Tag Archives: Supreme Court

When We Can’t Look Away

I’ve been harping on the role of pictures in generating social change–how the flood of visual testimony of racism, culminating in the video of George Floyd’s murder, has forced recognition of a reality too many Americans hadn’t previously understood–or wanted to acknowledge.

But a couple of recent columns–one by Michelle Goldberg and one by Russ Douthat–have expanded on that observation. Both writers suggest that seeing Donald Trump and experiencing the travesty that has been his administration have also been “pictures.”

Goldberg notes “two big examples” of how Trump’s presidency has triggered progress.

The sudden, rapid embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement by white people is a function of the undeniable brutality of George Floyd’s videotaped killing. But public opinion has also moved left on racial issues in reaction to an unpopular president who behaves like a cross between Bull Connor and Andrew Dice Clay.

And the thrilling 6-3 decision the Supreme Court just issued upholding L.G.B.T. equality wouldn’t be as devastating to the religious right if it had happened under a President Clinton.

Goldberg suggests that the Supreme Court’s LGBTQ decision dealt a real blow to the “but the Supreme Court!” argument made by conservative supporters of Trump. (And this was before the Court slapped him down on DACA.)

We’ve all encountered those people: yes, they’ll admit, Trump is an offensive ignoramus, someone we’d never socialize with or hire, but we need to support him in order to put conservative judges on the courts. (The argument used to be accompanied by “and look at your 401K!”–but that justification disappeared with Trump’s criminally incompetent “management” of the pandemic.)

The phrase “But Gorsuch” is shorthand for how conservatives justify all the moral compromises they’ve made in supporting Trump; controlling the Supreme Court makes it all worth it. So there’s a special sweetness in Gorsuch spearheading the most important L.G.B.T. rights decision since the 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Goldberg quotes one conservative for the sentiment that, if Trump’s appointees can’t  deliver Supreme Court victories to social conservatives, “there’s no point.” If that reaction means that social conservatives will be less enthusiastic about heading to the polls in November, it makes the Court’s decision even more satisfying.

On the Sunday before announcement of the Court’s decision (which, I am happy to report, was accompanied by others that cheered me: refusal to hear a challenge to California’s refusal to co-operate with ICE, refusal to hear challenges to state gun control laws, and one protecting the Clean Water Act) Russ Douthat, one of the conservative columnists at the Times, attributed the increasingly leftward shift of public opinion to Trump’s Presidency, suggesting that “so long as he remains in office, Trump will be an accelerant of the right’s erasure, an agent of its marginalization and defeat, no matter how many of his appointees occupy the federal bench.”

In situations of crisis or grave difficulty, Trump displays three qualities, three spirits, that all redound against the movement that he leads. His spirit of authoritarianism creates a sense of perpetual crisis among his opponents, uniting left-wingers and liberals despite their differences. His spirit of chaos, the sense that nothing is planned or under control, turns moderates and normies against him. And finally his spirit of incompetence means that conservatives get far less out of his administration than they would from a genuine imperial president, a man of iron rather than of pasteboard.

Douthat concludes that Trump has been little short of a disaster for conservatives.

What we are seeing right now in America, an accelerated leftward shift, probably won’t continue at this pace through 2024. But it’s likely to continue in some form so long as Trump is conservatism, and conservatism is Trump — and four more years of trying to use him as a defensive salient is not a strategy of survival, but defeat.

For principled conservatives–in contrast to the more numerous racists and homophobes who’ve adopted the label–the Trump Presidency has been that very bad car wreck at the side of the road–the one every passing car slows down to gape at. 

It’s a horrifying picture, and they can’t look away. None of us can–and the compelling pileups keep coming.

Friday’s effort to fire the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York–this administration’s “Saturday night massacre”– looks to usher in an even more dramatic and compelling collision, as Barr frantically tries to keep the lid on pending disclosures and indictments…

Popcorn, anyone?

As a friend recently posted to Facebook, this isn’t government–it’s the Days of Our Lives. 

 

 

Frame Me A Story

When I think about what I learned in law school all those years ago, it really boils down to one truism: he who frames the issue wins the debate.

Okay, that might be a wee bit of overstatement, but a recent column by Linda Greenhouse— one of the most savvy reporters covering the Supreme Court–reminded me just how important framing is, not just in litigation but also in politics.

Greenhouse was writing about two “religious liberty” cases on the Court’s docket this term. As she noted, these cases involve a constitutional gray area; we know that the  Free Exercise Clause requires government to give religious believers room to practice their faith without undue interference. Courts must decide how much room, under what circumstances, and what interference is “undue.”

The cases the Justices must decide this term–Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru— both lend themselves to what Greenhouse calls “alternative narrative” packaging. Religious organizations have been in court ever since the Affordable Care Act was passed, protesting the Act’s requirement that health insurers cover contraception for employees that want it.

Which gets us to posturing. Despite Little Sisters’ name on one of the lawsuits, it has virtually no interest in the decision.

That’s because the order’s lay employees, not all of whom are Catholic, are covered by a church-sponsored insurer, the Christian Brothers Trust, which the government conceded in earlier litigation can’t be penalized for its refusal to provide the disputed contraception coverage.

In other words, the Little Sisters have already won. The actual dispute before the court is between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, on one side, and the Trump administration on the other. The states sued to block the administration’s rule that lifts the contraception mandate entirely from any employer — profit, nonprofit, privately held or publicly traded — with a religious objection to covering birth control, as well as from any privately held employer that claims a “moral” objection.

The actual issue raised by the states is whether the Trump administration complied with the Administrative Procedure Act when it issued the rules.

But that hardly comes through from headlines like “The Endless War on the Little Sisters of the Poor” on a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Helen Alvaré….. And Ramesh Ponnuru’s Bloomberg opinion column declaring that “The Left Is at War With the Little Sisters of the Poor” concluded by demanding, “Leave the nuns alone.”

Talk about a compelling story line. Except that it isn’t accurate, not by a long shot. On the table when the Obama administration left office was a proposed accommodation under which religious nonprofits would not have to do anything — hands off, completely, nothing to sign, no forms to fill out — to have the insurer, with reimbursement by the government, provide “seamless” contraception coverage. That was the Obama administration’s one nonnegotiable requirement. (The administration didn’t want women to have to shop for a stand-alone birth-control insurance policy.)

In other words, the nuns and all other religious employers, were not being asked to “pay for birth control,” far from it, and would have been untouched by the bureaucratic hand. But that still wasn’t sufficient, the religious employers said, to avoid their complicity in the sin of contraception because their insurance policy would still provide the link, however attenuated, between their female employees and contraception.

The court’s second religion case involves the “ministerial exception,” a doctrine that exempts churches from having to follow federal nondiscrimination laws when it comes to employees whose jobs are essentially religious. (As I tell my students, that means that a synagogue can’t be required to hire a Baptist as Rabbi, or a Baptist Church compelled to employ an atheist Sunday school teacher.)

Two Catholic schools in California dismissed fifth-grade teachers, each of whom taught fifth-grade subjects– including, twice a week, a class taught from a religious workbook. One was fired after she developed breast cancer and needed time off for treatment, who sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The other woman alleged age discrimination.

Both schools claim that the ministerial exception applies, and federal anti-discrimination laws don’t.

During last week’s argument, the justices and lawyers jousted over hypothetical questions: Would the exception apply to a janitor? To a football coach? To a football coach who led the team in prayer? An employee at a soup kitchen who leads grace before meals?

The case is being framed as the right of religious schools to select religion teachers. The actual issue is whether a teacher who teaches religion for two hours a week, along with math, social studies, English and everything else, is a “religion teacher.”

Here’s the real question raised by both of these cases: do Americans employed by religious employers forfeit their Constitutional rights?

Would framing these cases accurately win the debate?

 

Protecting The Privileged

The composition of the U.S. Supreme Court is a key area of dispute between Republicans and Democrats. I share the concern, but for rather different reasons than most of the people vocally involved in this debate.

It’s clear that Trump’s cult will sacrifice fundamental fairness and a competent (or even barely functional) federal government in return for reversal of Roe v. Wade.  I have increasingly come to file that possibility under “be careful what you wish for”–not only would abortion still be available in blue (and probably purple) states, but the backlash would be profound; it’s hard to think of any other ruling that would activate more more opponents of the fundamentalist cult that is today’s GOP.

My concerns with the Supreme Court are grounded in its less obvious and more dangerous retreat from the civil liberties jurisprudence of the Warren Court. The current Court’s most predictable bias can be seen a steady stream of decisions favoring the rich and powerful over the poor and disenfranchised.

A recent book by Adam Cohen–Supreme Inequality— is one of the emerging discussions of that bias. An article in Time Magazine by Cohen outlined the book’s central thesis–the conservative Court’s  “deep and abiding sympathy” for the rich. That sympathy is a hugely consequential change from the 1960s, when the Warren Court protected the rights of the poor–from welfare recipients’ right to due process to poor defendants’ right to appointed counsel in criminal cases.

As Cohen documents, however, for the past 50 years, “the Court’s sympathies have been the reverse: on one legal doctrine after another, it has expanded the rights of wealthy individuals and corporations.”

After the Warren Court, Nixon was able to appoint conservatives who shaped the Court we have today. Cohen provides striking examples of the consequences.

One of the first groups the new conservative Court came to the rescue of was rich children, or at least children in wealthy school districts. There was a growing consensus among lower federal courts, state courts, and law professors that the Equal Protection Clause required states to equalize spending between rich and poor school districts. In 1973, however, the Court, by a 5-4 vote, declared that Texas, and other states, had the right to spend more money on children in rich districts than children in poor ones.

As a result of that decision, today there are gaping disparities in school spending nationwide. An analysis of funding in Pennsylvania a few years ago found that one wealthy district spent more than three times as much as the state’s lowest-spending district. In the aggregate, these disparities mean that children from wealthy families across the country begin life with greater educational opportunities, and a better chance at success later on.

Other decisions that elevate the interests of the privileged over others include Citizens United and its forerunners–rulings that gave rich people and corporate “people (!)” a disproportionate voice in American politics.

Cohen isn’t the only person to notice. This week, James Dannenberg resigned from the Supreme Court Bar in a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts that has been widely published. Dannenberg has been a member of that bar since 1972. His letter compares the current Supreme Court, with its solicitude for the rights of the wealthy, privileged and  comfortable, to the widely-reviled Lochner court of the early 20th century that favored big business, banking, and insurance interests, and ruled consistently against child labor, fair wages, and labor regulations.

Dannenberg pulled no punches.

You are doing far more— and far worse– than “calling balls and strikes.” You are allowing the Court to become an “errand boy” for an administration that has little respect for the rule of law.

The Court, under your leadership and with your votes, has wantonly flouted established precedent. Your “conservative” majority has cynically undermined basic freedoms by hypocritically weaponizing others. The ideas of free speech and religious liberty have been transmogrified to allow officially sanctioned bigotry and discrimination, as well as to elevate the grossest forms of political bribery beyond the ability of the federal government or states to rationally regulate it. More than a score of decisions during your tenure have overturned established precedents—some more than forty years old– and you voted with the majority in most. There is nothing “conservative” about this trend. This is radical “legal activism” at its worst.

When a respected member of the Supreme Court bar questions the Court’s commitment to the rule of law, it’s an ominous sign.

The question is, as always, what should we do?

We should certainly think very seriously about the recommendation by legal scholars that the number of Justices be increased–a recommendation that long preceded the current administration.

And most obviously, we need to vote blue up and down the ticket, to ensure that people who will be elevated to the court in the future are “throwbacks” to the Warren Court, rather than pro-plutocrat right-wingers.

 

The Fight Is Never Over

When I first began this blog, one of the issues I frequently addressed was gay rights. LGBTQ folks still faced formidable barriers to equality; same-sex marriage was a pipe dream, with DOMA at the federal level and so-called “mini-DOMAs” in many states.  Activists were fighting “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” and working to include protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in state civil rights statutes.

In Indiana, civil rights organizations and major businesses managed to defeat an effort to place a ban on same-sex marriage in the state’s constitution, but we still lack those “four little words”–sexual identity and gender identity–in our civil rights law.  Unless you live in an Indiana city with an inclusive human rights ordinance, it is still perfectly legal here to fire someone for being gay. We also remain one of only five states without an inclusive hate crimes law.

Even in states like Indiana, though, LGBTQ folks have benefitted from the truly dramatic shift in public opinion that has occurred over the past couple of decades. As homophobia ebbed–it certainly hasn’t disappeared, but it has greatly diminished–this blog focused on other issues.

Attacks on LGBTQ citizens may have diminished, but as young folks like to say, “haters gotta hate.” As an article in the Guardian recently illustrated, there is plenty of room for homophobia among the numerous bigotries exhibited by our accidental President and those who support him.

The Trump administration has attacked LGBT rights in healthcare, employment, housing, education, commerce, the military, prisons and sports.

These efforts, it turns out, were just the beginning.

The president’s anti-LGBT agenda could soon gain significant momentum at the US Supreme Court, where Trump’s Department of Justice (DoJ) is pushing to make it legal to fire people for being gay or transgender. The move would fundamentally reverse civil rights for millions of people, LGBT leaders say, and raises fears that LGBT people may lose the minimal protections and resources they have won in past years.

“This is a critical point in history,” said Alesdair Ittelson, the law and policy director at interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth. “The outcome of this case is going to have a tremendous impact on everyone.”

During the Obama administration, the LGBTQ community won significant victories:  repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” new protections under the Affordable Care Act, an anti-discrimination executive order and expanded recognition of trans rights, among other things. Those victories are now under attack.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has sought to reverse healthcare protections for trans people, moved to ban trans people from serving in the military, eliminated rules protecting trans students and pushed to allow businesses to turn away gay and trans customers if they seek a religious exemption.

Last month, the Trump justice department made its most aggressive anti-gay legal argument to date, urging the supreme court to rule that gay employees are not protected under a longstanding act that prohibits “sex discrimination”. The DoJ filed briefs related to three supreme court cases to be heard together on 8 October – two involving gay men fired from their jobs, and a third involving a woman terminated by her employer after she came out as trans.

The courts have repeatedly held that gay people are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Before Trump, the federal government agreed. But William Barr’s Department of Justice is now arguing that sexual orientation and gender identity are excluded under Title VII because “sex” means only whether people are “biologically male or female.”

Before Trump, the Justice Department pursued justice. Before Trump, judicial nominees elevated to the federal bench were vetted for legal competence, not for fidelity to radical “conservative” (actually fundamentalist Christian) ideology.

Before Trump, even our worst Presidents weren’t rabid White Nationalists, Islamophobes, homophobes, anti-Semites and proud and loud racists.

But that was then, and now is now.

The Court Betrayed Us: What Can We Do?

Talking Points Memo summed up the dilemma for American democracy in the face of the Supreme Court’s dishonest, cynically partisan decision.

The chief’s opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause doesn’t withstand even basic scrutiny. The court’s majority decided that partisan gerrymandering disputes are “non-justiciable” — that is, the courts can’t intervene in them — because, essentially, courts aren’t equipped to come up with a standard to determine when gerrymanders go too far. Never mind that the lack of what the court calls a “judicially manageable standard” appears to have literally never held the justices back before on any other issue. Never mind also that, as the Brennan Center’s Tom Wolf has pointed out, five different federal courts, relying on the work of respected political scientists, have had little trouble coming up with manageable standards to strike down partisan gerrymanders in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, and Maryland. To Roberts, it’s all a bunch of “sociological gobbledygook.”

It’s hard not to see Rucho as a direct relative of past Roberts court rulings that likewise crippled our democracy, like the Shelby County decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, the Citizens United decision striking down campaign finance rules, the Crawford case upholding voter ID laws,  and the Husted opinion allowing purges of voter rolls.

So the Court isn’t going to protect “one person, one vote. The Court leaves in place a tactic that, according to the Cook report, has created today’s political reality: 19 out of 20 voters reside in a non-competitive Congressional District.

That’s where we are. The urgent question is: what do we do?

The easy answer–which is by no means easy to accomplish–is to elect Democrats. Everywhere. City, State and federal offices. That’s not because Democrats are angels, or unwilling to play the gerrymandering game–one of the cases before the Supreme Court was from Maryland, which had been redistricted by Democrats for Democrats. But for a number of reasons (including the fact that Republicans have been much better at partisan redistricting and by far the most numerous beneficiaries of it), Democrats have made fair redistricting an important policy commitment.

If Democrats take the Senate, the House bills Mitch McConnell refuses to hear will pass–Including the all-important H.R.1, the sweeping democracy reform bill that would expand voting access. fix our campaign finance system, and make redistricting fair and transparent. Without a Democratic Senate, however, H.R. 1 won’t pass.

What else can we do?

A local answer that is “doable” in some states is to mount a referendum. These have been very successful in states where such mechanisms are available. Indiana, unfortunately, is not one of those states.

Long-term, what we need in Indiana is an amendment to the state’s constitution. That document currently places responsibility for redistricting with the state legislature–a  provision that creates an obvious conflict of interest. It places decision-making in the hands of those whose interests will be affected, allowing lawmakers to choose their voters rather than the other way around.

The problem is, efforts to amend the Indiana Constitution–ideally, to provide that redistricting will henceforth be the responsibility of a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission–must originate with that same conflicted legislature.

I invite my more creative lawyer and political friends to weigh in, but after much “mulling over” (and not an inconsiderable amount of alcohol), here’s the best advice I can come up with for our not-as-Red-as-people-think Hoosier state:

We need a “movement.” (I’m aspiring to Hong Kong sized….)

Furious Hoosiers can build on the coalition already in place under the auspices of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. We should make lots of noise;  we should endorse candidates for the General Assembly who commit to support a constitutional amendment addressing gerrymandering; and we should “call out” legislators who sabotage efforts at representative government.

I realize it won’t be easy. Common Cause has been fighting this battle for nearly 20 years, and Indiana is still the 5th most gerrymandered state in the nation. But over that time, many more people have come to understand the problem. What the forces of change have going for us now is anger–anger at the corruption of Trump and his Administration, anger at the Vichy Republicans who put party before country, and anger at a partisan Court that rewards Mitch McConnell’s willingness to cheat.

However energized the anti-gerrymandering movement, however, there is no escaping the conclusion that the first order of business is turnout in 2020.

Indiana was blue in 2008, partly because a lot of people who didn’t often vote, did. And as I have pointed out before, even Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering won’t protect the GOP super-majority if we have massive turnout. 

A tsunami of votes in 2020 can “jump start” a grass-roots effort to make “one person, one vote” a reality.

If that fails, so does democratic self-government.

Happy 4th of July.