senate committee.

Senate Bill 436, authored by Rep. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, passed out of the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee on Tuesday with a 6-3 vote. Young, who chairs the committee, did not receive any Democratic support for his bill, and one Republican also voted against the measure.

Calling the legislation a response to “social justice prosecuting,” Young said his bill would allow the Office of the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor only if a local elected prosecutor “has announced as a matter of policy that the prosecuting attorney will not enforce all or part of a criminal statute enacted by the General Assembly,” or if “the attorney general has determined that a prosecuting attorney has categorically elected not to enforce all or part of a criminal statute enacted by the General Assembly.”

Mike Young’s sponsorship is the first clue that this is a terrible bill; Young has spent his considerable amount of time in Indiana’s legislature as a committed “culture warrior” and general pain in the you-know-where. The second clue comes from the fact that every single person who testified at the committee hearing opposed the measure.

Organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana to the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council (IPAC) were among those testifying against SB 436.

The former director of IPAC shared the organization’s opposition to the bill’s attack on prosecutorial discretion, pointing out that voters regularly respond to prosecutorial decisions they don’t agree with by voting elected prosecutors out of office. (Every four years, voters eject around a third of Indiana’s prosecutors.) A representative of the Public Defenders Council agreed that the bill abrogated voters’ rights.

What prompted this legislative over-reach?

Much of Wednesday’s testimony focused on the recent decision by Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears to no longer prosecute cases of simple possession of marijuana. In announcing that decision in September — about a week before he was appointed by county Democrats to succeed former Prosecutor Terry Curry — Mears said the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office should be devoting its resources to the violent crime in Indianapolis.

Young’s bill would deny county prosecutors the discretion to direct limited resources to the most serious threats to public safety. Once again, it would substitute the judgements of state-level lawmakers for those of local officials chosen by the people they serve.

One of the measure’s most egregious insults to local control was language requiring  counties in which the attorney general has overruled the local prosecutor to reimburse the attorney general for the expenses of prosecuting the case. As Doug Masson put it in his blog post on the bill,

The guest that nobody invited and nobody wanted is going to send you a bill for his presence. The AG just sends the bill to the Auditor who is required to pay the bill out of the general fund within 30 days, without appropriation. Because, screw your budget.

Despite the uniform opposition to the bill, it passed out of committee. Here is the vote breakdown:

Sen. Mike Young
Sen. Susan Glick
Sen. Mike Bohacek
Sen. Justin Busch
Sen. Aaron Freeman
Sen. Jack Sandlin

Sen. Karen Tallian
Sen. Lonnie Randolph
Sen. Eric Koch

If one of the “yeas” represents you, I’d suggest a call or email letting that person know that he or she should not rely on your vote in the next election.

An Immodest “Modest Proposal”

Talk about “thinking outside the box”!

Ever since the 2016 election, there has been increasing concern voiced about the blatantly undemocratic aspects of American governance–the Electoral College, of course, and the enormous impact of money in politics–but also the fact that the “majority” party in control of the Senate represents about fifteen million fewer people than the “minority” party.

Changing these inequities through the constitutional amendment process would be a fool’s errand. Given the political environment, and the difficulty of the process, it ain’t gonna happen.

We could work around the need for constitutional changes, however, if we followed the advice of a recent article in the Harvard Law Review. As Vox explains,

An unsigned note, entitled “Pack the Union: A Proposal to Admit New States for the Purpose of Amending the Constitution to Ensure Equal Representation” and published in the Harvard Law Review, offers an entirely constitutional way out of this dilemma: Add new states — a lot of new states — then use this bloc of states to rewrite the Constitution so that the United States has an election system “where every vote counts equally.”

To create a system where every vote counts equally, the Constitution must be amended. To do this, Congress should pass legislation reducing the size of Washington, D.C., to an area encompassing only a few core federal buildings and then admit the rest of the District’s 127 neighborhoods as states. These states — which could be added with a simple congressional majority — would add enough votes in Congress to ratify four amendments: (1) a transfer of the Senate’s power to a body that represents citizens equally; (2) an expansion of the House so that all citizens are represented in equal-sized districts; (3) a replacement of the Electoral College with a popular vote; and (4) a modification of the Constitution’s amendment process that would ensure future amendments are ratified by states representing most Americans.

The Constitution provides for the admission of new states through an ordinary act of Congress requiring a simple majority vote. If it weren’t for a different provision–one that prevents new states from being “carved out” of existing ones unless the legislature of the existing state consents– we might just root for the folks who are trying to divide California into three states.

Since it’s unlikely that California’s legislature– or that of any other state–would agree to be split, the alternative is to chop up the District of Columbia. That gets around the constitutional problem because Washington, DC, isn’t a state.

Similarly, the Constitution effectively prohibits amendments that eliminate Senate malapportionment. The Harvard note proposes getting around this problem by transferring the Senate’s powers to another body. “The Senate’s duties,” it argues, “could be changed without modifying its composition.

Details aside, however, the wild thing about this Harvard Law Review proposal is that it is absolutely, 100 percent constitutional. The Constitution provides that “new states may be admitted by the Congress into this union,” but it places no limits on the size of a state either in terms of population or in terms of physical space.

It turns out that there is a long and ignoble history of partisans admitting new states in order to give their party an added advantage in the Senate. Vox notes that In 1864, Republicans admitted Nevada — at the time a desert wasteland with a few thousand residents — in order to give the GOP two extra Senate seats.

We have two Dakotas because those same Republicans celebrated their 1888 victory by dividing the Republican Dakota Territory into two states, in order to get four senators rather than two. And thanks to gerrymandering, each rural vote is worth 1 1/3 of each urban vote.

As the article concludes:

So let’s be frank. The Harvard note’s proposal is ridiculous, but it is no more ridiculous than a system where the nearly 40 million people in California have no more Senate representation than the 578,759 people in Wyoming. As the Harvard note says of its own pitch, “radical as this proposal may sound, it is no more radical than a nominally democratic system of government that gives citizens widely disproportionate voting power depending on where they live.”

Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it makes sense.


Those Damn Courts Can’t Overrule Me!

Sometimes, only a Yiddish word is capable of adequately conveying the disdain of an insult. Chutzpah is infinitely stronger than gall, its most common English translation. It’s also more earthy than hubris, and more all-encompassing than smugness.

And chutzpah absolutely permeates a measure that has been introduced in the Indiana House of Representatives by  Representative Curt Nisly. Here is the digest of House Bill 1089:

Protection of life. Repeals the statutes authorizing and regulating abortion. Finds that human physical life begins when a human ovum is fertilized by a human sperm. Asserts a compelling state interest in protecting human physical life from the moment that human physical life begins. Provides that court decisions to enjoin the law are void. Specifies the duty of Indiana officials to enforce the law. Specifies that federal officials attempting to enforce contrary court orders against Indiana officials enforcing the law shall be subject to arrest by Indiana law enforcement. Redefines “human being” for purposes of the criminal code to conform to the finding that human physical life begins when a human ovum is fertilized by a human sperm. Makes other conforming changes.

Where to begin…

Ignore, for purposes of this rant, the fact that the only life Rep. Nisly is interested in “protecting” is that of the fetus; if the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman carrying that fetus, evidently that’s just too bad.

There is, of course, the enormous chutzpah displayed by a man with no medical credentials–a man who owns a sheet-metal company–who feels entitled to determine when life begins, and the chutzpah of a person who can never be pregnant dictating behavior to those who can be. (Pregnancy, as people with medical credentials will confirm, is a greater risk to women’s health than abortion. But Rep. Nisly is willing to force all women, whatever their medical or emotional or financial circumstances, to assume that risk. No skin off his nose.)

That’s bad enough, but what really is astonishing about this piece of excrement–what demonstrates both outrageous chutzpah and monumental constitutional  ignorance–is Nisly’s apparent belief that the legislature can pass a bill that overrules the courts and prevents the executive branch from enforcing court orders.

Checks and balances? Piffle.

Separation of powers? What’s that?

The Constitution? If Trump doesn’t have to read, understand or obey it, why should Rep. Nisly?

Even in a legislative chamber as overwhelmingly rightwing as Indiana’s, this is highly unlikely to pass. (I use the term “rightwing” rather than “conservative” because there is absolutely nothing conservative about people who don’t want to conserve the values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.) Even our legislature’s dimmer bulbs aren’t likely to endorse a measure that simply ignores our country’s entire legal structure. But you have to ask yourself: who votes for the sort of ignoramus who would propose a bill like this?

And what sort of ego–what monumental amount of chutzpah–does a person have to have in order to run for public office without bothering to understand the government he wants to be part of?

Oh yeah…



It’s Called Projection

In psychology, the term “projection” means accusing someone else of a flaw or negative characteristic that you, yourself, exhibit. (We see lots of examples from this President, who calls other people “dumb” or “fat” or “a liar”…)

A recent report from the Washington Post provides a perfect example.

Post survey found that white Evangelicals in the U.S. are convinced that atheists and Democrats (categories that they see as interchangeable) would, if elected, strip them of their rights.

Of those white evangelical Protestants, we found that 60 percent believed that atheists would not allow them First Amendment rights and liberties. More specifically, we asked whether they believed atheists would prevent them from being able to “hold rallies, teach, speak freely, and run for public office.” Similarly, 58 percent believed “Democrats in Congress” would not allow them to exercise these liberties if they were in power.

In other words, these respondents believed that–if they were in power– atheists and/or Democrats would refuse to extend fundamental civil liberties to people with whom they disagreed.

Admittedly, there are many Americans who take the position that “freedom is for me but not for thee.” Research confirms that a very troubling percentage of the general public is willing to curtail the liberties of groups they dislike. That research suggests that only 30% of the general public would grant disfavored groups the same rights they themselves enjoy, an incredibly depressing finding.

The perception by white Evangelicals that they are disliked is also pretty accurate.  Research into intergroup attitudes confirms that white Evangelicals are among the least-liked groups by pretty much everyone else, and certainly by atheists and Democrats. The question isn’t about likes and dislikes, however. It’s whether distaste translates into a desire to deny the objects of that animosity their First Amendment rights.

It turns out that 65 percent of atheists and 53 percent of Democrats who listed Christian fundamentalists as their least-liked group are nevertheless willing to respect the civil liberties of those fundamentalists. As the article noted, that’s a much higher proportion than the sample overall.

And that brings us back to the psychology of projection, because it also turns out that those fearful White Evangelicals are attributing their own unsavory motives to atheists and Democrats.

We found that a smaller proportion of white evangelicals would behave with tolerance toward atheists than the proportion of atheists who would behave with tolerance toward them. Thirteen percent of white evangelical Protestants selected atheists as their least-liked group. Of those, 32 percent are willing to extend three or more of these rights to atheists. In fact, when we looked at all religious groups, atheists and agnostics were the most likely to extend rights to the groups they least liked.

Conservative Christians believe their rights are in peril partly because that’s what they’re hearing, quite explicitly, from conservative media, religious elites, partisan commentators and some politicians, including the president. The survey evidence suggests another reason, too. Their fear comes from an inverted golden rule: Expect from others what you would do unto them. White evangelical Protestants express low levels of tolerance for atheists, which leads them to expect intolerance from atheists in return.

The Golden Rule isn’t the only thing these people have inverted, according to my friends in the clergy.

It’s ironic that self-proclaimed “Christian Patriots” are perfectly willing to subvert the clear mandate of the Bill of Rights– and the equally clear teachings of the Savior they purport to worship– in their pursuit of social dominance.

They lack both authentic Christianity and genuine patriotism–the very deficits they project onto atheists and Democrats.