Category Archives: Constitution

Living In Wacko World

There is much that I don’t understand about the Americans who continue to support Donald Trump and the Big Lie. There’s even more I don’t understand about today’s GOP, which looks absolutely nothing like the political party to which I devoted some 35 years.

Here’s a smattering of what I don’t get:

  • How do these people explain away the hysterical refusal of the Trump mob to testify to Congress or hand over documents? If they have nothing to hide, why would they act this way? From my lawyering days, I still remember the concern of criminal defense lawyers that a client’s failure to testify would be taken by a jury as evidence that the client had something to hide; in fact, there was a standard (and undoubtedly ineffective) jury instruction to the effect that the jury should refrain from making that obvious assumption.
  • How do they justify the rage and recriminations focused on the few members of the GOP who voted to repair the nation’s decaying infrastructure–especially when Trump tried and failed for four years to have his own “Infrastructure week”? Don’t they drive on our crumbling roads and worry about our failing bridges? How do they explain to themselves and others the GOP insistence that defeating anything  President Biden wants is more important than actually getting things that obviously need to be done, done?
  • What in the world prompts Republicans to threaten “reprisals” for the indictment of Steve Bannon? Bannon was indicted for contempt of Congress. There is no quarrel with the accuracy of the charge: he publicly refused to testify to the committee investigating the January 6th insurrection, and just as publicly refused to provide documents Congress identified. If individuals can ignore Congressional subpoenas, if they can thumb their noses at lawful investigations, we are really in Wild West territory. Yet members of the GOP are warning that Democrats’ efforts to force Bannon to comply “paves the way for them to do the same if they take back the House in 2022.”  According to the Washington Post report linked above, “most high-profile GOP leaders have quickly turned Bannon’s indictment into the latest litmus test for loyalty to the former president.”

This is evidently where we are: if the rule of law gets in the way of partisan loyalties, well, the rule of law must go.

What must also go in this world-view is the First Amendment of the  U.S. Constitution.

Last week, Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor, former General Michael Flynn, spoke at a “Reawaken America” conference in San Antonio, Texas. (According to multiple reports, the conference was intended to reinforce the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and to support the argument that vaccine requirements infringe Americans’ liberties.) Flynn told the audience: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”

The former national security adviser also characterized the investigation into the riot as “the insurrection crucifixion” and likened House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Pontius Pilate. “This is a crucifixion of our First Amendment freedom to speak, freedom to peacefully assemble. It’s unbelievable,” Flynn said.

Flynn’s speech was one of the more explicit endorsements of what the Rightwing political fringe has clearly wanted–and what respect for the rule of law has impeded–a “Christian” nation. (Actually, a nation ruled by White Christian males.)

This is hardly the first time Flynn gets attention for his statements that seem to go against some of the basic tenets of American democracy. In May, Flynn said at a QAnon conference that a military coup like the one that took place in Myanmar “should happen” in the United States. Flynn was Trump’s national security adviser for less than a month and resigned after it was revealed he lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and Trump pardoned him.

What I don’t get–what I cannot wrap my head around–is how non-mentally-ill Americans (even those who get their “news” from Fox) can look at these and so many other examples of the GOP assault on logic, democracy, reality and the rule of law and tell themselves that they are the behaviors of “true Americans.”

If gerrymandering delivers Congress to the GOP next year, we are going to be living in a very different country than the one in which most of us grew up.

 

A Sword Or A Shield?

Religion has been in the news a lot lately, which probably shouldn’t surprise us. When the times we live in are tumultuous–and I certainly think this era qualifies–people cling to and defend their “eternal verities.”

Of course, that raises an interesting question: what, exactly, qualifies as religion? I think the “eternal verity” descriptor gets at something (excuse the phrase) fundamental: an unshakable belief system based largely on faith in matters that are not susceptible to scientific verification. Political ideologies–including tribal bigotries–fall within that definition.

Unshakable and unprovable beliefs, of course, are the source of a great deal of mischief–and often, tragedy. I’ve posted previously about the tensions within evangelical circles, about some Christians’ insistence that Muslims and Jews cannot be “real Americans,” about the ongoing religious debates over reproductive rights, and (more frequently) about the concerns of America’s founders that led to the religion clauses of the First Amendment. 

With respect to those concerns, an observation by Barney Frank during a recent interview comes to mind.(I’ve loved Barney Frank ever since he held a Town Hall during the fight over the Affordable Care Act, and responded to a looney-tune woman comparing Obama to Hitler and the ACA to Nazism by asking her “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”)

In the interview, Frank was asked the following question: “Some on the left have expressed concern that the 6-3 conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court could erode LGBTQ rights in the name of religious liberty. Are you concerned at all about this?”

Frank responded with his trademark rhetorical acuity. “Yes I am. They’re not going to undo marriage. But I do worry about entities that get public tax money to perform services—they should not in my judgment be allowed to exclude people because of some religious disapproval of their sexual practices. It’s the sword versus the shield. The shield, in legal terms, is a doctrine that prevents other people from intruding on you. A sword is used to intrude on others. And while religious liberty should be a shield, there are concerns that people might make it a sword.”

That verbal picture–a sword or a shield–is an excellent way to approach the First Amendment, and not simply the religion clauses. 

The Amendment was intended to protect an individual’s right to believe pretty much anything (not necessarily to act on those beliefs, however) and to try to convince others to believe those things too. It was also intended to prevent government from getting involved by putting a thumb on the scale, so to speak, or imposing the beliefs of some Americans on others. It was–in Frank’s felicitous phrase–intended to provide individual citizens with a shield and to prevent majorities from using government as a sword.

The problem is, we have millions of people who have “religion” in the sense I defined it above. We have cults, traditional religious affiliations, conspiracy theories, political ideologies of both the Left and Right…in short, we have veritable armies of people convinced of the superior righteousness of their own belief systems. If you need evidence, examine what has been called “cancel culture,” the effort to ostracize people who hold opposing views–not to enter into debate with them, but to shut them down, eject them from the public conversation. (That effort is most definitely not limited to the Left, despite Rightwing efforts to claim otherwise.) 

For numerous reasons, the law cannot classify all these systems as religions for purposes of the First Amendment. That practical reality means that the label “religious” does confer a considerable advantage on beliefs that define themselves in that more limited fashion.

When it comes to traditional religion, Pew recently shared a bit of positive news about the sword and shield finding a significant majority of Americans want government to enforce separation of Church and State. I wonder what a similar study would find about our current commitment to Free Speech–especially in light of recent revelations about Facebook and other social media platforms.

What’s that Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times…” 

Hear Ye, Hear Ye…

For those of us desperate for any good news, any glimmer of hope that America might eventually emerge from the purgatory into which we’ve been plunged by the MAGA party, a newsletter from the Brennan Center recently offered that glimmer. (No link, sorry.)

On September 30, President Biden announced ten more federal court nominees, bringing the administration’s total number of nominees to 53. Biden also announced four nominees to serve on local D.C. courts.

Biden’s eighth slate of nominees includes two civil rights lawyers and three current or former public defenders. Several of the nominees, if confirmed, would also mark historic firsts: the first Asian American man on the Western District Court of Washington, the first Asian American woman on the Southern District Court of California, and the first Hispanic district court judge in Ohio.

According to CNN, more than 25% of Biden’s nominees to date are Black, 21% are Hispanic or Latino, and 23% are Asian American or Pacific Islanders. Close to 75% are women. In addition, 32% of Biden’s judicial nominees are former public defenders and 25% are civil rights lawyers.

Biden is confirming judges at a rate faster than any other president at this point in their term since Richard Nixon, according to Bloomberg Law. Sixteen of Biden’s judicial nominees have been confirmed so far.

I feared–and still fear–that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump had ensured a generation in which the federal courts would be lost to principles of justice and equality. After all, they did manage to elevate a number of ideological and, frequently, demonstrably unqualified partisans to those courts. The Biden Administration is clearly aware of the need to ensure the ongoing integrity of the courts, and equally aware of the need to populate the bench with Americans who are both competent and representative of the country as a whole.

So–good news. I’ll take it.

Unfortunately, all the emerging reports about America’s courts are not as positive as that one. That same newsletter relayed the conclusions of an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that found 130 federal judges had violated U.S. law and judicial ethics by “overseeing court cases involving companies in which they or their family owned stock.”

The Journal reported that between 2010 and 2018, 129 federal district court judges and two federal appellate judges had failed to recuse themselves from 685 cases in which they or their families had a financial conflict, and that approximately two-thirds of the rulings subsequently favored the judges’ or their family’s financial interests.

One of the reasons for this country’s current angst is the public’s loss of trust in the institutions of American government. Trump certainly accelerated suspicion of government bureaucrats with his paranoia about the “deep state,” and he fed a wide variety of conspiracy theories, but much of the loss of trust preceded him. (My book, Distrust American Style, was published in 2009, and the phenomenon was anything but new.) Confidence in the administration hit an all-time low under Trump (and for good reason), but Congress has been utterly feckless for well over a decade.

The courts were, for a time, the holdout.

With McConnell’s success in remaking the Supreme Court into an instrument of partisanship, and four years of appointments of partisan hacks  (mostly White men) to the federal bench, those of us who’ve been paying attention lost hope that the courts would salvage constitutional principles–or at the very least, stem the tide.

I doubt that the Biden Administration has the political capital to do what very clearly needs to be done: either enlarge the Supreme Court or impose limits on Justices’ terms of service. Scholars of the judiciary have been advocating various mechanisms for expanding  the Court for years–far preceding McConnell’s mischief–for reasons of efficiency; they’ve also been advocating term limits in recognition of the fact that Justices live much longer than they used to. (Terms of 18 years, the usual recommendation, would probably be long enough to insulate Justices from political pressure– the original reason for lifetime appointments.)

In the absence of meaningful structural change, the nakedly partisan makeup of the Supreme Court is likely to keep trust in the courts low–leaving discontented citizens with nowhere to turn for redress of grievances.

Of course, speaking of “redress of grievances,” we might remind folks that there is this thing called the ballot box…

 

 

 

Majority Rule?

Humans have a lot of trouble communicating, and language–which developed to facilitate that communication–frequently gets in the way. (A quote attributed to Talleyrand seems apt: he supposedly opined that “language was given man to conceal his thoughts…”)

Take the word “democracy.” These days, virtually every opinion column, every political speech or tweet or meme centers on threats to American democracy, but a recent New York Times column by Jamelle Bouie reminded me that Republicans and Democrats have rather different approaches to what the term means in American governance.

Bouie’s column didn’t address that longstanding difference–he was talking about how far Congress is from the dictionary definition, which is “majority rule.” He began by pointing out that a Senate majority favors raising the debt limit, protecting citizens’ right to vote, reforming policing…measures that are widely popular and that need to get done.

With a simple majority, in other words, Democrats could secure the full faith and credit of the United States, restore to strength the most important voting rights law in U.S. history and make progress on a critical issue for millions of Americans. They might also, if they have the votes, make it easier for workers to organize a union and, separately, codify Roe v. Wade into federal law.

Of course, the Senate does not run on 51 votes. Instead, members must assemble a supermajority to do anything other than appoint judges, confirm nominees and pass certain spending bills. Pretty much everything else must go through a protracted and convoluted process that makes a mockery of the Senate’s reputation for debate and deliberation.

It would be easy for me to write another jeremiad against the filibuster. I can’t say I’m not tempted. But I also have nothing left to say. Its problems are as well documented as anything could be, and the main argument in its favor — that a counter-majoritarian chamber already structured by equal state representation needs an additional supermajority requirement to protect the “rights” of a partisan minority — does not withstand serious scrutiny.

Of course, Bouie is absolutely correct–if the matters he lists are supposed to reflect majority opinion, as most Americans suppose. As I used to tell my students, the Bill of Rights prohibits American government from invading fundamental liberties, even when a majority approves of that invasion–but other matters, policy matters, are supposed to reflect the will of the majority.

Actually, even before the GOP lost its mind, Republican political orthodoxy rejected that explanation. I can’t count the number of times I heard  that “The United States isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic,” as if those were diametrically-different systems. That we are a republic is technically true: we elect Representatives and Senators to make decisions on our behalf. But this repeated insistence that we are not a democracy but a republic wasn’t evidence of a desire for grammatical precision–it was thinly-veiled paternalism. What those delivering that lecture meant was that we vote to select our “betters,” who are thus empowered to decide what’s best, irrespective of the expressed desires of those voters.

There is, again, a measure of truth to this. We hope that the people we elect will inform themselves of the nuances of policies and support those they believe are in the national interest, especially when their constituents lack sufficient context or technical knowledge to inform their preferences. But as I look back on those discussions, there was a strong whiff of “father knows best” to them. The electoral process–properly crafted (!!)–would put superior people (okay, white Christian males) in office, and they’d run things. Their way.

After all, America isn’t really a democracy…

Not all Republicans believed this, of course. The party once had  thoughtful, responsible people in it. Bouie quoted the very Republican Henry Cabot Lodge who wrote the following in 1890:

“If a minority can prevent action, the majority, which is entitled to rule and is entrusted with power, is at once divested of all responsibility, the great safeguard of free representative institutions.”

Democracy or democratic republic, in all but a few areas where fundamental liberties are at stake, the majority is entitled to rule. And right now, thanks to gerrymandering, the filibuster, vote suppression and demography, a distinct and shrinking minority continues to prevent actions desired by significant majorities.

We’ve suffered a (mostly) bloodless coup.

 

A Link And A Prayer…

Tonight, Monday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m. I will be on a panel (via Zoom–link below) discussing the impending threats to reproductive choice, from Texas to Mississippi.

https://us06web.zoom.us/j/96415122645

Here’s the description, and for those who want to “attend,” the information for RSVPing:

Rabbi Dennis Sasso hosts a conversation regarding reproductive rights after the controversy related to the abortion laws in Texas. Rabbi Sandy Sasso will moderate the conversation and share the Jewish perspective with guests Dr. Leigh Meltzer, Obstetrics & Gynecology Physician at IU Health, and Emerita Professor of Law and Public Policy Sheila Kennedy. R.S.V.P to jgoldstein@bez613.org or (317) 253-3441.

For those who would like to see the discussion but can’t make tonight’s Zoom presentation,I’m told the session will be recorded, and will be available on the Congregation’s You Tube channel. (Who knew congregations had You Tube channels!)

My brief introductory remarks mostly reiterate points I’ve previously made on this blog, but in case any of you have missed my “take” on Texas, etc., I’m pasting a rough draft below. I anticipate a fairly lively discussion following the introductory remarks from the three of us.

___________________

There are three things we need to understand about the context of today’s legal debates over abortion—one philosophical, one historical, one sociological.

Liberal democracies are grounded in the libertarian premise that we are all entitled to make our own moral choices unless we are harming the person or property of someone else. In order to be considered legitimate in a diverse liberal democracy, legislation banning or requiring certain behaviors on moral grounds should reflect widespread public consensus—That’s why the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses, properly understood, forbid government from imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans on others.

When it comes to abortion, that consensus does not exist.

Historically, the “pro life” movement was not, as popular mythology suggests, a reaction to Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.” Objecting to abortion was seen as “more palatable” and more likely to motivate religiously conservative Christian voters than the actual motivation, which was denial of tax exemptions for the segregated schools established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Those origins persist. Sociological research confirms that Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. Research also confirms that people active in the “pro life” movement are much more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is important to the maintenance of the gender hierarchy they support.

The history and research go a long way toward explaining why it is so difficult to have evidence-based, logical discussions about abortion and birth control with anti-choice activists. The issue isn’t really abortion.

What is far less well understood, however, is that the consequences of upholding Texas’ law—if, in fact, the Court eventually does that—would be devastating, and would extend far beyond the issue of abortion. (Thus far, as you know, the Court has simply punted—it hasn’t ruled on the constitutionality of the law.)

A decision to allow the empowerment of culture war vigilantes would achieve a longstanding goal of so-called “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 interference of the federal government.

Such a decision would effectively approve a federalism on steroids, and—I am not engaging in hyperbole here—the effective 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 protections against unreasonable search and seizure..

Texas’ law strikes a terrifying blow against that principle.

Let me explain why this law created private vigilantes. The idea is that by enlisting private citizens to enforce the law the state can avoid challenges to the bill’s constitutionality. The theory is that, since the state itself won’t be directly involved in enforcing the law, state officials won’t be proper defendants to a lawsuit.

Why does that matter?

What far too many Americans don’t understand about their protections under the Bill of Rights is the requirement of state action–the Bill of Rights protects us against government infringement of our liberties–not against intrusions by private actors. If there hasn’t been state action–government action– there hasn’t been a constitutional violation.

Allowing this gambit to succeed would do much more than leave the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country in place; it would encourage other states to employ similar tactics–and not just for abortion, but for all sorts of culture war issues and from all political perspectives. As Lawrence Tribe recently warned, California could shift to private enforcement of its gun control regulations, never mind the Second Amendment implications of such restrictions. Vermont could shift to private enforcement of its environmental regulations, never mind the federal pre-emption implications. And the list goes on.

This ploy shouldn’t pass constitutional muster. In law school, I remember studying a 1948 case involving racially-restrictive deed covenants. Those covenants were between private parties, but the Court found state action present because those private deed restrictions could only be enforced with the participation of judges, clerks and other state officials. That case is still good law.

The vigilantes authorized by this legislation may be private citizens, but the law can’t be enforced without involving the apparatus of the state.

The bottom line is that, if successful, this effort would empower zealots of both the right and left.  This is probably not what the idiots in the Texas legislature had in mind, but it would be an almost-certain consequence. Even a more conventional overruling of Roe –a distinct possibility in a case pending from Mississippi—would invite unintended consequences. We can discuss those during Q and A.

Finally, as many of you know, my longstanding preoccupation has been with civic literacy—with the failure of so many Americans to understand their own government. The pandemic has given us a glaring illustration of that ignorance; we have officials and pundits insisting that they have the right to control their own bodies, that government can’t tell them to be vaccinated. Ironically, most of the people making this argument are anti-choice—in other words, they are claiming a right for themselves that they are unwilling to extend to others. But it isn’t only the glaring hypocrisy; they are also wrong. Government has a duty to prevent citizens from harming others, and the Court has recognized the right to mandate vaccination for at least 100 years. A woman who aborts is not a threat to her neighbors; a citizen who refuses to wear a mask or be vaccinated is such a threat–and the law recognizes the distinction even if too many Americans don’t.
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