Tag Archives: reforms

Restoring The Rule Of Law

In early September, a post to the Lawfare blog considered what it would take to repair the Trumpian assault on the rule of law.

For those unfamiliar with Lawfare, the blog–launched in 2010– is devoted to what it describes as “that nebulous zone in which actions taken or contemplated to protect the nation interact with the nation’s laws and legal institutions.”

I often talk about the rule of law without bothering to define it, but at this juncture in our shared national experience, I think it would be useful to step back and do so. The American Bar Association definition will do nicely:

The rule of law is a set of principles, or ideals, for ensuring an orderly and just society. Many countries throughout the world strive to uphold the rule of law where no one is above the law, everyone is treated equally under the law, everyone is held accountable to the same laws, there are clear and fair processes for enforcing laws, there is an independent judiciary, and human rights are guaranteed for all.

The linked post begins by stating the obvious: Trump’s tenure has been a constant, unremitting assault on those principles, and the behavior of his administration has inflicted considerable damage on America’s most fundamental values.

His attacks on the free press, the independent judiciary and the independence of the Department of Justice have all created significant damage. His abuse of executive discretionary authority has made a mockery of the concept of checks and balances. His gaming of the judicial system has revealed weaknesses in our legal process. His attempts to place himself (and his family and his business interests) above the law have called into question foundational national conceptions of equal justice. In short, President Trump has led a wrecking crew (aided and abetted by William Barr and Mitch McConnell) that has severely damaged American legal norms of behavior.

The question, of course, is “what can we do about it?” Assuming a Biden victory in November, what are the remedies available to policymakers to restore respect for and adherence to the fundamental principles of the rule of law?

Because Lawfare’s focus is on foreign policy, the linked post primarily describes specific aspects of Presidential authority and Congressional oversight that are important to the conduct of foreign affairs. But most of the recommendations sweep more widely–for example, tightening the conditions under which Presidents can place “acting” officials in important government positions, and for how long–a process that currently allows a President to avoid having the Senate determine whether that individual is qualified and should be confirmed. As the post reminds us, the Trump administration “has exploited this authority to avoid the Senate confirmation process while placing preferred individuals in key positions.”

Other reforms with broad implications would make disclosure of Presidential tax returns mandatory (this one needs no explanation), and significantly narrow  Presidents’ ability to declare “emergencies” and thus exercise emergency powers. Added protections for Inspectors General would likewise seem obvious–and important.

There are other reforms suggested, and the post is worth reading in its entirety. I hope incominglawmakers take its recommendations seriously.

Assuming–as hopeful people must–a wholesale repudiation of this lawless and dangerous administration and its GOP enablers, Americans can decide to make a silk purse out of the  Trumpian sow’s ear–we can see from the lawless behaviors and the assaults on democratic norms where the legal and structural weaknesses are, and move to strengthen them. We can re-commit this country to the rule of law and to our founding aspirations.

Or, of course, we can lapse further into tribal conflict, and thereby accelerate America’s decline.

 

Past Time For These–And Other–Reforms

Americans shouldn’t allow Trump’s COVID diagnosis to become the ultimate distraction from the  electoral choices that face us, or the structural challenges we will face even in the best of electoral circumstances.

The bottom line is that, even If America rids itself of Trump and his GOP enablers, citizens will still have a lot of work to do. We can no longer pretend that our electoral and legal systems are working as intended– for that matter, several are not working at all.

The Democrats, at least, have noticed.

On September 23d, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece authored by several Congressional Democrats, including Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler. Noting that Trump was the first President to ignore the reforms passed in the wake of Watergate, they wrote that

With a lawless president in office who acts as if rules are for suckers, political norms for losers and governing for chumps, it is clear we need a new series of reforms to protect our democracy.

On Wednesday, we are introducing such reforms, which we began drafting more than a year ago not only to address the president’s unique abuses, but also to go beyond them to restore accountability, root out corruption and ensure transparency in government for future White House occupants.

The reforms these lawmakers are proposing include amending the pardon power to make it clear that a President cannot pardon himself or his immediate family, adding teeth to the emoluments clause by adding explicit enforcement provisions and enhanced penalties, and increasing financial disclosure rules.

The bill also addresses the need to strengthen accountability and transparency. The op-ed notes that Trump has “obstructed congressional oversight, targeted whistleblowers who speak out against him and fired officials whose responsibility is to objectively investigate wrongdoing in the federal government,” and states the obvious: that  Congress needs access to documents and  the ability to compel testimony from witnesses in order to conduct that oversight. Their bill strengthens Congress’ right to enforce its subpoenas in court, and has other provisions aimed at improving congress’ ability to discharge its duties as  a co-equal branch of government.

The bill also contains measures that are a direct response to Trump’s contempt for the rule of law and for democratic norms:

We must also reclaim Congress’s power of the purse from an overzealous executive branch, increase transparency around government spending and ensure there are consequences to deter the misuse of taxpayer funds. Our bill will prevent the executive branch from using nonpublic documents or secret legal opinions to circumvent Congress and unilaterally enact its agenda behind closed doors. Our bill will impose limits on presidential declarations of emergencies and any powers triggered by such declarations, unless extended by a congressional vote, and require the president to provide all documents regarding presidential emergency actions to Congress.

These and the other reforms enumerated in the bill are welcome and probably overdue. The ability to pass the measure rather obviously depends upon turning the Senate blue on November 3rd.

But here’s my problem.

So long as most Americans don’t understand the rules we already have, or the reasons we have them–so long as they fail to recognize the profound effect legal structure exerts on the mechanics of government, we are ignoring one of the most dangerous threats to ethical and constitutional governance: widespread civic ignorance.

Far too many Americans vote for presidents and governors and mayors without understanding either the skills required for those jobs or–even more importantly–the constraints applicable to those positions. They evidently assume that they are electing temporary kings and queens–people who will take office, issue decrees, and change reality. (Trump’s base, for example, evidently thinks his constant stream of “Executive Orders” all have legal effect, although few do.) Worse, they fail to recognize the ways in which structures that were useful (or at least, less harmful) in the past have distorted the exercise of the franchise and given us a system in which rural minorities and thinly populated states dominate an overwhelmingly urban country.

When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–your ability to make informed choices at the ballot box is impaired.

The reforms listed in the linked op-ed are among the many changes we need to make. But a thoughtful discussion of those needed reforms requires a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and what “properly” looks like.

Tomorrow, I will address additional needed reforms.