Tag Archives: judiciary

Single-Issue Voters And The Courts

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the single-issue voters who are willing to put up with a mentally-ill, deeply-corrupt President if they think their votes will translate into the nomination and confirmation of “conservative” judges–defined as judges likely to overrule Roe v. Wade. 

Unfortunately, “conservative” judicial candidates able to pass the right’s litmus test aren’t just reliably anti-choice. Individuals who are willing to ignore stare decisis and the multiple complexities of women’s situations in order to criminalize the termination of pregnancy don’t approach that decision in a vacuum.

Scholars who have researched the differences between pro-life and pro-choice activists have concluded that both positions are elements of far more comprehensive world-views, some religious, some not.

Pro-life activism more often than not includes the belief that men and women are intrinsically different–and that, as a result of those differences (as one study has put it), men are best suited for the public world of work, while women are best suited to rearing children. These worldviews frequently include homophobia, and often a (selective) rejection of science.

Lawyers who argue that government has the right to decide such intimate matters for individual women are conservative only in the sense that they elevate “tradition” over the limitations that the Bill of Rights places on state power. They tend to see the United States as a “Christian nation,” and are thus willing to rule in accordance with the beliefs of (some) Christian denominations and to ignore the doctrines of denominations or religions that do not consider abortion or homosexuality sinful.

I do not think it overstates the case to assert that a significant number of the “conservative” lawyers being elevated to the federal bench aren’t simply anti-choice; they are anti-modernity.

I thought about the consequences of staffing the federal courts with people who define conservatism in this very narrow way when I saw news about a recent case involving the EPA.

In a victory for science and public health, a federal court determined that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cannot exclude scientists who have received EPA research grants—who happen to be mainly academic scientists from research universities—from serving on its advisory panels. The change, made by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, had a silencing effect on public health studies.

The court’s decision in the case, which was brought by NRDC in 2019, “affirms the role of science in protecting our environment and public health,” says Jon Devine, director of federal water policy for NRDC’s Nature Program. “This is a victory for basic truth and good governance.”

Pruitt claimed that his 2017 directive reduced bias on the EPA’s nearly two dozen advisory panels, which offer scientific expertise that then guide policy decisions on environmental pollutants, such as industrial chemicals or airborne particles from power plants. But unsurprisingly, Pruitt’s rule was not extended to scientists and consultants with ties to chemical or fossil fuel companies, allowing the agency to soon fill some open seats with industry insiders who disputed the known harm of pollutants, like ozone and PFOA.

Devine calls the now-debunked plan a “pernicious scheme to stack the deck in favor of big polluters by trying to shut out the voices of scientists—all to pump more pollution into our lives.”

The ruling was handed down by Judge Denise Cote for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, after several courts had tossed similar claims.

It’s safe to assume that Judge Cote was not a Trump appointee–NPR recently reported that 70% of Trump’s judicial appointments have been white men. (As of last August, he had not nominated a single African American or a single Latinx to the appellate courts.)

And speaking of terrifying world-views,

Dozens of those nominees have refused to answer whether they support the Supreme Court’s holding in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 opinion that said racial segregation of public schools is unconstitutional.

I wonder how many of the people who voted for Trump because they oppose Roe v. Wade will be equally happy with the other decisions these “conservatives” will inevitably hand down?



Saving The Courts

Yesterday’s post focused on the unending stream of ideologues being elevated to the federal bench under Trump.

Assuming–as even the least optimistic among us must–that massive turnout in  2020 rids us of this ignorant, corrupt and malevolent administration and enough of its feckless enablers to change control of the Senate, how might a new administration rescue the federal courts from the partisanship that is tarnishing both their operations and reputations?

My graduate students have some suggestions.

In the take-home final examination I gave my graduate Law and Public Policy class, the following question was one of three from which they could choose to submit a concluding essay:

Over the past several years, the federal courts, and especially the Supreme Court, have come to be viewed by both political parties as political prizes. Rather than choosing nominees with sterling legal credentials, appointments to the courts have increasingly been based upon the nominee’s perceived political ideology. You have been elected President, and your party controls both houses of Congress. You want to return the courts to their status as respected impartial arbiters of the law. What changes would you make to the composition of the courts, the nomination process or otherwise in order to accomplish this?

I was surprised by the number of students who chose this question, and impressed by the thoughtfulness with which they approached it.

A number advocated Increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices, noting that their number is not mandated by the Constitution and has been changed previously. Most suggested a panel somewhere between 12 and 20.

Another popular proposal was the creation of a nonpartisan advisory committee composed of legal scholars, sitting judges and representatives of the ABA, who would be charged with coming up with–and thoroughly vetting– a slate of candidates from which the President would choose his nominee.Some students suggested analogous processes for the lower courts.

In recognition of the fact that people live far longer these days, several suggested limiting the terms of Supreme Court Justices–making their tenures long enough to remove the threat of political pressure that prompted the Founders to prescribe lifetime terms, but short enough to ensure more frequent turnover.

One student supported implementation of the “Supreme Court Lottery”  advocated by legal scholars Epps and Sitaraman. Under this proposal, “each judge on the federal courts of appeals would also be appointed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  When cases are heard, an appropriate number of these judges would be chosen at random to sit on the Supreme Court panel.”

Several students noted the need for a process to increase what one called “demographic accountability”–a judiciary that more closely reflects the composition of the population, and suggested ways this might be accomplished.

All in all, the number of students who chose to answer this question and the various suggestions contained in those responses suggests the existence of widespread agreement on at least two things: 1) the courts are in danger of losing legitimacy (perhaps it would be more accurate to say “in danger of continuing to lose legitimacy–a loss that really began to gather steam with the decision in Bush v. Gore) and 2) partisanship and extreme partisan polarization are to blame.

My students are not lawyers. I teach in a school of public affairs, not a law school, so some of the suggested “reforms” were impractical or otherwise fanciful. But the students in my graduate class tend to be older, employed, with families, and they are generally thoughtful and civically-engaged. During the semester, virtually all of them demonstrated deep concerns with the dysfunction, chosen ignorance, and theatrics that have replaced  working governance.

Of course, if the people who didn’t bother to vote in 2016 stay home again in 2020– if the electorate does not come out en masse to evict the criminals, buffoons and fellow-travelers who are running roughshod over America’s ideals and Constitution–  suggestions for reforms will continue to be beside the point.




Another Stomach-Turning Appointment

While we are all transfixed by the Impeachment process, and by Republicans’ bizarre antics during the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committee proceedings, their Senate counterparts have been busy defiling the federal bench and giving a middle finger to the rule of law by confirming judicial nominees who are demonstrably unfit.

Ed Brayton recently reported on the confirmation of one such specimen: a creationist named Lawrence Van Dyke. Van Dyke is yet another Trump nominee rated “unfit” by the American Bar Association–ratings to which the Administration has responded by discontinuing the practice of asking the ABA for its evaluation of potential nominees.

When you don’t get the answers you want, just stop asking the questions…

In addition to being considered unfit by his legal peers, however, Van Dyke is apparently a real piece of work:

After conducting 60 interviews, the ABA found that VanDyke has a reputation as “arrogant, lazy, an ideologue, and lacking in knowledge of the day-to-day practice including procedural rules.” Video of VanDyke lecturing, scolding, and interrupting judges during oral argument while serving as Nevada solicitor general lends credence to that assessment…

VanDyke has a long record as an anti-LGBTQ activist. He wrote in 2004 that marriage equality “will hurt families, and consequentially children and society.” As the solicitor general of Montana, he advocated for the state to join two briefs alleging that legal recognition of same-sex relationships would harm children. The first claimed that prohibiting same-sex marriage promoted “optimal childrearing” because same-sex couples “cannot provide” the optimal “family structure.” And the second asserted that states “may rationally conclude” that “it is better” for parents to have a “biological” connection to their children…

How would you like to be an LGBTQ litigant whose claim was being adjudicated by this gem? As Brayton writes,

Only Trump would have even considered appointing this ignorant dolt to the federal bench. And since the Senate Republicans would confirm a ham sandwich if Trump nominated one, we’re now stuck with this mushhead for a lifetime.

A regular reader of this blog recently sent me an email asking whether Bill Barr could be impeached. As I told her, he could be–and he should be. But so long as Mitch McConnell is in charge of the Senate, he won’t be.

The New York Bar Association recently issued a statement to the effect that, if Barr refuses to recuse himself from the Ukraine investigation, he should resign or, failing that, “be subject to sanctions, including possible removal, by Congress.” It is certainly foreseeable that other bar associations, responding to inappropriate behavior by one of Trump’s questionable judicial appointments, might also call on Congress to issue sanctions– although doing so would raise a very real possibility of judicial retaliation against lawyers with suits pending in that courtroom.

More to the point, calling out judicial misbehavior is useless if the Senate remains in the hands of the same no-integrity Republicans who confirmed these specimens in the first place.

As important as it is to defeat Donald Trump in November, it is every bit as important–actually, it is even more important–to remove Mitch McConnell (aka the most evil man in America) and the Republican majority that has enabled him.



Blame The Courts

What’s that old saying? The enemy of my enemy is my friend?

 Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars a few days ago, Ed Brayton actually endorsed a theory offered by Jonah Goldberg.

Both Goldberg’s column and Brayton’s comment on it were offered in the run-up to Trump’s demand that he be given broadcast time to address the nation about the “crisis” at the border. Both predicted that Trump would declare a “national emergency” entitling him to ignore Congress and build his ridiculous wall.

As we now know, during that broadcast Trump simply reiterated his previous, fabricated “reasons” for building the wall. But he has continued to threaten the tactic.

Goldberg noted that such a move would be contrary both to common sense and the rule of law.

Do we really want to establish the precedent that the president can simply declare “It’s an emergency” like some magical incantation and then completely bypass property rights and the will of Congress just so he can fulfill a campaign promise that, if Sam Nunberg is to be believed, began as a consultant’s gimmick to get the candidate Trump to talk about immigration and what a great builder he is?

Moreover, if Trump actually attempted to use the military to seize private land, spending money Congress did not authorize, think of what the news cycle would look like, not from Trump’s perspective but from the perspective of other elected Republicans. Assuming that the Supreme Court or Congress didn’t stop him — a big assumption — would you like to run for office defending hourly images of armed U.S. troops kicking in doors or rolling out concertina wire? Is it beyond imagining that at least one Texas or Arizona rancher would get shot defending his property?

According to Goldberg, the theory then circulating in Washington was that the White House was fully aware that an order of that sort would generate multiple lawsuits and would likely be blocked almost immediately by the courts. That–in their view–would be the best of all possible worlds; it would extricate Trump from a box of his own making. He’d be able to tell his base he’d done everything he could, but his plan for America’s safety had been blocked by those terrible judges.

The reason this scenario seems so plausible is because such a patently illegal declaration would mimic a dishonest and destructive strategy that is pursued with some regularity by legislators at all levels of government. They can pass a bill they know to be unconstitutional, placating the constituents who want it, secure in the knowledge that the courts will bail them out.

I still remember a long-ago conversation with a student in one of my graduate classes, who happened to be a State Representative. He had just voted for a bill requiring schools throughout the state to post the Ten Commandments. I knew he was fully aware that such a law would violate the Establishment Clause, and I asked him why he had voted for something he knew to be unconstitutional. He replied that the “folks back in Mayberry” would be angry if he’d voted no, so he’d decided to “let the courts take the heat.”

There are a number of problems with that strategy. It rewards moral cowardice, and it feeds hostility to the judiciary among people who don’t understand the constitution, the function of the courts, or checks and balances.

And eventually, if Trump and the GOP get their way, pretty soon we won’t have competent, principled judges on the federal bench who are willing to “take the heat” in order to protect the constitution from cynical legislators pandering to constitutionally-illiterate voters.

About Those Right-Wing Judges…

As most of you know by now, a conservative judge in Texas struck down the entire Affordable Care Act, ruling it unconstitutional.

The decision is a reminder that when judges are appointed on the basis of party loyalty rather than legal acumen, the results can hurt a lot of innocent people.

Legal scholars who have reviewed the decision believe it is badly flawed and will be overturned, but Daily Kos recently enumerated the consequences should it be upheld.

The most obvious loss would be that part of the law that forbids insurance companies from excluding coverage of pre-existing conditions. But as the author noted, if the law were really to disappear, that’s just a part of what would be lost.

As many as 17 million people could lose their coverage in a single year. The 15 million people covered under Medicaid expansion could lose their coverage. The improvements to Medicare that have saved the program billions of dollars—and reduced prescription drug costs for seniors—would be erased. Young people wouldn’t be able to stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26. The ban on annual and lifetime caps would be gone, and medical bankruptcies would escalate. Having lady parts would again cost women more than men, and being over age 50 would cost everyone more again. Limits on out-of-pocket costs would be gone. The tax credits that 9 million people are receiving to help them pay premiums would be gone.

The post focused on the political fallout of the threatened losses. (Even Republicans concede that the issue hurts them.) But the real lessons aren’t partisan.

There are two obvious “take-aways” here.

First is the incredible amount of damage that can be done by elevating ideologues to the bench. This sort of “smash and burn” judging is a direct result of viewing the federal courts as a partisan political prize rather than a constitutional safeguard to be protected by the appointment of dispassionate, knowledgable and qualified legal scholars.

The second is equally obvious. As important as the ACA is, as much of a step forward that it represents, it falls far short of what Americans need and most other wealthy countries have long had. Not only is it vulnerable to the sort of judicial assassination we’ve just experienced, it is simply insufficient.

It would be poetic justice–not to mention actual justice–if this effort by a radical judge prompted Congress to pass Medicare for All, or at least a “public option” allowing citizens of all ages to “opt in” to the program.