Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Texas Is About Much More Than Abortion

The angry blowback against Texas’ assault on reproductive rights is eminently justifiable–but as I explained previously, most of the criticism of the law misses the even more ominous threat it poses.

In her newsletter last Saturday, Heather Cox Richardson brought a historian’s perspective to that more ominous reality. She traced the nation’s legal trajectory after WW II, and the resistance to efforts by FDR to use government to regulate business and provide a basic social safety net. And as she reminded readers, racist Southern Democrats furiously fought government’s efforts to ensure racial equality. 

After World War II, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Republican appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower, and Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Republican appointed by Richard Nixon, the Supreme Court set out to make all Americans equal before the law. They tried to end segregation through the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision prohibiting racial segregation in public schools. They protected the right of married couples to use contraception in 1965. They legalized interracial marriage in 1967. In 1973, with the Roe v. Wade decision, they tried to give women control over their own reproduction by legalizing abortion.

The Supreme Court used  the Fourteenth Amendment to apply the Bill of Rights to state governments as well as to the federal government; among other things, that kept state and local government officials from denying certain individuals the same rights enjoyed by other citizens

From the beginning, there was a backlash against the New Deal government by businessmen who objected to the idea of federal regulation and the bureaucracy it would require. As early as 1937, they were demanding an end to the active government and a return to the world of the 1920s, where businessmen could do as they wished, families and churches managed social welfare, and private interests profited from infrastructure projects. They gained little traction. The vast majority of Americans liked the new system.

But the expansion of civil rights under the Warren Court was a whole new kettle of fish. Opponents of the new decisions insisted that the court was engaging in “judicial activism,” taking away from voters the right to make their own decisions about how society should work. That said that justices were “legislating from the bench.” They insisted that the Constitution is limited by the views of its framers and that the government can do nothing that is not explicitly written in that 1787 document.

This is the foundation for today’s “originalists” on the court. They are trying to erase the era of legislation and legal decisions that constructed our modern nation. If the government is as limited as they say, it cannot regulate business. It cannot provide a social safety net or promote infrastructure, both things that cost tax dollars and, in the case of infrastructure, take lucrative opportunities from private businesses.

It cannot protect the rights of minorities or women.

The Court’s refusal to enjoin the Texas law is a truly terrifying omen. If the law is ultimately upheld, the precedent would threaten far more than a woman’s right to control her own reproduction. As Richardson notes, such a result would “send authority for civil rights back to the states to wither or thrive as different legislatures see fit…there is no reason that this mechanism couldn’t be used to undermine much of the civil rights legislation of the post–World War II years.”

In 1957, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower used the federal government to protect the constitutional rights of the Little Rock Nine from the white vigilantes who wanted to keep them second-class citizens. In 2021, the Supreme Court has handed power back to the vigilantes.

I am old enough to remember the billboards demanding “Impeach Earl Warren.” The rage of rightwing White Nationalists at decisions that they (correctly) believed would curtail their ability to deny equal rights to Blacks and other disfavored minorities hasn’t abated. Much of it went underground: into the establishment of “think tanks” devoted to justifications of “originalism”and rollbacks of federal regulations, the (now successful) effort to pack the federal courts with ideologues and capture the big prize: the Supreme Court.

Logically, under the last fifty years of legal precedent, Texas’ effort to “outsource” its abortion ban to vigilantes–its effort to avoid “state action”– should fail. The state’s legislature created the law. Enforcement of its punitive and dangerous scheme requires participation by the state’s judicial system. 

What too few of the people arguing for and against this assault seem to recognize is what is truly at stake right now: the entire edifice of current Constitutional law, which rests on the premise that the Bill of Rights applies to all levels of government–that it sets a civil liberties floor below which states may not go.

This fight is about more than Roe v. Wade.

 

 

A Perfect Storm

I woke up yesterday to the news that Trump’s Supreme Court–through its “Shadow Docket” and by a five to four margin–had effectively overturned what lawyers call “incorporation”–an odd term for the proposition that the Bill of Rights constrains state and local governments

In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “The court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.”

Actually, it’s worse than that. Much worse.

Not only does the Court’s increasing use of the Shadow Docket raise serious questions about the erosion of the judicial transparency fundamental to the rule of law, the decision to allow Texas’ empowerment of culture war vigilantes achieves a goal long held by “states rights” fundamentalists: a return to the days when state and local lawmakers could impose their preferred “morality” on their citizens–and not-so-incidentally decide which citizens were entitled to equal rights– without the pesky interference of the federal government.

As I noted yesterday, approval of Texas’ ploy opens a door to civil strife far removed from the abortion wars. State legislatures can now turn private citizens into “enforcers” of pretty much any goal–and not just conservative ones. The decision effectively approves a federalism on steroids, and the unraveling of the “United” States.

I used to explain to my students that one of the salutary effects of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights was that it ensured a “floor”–so that when someone moves from New York to Alabama or Texas, they don’t suddenly lose their right to religious liberty or free speech or their protection against unreasonable search and seizure..

This case strikes a terrifying blow against that principle.

I titled this post “a perfect storm” because the Supreme Court’s abandonment of fifty years of precedent is only one of the truly existential challenges we currently face.

It is no longer possible to pretend that climate change is some sort of elitist, liberal theory that can safely be ignored. Fires in California (now threatening Nevada), increasingly powerful hurricanes battering not just Louisiana but causing flooding and chaos all the way to New England, the continuation of “extinctions” threatening to disrupt the global ecology…the list goes on. There are some valiant efforts underway to combat climate change, but the likelihood is that even if those efforts manage to moderate its effects, there will be enormous disruptions of global life–including  famines and massive population movements.

Then, of course, there’s the pandemic. Two pandemics, actually–COVID and insanity. The insanity makes it highly likely that COVID won’t be the last disease to decimate populations around the world.

Speaking of insanity, Leonard Pitts reminds us of the rising tide of rightwing violence.

While it’s unlikely we’ll see regional armies clashing as they once did at Antietam and Shiloh, is it so hard to imagine the country descending into a maelstrom of conservative terrorism, the kind of hit-and-run asymmetric warfare — random bombings and shootings — that rocked Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s? Certainly, the weapons and the sense of grievance are there.

On top of all of this, outdated elements of  America’s legal architecture are impeding our ability to confront these challenges. In a recent, very important paper by Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center (I will have much more to say about his paper in future posts), Wilkinson concluded his analysis of what he calls “The Density Divide” with a recitation of the mismatch between America’s population realities and that framework.

As Wilkinson notes, our Constitutional system has a strong small-state bias, “which effectively gives extra votes to topsoil in low-population states.” In a country where 50 percent of voters identify or lean Democratic and 42 percent identify or lean Republican–a Democratic advantage of some 18 million voters– the GOP has erected “an imposing fortification” through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter-roll purges…the list goes on.

Wilkinson underscores what many others have said: we desperately need structural reforms and especially strong new legislation protecting voting rights. What he doesn’t say–since his paper was written before the Court’s recent assault on the supremacy of the Constitution–is that such protection must be nationally enforceable.

This “perfect storm” has created a genuinely existential moment. It is no longer possible to ignore the fact that American governance by We the People is teetering on a dangerous edge. The question is: can a nation burdened with a substantial minority of QAnon-believing, MAGA-hat wearing, Ivermectin-ingesting, Confederacy-loving citizens–many if not most of whom are White racially-resentful rural residents empowered by outdated electoral structures– rise to the challenge?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Supreme Court–newly dominated by a conservative majority–has accepted an abortion case out of Mississippi. It is widely expected that the Court will use that case to further erode a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy–not explicitly overturning Roe v. Wade, but effectively eviscerating it.

Talking Points Memo considered the likely political effects of that decision, pointing out that, since the justices waited until the end of the current term to say that they would take it up, with a decision likely next June, it can hardly avoid being a front-burner issue in the 2022 election cycle.

Linda Greenhouse sees the decision to accept the case as the “end of the free ride” for anti-choice activists. She began that analysis by listing a number of situations in which state legislation curtailing abortion rights has been struck down by the courts, allowing “pro life” politicians to posture without incurring the electoral wrath of those who disagree.

Her recitation reminds me of a conversation I had with an Indiana legislator several years ago. He was in my graduate Law and Policy Class, and I knew he was aware of First Amendment precedents prohibiting state endorsement of religion, so when he voted to post the Ten Commandments on government buildings, I challenged him. His response was candid: he could vote the way the “folks in Mayberry” (his small town) wanted, keeping them happy, secure in the prospect that the courts would “bail him out.”

Abortion politics has taken a similar path.

Ever since the 2010 election ushered new Republican majorities into state legislatures, politicians there have been able to impose increasingly severe abortion restrictions without consequence, knowing that the lower courts would enjoin the laws before they took effect and save the people’s representatives from having to own their actions.

Greenhouse explains how the Court can effectively demolish Roe without actually and explicitly overruling it, and then considers the politics involved. Her analysis is worth quoting at some length:

It’s a dim memory, but a salient one, that in Mississippi itself, a voter referendum that would have amended the state Constitution to grant personhood status to a fertilized egg was defeated in 2011 by a margin of 58 to 41 percent, despite endorsement by leading politicians and widespread predictions that it would pass. That’s when the anti-abortion forces decided that friendly legislatures were a better bet than the will of the people.

Last fall, in each of four nationwide polls, including one conducted for Fox News, more than 60 percent of registered or likely voters said they did not want the Supreme Court to overturn “Roe v. Wade.” I put the case in quotes because that’s how the pollsters asked the question; although Roe obviously carries strong symbolic meaning, the 1973 decision is in many respects no longer the law.

The question as the polls’ respondents processed it was most likely “Do you want to keep the right to abortion?” And no wonder the answer was yes: nearly one American woman in four will have an abortion. (Catholic women get about one-quarter of all abortions, roughly in proportion to the Catholic share of the American population.) Decades of effort to drive abortion to the margins of medical practice have failed to dislodge it from the mainstream of women’s lives.

For the cynical game they have played with those lives, politicians have not paid a price. Now perhaps they will. Of course, women themselves will pay a heavy price as this new reality sorts itself out, particularly women with low incomes who now make up the majority of abortion patients.

And there’s another price to be paid as justices in the new majority turn to the mission they were selected for. The currency isn’t votes, but something even more important and harder to win back: the institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court of the United States.

There’s no free ride for the court either.

What Greenhouse doesn’t address is the extent to which the GOP has depended upon both the energy of anti-abortion activists and the relative lack of political activism by pro-choice voters who have assumed that the courts will protect their rights. If Roe is either over-ruled or–as is more likely–eviscerated, it may well shift that dynamic to the detriment of “the folks in Mayberry” and the GOP.

 

 

The Shadow Docket

When Senator Tim Scott gave the GOP’s rebuttal to President Biden’s address to Congress, one of his complaints was that the President hadn’t re-opened the nation’s schools. He evidently assumed that America’s widespread lack of civic knowledge would obscure the inconvenient fact that Presidents have no authority over public schools.

It’s called federalism, Senator. Look it up.

Speaking of civic knowledge, I have frequently cited a poll from a couple of years ago that found–among other, multiple deficits of civic knowledge–that only 26% of Americans could name the three branches of government. Although the survey didn’t ask the question, I’m reasonably certain that even fewer understand why the Founders opted for separation of powers–or why they wanted to insulate the judicial branch from the wrath of the electorate.

Both the legislative and executive branches are elected, and thus accountable to voters. (We’ll leave for another day’s discussion the gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics that have substantially eroded that accountability. We’re talking theory now.) The federal judiciary wasn’t just unelected, it was appointed subject to Senate confirmation–and once appointed, judges serve for a lifetime. The theory–the hope–was that judges would rule on the basis of their understanding of the Constitution, and would not need to worry about losing their job if that understanding was contrary to the desires of the public.

Right or wrong–and sometimes they would be wrong– those rulings would be based upon the judge’s honest and informed evaluation of the merits of the argument.

Thanks to politicians like Mitch McConnell, that ideal of dispassionate and informed rulings meted out by  judges insulated from partisan pressure has been breached, perhaps irreparably. The arguments about “term limits” for Justices, for adding Justices to the Supreme Court, and for other changes to the federal judiciary are responses to the blatant politicization that has eroded public confidence in and respect for the judicial system. (I’m not a fan of sports analogies, but I’ll suggest one: if an umpire is believed to be “in the pocket” of Team A, fans of Team B aren’t going to respect his calls.)

The ultimate “fix” for the current situation is unclear, but while lawyers, legal scholars and political figures squabble, we have increasing evidence that the current Supreme Court is ignoring precedent in favor of partisan ideology. A recent New York Times op-ed by a law professor from the University of Texas shone a light on the Court’s use of its little-understood “Shadow Docket.”

Late last Friday, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, issued an emergency injunction blocking California’s Covid-based restrictions on in-home gatherings on the ground that, insofar as they interfere with religious practice, they violate the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.

Reasonable minds will disagree on this new standard for free exercise claims. But a far more glaring problem with the court’s decision is that it wasn’t an appropriate moment to reach it.

Like so many of the justices’ more controversial rulings in the last few years, this one came on the court’s “shadow docket,” and in a context in which the Supreme Court’s own rules supposedly limit relief to cases in which the law is “indisputably clear.”

Whatever else might be said about it, this case, Tandon v. Newsom, didn’t meet that standard. Instead, the justices upended their own First Amendment jurisprudence in the religion sphere, making new law in a way their precedents at least used to say they couldn’t.

The term “shadow docket” was coined to describe that part of the justices’ job that involves summary orders addressing management of the Court’s caseload, rather than decisions on the merits of cases.

But recent years have seen a significant uptick in the volume of “shadow docket” rulings that are resolving matters beyond those issues, especially orders changing the effect of lower-court rulings while they are appealed. Indeed, Friday night’s injunction was at least the 20th time since the court’s term began last October that the justices have issued a shadow docket ruling altering the status quo. And the more substantive work that the justices carry out through such (usually) unsigned and unexplained orders, the more the “shadow docket” raises concerns about the transparency of the court’s decision making, if not the underlying legitimacy of its decisions.

In fact, the author tells us that this ruling was the seventh time since October that the justices have issued an emergency injunction — and that all of them have blocked Covid restrictions in blue states on religious exercise grounds.

If all three of those branches that few Americans can name are “accountable” to partisan passions–if there is no demonstrably impartial arbiter of constitutional disputes–America’s slide toward civil chaos will continue to gather speed.

 

Testing The Current Court

The worst “hangover” from four years of Trump is undoubtedly the composition of the country’s federal courts–including but not limited to the Supreme Court. Granted, Trump–who wouldn’t know a legal principle if he fell over one–wouldn’t have known how to stuff the courts with rightwing ideologues; Mitch McConnell is the villain. But Trump enabled him.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Linda Greenhouse explained the troubling implications–and predictive value– of an upcoming Supreme Court case.

The case that the Supreme Court heard this week about a California law granting union organizers access to private farms has been described as a labor case, which it marginally is. It has also been described as a case about property rights, which it definitely is. But what makes Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid one of the most important cases of the current term is the question it presents for the newly configured court: whether, after years of disappointment, the political right may finally be able to take the Supreme Court for granted.

The case is being brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, and as Greenhouse reports, Pacific group is using Cedar Point–a company that grows strawberries– and another employer that packs and ships citrus fruit and grapes, as “stalking horses for its long-running project to elevate property rights.”

The case involved union access to agricultural workers. The California law being challenged had been passed during Cesar Chavez’s drive to organize the state’s farmworkers. It limited the ability of the union to approach workers in the field to periods before and after the working day and to three hours on 120 days of a year.

Greenhouse focused in on an illuminating–and to lawyers, startling–exchange between the lawyer and Justice Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh referred to a 1956 case that balanced employers’ property rights agains union organizing rights, and noted that–under that test–Pacific would “prevail”–it would win its case. The lawyer for Pacific “rejected out of hand” that potential path to victory.

Pacific isn’t interested in just winning its case. It wants to change the law.

The Pacific Legal Foundation doesn’t want a balancing test. It wants a categorical rule — referred to throughout the argument as a “per se rule” — that any entry by a union onto private land, if authorized by the state, is a “taking” of private property in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause (“nor shall private property by taken for public use, without just compensation”). Any entry at all.

So let me ask you this,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett said to Mr. Thompson. “What if California had a regulation that permitted union organizers to go onto the property of your clients one hour a day, one day a year. Is that a taking subject to the per se rule?”

Yes, the lawyer replied.

Barrett clerked for former Justice Scalia, who championed an expansion of the categories of government action that count as a “taking.”  The Fifth Amendment requires government to compensate property owners for takings, and there has long been an effort to turn regulations–especially environmental regulations–into compensable takings subject to that Amendment.

If you have a wetland on your property and regulations impede your ability to develop it, for example, the government would have to “compensate” you.

Until a 1992 case, Lucas v. South Carolina,  courts had defined takings as the physical occupation of private property, usually via eminent domain.

Government actions that didn’t “take” private property in the literal sense, but simply limited its use in certain ways, were regarded as “regulatory takings,” with the private and governmental interests being weighed against one another to determine whether compensation was required…

When a regulation “declares ‘off-limits’ all economically productive or beneficial uses of land,” Justice Scalia wrote for the court, “compensation must be paid to sustain it.”

Ever since, the Pacific Legal Foundation has argued for the adoption of what Scalia called a “categorical” taking.

That was the war that resumed at the Supreme Court this week, and that history explains why, from the Pacific Legal Foundation’s point of view, anything short of total victory is beside the point.

Greenhouse notes that whether the court buys Pacific’s theory will tell us a great deal about the success of McConnell’s effort to refashion the courts.