Tag Archives: Supreme Court

The Crux Of The Problem

The Senate–which has managed to do pretty much nothing during the pandemic (granted, it wasn’t exactly productive in the months before that, either)–is rushing through the process of confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

There are many aspects to this unseemly exhibition, but one that has been less remarked upon is the connection between the Senate’s growing problem of disproportionate representation and that body’s importance to the seating of Supreme Court Justices.

A recent post by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com connected those dots.

Silver says that the constitution of the Senate poses an “enormous problem for Democrats”–not simply because the parties as currently constituted map onto urban and rural representation. (Democrats dominate in cities; Republicans triumph in rural areas.) As he points out,

 because the Senate is responsible for confirming Supreme Court picks, that means the Supreme Court is a huge problem for Democrats too. Sure, Democrats might win back the Senate this year — indeed, they were slight favorites to do so before the Ginsburg news. But in the long run, they’re likely to lose it more often than not.

You can probably grasp intuitively that a legislative body which provides as much representation to Wyoming (population: 580,000) as California (population: 39.5 million) will tend to favor rural areas. But it’s a bigger effect than you might realize, so let’s run some numbers. At FiveThirtyEight, our favorite way to distinguish between urban and rural areas is based on using census tracts to estimate how many people live within a 5-mile radius of you.

Using this metric, Silver broke the country down into four categories: those with fewer than 25,000 people within 5 miles were classified as rural; those falling between 25,000 and 100,000 were exurban; between 100,000 and 250,000 were suburban or small city; and over 250,000 were urban. Using this (somewhat arbitrary) classification system, Silver found that these “buckets” were almost even: 25 percent rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

He then looked at the Senate, and– surprise! (no surprise; I’m kidding)– found a major skew to rural areas in that chamber’s representation. It turns out that the Senate has” two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.”

And of course, this has all sorts of other downstream consequences. Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. In the U.S. as a whole, 60 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white and 40 percent of the population is nonwhite. But in the average state, 68 percent of people are white and 32 percent are nonwhite. It’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. (In 2000, around 69 percent of the U.S. population consisted of non-Hispanic whites.)

The post goes through a lot of mathematical calculations, which you can see if you click through, but the bottom line is stark:

the Senate is effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole, which means that Democrats are likely to win it only in the event of a near-landslide in their favor nationally. That’s likely to make the Republican majority on the Supreme Court pretty durable.

There is a lot to unpack in this article, beginning with my extreme discomfort with its underlying premise that the Supreme Court is merely another arena for American political partisanship. Granted, judicial philosophy has always been a significant cause of dissension, but it is only in the last few years that the judiciary has effectively been reduced to the status of partisan prize–as a tool for imposing political hegemony through the legal system, rather than a safeguard of fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law.

What the article does make very clear, however, is the disturbing and undeniable fact of minority rule. White rural Republicans–who are advantaged by the current situation–like to recite that America is a republic, not a democracy, as if that somehow rebuts the fact that a true republic is a representative democracy. (Look it up.)

This situation is at the crux of our national problems. America is currently ruled by an unrepresentative minority–and the effect of that reality includes but is certainly not limited to the GOP’s intentional corruption of the nation’s judiciary.

What’s Next?

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Thomas Edsall asks a question that is rapidly becoming more pressing: what happens after the election?

It’s a question we really can’t answer until we know not just who has won the Presidency, but how the transition has been handled and–far more important–who will control the Senate.

Although “what now?” depends upon currently unknown election returns, we can–actually, we should–consider a variation of that question. What ought to happen next?

My own concerns revolve around the inevitable splintering of the Democratic Party into its factions. One of the problems with single-party dominance (or in this case, single-party sanity) is that reasonable people holding very different views all end up in the non-crazy party. Democrats have never been ideologically monolithic; these days, thoughtful conservatives, liberals and leftist activists are all Democrats because their only other options are to join a cult (the contemporary GOP) or vote for a third-party candidate (essentially flushing their votes).

My most fervent hope–assuming Democratic control of the Senate as well as the House and the White House–is that leadership will immediately move to implement policies on which there is broad consensus: rolling back the roll-backs of environmental protections; passing H.B. One–the broad reform of electoral rules that passed the House by a massive margin and languished (along with everything else Mitch McConnell touched) in the Senate; ending tax policies that soak the middle class while allowing the rich to evade paying their share; re-instating DACA and instituting humane immigration policies.

There are others, and they should all be introduced and passed as expeditiously as possible.

Noted political scientist Theda Skocpol believes the Democrats will hang together; she tells Edsall that, in the event of a Democratic Senate majority, especially with a cushion of 2 or 3 votes, she

does not foresee any acute internal conflicts, because there will be so much to do in a pandemic and economic crisis,” adding, “I think joint approaches will not be hard to work out: voting reforms, expansion of Obamacare with a strong public option, college costs help for lower income and lower middle class, robust green jobs investments, etc., etc.

I hope she’s right.

Other measures that ought to be taken–preferably, within the first hundred days–include eliminating the filibuster and expanding the number of federal judges. If–as is likely–Judge Barrett has been confirmed in a departing f**k you by McConnell, the number of Justices on the Supreme Court should also be expanded. (Actually, according to the Judicial Conference, that should be done even if, by  some intervening miracle, her nomination fails). But what should be done and what will occur are two different things, and opinions on both the filibuster and the approach to the courts divide the party’s moderates and progressives.

“What’s next” is, of course, a broader question than “what policies should Democrats pursue?” Edsall’s column is concerned less with policy and more with politics. He quotes a political scientist for the rather obvious observation that it’s easier to unite against something than for something, a truism that doesn’t bode well for continued Democratic unity. He also tackles the less obvious–and far more important–question “what happens to Trumpism” if, as seems likely, Trump loses?

Rogers Smith–another noted political scientist–thinks that a loss for Trump won’t defeat Trumpism.

Trump has built a new right populist coalition that has more electoral appeal than the full-tilt neoliberal, moderately multicultural economic and social positions of the prior Republican establishment. It has plenty of reasonably charismatic youthful champions. Its leaders will avoid the crude bullying and rule-flouting that Trump displayed in the recent presidential debate, and they’ll certainly try to avoid Access Hollywood-type scandals. But otherwise they will carry the Trump right-populist movement forward.

The “Trump movement” is essentially racist, theocratic and misogynistic. So long as it remains a viable, non-fringe element of American political life, the “American experiment” is at risk.

Whatever is “next,” we probably aren’t yet out of the woods.

 

The People And The Court

Joseph Margulies has made a counter-intuitive argument at the legal publication Justia. The crux of his opinion is that liberals have misread the Supreme Court’s history, and as a result, have placed far too much reliance on the judicial branch.

As I recall, this was also an argument advanced by Kieth Whittington, a legal scholar, a few years back. As I remember the book–and my memory is definitely hazy– Whittington felt that over-reliance on the courts to protect individual liberties led to flaccid and apathetic political participation.

Justice Ginsburg has given the left a great gift, if it knows how to use it. Finally, and none too soon, the popular infatuation with the Court as the Great Protector of Individual Rights can be laid to rest. We will now see the Court for what it has been for most of its history—a reactionary branch committed to the preservation of wealth and the status quo. With the exception of a brief and unrepresentative period from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, the Court has not been an agent of progressive change. Quite the contrary, it has been decidedly unkind to claims pressed on behalf of underrepresented minorities and the poor. Outside of two short decades, the Court has been timid and conservative, lending its support for progressive policies only after they have already won widespread approval. By the time the Court managed to recognize a right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, for instance, it was already the law in 37 states and the District of Columbia

The Court that liberals lionize (or, as Margulies would have it, the myth of the Court that they have constructed) is, as he argues, a product of what he calls “the golden years” that produced cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Roe v. Wade (1973), Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and and Gideon v. Wainwright(1963).

But what so many fail to appreciate is that all the rights and protections established during this period, literally without exception as far as I can tell, have been substantially diluted by the same Court that created them, some nearly to the point of elimination.

It’s hard to disagree with this analysis. The Court has blessed “school choice,” which has accelerated the re-segregation of schools, and has made abortion nearly unobtainable by upholding medically unnecessary and burdensome regulations. Margulies concludes that there is no judicial substitute for the hard work of political activism.

The practice [of taking matters to court] supplants democracy and sidesteps the people. It imagines that there is a substitute for politics, a shortcut that will allow us to achieve an enduring progressive vision without having to engage in the protracted ugliness of partisan politics. We point to past cases because we think it has happened before, but overlook the fact that these decisions did not endure. We put our faith in Oracles who stand atop politics because we are sickened by the emergence of a world in which facts no longer matter, science is ridiculed, and jack-booted racism is on the march. So we look to the Nine for our salvation. But they are not—and in truth have never been—our Saviors.

Win or lose in November, we need to heed this call to arms. Margulies predicts that we will:

As political campaigns well know, nothing motivates a constituency like a sense of threat. After the election of Barack Obama, for instance, the NRA parlayed fear of the new President into “a dramatic increase in membership,” and gun sales surged 60 percent.. ..The same thing happened on the left after the surprise result in 2016. Within months of Trump’s election, membership in the ACLU skyrocketed from around 400,000 to more than 1.8 million and contributions ballooned by $120 million. In the same way, the knowledge that the Court is lost to the left should trigger a groundswell of political and financial support for progressive and liberal candidates, lest the entire architecture of government be controlled by the right. In politics, threat leads to action, and after Friday, the sense of threat has never been so real. The ships have been burned; there will be no retreat to the Court.

Just as [RBG”s] death should invigorate the left, it will enervate the right. Campaigns articulate a vision of success and promise their supporters that all will be right with the world once that goal has been achieved. For the right, success has meant control of the Court. For decades, the right has struggled to achieve a secure majority on the Court, only to suffer one disappointment after another…. Now that victory is at hand, a letdown is inevitable. While threat produces action, victory leads to quiescence.

As my grandmother would have said, “From his mouth [okay, word processor] to God’s ears…”

 

RBG

This really has been the year from hell.

Yesterday, I wrote that this year’s election will be an inflection point for America. That observation became infinitely more acute with the news that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died. Mitch McConnell didn’t even wait for her body to cool before announcing that he would abandon his invented (Trumped-up) position that Justices shouldn’t be replaced during the last year of a presidential term, and would move quickly to replace her with yet another “conservative” Justice.

The quotation marks around conservative are intentional, because what McConnell and his GOP ilk are hell-bent on “conserving” is white Christian male privilege. They certainly aren’t interested in extending or conserving the values embedded in the Constitution.

As I sat down to write this, I thought about a line that Mayor Pete often used during the primaries: “I’m mindful every day that my marriage exists by the grace of one vote on our Supreme Court.” That observation about the importance of the Court isn’t limited to the ruling about same-sex marriage. Women who are able to exercise control over their own reproduction, people in interracial marriages, people who can get health insurance despite having pre-existing conditions–the list of the very concrete ways in which Supreme Court decisions affect all of us is long.

Self-styled “conservatives” like to insist that they are originalists. But the real originalists are those like the indomitable RBG, who are faithful to the values the Bill of Rights was intended to protect. An originalism that insists on limiting the application of those protections to the world inhabited by the Founders would be unworkable (which is why self-proclaimed originalists like Scalia frequently departed from them.) True originalism requires that we look at the values the Founders were trying to protect–our ability to communicate free of government control, freedom from state-imposed religious observance (impelled by respect for the integrity of the individual conscience), our right to “due process of law” and other rights of self-determination. To be a true originalist requires continuing to protect those values and expand their application in a world the Founders could never have envisioned.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a champion of that genuine “originalism.” 

So–now we face another hugely consequential “inflection point.” The moral pygmies who obey McConnell will move to replace her with yet another tool of reaction. I was briefly heartened to hear that four Senators (Murkowsky, Collins , Grassley and Sasse) have pledged not to vote for a replacement until after the inauguration; it is likely that Romney will take that same position. If those pledges hold, it’s very good news, but I’m not holding my breath.

Speaking of ifs:

If McConnell succeeds, and if the Democrats take the White House and the Senate, they absolutely must expand the number of Justices on the Court.

That expansion, and a number of other court reforms have been advocated by legal and judicial scholars for several years–not just during our Trump/McConnell nightmare. The reforms should be crafted with one overriding purpose: to remove the judicial system from partisan politics–from being seen as a “prize” to be co-opted by whichever party wins an election– and return it to its intended purpose of dispassionately interpreting the law. As Jill Lepore recently warned, the Court is in danger of becoming an instrument of the executive instead of a check against it. 

Judges will always have their own beliefs, and will always bring those beliefs to their jobs. There will always be Justices with whom we disagree. If the people we elevate to the bench are the best and brightest, however, those disagreements will be principled. McConnell has packed the federal bench with partisan hacks and puppets, many of whom the ABA has found to be unqualified–not just mediocre, but unfit.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg became an icon because she was so superbly qualified, so intellectually powerful, and so obviously a person who exhibited decency, integrity and civility.

If she is replaced with yet another partisan hack, all bets are off.

 

 

 

A Cure For Gerrymandering?

I recently received a provocative email from James Allison, a retired Professor of Psychology, suggesting an approach to the elimination of gerrymandering that I had never contemplated.

After noting the Supreme Court’s unconscionable refusal to find extreme gerrymandering a constitutional violation (ruling 5/4 that partisan gerrymandering was a “political question” best left to the political process!), Allison quoted a recent proposal for just such a political solution.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Lee Hamilton, William S. Cohen and Alton Frye served notice: Although partisan gerrymanders may lie beyond the reformist reach of federal courts, and beyond the conscience of gerrymandering statehouse legislators, they are well within the grasp of Congress (July 17, 2020). Specifically, the House can “refuse to seat a state delegation achieved through excessive gerrymandering.” They propose to gauge the amount of gerrymandering in terms of the difference between the number of districts won by each party and its share of the statewide popular vote. They take the example of North Carolina’s 2018 elections, where Republicans won 50% of the popular vote for House members, but 77% of the state’s 13 seats. And the gerrymandering authors of those maps came right out and confessed proudly that their motive was to guarantee their party’s supermajority control.

The constitutional basis for direct Congressional oversight is in Article 1, Section 5, which says that “each House shall be the judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.” It has been used, albeit rarely, to exclude representatives chosen under questionable election procedures. And it was used after the Civil War against state intimidation of black voters and unconstitutional election laws.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this solution. One of those– political abuse of the power to deny delegations a seat–can probably be prevented by carefully crafted legislation. The other, as Allison points out, is how a determination is made that extreme gerrymandering has occurred.

For a number of years, the lack of a reliable “standard”–that is, a tested and dependable method for determining that disproportionate results were attributable to partisan redistricting and not simply to the voting sentiments of constituents–was the Supreme Court’s excuse for not addressing the issue. In the most recent case, however, that excuse no longer applied; in Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court was supplied with statistical tests developed by scholars for just that purpose. One test–called the “efficiency gap” was based on a calculation of “wasted votes.”  Wasted’ votes are those cast for a losing candidate or for a winning candidate beyond what he or she needed — divided by the total number of votes cast.

I personally prefer the tests developed by Sam Wang at Princeton. Be that as it may, there are now indisputably accurate statistical tests available to determine whether the number of votes cast translate fairly into the number of seats won.

Allison cites Robert X. Browning and Gary King, “Seats, Votes and Gerrymandering: Estimating Representation and Bias in State Legislative Redistricting.” Law and Policy, Vol. 9, No. 3, July, 1987 for the proposition that this approach to determining the fairness of electoral results isn’t new. I have personally done a fair amount of research into partisan redistricting, and written a couple of academic articles on the subject, and I can confirm the accuracy of this assertion.

The virtue of this approach, as Allison notes, is that– if adopted by Congress– its potential threat alone could create a powerful incentive toward nationwide redistricting reform.

If America truly cares about fair and equal representation–an open question in a country that makes it hard rather than easy to cast a ballot–this is an approach worth considering. It should be one more agenda item to be taken up by a (fingers crossed!) Democratic House and Senate.