Tag Archives: rule of law

An Important Test For The Court

In the three-plus years that Donald Trump has occupied the Oval Office–I deliberately didn’t say “has been President” because in any rational sense, he has not fulfilled that function–longstanding norms of American governance have been turned upside down.

Nowhere have the deviations from expectations been more worrisome than in the courts.

For years, legal scholars have debated whether this or that issue should be settled through litigation or by electoral politics. But I am aware of no credible argument that the courts should be divested of their independence and turned into supine tools of the executive branch.

Our idiot President recently called upon Supreme Court justices who disagree with him to recuse themselves–displaying not only his trademark contempt for constitutional checks and balances, but his embarrassing ignorance of American constitutionalism. That contempt and ignorance would not ordinarily be worthy of note–every day, the insane tweets and verbal diarrhea bear ample witness to both–except for a case that is making its way to the Supreme Court.

A recent article by Nancy LeTourneau at Washington Monthly pointed to the disquieting reason for Trump’s unprecedented assault on the Supremes. She begins her analysis by pointing to a truly telling statistic:

Trump administration’s incompetence has led to an abysmal record in the courts. Whereas previous administrations prevailed in the courts 80 percent of the time, this president has failed in over 90 percent of the cases his administration has argued.

As she notes, the Trump administration’s response to these failures has been to appeal directly to the Supreme Court–to ask the Court  to expedite emergency relief from the injunctions of the lower courts. Le Tourneau quotes one legal scholar to the effect that Trump has gone to the Supreme Court with such a request 24 times in less than three years– compared to a total of eight such requests during the 16 years of the George W. Bush and Obama administration’s combined.

Trump has no understanding of the legitimacy concerns raised by such petitions, of course. He actually believes that any criticism of him or his administration should be grounds for recusal, criticism and vilification. And he has other concerns as well.

The reason Trump is on the attack against liberal Supreme Court justices probably has more to do with a case that is being made against Justice Clarence Thomas. As we’ve seen, the president is in the midst of a purge of federal employees who don’t demonstrate enough loyalty to him. Jonathan Swan reported that Ginni Thomas—the wife of Clarence Thomas—has been deeply involved in lobbying on behalf of a purge, providing the administration with lists of who needs to go as well as potential replacements.

In response, there have been calls for Thomas to recuse himself on matters related to Trump and his administration.  Trump’s call for Sotomayor and Ginsberg to recuse themselves is not only a way to further politicize the Supreme Court; it also provides his media enablers with a distraction from the issues surrounding Thomas and the ability to pretend that both sides do it.

All of these issues have prompted Trump’s defensive and unPresidential behavior. But even more significant is a case  that could require him to release his tax returns.

From everything we’ve seen, that is the hill that this president is prepared to defend at all costs. And according to CNN, the latest dissent issued by Sotomayor could indicate that tensions are rising as the justices consider these major cases.

Here, then, is a critical test of the Court’s independence. Will Trump’s appointees behave like the grateful tools he clearly believes they are? Will they demonstrate allegiance to Trump, or to the Constitution?

The answer to that question will tell us whether we retain a system based–however insecurely–on the rule of law.

 

What Is The Remedy For A McConnell?

An article I read in Vox a month or so ago has continued to bother me. The subject-matter was summed up in the sub-head: “The political system has an answer for a threat like Donald Trump, but none for a threat like Mitch McConnell.”

If Trump often acts like he is above the law, it is only because McConnell lets him. If McConnell decided to lead Senate Republicans in investigating and curbing Trump’s corruption, abuses of power, and obstruction of justice, Trump’s options would be to reform his behavior or be ejected from office.

The article goes on to make a point that is so obvious it is often overlooked. Despite their  differences (McConnell is evil, calculating and smart, Trump is mentally disordered, undisciplined and stupid) they do have one thing in common. They are both utterly shameless.

At the core of this is McConnell’s peculiar form of political shamelessness. This is the way McConnell and Trump are more similar than is often appreciated: they have both proven that the range of political action is disciplined less by external constraint than by a politician’s sense of shame — the degree to which they turn back in the face of public criticism, media opprobrium, elite backlash.

It was shamelessness, for instance, that let McConnell refuse to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland and then, grinning, admit that he’d fill a Supreme Court seat if one came up in 2020. McConnell’s predecessors held the same power he did and none of them attempted that maneuver. They weren’t restrained by laws or rules. They were restrained by temperament and a belief that to break the system was to betray the public.

When political scientists talk about “democratic norms,” it is the restraints of temperament and fidelity to tradition and rules that they are referencing.  McConnell has demonstrated his rejection of political accountability, and the system has no mechanism for dealing with someone who acts as if the rules simply don’t apply to him.

The Founders designed our form of government with demagogues in mind. That’s why the president is checked by Congress, up to and including the threat of removal. But they believed that Congress would consider itself in competition with the president, that ambition would check ambition. They did not foresee the rise of political parties and the way that would bring parts of Congress into cooperation with the president, that ambition would protect ambition.

The political system has an answer for a threat like Donald Trump but none for a threat like Mitch McConnell.

McConnell isn’t simply ignoring duties imposed by the Constitution; he is– as the Vox article says–shameless. His actions defy our expectations of normal human behavior, not because he is breaking the rules in order to benefit himself (lots of people do that), but because he is publicly flaunting his violations and daring observers to do anything about them.

As Rochefoucauld said, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. McConnell is withholding that tribute. He doesn’t even pretend to behave honorably; his entire, smug demeanor says “I’m demolishing longstanding norms and traditions because I can and there is nothing any of you can do about it.”

The only remedies available are political: McConnell could lose his Senate race in 2020, or Democrats could take the Senate, removing his authority to do significant damage. Given that he represents Kentucky, the first is unlikely. (Possible, but unlikely.)

The second, I submit, is mandatory. Both he and Trump have to go, and only massive turnout will rid us of both of them.

 

The “Best People”

Remember when Trump promised an administration populated by the “best people”?

I thought I’d devote a post to former Secretary of Labor Acosta before his particular scandal is eclipsed by others–most recently, Trump’s effort to appoint a nutcase supporter with absolutely no credentials to the Intelligence post being vacated by Dan Coats.

Gail Collins, as usual, summed up the Acosta situation with pith and vinegar:

On Wednesday, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta tried to hold back the outrage that’s been building since people learned that, as a federal prosecutor in South Florida, he had brokered a very lenient punishment for Jeffrey Epstein, a rich guy who liked to have sex with underage girls.

Explanation: It was a good deal. You know how this administration feels about good deals.

“The Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free,” Acosta said in his calm, sort of toneless voice. “Our prosecutors … presented the ultimatum.” Which was that Epstein, who had molested a parade of teenagers, some only 14, had to serve at least a little jail time. The punishment Acosta wrangled with his alleged best possible efforts involved 13 months in prison, during which Epstein was free to spend most days at his office as long as he slept overnight in the clink.

Before the uproar caused Acosta to resign, Trump (of course!) defended him–in terms that, as Collins notes, displayed his total ignorance of what it is the Department of Labor does:

Ever since the Epstein scandal arose, Trump has been defending Acosta, stressing what an “excellent” job he’s doing. After all, the president told reporters, “our economy is so good, our unemployment numbers are at record lows.” You might have thought he was under the impression the secretary of labor had something to do with boosting the economy. As opposed to things like workplace safety and collecting job statistics.

And oh, yeah, human trafficking. Very embarrassing that Acosta is one of the people who’s supposed to protect underage women from being sold as sex slaves.

Hmm. Before this week, what do you think Donald Trump thought the Department of Labor did?

My husband and I recently spent a week with a cousin who lives near Palm Beach, the nexus of this scandal. She recommended a book by James Patterson and two co-authors, written in the wake of the sweetheart deal negotiated by Acosta. (The book was written long before Epstein’s recent arrest.) I downloaded and read it, and it was eye opening–if you can be nauseated and have your eyes opened at the same time.

Titled Filthy Rich: The Billionaire’s Sex Scandal–The Shocking True Story of Jeffrey Epstein, the book offered a view into a lifestyle enjoyed not just by Epstein, but by the obscenely rich milieu in which he traveled–a lifestyle incomprehensible to most Americans. Patterson is known for his fiction, but this book was solid reporting, with sources clearly identified.

Leaving aside the predatory sex (and the inevitable curiosity about which of Epstein’s “pals” participated, or at least were aware of his proclivities), what the book most vividly described is the gigantic gap between the criminal justice system encountered by the rich and that system as applied to the rest of us. The local police detectives who did their jobs and documented Epstein’s abuse–and the incredible extent of that abuse–were no match for Epstein’s high-powered lawyer friends, including Alan Dershowitz.

Donald Trump was a member of Epstein’s milieu for a number of years. Whether or not he participated in the sex (a reasonable question given his history), he clearly and fully accepted the billionaire club’s cultural assumptions, including the belief that the rules that apply to the “little people” don’t apply to them.

One “takeaway” from the book: In Trumpworld, the “best people” are pretty despicable specimens.

 

 

Checks And Balances

There’s a reason Donald Trump has been focused on the selection and seating of highly partisan judges with little to no judicial experience. When he is sued over his autocratic actions, and the cases are heard by competent judges currently on the bench, he loses. Bigly.

The courts are part of that “checks and balances” thing the Founders were so hung up on.

The Washington Post considered Trump’s “win-loss” ratio, and Ed Brayton (Dispatches from the Culture Wars) commented on the report.

The Washington Post looks at the track record of legal challenges to Donald Trump’s policies, especially in regard to changing Obama-era regulations and issuing executive orders, and finds that he’s losing those cases in court at an astonishing, but predictable, rate.

It’s clear from the Post’s report that Trump and his cabinet of incompetents lost a number of cases simply because they ignored relevant laws prescribing the process that had to be followed.

Federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration at least 63 times over the past two years, an extraordinary record of legal defeat that has stymied large parts of the president’s agenda on the environment, immigration and other matters.

In case after case, judges have rebuked Trump officials for failing to follow the most basic rules of governance for shifting policy, including providing legitimate explanations supported by facts and, where required, public input…

“What they have consistently been doing is short-circuiting the process,” said Georgetown Law School’s William W. Buzbee, an expert on administrative law who has studied Trump’s record. In the regulatory cases, Buzbee said, “They don’t even come close” to explaining their actions, “making it very easy for the courts to reject them because they’re not doing their homework.”

Somehow, “homework” isn’t a word one associates with Trump, or with the Keystone Kop assortment of cabinet officials he has appointed. Usually, the “win rate” for government in these sorts of cases is about 70 percent. But as of mid-January of this year, a database at the Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU Law School shows Trump’s win rate at about 6 percent.

Actually, that’s not bad for someone who clearly isn’t familiar with even 6% of the Constitution, and who has exhibited 0% knowledge of the rules and norms governing the office he holds.

Ed Brayton, as usual, cuts to the heart of the issue:

There’s a simple reason this is happening and it goes back to the old proverb that a fish rots from the head down. Trump could not possibly care any less about pesky things like legal protocols and requirements. He thinks if he just bellows out “I want this done,” it gets done. Following proper legal procedures is for the little guy, the plebes, the rabble, not for narcissistic wannabe dictators who are used to getting their way.

The only way Trump, McConnell and today’s GOP can game the system going forward is by corrupting the judiciary. And on that, their progress should terrify us all.

Assaulting Democracy

The warning signs are everywhere.

Governing Magazine has added to the evidence that America is losing even the pretense of democracy.

In the first several years after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helped states make more low-income people eligible for Medicaid, it was only Democratic-led states that took the federal government up on its offer. Republicans have since warmed to the idea — but only on their own terms, and sometimes even if it means going against voters’ wishes…..

While some Republicans in Georgia, Oklahoma and Wyoming are exploring the possibility of Medicaid expansion in their states, Idaho and Utah are undoing ballot measures that voters passed in November to expand Medicaid.

In Utah, the Republican governor responded to the success of a ballot initiative expanding Medicaid by signing a bill that would only cover people earning up to the federal poverty line; it would also cap enrollment if costs exceed what’s expected.

But the terms of the ballot measure, which passed with 53 percent of the vote, were to expand Medicaid eligibility to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.

Utah has to get federal approval of this law, and similar measures were not approved during the Obama administration. The Trump Administration, of course, is hostile to pretty much everything the federal government does, so it might very well allow what is a clear repudiation of the will of the voters in Utah.

It isn’t only Utah.

Idaho is also eyeing a rollback of its citizen-led Medicaid expansion ballot measure. The initiative won handily, with 61 percent of the vote….But legislation to void the initiative is currently making its way through the Idaho statehouse.

And many of you will recall that in 2016, Maine voters approved Medicaid expansion, but the state’s certifiable nut-case then-governor, Paul LePage, prevented it from taking effect.

Whatever one’s position on Medicaid expansion, these are truly breathtaking examples of legislative and administrative chutzpah. The citizens of these states voted on an issue before them; in essence, they gave instructions to the people who are presumably in office to represent them. And those people simply ignored them.

This is not unlike Trump’s decision to declare an “emergency” that would allow him to defy a Congressional vote. Even if a member of Congress believes the wall should be built, he or she should be appalled by a Presidential action that strikes at the very heart of the Constitution’s separation of powers. It ignores as irrelevant the constitutional provision that vests decisions about spending in Congress, a provision that–before now–has constrained lawmakers and administrators alike.

Congress said no. That should have been the end of it. The President’s “emergency” is not only bogus, it ignores the clear division of authority mandated by the nation’s charter.

Yet every single Indiana Republican Representative voted against the House Resolution to reverse that dangerous attack on a fundamental element of American governance, placing the interests of their political party above both the good of the country and fidelity to their oaths of office.

Without the rule of law–without lawmakers and public officials who are willing to accept the decisions of voters whether they like those decisions or not; without lawmakers who are willing to insist upon compliance with the Constitution even when it is their party that is breaking the rules–we don’t have a democracy or a republic or even a legitimate government.

We have a banana republic.