Tag Archives: North Carolina

“Illegally Constituted” Legislatures..

Every once in a while, I read a news release that makes me go “wow!” I read this one twice–and I love it.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins struck downtwo of the state constitutional amendments passed by North Carolina voters last November. But the reason he gave for his decision was remarkable: in his view, the state legislature is so gerrymandered as to be an illegitimate body that doesn’t really represent voters, and thus had no authority to alter the state constitution.

“An illegally constituted General Assembly does not represent the people of North Carolina and is therefore not empowered to pass legislation that would amend the state’s constitution,” wrote Collins.

The amendments that were struck down by this ruling were an amendment requirement that voters present a strict photo ID at the polls, which is almost identical to a previous law a federal court said targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision,” and an amendment capping the state income tax rate at 7 percent, which was a huge gift to the wealthy that jeopardized the state budget.

North Carolina voters had approved four constitutional amendments in a referendum, and the Judge let two of them go into effect. He found that the legislature’s description of the two amendments he struck down had been misleading. (A court had previously invalidated  an earlier draft of language explaining the amendments.)

North Carolina has been called the most aggressively gerrymandered state in the country, and a case challenging its current legislative and congressional districts will be heard by the Supreme Court during its next term.

The Judge’s decision will, of course, be appealed, and there is no telling what the final outcome will be, but the decision ranks right up there with the pronouncement by a clear-eyed child in the well-known story: “the Emperor has no clothes.”

A few days ago, I cited David Leonhardt’s column in the New York Times, in which he catalogued state legislative actions contrary to the clear desires of the relevant voters, and I compared those examples to the repeated refusal of Indiana’s lawmakers to act on the demonstrable wishes of Hoosier voters that they pass a hate crimes bill.

Thanks to the prevalence of gerrymandering (and assorted other political “dirty tricks” including vote suppression), America currently has several state legislatures that meet Judge Collins’ criteria for illegitimacy.

When the “clothing” of rhetoric is stripped away, the fact that we no longer have a genuine democracy is the “naked” truth.

Three cheers for Judge Collins and his willingness to call it like it is.

Rule of Law? Respect for Democracy? Not in the Age of Trump…

Remember the quote–attributed to John Adams–to the effect that the then-new American Constitution had created “a government of laws, not men”?

One of the most important improvements in our human efforts to improve governance was development of the concept of rule of law–the radical notion that fair rules should be established and everyone–including government officials and others in positions of power– should be expected to follow those rules (including the rules on how rules should be changed).

Adherence to the rule of law, in spirit and fact, is absolutely essential to the legitimacy of a governing authority.

Which brings us to the truly outrageous behavior of Republican lawmakers in North Carolina. As the New York Times reported earlier this week,

Republicans in the North Carolina legislature on Wednesday took the highly unusual step of moving to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor after a bitter election that extended years of fierce ideological battles in the state.

After calling a surprise special session, Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly introduced measures to end the governor’s control over election boards, to require State Senate approval of the new governor’s cabinet members and to strip his power to appoint University of North Carolina trustees.

Republicans also proposed to substantially cut the number of state employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure, giving Civil Service protections to hundreds of managers in state agencies who have executed the priorities of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.

These extraordinary steps–taken in the wake of a democratic (note small “d”) election that produced a result displeasing to the state’s GOP–unquestionably violate democratic norms, and may well violate the North Carolina state constitution.

The election of a Democratic governor came despite sustained Republican efforts to suppress African-American votes–efforts so transparently and blatantly aimed at (disproportionately Democratic) black voters that a court described them as “surgical.” Several of those measures were struck down, but a number of others–moving polling places, shortening voting hours–had the intended effect.

Even in the face of massive vote suppression, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate somehow won.Hence the special session to strip the new Governor of authority–and the transformation of North Carolina government into an illegitimate putsch.

As the Times editorialized

This legislative power grab is the latest underhanded step by a state Republican Party desperate to stay in power in a state where demographic changes would normally benefit Democrats. Republicans in North Carolina, a presidential battleground state, have used aggressive redistricting and voting suppression measures that are among the most brazen in the nation to win elections. The courts have blocked some of these efforts, but Republicans have found workarounds, for instance, by limiting voting hours and sites.

Calling what is happening in North Carolina a “legislative power grab” is like calling cancer a “minor illness.” It is a shocking violation of democratic norms, and a frontal attack on the rule of law.

It is one more element in America’s current wholesale retreat from the principles that did make America great.

States’ Rights and Wrongs

Indiana’s embarrassing Governor recently appealed a federal court ruling that he lacked authority to prevent resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana. From all reports, the appeal’s oral argument did not go well for the state.

A major reason for Pence’s loss in the District Court–and his probable loss at the appellate level–is that immigration is a federal issue over which states lack authority.

The notion that federal law should govern areas of national concern seems to rankle Donald Trump’s chosen running mate, and his annoyance isn’t limited to matters of immigration. In comments defending North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom law, Pence recently insisted that the states “and the people” should be able to decide who gets rights.

The reason the 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states was to ensure that a majority of people in a state could not use their local government to deprive their fellow citizens of the fundamental rights all Americans should enjoy.

There are areas in which the debate over local versus federal control are legitimate, but In the context of civil rights and civil liberties, “state’s rights” was and is a dog whistle meaning: we should get to pick on disfavored people if we want to, and the federal government shouldn’t be able to interfere.”State’s rights” was the (flimsy) cover used by defenders of segregation and Jim Crow.

What if we were to take that states’ rights “logic” to its ultimate conclusion?

What if the federal government couldn’t make states treat women or African-Americans equally? If I’m a woman living in, say, New York, and New York does choose to protect me, do I take a risk driving through, say, Alabama or Indiana, states that don’t protect women’s equality? If I am an African-American supplier doing business with national companies, do I hire a lawyer to tell me which states I can enter to visit with my customers, confident that I can find a hotel room or a restaurant that will serve me?

Shouldn’t Americans expect their fundamental rights to be respected in all of the states of the union?

There are certainly areas of the law that are local in nature. It would be nonsense to have a national zoning law. Certain criminal statutes are better enforced at the state or local level.  There are others. But in a country where people move freely and frequently, where commerce and transportation and communication are national, the notion that states should be able to legislate different levels of basic citizen rights is not just impractical and unworkable, not just unfair and inequitable–it’s profoundly  stupid.

Of course, for people who want to normalize discriminatory behaviors–what Hillary Clinton quite accurately called deplorable behaviors–the notion that the Supremacy Clause and/or the Bill of Rights might legally prevent them from doing so evidently pisses them off.

Pence refused to call even David Duke “deplorable.” I for one am pretty happy that my right to equal treatment under the law isn’t his or the Indiana General Assembly’s to decide.

 

 

 

 

Apparently, It Isn’t Just Flint

Water, water everywhere…but not a drop to drink.

For several months, headlines about Flint, Michigan have documented a failure of government that is truly unforgivable. Whatever one’s preferred ideology about the proper size or function of government, only the most extreme libertarians or anarchists would argue that government has no responsibility to provide and maintain essential infrastructure.

In the wake of these disclosures, there has been public outrage and condemnation leveled at Michigan Governor Snyder and his administration. That condemnation is deserved. The outrage has reflected a belief that the actions of the administration were “beyond the pale,” that they were a rare and unacceptable deviation from the most basic duties of governance.

Or so we would like to think.

Megan Davies, North Carolina’s chief epidemiologist, resigned this week in the latest bit of drama over drinking water safety — drama that involves the state’s biggest utility and the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Davies, who accused state officials of deliberately misleading residents, gives up her post of seven years and an $188,000 annual salary.

The story begins in 2014, when a Duke Energy power plant spilled 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River. The ash is a byproduct of burning coal, and it’s harmful to people and ecosystems, containing silica, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

When the spill occurred, the state told residents that their well water was unsafe, and Duke Energy provided bottled water to those affected. When the state lifted that order, telling those in the area that the water was now safe to drink, a number of scientists working for the state criticized that move, insisting that the water was still unsafe. Davies has now resigned in protest.

There is still no order from the state requiring Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash deposits. This is corruption and it is potentially costing many lives and damaging the environment enormously.

For those of us who live in the Hoosier state, there’s similarly disquieting news closer to home. Think Progress recently reported that “An Indiana City is Poised to Become the Next Flint.”

In East Chicago, the problem is lead contamination in the soil.

Some environmental law experts say the national attention on Flint may have finally ignited action in East Chicago, where residents like Daniels finally learned the scope of the issues with their soil just two weeks ago. The EPA office responsible for East Chicago, Region 5, is the same one that oversaw Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water system.

But these are hardly the only communities with long-ignored contamination tucked into low-income neighborhoods.

The unfolding health emergency in East Chicago is a window into a larger environmental justice crisis playing out in neighborhoods across the country. And the historically minority, lower-income residents of the Calumet neighborhood will suffer the consequences.

Children exposed to lead at a young age can be left with severe brain damage, resulting in irreversible mental disorders, seizures, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and stunted educational growth.

These disclosures join a number of other signs that governments–especially at the state level–are not discharging their most basic responsibilities. In Indiana, unsafe bridges have also made the news. Nationally, Congress has yet to authorize funds for needed upgrades to the electrical grid. The neglected infrastructure list goes on.

A country that cannot maintain its infrastructure is a third-world country.

I can’t help thinking that this is what happens when a society’s dominant discourse constantly characterizes government as unnecessary, inept and corrupt. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When “good enough for government work” attitudes demean public service, government stops attracting the “best and brightest,” the people who want to serve, to make their communities better; instead, it becomes a refuge for second-raters seeking power or influence.

When I worked for the City of Indianapolis in the late 1970s, I was constantly impressed by the number of administration officials and municipal employees who cared deeply about doing a good job, who worked extra hours and took pride in improving their city.

At some point, when “government work” became a sneer, a lot of those civic-minded people left.

Instead, we have the Snyders, McCrorys and Pences.

States’ Rights. And Wrongs.

David Schultz is an academic colleague of mine, a Professor at Hamline University, who recently used his blog to raise an issue that is all too often ignored: the current operation of federalism.

“Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it” is an old adage that might apply to Republicans when they make calls for federalism and states’ rights.    When Republicans began advocating for more state power they probably never expected to get what they are seeing now–states pressuring one another on policy and human rights issues, and states doing things that the national government cannot do.  And when Democrats and Liberals cheer for state travel bans to punish states for bathroom bills, they too may be opening themselves up to the dangers of federalism.

As David points out, we usually see staunch defenses of “state’s rights” as Republican-speak for “we have the right to ignore parts of the constitution we don’t like.” State’s rights understood in that way have a sordid history. Theoretically, such local control would strengthen grass-roots democracy; in reality, the agenda of many of the champions of the “New Federalism” was to use states rights to weaken the national government and undo what they labeled “the liberal agenda.”

Did empowering the states allow North Carolina and Mississippi to enact anti-LGBT legislation? Did it lead to Indiana’s embarrassing anti-choice bill? Sure. But there are very few single-edged swords.

But conversely, federalism also meant that states were freed up to act and do things they could not do before.  The concept of New Judicial Federalism, launched by a famous 1986 law review article by Supreme Court Justice Brennan, meant that state courts could draw on their constitutions to innovate.  And they have.  It was state courts that launched the gay rights movement, eventually pressuring the US Supreme Court to constitutionalize a right to same-sex marriage last year.  But states have also moved on marijuana legalization, health care reform, banning the death penalty, right to die legislation, minimum wage, and a host of other reforms that the federal government could not pass and which conservatives did not like.  Change is more often than not bottom up and not top down, and the federal courts have taken their cues from state courts to make doctrinal changes under federal law….

But now consider the reaction to the bathroom bills.  States, including Minnesota, have now imposed bans on non-essential travel to these states and are leading the way to encourage corporations and organizations to boycott these states.  Unleashing federalism means that states have the power to pressure one another to toe the policy line.  Doubtful this is what states’ rights advocates envisioned.

Our current understanding of federalism invites its invocation for less than noble reasons, and ultimately, that’s not good news for anyone, conservative or liberal. As David points out,

What if other states decide they do not like legislation in Colorado or Washington legalizing marijuana?  Or what if some states want to pressure another on tax, education, or other policies?  So far the new federalism boycotts have been launched to support liberal causes, but why not for conservative ones too?  Minnesota’s economic travel ban makes many Democrats feel politically smug but that tool can be used against them too.

This type of federalism runs very close to economic protectionism and parochialism that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause was meant to prevent.  The Constitutional framers of 1787 had seen the states discriminating against one another and part of the entire constitutional project was to bring economic and political unity to the country.  Federalism and states rights can as easily be symbolized by a burning cross as it can be by a burning joint. One’s rights should not depend on which state one lives in.

America is already far too fragmented. To the extent that federalism a/k/a “states rights” empowers both those who want to opt out of today’s America and those who want to marginalize the “opt-outers,” it may be time to rethink what “e pluribus unum” ought to look like.