Tag Archives: rule of law

Mitch McConnell Issues A Threat

This morning, I’ve created a theoretical exercise. it’s intended to put you in the proper frame of mind to consider the latest outrage from Mitch McConnell–aka the most dangerous man in America.

Assume we are watching a TV western. The sheriff–having won a hard-fought election in his scruffy border town by promising to keep the residents safe from (unspecified) “bad guys”–issues a proclamation promising to deal severely with law-breakers. Well, maybe not all law-breakers. He’ll deal severely with any law-breakers who supported his opponent in the election.

If someone who supported him breaks the rules, however, he says he’ll look the other way.

If we encountered  a show with that plot device, we’d be incredulous–not only is that not what we mean when we champion law and order, we’d turn the TV off while muttering about the ridiculous premise–after all, when TV bad guys decide to engage in nefarious acts, they don’t typically broadcast that intention. If that storyline did appear in our fictional TV episode, we’d expect the local folks–including those who’d supported the sheriff– to rise up and run him and his co-conspirators out of town, thereby reinforcing the primacy of justice over partisanship.

Which brings us to Mitch McConnell.

After the Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Jackson, a Black female jurist, will replace Merrick Garland), McConnell reacted with a threat.

In an interview with the conservative radio commentator Hugh Hewitt, Mr. McConnell said Republicans would most likely block any Supreme Court nominee put forward by Mr. Biden in 2024 if Republicans regained control of the Senate in next year’s elections and a seat came open.

Along with most lawyers, I was astonished and infuriated in 2016 when McConnell brazenly refused even to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, piously intoning that it was “too close to the presidential election,” although that election was months away and nominees had previously been confirmed to the Court during similar timeframes..

As we all saw, that excuse was shown to be the partisan hogwash it was when Trump nominated, and McConnell pushed through,  Amy Coney Barrett a mere six weeks before the November election.

Republicans who had banded together in 2016 at Mr. McConnell’s urging and declared that it was not appropriate to confirm a Supreme Court nominee during an election year had remarkable conversions in the case of Judge Barrett. The Republican leader insisted that he had not changed his position, arguing that because Mr. Obama was a Democrat, it was entirely appropriate for members of his party to block his nominee.

“What was different in 2020 was we were of the same party as the president,” Mr. McConnell told Mr. Hewitt. “And that’s why we went ahead with it.”

Partisan misuse of power, in McConnell-land, is “entirely appropriate.”

America without the rule of law would not be America. As far short of our aspirations and stated beliefs as this country has often fallen, it still seems absolutely incomprehensible that a high-ranking, powerful political figure would publicly–proudly!– trumpet his intention to ignore so foundational a principle.

I often refer to the rule of law, assuming readers understand its importance. The shorthand we all hear is: the same rules apply to everyone. Maybe that’s too abstract.

As an educational site maintained by the US Courts defines the concept:

Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are: Publicly promulgated, Equally enforced, Independently adjudicated; and consistent with international human rights principles.

The Trump administration waged an unrelenting attack on the rule of law, culminating with Trump’s pardons of some of its sleaziest transgressors. But even Trumpers as morally and ethically compromised as Bill Barr drew the line at publicly announcing their disdain for fair and equal application of the rules.

McConnell is the sheriff from my mythical TV show–the guy who publicly announces that the rules don’t matter–that whenever possible, he will ignore fundamental fairness and the national interest, and exercise power solely to privilege his partisans.

In a very real sense, he has promised  a coup. 

Michael Flynn must be so pleased.



Pride Month Musings

June is Pride Month. It wasn’t so long ago that today’s widespread recognition of–and support for– Pride would have been unthinkable. In my adult lifetime, there have been few changes in social attitudes as swift or as welcome as the legal and social acceptance of LGBTQ Americans.

That said, progress inevitably invites blowback. We are particularly seeing it in punitive legislation directed at transgender Americans. But we are also seeing continued opposition to gay equality from the same Christian Nationalists and religious fundamentalists who are determined to ignore America’s history of racism and other bigotries.

The good news is that anti-gay attitudes are far less pervasive among young Americans; in fact, sociologists and scholars of religion attribute much of the exodus by young people from fundamentalist congregations to distaste for their theological homophobia. Among older, conservative, religious Americans, however, LGBTQ citizens still encounter considerable bias–and when sexual orientation is coupled with HIV, no matter how well controlled, considerable stigma.

It’s tempting, during Pride month and especially during the local celebrations and parades, to focus on the considerable progress made by the gay community, and that progress is well worth celebrating. But it’s important to couple the celebration with recognition of remaining challenges.

For that matter, the contemporary lessons to be drawn aren’t  limited to LGBTQ issues.

Over the years, Black Americans, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans and other minorities have achieved significant legal protections: civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, and (in the case of LGBTQ folks) recognition of same-sex marriage have all gone a long way to level the legal playing field.

Hearts and minds have proved to be a harder nut to crack.

Too many Americans approach issues of inclusion and equality from a “zero-sum” perspective. The fear of “replacement” (more on that in upcoming posts) is an example. The evident calculation is that If “those people” get rights, my rights have been correspondingly diminished. The history of the gay rights struggle provides an excellent example; remember the hue and cry over “special rights”? The argument was that laws requiring equal legal treatment of gay men and lesbians were really an award of “special rights,” and the implication was that straight people didn’t have those “special rights.” 

When the Founders hammered out the U.S. Constitution, one of its most significant breaks with the past was the establishment of a legal system that would evaluate citizens based upon behavior, not social status or identity. Even when America hasn’t lived up to the principles set out in our constituent documents—and we frequently haven’t—the  official American vision has been one of a society in which group identity is legally irrelevant, a society where an individual’s conduct is the only proper concern of government.

In other words, in America, individuals are supposed to be rewarded or punished based upon what they do, not who they are. Race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and similar markers of group affiliation are supposed to be irrelevant to our legal status. No matter how meaningful those affiliations may be to us personally, the government may not award or restrict our rights based upon them.

Although they seem unable to understand or accept it, that basic element of America’s rule of law protects Christian Nationalists as well as members of minority populations.

The larger challenge we face is how to internalize that legal premise. How do we socialize our children into a worldview that sees other human beings as other human beings, and accepts or dismisses them individually, based upon their actions and behaviors–evidence of the content of their characters–not on their skin color, their sexual orientation or their theological preferences.

We have a way to go…

Happy Pride Month.









A Case In Point

It wasn’t just Donald Trump. For a number of years, Americans have been electing “celebrities”–actors and people famous for being famous–to government positions from mayors (Clint Eastwood) to governors (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to (most recently and unfortunately) President.

When Kanye West can announce a presidential campaign with a straight face, Caitlin Jenner assures people that knowing nothing about government qualifies her to govern California, and Matthew McConaughey is touted as a viable candidate for governor of Texas, the trend is hard to dismiss (although alcohol helps).

This willingness of voters to put people with absolutely no government experience into positions of authority is troubling on numerous levels, but what drives me absolutely bonkers is the lack of understanding of the day-to-day responsibilities of governance that the phenomenon represents, and the message it sends to less-famous candidates for public office, who have come to focus on public performance rather than attending to the unexciting “grunt work” of governing.

Indiana provides a case in point. (Well, okay, several. But today, I just want to focus on one.)

While our legislators are busy pontificating about abortion, vaccination, the Second Amendment, protecting developers from the need to protect wetlands, and awarding ever-increasing amounts of public funds to private religious schools, they are paying far less attention to basic governance issues like ordinary citizens’ ability to access  the rules and regulations with which they are expected to comply.

Toward the end of my academic life, I served as a very informal consultant for a project undertaken by Professor Ross Silverman and several colleagues. Silverman’s research required that he collect the laws of Indiana’s counties, and his results were published as a research methods piece in the American Journal of Public Health. 

Silverman is a Professor of Public Health & Law, and he holds a joint appointment at IU’s Fairbanks School of Public Health and the McKinney School of Law. As he noted in an email announcing publication of the research,

During our process we discovered that nearly half of all Indiana counties either do not publish their ordinances and regulations online or have only partial or out of date materials available electronically. As you also know, there’s no law requiring electronic publication or a central repository either.

To acquire these documents meant we drove 1000s of miles & scanned 25000+ pages ourselves at County government offices dotted around the state.

We were most interested in the laws that may have an effect on the lives of people with substance use disorders, but once we got to see the primary source materials, we found they were usually kept in 3 ring binders organized by passage date, not topic, so there’s no quick way to pick out the relevant documents.

These types of obstacles and labor costs makes it very challenging to conduct statewide intrastate policy analysis, maintain up to date data, or even know your local laws.

Leaving aside the impediment to analysis this lack of a system represents, citizens’ ability to access the rules they must obey is a basic tenet of the rule of law.

How do we expect citizens to obey laws of which they are unaware? Why–in the age of the Internet–are ordinances not routinely digitized, categorized and made available online? Why–in a state like Indiana where “home rule” is a joke–can’t the members of the Indiana General Assembly pass a law requiring local units of government to make their rules accessible?

Granted, sponsorship of such a measure wouldn’t offer an opportunity for posturing, of appealing to a particular voting or donor constituency, or otherwise enhancing a politico’s name recognition, but it would certainly improve governance in a state that–to put it charitably–is not noted for excellence in that department.

Even Mussolini understood the importance–and political benefit–of making the trains run on time….




Two Cheers For The Deep State

I spent the past 22 years teaching students how to become members of the “deep state.”

Of course, we didn’t call it that, or see it as the negative that phrase suggests. Our faculty taught students who planned to enter public service–or civil society–the skills, knowledge and especially the specific ethical principles such service requires.

I even co-authored a textbook: American Public Service: Constitutional and Ethical Foundations. 

What the neanderthals sneeringly call “the deep state” is a bureaucracy devoted to those principles–government employees who understand that their loyalty is not to transient political authorities, but to a constitutionally-grounded ethic of public service. Every time civil servants have thwarted Trump, they have demonstrated a commitment to those principles.

A recent post to Juanita Jean described how a principled government workforce–the  ethical denizens of that “deep state”–acted to “preserve and protect” the operations of one government agency: Radio Free Europe.

Trump had installed one of his loyalists, a typical Trump sycophant named Michael Pack, to manage the agency.  Pack proceeded to replace members of the board and senior staff with Trumpers, ideologues, and conservative activists. He also dissolved all of the boards of agencies under his authority and packed those boards and the staffs of those agencies with what has been described as “a rogue’s gallery of religious fanatics, activists, ideologues and weirdos.”

Biden has already signaled a housecleaning once he assumes office, but according to reports, Pack is not planning on going quietly–he secretly began entering into binding employment contracts with his handpicked staff–the terms of which would block any Biden firings for two years.

The linked post tells what happened next.

When the career staff found out what Pack was doing, they said not no, but hell no, and blew the whistle.  Day before yesterday, they sent a four page letter to McConnell, Pelosi, and Senate and House leaders, the Inspector General, and the presidential transition team.  The letter was signed by over two dozen staffers including the editorial board, the editor in chief, and all the heads of the global regional operations.  In the letter, they made this statement:

“These actions include your recent distribution of a revised grant agreement with RFE/RL that has been unilaterally prepared by your office and is intended to revoke RFE/RL’s financial autonomy and embed your appointees within both RFE/RL and its Board of Directors for a period of two years – an unprecedented departure from RFE/RL’s tradition of working in a bipartisan manner with changing U.S. administrations. This conflicts with the appointment process enshrined in law and in our bylaws, and is precisely the kind of political power maneuver that RFE/RL regularly witnesses in places like Russia, Hungary, Belarus, and Tajikistan. We never thought we’d see it from our own oversight agency.”

What’s particularly galling is that in October a Superior Court Judge in DC ruled that Pack had acted illegally in dissolving the board and seizing control of the Open Technology Fund which was established to help areas of the world access to open and secure internet access.  Pack has ignored the court order and refused to reestablish the boards he dissolved.

Lawyers and political scientists talk a lot about the importance of the rule of law. What Pack attempted at Radio Free Europe is a perfect example of what happens when people in positions of authority ignore their ethical/constitutional obligations and make a mockery of the rule of law.

It took the courageous revolt by those much-reviled bureaucrats of the “deep state” to prevent the thugs and mobsters of the Trump Administration from eviscerating constitutional controls on agency operations.

Similar scenarios have undoubtedly played out in other parts of the federal government. We owe the much-maligned “deep state” our respect and our gratitude.



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.