Archive for the ‘Supreme Court’ Category

Politics of the Oligarchs

Campaign FinanceimageFor most of the 20th Century, indeed for much of the history of our Republic, there was a consensus that money – particularly vast sums of money – had an inherently corrupting influence on American politics.

The intersection of money and politics, both at the fringes and at the center of our democracy, has often led to full-blown scandal. William Andrews Clark used his copper fortune to buy a U.S. Senate seat in Montana in 1899 by bribing state legislators. By today’s standards Clark’s “acquired” Senate seat was a real bargain. He reportedly spent only $300,000.

In the 1920′s money was at the core of the Teapot Dome scandal that sent a cabinet member to jail and forever defined Warren Harding’s administration as among the most corrupt in the nation’s history. In 1935 the nation’s electric industry, threatened by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to break-up the great utility holding companies, mounted what was at the time the greatest (and costliest) lobbying campaign ever. The effort consisted of phoney “grassroots” lobbying of Congress financed by the then unheard of sum of $5 million. We know about this because a then little known Alabama Senator by the name of Hugo Black used a Congressional investigation to expose how the big money was gathered, laundered and spent to protect the utility monopoly.

Watergate, Abscam (the money and political scandal that serves as the basis for the Oscar-winning film American Hustle), Al Gore’s fundraising at a Buddhist temple, well, you get the point and we could go on-and-on.

With its latest ruling on political money, the United States Supreme Court (or more correctly five justices) further shredded the one-time consensus that too much money mixed up with politics is fundamentally bad for American democracy. The Court’s McCutcheon ruling now joins the historic case Citizens United, both written by Chief Justice John Roberts, in systematically eliminating constraints on money in politics. While Roberts’ McCutcheon ruling left in place individual limits on contributions to candidates and political action committees, one only has to read the opinion to see that those limits will eventually topple, too.

Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the Roberts’ majority in the McCutcheon case, but argued in a separate opinion that, amazingly, the Court hadn’t gone far enough. Thomas called the ruling “another missed opportunity,” and as Politico reported, said he would strike down all limits on campaign donations and that the state of the law will be unsatisfying incomplete until the court squares up to that issue. “Until we undertake that reexamination, we remain in a ‘halfway house’ of our own design,” Thomas declared. In other words, stay tuned.

The Sheldon Primary

Amid the general and persistent fog of American politics, the daily battle for the dominate soundbite, the buzz of the latest opinion poll, jobs report or health care enrollment number it is easy to miss what is happening right in plan sight. But, like the revelation Dorothy must have felt when she pulled back the curtain on the less-than-meets-the-eye Wizard of Oz, the direction of our politics – if you want to see it – was on display in stark relief a few days ago at the expensively tacky Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

It is a rich irony that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court knocked another brick out of the wall of campaign finance law just days after four of the likely Republican candidates for president next year were cooing and scraping in front of the $93 million dollar man – casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

In my distant memory there was a time when it was considered unseemly for a politician to audition, at least publicly, for the favor of a business mogul whose vested interests are so obvious. As Jonathan Alter points out in his New Yorker blog there is no secret as to what “the Sheldon primary” that recently featured the governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio and the former governor of Florida was all about.

Adelson, who makes most of his money at a casino in Macau (which, if your geography is rusty is “a special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China) wants no expansion of Internet gaming that might threaten his gambling halls and he wants two federal investigations of his operations to go away. He’d also like to name the next Secretary of State and dictate U.S. policy toward Israel and the Mideast. Give the guy credit for candor.

“I’m against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections,” Adelson told Forbes in 2012. “But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it.”

So here was Ohio Gov. John Kasich shamelessly and publicly sucking up to Adelson, the guy who single-handedly spent $93 million in 2012 attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, a generous gesture that kept Newt Gingrich in the GOP presidential race long weeks past his expired by date. As Kasich’s home state Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “Kasich, more so than any of his peers, drops all pretense” in his effort to kiss Adelson’s ring, or something. “He laces his 30-minute speech with direct appeals and shout-outs to the host with the most. Starting with the fifth or sixth, one national reporter loudly guffaws with each utterance of ‘Sheldon.’”

In John Roberts’ world rich guys like Adelson writing huge checks to politicians and the committees who support them is, in the words of Garrett Epps of The Atlantic merely “free speech” for rich guys. Millions in financial support from the deepest of the deep pockets is just “like volunteering to lick stamps at the campaign office; reclusive Nevada billionaires are just constituents, like the widow seeking her pension benefits; the desires of business executives are just beliefs, advanced in the way the Founding Fathers wanted—by writing big checks. Under this rationale, it is hard to see why direct-contribution limits should be allowed, and we may assume that cases soon to be brought will give the majority the chance to eviscerate those limits.”

Roberts’ reasoning equates Sheldon Adelson’s $93 million in political spending to my bumper sticker. It’s all a matter of free speech, says the Chief Justice, but obviously not at all about equal access to the political process or disproportionate influence over the lawmakers.

NBC’s Chuck Todd has documented how this “free speech” campaign has been going: “Political spending from outside groups – either created or bankrolled by American billionaires – has skyrocketed from $193 million in 2004 and $338 million in 2008,” Todd wrote recently, “to a whopping $1 billion in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. To put this $1 billion in outside spending in perspective, it’s almost TWICE what John Kerry and George W. Bush spent COMBINED in the 2004 presidential race ($655 million). And it’s THREE TIMES the amount John McCain spent in the 2008 election ($333 million). Another way to look at all of this money: Overall political spending on races (presidential plus congressional) has DOUBLED from $3 billion in 2000 to $6.2 billion in 2012. And in presidential races alone, the combined amount that George W. Bush and Al Gore spent in 2000 (about $250 million) QUADRUPLED to the combined amount Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent in 2012 ($1 billion-plus). And that doesn’t count the political-party spending.”

My bumper sticker is sounding less and less important as, in reality, we turn electoral politics, once dominated by candidates and parties, into a free spending game for Sheldon Adelson and other billionaire oligarchs who have the money and the vested interests to increasingly dominate our elections. As long as it’s doable, as Sheldon might say, why not.

Ironically it was Newt Gingrich, the guy who benefited from the Adelson financed attacks on Romney’s private equity past, who said during the last campaign, “You have to ask the question, ‘Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and walk off with the money?’” The answer, more and more, seems to be – yup.

“Watching events in Russia and Ukraine,” columnist Gail Collins writes, “you can’t help noticing all the stupendously rich oligarchs with their fingers in every political development. It’s a useful word, connoting both awesome power and a group you don’t really want to have around.

“In the former Soviet Union, the money elite generally get their power from the politicians. Here, it seems to be the other way around. But the next time casino zillionaire Sheldon Adelson invites the Republican presidential hopefuls to go to Las Vegas and bow before his throne, feel free to say they were just off honoring an oligarch. Apparently, the founding fathers would have wanted it that way.”

Truth be told the Founders wouldn’t recognize American politics today. They were tough, aggressive partisans to be sure, but they couldn’t have imagined a political process where a handful of extraordinarily well-to-do rich guys have been able to bend the system merely by spending lavish amounts of cash. In poll after poll, Americans express exasperation and cynicism about our politics. Millions don’t participate feeling that their vote – not to mention their voice  – doesn’t count. Younger Americans, in particular, see a rigged system built and maintained by the really wealthy to perpetuate themselves and their point of view.

If you think the American electorate is cynical now, just wait until all the campaign spending limits come off as the Roberts’ court take it upon itself to ensuring that more money from fewer people is the overriding and perhaps only decisive factor in our politics. Americans may not like Congress much these days, but one suspects they’ll like a bunch of well-heeled oligarchs calling all the shots even less.

The question then: will we change this trajectory and blunt the politics of the oligarchs or will we, as Gail Collins says, decide that “what this country really needs is more power to the plutocrats?”

The End of Spending Limits

1381180830000-XXX-McCutcheon-hdb3864Shaun McCutcheon (that’s him in the photo) is a wealthy guy; an electrical contractor from Alabama who is also a conservative political activist. The Supreme Court appears ready to give Shaun what he says he wants  – the chance to spend a great deal more of his money on candidates for federal office.

The Court heard arguments yesterday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a sort of sequel to the 2010 Citizens United case that I’ve lamented here in months past. If the Court goes the way the questioning seemed to indicate yesterday one more big prop will be kicked out from under the American jumble of campaign finance laws and once again American democracy will most closely resemble a political version of “The Price is Right.”

Right now, ol’ Shaun is prohibited from contributing more than $123,200 to federal candidates and political parties in a two-year cycle. You might think that would be more than enough political spending for most of us and, of course, it is. But guys with lots of money, from the right and the left, like to participate in the political process because, well you know why they like to participate in the political process. If the Court rules his way Mr. McCutcheon will soon get to start writing checks to federal candidates – just buying good government, I know – for millions and millions every year.

As Charles Fried, who served as Solicitor General in the Reagan Administration noted recently in the New York Times, “Ever since the 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, in which the court upheld limits on individual federal campaign contributions, every Supreme Court decision on this issue has been based on the distinction between money given to candidates — contributions — and money that individuals or organizations use for their own independent campaign-related expenditures.

“The underlying idea is that while the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting your political speech (and the more you speak, the more you may have to spend), a contribution is money spent to help someone else speak. The government may not limit your own expression (and since Citizens United that applies to corporations and unions, too), but for almost half a century Congress has limited contributions without being challenged by the Supreme Court.”

Until now.

The Court’s efforts to further destroy limits on money in politics, at least after Citizens United, seems inevitable. Once you decide that the sky is the limit for the Koch Brothers or Bob’s Muffler Shop to spend money on independent political efforts then how can you logically – at least in the logic of the Robert’s Court – limit what Shaun McCutcheon can lavish in the way of cash on his Congressman and yours?

Two things above all stand out in this confluence of money, politics and policy. One is the unbridled willingness of the “conservative” Robert’s Court to trample on precedent and long-established law. The Citizens United decision tossed out 100 years of established law – law made by one branch of government and endorsed by a second – and substituted the wisdom of five appointed justices none of whom has ever held elected office. The expected next move will toss all or most of a law on the books for more than 40 years.

David Cole, writing in the New York Review of Books, makes the case that the current session of the Supreme Court may well see a host of established laws, including the candidate funding restrictions, upended by Roberts and his four like-minded colleagues. “In all of these cases,” Cole writes, “the real question is not whether the conservatives will win, but how they will win. (It’s conceivable that the liberal side will prevail in one or more cases, but most court observers think the odds are against it.) Moreover, in most of the cases, Justice [Anthony] Kennedy, usually the swing vote, has already aligned himself with the strongly conservative view, so the outcome is likely to turn on Roberts. If the Chief Justice and his Court proves to be Conservative, the term could end with a radical revision of established precedent in a host of constitutional areas. If the Court is simply conservative, the status quo precedents will remain intact. We’ll know by June 2014.”

So much for the notion of judicial restraint.

The second takeaway relates to the fact that no member of the current Supreme Court has ever been elected to anything. This is important, I think, because the justices – at least the five most consistently conservative justices – completely dismiss the arguments that unregulated money can and will lead to what the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank quaintly calls “legalized corruption.” Election law expert and law professor Richard L. Hasen says it just as bluntly: “The closer the money comes to the hands of members of Congress, the greater the danger of corruption and undue influence of big donors” and he say what the Court appears ready to do “will greatly increase the chances of a corrupt Congress.”

When U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli suggested yesterday that the Court may have gotten it wrong in Citizens when it  dismissed “the risks of corruption from independent expenditures” Justice Antonin Scalia simply said, “It is what it is.” Very thoughtful.

What the definition of “is” is can simply be reduced to money purchasing political influence. And the bigger the purchase the bigger the influence. With the expected decision in McCutcheon it is possible that as few as 500 very, very rich Americans can finance all the costs of running for federal office for everyone running. In such a system the small $250 contribution from the retired couple or the small business owner ceases to matter. Why waste your valuable fundraising time connecting with what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called “the little people” when you can raise a few hundred thousand with a couple of calls to civic minded guys like Shaun McCutcheon?

“If Scalia got out of his ideological echo chamber,” Dana Milbank writes in the Post, “he would discover that, encouraged by the court, wealthy conservatives donate to groups such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which threaten to fund primary challenges to Republican lawmakers who show any ideological impurity. Because most Republicans are in safe seats (in part because of Supreme Court-sanctioned gerrymandering), the only threat to their reelection is in a primary — and so they have no choice but to obey the conservative billionaires’ wishes. The problem on the left isn’t as acute, but it’s only a matter of time before liberal billionaires execute a similar purge.”

It’s probably just a coincidence, but Politico reports today that the Koch brothers have given $500,000 to one of the shadowy outside groups that has lobbied Republicans to shutdown the government and threatened GOP “moderates” if they don’t hold fast to the defund Obamacare strategy. That kind of money going directly to candidates can’t be far away.

Reflect on this: the laws restricting the power of money and the impact on our politics of the few with “real” money were passed in the wake of serious political money scandals. The Court has already overturned one law passed in the wake of revelations that rich millionaires, like the notorious Montana Sen. William Andrews Clark, had bribed their way into the United States Senate. The law on trial in the Supreme Court this week was passed in the wake of Watergate, a case of political corruption that had at its heart political money. As sure as dawn follows the night political corruption most odorous is marshaling for the next huge scandal.

Former Solicitor General Fried reminds us that “Justice Scalia once wrote in another context, this argument is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing: ‘this wolf comes as a wolf.’ The only reason the Supreme Court would be tempted to let this wolf in is if the Court wants to see the destruction of all limits on an individual’s donations to a political candidate.”

Thanks to the United States Supreme Court more than ever the political money wolf is at democracy’s door.

My Lunch with the Justice

51917203MW106_Homeland_SecuSandra Day O’Connor’s remarkable career is a testament to many things: dogged persistence, boundless ambition (of the best type), talent, good judgment, a sense of the power of history and, of course, some luck; luck of the being in the right place at the right time variety.

I did not realize until recently, while researching more deeply O’Connor’s history-making 1981 appointment as the first woman nominated to the United States Supreme Court, how determined Ronald Reagan was to put a woman on the Court. Reagan, of course, had made a campaign pledge in 1980 that he wanted to put a “qualified” woman on the Court. When he had the chance just a few months into his term he kept his promise, plucking from relative obscurity the 51-year-old Arizona Court of Appeals Judge and former state senator. So sure was Reagan that he announced O’Connor’s appointment before the FBI had completed its background check leaving then-Attorney General William French Smith to field questions from the White House press corps about whether that was a sound approach.

After a flurry of criticism and concern, most from the far right, O’Connor – imagine this – was confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate just three month after Reagan told her he wanted to put her on the Court.

“Called Judge O’Connor and told her she was my nominee for supreme court,” Reagan wrote in his diary on July 6, 1981. “Already the flak is starting and from my own supporters. Right to Life people say she is pro abortion. She says abortion is personally repugnant to her. I think she’ll make a good justice.”

[Idaho's then-Sen. Steve Symms was one who voiced early skepticism about O'Connor, but eventually supported her appointment. Symms' call to the White House expressing disapproval of O'Connor's nomination is detailed in Jan Crawford Greenburg's 2007 book Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court.]

O’Connor’s place in history is secure and not only as the first woman on the Court, but for her historic sense of moderation and pragmatism. She has become a remarkable role model and one hopes her careful, centrist, blocking and tackling approach to the law will one day soon serve as a model for a Supreme Court that seems determined to embrace the type of judicial activism that O’Connor so smartly rejected.

I would have liked to discuss any or all of this with what one lawyer friend called the “smart and tart” justice when I had the rare opportunity to sit next to her at lunch recently during an Andrus Center conference on women and leadership at Boise State University. But I left politics and the law aside after reading how reluctant she can be to offer up any comment, let alone criticism, of the judging of the current justices. [O'Connor did make news a while back with comments about the controversial Bush v. Gore decision, but even then her comments were very measured essentially saying the Court might have been well-advised to refuse to take the case that settled the 2000 presidential election but did little for the Court's reputation.]

O’Connor’s latest book Out of Order, a history of sorts of the Supreme Court, has been rapped by some reviewers for not dishing  inside dope about the Court. The typically acerbic New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, for example, said: “There are no big revelations in this volume about Bush v. Gore or the author’s thoughts on Roe v. Wade; nor are there momentous insights into the dynamics between Justice O’Connor and her colleagues on the bench, or how she felt about being the crucial swing justice, whom the legal writer Jeffrey Rosen once called ‘the most powerful woman in America.’”

While one would undoubtedly enjoy O’Connor’s unvarnished assessments of all those issues and more, I also admire her restraint, a very O’Connor-like characteristic.

Given the chance to talk with the once “most powerful woman in America” I asked her about her love of fly fishing. O’Connor is a dedicated fly caster. In fact, when then-President George W. Bush tried to reach retiring Justice O’Connor to tell her he had selected John Roberts, a judge as conservative and activist as O’Connor is moderate and careful, to replace her on the Court she was fly fishing in northern Idaho. O’Connor told me that she had little time to fish during her more than 25 years on the Court, but she is clearly making up for lost time. If you are a devotee of the fly rod then you know how easy it can be to form an immediate bond with a stranger – even a very famous stranger – when you share a passion for the pursuit of the wily cutthroat or the gorgeous rainbow.

After fishing in Idaho this month O’Connor was headed for southern Montana to float the Yellowstone with a guide she described as “on a first name basis with every trout in Montana.” To go along with the Andrus Center’s leadership award that former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus presented to the Justice in Boise on September 4, O’Connor also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana Law School. She indicated that she very much appreciated the awards, but the chance to fish for a few days was also a big attraction.

She said she has fished in east some, even on the Potomac, and even in Patagonia. While in Montana a couple of years ago hearing cases for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, O’Connor was asked about her favorite Montana river. “Oh, this is a setup!” she replied. “Let’s start with the Big Horn.”

I take real comfort in knowing that the first woman on the Supreme Court knows about the Big Horn and the St. Joe. Who knows, perhaps knowing how to properly swing a fly helps inform the swing vote on the Supreme Court. O’Connor’s other great passions are the importance of civic education and the non-partisan selection of judges and again she is right about both.

As with her long ago critics, O’Connor still gets flack from the far right for warning that money, partisan-style judicial elections and good judging just don’t fit together. O’Connor warned in 2009 that too many state judicial elections – and Idaho has had its share – have become “tawdry and embarrassing” producing judges that are merely “politicians in robes.”

As for civic education, O’Connor quotes truly alarming statistics about American’s lack of knowledge about our history and government. “The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance,” O’Connor said in Boise. Fewer than a third of Americans can name even one current Supreme Court Justice and “less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name,” she said.


Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/06/201376/retired-justice-sandra-day-oconnor.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/06/201376/retired-justice-sandra-day-oconnor.html#storylink=cpy

I’ve been fortunate to interview one president – Gerald Ford – and one future president – Jimmy Carter. I had orange juice and coffee in the Roosevelt Room and stood in the Oval Office for a Bill Clinton Saturday radio speech. George W. Bush invited us to the White House for dinner and I was as surprised as he should have been. I’ve worked for one great governor and interviewed a dozen others and had dinner with big time reporters like Tom Wicker, Dave Broder and Tim Egan. Each and every one a very pleasant memory. Lucky me that I can add Justice O’Connor to the list.

The country has produced few more impressive leaders than the woman from Arizona who started out her legal career volunteering her talents because she couldn’t get a law firm to hire her. Her’s is a uniquely American story and one for the history books. Ronald Reagan was right. She did make a good justice.

 

Judicial Radicals

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonWhen Lyndon Johnson finally decided to double-down on civil rights legislation in 1965 and push for a federal voting rights act he began the political effort by delivering one of his most eloquent and important speeches.

Having already conceded that passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would cause his Democratic Party to lose the south for a generation – a prediction that has turned out to be way too modest – Johnson, the former Congressman and Senator from Texas, did what politicians too rarely do. He appealed to Americans to live up to their proud ideals and then he put the power of his presidency behind voting rights for all Americans.

“Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult,” Johnson said in a television speech on the evening of March 15, 1965. “But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

Congress debated Johnson’s proposed legislation throughout the summer of ’65 with both the president and the Democratic leaders of Congress knowing that Republican votes were essential to passage since southern Democrats were almost to a man opposed to a federal voting rights act (VRA). Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois is a political hero for his role in securing passage of the historic legislation. In a striking parallel to the dilemma national Republicans face today over immigration legislation, Dirksen realized in 1965 that the stakes were enormous for the GOP if it failed to secure passage of a law to help African-Americans gain full citizenship.

“This involves more than you,” Dirksen told one of his colleagues, as recounted in Neil MacNeil’s wonderful biography. “It’s the party,” Dirksen pleaded. “Don’t’ drop me in the mud.”

Dirksen eventually rounded up the GOP votes necessary to end a filibuster and the Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by a vote of 77-19. The House vote was equally lopsided – 333-85 – with virtually all Representatives and Senators from the south voting “no.” When Johnson went before Congress to press for his legislation – here’s a segment – you can catch a glimpse of southern members, like North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, refusing to applaud some of LBJ’s strongest lines.

(Here is one other historical footnote: Then-Idaho Congressman George Hansen, an ultra-conservative Republican, was alone among Pacific Northwest members and one of  just 85 House votes against the Voting Rights Act. Most who voted “no” contended the law was unconstitutional because it intruded on state’s rights to establish voting procedures.)

In 1970, again in 1975 and then in 1982 and again in 2006 four Republican presidents – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush – signed extensions of the Voting Rights Act. In each case Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep the Act in place, including the controversial “preclearance” provision that was at the heart of the recent Supreme Court decision that effectively ruled the law invalid.

So extensive was the Congressional work on the Voting Rights Act extension back in 2006 that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited the record in her recent dissent in the court’s 5-4 decision.

 “The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held 21 hearings, heard from scores of witnesses, received a number of investigative reports and other written documentation of continuing discrimina­tion in covered jurisdictions. In all, the legislative record Congress compiled filled more than 15,000 pages,” Ginsberg wrote. “The compilation presents countless ‘examples of fla­grant racial discrimination’ since the last re-authoriza­tion; Congress also brought to light systematic evidence that ‘intentional racial discrimination in voting remains so serious and widespread in covered jurisdictions that section 5 preclearance is still needed.’”

Ginsberg also noted pointedly that the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870 in the wake of our bloody Civil War, specifically grants to Congress “the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The Voting Rights Act was that “appropriate legislation” in 1965 and remained so until Chief Justice John Roberts and the other conservatives on the Court substituted their judgment for that of the U.S. Congress.

From the days of Earl Warren’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, through every presidency from Johnson’s to Bill Clinton’s, conservatives have railed against the scourge of “activist judges,” who “legislate from the bench.” Countless speeches have made from the local Rotary Club to the floor of the Senate condemning “liberal” judges who did not merely interpret the law, but “make the law.” It was good political rhetoric and arguably, at least once in a while, it was true. But the recent split decision on the Voting Rights Act should once and forever put the lie to the charge that  it is only liberal judicial activists who wear the black robes.

Chief Justice Roberts opines in the case Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder that America “has changed” since 1965 and that continuing to apply the same standards to evaluate voting fairness for African Americans in the states of the old Confederacy (and a couple of others) fails to take into account those changes. What the very conservative Chief Justice does not confront is the political process, the hearings, the testimony, the reports and first-hand experience that informed the Congress first in 1965 then in four subsequent sessions to keep the landmark law – and the precleareance provision on the books.

There is no nice way to say what Mr. Justice Roberts did other than to admit that he, and his four like-minded conservative colleagues, substituted their judgment for that of the Congress and a conservative Republican president. That action should forever re-write the definition of “judicial activism.”

“When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination,” Justice Ginsberg wrote, “and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.” An eloquent way of saying – leave the lawmaking to the lawmakers.

Regardless of how individual members of Congress feel about the Voting Rights Act, and we can assume based upon the legislative history that the vast majority of members support the Act, any Congressman or Senator should be taken aback by the level of  judicial activism of the Roberts Court. (One wonders what Idaho’s two lawyer-senators think of this ruling both on political and Constitutional grounds. I have yet to see them questioned on the subject.)

Rare in modern times has the expressed will of Congress been so manhandled as in Shelby County decision. In light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, President Obama’s recent remarks on race in America and the fact that several once-covered jurisdictions – Texas, for example – have already moved to change voting requirements in a way that many experts believe will make it more difficult for many Americans to vote, it is worth remembering more words from Lyndon Johnson on that night in 1965 when he spoke so profoundly about the right to vote.

“There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem,” Johnson said. “And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.” Progress has been made, but we have more distance to go to solve that problem and again, as in 1965, Congress must act.

 

Inevitable

Chief Justice John Roberts cousin will be sitting in a seat reserved for family members when the United States Supreme Court hears arguments on the California same sex marriage case tomorrow. Jean Podrasky is 48, a resident of San Francisco and has been in a committed relationship for four years. She hopes to get married. It may well take the vote of her cousin, the Chief Justice, to allow Jean to marry her partner Grace Fasano because Ms. Podrasky is lesbian.

As to whether her being gay might impact cousin John’s reading of the complicated California ban on same sex marriage, Podrasky told the Los Angeles Times that she couldn’t predict, but then added the inevitable, “Everybody knows somebody” who is gay, “It probably impacts everybody.” Indeed.

Whether the Supreme Court takes civil and human rights a step forward this week in two separate cases – the California case on Tuesday and a hearing on the Constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on Wednesday – seems almost beside the point. The country has changed, indeed continues to change, and before long the law will catch up with public opinion on the acceptance of gay marriage. The latest public opinion research shows the dramatic change in attitudes about what was, less than two decades ago, a litmus test issue for many politicians. Fully 58% of Americans, and a much higher percentage of younger Americans, support gay marriage, while about one-third still oppose.

As Frank Bruni wrote recently in the New York Times, more and more Americans have come to the conclusion that finally granting full civil rights to gay Americans is not a zero sum game. One side need not lose, while the other wins. “The legalization of same-sex marriage takes nothing from anyone,” Bruni wrote, “other than the illusion, which is all it is and ever was, that healthy, nurturing relationships are reserved for people of opposite sexes.”

All this is not to say that the Supreme Court’s action on the cases at issue this week doesn’t matter. It does. But even if the Court delays the inevitable for a while longer the politics, at least in most places, has moved on. How else to explain politicians from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the left to Sen. Rob Portman on the right publicly charting the evolution of the issue. The Portman case is one of the most interesting and also most human. The conservative Ohio Republican, a man vetted by Mitt Romney for the vice presidency, came to his new position on same sex marriage after his college age son acknowledged his own sexual orientation. Portman, in the language of politics, came to possess “new information” about just how a contentious issue can work in real life. His comments about his son and wanting to support him is the language of any father who loves his kid and wants to see him happy.

Portman has said that he told the Romney campaign the full story about his son during the vice presidential vetting and he thinks the issue was not decisive in his not being picked. Well, there are no coincidences in politics, so take Portman at his word or be more cynical – and realistic – and imagine how that issue might have played with the GOP base last fall. Portman is already being threatened with a primary challenge in Ohio from the same crowd that once fought to the last lunch counter against civil rights in another era.

The sooner Republicans follow the darling of the neo-cons Dick Cheney and get on the right side of politics and history on this issue the sooner the grand old party can find its way back to national presidential relevance. Democrats who still worry about changing their views on gay marriage should listen to Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a skillful politician in a conservative state, who has acknowledge the inevitable. “I have come to the conclusion that our government should not limit the right to marry based on who you love,” McCaskill said over the weekend.

Still one has to wonder whether a state like Idaho where the legislature can’t bring itself to even hold a hearing on legislation to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender equality” to the state’s human rights law will again be pulled kicking and screaming into another new era of civil rights protection. Idaho was among the last to adopt Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. birthday as a state holiday and only did so after pressure from human rights activists and threats of boycotts in other states made such a small and symbolic move inevitable and necessary.

There is rich irony in the fact that ultra-conservative Idaho now finds itself more or less in the same boat on gay marriage as Socialist France, where public opposition to same sex-marriage and adoption legislation is encountering fierce resistance from the political and religious right. Holdouts make strange bedfellows. Even the new Pope, while serving as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a Catholic country where same sex marriage is legal, is reported to have quietly favored civil unions for gay Argentines as an alternative to full civil rights.

Leave it to a young American to put it all in perspective. Yale undergrad Will Portman has written eloquently in the school’s newspaper about his own struggles with his sexual identity and the possible impacts on his dad the Senator. Here’s part of what he said: “I support marriage for same-sex couples because I believe that everybody should be treated the same way and have the same shot at happiness. Over the course of our country’s history the full rights of citizenship have gradually been extended to a broader and broader group of people, something that’s made our society stronger, not weaker. Gay rights may be the civil rights cause of the moment, but the movement fits into a larger historical narrative.

“I’m proud of my dad, not necessarily because of where he is now on marriage equality (although I’m pretty psyched about that), but because he’s been thoughtful and open-minded in how he’s approached the issue, and because he’s shown that he’s willing to take a political risk in order to take a principled stand. He was a good man before he changed his position, and he’s a good man now, just as there are good people on either side of this issue today.”

I still recall with pride those Idaho state legislators who had the courage to take a political risk to support tough human rights legislation back in the 1980′s when the state’s reputation as a haven for white supremacists presented a genuine threat to Idaho’s reputation. With the perfect vision that comes with hindsight it’s now clear those decisions (and votes) were no-brainers. Some day, perhaps even sooner than many think, votes on granting full civil and human rights to gay Americans will be viewed in the same way. Makes you wonder how long some folks will cling to the “illusion” that people who love and care for each other and happen to be gay don’t deserve the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of us. Here’s hoping Idaho isn’t again among the last to take a step that is both inevitable and morally correct. Being a hold out with, of all people the French, many be really uncomfortable.

 

Historic

Roberts: The Chief Makes History

There will be days and days of analysis – some of it even important – of today’s historic Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, or as those who hate the law say – Obamacare. We’ll hear every possible interpretation and then some.

Here is my initial take on one sliver of the story; the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion upholding the law, went against four other conservatives on the Court with whom he often finds compatibility and maybe – just maybe – wrote himself firmly into the history books.

I think most Court watchers would say that a Chief Justice – any Chief Justice – always wants to be in the majority. Roberts worked hard to get there even while taking pains to throw a rhetorical political bone to those who will see him as an updated version of former Justice David Souter, an appointee of the first George Bush who served to infuriate many conservatives.

As Roberts famously said during his confirmation hearing, “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire… I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”

Today he made good on his umpire statement and admittedly, while it is way too early to make definitive judgments, Roberts has likely also influenced his place in history. In the same way that Chief Justices Charles Evans Hughes in the 1930′s and Earl Warren in the 1950′s ultimately led their Court’s in a series of landmark rulings; rulings that generally supported a more expansive view of federal power, Roberts has parted company with the right wing of the Court and perhaps charted a new course for himself.

Roberts has clearly antagonized conservatives and permitted, at least in one very important case, a more expansive role for the government in health care. He also did it without affirming a more expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause, which really would have wounded the right.

It’s fun, but ultimately futile, to speculate about the inner dynamics of a Court of such sharp divides and strong personalities, but I can speculate that it would have been interesting to overhear the conference where the Chief told Antonin Scalia, Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy that he would write the majority opinion siding with the Court’s four liberals.

The health care story, with all of its political and policy dimensions, is far from a finished story. There is much more to come. But speculating again, when the history of this decision is ultimately written it may well describe John Roberts as the guy who cast a deciding vote on a law that, with all its faults, was aiming to provide health insurance coverage for every American, a goal of many Americans since at least Teddy Roosevelt. Fifty years from now Roberts’ opinion may well be seen as putting him on the right side of history.

Roberts is obviously a serious man and no one reaches the pinnacle of judicial power in the United States who does not appreciate the unique role in our system played by the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court. Roberts has surely read the history and knows we can count the truly great Chiefs on three fingers – Marshall, Hughes and Warren.

History treats that trio well because each led the Court in new ways during tumultuous times and with a determination to break new ground. Each was a highly political judge and passionately independent. Each evolved over time on the bench and ultimately each rejected the notion that the Constitution is a purely static document that can be applied in 2012 the same way it was in 1787.

If nothing else, Chief Justice Roberts may find – he’s a young and energetic 57 with many years left to lead a Court – that his historic decision in NFIB v. Sebelius is a liberating moment for him. Roberts may now have the liberty to find his own path to history, separate from either the four liberals or four conservatives on his Court, and that journey may have begun today.

P.S. – I predicted in passing earlier this week that the Court would strike down the Affordable Care Act. Like Winston Churchill said, I have often had to eat my words and always find it a wholesome diet!