Friday, November 16, 2018

Is Whitaker a Heretic or Just a Hack?

by Michael C. Dorf

My latest Verdict column--which first appeared on Wednesday--asks whether the framers goofed by failing to spell out in the Constitution exactly what the limits are on the ability of Congress to authorize the president to designate as an "acting" principal officer someone who has not been confirmed by the Senate. My answer: kind of, but one shouldn't get too mad at the framers for failing to anticipate all contingencies; a greater share of the responsibility rests with Congress for acquiescing in what looks like circumvention of the spirit, if not necessarily the letter, of the Appointments Clause; still more responsibility lies with Trump, who does not feel constrained by norms, no matter how longstanding or sensible.

The column focuses on the procedural defects in the designation of Matt Whitaker as Acting AG, but of course, one can also point to his substantive shortcomings. Whitaker's role in advising and promoting the Trump-University-esque World Patent Marketing casts doubt on his ethics. His 2014 statement, when campaigning unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for a Senate seat, that he would have trouble with judicial nominees who lack a "Biblical view" of justice, shows either ignorance of or indifference to the Constitution's prohibition on religious tests for office. Here I want to focus on Whitaker's identification of Marbury v. Madison as a problematic precedent. I will offer a tepid defense of the position but no defense of Whitaker.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

How Bad Will Things Become? Part Eight: The Supreme Court's Political Agenda and Republicans' Electoral Peril

by Neil H. Buchanan

The Supreme Court's two newest members have joined Clarence Thomas in forming an openly reactionary bloc of justices, and their colleagues Samuel Alito and John Roberts differ from them only by slight matters of degree.  Roberts, Alito, and Thomas are 63, 68, and 70, respectively, meaning that we can expect this current majority of hyper-conservative justices (which I have elsewhere dubbed the Unfab Five) to serve together for at least a decade, and possibly two.

They will also serve at the top of a judiciary that Republicans are gleefully packing with the most blatantly political (and sometimes simply unqualified) conservatives that the country has ever seen -- many of them also quite young and thus able to serve for decades.  This means that there is a possibility, even a likelihood, that the courts will stand in the way of progress even if Republicans are not able to stop Democrats from retaking power (although they seem poised to be able to do that, too, with a big assist from the judges that they are empowering).

One reason for a small amount optimism, however, is that those new lower court judges are in fact not likely to serve as long as life tenure would allow.  In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement installed a passel of young judges, only to find that many of those guys were not willing to receive an upper-middle-class salary to do what turns out to be a lot of work.  Who knew that so many people who thought that Gordon Gecko's "Greed is good" speech was a religious exhortation would want to cash in their judicial experience for bigger paydays?

That might well happen in the lower courts again, with an exodus of judges beginning in only a few years, but there is no reason to think that any of the Unfab Five justices on the Supreme Court will leave early.  What will they do while they rule the roost?

In this "How Bad Will Things Become?" series of columns (see Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six), I have moved back and forth between discussing the substance of the hard right judicial agenda and analyzing what one might roughly call the Unfab Five's style.  On the former (substance), the question is where the Court's majority will go on affirmative action, reproductive rights, and so on.  The latter question (style) addresses whether Roberts et al. will bother dressing up their conservative judicial activism or will simply become ever more naked about their ideological power plays.

Today on Verdict, I published Part Seven of this series, in which I speculate on another substantive matter, asking whether the reactionary majority's neo-Lochnerian agenda (which I had described in Part Four) might include a direct assault on the three big New Deal/Great Society social insurance programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

I point out in Part Seven that Social Security was challenged in court at its inception in the 1930's but survived only because the Lochner justices were mostly gone by then.  It would not be even a mild stretch for the Unfab Five to invent an excuse to invalidate those social insurance programs.  As Eric Segall has argued tirelessly here on Dorf on Law and elsewhere (most recently yesterday), conservatives' go-to theory -- originalism -- is not a theory at all, which makes it a perfect vehicle to justify anything that conservatives want to accomplish.

Here, I want to ask the related style question: Given that movement conservatives would love to invalidate all three of those programs (and more), will they actually try to do so, or will they stop short because of the consequences for their Republican comrades who actually want to win future elections?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Is Originalism a Theory?

By Eric Segall

Justice Scalia used to defend his originalist theory of constitutional interpretation by arguing that, although originalism has its flaws, it was better than any other interpretative method and that "you can't beat somebody with nobody," meaning that it takes a theory to beat a theory.

As I've been giving talks at various law schools discussing my new book "Originalism as Faith," one common reaction is great surprise that Originalism today refers to many different theories of constitutional interpretation that have very little in common with each other. When judges and law professors self-identify as "Originalists," there is no longer any serious metric or common definition to understand how they would approach hard constitutional cases.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Appreciating Heitkamp's Decency

by Neil H. Buchanan

In the post-midterm assessments of American politics, Senator Heidi Heitkamp has at most merited a quick mention as one of the three or four Democratic incumbents from states that Trump carried in 2016 who lost their reelection bids.  Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Heitkamp of North Dakota went down hard.  Other Democrats survived, and Florida is being Florida, so we will not know for a long time whether Bill Nelson will hold his seat or lose it to Voldemort.

In many cases, these losing candidates are not even mentioned by name.  "Three or four Democrats lost in the Senate, but the Democrats picked up two seats.  Moving on."  Here, I want to discuss the one and only big thing I know substantively about Heitkamp, essentially to apologize for assuming that she had no principles and was only in politics to win elections.  There might be other things that I do not know about her that would make me feel less good about her, but credit is due where credit is due.  She deserves respect, as I will explain below.

Monday, November 12, 2018

How Much of a Problem is the Senate?

by Michael C. Dorf

In the last week, various liberal law professors and others in whose circles I move have taken to using the midterm election results to decry the US Senate. They point out -- correctly -- that nine million more people voted for Democratic Senators than for Republican Senators; yet the Republicans probably gained at least one seat and at least held their edge. That's not exactly a fair comparison (for reasons described here), but it does capture the bigger picture: If we look at all three classes of Senators, we find that Republicans have more Senators, even though the Democrats represent more people.

Is that a problem? Well, if one is a Democrat (as I am) of course it's a problem. Republicans will continue to confirm very conservative judges and justices; and when there's a Democratic president again, Republicans' advantage in the Senate may enable them to block Democratic appointees (again). Meanwhile, should the Republican edge hold into the next Democratic administration (and even if it does not, absent abolition of the filibuster for ordinary legislation), it will permit Senators representing a minority of the country to block legislation favored by a Democratic House majority and a Democratic president. Thus, I share the dismay of many of my fellow Democrats at the impact of the Senate on the laws we have and how they are interpreted.

But I do want to raise a few questions about the current bout of Senate skepticism that rests on first principles.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Tenth in a Series: Adult Coloring Book, "The Lawyers of Trump-Russia" (feat. Matthew Whitaker)

by Diane Klein

Herewith, our contribution to the matter of Matt Whitaker, the former Rose Bowl tight end and U.S. Attorney (for Iowa, in both cases), now catapulted to national prominence by his elevation from Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to the position of Acting Attorney General of the United States - thanks largely, it would appear, in gratitude for his critical comments about the Mueller investigation, made in the mainstream media.

(Art by Andrea McHale, a special-education teacher in New York City; lettering by Alex Mannos, a graphic artist in Sacramento, California.  The coloring page is subject to a Creative Commons license as below.)

Friday, November 09, 2018

Whitaker's Appointment is Despicable and Possibly Criminal, but is it Unconstitutional?

by Michael C. Dorf

Yesterday Neal Katyal and George Conway wrote an op-ed in the NY Times arguing that President Trump lacked the authority to name Matthew Whitaker Acting Attorney General. I'm not sure that's right. True, by forcing out Jeff Sessions as punishment for the one unambiguously honorable thing Sessions did--recusing himself, as required by law, from an investigation of the Trump campaign--Trump acted despicably. Depending on what Whitaker does now with respect to the Mueller investigation, Trump's appointment of Whitaker may also amount to obstruction of justice.

But was the appointment unconstitutional? As I shall explain, much as I'd like to agree with Katyal and Conway, their theory is problematic as offered. I will offer a friendly amendment to improve it a bit.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Case for Extreme Pessimism After a Good Election Night

by Neil H. Buchanan

How long will our luck last?  On Tuesday, Democrats regained the majority in the House of Representatives, but even though that is exactly the outcome for which I most dearly hoped, the world seems even scarier now than it was on Monday, when I published a call to young people (and everyone else) to vote against Donald Trump and his eager enablers.

On Tuesday morning, I wrote about the likely chaos that would ensue even if Democrats ended up having a good night.  Although the specifics that I offered there might not come to pass (including a prediction of a wave of Republican election challenges, although some such challenges are still possible), the big message was that Trump and his minions would not be gracious losers -- the safest prediction in the history of political commentary.

So I was plenty scared before, when it was still possible that Republicans could have held the House and won other key races.  Why am I more scared now that what seemed to be the worst outcome has not come to pass?

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

First Amendment Free Speech and the Conduct/Status Distinction

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I talk about the meaning of the #BelieveWomen movement and what it might have to teach us about listening to people with an open and curious mind. The topic of listening to people, in turn, makes me think about the freedom of speech. In this post, I want to consider how we might best understand our free speech dilemmas.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

In the Short Run, Are We Also All Dead?

by Neil H. Buchanan

John Maynard Keynes famously wrote: "In the long run we are all dead."  Although there have been plenty of bad-faith misreadings of that quote, the correct reading is actually quite simple.  Keynes rejected the idea of causing millions of people to suffer in the here and now in the possibly vain hope that some economist's model of "long-run equilibrium" correctly predicts that such sacrifices (always to be paid by other people, of course) will pay huge dividends in the future.

More to the point, we cannot make our way to the long run if we all die in the short run.

In a sense, many of the arguments against Donald Trump have been arguments about a somewhat distant and uncertain future.  Thus, my Verdict column on June 2, 2016 asked: "Is This the Beginning of the End of Constitutional Democracy in the U.S.?"  My concern was not with the decades- or generations-long version of the long run that worried Keynes (although he was also worried about inflicting pain for years at a time with the promise of prosperity just around the corner), but it was still a dystopian prediction of something that might or might not happen and that would in any event take some time to play out.

In my latest Verdict column, published yesterday, I confront the reality that we have already reached the point where the dangers of Trump have become all too real and are no longer speculative.  If the Democrats do not have a good day today, it might well be the end of the line for the American democratic experiment.

Yes, that sounds apocalyptic, yet it is difficult not to fear the worst.  And it could still be awful even if the Republicans do lose today.  Stay with me here.

Monday, November 05, 2018

The Road to Perdition Is Neither Long Nor Winding for Republican Economists

by Neil H. Buchanan

As we wait to find out whether tomorrow's midterms will be the last meaningful election in American history, I will take a few moments here to consider a recent Republican absurdity that was drowned out by Donald Trump's cacophony of hatred and lies.  In one way, it is fully consistent with Trump's tactics, because it is merely another attempt to scare people by shouting "Socialism!!"  Given that the story comes from Trump's economists, however, this one is up my alley and -- viewed from the proper perspective -- very, very funny.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Media Collusion in This Year's Versions of the 'Deplorables' Distortion

by Neil H. Buchanan

Supposedly, the press corps has learned that bothsidesism is not a harmless exercise.  If anyone -- or at least any group with large numbers of white people -- should have newly learned what can happen when lies are not called lies and context is lost, it is American political reporters.

Even after their huge assist in painting Hillary Clinton as a serial liar and spending ungodly amounts of time hyping her email servers in 2016, all the while hesitating to call Donald Trump's lies "lies," journalists have been rewarded by being called "the true enemy of the American people."

But we know that old habits die hard.  One of the worst habits of the collective press's mind is the "To be fair, let's also look at what Democrats are doing wrong" approach to campaign coverage.  It would be bad enough if this were merely false equivalence (of which there is plenty), such as pretending that confronting a U.S. Senator in an elevator represents "incivility" in American politics that must be compared to Trump's spewing of hatred.

But it is much worse than that, because the media often simply gets the story wrong or short-hands it in a way that completely misleads the public and that cements in the collective mind a narrative that is both unfair and damaging to the way voters and potential voters perceive politicians.

The leading example of this phenomenon in 2016 was "the deplorables comment."  In 2018, there is nothing to that extreme degree thus far, but there are some cases in which the shorthand versions of stories completely reverse the reality.  This leaves voters confused and potential voters saying, "Why bother?  They're all bad."

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Mueller, False Flags, and Conspiracy Theories

by Michael C. Dorf

In an era in which every day brings shocking news, the most bizarre story of the last few days has to be the apparent plot against Robert Mueller. For those of you who may have missed it, I'll try to summarize and then provide a big-picture observation.