REGULATION OF THE FINANCIAL INDUSTRY IS BADLY NEEDED Part 2

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

My previous post made the case for strong regulation of the financial industry to protect consumers with a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The financial industry needs strong regulation because it has repeatedly shown that without regulation it will rip off consumers and engage in practices that put our economy and our whole financial system at-risk.

In addition to the Trump administration’s weakening of the CFPB and other regulation of the financial industry, pro-business judicial decisions have also weakened consumer protections from abusive financial industry practices. However, Congress can restore these consumer protections through appropriate legislation.

First, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cannot seek monetary compensation for consumers defrauded by payday or other short-term lenders. The Consumer Protection and Recovery Act has been introduced in Congress and would make it clear that the FTC can seek financial compensation for these consumers. [1]

Second, the Comprehensive Debt Collection Improvement Act would strengthen a variety of protections for borrowers that were weakened by judicial decisions. For example, it would limit email and other electronic harassment by debt collectors and restrict abusive practices by medical debt collectors.

Finally, the Non-judicial Foreclosure Debt Collection Clarification Act would regulate any business involved in home foreclosures without a judge’s authorization as a debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. In 30 states and D.C., lenders can foreclose and repossess a home without going to court and getting a judge’s ruling. A Supreme Court ruling limited home owners’ rights in these states. This legislation would give these home owners the protections of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is an independent federal regulatory agency responsible for protecting investors and maintaining the fair and orderly functioning of securities markets. It works to ensure full public disclosure of information so all investors are on an equal footing. To that end, it works to prevent, identify, and punish insider trading, where some people have information that is not available to the general public and therefore have an unfair advantage in making decisions about buying and selling securities. [2]

Classic insider trading was in the news a year ago. Some members of Congress, who had received private, closed-door briefings on the coronavirus, made substantial stock market trades that appeared to be informed by this non-public information. Similarly, some executives of firms working on coronavirus vaccines, who had knowledge of the progress of their vaccine development that was not public, made substantial stock market trades that appeared to be informed by this non-public information. There were also situations where an insider shared non-public information with an outsider who then appears to have made investment transactions based on this non-public information.

However, there is another type of insider trading that may be more insidious – using sophisticated computers to make large trades moments before other trades that are in the pipeline are executed and become public knowledge. This is referred to as “front-running” and is a systemic problem in securities markets. It allows those with these sophisticated computer systems to make profits at the expense of everyone else who’s buying and selling securities.

Although the SEC has the power to address these problems under existing laws, it has failed to stop these practices which unfairly disadvantage run-of-the-mill buyers and sellers of securities.

The SEC is also charged with preventing large-scale speculation, particularly with borrowed money, that puts banks and financial corporations at-risk of bankruptcy if a large speculative investment goes bad. This is exactly what caused the 2008 financial collapse. This type of systemic risk is substantial today in large part because the financial industry has created “investments” that are called derivatives – financial instruments that are derived from or based on other financial instruments. In 2008, for example, the core problem was derivatives based on home mortgages. These were packages of home mortgages, and portions of them (e.g., the interest and principal portions of payments), and speculation on how interest rates would change, etc. These and many other derivatives are hard for most investors to understand, can be very volatile, are hard to put a value on, are hard to regulate, and it’s almost impossible to predict how they will perform as an investment. Therefore, investing in them is basically gambling and the securities market for them is basically a casino.

The laws and regulations that were put in place after the 2008 collapse to prevent a recurrence have been watered down or unenforced to the point that many experts believe we are likely to see a repeat of that collapse, and possibly a worse one. The largest 40 banks across the world are larger than ever and so interconnected through derivative “investments,” loans, and other financial transactions, that governments would have no choice but to bail them out again to prevent a total collapse of the financial system if any piece of this complex, opaque, and highly speculative financial casino were to crash in value.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support strong, effective regulation of the financial industry through federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Consumers and our financial markets need to be protected from the no-holds-barred greed and hubris of those in the financial industry. The consistent, aggressive, and risky practices across the financial industry, including by its largest corporations, require no less. You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and ask him to appoint individuals who will implement strong regulation of the financial industry at the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other federal agencies. This is important because Biden has not always supported strong regulation of corporations and the financial industry. He is from Delaware, which is the legal home of many U.S. corporations because of its lax regulation of corporations. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Cohen, R. M., 4/27/21, “Congress looks to judicial overrides to strength consumer protections,” The Intercept and The American Prospect (https://theintercept.com/2021/04/27/supreme-court-ftc-consumer-debt/)

[2]      Turner, L., & Kuttner, R., 2/18/21, “The financial reforms we need,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/financial-reforms-we-need-lynn-turner-interview/)

OUR FEDERAL COURTS HAVE BEEN PACKED WITH RIGHT-WING JUDGES

Republicans are rushing confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, which is emblematic of their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges. [1] (See my previous post for more details.) Rushing through the confirmation of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court – and to some extent the whole federal judiciary – by making it clear that the federal court system is not an  impartial arbiter of the law, but a fully politicized institution.

Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office (including over 100 that were carried over from the Obama administration due to Republican blocking of confirmations) and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [2] Right-wing Republicans have used a Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [3]

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing jurists, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer because their right-wing judicial philosophy favors corporations and the wealthy over workers, consumers, and the middle and lower classes.

These right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed judges typically claim to support “originalism,” a legal philosophy that claims the original intent and meaning of the Constitution, written in 1787, should determine judicial decisions. “Originalists” claim that government cannot constitutionally do anything that is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution. This legal philosophy has been very effective in driving right-wing legal politics, although the appropriateness of applying the meaning of the words of the Constitution to today’s technology strains credulity; its writers couldn’t have dreamed of our current medical and health care capabilities, our transportation and communications systems, our financial instruments and guns, or our huge, multi-national corporations.

An alternative legal interpretation of the Constitution, as a living document that requires interpretation in the context of current times, was prevalent from the late 1930s into the 1980s. In the late 1930s, during the recovery from the Depression, judges interpreted the law and the Constitution to allow American democracy to live up to its principles. Right-wing politicians and legal theorists labeled this “judicial activism” or “legislating from the bench.”

The “originalist” legal philosophy was developed by right-wing scholars in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to laws and judicial support for economic and civil rights. The New Deal worked to level the economic playing field, to regulate business, to provide voice and a balance of power for workers through unions, and to provide a social safety net. After World War II, these efforts continued with more of a focus on leveling the social playing field and treating all people as equals before law, by ending segregation and discrimination, protecting the rights of prisoners and those accused of breaking the law, and providing access to contraception and abortion. The judicial-established principle of one person, one vote and the Voting Rights Act worked to level the political playing field. Judicial decisions supporting economic and civil rights, many of them made by the Supreme Court under Republican Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger between 1953 and 1986, were, at the time, largely viewed as non-partisan. They reflected a belief that the Bill of Rights applies to state laws and governments, as well as at the federal level. [4] This dramatically expanded civil rights and overturned the “states’ rights” doctrine that had allowed states to, among other things, engage in discrimination, particularly against Black Americans.

“Originalist” judges have ignored and will continue to ignore precedents and are reversing 80 years of legislation and legal decisions on individual and civil rights, as the hearings on the latest Supreme Court nominees and recent Supreme Court decisions have made clear. While the attention of these hearings has been focused on social and religious issues, from abortion to affirmative action and discrimination to LGBTQ rights, the often-overlooked issues about our economy and capitalism, such as the balance of power between employers and workers, the ability to earn a living wage, and the availability of an economic safety net, are critically important as well.

Under “originalist” legal theory, the federal government has little power and much of what it currently does should be left to state governments. Under “originalism,” the federal government does not have the power to regulate corporations or the wealthy, including restricting their use of their money in our elections, as the spending of money is viewed as exercising free speech. Decisions by the federal judiciary at all levels make it clear that “originalist” theory favors private interests over public interests, corporations and employers over consumers and workers, law enforcement over defendants’ rights, and gun rights over voting rights. Such decisions deprive employees and other vulnerable populations of their civil rights. [5] [6]

Moreover, the “originalist” judges assert that the rights of the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, are rights that belong to corporations as well as to natural human beings. I find it hard to believe that this was the intent of the writers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They clearly were focused on the rights of individual human beings. Furthermore, corporations, in anything approaching their current form, were unknown in those times.

Americans for Prosperity and other pro-business groups, many of them backed by billionaire, fossil-fuel businessman Charles Koch (and his deceased brother), have spent tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to pressure Senators to back controversial, right-wing judicial nominations, often using “dark money” (whose donors are hidden from the public).

The weak federal government response to the coronavirus pandemic is emblematic of “originalist” thinking. Some in the Trump administration simply didn’t believe it was the role of the federal government or within the legitimate powers of the federal government to respond, and, therefore, the response should be left to the states and the private sector.

President Trump and the Republicans in the Senate have packed the federal court system from top to bottom with hundreds of right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed, “originalist” judges who are on the fringe of what was previously considered appropriate for a federal judge. If our Founding Fathers had intended an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, I have to believe they would have realized frequent amendments would be required and they would have made it much easier to amend it. I believe that “originalism” is a rationalization for public relations purposes developed by wealthy corporations and individuals as a way to “justify” laws and court decisions that work to their benefit. This is just like their claim of non-existent voter fraud as the public relations rationale for voter suppression tactics.

Our federal court system is currently unbalanced and biased in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Right-wing judges will skew court decisions and harm the well-being of everyday Americans for the next 20 to 30 years unless Democrats are elected and actively work to rebalance the federal courts toward mainstream legal philosophy and historical precedent. This will not be easy given how skewed the system currently is.

Dramatic steps will need to be taken, including expanding the number of judges in the federal court system, possibly including the number of justices on the Supreme Court, given that removing judges is basically impossible. This is the only way to return to laws and government programs that protect and support a fair and just society with civil, political, and economic rights for all, women able to make decisions about their reproductive health, workers able to support their families and have safe working conditions, consumers able to use products and services safely, and a safety net that protects people when they hit hard times.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[3]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

[4]      Richardson, H. C., 10/23/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-23-2020)

[5]      Richardson, H. C., 10/14/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-14-2020)

[6]      Dayen, D., 10/13/20, “Judge Barrett’s record: Siding with businesses over workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/judge-barretts-record-siding-with-businesses-over-workers/)

WHO’S FOR PACKING OUR FEDERAL COURTS?

As Republicans are ramming through a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, they are also attacking Democratic presidential nominee Senator Biden for not saying whether he will “pack the court.”  The irony of this seems to be lost on them, many in the media, and most of the public.

Republicans are claiming that increasing the size of the Supreme Court (aka “packing the court”) would be “the absolute biggest power grab in the history of our country,” when in fact their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges for the last four years and beyond is a far bigger power grab. [1]

Rushing through the nomination of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court, making it clear it is not an impartial arbitrator of the law, but a fully politicized institution. Senator McConnell and his Republican colleagues in the Senate blocked the appointment of a centrist judge nominated by President Obama, Merrick Garland, for ten months, solely for political purposes. Now, they are ramming through an extreme, right-wing nominee in a matter of weeks, solely for political purposes. And closer to an election than has ever been done before.

If Barrett is confirmed, 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court appointments will have been made by Republican Presidents. Furthermore, five of the nine justices will have been appointed by Presidents who lost the popular vote and they will also have been confirmed by the votes of Senators who represent less than half of the American population. [2]

The Supreme Court has had nine justices since 1869, but its size is not specified in the Constitution. Republicans changed the size of the Court three times between 1863 and 1869 to give appointments to their Presidents and deny them to the opposition. [3] Furthermore, Republicans announced in 2016 that they would not fill any Supreme Court seats with nominees of Hillary Clinton (if she were elected), thereby effectively shrinking the size of the Court. Moreover, in 2013, Republicans proposed shrinking the number of justices on the D.C. Appellate Court, the second most important appellate court in the country, from 11 to 8 to lock in a conservative majority and prevent President Obama from appointing judges to the court. [4]

The packing-the-court issue is far bigger than just the Supreme Court. Senator McConnell and the Senate Republicans blocked dozens of Obama’s nominees to other courts, so that there were over 100 vacancies for federal judges when Trump took office. Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [5] (More on this is my next post.) Right-wing Republicans have used Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [6] Republicans have also intentionally been installing young judges so their lifetime tenures and influence will last as long as possible.

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing justices, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer. The only remedy for this political corruption, the only way to keep its perpetrators from realizing on-going benefits, is to increase the size of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court. New judges, appointed by Democrats, will rebalance the courts to reflect the interests and well-being of the American public. Furthermore, the federal district and appellate courts have not been enlarged since the late 1970s, despite a 40% growth in population.

It is important for the Democrats to stand up and make it clear that Republicans can’t steal two Supreme Court seats (and dozens of seats on other federal courts) and get away with it. They should couple an increase in the size of the Supreme Court with a proposal for a Constitutional Amendment to set term limits and/or a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.

By rebalancing the federal courts, Democrats would demonstrate a needed commitment to America’s democratic principles and promises, as well as to economic and social justice.

My next post will discuss the right-wing judicial philosophy called “originalism” to which these Republican judges typically adhere and its implications for economic and social justice.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      Richardson, H, C., 10/11/20, see above

[3]      Starr, P., 9/23/20, “How to rebalance the Supreme Court,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/how-to-rebalance-the-supreme-court/)

[4]      Kuttner, R., 10/13/20, “Biden needs to give a major speech on court expansion,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/biden-speech-supreme-court-expansion-court-packing/)

[5]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[6]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

THE U.S. IS AT A HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT FORK IN THE ROAD

Bob Kuttner has written another one of his eloquent, incredibly insightful and provocative articles. This one analyzes the historically significant fork in the road the U.S. is facing, puts this inflection point in historical and political perspective, and offers his views on where we should go and what it will take to get there. [1] He doesn’t mince words and is not afraid to speak truth to political and economic power. I will summarize the article here, but I encourage you to read the whole article at the link in the footnote as I cannot do it justice. The article is relatively short, under 2,000 words; it’s only two pages in The American Prospect magazine.

(Note: Kuttner is the most knowledgeable, thoughtful, eloquent, and insightful progressive policy analyst I know of. The breadth of his knowledge across policy topics and history leaves me in awe. He is the co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, which is my go-to source for progressive policy analysis and proposals. He is a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School, where I got my Ph.D. in Social Policy with a focus on early childhood policies and programs.)

Kuttner starts the article with this statement: “We will soon know whether America will surmount its worst catastrophe since the Civil War. We have every reason to worry.” He goes on to note that “We Americans grow up learning our history as a chronicle of near disasters that narrowly come out right.” He cites the following examples of other historical inflection points where the U.S. surmounted significant challenges and put itself on a positive path for the future:

  • The Revolutionary War
  • The writing of the Constitution in 1787
  • The Civil War and the ending of slavery
  • The Great Depression
  • World War II

He states that “Now, we are at another inflection point where history could go disastrously wrong. … Things have already occurred that were inconceivable to most Americans.” He cites examples of the inconceivable that include:

  • The undermining of the U.S. Postal Service (at least in part to rig the election),
  • The failure to combat Russian interference in our elections,
  • The President stating he might not abide by the election’s results, and
  • The Attorney General failing to stand up for the rule of law.

Kuttner excoriates Republicans in Congress, governors’ offices, and state legislatures who have violated the fundamental principles of the historical Republican Party and our democracy to benefit their wealthy benefactors and maintain their political power.

He states that “America’s corporate and financial elite, given a corrupt, incompetent dictator who serves their economic interests, will choose the dictator over a democracy that might trim their billions. This is full-on fascism — the alliance of the business class with a tyrant who confuses the masses with appeals to jingoism and racism, while the plutocrats steal working people blind.”

His analysis concludes that “Trump is the logical extreme of a long downward spiral. … Trump merely makes flagrant what was tacit.” He states that in addition to Republican presidents, Presidents Clinton and Obama allowed a continuation of the 40-year slide where “money relentlessly crowded out citizenship, while economic concentration and political concentration [of power] fed on each other.” The concentration of economic power has occurred due to the emergence of huge corporations with monopolistic power in numerous industries due to the lack of enforcement of anti-trust laws. This economic concentration has led to great wealth in the hands of a small number of investors and corporate executives. They have used that wealth to gain great political power, which has led to policies that benefit them and their businesses. This self-reinforcing cycle has been a spiral leading to great inequality in income, wealth, personal well-being, and opportunity.

Kuttner states that reversing this long, downward spiral will be difficult and will require repairing damage to essential institutions in government, society, and the economy. These include facilitating voting rather suppressing it, using anti-trust laws to break up monopolistic corporations, reversing growing economic inequality, and supporting workers through higher wages, job security, and the right to bargain collectively with employers. Public agencies that have been hollowed out need to be rebuilt, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and more.

He notes that there are two serious obstacles to accomplishing this revival even if Democrats win the White House and control of the U.S. Senate. First, the Republicans in Congress and President Trump (but also Republican presidents before him) have packed the federal court system at all levels with right-wing judges. Kuttner states that “Reclaiming democracy will require reclaiming an honest judiciary. … Republicans have been so relentless in their blockage of Obama appointees and their ramming through of far-right judges that the very legitimacy of the judicial system is in question.”  Kuttner makes a case for adding judges and expanding the federal courts at all levels as the only way to achieve balance and avoid judicial blockages of needed policy changes.

The second serious obstacle to revival of the American promise is the immense influence of corporate power brokers and the many corporate-leaning Democrats for whom current economic policies are the conventional wisdom. Kuttner believes that absent massive grassroots pressure the likelihood is that a Biden administration will not seriously challenge economic power and concentration, particularly in the financial and high-tech industries. The concentration of market and political leverage in huge corporations and in their executives and large investors has led to dramatic economic inequality, job insecurity, and hardship for American workers.

Kuttner proposes that the trillions of dollars the Federal Reserve has pumped into large corporations to bail them out in the current financial crisis should instead be focused on rebuilding infrastructure, addressing climate change, and ending racism, including paying reparations.

Kuttner closes by stating that if the U.S. returns to the path laid out by its core principles through the results of the November elections and subsequent actions that “it will be the narrowest of great escapes ever.”


[1]      Kuttner, R., 9/17/20, “The terror of the unforeseen,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/the-terror-of-the-unforeseen/)

FUTURE SUPREME COURT CASES WILL TELL A TALE

The following upcoming Supreme Court cases should be watched to see if the “conservative” majority continues to make partisan or ideologically-driven decisions that reflect judicial activism (i.e., they disregard precedents and established law): (See my previous post on why the “conservative” justices are really radical, right-wing activists.)

  • Department of Commerce vs. New York State, where the Court will decide whether to prohibit the addition to the 2020 Census of a question on citizenship status. The Constitution mandates a census to count all people living in the U.S. The Census Bureau itself (which is part of the Department of Commerce) estimates that adding a citizenship question would mean that 5.8% of households with a non-citizen would not respond to the Census, resulting in 6.5 million people not being counted.

    An acknowledged undercount (due to a citizenship question or anything else) would violate the intent of the Constitution. Furthermore, the undercounting of households with a non-citizen, who disproportionately live in states and districts represented by Democrats, will result in billions of dollars of reduced federal financial assistance to those areas due to funding allocations based on population. It might also result in Democratic leaning states losing seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the loss of Democratic leaning seats in state legislatures.

    A citizenship question has been added to the Census 1) in violation of the law for modifying the Census, 2) over the objections of experienced Census Bureau employees and six former directors of the Bureau under both Democratic and Republican presidents, and 3) based on a rationale that has been lied about by Commerce Secretary Ross and other Trump Administration officials. [1]

    A recently uncovered 2015 report by a Republican redistricting strategist, Thomas Hofeller, concluded that a citizenship question would provide data to facilitate drawing political districts that would benefit Republicans. Hofeller also suggested using the rationale for the question that the Trump Administration has put forward: that the question would help protect minority voters under the Voting Right Act. The Justice Department letter to the Commerce Department requesting the addition of a citizenship question, uses, word-for-word, a paragraph from Hofeller, despite denials from the Justice and the Commerce Departments that they were aware of Hofeller’s work. [2]

    Therefore, if the Court rules that a citizenship question can be included on the Census, the decision will reek of partisanship.

  • Rucho vs. Common Cause and Benisek vs. Lamone are cases where the Court will rule on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts to benefit Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland. [3] Although these two cases reflect gerrymandering by each party, the bulk of and the most extreme partisan gerrymandering that is in place today has been done to benefit Republicans. (See my previous posts on gerrymandering here and here.)

    If the Court refuses to ban extreme partisan gerrymandering, the decision will clearly benefit Republicans and, therefore, appear to be partisan.

  • The Court has decided to rule on three cases involving employment discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) individuals. Courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled since the 1980s that the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition on discrimination based on sex protected LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces non-discrimination in the workplace, has interpreted the Civil Rights Act to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity. Protection for LGBT people in federal law is important because 30 states do not have laws protecting them from discrimination. Many in the LGBT community are concerned that the Supreme Court will overturn these precedents in its rulings on these cases. It is even possible that its rulings in these cases could undermine protections for women. [4]

    If the Supreme Court’s rulings in these cases overturn protections for LGBT individuals, the Court’s decisions will be viewed by many as radical, right-wing ideological and partisan decisions by activist justices.

  • Although no case is expected to reach the Supreme Court for a while, anti-abortion activists in Alabama and a number of other states clearly intend to engender a Supreme Court case that will give the Court an opportunity to reverse the Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing women the right to terminate a pregnancy. Anti-abortion activists are pushing these laws now because they believe the current “conservative” Supreme Court justices will overturn the settled law and precedent that Roe vs. Wade represents and that has been in place for over 45 years.

    A Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade will be viewed by many as a radical, right-wing ideological and partisan decision of judicial activism.

If the Court makes radical, right-wing, partisan, activist decisions in some or all of these cases, Congressional action to reverse them is possible, with the possible exception of the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Even there, Congress could ameliorate the effects of the inclusion of the question. (See my previous post on reversing the effects of Supreme Court decisions.)

These Supreme Court cases will be closely watched. A series of radical, right-wing, partisan, activist decisions will, unfortunately, continue to undermine the faith of the public that the Supreme Court – and our court system in general – is impartial and non-partisan. They would also undermine a foundational element of our democracy: its system of supposedly independent checks and balances.

[1]      Liptak, A., 4/15/19, “The Supreme Court will soon consider whether the Census will include a citizenship question,” The New York Times

[2]      Wang, H. L., 5/30/19, “GOP redistricting strategist played role in push for Census citizenship question,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2019/05/30/728232221/gop-redistricting-strategist-played-role-in-push-for-census-citizenship-question)

[3]      Stohr, G., & Robinson, K., 3/26/19, “Supreme Court Justices question suits over partisan gerrymandering,” Bloomberg Law (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-26/top-court-justices-question-suits-over-partisan-gerrymandering)

[4]      Arana, G., 5/22/19, “Does the Civil Rights Act protect gay employees? The Court will decide,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/does-civil-rights-act-protect-gay-employees-court-will-decide)

REVERSING SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

Congress could reverse the effects of many of the Supreme Court’s decisions by changing relevant laws. Many of the Court’s 5 to 4 rulings by the “conservative” justices (who I argue in a previous post would be more accurately described as radical, right-wing, activists justices) are politically or ideologically driven. Congressional action to reverse them is possible and in many cases would restore long-standing precedents and established law that the “conservative” justices have chosen to ignore or overturn.

One prominent example of a Supreme Court ruling that congressional action could reverse is the Court’s decision that gutted the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. (See my previous post on this case here.) By updating the criteria for determining which local jurisdictions are subject to federal oversight, Congress could reinstitute federal review of states’ election practices. The proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act in Congress would accomplish this. [1]

As another example, Congress could reverse recent Supreme Court decisions that allow businesses to force harmed consumers and workers to settle their claims in a privatized arbitration system that overwhelmingly favors business interests. These Court decisions selectively interpret legal language or fabricate legal reasoning to allow a business to require consumers and workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that prohibit them from suing the business if they are injured or harmed. For example, the Court has read into the Federal Arbitration Act, which says nothing about class action lawsuits, that a corporation can require a consumer to sign away his or her right to join a class action lawsuit. [2] Congress could pass a law that establishes a right for consumers and workers to sue a business if they are harmed.

Additional examples of legislatively correctible Supreme Court decisions where established law and/or precedent have been ignored or overturned include:

  • Congress could pass a law reinstituting long-standing anti-trust laws that the Court has overturned. The Court’s decisions have changed anti-trust laws to:
    • 1) allow price fixing between manufacturers and distributors, and
    • 2) define a theoretical promise of short-term consumer price reduction as the sole criterion for deciding whether to permit corporate mergers and aggregations of marketplace power.
  • Congress could reverse the Court’s overturning of executive branch agency regulations, which the “conservative” justices did by developing a rationale for ignoring a 35-year-old precedent that had been repeatedly cited as established law. The Court has rejected agency regulations based on its own re-interpretation of underlying laws, rather than deferring to agencies’ expertise and interpretation of the law as had been the precedent. This effectively shifts regulatory power from executive branch agencies with long-standing experience and expertise to the five right-wing, male justices of the Supreme Court. Congress could pass a law prohibiting the courts from overturning a regulation if it is based on a permissible interpretation of the underlying law (which was the old precedent).
  • Congress could reverse the Supreme Court’s dramatic weakening of protections from discrimination based on race, age, religion, sexual orientation, and gender-identity. In race and age discrimination cases, the Court has ruled, contrary to precedent, that discrimination must be proven to be the sole cause of negative treatment. It has defined the term “supervisor” so narrowly that almost no one can be found guilty of sexually or racially harassing a subordinate. It has ruled that an employer or business owner can, based on his or her personal religious beliefs, eliminate coverage for birth control from an employer-sponsored health insurance plan. [3] Congress could pass laws defining the term “supervisor” and the standard for a finding of discrimination. It could also pass a law requiring all employer health insurance to meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care), which would mean including coverage for contraception.

Congressional action to overturn these and other Supreme Court decisions is not only possible, and would not only reverse bad legal precedents and harmful effects, but would send a message that power resides with Congress, not with five, unelected “conservative” men. Even if legislation to reverse these decisions can only be passed by the House, doing so would be beneficial. It would highlight the harm and lack of impartiality behind these politically or ideologically driven decisions, as well as the “conservative” justices’ ignoring of precedents and established law. House passage of such laws might temper future decisions by the Court and highlight important issues for future hearings on the confirmation of Supreme Court justices.

My next post will identify some upcoming Supreme Court decisions that should be closely watched to see if the trend of politically or ideologically driven decisions continues.

[1]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, “Not so Supreme? Congress actually has a lot of power, mostly unused, to rein in the Roberts Court by clarifying the intent of the law,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/not-so-supreme)

[2]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, see above

[3]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, see above

THE NOT CONSERVATIVE AND NOT IMPARTIAL SUPREME COURT

“Conservative” is not the right term to use to describe the Supreme Court Justices who have been the “conservative” majority in many 5 to 4 decisions going back to at least 2000. This applies in particular to the current five “conservative” justices who will be the deciding majority in many future decisions.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Thomas are probably better described as “radical, right-wing” justices. They could also be described as Republicans, small government ideologues, corporatists (supporters of large corporations and businesses), and/or plutocrats (supporters of the wealthy elites). Predecessors Rehnquist and Scalia also fit this mold; Kennedy, Souter, and O’Connor were a little harder to categorize.

These “conservative” justices are frequently making decisions that are not impartial decisions based on the law – despite their claims at confirmation hearings that they are just umpires calling balls and strikes based on the law (or some variation on this theme). One expert commentator states that “many of the Roberts Court’s decisions are so poorly reasoned that they appear to be straight-up dishonest.” (p. 52) [1] Despite nominees’ statements at confirmation hearings they respect precedents and established law (or something to that effect), their decisions frequently do not do so.

The “conservative” justices are also not strict constitutionalists – committed to following the original intent of those who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – despite their claims to be. Trying to apply laws and principles written back in the late 1700s to today’s world without interpretation and adjustment is ridiculous on the face of it, even if they did consistently try to do this (which they don’t). For example, corporations barely existed in the 1700s and they were nothing like the huge, multi-national corporations we have today. Also, the guns that existed then took many seconds, if not a minute or so to reload, while today we have guns that fire multiple bullets per second. Not to mention transportation and electronic communications that today happen at speeds that couldn’t have even been imagined in the 1700s, let alone the ability to store and have ready access to information on the scale we do today. Even if the relevant intent of those constitutional authors could be determined, there is no reason, over 200 years later, to give such deified status to their pronouncements.

And the “conservative” justices have sometimes made decisions that simply contradict reality, as in their decision to effectively overturn the Voting Rights Act. (See my previous post on that decision here.)

The Supreme Court, in the years since the Bush vs. Gore decision in 2000, has frequently ruled in ways that serve Republican partisan purposes, without apparent concern about overturning settled law or precedents, or violating their own stated principles. [2] In Bush vs. Gore, the Supreme Court ordered Florida to stop recounting ballots in the presidential election, when the recount might have shifted the victory from Republican George W. Bush to Democrat Al Gore. It overruled Florida’s Supreme Court and election officials despite the “conservative” justices’ frequently stated belief in “states’ rights,” which means that the states have the power to conduct their business, such as elections, without interference from federal authorities.

Other Supreme Court decisions that have clearly benefited Republican partisan interests and that were 5 to 4 decisions include: [3]

  • Janus in 2018, which ruled that workers in a unionized workplace do not have to pay union dues even though the union is still required to represent and advocate for them in collective bargaining and in grievances. This is expected to result in a drop in union membership and in the financial resources available to unions. The Justices were well aware that unions register and mobilize more voters, particularly minorities, than any other organizations and that these voters tend to support Democratic candidates.
  • Shelby County in 2013, which effectively overturned the Voting Rights Act and allowed Republican state governments and election officials to make it difficult for minorities, low-income citizens, and other Democratic-leaning voters to register and vote. (See my previous post on this decision here.) Without this decision and the voter suppression it allowed, Democrat Stacey Abrams and not Republican Brian Kemp would almost certainly have been elected Governor of Georgia in 2018, for example.
  • Citizens United in 2010, which, along with other rulings, allows corporations and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums of money in our elections. This money clearly works to the benefit of Republicans and, in general, those who support the power and political influence of corporations and wealthy individuals in our political system and policy making.
  • Vieth vs. Jubelirer in 2004, which ruled that gerrymandering of electoral districts to favor one party over the other is not unconstitutional. The great majority of such gerrymandering, and by far the most extreme partisan gerrymandering, has been done to favor Republicans. Absent partisan gerrymandering, Democrats would likely have 15 to 20 more seats in the U.S. House. (See my previous posts on gerrymandering here and here.)

Congress could act in all these cases (as well as others) to reverse the effects of the Supreme Court’s decisions by clarifying the legislative intent and goals of underlying laws. One clear example is the Court’s decision that gutted the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. This decision is considered by some to be one of the mostly egregiously reasoned cases of the Roberts court. (See my previous post on this case here.) Congress could reinstitute the Voting Rights Act’s control over states’ election practices by updating the criteria for identifying jurisdictions that would be subject to federal oversight. The proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act in Congress would do this. [4]

Congressional action to reverse these politically or ideologically driven decisions is not only possible, and would not only reverse harmful effects and overturn bad legal precedents, but would also send a message that power resides with the people and Congress, not with five, unelected “conservative” men. Even if legislation to reverse these decisions or their effects can only be passed by the House, it could potentially temper future Supreme Court decisions. At the least, it would highlight the harm and lack of impartiality behind these decisions.

A subsequent post will identify other Supreme Court decisions where congressional action could negate the effects of the Court’s rulings. Another future post will identify future Supreme Court decisions that should be closely watched to see if the partisan, rather than impartial, decision making continues.

[1]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, “Not so Supreme? Congress actually has a lot of power, mostly unused, to rein in the Roberts Court by clarifying the intent of the law,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/not-so-supreme)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 5/15/19, “Over to you, John Roberts,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap)

[3]      Meyerson, H., 4/23/19, “The GOP Justices: Republicans first, white guys second, Constitutionalists third,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap?page=1)

[4]      Millhiser, A., 2/13/19, see above

THE UNDERMINING OF THE INDEPENDENCE OF OUR JUDICIARY

There is widespread acknowledgement that fair and impartial courts and judges are essential to public trust in our court system and our democracy. A key role of the judiciary is to ensure that the legislative and executive branches of government do not overstep their authority or violate individuals’ rights. This is one of the key checks and balances that is part of the Constitution. Members of the legislative and executive branches should respect judges’ independence even when they disagree with their decisions.

In recent years, the judicial appointment process at the federal and state levels, elections of judges in some states, and court decisions themselves have gotten increasingly politicized. This is not a positive trend for our democracy and the politicization of the judiciary only seems to be accelerating.

President Trump on multiple occasions has criticized judicial decisions and demeaned individual judges. This is unprecedented and unhealthy for our courts and our democracy.

The President’s attacks on the judiciary seem to have emboldened others in their efforts to politicize our judicial system. In 2018, at least 14 states are considering at least 42 legislative proposals that would reduce the independence of judges and court systems. These proposals include giving legislators more control over the selection of judges, putting political or financial pressure on judges to rule the “right” way, and giving legislatures the power to override court decisions, including deciding the constitutionality of laws they themselves wrote. [1]

The attacks on judicial independence are coming from right-wing, wealthy interests in efforts to:

  • Have unlimited ability to sell guns and ammunition, as well as to carry guns, (Note: This is not really about Second Amendment rights; it’s about the ability of gun manufacturers to sell guns and ammunition to make big profits.)
  • Limit women’s ability to make decisions about their reproductive health,
  • Limit the rights of LGBTQ individuals,
  • Block every citizen’s right to an equal voice in our democracy through 1) restrictions on voting rights, 2) gerrymandered voting districts, and 3) unlimited campaign funding by wealthy special interests,
  • Expand the use of the death penalty and maintain an inequitable criminal justice system,
  • Block funding for public schools that ensures that every child receives a free and appropriate education as required by state constitutions,
  • Block fair taxes and fair employment and business practices necessary to stop spiraling economic inequality, and
  • Promote policies based on religious beliefs rather than the interests of the public.

For example, in Pennsylvania, legislators unhappy with a state Supreme Court ruling that a Republican gerrymandering of congressional districts was illegal, at first refused to comply with the court’s order and then threatened to remove the judges who had ruled against them. [2]

In Washington state, where judges are elected, legislators have proposed requiring analysis of how much each state Supreme Court decision will cost taxpayers. In decisions about individuals’ rights, cost should not be a factor and using the cost of a judge’s decisions should not be a factor in an election campaign. In North Carolina, legislators have proposed giving themselves more power in the selection of judges and in gerrymandering judicial districts. They have also proposed making judges run for election every two years. In Iowa, legislators unhappy with a judge’s decision to ban guns from courthouses have threatened to cut judges’ salaries and to require the courts to pay rent, using their control of the purse strings to try to affect judges’ rulings.

The impartiality and integrity of our state courts is critical because they handle the vast majority of criminal and civil cases in the U.S. For example, 94% of felony convictions occur in state courts, including 99% of rape cases and 98% of murder cases. In criminal cases, there is compelling evidence that the pressures of election campaigns and negative campaign ads affect judicial decision-making. (See this previous post for more detail.)

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice free from partisan pressure. Not only are partisan elected officials trying to put their thumbs on the scales of justice, but in addition the rapid increase in spending on judicial campaigns has exacerbated the challenges to judicial fairness and integrity. (See this previous post for more detail.) We need to oppose efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary whenever and wherever they arise.

We need to support policies and practices that protect the independence of the judiciary. Two key policies related to the selection of judges are for states to use an effective, non-partisan appointment process or to have effective regulation of judicial elections and spending on them. Partial public financing systems, which match individuals’ small contributions with public money, can legally limit spending and the size of contributions. These are important steps in controlling the influence of campaign money on judicial decisions. (See this previous post for more detail.)

Eroding the checks and balances between our branches of government, and in particular the courts’ independence in making decisions fundamental to our democratic principles, is unpatriotic and antithetical to the Constitution. Increasing politicization of the courts is likely to further increase divisive partisanship. Reduced independence and power in the courts could be extremely difficult to reverse after the fact; this may well be a snowball that will roll uncontrollably downhill. Politicizing the judiciary would make its decisions subject to the whims of the current political environment rather than based on long-term constitutional, legal, and democratic principles.

[1]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/6/18, “Legislative assaults on courts – 2018,” New York University Law School, (https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/legislative-assaults-state-courts-2018)

[2]      Keith, D., 2/21/18, “Democracy unchecked: Trump spurs state lawmakers to curb judges’ powers,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/democracy-unchecked-trump-spurs-state-lawmakers-curb-judges%E2%80%99-powers)

GUN VIOLENCE PREVENTION NOW!

In the wake of the latest gun violence tragedy, surviving students from the high school in Florida where the incident occurred have inspired the nation with their commitment to reduce gun violence in the US. Here are four things we can all do to work to achieve that goal:

  • Support the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, and others who join their movement to change laws in states and federally on access to guns, particularly semi-automatic weapons and magazines with dozens of bullets.
  • Support organizations that are fighting to reduce gun violence.
  • Know how to refute the arguments of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and others that are opposing efforts to reduce gun violence.
  • Know what meaningful policy changes should and need to be made to reduce gun violence.

If you’d like some inspiration to act, please watch this short video of the new anthem for gun control written and performed by Stoneman Douglas High School students in response to the shooting at their school: https://www.facebook.com/justicechoir/videos/1677544419005142/.

Ways to support these students and the movement they have inspired are evolving, but here are three actions you can participate in or support in other ways:

  • Women’s March Youth EMPOWER is calling for students, teachers, school administrators, parents, and allies to take part in a #NationalSchoolWalkout for 17 minutes at 10 am on Wednesday, March 14, to protest inaction on gun violence prevention. More information is at: https://www.actionnetwork.org/event_campaigns/enough-national-school-walkout
  • Students from Stoneman Douglas High School are calling for people to join them on Saturday, March 24, in Washington, DC, and cities across the country for the March for Our Lives to demand legislation to stop gun violence. More information is at: https://www.marchforourlives.com/
  • Public rallies will be held nationwide on Friday, April 20, as part of a National Day of Action to Prevent Gun Violence in Schools. More information is at: https://networkforpubliceducation.org/national-day-action/

There are a number of organizations that you can join or support with contributions or volunteer activities that are on the front lines in working to prevent gun violence. Here are three major ones:

The NRA and others who oppose meaningful steps to reduce gun violence have crafted their arguments and media strategy over many years. Here are some responses to their arguments:

  • No civilian needs to have or should be allowed to have a semi-automatic weapon or a magazine with more than 6 bullets. Semi-automatic weapons are military weapons that are designed to kill human beings and to kill as many as possible as quickly as possible. There is absolutely no need for anyone other than law enforcement and military personnel to have one.
  • Some people will kill other people. But guns mean those people will kill many more people. And semi-automatic weapons and magazines that hold dozens of bullets mean they can kill LOTS of people very quickly.
  • Mental illness is NOT the issue; guns are. Every country has individuals with mental illness, but no other country has anywhere near the level of gun violence that we have in the US because no other country allows the level of civilian gun ownership that the US does. The great majority of people who experience mental illness – and there are many who experience some mental illness at some point in their lives – are not violent. Moreover, a violent person without a gun can do very limited harm. (See the bullet above.) By the way, the Republicans in Congress and President Trump in the budget he presented just days ago significantly cut federal spending to address mental illness. Furthermore, by reducing access to health care by cutting Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, fewer people will have access to mental health services.
  • The Second Amendment to the US Constitution states: “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Beginning in the 1970s, the gun manufacturers, along with the NRA, undertook an extensive campaign to get activist judges to interpret the Second Amendment as giving civilian individuals the “right” to possess guns. The goal was to allow the gun industry to sell more guns and ammunition and, therefore, to make much bigger profits. Keep in mind that at the time the amendment was written, the arms referred to were muzzle loading weapons that took many seconds to reload, not weapons that fired multiple bullets per second. This individual “right” to have a gun represented a major change in interpretation of the Second Amendment, which for the first 200 years of this country’s existence was understood to apply only to arms for military purposes. Furthermore, until this re-interpretation, the power of state and local governments to regulate gun ownership had NOT been viewed as limited whatsoever by the Second Amendment. [1] The efforts to change the interpretation of the Second Amendment were so successful that by 1991 retired US Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger stated that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
  • Every serious piece of research on the presence of a gun in a home or elsewhere has found that the presence of a gun increases the chance of death or injury from gun usage. Having a gun does not make you safer, it makes it more likely that you, a family member, or someone else will be injured or killed by gun violence, accidental or intentional. (Some statistics on this are in my earlier blog post here.) (In response to this research, the gun industry and the NRA got a federal law passed that effectively bans federal agencies from doing or funding research on gun violence.)

I urge you to support the emerging movement to reduce gun violence through common-sense guns laws. Please participate in or provide financial or other support to one (or more) of the events and organizations listed above. In my next post, I’ll list some of the common-sense policies that should be enacted and would reduce gun violence.

[1]      Stevens, J.P., 4/11/14, “The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment,” The Washington Post (The author, John Paul Stevens, was a judge on the US Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010.)

 

BIG CAMPAIGN SPENDING AT STATE-LEVEL FLIES UNDER THE RADAR

With all the focus on the Presidential and Congressional elections, the enormous amounts of money spent on state-level races and ballot questions has gone largely unnoticed. Coverage by the mainstream corporate media is minimal, in part due to cuts in budgets for reporting that increase corporate profits. But that’s a whole other topic.

According to the National Institute of Money in State Politics (NIMSP), a small Montana nonprofit that has the most detailed nationwide records, spending in state and local races is likely to exceed $3 billion this year. [1] This may not seem like a huge sum when spread across many elections in 50 states, but a relatively small amount of money can have a big impact on state races and ballot questions. For example, the cost of a campaign for the most expensive state legislative seat in the country, a Virginia Senate seat, is “only” $500,000. And $1 million or so can fund a successful campaign for a state Supreme Court seat. [2] Campaign spending that can swing the outcome of a state election represents a modest investment for a corporation or individual with a significant financial interest at stake. [3]

The portion of campaign money contributed to state and local races by individuals is typically less than half of the total and stands at 38% for the 2016 elections. The rest is donated by political groups, corporations, unions, and other organizations. [4] The amount of money coming from out-of-state sources and dark money entities is growing. The portion of spending in state elections for which voters know the true identity of the original donor has declined from three-fourths in 2006 to only one-fourth today. [5]

The most disturbing aspect of state campaign spending is the growing spending on judicial elections by those with vested interests in court decisions. (See this previous post for more details.) These inherent conflicts of interest threaten the integrity of our judicial system. In addition, growing spending on judicial races by the political parties is politicizing our state courts and undermining their impartiality.

More than $26 million was raised for judicial races in the 27 states that had judicial elections this fall. In Texas, where over $2 million was raised, the major donors are law firms who have a clear vested interest in judicial decisions. Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin also had judicial races that attracted over $2 million. [6] In addition to trial lawyers, corporate-funded groups (such as energy, medical, insurance, manufacturing, and real estate interests) and unions have been big donors to judicial races. Education funding and charter school issues have emerged as important judicial issues in Washington State and Louisiana. Therefore, those with a financial stake in those decisions have emerged as large campaign donors for Supreme Court races in those states.

Many of the donors to judicial races are frequent litigants in state courts. This raises serious concerns about conflicts of interest and the possibility that judges will need to (or should) recuse themselves from significant numbers of cases. However, because of weak disclosure laws and the presence of dark money (where the true donors are hidden from the public), in many cases the presence of a conflict of interest may not be publicly known.

Furthermore, the advertising for or against judges, which is how most of the campaign money is spent, tends to focus on criminal cases, even though the real interests of those paying for the ads are in the arena of civil and commercial cases. A common strategy is to attack a judge as “soft on crime” or to highlight a high-visibility, emotional case and criticize the judge’s handling of it without discussing any of its complexities or legal issues. Not only does this affect voting in elections, but there is evidence that it affects judges’ decisions in criminal cases. [7] (See this previous post for more details.)

Donations from political party-affiliated groups politicize judicial elections, which are most often, technically, non-partisan. The Republican State Leadership Committee has been particularly active, spending over $4 million on this year’s state judicial races. Politically-affiliated donations create the perception – if not the reality – that judicial decisions are made on political grounds, rather than impartially based on the law. [8]

Allowing individuals and groups with financial or partisan interests to donate large amounts to judges’ election campaigns undermines the credibility of our court system. These donations compromise judicial impartiality, fairness, and independence, which are essential in a democracy.

There are two solutions to the problems raised by large campaign donations to judicial races:

  1. Appoint judges using a good, non-partisan process with reasonably long or lifetime terms (with a mandatory retirement provision); or
  2. Establish citizen funding and effective regulation of judges’ elections including:
    • Partial public financing through matching of individuals’ small donations in exchange for limits on spending and the size of contributions;
    • Tight regulation and full disclosure of outside, truly independent spending; and
    • Strong conflict of interest and recusal standards for judges.

(See this previous post for more details.)

A fair and impartial justice system is essential in a democracy. Judges need to serve the public interest and not be beholden to wealthy special interests. Therefore, judges should be appointed by a transparent, non-partisan process. If judges are elected, it is critical to have a well-structured and regulated campaign finance system that prevents special interests from having undue influence.

[1]      Quist, P., 10/17/16, “$1 Billion…and Counting,” National Institute of Money in State Politics (http://www.followthemoney.org/research/blog/1-billion-and-counting/)

[2]      Johnson, G., 11/1/16, “A look at notable state supreme court races in 2016,” The Washington Post

[3]      Chisun, L., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 6/26/16, “Secret spending in the states,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/secret-spending-states#Introduction)

[4]      Light, J., 10/13/16, “The $1 billion election no one is noticing,” Moyers and Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/candidates-state-offices-raised-one-billion-dollars/)

[5]      Chisun, L., et al., 6/26/16, see above

[6]      Light, J., 10/13/16, see above

[7]      Brennan Center for Justice, 10/18/16, “New analysis: Outside spending surges in important state judicial races as Election Day nears,” New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/press-release/new-analysis-outside-spending-surges-important-state-judicial-races-election-day-nears)

[8]      Brennan Center for Justice, 10/18/16, see above

SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEMS ELECTIONS CREATE FOR JUDGES

State court judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice due to growing campaign spending, including the rapid increase in unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals.

There are two policy solutions to this problem:

  1. Appoint judges using a good, non-partisan process with reasonably long or lifetime terms (with a mandatory retirement provision); or
  2. Establish partial public financing and effective regulation of judges’ elections including:
    • Public financing in exchange for limits on spending and the size of contributions;
    • Regulation and disclosure of outside, truly independent spending; and
    • Strong conflict of interest and recusal standards for judges.

In 2009, Wisconsin passed the Impartial Justice bill, creating a partial public financing system for judicial elections. It provided up to $400,000 of public financing for supreme court candidates. To qualify, judicial candidates had to raise $5,000 to $15,000 in donations ranging from $5 to $100. They then received $100,000 for the primary election and $300,000 for the general election. [1]

If any opponent declined public financing and outspent them, candidates using the public financing system were eligible for up to $300,000 of additional public funding for the primary and $900,000 more for the general election. This additional funding would allow them to be competitive with the candidate opting out of the public financing system who, therefore, could spend unlimited amounts of money on the campaign. The law also reduced contribution limits for candidates who opted out of public financing from $10,000 to $1,000.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin public financing system was defunded in 2011 as part of an intense, partisan battle over election laws, including voter ID requirements.

North Carolina passed a model campaign financing law for judicial elections in 2002. It provided candidates for the supreme court and the court of appeals with the option of partial public financing if they agreed to strict fundraising and spending limits. Candidates who did not participate in the public financing were limited to $1,000 contributions from individuals. Contributions from corporations were prohibited. Unfortunately, this campaign finance law was repealed recently in a partisan battle over voting rights and voter ID laws.

New Mexico in 2007 and West Virginia in 2013 created voluntary systems of partial public financing for judicial candidates. Under these public financing systems, candidates agree to limit their spending and to take limited funds from sources other than the public financing system.

A good appointment process is probably the best solution for avoiding the corrupting effects of large contributions and expensive campaigns. However, this may not be politically feasible in some states. Voters and wealthy campaign supporters may oppose moving from elections to appointments because of their loss of influence and power.

For elected judges, as for other elected officials, a system for financing campaigns is needed that allows candidates to effectively communicate with voters while avoiding the corrupting effects of large contributions and expensive campaigns. Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on campaign spending and free speech, currently the only solution is a public financing system. In such a system, a candidate agrees to limit spending and the size of contributions in exchange for partial public funding of campaign expenses.

A fair and impartial justice system is the bedrock of our democracy. If judges are elected, they need to serve the greater good of the public and not be beholden to wealthy special interests. Therefore, nowhere is it more important than in judicial elections to have partial public financing systems that limit spending and the size of contributions.

[1]       National Center for State Courts, 2016, “Judicial Campaigns and Elections” (http://www.judicialselection.us/)

HOW JUDICIAL ELECTIONS AFFECT CRIMINAL SENTENCING

My previous post outlined the challenges to the impartiality and integrity of state judges due to the growing spending on judicial elections. It highlighted civil cases where campaign money has the potential to influence (or appear to influence) judges’ decisions and to create conflicts of interest.

In criminal cases, there is statistical evidence that the pressures of election campaigns and negative ads affect judicial decision-making. When facing imminent re-election, judges are more likely to impose longer sentences, affirm death sentences, and change jury sentences of life in prison to death sentences.

As spending has grown in judicial elections, the use of television advertising has increased dramatically. A study of 15 years of television ads in state supreme court elections found that increasingly the ads focused on the candidate’s handling of criminal cases. In 2013-14, a record 56% of ads either attacked candidates for being “soft on crime” or touted them as being “tough on crime.” These types of ads tend to focus voters’ attention on criminal cases, often in a misleading, overly simplified, and emotional way. [1] The need for judges to be viewed as “tough on crime” to win an election has contributed to the problems of over-incarceration and disproportionately harsh sentencing of Blacks and Hispanics.

The study also compared judicial decisions of elected and non-elected (i.e., appointed) judges. And it looked at judges’ decisions in terms of their proximity to an election. It found that:

  • Appointed judges reversed death sentences roughly twice as often (26% of the time) as judges who ran in an election. Judges with contested elections reversed death sentences only 11% of the time and judges with uncontested elections reversed them 15% of the time.
  • In Alabama, judges were more likely to override jury sentences of life in prison and instead impose a death sentence in election years.
  • In Pennsylvania and Washington, judges sentenced those convicted of serious felonies to longer sentences when they were closer to an election.
  • The greater the use of TV ads in an election, the less likely judges were to rule in favor of a criminal defendant.

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial criminal justice that is free from the influence of elections and campaign ads. The rapid increase in spending on judicial campaigns, including the unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals, has exacerbated the challenges to judicial fairness and integrity.

[1]       Berry, K., 12/2/15, “How judicial elections impact criminal cases,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/how-judicial-elections-impact-criminal-cases)

IS JUSTICE FOR SALE IN STATE COURTS?

There is widespread recognition that a fair and impartial judiciary is essential to the maintenance of public trust and confidence in our court system and our democracy. In 39 states, at least some judges are elected; in aggregate, 87% of state judges nationwide run in elections. (In some states and for the federal judiciary, judges are appointed and not elected.)

The impartiality and integrity of our state courts is critical because they handle the vast majority of criminal and civil cases in the U.S. For example, 94% of felony convictions occur in state courts, including 99% of rape cases and 98% of murder cases.

The rapidly growing spending on judicial campaigns brings with it the potential for money to influence (or appear to influence) judges’ decisions and to create conflicts of interest. Elected judges are routinely raising campaign funds from and benefiting from spending by those who will appear before them in court as lawyers or parties in a case.

Between 2000 and 2009, over $200 million was spent on elections for state supreme court justices in 22 states. This was more than double the $83 million spent in the previous decade. This growth in spending appears to be accelerating and has been exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions, which allow unlimited contributions to and spending by supposedly independent groups, including corporations.

As with other elected offices, spending by outside, supposedly independent groups is growing in judicial races. Furthermore, the frequency of very large contributions and high levels of spending by a small number of wealthy individuals and organizations is increasing. For example, in the 29 most expensive judicial elections in the decade from 2000 to 2009, the top five spenders averaged $473,000 while all others averaged $850. [1] As with other races, much of the outside spending is on negative advertising. Negative advertising tends to undermine trust in elected officials and to reduce voter turnout. Outside spending also fuels an arms race with special interests spending more and more to out-spend competing interests.

As a result, there is the appearance, if not the actuality, that campaign money is influencing elected judges’ actions. As retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prize fights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution.” [2] For example, in Alabama, the primary sources of campaign funds for supreme court candidates have been businesses and trial lawyers as they battle each other over tort reform. In 2006, candidates for the chief justice position raised $8.2 million. (Tort reform refers to changes in the laws governing the ability of victims to get court-ordered compensation for damages or personal injury.)

My previous post highlighted a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court where a 4 to 2 decision found that Governor Walker and his campaign had not engaged in illegal coordination with two supposedly independent business groups that spent millions of dollars supporting his campaign. Two justices, who participated and voted with the majority, had been asked to recuse themselves because the two groups whose support of Walker was at issue had also spent millions of dollars on their campaigns. They refused to recuse themselves and this case is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

West Virginia is another state where business interests are spending millions of dollars on judges’ elections and where a state supreme court justice refused to recuse himself in a case where he had a conflict of interest. The case is Caperton vs. Massey where a jury verdict that had ordered Massey Energy Co. to pay $50 million was being appealed. Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship, knowing the case was going to the court, spent $3 million supporting the election of Justice Brent Benjamin in 2004. This was over 60% of the total spending on Benjamin’s campaign. After he won the election, he was one of the majority votes in a 3 to 2 decision that overturned the $50 million award against Massey. He refused to recuse himself. This was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and it ruled in June, 2009, that Justice Benjamin had to recuse himself because of the “serious risk of actual bias.” [3]

In May 2016, Justice Benjamin was up for re-election. Outside groups spent $3 million in the election. The biggest spender, at $2 million, was the Washington, D.C., based Republican State Leadership Committee, despite the fact that the election was supposedly non-partisan. It spent its money in support of the eventual winner, Beth Walker, who won with 39.5% of the vote in a five-person election. In addition, various outside business groups spent almost $500,000 supporting her. This $2.5 million in outside spending was many times the $200,000 she raised for her campaign and still many times what she may have spent including $500,000 in loans from her husband. [4]

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice that is free from the influence of special interests and partisan pressures. A major driver of the threat to judicial integrity is growing campaign spending, including the rapid increase in unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals.

My next post will take a look at the effects of judicial elections on criminal cases. After that, I will present some policy solutions to the problem of elections and campaign financing that can undermine a fair and impartial judiciary.

[1]       Sample, J., Skaggs, A., Blitzer, J., & Casey, L., 2010, “The new politics of judicial elections 2000-2009,” Justice at Stake (http://www.justiceatstake.org/media/cms/JASNPJEDecadeONLINE_8E7FD3FEB83E3.pdf)

[2]       Justice at Stake, 2016, “Money & Elections,” Justice at Stake (http://www.justiceatstake.org/issues/state_court_issues/money-and-elections/)

[3]       Brennan Center for Justice, 6/8/09, “Supreme Court reverses decision in Caperton vs. Massey,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/legal-work/caperton-v-massey)

[4]       Brennan Center for Justice, 5/6/16, “Outside spending in West Virginia Supreme Court race nears $3 million,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/press-release/outside-spending-west-virginia-supreme-court-race-nears-3-million)