Home » Archive by category "Supreme Court"

Guns and Myths…

     “I can make the case that if there were guns in that room other than his, fewer people would’ve died, fewer people would’ve been so horribly injured.”

                                        Donald Trump on Meet the Press, October 4, 2015              commenting on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

– – – – –

One of the challenges in assessing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is that you run out of words that begin to describe his idiocy and cluelessness. I haven’t used despicable for a while, so let’s use that to characterize Trump’s reaction in the wake of the horrific – and most recent – mass shooting last week in Roseburg, Oregon.

Trump: More Myths About Guns

Trump: More Myths About Guns

And, of course, the GOP front runner had to make the unthinkable tragedy of students and their teacher murdered in a writing class all about him. “I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” Trump blustered in front of a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Tennessee.

The Republican clown then completed the trifecta of gun mythology, which includes the old canard that even more guns are the answer to mass shootings and that we should all be armed to make the country safer, when he dismissed the epidemic of mass gun murder in the United States as (and he should know) a mental health issue.

But it is about the guns…

“It’s not the guns,” Trump said. “It’s the people, these sick people.” But in fact, as everyone really knows but few willingly admit, it is about the guns, particularly when there are essentially as many guns in the society as there are men, women and children in the country, vastly more guns by population than any other country on the planet.

It’s also not about the myth of mental illness, although that certainly plays a part. Dr. Paul Applebaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in attacks like the recent one in Oregon, told New York Magazine last week that it is a fool’s errand to attempt to deal with mass murder by attempting to predict who is capable of mass murder.

“When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Applebaum told the magazine. Rather, he said, he had developed a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”

Over the next couple of days the horror that unfolded last Thursday at Umpqua Community College will quickly fade away as it always does after the most recent gun outrage in America, while the short national attention span will move on to something else. President Obama is certainly correct when he says mass gun murder has become so routine in America that we have trouble maintaining for more than about two news cycles the outrage that might move us to action. We aren’t just lacking in urgency about gun mayhem we just don’t care.

Police search students at Umpqua Community College last week

Police search students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon last week

The families in Roseburg will be left to attempt to cope with their grief and loss. But we should all grapple with the haunting words in one family’s statement that the loss of their 18-year old child has left their lives “shattered beyond repair.”

Meanwhile, the political class carries on with nary a skipped beat, repeating the old, tired and lame myths about guns. The Oregon victims deserve better – much better – than the perpetuation of myth making about guns from Trump and all the other apologists for mass murder who refuse to face facts about the society’s perverse embrace of the culture of the gun.

Debunking the self defense myth (using real facts), David Atkins wrote in the Washington Monthly that the right wing gun lobby and its slavish adherents have “gone so far off the rails that reality is no longer a relevant boundary on discussion. As with supply-side economics, the benefits of gun culture are taken not on evidence but on almost cultic faith by the right wing and its adherents.”

This mind set, apparently, prompts a state legislator in Idaho to post on his Facebook page that he is “very disappointed in President Obama. Again he is using the tragic shooting in Oregon to advance his unconstitutional gun control agenda.” What a crock, but also what a widely believed crock. When it comes to guns we know what we believe even when it’s not true. Discussions – or arguments – about guns exist like so much of the rest of American political discourse – in a fact free environment. Myths about guns morph into “facts” about guns.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

                                      – Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The entirety of the mythology begins, of course, with the Second Amendment and the decades that the National Rifle Association has devoted to myth making about the twenty-six words of the amendment.

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has brilliantly related in his little book – Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution:

“For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment,” Stevens has written, “federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated Militia.’”

…A Well Regulated Militia…

Stevens says during the tenure of the conservative Republican Chief Justice Warren Berger, from 1969 to 1986, “no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.”

In his retirement Chief Justice Burger bluntly said in an interview that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Only fairly recently, in fact in the last decade as Stevens points out, has the Second Amendment been broadly reinterpreted by the Court – the Heller decision in 2008 and the McDonald case in 2010, both decided by 5-to-4 votes  – to sharply expand its meaning. Of course, powerful political forces, including most importantly conservative politicians and the NRA, helped to propel these changes made by the most conservative Court since the 1930’s. The gun myths grew in direct proportion to the political agenda of the mostly rightwing politicians who benefitted most significantly from the NRA’s pressure and cash.

Nonetheless, “It is important to note,” Stevens writes, “that nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacle to the adoption of such preventive measures” – expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons for instance – that were widely suggested in the wake of the Newtown tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 children in 2012.

Justice Stevens would go farther, as would I, in returning the Second Amendment to its original intent by inserting just five additional words. A revised amendment would read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

But such a change seems unthinkable when federal lawmakers won’t risk NRA ire by even discussing the kinds of change that the existing Second Amendment clearly permits.

Rather than advancing an “unconstitutional agenda” as gun mythology would have you believe, Obama has suggested – he did again last week and will no doubt do again and again – that “responsible” gun owners should finally support common sense efforts that might begin to roll back the rate of slaughter. You have to wonder if there actually are “responsible” gun owners out there who are as shocked as some of us are about mass murder at a community college, or at a church in Charleston, or at a theatre, a shopping center, at Army and Navy bases, or in a Connecticut elementary school.

Has the NRA so poisoned the political well of reality that no red state Republican can dare say “enough is enough” and something must change? Is there no group of “responsible” gun owners willing to call the bluff of the makers of the gun myths? Does every NRA member buy the group’s more guns, no regulation logic, while blithely sending off their dues to enrich a collection of political hacks in Washington, D.C. whose real agenda is to – wait for it – maintain their influence and, of course, sell more guns?

So, while Roseburg mourns, the gun world turns away and Trump and others get away again with repeating the well-worn myths about guns. What we can be sure is not a myth is that we will be here again soon enough repeating the call for prayers for the victims and the first responders and we will, for a few televised moment at least, be stunned, while we consider the ever mounting death toll.

And so it goes. The cycle repeats. Nothing changes. A society’s inability to deal with its most obvious affliction hides in plan sight. We also quietly hope that the odds are in our favor and unlike the grief torn families in Oregon we’ll not be the next ones shattered beyond repair.


Defining Moments…

Truly defining moments are rare in our politics. They come around perhaps once a decade or so, but when they do occur they often signal a massive change in public attitudes, even to the point of taking a contentious issue off the political table or redirecting the political trajectory of the country.

A defining moment...

A defining moment…

The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 signaling the beginning of the end of segregated public schools was such a defining moment even as many Americans continued to vigorously resist the direction set by the Court. Even opponents of the decision were hard pressed to deny that a political Rubicon had been crossed. “Separate but equal,” a legal standard in effect for more than half a century, would no longer pass Constitutional muster and the legal and moral authority of the Supreme Court was now behind that position.

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act a decade later would qualify as the same kind of defining moment.

More and more, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is viewed as a defining moment in American politics. Conservative principles soared with Reagan’s election, Republicans captured the Senate and Reagan and subsequent conservative presidents were able to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Defining Changes in American Politics…

After each defining moment, our politics changed. Support or opposition to the Brown decision or how a politician voted on the Civil Rights Act would now become the measure of where a politician stood on civil rights. Those on the losing side – Barry Goldwater for instance, would forever carry the distinction of opposing civil rights.

ReaganReagan’s election ushered in a long period of reassessment of the size and scope of the federal government and helped shift the allegiance of many conservative white voters from the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt to a Republican Party defined by the Gipper. We still feel the political pull and tug of all these moments.

The deeply engrained features of our political system – checks and balances, separation of powers, federal-state relations and intense partisanship – limit the opportunity for truly defining moments. But last week’s landmark Supreme Court decisions effectively settling two of the most contentious issues in current American life – the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the future of same sex marriage – show that the Court, perhaps more than legislators or presidents, now creates our defining moments.

Crispness of decision and clarity of direction rarely happen in our politics, but when it does occur it presents an equally rare moment when politicians, if they choose, can re-calibrate and re-position. This is such a moment.

The smart GOP presidential candidates will gradually begin to adjust their positions and rhetoric on Obamacare and same sex marriage knowing that, as one GOP consultant said after the same sex marriage ruling, “Our nominee can’t have serrated edges. Like it or not, any effort to create moral or social order will be seen as rigid and judgmental… Grace and winsomeness are the ingredients for success in a world where cultural issues are at the fore.”

Sharpening the serrated edges…

But the shrill anti-gay marriage, cultural warrior rhetoric of a Mike Huckabee or a Ted Cruz may in the near term do more to define the Republican Party for voters, particularly younger voters, than any subtle shifting of position and language coming from a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Cruz, a former Supreme Court clerk and an Ivy League educated lawyer should know better, but he’s saying in the wake of the same sex marriage decision that the Court’s ruling is not binding on anyone not specifically involved in the case before the Court. It’s a ridiculous and incorrect argument made, one assumes, simply to seek favor with those most opposed to the landmark decision. The same can be said for the phony argument that legalizing same sex marriage constitutes an assault on religious freedom. It won’t fly because it isn’t true.

Cruz’s approach is simply sharpening those “serrated edges” that can only cut the next GOP candidate. Cruz, Huckabee and a few of the other GOP pretenders obviously are unwilling or incapable of moving on from a defining moment, which just postpones the moment when the Republican Party begins to appeal beyond its Tea Party base.

The Texas senator notwithstanding, one or more of the other candidates can re-define themselves – if they choose – by deciding to appeal to the majority of Americans who support what the Supreme Court said about marriage and health care rather than continuing to cater to those Republican primary voters who want to continue the fight over issues that have now been settled. The one who does opt to re-define will be taking a calculated political risk, but it will be the kind of risk that may serve to separate the risk taker from a crowded field that increasingly will be seen by many voters as living in the past, or worse living in an alternative universe.

You can bet that the more skillful candidates in the GOP field – Bush, Christie and soon Ohio Governor John Kasich among them – are trying out this strategy and its talking points in front of a mirror somewhere. If they are not testing the talking points they’re preparing to lose another election next year.

Idaho, a state whose politics I know best, is also at such a crossroads. The overwhelmingly Republican legislature and the very conservative governor have vehemently opposed same sex marriage (and spent thousand of dollars to defend what we now know was an indefensible position) and have also refused to amend the state’s human rights statute to provide basic anti-discrimination protection to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens. Now that the United States Supreme Court has settled the same sex marriage issue, in effect nullifying Idaho’s Constitutional prohibition, the issues are clearer than ever.

All that is left is bigotry…

Richard Posner, a conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judge appointed by Reagan whose also teaches at the University of Chicago law school, has written one of the most insightful critiques of the various dissents in the recent same sex marriage case. Stripping away all the political smoke about protecting religious freedom, Posner writes, reveals that the only grounds for opposing same sex marriage, and I would add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, is simply “bigotry.” Posner, pulling no punches and refreshingly so for a judge, also called Chief Justice John Roberts’ same sex marriage dissent “heartless.”

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

“I say that gratuitous interference in other people’s lives is bigotry,” Judge Posner wrote in Slate. “The fact that it is often religiously motivated does not make it less so. The United States is not a theocracy, and religious disapproval of harmless practices is not a proper basis for prohibiting such practices, especially if the practices are highly valued by their practitioners. Gay couples and the children (mostly straight) that they adopt (or that one of them may have given birth to and the other adopts) derive substantial benefits, both economic and psychological, from marriage. Efforts to deny them those benefits by forbidding same-sex marriage confer no offsetting social benefits—in fact no offsetting benefits at all beyond gratifying feelings of hostility toward gays and lesbians, feelings that feed such assertions as that heterosexual marriage is ‘degraded’ by allowing same-sex couples to “annex” the word marriage to their cohabitation.”

What possible reason can there be for Idaho legislators or those in a number of other states to continue to resist basic human and civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender citizens of their states? The only grounds, as Judge Posner says, is nasty and enduring bigotry – not a winning political position.

The value for a politician in seizing the opportunities presented by a defining political moment can be clearly seen in the actions of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley regarding the future of the Confederate flag.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other  lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Washington Post profile of Haley proclaims that the governor made the move from “Tea Party star to a leader of the New South” when in the wake of the horrific murders of nine black Americans in a Charleston church she called for removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.

The Post may overstate Haley’s transformation just a bit, but when the governor is quoted as saying, “This flag didn’t cause those nine murders, but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it…And this isn’t an issue of mental illness, this is an issue of hate,” she is certainly leading public opinion – transforming herself and the flag issue – at a moment of stark clarity about what should happen with the central symbol of white supremacy and bigotry.

The difficult things to do…

The most difficult thing to do in politics is to say “no” to your friends. The second most difficult thing is to take a risk stepping away from a divisive issue that has moved on. As a candidate you can chose to point a new direction or you can stir the disaffected by continuing to turn over the nasty residue of anger and defeat.

All the evidence is in: Americans increasingly feel comfortable with same sex marriage, young people overwhelmingly so, and many Republicans – three hundred prominent Republicans appealed to the Court to legalize gay marriage – are saying that it’s just time to acknowledge that reality. Republicans have spent much of the last six years doing everything possible to dismantle or destroy Obamacare without proposing any real alternative, while the polls tell us more and more Americans support the law. Now the question becomes whether one of the GOP candidates can lead the party out of its dismal swamp by risking a break with its most reactionary members or whether for one more election Republicans will keep looking back, while the times, the politics and the country move on.

Imagine one of the Republican candidates simply saying something like this on the marriage issue: “You know I understand the feelings of many of my friends on this issue, but I have also heard and understood what the highest court in the land and most of my young friends have to say. They’re saying that a same sex couple’s marriage just isn’t a threat to me and my marriage nor is at any kind of threat to you and your marriage. The couple living next-door – gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Mormon, atheist – in no way prevents me from embracing my religious beliefs. To say that it does is playing on fear and intolerance that is not my idea of America. The American ideal is inclusion, acceptance and respect, not bigotry. Those are the values that I embrace and I hope all Americans do, as well.”

I’m not holding my breath expecting to hear such a speech, but I am hoping. A basic rule of politics after all, and this applies particularly to the Republican presidential field, is to quit digging when you find yourself in a hole.

Love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace…

David Brooks, a thinking person’s conservative, offered a variation on this “seize the moment” idea when he suggested in his New York Times column that it was time for social conservatives to recalibrate their strategy after the Supreme Court decisions.

‘I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex,” Brooks writes, “and of course fights about the definition of marriage are meant as efforts to reweave society. But the sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.”

That is an important and principled thought. A serious and conservative political leader could do a lot of good for the country by embracing it.



A great day for America with expansion of rights for same sex couples or a bleak day where the tyranny of five activist judges trump the political process creating a threat to democracy?

NBC photo

NBC photo

Take your pick: The profound political divides in the United States are to be found in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion granting Constitutional protection to those of the same sex who seek to marry and in the four dissenting opinions that blast that finding.

It’s dangerous to predict the historic importance of a single Supreme Court decision, but I’ll fearlessly hazard a guess that the decision on Obergefell v. Hodgesremember those names – will be remembered fifty or a hundred years from now along side Brown v. Board of Education, the historic decision that ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional.

One major difference in the two decisions separated by sixty-one years is that Brown was decided by a unanimous Court, while Obergefell was decided by a Court profoundly divided. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s judicial leadership helped create that earlier landmark civil rights decision in 1954. Chief Justice John Robert by contrast wrote the dissent in a decision decided 5-4.

The opinion and dissents will be picked over and analyzed for years, but at first blush I am struck by two things: the Court majority’s embrace of marriage as a fundamental right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (in the same way the Warren Court applied the Constitution to public schools) and the minority’s fierce condemnation of the Court’s overreaching by taking a divisive social and, to some, religious issue out of the hands of elected politicians.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy – the real Chief Justice at least on this issue – wrote in the Court’s decision: “The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act. The idea of the Constitution [here Kennedy quotes from an earlier Court decision] “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.”

Kennedy was truly eloquent elsewhere in his opinion in describing the institution of marriage, but the paragraph above is the heart of his argument – certain rights in our democracy and under our Constitution simply cannot be left to the “vicissitudes” of politics. Rights are rights, Kennedy says, the Constitution guarantees those rights no matter what a legislature in Idaho or an appeals court in Texas might say.

Roberts in his dissent seemed almost unable to restrain his contempt for Kennedy’s reasoning about fundamental rights. “Understand well what this dissent is about,” Roberts wrote. “It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.”

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts

Roberts and the Court’s other dissenters argued for leaving the decision to those Idaho legislators even at the risk of creating a vast and confusing landscape of law related to one of society’s most fundamental institutions.

[You might be excused for remembering that Roberts had no reservations about having “five lawyers” overrule the overwhelming majority of the United States Congress when the Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Emerson’s famous line comes to mind: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines…Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”]

Roberts may have accomplished one thing with his passionate dissent – his opinion upholding Obamacare is suddenly off the front page. The staunch conservatives who criticized him yesterday for siding with the president on health care can now view Roberts as rehabilitated with his dissent on same sex marriage.

Justice Antonin Scalia, of course, went even farther in his dissent. “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868,” Scalia wrote in his dissent, “every State limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so. That resolves these cases.” In other words, in Scalia’s judicial view, nothing at all has changed since Andrew Johnson sat in the White House.

And there is more that I quote at some length because, well, because Justice Scalia is a man of words and often pungent, even nasty words.

Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia

“The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic”, Scalia wrote. “It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; [as many of his dissents have been accused of containing] it is something else for the official opinion of the Court to do so. Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent. ‘The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.’ (Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”


Remember that it was just over a decade ago that Karl Rove engineering George W. Bush’s two elections, at least in part, by embracing a strategy of placing polarizing anti-same sex marriage issues on many state ballots and endorsing a Constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage. Since then opinion has moved so quickly on the issue that it was perhaps inevitable that the Court would follow that opinion and codify what a solid majority of Americans now embrace. Still that political evolution makes Justice Kennedy’s decision no less historic. As President Obama correctly noted after years of incremental change; change that most of the time seems so very slow to so very many, justice can come like “a thunderbolt.”

Another fearless prediction: When the history books record the importance of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the words “landmark” and “historic” will be attached. The decision will be remembered for expanding rights for a significant and deprived group of American citizens under their Constitution. Scalia’s dissent will be remembered, if at all, as an artifact of a different country and a different time and, of course, for its outrageous bombast.

Ask the nearest hippie.


John Roberts: History is Calling

The U.S. Supreme Court this week confronts partisan politics and history in a way that will profoundly impact the court as an institution and largely determine the fate of the controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA) – Obamacare.

Supreme CourtIn the curious way that American political history has of not exactly repeating itself, but of regularly returning to the same themes, it is fascinating to consider how the Supreme Court handled a similarly contentious issue 78 years ago. The issue then was different – state minimum wage laws in 1937 versus health insurance today – but the impact on the court as an institution and on American politics is still instructive. Some of the parallels are striking.

If Chief Justice John Roberts hasn’t done so he might want to read up on the back story in the case of West Coast Hotels Co. v. Parrish. The leadership exercised by one of his illustrious predecessors, Charles Evans Hughes, just might be useful for Roberts this week, since how the Chief handles the Obamacare case – King v. Burwell – may determine not only his own legacy but also the court’s standing among American voters.

The Supreme Court became the most controversial issue in American politics in 1937. Re-elected in a landslide in 1936, early the next year Franklin Roosevelt took dead aim at the Supreme Court that had dismantled key fdr.gi.topparts of his New Deal economic recovery program. In one of the most audacious proposals ever suggested by an American president, Roosevelt sent legislation to Congress – a Congress overwhelmingly populated with his fellow Democrats – that would have added six new justices to the Supreme Court. In one sweeping legislative action Roosevelt proposed to both liberalize the Court and at the same time neuter a co-equal branch of the federal government.

Through the long, hot and politically disagreeable spring and summer of 1937, Democrats fought with each, with their president and with Republicans over whether to give FDR what he dearly wanted – a very conservative Supreme Court remade overnight into a liberal supporter of his program. The American Bar Association, the nation’s major newspapers, organized labor and farm groups chose up sides and by the time the fight finally ended Roosevelt had suffered the biggest political defeat of his presidency. The Democratic Party that should have been at the zenith of its power was ripped apart and Roosevelt would never again command a working majority in Congress for his domestic agenda, but the Supreme Court as an institution remained unchanged.

The West Coast Hotels case was part of the reason. The Parrish in the case was Elsie Parrish, a elsiechambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington, a hotel owned by the West Coast Hotels Company. Elsie, joined by her husband, filed suit contending that she received sub-minimum wage compensation for the work she performed and she sought to recover the difference between what she was paid and the minimum wage established under Washington state law.

The question presented to the court when the case was heard late in 1936 was whether Washington’s state minimum wage law “violated the liberty of contract as construed under the Fifth Amendment as applied by the Fourteenth Amendment.” In 1923, in a similar case, the Supreme Court had overturned a District of Columbia minimum wage statute on grounds that it violated the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. Early in 1936, the Court struck down a New York minimum wage law in a case that was almost exactly on point with the issues in the West Coast Hotels litigation. The New York decision was widely seen as a blow to New Deal-era reforms – FDR was incensed by the Court’s ruling  – and the case seemed to offer further proof that the Supreme Court was hostile to nearly any type of regulation of business.

When the Washington State case came before the Court in December 1936 it wouldn’t have taken a clairvoyant to predict the outcome. But in the interval between the two nearly identical 1936 cases, something changed. What changed had been entirely political. Roosevelt was overwhelmingly re-elected by American voters who were clearly showing their support for his policies. In simple political language the conservative majority on the Supreme Court suddenly found itself dramatically at odds with widespread public sentiment.

A Switch in Time…

When the West Coast Hotels case came before the court in December 1936 – remember this was after FDR’s big re-election win – Chief Justice Hughes, who had been in the minority in the New York case,245px-Owen_J._Roberts_cph.3b11988 prevailed upon Associate Justice Owen Roberts – no relation to the current Chief, but like him a Republican appointee to the Court – to change his mind and wipe out the precedent that the Court had re-affirmed just ten months earlier. With the Chief Justice writing the majority opinion, the court upheld the Washington state law – the vote was 5-4 – and Elsie Parrish, the Wenatchee chambermaid, found that the state minimum wage law really did apply to her.

Next comes one of the best examples I know of how timing impacts politics. While the West Coast Hotels case was heard just before Christmas 1936, and Justice Roberts indicated in a conference with fellow justices two days later that he would change his mind, the decision in the case wasn’t made public until the following March, weeks after Roosevelt proposed his sweeping and controversial plan to reshape the Supreme Court.

To the public and press it looked like the Court was knuckling under to political pressure from a hugely popular president, when in fact the Court, under Hughes’ skillful leadership, had already made up its mind to directly reverse its earlier precedent in minimum wage cases. Still it was widely said that Robert’s switch helped save the Supreme Court with one wag saying, “a switch in time saved nine.” The great historian William Leuchtenburg called it the “greatest constitutional somersault in history.”

ihughec001p1In reality, Hughes was a shrewd student of politics and had correctly read the election returns as a strong indication that public opinion was moving in the direction of a more activist role for the government in regulating the economy and American business. Hughes, very much a Republican and conservative, even admitted that the Court could no longer serve as “a fortress” against public opinion. In order to head-off the kind of sweeping political change that Roosevelt and others had in mind for the Court, Hughes knew his beloved Court had to change and lobbying Justice Roberts gave him his fifth vote. Hughes put his considerable muscle as a great Chief Justice behind his belief that the Court had to change in order to sustain its integrity and independence. Subsequent decisions by the Court in 1937 to uphold the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act further helped doom Roosevelt’s court packing plan and at the same time helped maintain public confidence that the Court was able to respond to national problems during the greatest economic crisis the country has ever faced.

King v. Burwell…

The case at question before the Supreme Court this week – King v. Burwell – turns on just four words buried deep in the controversial 955 page legislation passed by Congress in 2010. The challenge to the ACA centers not on questions of constitutionality or the application of Congressional or Executive authority, but whether every qualified American is entitled to an insurance subsidy whether they enrolled for health insurance through a state or a federal insurance exchange seems certain to thrust the court into the middle of the most contentious political issue in recent history.

In taking this case the court has decided it must rule on what Congress meant when it wrote those four words – “established by the state” – into the law.

As David Cole wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “The challengers’ statutory argument is deceptively simple. A subclause of the tax code setting forth a formula for calculating federal income tax credits provides that the amount of the credit depends on the number of months the taxpayer has been enrolled in a health insurance plan purchased on an insurance exchange ‘established by the State.’ Since an exchange established by the federal HHS is not an exchange ‘established by the State,’ they maintain, the law precludes subsidies for all residents of the thirty-four states that have exchanges created by HHS. The government counters that exchanges ‘established by the State’ is a legal term of art, and when read in conjunction with other parts of the ACA, it encompasses both exchanges that states themselves established, as well as exchanges that the states chose to have HHS create for them in their respective states.”

As a practical matter the health insurance exchanges in 34 states operate on the platform established by the federal government. If the court decides those exchanges are not subject to the subsidies – boom. Consider it the nuclear option. An estimated 7.5 million people in those 34 states will lose their subsidies, not be able to afford insurance and the great Obamacare experiment will tip over like Humpty Dumpty falling off that famous wall.

The committed opponents of the health insurance law will, of course, celebrate the death of the act they have tried to destroy once before in front of the Roberts’ court and more than 50 times on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Should those challenging the law prevail it will be seen correctly as a huge victory for conservatives who hate Obamacare and a crushing defeat for President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. The impacts on the Supreme Court could be even more earth shaking.

RobertsRoberts is the man in the hot seat, just as Charles Evans Hughes was in 1937 and we already know he did some personal legal jujitsu to accommodate his own very conservative views to the political will behind the ACA when he cast the deciding vote to uphold the Act when it first came before his Court. In fact, there is one school of thought that Roberts has already found a way to uphold Obamacare from the latest challenge by invoking a very conservative legal principle – standing. It may well be that the plaintiffs in the King case don’t have the legal standing to even bring the case. We’ll see.

Hughes’ task in the New Deal-era was to save the Court from the kind of political interference Franklin Roosevelt had in mind. Roberts’ task today is to keep the Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, from using an extraordinarily narrow issue to kick the increasingly popular health care law in the ditch. Such a ruling would certainly please the legion of Obamacare haters, but at the cost of denying health insurance to several million Americans who now have coverage.

Conservatives who hope the Court will kick things in the ditch decry what they call “executive lawmaking” that “poses a severe threat to the separation-of-powers principles enumerated in the Constitution.” And they contend the president “has acted on the belief that legislative gridlock allows him to transcend his constitutional limits. A ruling that upholds this behavior would set a dangerous precedent for the nascent health-care law, which will be implemented for years to come by administrations with different views. More troubling, such a precedent could license virtually any executive action that modifies, amends or suspends any duly enacted law.”

But in the King case the dangerous behavior – you might read judicial activism – would be for a Supreme Court to impose its own notion of how an IRS rule ought to be applied; replacing its judgement for that of the branch of government changed with actually carrying out the terms of the law.

Long-time Supreme Court watcher and New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse argues that nothing less than “the honor of the Supreme Court” is at stake in the King v. Burwell decision. “To reject the government’s defense of the law,” Greenhouse wrote recently, “the justices would have to suspend their own settled approach to statutory interpretation as well as their often-stated view of how Congress should act toward the states.”

At pivotal moments in American history various Chief Justices have guided the Supreme Court through some very hard cases. Hughes did it in the 1930’s. Earl Warren did it in the 1950’s with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that separate but equal simply could not be Constitutional. Warren Berger did it in the 1970’s when he lead a unanimous Court that required Richard Nixon to turn over his White House tape recordings. In each case the integrity of the Court, as well as its ability to transcend, while at the same time respond to politics, was at stake. It’s also worth noting that in these historic cases a Republican chief justice appointed by a Republican president moved the Court in a new and important direction, while also keeping the Court out of the intense crossfire of partisan politics.

The same issues are at stake this week. Ironically, in reading the old West Coast Hotels decision, I noticed that one of the attorneys of record was named – John Roberts. For the Chief Justice history really is calling.


Supremely Political

016I’ve been reading Gallup public opinion polls from 1935, knowing full well that admitting to having musty old opinion polls on my reading list could brand me instantly as eccentric, a geek or, at the very least, a political junkie. Guilty on all counts. Eccentric, geeky, political junkie.

In 1972, the Gallup organization published three massive volumes of “top line” results from all the polls that Gallup conducted since it began polling in 1935. It really is fascinating reading – at least I found it to be.

One big conclusion: Let’s just say that every president since Franklin Roosevelt would kill for his approval ratings. FDR was clearly the last president who consistently enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings.

Even at the height of the enormous controversy over Roosevelt’s plan to enlarge the Supreme Court in 1937, a proposal that never enjoyed majority support from the public according to Gallup, FDR’s personal approval numbers remained very robust. The cartoon from that period shows the Court out of step with the rest of the country and that sentiment was clearly widespread in 1937, but it never translated into public or political support for Roosevelt’s radical plan to remake the Court in his own image by appointing as many as six new liberal, New Deal-friendly justices.

Montana’s New Deal era power broker, Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, was a liberal Democrat, but he vehemently opposed Roosevelt’s “court packing” as a power grab by the executive branch. Wheeler reportedly told Roosevelt that the Supreme Court was “a religion” for many Americans and the president had prompted a fight over religion – never a good idea in politics.

In September 1937, when it had become clear that the president’s court plan was on political life support, Gallup asked in a survey if Roosevelt should continue his fight to enlarge the court. Fully 68 percent of those surveyed said “no.” The impact of the issue was enormous for FDR and for the Court.

Obviously, the integrity of the court had survived a full-frontal assault from a recently re-elected and immensely popular president. And the fallout did damage Roosevelt with a strongly Democratic Congress, while curiously not doing much harm to his overall public approval. In a way, the message from the bitter fight over the Supreme Court in 1937 – it was called at the time the “greatest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War” – was that “the Court is above politics,” or at least that the Court shouldn’t be subjected to attack on the basis of raw partisan politics.

Surveys Said…

Which brings us to three recent surveys on the current U.S. Supreme Court. One from the Pew Center shows, among other things, the Court’s overall approval rating nudging back above 50 percent. Public approval of the Court had dropped to 48 percent in the summer of 2013. At the same time there is both survey data, this time in a new Democracy Corps study,  as well as anecdotal evidence that the public more-and-more sees the Court as just an extension of politics by other means.

Here is a key takeaway from the Democracy Corps survey: “Two recent decisions on campaign finance have only served to intensify Americans’ dissatisfaction with the Court. The Citizens United ruling is deeply unpopular across every partisan and demographic group while Americans of nearly every stripe believe the recent McCutcheon ruling will make our political system more corrupt – again with broad consensus across Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.”

The Democracy Corps survey seems to contradict the Pew survey with its finding that “just 35 percent give the court a positive job performance rating and a strong majority believe that Justices are influenced more by their own personal beliefs and political leanings than by a strict legal analysis.” 

Another new study was prepared by several academics who reviewed free speech cases before the Supreme Court and this survey found – maybe this won’t surprise you – that more liberal judges tend to support the free speech claims of liberals and more conservative judges tend to support the claims of conservatives. “While liberal justices are over all more supportive of free speech claims than conservative justices,” the study found, “the votes of both liberal and conservative justices tend to reflect their preferences toward the ideological groupings of the speaker.”

As the New York Times reported, “The findings are a twist on the comment by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that the First Amendment protects ‘freedom for the thought that we hate.’ On the Supreme Court, the First Amendment appears to protect freedom for the thought of people we like.”

“Though the results are consistent with a long line of research in the social sciences, I still find them stunning — shocking, really,” said Professor Lee Epstein, one of the authors of the study.

Adam Liptak covers the Supreme Court for the Times and wrote over the weekend that the recent 5-4 campaign finance decision – the McCutheon decision – broke along increasingly predictable partisan lines with the five justices appointed by Republican presidents voting for the Republican National Committee, which was a plaintiff. The four justices appointed by Democratic presidents dissented.

“That 5-to-4 split along partisan lines was by contemporary standards unremarkable,” Liptak wrote. “But by historical standards it was extraordinary. For the first time, the Supreme Court is closely divided along party lines.”

Even in Roosevelt’s day the Court’s makeup featured conservative Democrats and moderate to liberal Republicans. No such thing today. Other analysis shows that in the U.S. Senate, for example, the most conservative Democrat is now more liberal than the most liberal Republican. The Court increasingly reflects this huge partisan divide in the country.

“The partisan polarization on the Court reflects similarly deep divisions in Congress, the electorate and the elite circles in which the justices move,” Liptak notes and, almost all of the time these days, even the young men and women chosen as law clerks to the justices have a partisan background. Even the speaking engagements justices accept almost always line-up with the justice’s partisan backgrounds before they went to the bench. John Roberts and Clarence Thomas, for the most part, speak only to conservative groups, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the most part, only to liberal groups. You have to wonder how this kind of polarization can be good for the justices, the Court or the country.

“The very question of partisan voting hardly arose until 1937,” Liptak writes, “as dissents on the Supreme Court were infrequent. When the justices did divide, it was seldom along party lines.” This was clearly true for the Supreme Court Franklin Roosevelt tried to change. Some of the decisions FDR most disliked were supported by the “liberals” on the Court, but I would argue that in the main they were acting as judges and not as partisans, which is what we should be able to expect.

Supreme Politics…

At least three things need to happen to turn around the steady partisan drift of the Supreme Court; a drift that will inevitably further erode public confidence in the Court. Of course if you believe the research the erosion of confidence is already happening.

First, presidents need to nominate judges based primarily on the quality of their scholarship and thoughtfulness and not, as is most often done now, almost entirely on the basis of a partisan background. You could argue that the last largely “non-partisan” appointment to the Court was Justice David Souter in 1990. Souter, of course, disappointed many conservatives for being too moderate. But, in many ways, he had the experience and resume of an ideal candidate for high judicial office. Souter came to the Court with two overriding qualifications – a reputation for sound judicial scholarship and a career marked by independence. Every appointment by presidents of both parties since Souter has been highly political in nature.

At the same time, the politicians in the Senate who “advise and consent” on these appointments need to take more seriously that role. The nomination of a Supreme Court justice has become one of the most partisan exercises in our democracy and all the parties, for the good of the country and the Court, should pull back from the partisan edge. It is a long way down if they step much farther in that direction.

Second, the justices themselves need to recognize that putting on judicial robes does not provide cover for blatant partisanship. The demands of public accountability insist on great effort not only to display non-partisanship, but to practice it as well.

Finally, judges need to accept the fact, as the Democracy Corps survey suggests, that the public has a weak appetite for an institution that has extremely limited requirements for disclosure of conflicts and continues to resists every attempt to open up its incredibly important proceedings to modern media coverage. The secretive nature of the Court’s deliberations is obviously necessary to preserve the process of judging, but it no longer makes sense to deny coverage of the arguments that precede the decision making. It’s past time for broadcast coverage of the Supreme Court.

You could argue that the great partisan politicization of the Supreme Court dates to the failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 and the successful nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991. The searing new documentary – Anita- Speaking Truth to Powerthat re-visits the circus that became the Thomas confirmation hearings, if seen by enough Americans, might actually serve as a catalyst for re-thinking the whole process of nominating and confirming justices. I’m going to guess that most Americans under 40 don’t have a memory of the testimony of law professor Anita Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. If they see this film they can’t help but pay closer attention to future appointments to the Court that shapes so much about our lives.

The new documentary makes the case powerfully that raw politics – Senate politics, as well as race and gender politics – prevailed when Thomas was confirmed in the face of considerable evidence that he had acted inappropriately – we’d call it sexual harassment today – toward a number of women who worked with him, ironically at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is also ironic now to remember that Thomas was approved by a Democratic Senate. The vote was 52-48.

Just for the record, among Northwest senators only Oregon Republican Bob Packwood, who would later have his own troubles with sexual harassment, voted “no” on the Thomas nomination.

The great cynic H.L. Mencken, who at one time or another disparaged most everything and everyone, reportedly said that judges “are law students who mark their own papers.” I think Mencken’s point was that judges, alone in our system, are largely unaccountable to anyone and therefore in need of a heightened degree of self control and reflection, as well as a passion for the non-partisanship.

Or, as the great English philosopher and jurist Francis Bacon wrote, “Judges ought to be more learned than witty, more reverend than plausible, and more advised than confident. Above all things, integrity is their portion and proper virtue.”

The Court may not be a “religion” as Sen. Wheeler said nearly 80 years ago, but it is the one branch of our complicated system that above all depends on public trust and confidence. Even a little erosion of that trust is a big problem.


donaldsterlingSo much for a post-racial America.

Americans of color may have significantly more challenges to overcome with employment, education, health and housing than most white Americans, but it takes the racist rants of two old white guys to again bring into sharp relief the sobering fact that race is still the nation’s great unresolved issue. The optimists among us thought, for a moment at least, that the election more than five years ago of the first black president ushered in a “post-racial” new day. It didn’t.

If anything the nation’s struggles with race and class, not to mention gender and sexual orientation, remain as corrosive as ever. Fox News and a few pandering Republicans turned a deadbeat Nevada rancher into a “folk hero” before his own ignorant ravings about race showed every thinking person just what Cliven Bundy is really all about. While you can apparently get away with cheating the federal government out of a $1 million in lease payments by just waving around the Constitution, waxing nostalgic about slavery is, thankfully, still un-American enough to draw a belated rebuke from Rand Paul. Maybe Bundy should have read all of the Constitution, including the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The case of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is both more complicated and ultimately more troubling. Bundy is just the latest incarnation of the old John Birch Society/Posse Comitatius mind set that rises and falls periodically across the American West. The rise almost always occurs with a Democrat in the White House. With typical Bircher incoherence Bundy invokes the Constitution of a government he won’t recognize. He likes the 2nd Amendment just fine, but not those pesky provisions of the Constitution related to the power of federal courts. The Bundy mind set has found its perfect foil in the young, self-assured black man in the White House. Enough said, except perhaps that the Republicans who rushed to support this nut case still have plenty of explaining to do.

Sterling, the billionaire L.A. real estate developer, is a tougher case. He has apparently long been known for his racially tinged rants and has been in and out of court fighting discrimination cases that, among other things, alleged that he refused to provide repairs for his black tenants.

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” Sterling allegedly told his mixed race girlfriend in recording she apparently made. “Do you have to?”

Later, just to double down his racism with a gob of sexism, he added: “You can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that and not to bring them to my games.”

As the Washington Post reported:

“Sterling’s history paints a picture of a man who has let slip bigoted beliefs for years — and has, at least so far, sidestepped major repercussions. He was sued in 1996 for sexual harassment. In 2003 he testified in a separate court case that he occasionally paid women for sex. The same year, Sterling was sued by 19 tenants of a building he owned, along with the Housing Rights Center; they claimed Sterling’s employees refused repairs to black tenants and frequently threatened to evict them. Sterling settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

“In 2009, Sterling spent $2.73 million to settle another suit, this time brought by the Justice Department, which alleged Sterling refused to rent his apartments to non-Korean tenants, preferring that black and Hispanic prospective tenants look elsewhere. The lawsuit quoted Sterling as saying in sworn testimony that ‘Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building,’ adding that ‘black tenants smell and attract vermin.'”

The National Basketball Association is investigating. Of course they are. It sounds like they might have done some looking around a long, long time ago. How the Sterling matter is handled by the NBA and its new commissioner will be vastly more important in the long run than any shooting-off-the-mouth of Sean Hannity’s new best friend.

Sterling is, after all, a long-time member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs – the 30 owners of professional basketball teams. Sterling’s team, until last week a serious playoff contender, is coached by a black man. The team’s and the league’s fan base is to a substantial degree minority. The league’s big name stars, many of whom quickly condemned Sterling’s remarks, are African-American. The Clippers low key pre-game protest where white and black players wore their shirts inside out is just a preview of what’s to come from a professional league that owes its popularity, not to mention the money it generates for owners like Sterling, to the success of “black people” like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

It’s not as though the NBA didn’t know about this guy. “Donald Sterling,” Paul Westphal, an NBA coach and great NBA player before that, told columnist Mike Lupica, “was always the worst-kept secret in the NBA.” Now, it’s get serious time – a teaching moment – for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Silver’s response and the response of the other 29 members of Sterling’s exclusive club will tell us a lot about a high profile big business in post-racial America.

The U.S. Supreme Court tells us a lot, as well. The Court’s 2013 ruling throwing out a major part of the Voting Rights Act and more recently upholding a Michigan law that bans race conscious admissions at the state’s colleges and universities are based either on wishful thinking that racial issues in the age of Obama still don’t bedevil our culture or that the courts simply have an extremely limited role in ensuring that all Americans are not merely created equal, but are treated that way, as well. Either explanation ignores today’s front page.

It seems self evident that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 not only failed to herald the arrival of a post-racial America, but rather stoked the long simmering fires of racism that were, we need to remember, originally written into the nation’s founding creed. An ignorant Nevada cowboy and the boob billionaire owner of a professional sports franchise certainly don’t represent the vast sweep of good and decent Americans of all races, creeds, colors and political persuasions, but they still represent too many.

“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything,” Obama said of Donald Sterling. “You just let them talk. That’s what happened here.”

Oh, if only it were that easy.