Tag Archives: federal courts

Denialism And The Courts

Mitch McConnell has made no bones about his highest priority–capturing the judiciary for his version of “conservatism,” and–at this. juncture, with continued control of the Senate in considerable doubt–super-charging the confirmation of nominee Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

The likely confirmation of Barrett (who reminds me of one of the Stepford Wives), a perfect replica of a 1950’s “lady” but “new and improved” with a law degree, has been the focus of much speculation. Her ascension to the court would accomplish the dearest wish of the GOP base– a lopsided 6-3 Court majority for their brand of conservatism. A recent article from New York Magazine is representative.Titled “Trump’s New Supreme Court is Coming for the Next Dozen Elections,” the article points to the likely consequences for electoral politics:

When Judge Amy Coney Barrett sits for questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee in mid-October, no doubt Democrats will pepper her with questions about whether she would recuse herself in any Trump v.Biden election lawsuit to come before the Supreme Court. Although that’s an important question to ask, perhaps the bigger question is what it wouldmean in the long run for voting and election cases to have a sixth conservative justice on the Supreme Court.

In short, a Barrett confirmation would make it more likely we will see a significant undermining of the already weakened Voting Rights Act — the Court said on Friday it will hear a case involving the law. A 6-3 conservative Court might allow unlimited undisclosed money in political campaigns; give more latitude to states to suppress votes, especially those of minorities; protect partisan gerrymandering from reform efforts; and strengthen the representation of rural white areas, which would favor Republicans.

Other predicted consequences include striking down the Affordable Care Act and–of course–overruling Roe v. Wade.

There is a measure of uncertainty about the extent to which COVID will complicate McConnell’s super-charged timeline. (I don’t wish hospitalization or death  on anyone, but given the irresponsibility of the President and GOP, I don’t think it’s wrong to hope for a couple of weeks of extreme discomfort and an inability to participate in deliberations/votes.) Lindsey Graham, who heads the committee has refused to take a COVID test despite several incidents of exposure–presumably to avoid having to isolate and thus delay the hearings.

The likelihood of Barrett’s confirmation has generated serious discussion about a Biden Administration adding Justices to the Supreme Court. Although the media has labeled that possibility “court packing,” law and courts scholars have discussed adding Justices and similar reforms (having federal appellate judges “rotate” onto the Court for specific periods or cases, term limits for Justices, etc.) for years–long before Trump’s assault on judicial independence. For that matter, the Judicial Conference has noted the need for additional judges  in a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The effects of increasing caseloads without a corresponding increase in judges are profound,” wrote Judge Brian Miller of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States. He continued:

Delays increase expenses for civil litigants and may increase the length of time criminal defendants are held pending trial. Substantial delays lead to lack of respect for the Judiciary and the judicial process. The problem is so severe that potential litigants may be avoiding federal court altogether.

Whatever actually happens, I want to make a point I’ve not seen discussed: the arguably incorrect labelling of Justices like Alito and Thomas, and nominees like Barrett–not to mention some of the Neanderthals McConnell has placed on lower courts–as “Conservative.”

Conservatives want to preserve values that they believe are necessary to the social order; they are consequently cautious about change or innovation. People of good will can and do debate which values meet that definition and why, and “caution” about change is not the same thing as “adamant opposition.’ (If you are interested in seeing what actual, responsible conservatism looks like, visit the site of the Niskanen Center.)

The people McConnell’s GOP has placed on our courts aren’t conservative in the time-honored meaning of that term. If anything, they’re radical. To appropriate a phrase used by historian Stephanie Coons, they want to return to “the way we never were,” a fondly-remembered, wholly fictionalized White Christian America in which the “little woman” dutifully attended her husband, LGBTQ people were in the closet back behind the coats, and dark-skinned folks “knew their place.”

We are in a period of paradigm shift, and a substantial portion of our fellow citizens are–as the saying goes–standing athwart history yelling stop.

To call those people “conservatives” is unfair to the genuine article.

 

 

These Are The People Running Our Country..

This is truly terrifying.

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars reports on one of those “best people” Trump promised us. This time it’s a communications person in the Department of Health and Human Services.

As a fringe right-wing political commentator, Ximena Barreto claimed that “African-Americans are way more racist than white people,” labeled Islam “a fucking cult” that has “no place” in the United States, pushed the false Pizzagate conspiracy theory, and attacked the “retarded” 2017 Women’s March. In December, she became a deputy communications director at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)…

Brayton buttresses this description with specifics of the time, place and rhetoric employed. Click through to see the rest, but here’s a taste:

During her November 30, 2016, Periscope, Barreto said that Islam advocates for “killing other people and abusing women; that’s not a religion, that’s a fucking cult. Like, I’m serious. Like, that’s not religion.” She also said during a June 12 video that Islam is “just a cult. All the practices are cult-like, all that they do.”

During a December 4, 2016, Periscope video, she wondered aloud whether there are members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S. government — a common conspiracy theory among anti-Muslim right-wing media. After someone asked if there’s a Muslim Brotherhood plan in the United States, she replied: “Well, how many of them are in the government already, you know? Like in Congress?”

In a May 25 post on the now-defunct website Borderland Alternative Media, she suggested that practicing Islam should not be allowed in the United States.

Even if her appalling bigotries weren’t disqualifying, her obvious ignorance should have been.
As disquieting as it is to know that these are the sorts of people being hired by our federal government agencies, the fact that so many judicial nominees are only marginally better is far more terrifying. Employees can be replaced; judges are lifetime.
Even the extremely conservative Neil Gorsuch answered that question without equivocation during his confirmation hearing last March. Gorsuch called Brown a “seminal decision that got the original understanding of the 14th Amendment right.” He added that Plessy was a “dark, dark stain” on the Supreme Court’s history.

For 10 minutes in December, the public was agog at the spectacle of Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, in his grits ’n’ biscuits twang, shredding a Trump judicial pickto ribbons over his lack of courtroom experience. Kennedy’s evisceration of federal district court nominee Matthew Spencer Petersen was a good show, as shows go, serving to highlight the ways in which some of Trump’s judicial selections were unprepared, entitled, and rushed through the vetting process. Petersen withdrew his nominationnot long after video of his abject performance went viral. The White House also pulled backtwo nominees: Jeff Mateer, who has referred to transgender children as a part of “Satan’s plan,” and36-year-old Brett Talley, who has never tried a case and once defended the “original KKK.”

These nominees are not jokes, and they are not cartoonish bumblers. They are highly effective and respected thinkers with agendas not unlike that of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. They will create a judicial branch that is hostile to women’s rights, workers’ rights, voting rights, LGBTQ protections, and the environment. And they will do so capably and under the radar. We giggle at the Trump judges at our peril.
I’m not giggling. I’m drinking.

Polluting The Judiciary

Assuming a sufficient turnout of Democrats, Independents and Republicans horrified by Trump, much of the daily damage being inflicted by this administration can be rectified.

But some very real damage cannot be undone, and the evisceration of the role played by the federal courts in checking unconstitutional behavior by government is one of the most consequential.

We’ll be stuck for a generation with judges like Kyle Duncan–one of the many ideologues and bigots being nominated and confirmed to the federal bench.  

Lambda Legal has sent out an alert about Duncan:

Kyle Duncan, a lawyer who has built his career around pursuing extreme positions that target members of the LGBTQ community, has been nominated by Donald Trump for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

A brief Google search confirms Lambda Legal’s warning. Duncan is best known as the lead lawyer in the infamous Hobby Lobby case, in which he argued successfully that closely-held corporations should be able to deny their employees insurance coverage for birth control.

A Louisiana news organization called the Bayou Brief described his career:

“(He) is staunchly and vociferously pro-life… (and he) is staunchly and vociferously pro-religious liberty,” Sen. John N. Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told colleagues. “I like that about him.”

When a lesbian mother was stripped of her parental rights after moving from Georgia, which recognized her rights, to Alabama, which did not, he argued to the United States Supreme Court in defense of Alabama, claiming, among other things, that the mother’s harms were “overstated.In a per curium decision, he lost that case as well.

Just this year, he unsuccessfully attempted to convince the United States Supreme Court to uphold a North Carolina law that was specifically intended to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote.

He has won some cases too, though. He successfully convinced a split United States Supreme Court that a district attorney- in this case, former Orleans DA Harry Connick, Sr.- cannot be held liable for certain violations committed by their prosecutors, even if those actions result in a man spending 18 years behind bars on a wrongful conviction.

It is clear from the reporting about Duncan that he is a skilled lawyer, albeit on behalf of what I consider “the dark side,” so I found it interesting–and baffling–that Duncan and his supporters on the religious right found it necessary to beef up his resume by mischaracterizing one of his former positions. The claim was that he had been  “Solicitor General” of Louisiana.

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network repeated the same claim in a short column published in The National Review. “Kyle served four years as Louisiana’s first Solicitor General,” she wrote (emphasis added), “performing so well that he has since been called back to represent the state repeatedly as special counsel.” (Severino’s organization spent a small fortune promoting Duncan, even releasing a television ad on his behalf).

Among many others, Breitbart and the Heritage Foundation also described Duncan as the state’s very first Solicitor General.

There is no such office under Louisiana law.

“Captain Crunch has more of a real job than anyone claiming to be Solicitor General of Louisiana,” a lawyer with extensive experience in state government told The Bayou Brief, on the condition of anonymity, “because at least Captain Crunch is on a cereal box.”

While this transparent puffery suggests a lack of integrity–or at the very least, the sort of meticulous attention to accuracy that good lawyers possess–that’s the least of the problems we should all have when a committed culture warrior is elevated to the federal bench.

Lawyers advocating for their clients, or for their favored interpretation of the law or the constitution are entitled to be zealous (albeit not zealots). We expect judges to approach their jobs with a very different, far more disinterested “judicial temperament.”

If Senate Republicans cared about their obligation to the Constitution and their duty to “advise and consent,” ideologues like Duncan would not be confirmed. But the Senate GOP–described by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum as “lickspittles”–has abandoned even the pretense of independence or statecraft.

We the People are about to lose objective courts of law for a generation.

Under The Radar

The Trump administration’s daily assaults to American laws and norms have produced a sort of outrage fatigue in many of us. That can be dangerous.

As we hold our collective breath and cross our fingers–hoping that Muller’s investigation will provide enough evidence of criminality and/or treason to make impeachment imperative, or for the Democrats to regain control of Congress in 2018, or (even less likely) for Republicans in the Senate to put the national interest above partisanship– we have difficulty keeping up with the multiple ways this administration is undermining the rule of law and weakening democratic norms.

The Resistance needs a strategy that distinguishes between horrific decisions that can be reversed if and when sanity returns to the Oval Office (or Republicans in Congress grow a pair), and those that will have profound and long-lasting negative effects on our constitutional system. We can afford to bide our time on the first category–although a lot of people will be hurt in the meantime –but we have to be absolutely ferocious in resisting measures that will damage the country in the longer term.

The media has highlighted Trump’s failure to fill hundreds of second-and-third level positions in his administration. That failure is further evidence of the ineptitude of the current White House, but it is also a blessing in disguise. (Case in point: the current nominee for Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture is not a scientist; he’s a right-wing talk show host. Better vacancies than filling an administration with such people. ).  An administration that cannot function properly cannot do as much damage as one that efficiently pursues counterproductive policies.

At the same time, the media has been insufficiently alert to Trump’s alacrity in filling judicial vacancies. A recent report from Huffington Post began:

Thursday was a good day for Amy Coney Barrett. A Senate committee voted to advance her nomination to be a federal judge.

It wasn’t a pretty vote. Every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee opposed her nomination. They scrutinized her past writings on abortion, which include her questioning the precedent of Roe v. Wade and condemning the birth control benefit under the Affordable Care Act as “a grave infringement on religious liberty.” One Democrat, Al Franken (Minn.), called her out for taking a speaking fee from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit that’s defended forced sterilization for transgender people and has been dubbed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But Republicans don’t need Democrats’ votes, and now Barrett, a 45-year-old law professor at the University of Notre Dame, is all but certain to be confirmed to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit — a court one level below the Supreme Court.

Barrett isn’t the only Trump nominee who is likely to upend settled Constitutional principles.

Consider John Bush. The Senate confirmed him in July, on a party-line vote, to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Bush, 52, has compared abortion to slavery and referred to them as “the two greatest tragedies in our country.” He has also said he strongly disagrees with same-sex marriage, mocked climate change and proclaimed “the witch is dead” when he thought the Affordable Care Act might not be enacted.

The Senate also confirmed Kevin Newsom, 44, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in August. He wrote a 2000 law review article equating the rationale of Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 decision upholding slavery. He also argued in a 2005 article for the Federalist Society, a right-wing legal organization, that Title IX does not protect people who face retaliation for reporting gender discrimination. The Supreme Court later rejected that position.

Ralph Erickson, 58, was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in September. As a district judge in 2016, he was one of two judges in the country who ordered the federal government not to enforce health care nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.

Judicial nominees yet to be confirmed have supported discrimination against LGBTQ people, the “personhood” of fetuses, and a state’s right to criminalize “consensual sodomy.”

If Trump has been dilatory in filling administrative posts, he’s been an Energizer Bunny when it comes to the courts.  He has already nominated 17 circuit court judges and 39 district court judges, far more than his predecessors.

He’s also got more court seats to fill, having inherited 108 court vacancies ― double the number of vacancies Obama inherited when he took office. (That’s largely thanks to Republicans’ despicable years-long strategy of denying votes to Obama’s court picks to keep those seats empty for a future GOP president to fill–a strategy that prioritized partisan advantage over justice by overburdening federal courts and causing lengthy delays for litigants.)

Federal judges have lifetime appointments. Usually, the country benefits from the fact that these jurists are insulated against the threat of arbitrary dismissal; federal courts are currently demonstrating the great value of an independent judiciary as checks on Trump’s most autocratic tendencies.

If the administration is able to fill the federal bench with Roy Moore clones, however, we can say goodby to checks and balances and the rule of law as we have understood it.