Election Update

May and June were significant months for elections, both in the United States and Europe.  While the news media tends to overhype some elections and ignore others, there are some conclusions that can be drawn from those elections.

Starting with the United States, the big news has been a series of special elections — focusing mostly on three Congressional seats held by the Republicans.  Neither party can be particularly happy with the results at the Congressional level, but certain things need to be noted.

First, except when caused by death or sudden resignation due to scandal, most vacancies occur in what the parties consider to be “safe” seats.  With the exception of the upcoming special election in Utah, the special elections for the House are all the results of an executive of their own party “promoting” the member of Congress to an executive office.  In California, you have to go back to 2012 to see the last time that a Republican even ran in the 34th district.  The four Republican seats were solid wins for the Republican incumbents in 2016 with the closest margin being 16% in Montana.  All five of these districts were double-digit wins for their party’s candidate in 2012.  The only district that was arguably winnable by the “out” party was Georgia 6 and that is only if you looked solely at the 2016 presidential election.  By the partisan vote index, Georgia 6 is still R+8, meaning that the Democrats would need to get around 58% nationally to win that seat.

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Free Speech Uber Alles

The late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was famous for a very literal interpretation of the First Amendment — that the language in the Amendment providing that “Congress shall make no law” meant that Congress should make no law.  While the current Supreme Court does not go quite as far as Justice Black, a consistent theme of the Roberts Court has been — with the occasional exception that proves the rule — a very broad interpretation of the First Amendment to strike down any law in which the government either directly (by banning it) or indirectly (by favoring other speech) regulates speech.  Simply put, if there is a free speech component to your case, the expectation has to be that the government will lose if the Supreme Court grants review and the only question is exactly how the justices will line-up in the decision.

This week saw the last two free speech opinions of the term (there is a remaining free exercise case that could incorporate some of the recent free speech cases into that sphere of law) — both issued on Monday.  In both cases, the ultimate decision was unanimous, but there was a liberal-conservative split in the reasoning.

The more “traditional” case was Packingham v. North Carolina.  This case involved a North Carolina statute that barred registered sex offenders from accessing commercial social networking website if juveniles could also join that site.  (Under the very broad definition used by North Carolina, this site might qualify.)  All eight justices (the case was heard in February before Justice Gorsuch joined the Court) agreed that the statute was overbroad and not narrowly tailored due to the sheer number of sites covered by the statute that were not primarily designed to facilitate the type of one-on-one real world interaction that the Court saw as the legitimate purpose behind the statute.  The main disagreement in the case — between Justice Kennedy writing for the “liberal” majority and Justice Alito writing for the three conservative justices — was how to characterize the internet.  The majority described the internet as the functional equivalent of public streets and parks.  (In free speech law, streets and parks are considered “public forums” and the government’s ability to regulate is very limited — some content-neutral “time, place, and manner” restrictions like requiring parade permits are allowed, but such restrictions are closely examined to determine that they are not being used to prevent speech.)  From a factual point of view, this analysis is partly accurate.  The internet itself is arguably like a street, but the individual websites are more like private homes and offices.  The dissent — borrowing from language in the majority about the need to be cautious in applying existing legal categories to the internet to avoid inhibiting the speed at which the internet is changing — thought that it was not necessary to categorize the internet as a public forum.  (Because both opinions recognize that preventing crime is a legitimate governmental interest potentially supporting restrictions on sex offenders, there are likely to be future cases considering whether other restrictions — whether imposed on sex offenders on a case-by-case basis or statutes that apply to certain categories of sex offenders across the board — are narrowly tailored.)

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Supreme Court 2016-17-Two Weeks Left

One of the unwritten rules of the Supreme Court is that, come hell or high water, the justices will get all of the opinions issued before the July 4th weekend.  (In the past, some justices actually maintained a summer home outside of D.C. and those justices were very keen on getting out of D.C. as soon as possible.  Even today, justices will spend a good part of the summer elsewhere giving presentations and lectures for various schools and groups.)  That will make for a very packed last two weeks.  It’s not just that the number of remaining opinions is slightly high, but the number is high after a very light term.  For the past decade or so, the Supreme Court has heard between 70 and 86 cases per term.  This year, they have only heard 64 cases.  The last two weeks of the terms have seen the court issuing between 9 and 17 opinions.  This year, we still have 17 cases waiting for opinions.  (The pace of grants of argument for the upcoming term is also a little light with 19 cases granted so far which would only take the Supreme Court through November but there tends to be a decent number of cases granted during the last two weeks of the term when the Justices run out of time to postpone making the decision to grant or deny argument in a case.)

Given the large number of cases, it is more likely than not that there will be multiple opinion dates during these two weeks.  In theory, all of the opinions could be issued on one day in each week — the decision on which opinions are final and ready to issue is made at the weekly conference (June 15 and June 22).  But last second “non-substantive” edits that delays the Court’s printshop from having all of  the opinions printed and the sheer number of opinions tends to result in multiple opinion days during this point of the term.  (In addition to the two regular conferences, there is always a wrap-up conference after the last opinion issues.  In the past, the wrap-up conference typically featured cases that had been “held” because they involved an issue raised in one of the argued cases.  Once the argued case has resolved the issue, the held cases can be sent back to the lower court — if necessary — to apply the ruling in the argued case.  In recent years, the practice of taking at discussing cases at two or more conferences before granting argument means that the wrap-up conference involves a final decision on several pending applications.)

As noted in past years, the Supreme Court has customs regarding the assignment of opinions that makes it somewhat possible to predict what Justice is most likely to have which opinion by this point of the term.  Of course, the number of outstanding opinions does make it a little bit harder this year.  The general rule of thumb is that the Supreme Court tries to keep the workload balanced.  With eight justices for the first six months of the term, that usually means that: 1) in any month with seven or fewer cases, no justice gets two opinions, and some justices do not have any opinions; 2) in any month with eight cases, each justice gets one opinion; and 3) in any month with nine or more cases, each justice gets at least one opinion, but no justice gets more than two opinions.  Additionally, this practice means that a justice who was skipped one month is likely to get two opinions in a following month and a justice who had two opinions in one month is likely to get skipped in a following month.  At this point, we do not know whether Justice Gorsuch will be getting one or two opinions from April (we already have one opinion from Justice Gorsuch).  If Justice Gorsuch only has one opinion, seven of the other justices will eight opinions and one will have seven opinions.  If Justice Gorsuch has two opinions, six of the other justices will have eight opinions and two will have seven opinions.  The two justices most likely to have only seven opinions would be the two junior justices — Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan — but there is always the possibility that the Chief might decide to count a complicated case as a two-fer to spread the burden of opinion-writing around.

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Birth Citizenship — Supreme Court sends issue back to Congress

There are two ways that a person can be a natural born U.S. citizen.  First, under the Fourteenth Amendment, they can be born in the U.S.  Second, they can be born to U.S. citizens.  For this second category, Congress has established some conditions that must be met related to how long the U.S. citizen parent has resided in the U.S.

Looking at this second categories, there are eight possible combinations of three crucial factors — is the mother a U.S. citizen; is the father a U.S. citizen; and are the parents married.  (Actually, there are six, if neither parent is a U.S. citizen, the child can’t inherit citizenship from her parents.)  Having six different combinations in which at least one parent is a U.S. citizen, Congress has enacted different rules based on which parent is a U.S. citizen.  In particular, an unwed U.S. citizen mother has to spend less time in the U.S. than an unwed citizen father or married couples in which one member is a U.S. citizen.  Earlier this week, the Supreme Court issued an opinion on the constitutionality of these rules.

The case involved a man facing deportation.  That man’s father was a U.S. citizen but had left the U.S. twenty days before meeting the statutory requirements for conveying citizenship to his children.  As such, even though the father had returned to the U.S. with his family (including the person seeking citizenship in this case), the man was not entitled to automatic citizenship and — because he had not sought naturalization — could be deported.

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Keeping the Light of the Paris Agreement Alive

There was a lot of consternation and sadness when #NotMyCheeto pulled the US out of the Paris agreement, thus putting us in the company of Nicaragua and Syria. BUT! Take heart that 30 states, cities and an ever growing number of corporations have said that they will still work towards getting us off fossil fuels and saving the planet as best we can for our children and grandchildren, and those to come after them.  Mike Bloomberg is in for $15 million to help with the effort.

Just because #NotMyCheeto says no does not mean that all the rest of us cannot say yes. And there is a lot that we can do as individuals to help the planet .

  • First, what kind of car do you drive? What kind of mileage does it get? Did you know that close to 30% of all domestic carbon emissions come from transportation? This is almost the amount from electricity production. 24 pounds of emissions per gallon of gas. A little math – if you drive 12,000 miles a year (which is about average) and your vehicle gets 20 miles to the gallon, that’s 14,400 pounds a year. Switch to an efficient car getting 40 miles to the gallon and that drops in half. As an aside, along with your car payment and your car insurance since littler cars are cheaper to buy and own.  Further, make sure your tires are properly inflated, drive the speed limit, and if possible, avoid traffic.
  • If possible, walk, bike or carpool. Since this doesn’t often work in the suburbs, at least plan your errands in a circle so you’re not backtracking in your car.
  • Next, your house – it’s not just swapping out your light bulbs, but setting your thermostat a little higher in summer, and a little lower in winter. Make sure that curtains are closed facing east in the morning and especially facing west in the afternoon to decrease summer heat. Leave curtains open all day in the winter to get the benefit of warming sunshine.  Make sure your house if properly insulated. If you have electric outlets on outside-facing walls, you can get little pre-cut insulation pads for even that small space. If you can afford it, consider solar panels.
  • When you fly, buy carbon offsets. You can do this for a variety of things, but the most common is air travel. Also, as you probably know, for the same reason that public transportation is a better way environmentally to get around, avoid private planes.
  • Don’t forget the carbon impact of food. Local food is always best (especially if it’s from your own garden.) Buy local if you can: the further a food travels, the more carbon involved in transporting it.
  • Eat less beef and dairy. Especially imported beef. Eating lower on the food chain is not only better for the environment, but better for you.
  • When you buy food, seek out less packaging. All that plastic is made from fossil fuels. It’s just not that hard to bring your own tote bags. And those thin plastic bags in the produce aisle for things that need to be bagged, like green beans, peas and cherries? They’re reusable, too.
  • In your garden, seek out native plants. They take less water and are better for the birds and bees.
  • Decrease your trash! Recycle everything you can. And that goes for bigger things, too, not just the packaging from items you purchase. Electronics, appliances, and a whole variety of things can be recycled, or reused by someone else.
  • Learn your carbon footprint. There are a variety of calculators, just Google “What’s my Carbon Footprint” – the best calculator depends on where you live, and what level of detail you want to calculate.

Face it, there’s a lot we can do as individuals. And of course – make sure to vote out the idiots that got us here. There is an election this year, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, as there has been every year since 1791. Go support a candidate running locally over the summer and commit to getting 10 friends to vote for your candidate in November.

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A June to Remember/Fear?

There are times when, through the normal cycle, and discretionary decisions, events start to come in rapid procession.  June is shaping up to be one of those month between elections (both in the U.S. and abroad), the end of the Supreme Court term, and the matters currently on the plate of Congress.  We have already had the first major event of June — the decision by the Trump Administration to make America weaker by playing to his misinformed base on climate change and withdrawing from the Paris Accords.  It’s almost impossible to count the reasons why this decision is wrong,  here are a few:  1) the agreement was non-binding; 2) being a signator gave us a seat at the table in future discussions; 3) withdrawing makes China and the European Union more powerful; 4) state laws requiring an increasing percent of energy to come from renewal sources are still in effect and will contribute to the U.S. meeting its pledge anyway; 5) the federal courts have held that greenhouse gases are a pollutant requiring federal action under the Clean Air Act (even though the precise terms of the regulations to reduce greenhouse gases are not yet final) which means that we may have to meet or exceed the pledge anyway.

Moving to the Supreme Court, June is looking like immigration month.  May ended with a decision in the first of four immigration cases heard this term.  The case involved what types of sexual offenses against a child trigger deportation hearings for authorized immigrants (e.g., permanent residents).  The Supreme Court narrowly interpreted the statute, meaning that — for some sexual offenses (those that can be committed against a 16 or 17-year old — the first offense will not trigger deportation.  Two of the other three also directly or indirectly concern deportation.  In addition, with the lower courts having barred enforcement of the travel ban, the Trump Administration is asking the Supreme Court to stay those injunctions.  (The real issue is the enforcement of the restrictions on visas and entry.  It is likely that the Supreme Court will grant relief to some overbroad language in those bars that could be read as suggesting that the Trump Administration can’t begin work on revisions to the vetting process.)  There are 22 other cases to be decided this month, so immigration will not be the only big news this month.  And, even aside from the decisions in cases already argued, the Supreme Court will be deciding what cases to take next term and there are some potentially major issues that could be on the agenda for 2017-18.

Moving to U.S. elections, there are still three special elections — all of which will occur this month.  Two — in Georgia and South Carolina — involve vacancies created by the Trump cabinet appointment.  The other — California — arose from a vacancy created by filling the vacancy in the California Attorney General position created when the former AG won the U.S. Senate election last fall.  Because California uses a “jungle primary” (i.e.  one in which all candidates from all parties run in one primary with the top two advancing to the general election), we already know that the Democrats will keep this seat and the only question on Tuesday is which Democrat will be elected.  For the most part, both parties in choosing members of Congress to fill vacancies have followed the rule of only choosing people from “safe” seats.  As such, while the Democrats have so far — in the first round in California and in Montana and Kansas — run around 10% ahead of 2018, this success has not changed the winner of any seat.

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Memorial Day: Bought and Paid For…

Vietnam Memorial Wall

This is my post from 2015. Nothing to add.

Today is Memorial Day. It seems bittersweet to say “Happy Memorial Day” as this day was bought and paid for with the blood of those men and women (and dogs) who gave their lives so that the rest of us can breathe free.

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Redistricting Advanced Course

We are four years away from the next full round of redistricting.  The redistricting process is a combination of federal law, state law, and local politics.  The fact that there are legal rules governing the process means that individuals who do not like one of the many maps (congressional, state senate, state house, county commission, city council) can bring a court challenge to that map.  When discussing federal law, there are two crucial provisions — the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  (Additionally, there is some suggestion that the First Amendment may have an impact on certain types of gerrymanders.)  This week the Supreme Court issued an opinion on North Carolina’s congressional districts that attempted to reconcile the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Acts.

The background of this case is that, two decades ago, the Supreme Court (in a case involving North Carolina) held that a racial gerrymander — one in which race played a significant role in the drawing of the lines — would be subject to strict scrutiny (the most state unfriendly form of review — requiring showing of both a “compelling interest” justifying the use of race and that the use of race was “narrowly tailored” to meet that compelling interest).  Over the years, the Supreme Court has clarified that, to trigger state scrutiny, race must be the predominate factor in drawing the lines.  The Supreme Court has also clarified that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act can be a compelling interest.

North Carolina currently has three Democratic representatives in Congress — from the 1st district, the 4th district, and the 12th district.  Before the last round of redistricting, African-Americans represented around 48% of the voting age population (BVAP in election law jargon) of the 1st district and 43% of voting age population of the 12th.  That BVAP was enough to make African-Americans into a very significant segment of the Democratic primary vote in those districts and there are enough white Democrats in those districts that — even in bad years nationally, the Democratic candidate gets well over 60% of the vote in those districts.  In short, African-Americans could get their preferred candidate selected in those districts even though they did not have 50% of the vote.  In the trial court, North Carolina conceded that they did take race into account in drawing the 1st district but claimed that they did so to meet Section 2 (that is by making the 1st district into a majority-minority district),  On the 12th district, North Carolina claimed that they did not draw that district to pack it with African-Americans but rather to pack it with Democrats.  However, there was some evidence that — at least for one county in the district — they did expressly consider race and, also, that they used race as a proxy for partisanship.  Additionally, the 12th was already compliant with “one man, one vote” even if North Carolina had kept the old district lines and the changes added mostly African-Americans while removing mostly whites.

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Reckless Incompetence

For the past two weeks, almost every day has produced a stunning revelation about the current Administration.  By this point, it is crystal clear that the Liar-in-Chief is completely clueless about the many responsibilities of his job and simply does not care.  He is going to proceed full speed ahead — hoping that determination and arrogance will make up for any deficiencies in his knowledge about policy issues or protocol.

Most democracies have some institutional procedures that keep individuals from rising to the top of the government without sufficient experience in politics and government to assure a basic knowledge of how things work.   In a parliamentary system, the leaders of the major parties tend to have served several terms before becoming leader of their party.  Additionally, the leaders tend to have served on the leadership teams of their parties (having responsibility for several different policy areas including at least one major area) before running for and winning their party’s top spots.  In addition, there are procedures in place that allow a party to remove (albeit with some difficulty) a leader who is not doing a good job as prime minister.

Unfortunately for the U.S., our Constitution predates the modern era of parliamentary democracy.  Our framers did have the same type of concerns that have animated modern parliamentary government, but the development of national politics have undermined the procedures created by the framers.  The electoral college was supposed to assure a minimum level of competence in the presidency.  The thought behind the original language in Article II (two votes per elector, no more than one of which could be from the elector’s state) was that each elector would cast one vote for one of the leading politicians in that state and one vote for a politician with a  national reputation.  Barring a clearly obvious national candidate, no candidate would get a national majority and the House would pick between the top candidates.  This scheme depended upon the framers’ belief that politics would stay state-based and that the different state parties would not get together with similar groups from other states to from a national party that would be able to get electors in multiple states to support a national ticket.  That has left the burden on the parties to devise systems of choosing leaders that ensures competence in their presidential candidates, and — as the current incumbent shows — the Republican Party rules have failed in that regards.

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Supreme Court 2016-17: Forthcoming Opinion Watch

Like much in government (including the school-year that many of us remember from growing up), the Supreme Court follows a cyclical calendar.  Beginning with the first Monday in October, the Supreme Court has seven argument sessions each year.  Each session is two weeks followed by a recess.  Five of these recesses are for two weeks, but the recesses taken over Christmas and after the January arguments are usually for four weeks.  During these approximately thirty weeks, the Supreme Court is engaged in three basic tasks:  1) reviewing applications from parties that want their cases heard by the Supreme Court; 2) preparing for and holding arguments in those cases that have been accepted; and 3) writing opinions.  Because the task of preparing for arguments (reading the written arguments of counsel and reviewing the record from the trial court to get an idea of the “facts” underlying to which the law has to be applied) is time consuming, opinions tend to slowly dribble out during these first thirty weeks.  As a result, when the arguments end in late April (or early May depending upon the calendar), there are typically a significant number of cases still waiting for opinions.

During this year’s term, as is not unusual, there were a handful of opinions issued in December and January (a total of six) with the number going up slightly during February, March, and April (a total of twenty-one so far with the possibility of several more on Monday before the Supreme Court leaves for its final recess.  However, with arguments for the year having wrapped up this past Wednesday, there are currently thirty-eight cases in which opinions have not yet been issued.  While there are some exceptions to the rule, by this time of year, the Supreme Court has issued opinions in most of the cases heard last Fall.  During the argument portion of the year, it takes between two and six months to get an opinion.  The simple cases in which there is unanimous agreement among the Justices (which represent about half of the cases) tend to come quickly.  When the Justices disagree, the process stretches out as the Justices in the minority draft opinions responding to the majority opinion, and the majority opinion then makes changes to address the issues raised by the minority (and so on until everyone believes that no further changes are needed).    The bottom line is that, at this point of the year, opinions have been issued for all of the October arguments, for about two-thirds of the November and December arguments, for about half of the January and February arguments, and for none of the March and April arguments.  The expectation, especially for the remaining cases from November and December, is that the delay represents some significant disagreement in the early cases.

Before going into the highlights of what is left to come down — either on Monday or more likely between mid-May and the end of June when the Supreme Court returns from its last recess — one point to make.  Justice Gorsuch only participated in the arguments for this last two-week session.  The tradition is that a Justice does not vote in cases heard before the Justice joined the Supreme Court.  However, it is not unusual to schedule a case for re-argument if the a Justice joins the Court after argument and the vote of the eight Justices who heard the case is split 4-4.

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