Category Archives: Civil Rights

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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The Never-ending Battle — Redistricting 2011

One of Charles Dickens’s lesser known novels is “Bleak House,” dealing with a legal case over an estate that lasted so long and was so expensive that the expenses of the case exceeded the value of the estate.  The same is unfortunately true of disputes over the redistricting process.   We are now almost six years into the current ten-year cycle of district lines.  The run-up to the next cycle begins with elections in several states this year and next that will pick some of the governors and legislators that will be in office in 2021 when the redistricting process begins again.  You would think that, by this point of the cycle with three congressional elections and two or three state legislative elections (depending on the state) under the new lines, all court cases about those lines would be over.  Unfortunately, we are not at that point yet.

This week, the Supreme Court decided the most recent redistricting case (and it has another one under submission).  This week’s decision involved the Virginia House and whether the  drawing of its lines represented a “racial gerrymander” that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The key issues in a racial gerrymander case is whether race is the predominate reason for the drawing of the lines of a particular district and (if race is the predominate reason) whether there is a sufficiently compelling reason for the reliance on race.  Such a challenge focuses on particular district lines.

In this case, the challenges concerned twelve districts.  The original three judge panel found that race was only the predominate reason for one of the twelve districts.  In part, this decision relied on the fact that the other eleven districts did not have unusual shapes and the lines could be justified by “traditional” redistrict considerations.  While the panel found that race was the predominate explanation for the twelfth district, the panel found that the need to bump up minority votes in that district to survive pre-clearance (as the Virginia lines were drawn before the Supreme Court abolished the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act) was a sufficiently compelling reason.

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Hate in America

Last night, we in Philly heard that hundreds of headstones were turned over Saturday night at a Jewish cemetery, a week after similar vandalism in St. Louis. Many people are saddened, appalled and surprised. They should be sad and appalled, but not surprised. This is Trump’s America.

I have been working with Indivisible locally, and I am heartened by the number of people completely new to politics who are suddenly aware, and ready to take action to both resist the Trump agenda, and help elect people who will serve America, and not what is actually the Bannon administration.

I keep hearing two themes through my work with Indivisible. First, people are concerned about what they can do to stop hate. And by “hate” I mean not just the vandalism, but the verbal abuse people see foisted upon innocent people, just for the colour of their skin,  The ICE roundups are another form of hate: people question what they can do to help those who will be caught up in the dragnets. Hate also in the form of the administration’s moves against sick people (“repeal Obamacare” and dismantle Medicaid), Hate in the form of transgender bathroom rights. I’m a doctor, and I’m telling you, the only thing that matters is that you wash your hands. (If you’re a long-term reader, you remember back to SARS and fingers, nails, fingers, fingers, fingers.) And let’s not forget the hate of literacy in terms of claiming the media is the “enemy of the people”.  The hate is creeping down from the Cheeto Team, and up from the GOP state legislatures.

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Transgender Rights and the Supreme Court (UPDATED — 3/6/17)

At the end of March, the United States Supreme Court is currently scheduled to hear arguments in a case involving Title IX and bathrooms for transgender students.  After this week, it seems likely that the case will be removed from the docket and sent back to the Fourth Circuit for reconsideration.   (Updated 3/6/17 — This morning, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit for reconsideration.)

As noted in earlier posts, after the adoption of Title IX (barring discrimination on the basis of gender by schools and colleges that receive federal funding which is effectively all public schools and most colleges), the federal government adopted a regulation permitting schools to have separate bathrooms for males and females.  The student filed a case seeking to have the court rule that the student’s gender for the purposes of those regulations was the student’s desired gender not the student’s birth gender.  At an early stage of this case, the Department of Education took the position that it would be interpreting those regulations as requiring schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with the desired gender of those students rather than their birth gender.  When it decided the case, the Fourth Circuit deferred to the Department’s interpretation of the regulation and did not independently find what the regulation required.  When the school board appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, two of the three issues raised involved whether the Fourth Circuit should have deferred to the Department’s interpretation of its own regulation.  In taking the case, the U.S.  Supreme Court only accepted one of the two questions about deference (whether deference was appropriate under the circumstances) and also took the question about the proper interpretation of the relevant regulation.

Because the Fourth Circuit decision relied on a judicial doctrine (Auer deference) that dictates that courts should defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation, it was dependent on the agency not changing that interpretation.  When the Supreme Court took the case in October, the Department still interpreted the regulation consistent with the student’s position in this case.  After Trump won the election, it was unclear whether the new administration would change its interpretation of the regulation.

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Judge Gorsuch and Same Sex Bathrooms

While, for the most part, Judge Gorsuch reflects the views of the current conservative legal establishment (which is substantially more conservative today than it was thirty years ago), one of the areas in which he stands out is his view on the scope of regulatory authority.  Current case law is mostly bounded in the reality of current politics.  Some conservatives want courts to disrupt the way things currently operate.

Currently, Congress tends to write broad statutes establishing programs or general rules for some type of activity.  Congress then delegates responsibility for filling in the details to some department or agency.  To use health care as an example, such an approach keeps legislation relatively simple and prevents it from being bogged down in the tiny details (should there be a copay for vaccines, do policies have to cover erectile disfunction or contraceptives).  Additionally, leaving the details for the regulatory agency makes it easier to adjust to changes — as new drugs are discovered, the agency can adjust the list of covered drugs to reflect those new drugs.   The best example of this process of adjustment is in the case of pollution where the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act both allow the EPA to regulate new pollutants upon determining that the evidence demonstrates that a previously unregulated substance is a pollutant.

Current case law supports the ability to operate in this way through three doctrines.  First is the current limited version of the non-delegation doctrine.  Back before the New Deal, the courts regularly struck down regulations on the theory that Congress had improperly delegated legislative authority to the executive branch.  Current law permits such delegation as long as the statute gives sufficient guidance to the administrative agency.  While sufficient is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, most courts only require very broad guidance.

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Immigration Kerflufle

We knew the policy was coming.  We should have guessed that Trump would botch it — both in terms of the actual policy and in terms of how it was implemented.  Now, we have a fustercluck of a “temporary” Arab ban policy.  There are potential legal issues involved which I will discuss below.  As a major cautionary note, I don’t do immigration law.  Despite what the U.S. Supreme Court may think, those of us who deal in ordinary criminal law don’t really get the nuances of immigration law nor all of the technical terms involved.

Before turning to the potential legal challenges, what has happened over the past five days is exactly why there are usual procedures for issuing executive orders.  While Trump would probably have still tended toward the outrageous in this policy, some of the problems might have been avoided if things had been handled better.  Instead, we have a policy statement masquerading as a policy.

Normally before an executive order is released, the White House staff has consulted with the effected agencies — here, State, Homeland Security, I.C.E., U.S.C.I.S., and T.S.A. — to get their input and make sure that everyone is on the same page at the time of implementation.  Additionally, the Office of Legal Counsel typically has gone through the order to make sure that it is legally defensible — not necessarily a winning defense, but at least no glaring fatal flaws for which there is not even a colorable defense — and clearly sets forth the policy.

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The Supreme Court — Year in Review; Year yet to Come

The big court story of 2016 was the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia.  In an unseemly display, before the body was even buried, the Republican leadership in the Senate announced that they would not confirm any nominee made by President Obama.  However, while they did not make any official announcement about other judicial vacancies, the Republicans’ approach to the Supreme Court vacancy was consistent with their approach to the judiciary in general.  The outgoing Senate only confirmed 22 judicial nominees over the last two years and did not confirm anybody nominated after September 2015 (with the last confirmation vote occurring before the July 2016 recess).  By comparison, in the last two years of the George W. Bush Administration, a Democratic Senate confirmed 67 judicial nominees with the last confirmation vote occurring in September 2008 for a person nominated in July 2008.

At the end of the day, the Democrats lost a golden opportunity to bring an end to four decades of Republican control of the Supreme Court.  A win this past November would have led to a solid Democratic majority for the next two or three decades.  However, the reality is that for the past forty years, moderately conservative Republicans on the court have formed a barrier to the more extreme positions in the Republican party winning on several issues.  As such, controlling the Supreme Court has mattered more to Republican leaners than to Democratic leaners.  (Several conservatives argued that Republicans should hold their noses and vote for Trump to keep control of the Supreme Court.)  At some point, Democrats may wake up and find a court in which Justice Samuel Alito is the swing vote, but we are not there yet.  The Republican stand on the Supreme Court probably made some Republican Senate seats more vulnerable than they would have been, but Democrats failed to explain why control of the Supreme Court matters.  Democratic voters may soon suffer for this failure of leadership.

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I am Spartacus. Are You?

Yes, Spartacus was a real man. but many of us remember instead the Kirk Douglas character from the 1960 movie, and the line “I am Spartacus” which has come to mean that many people claim to be someone who “they” are going to harm. In case you don’t know, the movie’s screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted by the McCarthy HUAC. President-elect John Kennedy crossed the American Legion picket lines to see the movie. It was that action that finally ended the blacklist.

A new president-elect, and the role of Antoninus is this time played by Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, a US-based international Jewish NGO. Greenblatt announced earlier this week that when and if Trump launches the Muslim registry, he will sign.

If you don’t think that the Trump administration will come for Muslims, Mexicans, hell, anyone whose skin tone is not alabaster, plus LGBQT people, disabled people, etc., is simply naive. And simultaneously they’ll come for SNAP, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but I digress.

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What Now?

As it all sinks in….at the polls yesterday, I heard from Democrats who were voting for Trump for a variety of reasons. I have looked at the preliminary exit poll data and the turnout numbers and think I have an idea of how this happened. The final cross tabs might change things but bottom line — people who NEVER vote came out in droves. And what they voted against was the same thing that gave Britain Brexit — their hatred of modernity.  So what do we do? While we organize (and re-read James Madison’s Federalist Paper #10) we wait somewhat quietly to see if in his first hundred days he DOES:

  • deport massive numbers of undocumented human beings,
  • ban Muslims,
  • repeal the Affordable Care Act,
  • add a Supreme who will vote to keep Citizen’s United, repeal gay marriage, ban all abortions even to save the life of the mother
  • cut taxes for only the weathly
  • leave NAFTA
  • et, al.

Because if he does, THEN we know the plan.

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Supreme Court and Politics

no_more_hate (2)In setting up the federal judiciary, the Framers wanted to separate the judiciary from politics to a certain degree.  By giving judges and justices an unlimited term, judges would be free from having to decide cases on what is currently popular.  Not that the courts would be absolutely immune from politics, but the influence of politics on the courts would be that elections to the “political” branches would be in the choice of new judges and justices to fill vacancies.  The courts would be “conservative” in the sense of reflecting the values of the time at which judges or justices were appointed with a gradual change reflecting changes in those values over time through the appointment of new judges and justices.  (On the Supreme Court, nine of seventeen Chief Justices served more than a decade, and thirteen of seventeen served more than six years.  Of the Associate Justices sixty-eight of one hundred have served more than ten years, and another thirteen have served more than six years.)

The fact that federal judges do not have to stand for election does not mean that judges are not political or aware of politics.  To ask that judges not view close legal issues through a certain political philosophy and that judges not be aware of the potential impact of decisions on elections is asking too much.  However, the Supreme Court wants the public to perceive that they are above politics and would prefer that the Supreme Court rank somewhat low on the list of important issues in any election.  This desire to “lay low” has been reflected in pushing off the arguments on the most controversial cases until after the election (or even later for cases that might currently reflect a 4-4 split).  Even in terms of which cases are being granted for review later this year, the Supreme Court was avoiding cases that were likely to generate headlines.  That changed yesterday when the Supreme Court issued its order reflecting which cases it had just accepted for full review.  While none of the cases on the list are surprises in terms of the Supreme Court granting review, two of the cases are highly controversial — one dealing with transgender rights and the other with sex offenders and the First Amendment — and most expected the Supreme Court to push a decision on reviewing those two cases until after the election, particularly with the election controlling who gets to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court.

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