Tag Archives: rule of law

A Case In Point

It wasn’t just Donald Trump. For a number of years, Americans have been electing “celebrities”–actors and people famous for being famous–to government positions from mayors (Clint Eastwood) to governors (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to (most recently and unfortunately) President.

When Kanye West can announce a presidential campaign with a straight face, Caitlin Jenner assures people that knowing nothing about government qualifies her to govern California, and Matthew McConaughey is touted as a viable candidate for governor of Texas, the trend is hard to dismiss (although alcohol helps).

This willingness of voters to put people with absolutely no government experience into positions of authority is troubling on numerous levels, but what drives me absolutely bonkers is the lack of understanding of the day-to-day responsibilities of governance that the phenomenon represents, and the message it sends to less-famous candidates for public office, who have come to focus on public performance rather than attending to the unexciting “grunt work” of governing.

Indiana provides a case in point. (Well, okay, several. But today, I just want to focus on one.)

While our legislators are busy pontificating about abortion, vaccination, the Second Amendment, protecting developers from the need to protect wetlands, and awarding ever-increasing amounts of public funds to private religious schools, they are paying far less attention to basic governance issues like ordinary citizens’ ability to access  the rules and regulations with which they are expected to comply.

Toward the end of my academic life, I served as a very informal consultant for a project undertaken by Professor Ross Silverman and several colleagues. Silverman’s research required that he collect the laws of Indiana’s counties, and his results were published as a research methods piece in the American Journal of Public Health. 

Silverman is a Professor of Public Health & Law, and he holds a joint appointment at IU’s Fairbanks School of Public Health and the McKinney School of Law. As he noted in an email announcing publication of the research,

During our process we discovered that nearly half of all Indiana counties either do not publish their ordinances and regulations online or have only partial or out of date materials available electronically. As you also know, there’s no law requiring electronic publication or a central repository either.

To acquire these documents meant we drove 1000s of miles & scanned 25000+ pages ourselves at County government offices dotted around the state.

We were most interested in the laws that may have an effect on the lives of people with substance use disorders, but once we got to see the primary source materials, we found they were usually kept in 3 ring binders organized by passage date, not topic, so there’s no quick way to pick out the relevant documents.

These types of obstacles and labor costs makes it very challenging to conduct statewide intrastate policy analysis, maintain up to date data, or even know your local laws.

Leaving aside the impediment to analysis this lack of a system represents, citizens’ ability to access the rules they must obey is a basic tenet of the rule of law.

How do we expect citizens to obey laws of which they are unaware? Why–in the age of the Internet–are ordinances not routinely digitized, categorized and made available online? Why–in a state like Indiana where “home rule” is a joke–can’t the members of the Indiana General Assembly pass a law requiring local units of government to make their rules accessible?

Granted, sponsorship of such a measure wouldn’t offer an opportunity for posturing, of appealing to a particular voting or donor constituency, or otherwise enhancing a politico’s name recognition, but it would certainly improve governance in a state that–to put it charitably–is not noted for excellence in that department.

Even Mussolini understood the importance–and political benefit–of making the trains run on time….




Two Cheers For The Deep State

I spent the past 22 years teaching students how to become members of the “deep state.”

Of course, we didn’t call it that, or see it as the negative that phrase suggests. Our faculty taught students who planned to enter public service–or civil society–the skills, knowledge and especially the specific ethical principles such service requires.

I even co-authored a textbook: American Public Service: Constitutional and Ethical Foundations. 

What the neanderthals sneeringly call “the deep state” is a bureaucracy devoted to those principles–government employees who understand that their loyalty is not to transient political authorities, but to a constitutionally-grounded ethic of public service. Every time civil servants have thwarted Trump, they have demonstrated a commitment to those principles.

A recent post to Juanita Jean described how a principled government workforce–the  ethical denizens of that “deep state”–acted to “preserve and protect” the operations of one government agency: Radio Free Europe.

Trump had installed one of his loyalists, a typical Trump sycophant named Michael Pack, to manage the agency.  Pack proceeded to replace members of the board and senior staff with Trumpers, ideologues, and conservative activists. He also dissolved all of the boards of agencies under his authority and packed those boards and the staffs of those agencies with what has been described as “a rogue’s gallery of religious fanatics, activists, ideologues and weirdos.”

Biden has already signaled a housecleaning once he assumes office, but according to reports, Pack is not planning on going quietly–he secretly began entering into binding employment contracts with his handpicked staff–the terms of which would block any Biden firings for two years.

The linked post tells what happened next.

When the career staff found out what Pack was doing, they said not no, but hell no, and blew the whistle.  Day before yesterday, they sent a four page letter to McConnell, Pelosi, and Senate and House leaders, the Inspector General, and the presidential transition team.  The letter was signed by over two dozen staffers including the editorial board, the editor in chief, and all the heads of the global regional operations.  In the letter, they made this statement:

“These actions include your recent distribution of a revised grant agreement with RFE/RL that has been unilaterally prepared by your office and is intended to revoke RFE/RL’s financial autonomy and embed your appointees within both RFE/RL and its Board of Directors for a period of two years – an unprecedented departure from RFE/RL’s tradition of working in a bipartisan manner with changing U.S. administrations. This conflicts with the appointment process enshrined in law and in our bylaws, and is precisely the kind of political power maneuver that RFE/RL regularly witnesses in places like Russia, Hungary, Belarus, and Tajikistan. We never thought we’d see it from our own oversight agency.”

What’s particularly galling is that in October a Superior Court Judge in DC ruled that Pack had acted illegally in dissolving the board and seizing control of the Open Technology Fund which was established to help areas of the world access to open and secure internet access.  Pack has ignored the court order and refused to reestablish the boards he dissolved.

Lawyers and political scientists talk a lot about the importance of the rule of law. What Pack attempted at Radio Free Europe is a perfect example of what happens when people in positions of authority ignore their ethical/constitutional obligations and make a mockery of the rule of law.

It took the courageous revolt by those much-reviled bureaucrats of the “deep state” to prevent the thugs and mobsters of the Trump Administration from eviscerating constitutional controls on agency operations.

Similar scenarios have undoubtedly played out in other parts of the federal government. We owe the much-maligned “deep state” our respect and our gratitude.



Restoring The Rule Of Law

In early September, a post to the Lawfare blog considered what it would take to repair the Trumpian assault on the rule of law.

For those unfamiliar with Lawfare, the blog–launched in 2010– is devoted to what it describes as “that nebulous zone in which actions taken or contemplated to protect the nation interact with the nation’s laws and legal institutions.”

I often talk about the rule of law without bothering to define it, but at this juncture in our shared national experience, I think it would be useful to step back and do so. The American Bar Association definition will do nicely:

The rule of law is a set of principles, or ideals, for ensuring an orderly and just society. Many countries throughout the world strive to uphold the rule of law where no one is above the law, everyone is treated equally under the law, everyone is held accountable to the same laws, there are clear and fair processes for enforcing laws, there is an independent judiciary, and human rights are guaranteed for all.

The linked post begins by stating the obvious: Trump’s tenure has been a constant, unremitting assault on those principles, and the behavior of his administration has inflicted considerable damage on America’s most fundamental values.

His attacks on the free press, the independent judiciary and the independence of the Department of Justice have all created significant damage. His abuse of executive discretionary authority has made a mockery of the concept of checks and balances. His gaming of the judicial system has revealed weaknesses in our legal process. His attempts to place himself (and his family and his business interests) above the law have called into question foundational national conceptions of equal justice. In short, President Trump has led a wrecking crew (aided and abetted by William Barr and Mitch McConnell) that has severely damaged American legal norms of behavior.

The question, of course, is “what can we do about it?” Assuming a Biden victory in November, what are the remedies available to policymakers to restore respect for and adherence to the fundamental principles of the rule of law?

Because Lawfare’s focus is on foreign policy, the linked post primarily describes specific aspects of Presidential authority and Congressional oversight that are important to the conduct of foreign affairs. But most of the recommendations sweep more widely–for example, tightening the conditions under which Presidents can place “acting” officials in important government positions, and for how long–a process that currently allows a President to avoid having the Senate determine whether that individual is qualified and should be confirmed. As the post reminds us, the Trump administration “has exploited this authority to avoid the Senate confirmation process while placing preferred individuals in key positions.”

Other reforms with broad implications would make disclosure of Presidential tax returns mandatory (this one needs no explanation), and significantly narrow  Presidents’ ability to declare “emergencies” and thus exercise emergency powers. Added protections for Inspectors General would likewise seem obvious–and important.

There are other reforms suggested, and the post is worth reading in its entirety. I hope incominglawmakers take its recommendations seriously.

Assuming–as hopeful people must–a wholesale repudiation of this lawless and dangerous administration and its GOP enablers, Americans can decide to make a silk purse out of the  Trumpian sow’s ear–we can see from the lawless behaviors and the assaults on democratic norms where the legal and structural weaknesses are, and move to strengthen them. We can re-commit this country to the rule of law and to our founding aspirations.

Or, of course, we can lapse further into tribal conflict, and thereby accelerate America’s decline.


What Must We Do And How Must We Do. It?

A couple of days ago, Steve Bannon was indicted for defrauding Trump supporters, who had been enticed into sending money to Bannon and three co-conspirators to “build the wall.” The money went into their pockets, not into construction.

It’s tempting to find this sordid little episode of predators taking advantage of bigots a parable for “just deserts,” (as Michelle Goldberg wrote, “In the MAGA movement, you’re either a predator or a mark” and that seems about right) but that isn’t the lesson to be taken from this unsurprising, add-it-to-the-list evidence of moral rot in Trumpworld.

Reuters has a list of  those who have been arrested and convicted of criminal behavior so far, and there is ample evidence that–with or without including the ethically-challenged saboteur at the Post Office– the current list is only the tip of a very large iceberg.

And at the center of that iceberg is Donald J. Trump.

Last week, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the Trump Campaign’s co-operation with Russia that was far more damning than the Mueller Report. CNN called it the most comprehensive and meticulous examination to date.  It explained in detail the ways in which Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election,  confirmed that the Trump campaign welcomed that help, and revealed multiple contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates both during and after the campaign.

Prosecutors with the Southern District of New York look increasingly likely to get Trump’s tax returns, although probably not before the election, and they already have the paperwork he submitted in support of his loans from Deutsch Bank. The results of that ongoing investigation are likely to confirm a history of tax evasion, money laundering and bank fraud.

Michelle Goldberg has explained why America needs accountability for the corruption of this administration–and why genuine accountability can’t be reduced to political slogans like “lock him up.” As she notes,  “a president who runs the White House as a criminal syndicate creates a conundrum for liberal democracy.”

Obviously,  merely losing an election is not a crime, and it shouldn’t create legal liability.

But you can’t reinforce the rule of law by allowing it to be broken without repercussion. After four years of ever-escalating corruption and abuses of power, the United States cannot simply snap back to being the country it once was if Trump is forced to vacate the White House in January. If Biden is elected, Democrats must force a reckoning over what Trump has done to America.

Of course, a Biden victory is far from assured, and if he loses, there may be no stopping this country’s slide into a permanent state of oligarchic misrule. But right now, while there’s still hope of cauterizing Trumpism, ideas about post-Trump accountability are percolating in Democratic and activist circles.

Those  “percolating ideas” come from a number of quarters: the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, recently released a report titled, “How a Future President Can Hold the Trump Administration Accountable.” Protect Democracy is a legal group founded by a former associate White House counsel during Obama’s Administration. It has been investigating the experience of countries around the world that have transitioned to democracy from authoritarianism. Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the most thoughtful members of the Senate, has suggested a tribunal modeled on South Africa’s Truth Commission.

America is facing a whole lot of “ifs.” If Biden wins, if the Democrats take the Senate, if there is an orderly transition of power…then, there will need to be a thorough housecleaning. That housecleaning needs to be conducted in a manner that is both transparent and meticulously fair. The. Qanon folks, the Neo-Nazis and Proud Boys and KKK are beyond reason, but the rest of us aren’t, and we desperately need an administration that understands and fairly enforces the rule of law–and holds itself to a high moral, ethical and legal standard.

Voting blue up and down the ballot is only a first step, but it’s an absolutely essential first. step.


An Important Test For The Court

In the three-plus years that Donald Trump has occupied the Oval Office–I deliberately didn’t say “has been President” because in any rational sense, he has not fulfilled that function–longstanding norms of American governance have been turned upside down.

Nowhere have the deviations from expectations been more worrisome than in the courts.

For years, legal scholars have debated whether this or that issue should be settled through litigation or by electoral politics. But I am aware of no credible argument that the courts should be divested of their independence and turned into supine tools of the executive branch.

Our idiot President recently called upon Supreme Court justices who disagree with him to recuse themselves–displaying not only his trademark contempt for constitutional checks and balances, but his embarrassing ignorance of American constitutionalism. That contempt and ignorance would not ordinarily be worthy of note–every day, the insane tweets and verbal diarrhea bear ample witness to both–except for a case that is making its way to the Supreme Court.

A recent article by Nancy LeTourneau at Washington Monthly pointed to the disquieting reason for Trump’s unprecedented assault on the Supremes. She begins her analysis by pointing to a truly telling statistic:

Trump administration’s incompetence has led to an abysmal record in the courts. Whereas previous administrations prevailed in the courts 80 percent of the time, this president has failed in over 90 percent of the cases his administration has argued.

As she notes, the Trump administration’s response to these failures has been to appeal directly to the Supreme Court–to ask the Court  to expedite emergency relief from the injunctions of the lower courts. Le Tourneau quotes one legal scholar to the effect that Trump has gone to the Supreme Court with such a request 24 times in less than three years– compared to a total of eight such requests during the 16 years of the George W. Bush and Obama administration’s combined.

Trump has no understanding of the legitimacy concerns raised by such petitions, of course. He actually believes that any criticism of him or his administration should be grounds for recusal, criticism and vilification. And he has other concerns as well.

The reason Trump is on the attack against liberal Supreme Court justices probably has more to do with a case that is being made against Justice Clarence Thomas. As we’ve seen, the president is in the midst of a purge of federal employees who don’t demonstrate enough loyalty to him. Jonathan Swan reported that Ginni Thomas—the wife of Clarence Thomas—has been deeply involved in lobbying on behalf of a purge, providing the administration with lists of who needs to go as well as potential replacements.

In response, there have been calls for Thomas to recuse himself on matters related to Trump and his administration.  Trump’s call for Sotomayor and Ginsberg to recuse themselves is not only a way to further politicize the Supreme Court; it also provides his media enablers with a distraction from the issues surrounding Thomas and the ability to pretend that both sides do it.

All of these issues have prompted Trump’s defensive and unPresidential behavior. But even more significant is a case  that could require him to release his tax returns.

From everything we’ve seen, that is the hill that this president is prepared to defend at all costs. And according to CNN, the latest dissent issued by Sotomayor could indicate that tensions are rising as the justices consider these major cases.

Here, then, is a critical test of the Court’s independence. Will Trump’s appointees behave like the grateful tools he clearly believes they are? Will they demonstrate allegiance to Trump, or to the Constitution?

The answer to that question will tell us whether we retain a system based–however insecurely–on the rule of law.