Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Now Alito

There’s a lot to unpack about the ongoing disclosures about Supreme Court Justices,  beginning with the old adage that power corrupts. 

Digging a bit deeper, it’s interesting to note just who has been shown to be morally–and probably legally–corrupt. (Hint: it hasn’t been the liberal female justices. There are stories about Elena Kagan’s refusal to accept a gift of bagels on ethical grounds!) The culprits are the far-right Justices who sit on the Court courtesy of Leonard Leo and the Federalist Society.

It began with disclosures about Clarence Thomas and his appalling wife. If a lower-level judge accepted–and hid– lavish gifts and travel from a billionaire ideologue and failed to recuse himself from cases involving that billionaire–not to mention cases in which his wife was an interested party–that judge would soon be removed from the bench. 

Now we discover that Justice Alito shares more than ideology with Thomas. Pro Publica broke the story:

In early July 2008, Samuel Alito stood on a riverbank in a remote corner of Alaska. The Supreme Court justice was on vacation at a luxury fishing lodge that charged more than $1,000 a day, and after catching a king salmon nearly the size of his leg, Alito posed for a picture. To his left, a man stood beaming: Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who has repeatedly asked the Supreme Court to rule in his favor in high-stakes business disputes.

Singer was more than a fellow angler. He flew Alito to Alaska on a private jet. If the justice chartered the plane himself, the cost could have exceeded $100,000 one way.

In the years that followed, Singer’s hedge fund came before the court at least 10 times in cases where his role was often covered by the legal press and mainstream media. In 2014, the court agreed to resolve a key issue in a decade-long battle between Singer’s hedge fund and the nation of Argentina. Alito did not recuse himself from the case and voted with the 7-1 majority in Singer’s favor. The hedge fund was ultimately paid $2.4 billion.

Alito–like Thomas–failed to report the trip on his required annual financial disclosure form. Ethics experts tell Pro Publica  that the omission violates federal law. Those experts also report being unable to identify another instance of “a justice ruling on a case after receiving an expensive gift paid for by one of the parties.”

ProPublica’s investigation sheds new light on how luxury travel has given prominent political donors — including one who has had cases before the Supreme Court — intimate access to the most powerful judges in the country. Another wealthy businessman provided expensive vacations to two members of the high court, ProPublica found. On his Alaska trip, Alito stayed at a commercial fishing lodge owned by this businessman, who was also a major conservative donor. Three years before, that same businessman flew Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, on a private jet to Alaska and paid the bill for his stay.

Such trips would be unheard of for the vast majority of federal workers, who are generally barred from taking even modest gifts.

Alito claims he and Singer never discussed business, and that when Singer’s cases came before the court, he’d been unaware of his connection to them.

Right. And I have a bridge to sell you…..

Talking Points Memo points to the larger issue:  justices groomed and chosen by the Federalist Society “remain ‘kept’ in perpetuity” by the Right-wing donor network that got them there … “Sugar Justices, if you will.”

What is especially infuriating about these disclosures is that they involve Justices who posture as moral arbiters and issue judicial opinions based upon religious dogma rather than constitutional precedent. 

I have previously characterized Alito’s decision in Dobbs as profoundly dishonest, because he cherry-picked and misrepresented both history and legal precedent in order to achieve his desired (paternalistic) result.  Given Pro Publica’s report, it seems Alito’s dishonesty isn’t limited to his jurisprudence.

Thomas insisted that Harlan Crowe (whom he met after he joined the Court) was a “dear friend.” Alito says he had “no idea” that Singer was connected to ten cases before the Court. Neither allegation passes the smell test. According to Pro Publica, Alito and Singer have appeared together at public events, and Singer introduced Alito’s speeches on at least two occasions– the annual dinner of the Federalist Society (where Singer told an anecdote about their fishing trip) and a dinner for donors to the equally far-Right Manhattan Institute. 

The disclosures are profoundly depressing. They should also be a wake-up call.

It is past time to apply binding ethical standards to the Court. Imposing term limits, and adding Justices to the Court would dilute the influence exercised by corrupt culture warriors doing Federalist Society bidding..


Speaking Of Punitive…

One of the cases the Supreme Court will decide this term is a lawsuit brought by Republican Attorneys General opposed to cancellation of a portion of student loan debt. Evidently, Indiana isn’t the only Red state with a despicable and arguably dishonest Attorney General, as a Brookings Institution study documents.

The AGs aren’t the only opponents of giving students some fiscal breathing room –the House of Representatives recently voted to repeal the program. But as Brookings  researchers write in the linked New York Times essay, the lawsuit  brought by six Republican-led states has received inadequate scrutiny.

So we decided to do the fact-checking ourselves. We filed public records requests and reviewed almost a thousand pages of internal financial documents, emails and other communications from the parties in the case, as well as court filings and the transcript of oral arguments at the Supreme Court in February.

We found that the states’ most fundamental justification for bringing the case — that canceling student loans could leave a Missouri-based loan authority unable to meet its financial obligations to the state — is false. As our research shows, and the loan authority’s own documents confirm, even with the new policy in place, its revenues from servicing loans will increase.

That this claim is manufactured–that it is a lie– is important.

Unlike legal systems that permit advisory opinions, in America, if there’s no injury, there’s no right to sue. The legal term is standing, and according to Brookings, the plaintiffs don’t have it. They simply said they did. (With our current Court–a Court that demonstrably privileges litigants with status and power –that may be enough.)

As the researchers note,

The ease with which the state attorneys general were able to make claims that contradict basic facts, void of any rigorous stress testing, is all the more striking when compared with the endless hoops that ordinary people have to jump through to prove their eligibility for financial aid or debt relief. This is what the sociologist Howard Becker calls the “hierarchy of credibility”: Those at the top of the social hierarchy don’t have to prove their claims; they’re just taken for granted. But claims made by those on the bottom are burdened by skepticism and demands for proof. In this instance, that difference may deprive millions of people of much-needed relief….

Compare that with the lengths that normal people must go to in order to prove they are eligible for debt relief. They have to submit mountains of documentation. Their claims are often denied for the most trivial of technicalities — a form filled out with green ink instead of black or blue, an electronic signature instead of an inked one.

Applicants for the older Public Service Loan Forgiveness program have to get paperwork signed from employers they had a decade ago. If a loan servicer transfers the account, the borrower may lose her payment history, and therefore her eligibility for relief. People who attended predatory for-profit colleges have had to submit extensive applications for relief, documenting their schools’ false allegations and misrepresentations. Even the Biden plan required an application.

The linked essay goes into detail, thoroughly debunking the damage claims that support plaintiffs’ standing, and I encourage you to click through and read that analysis. But I want to focus on a different–albeit related–question: what policy position does this dishonesty serve?

To put it another way, why are so many Americans–mostly but not exclusively Republicans–so opposed to relieving student debt?

In the final paragraph of the linked essay, the researchers write that an affirmation of the plaintiff’s claim would

effectively be confirming a fake plaintiff, false facts and an unjust claim. Falsehoods about falsehoods would be a hard way to lose the debt relief the president promised to 43 million Americans and their families. And a Supreme Court that doesn’t scrutinize basic facts would be a further disgrace for a body already plagued by scandal.

I’ve previously noted how punitive today’s GOP has become. Here in Indiana, we’ve seen our Attorney General wage a petty vendetta against a doctor who legally aborted a ten-year-old rape victim. We’ve seen legislators go out of their way to harm trans children and dismiss the very notion that women are entitled to bodily autonomy and effective health care.

Nationally, we’ve witnessed GOP efforts to punish the poorest Americans by curtailing social welfare programs (while protecting the rich against attempts to audit them or–gasp!–make them pay their fair share.)

American lawmakers used to argue about the “how”–what’s the most effective way to help this or that population, or solve this or that problem? But “how” has given way to “why”–why would we want to help the less fortunate?

When did the cruelty become the point?



Losing My Faith

Faith isn’t only important for religions that emphasize faith over works.

Living emotionally healthy lives also involves having faith in our families and friends, and in our social institutions. Faith in the trustworthiness of government is critically important to the maintenance of a democratic polity–and after many years, I’ve lost my (undoubtedly naive) faith in part of America’s government–the Supreme Court. 

It was bad enough watching Brett Kavanaugh engage in his very un-judicial hysterical rant during his confirmation. It was infuriating when Mitch McConnell publicly displayed the game-playing that goes into elevating nominees to the highest court in the land. And of course, the almost-daily revelations about Justice Thomas are enough to make an ethical lawyer gag.

The rank dishonesty of today’s Court–on display when Alito’s theocratic impulses won majorities in Hobby Lobby and Dobbs–are far from the only evidence that the Court is not the collection of thoughtful, dispassionate legal analysts I once fondly believed.

A recent book by Stephen Vladeck focuses on the Court’s increased use of the shadow docket. Vladeck shows how the conservative justices ignored decades-old norms by using that docket, which doesn’t require briefing or consideration of the merits, to issue a series of shadowy unsigned and unexplained emergency orders.

The Shadow Docket was created as a mechanism to deal with issues requiring an immediate ruling on procedural matters, such as scheduling, or situations requiring maintenance of the status quo until the case could be considered on the merits, to avoid irreparable harm to a litigant.

Vladeck’s book describes the largely unnoticed shift towards what he calls “furtive justice.”  “The Shadow Docket: How the Supreme Court Uses Stealth Rulings to Amass Power and Undermine the Republic,” argues that rightwing justices have “abused the court’s emergency powers to run roughshod over the longstanding norm that shadow docket orders should be used sparingly and with extreme caution.”

Rightwing justices are now deploying such orders dozens of times each term. Over three terms alone, from 2019 to 2022, the court granted emergency relief in more than 60 cases: effectively overturning the considered decisions of lower courts through rushed, unexplained rulings.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the current Court is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, but like many lawyers, I stubbornly believed that the Court’s dysfunctions were of relatively recent vintage. (Thanks, McConnell!)

Then I read Erwin Chemerinsky’s 2015 book: The Case Against the Supreme Court.

Chemerinsky is one of my legal heroes. He’s an American legal scholar widely respected for his studies of constitutional law and federal civil procedure. Since 2017, he’s been the dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. (I was once on a panel with him, and he was erudite and self-effacing and altogether charming.)

The book is a scathing critique of the Supreme Court for failing–throughout its history– to carry out its most important responsibilities at critical moments. According to Chemerinsky, the two “preeminent purposes of the Court are to protect the rights of minorities who cannot rely on the political process and to uphold the Constitution in the face of any repressive desires of political majorities.” 

In the book, Chemerinsky goes through the Court’s jurisprudential history, identifying case after case in which the Court failed to take a stand for constitutional rights and principles. He gives example after example of the Court’s “decades-long support for government-sanctioned slavery, racial segregation, corporate favoritism, and suppression of speech during times of crisis.” “Throughout American history,” Chemerinsky writes, “the Court usually has been on the side of the powerful—government and business—at the expense of individuals whom the Constitution is designed to protect.”

Chemerinsky acknowledges that the Court has occasionally performed as we would hope, in cases like Brown v. Board of Education, but even the Warren Court–a high-water Court in the opinion of most legal scholars– doesn’t escape reproof. (He details in one chapter how “it did so much less than it needed to and should have done, even in the areas of its greatest accomplishments.”)

Chemerinsky absolutely eviscerates the Roberts Court–and that was in 2015, before Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett– enumerating the many ways in which that Court continues to favor the powerful over citizens in a wide range of areas from generic drug manufacturers to voting rights.

The book does provide a laundry list of reforms that might ameliorate the deficiencies: term limits for the Justices, several changes to the way the Court communicates, and –importantly–rigid ethical requirements and recusal procedures. 

 Vladeck and Chemerinsky–and the Roberts Court–have disabused me of my prior, naive faith in the Court. The domination of Congress by the GOP’s version of the Keystone Kops had previously removed any remaining confidence or faith in that body.

That leaves one leg of a three-legged stool……  



Tennessee, Clarence Thomas And The Corruption Of American Democracy

Question: What do Clarence Thomas and the Republican legislators in Tennessee have in common?  Answer: They both epitomize the corruption of American democracy–a corruption that has led to a precipitous decline in public confidence in America’s governing institutions.

Several media outlets have reported on recent polling from Gallup that shows trust in the judicial branch at record lows. Only 47 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the federal judiciary– a drop of 20 percentage points from two years earlier. When asked about the Supreme Court, it was worse:  58 percent disapproved of the high court’s performance.

Those numbers are unlikely to improve following the most recent disclosures about  Justice Thomas and his “dear friend” Harlan Crowe. The initial revelations about Thomas’ acceptance of luxurious trips were stunning enough, but the Justice’s argument that he hadn’t needed to report them since they were just “hospitality”–while unconvincing–left him some rhetorical wiggle-room.

The latest revelations don’t.

This time, Thomas directly received money from Crow — perhaps in excess of the market value of the Chatham County, Ga., properties that Crow purchased from Thomas and his kin. This is no longer about receiving “personal hospitality.” It’s about a financial transaction between Thomas and a GOP donor who has also subsidized his vacations.

There is no doubt that the sale of personal real estate to Crow should have been reported on the justice’s financial disclosure form for 2014, and there is no excuse for failing to do so. The most logical explanation is that Thomas, whose relationship with Crow had already been the subject of unflattering news reports, wanted to keep it from public view.

The linked article also notes  that Thomas has failed to report his wife’s considerable income from Rightwing organizations–although the law clearly requires  that income to be reported.

Inescapable bottom line: Clarence Thomas is corrupt, and his judicial decisions are compromised.

Then there is the emerging information about the Tennessee legislature–information that probably would not have been uncovered or widely disseminated had that body not over-reacted to a breach of House decorum by expelling two young Black Democrats.

Democracy Docket has taken a deeper dive into that gerrymandered legislature’s  disdain for representative democracy. Tennessee, like Indiana, has a Republican super-majority–courtesy of gerrymandering–that routinely acts to disempower state Democrats.

Some examples:

Tennessee’s Democratic cities have come under a coordinated attack from lawmakers. In March, Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a law that forces the Nashville Metro Council to reduce its membership by half. Two lawsuits were filed challenging the law and on April 10, a Tennessee court temporarily blocked portions of the law while litigation continues.

After the expulsion of Pearson, GOP legislators threatened to withdraw funding from important projects in Memphis’ Shelby County if Pearson was reappointed.

In the latest round of redistricting, the Legislature divided Davidson County, home to Nashville, into three separate districts, dismantling the city’s Democratic-held seat. The lawmakers also approved state legislative districts that entrenched Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. (Notably, the recent expulsions were only possible because of GOP supermajority control.)

Tennessee denies voting rights to over 470,000 citizens with one of the strictest (and most complicated) felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States. The state disenfranchises 21% of its Black voting-age population, the highest percentage in the country.

Tennessee has restrictive voting laws, leading to a low democracy tally by the Movement Advancement Project. Instead of improving voting access, the Legislature’s priorities have included laws requiring state and local officials to consult with the legislative leadership before changing certain state election laws and prohibiting election offices from accepting any private grant for election administration.

And we wonder why Americans no longer trust our political institutions…why so many of us have moved from skepticism to cynicism.

Political trust is generally described as citizens’ confidence in their political institutions. As political scientists repeatedly warn, that trust is an important component and indicator of political legitimacy; its erosion is not something to be taken lightly.

As I used to tell my students, an enormous number of American laws depend upon voluntary compliance by citizens–everything from filing taxes to obeying traffic signals. The ability of the authorities to catch and punish scofflaws depends upon the fact that the rule-breakers are relatively few. When citizens no longer trust that those in power are following the rules, rising numbers of them will feel justified in breaking those rules as well.

And it’s all inter-related

A properly functioning Supreme Court would have outlawed the rampant gerrymandering that produced Tennessee’s –and other state’s–rogue legislature.

As NASA might put it: Houston, we have a problem.


The Challenges Of Modern Life

The Supreme Court’s docket this year has two cases that will require the Court to confront a thorny challenge of modern life–to adapt (or not) to the novel realities of today’s communication technologies.

Given the fact that at least five of the Justices cling to the fantasy that they are living in the 1800s, I’m not holding my breath.

The cases I’m referencing are two that challenge Section 230, social media’s “safe space.”

As Time Magazine explained on February 19th,

The future of the federal law that protects online platforms from liability for content uploaded on their site is up in the air as the Supreme Court is set to hear two cases that could change the internet this week.

The first case, Gonzalez v. Google, which is set to be heard on Tuesday, argues that YouTube’s algorithm helped ISIS post videos and recruit members —making online platforms directly and secondarily liable for the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people, including 23-year-old American college student Nohemi Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s parents and other deceased victims’ families are seeking damages related to the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Oral arguments for Twitter v. Taamneh—a case that makes similar arguments against Google, Twitter, and Facebook—centers around another ISIS terrorist attack that killed 29 people in Istanbul, Turkey, will be heard on Wednesday.

The cases will decide whether online platforms can be held liable for the targeted advertisements or algorithmic content spread on their platforms.

Re-read that last sentence, because it accurately reports the question the Court must address. Much of the media coverage of these cases misstates that question. These cases  are not about determining whether the platforms can be held responsible for posts by the individuals who upload them. The issue is whether they can be held responsible for the algorithms that promote those posts–algorithms that the platforms themselves developed.

Section 230, which passed in 1996, is a part of the Communications Decency Act.

The law explicitly states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” meaning online platforms are not responsible for the content a user may post.

Google argues that websites like YouTube cannot be held liable as the “publisher or speaker” of the content users created, because Google does not have the capacity to screen “all third-party content for illegal or tortious materia.l” The company also argues that “the threat of liability could prompt sweeping restrictions on online activity.”

It’s one thing to insulate tech platforms from liability for what users post–it’s another to allow them free reign to select and/or promote certain content–which is what their algorithms do. In recognition of that distinction, in 2021, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ben Ray Lujan introduced a bill that would remove tech companies’ immunity from lawsuits if their algorithms promoted health misinformation.

As a tech journalist wrote in a NYT opinion essay,

The law, created when the number of websites could be counted in the thousands, was designed to protect early internet companies from libel lawsuits when their users inevitably slandered one another on online bulletin boards and chat rooms. But since then, as the technology evolved to billions of websites and services that are essential to our daily lives, courts and corporations have expanded it into an all-purpose legal shield that has acted similarly to the qualified immunity doctrine that often protects policeofficers from liability even for violence and killing.

As a journalist who has been covering the harms inflicted by technology for decades, I have watched how tech companies wield Section 230 to protect themselves against a wide array of allegations, including facilitating deadly drug sales, sexual harassment, illegal arms sales and human trafficking — behavior that they would have likely been held liable for in an offline context….

There is a way to keep internet content freewheeling while revoking tech’s get-out-of-jail-free card: drawing a distinction between speech and conduct.

In other words, continue to offer tech platforms immunity for the defamation cases that Congress had in mind when Section 230 passed, but impose liability for illegal conduct that their own technology enables and/or promotes. (For example, the author confirmed that advertisers could easily use Facebook’s ad targeting algorithms to violate the Fair Housing Act.)

Arguably, the creation of an algorithm is an action–not the expression or communication of an opinion or idea. When that algorithm demonstrably encourages and/or facilitates illegal behavior, its creator ought to be held liable.

It’s like that TV auto ad that proclaims “this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile.” The Internet isn’t your mother’s newspaper, either. Some significant challenges come along with the multiple benefits of modernity– how to protect free speech without encouraging the barbarians at the gate is one of them.