Tag Archives: judiciary

Blame The Courts

What’s that old saying? The enemy of my enemy is my friend?

 Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars a few days ago, Ed Brayton actually endorsed a theory offered by Jonah Goldberg.

Both Goldberg’s column and Brayton’s comment on it were offered in the run-up to Trump’s demand that he be given broadcast time to address the nation about the “crisis” at the border. Both predicted that Trump would declare a “national emergency” entitling him to ignore Congress and build his ridiculous wall.

As we now know, during that broadcast Trump simply reiterated his previous, fabricated “reasons” for building the wall. But he has continued to threaten the tactic.

Goldberg noted that such a move would be contrary both to common sense and the rule of law.

Do we really want to establish the precedent that the president can simply declare “It’s an emergency” like some magical incantation and then completely bypass property rights and the will of Congress just so he can fulfill a campaign promise that, if Sam Nunberg is to be believed, began as a consultant’s gimmick to get the candidate Trump to talk about immigration and what a great builder he is?

Moreover, if Trump actually attempted to use the military to seize private land, spending money Congress did not authorize, think of what the news cycle would look like, not from Trump’s perspective but from the perspective of other elected Republicans. Assuming that the Supreme Court or Congress didn’t stop him — a big assumption — would you like to run for office defending hourly images of armed U.S. troops kicking in doors or rolling out concertina wire? Is it beyond imagining that at least one Texas or Arizona rancher would get shot defending his property?

According to Goldberg, the theory then circulating in Washington was that the White House was fully aware that an order of that sort would generate multiple lawsuits and would likely be blocked almost immediately by the courts. That–in their view–would be the best of all possible worlds; it would extricate Trump from a box of his own making. He’d be able to tell his base he’d done everything he could, but his plan for America’s safety had been blocked by those terrible judges.

The reason this scenario seems so plausible is because such a patently illegal declaration would mimic a dishonest and destructive strategy that is pursued with some regularity by legislators at all levels of government. They can pass a bill they know to be unconstitutional, placating the constituents who want it, secure in the knowledge that the courts will bail them out.

I still remember a long-ago conversation with a student in one of my graduate classes, who happened to be a State Representative. He had just voted for a bill requiring schools throughout the state to post the Ten Commandments. I knew he was fully aware that such a law would violate the Establishment Clause, and I asked him why he had voted for something he knew to be unconstitutional. He replied that the “folks back in Mayberry” would be angry if he’d voted no, so he’d decided to “let the courts take the heat.”

There are a number of problems with that strategy. It rewards moral cowardice, and it feeds hostility to the judiciary among people who don’t understand the constitution, the function of the courts, or checks and balances.

And eventually, if Trump and the GOP get their way, pretty soon we won’t have competent, principled judges on the federal bench who are willing to “take the heat” in order to protect the constitution from cynical legislators pandering to constitutionally-illiterate voters.

About Those Right-Wing Judges…

As most of you know by now, a conservative judge in Texas struck down the entire Affordable Care Act, ruling it unconstitutional.

The decision is a reminder that when judges are appointed on the basis of party loyalty rather than legal acumen, the results can hurt a lot of innocent people.

Legal scholars who have reviewed the decision believe it is badly flawed and will be overturned, but Daily Kos recently enumerated the consequences should it be upheld.

The most obvious loss would be that part of the law that forbids insurance companies from excluding coverage of pre-existing conditions. But as the author noted, if the law were really to disappear, that’s just a part of what would be lost.

As many as 17 million people could lose their coverage in a single year. The 15 million people covered under Medicaid expansion could lose their coverage. The improvements to Medicare that have saved the program billions of dollars—and reduced prescription drug costs for seniors—would be erased. Young people wouldn’t be able to stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26. The ban on annual and lifetime caps would be gone, and medical bankruptcies would escalate. Having lady parts would again cost women more than men, and being over age 50 would cost everyone more again. Limits on out-of-pocket costs would be gone. The tax credits that 9 million people are receiving to help them pay premiums would be gone.

The post focused on the political fallout of the threatened losses. (Even Republicans concede that the issue hurts them.) But the real lessons aren’t partisan.

There are two obvious “take-aways” here.

First is the incredible amount of damage that can be done by elevating ideologues to the bench. This sort of “smash and burn” judging is a direct result of viewing the federal courts as a partisan political prize rather than a constitutional safeguard to be protected by the appointment of dispassionate, knowledgable and qualified legal scholars.

The second is equally obvious. As important as the ACA is, as much of a step forward that it represents, it falls far short of what Americans need and most other wealthy countries have long had. Not only is it vulnerable to the sort of judicial assassination we’ve just experienced, it is simply insufficient.

It would be poetic justice–not to mention actual justice–if this effort by a radical judge prompted Congress to pass Medicare for All, or at least a “public option” allowing citizens of all ages to “opt in” to the program.

Words, Words, Words…..

In My Fair Lady, Eliza sings “Words, words, words–I’m so sick of words…” Instead, she demands, “show me.”

These days, the way politicians use and misuse words is quite enough to “show” us.

Multiple media outlets have reported on the administration’s recent instructions to the CDC, forbidding the use of certain words in official communications. As an article from the Chicago Tribune reports,

Trump administration officials are forbidding officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases – including “fetus” and “transgender” – in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

Shades of Rick Scott’s edict banning the phrase “climate change” from Florida’s official vocabulary! (Unfortunately for the state, forgoing use of the phrase hasn’t stopped the water from rising…Damn pesky reality!)

This new mandate would be funny if it weren’t one more piece of (whoops!) evidence that government under Trump is unconcerned with (that word again!) evidence–or fact, or science, or–let’s be honest–anything we would recognize as actual governing.

As ridiculous and worrisome as this effort at Newspeak is, the apparent reason for the language ban is even more troubling. The emphasis on “alternative” language appears to be focused on the budget.

The ban is related to the budget and supporting materials that are to be given to CDC’s partners and to Congress, the analyst said. The president’s budget for 2019 is expected to be released in early February. The budget blueprint is generally shaped to reflect an administration’s priorities.

The New York Times report on this directive suggests that the reason for banning these phrases from the budget document is to increase the likelihood that Congress will respond positively to that budget–in other words, it’s an effort to avoid riling the anti-science, anti-evidence GOP Neanderthals who currently dominate Congressional lawmaking.

Given the amount of attention this ham-handed effort has attracted, it isn’t likely to be very effective. Far more terrifying–and sinister–is a quiet venture meant to distort and confuse the definition of “science” and the rules of “economics,” aimed squarely at current and prospective members of the judicial branch. (Evidently, packing the courts with know-nothings isn’t the only Trumpian assault on the courts.)

In early October, 22 state and federal judges hailing from Honolulu to Albany got a crash course in scientific literacy and economics. The three-day symposium was billed as a way to help the judges better scrutinize evidence used to defend government regulations.

But the all-expenses-paid event hosted by George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center in Arlington, Virginia, served another purpose: it was the first of several seminars designed to promote “skepticism” of scientific evidence among likely candidates for the 140-plus federal judgeships Donald Trump will fill over the next four years.

The lone science instructor was Louis Anthony Cox Jr, a risk analyst with deep industry ties whose recent appointment as chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air scientific advisory committee drew condemnation in public-health circles. Since 1988, Cox has consulted for the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group that spent millions to dispute the cancer-causing properties of benzene, an ingredient in gasoline, and is now working to question the science on smog-causing ozone. He’s also testified on behalf of the chemical industry and done research for the tobacco giant Philip Morris.

What was that line Humpty Dumpty uttered in Alice in Wonderland? “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”

I know it’s still morning, but I need a drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Someone Tells You What They Are, Believe Them. Political Parties, Too.

The Huffington Post was only one of several outlets reporting on the confirmation of yet another unqualified (but politically and ideologically acceptable) nominee to the federal bench.

The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, Leonard Steven Grasz, despite the fact that Grasz earned an embarrassing and unanimous “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association.

Every Republican present voted to confirm Grasz, 56, to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. That includes moderates like Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), as well as retiring Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.). Every Democrat opposed him in the 50-48 vote.

It is extremely rare for the Senate to confirm a judge with such an abysmal rating from the national legal organization. The ABA has reviewed more than 1,700 federal judicial nominees since 1989, and only three, including Grasz, have been deemed unanimously unqualified. The other two, both nominees of President George W. Bush, were withdrawn and replaced with other nominees after the ABA’s assessment came in.

Lest you be tempted to dismiss the ABA’s rating, the panel had interviewed more than 180 people familiar with Grasz, who had served as Nebraska’s chief deputy attorney general for 11 years and was thus well-known to practitioners in the state.

He was described by people who knew him and lawyers who’d worked with him as “gratuitously rude.” Far more concerning, a number of people reported having an “unusual fear of consequences” if they said anything negative about him because of his “deep connection” to powerful politicians in Nebraska. (Perhaps his evident petulance and thin skin are what commended him to Trump, who exhibits similar characteristics.)

So why would the GOP elevate someone who appears to be an unqualified asshole to a circuit court position requiring a modicum of tact and a judicial temperament? There are literally hundreds of highly qualified Republican lawyers–why choose someone so unfit to serve?

ABA members also raised concerns that Grasz would be “unable to separate his role as an advocate from that of a judge,” given his record on issues like LGBTQ and abortion rights. Among other things, Grasz served on a nonprofit board that backed so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ kids, and in a 1999 article argued that lower courts should be able to overrule Supreme Court decisions on abortion rights because “abortion jurisprudence is, to a significant extent, a word game.”

Putting someone on the bench who believes that a circuit court could–or should–“overrule” the Supreme Court when they issue a decision he dislikes is incomprehensible. Or should be.

In the wake of the elections in Virginia and Alabama, I’ve begun to hold out hope that Trumpism will be limited–that the 2018 elections will put adults back in charge of Congress, and that Trump/Pence will be gone once Muller completes his work. Worst case scenario, by 2020 much of the damage being done–to our position in world, to the environment, to public education, to the poor–can be undone, or at least mitigated.

But not the courts. The ideologues and incompetents being nominated and confirmed to the federal courts will be there for life, and if there are enough of them, they can change the course of American jurisprudence for a hundred years.

There are many things the Congressional GOP is doing that horrify me–passing policies that hurt the most vulnerable while enriching their donors and patrons, “culture war” tidbits they are throwing to their frightened, racist and uneducated base to keep them subdued. But subverting the rule of law by  placing zealots and know-nothings rather than principled conservatives on the federal bench ranks as the most despicable action of all.

I think it was Maya Angelou who said “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” Today’s Republican party is telling us who they are, and it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s nauseating.

 

Meanwhile, Back at the Constitutional Crisis….

Checks and balances. Impartial justice. The rule of law. These are considered to be bedrocks of American government–or at least, they have been. Yet a full-throated attack on those principles has been inexplicably downplayed if not ignored by the media: the inexcusable refusal of Republicans in the Senate to fill vacancies on the federal bench.

This effort to subvert a co-equal branch of the United States government did not begin with Senate Republicans’ unprecedented refusal to “advise and consent” to President Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia. For the past several years, the Senate GOP has stubbornly resisted acting on most of Obama’s judicial nominees.

Note that this refusal is entirely unconnected to the bona fides of the individuals nominated. The Senate has declined to confirm them because they are Obama’s nominees.

According to the Federal Bar Association, vacancies in the district courts, where most federal judicial work gets done, are reaching crisis proportions: 65 seats on the federal district court bench and at least 90 vacancies throughout the Article III courts. That’s more than 10 percent of the federal judiciary.

When court dockets are slowed to a crawl, when there simply aren’t enough judges to move litigation at a reasonable pace, people with legal grievances are the ones who bear the consequences. They face unpalatable choices: they can settle for less than they are entitled to or wait an extra couple of years for their day in court.

When neanderthal Tea Party types throw tantrums and completely shut down government, everyone notices–and the polls reflect widespread disapproval. Refusing to fill positions that are needed if government is to function properly is far less public, so it doesn’t engender the same level of public opprobrium, but the result—while slower—is the same.

Recent vows by Senators Cruz and McCain to block Supreme Court nominees through an entire Clinton Presidency, and reports that Senate Republicans are already meeting to plan how they will block her nominees should remove any doubt about the motivation for the GOP’s behavior.

In North Carolina, Senator Richard Burr was recorded stating that if Clinton is elected, he will do everything possible to “make sure that four years from now, we’re still going to have an opening on the Supreme Court.”  Here in Indiana, GOP Senate candidate Todd Young has enthusiastically thrown his lot in with those promising to block Merrick Garland, or anyone else nominated by Obama–or, presumably, Clinton. His website has featured a prominent “petition” encouraging signatories to “stand with Todd” against filling the vacancy.

This is what it has come to: Candidates for the United States Senate are asking Americans for their votes; in return, they promise to throw sand in the gears of the government they are being elected to manage.

Vote for me, and I’ll work to dismantle our Constitutional system!

Todd Young, a candidate for the United States Senate, is proudly telling voters that when the interests of the nation—their interests—come into conflict with the prospects of his political party, he will ignore his obligations to them and to the Constitution if doing so will benefit his party.

We are getting used to politicians placing partisanship over country, but the predictability of this behavior doesn’t make it any less reprehensible.

Our local sorry excuse for a newspaper reported Todd Young’s position on the courts as  “he will work for judges in the mold of Justice Scalia.” It didn’t reference his “petition” or contain any indication that anyone had bothered to ask him about his pledge to deny confirmation to qualified jurists simply because the other party nominated them.

The lack of media attention to this intentional crippling of the federal court system, an issue that affects all Americans, is frustrating. Why isn’t every candidate for U.S. Senate being asked “If elected, will you do your job? Will you provide your honest advice and consent to nominees for the federal bench? And if not, why not?”

I for one would like to hear Todd Young’s response.

Addendum: If you are as frustrated as I am about what has passed for reporting during this election, the ACLU is hosting a discussion tonight, at 5:30, at Emmis Broadcasting. The title is “Election 2016 & the Media: A Free Press or a Free-for-All?” Details are here.