Saturday, July 23, 2016

At Least Get Your Stupid Slavery Analogies Right

Scott Walker's newest appointee to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Daniel Kelly, had the following to say about affirmative action:
"Affirmative action and slavery differ, obviously, in significant ways," Kelly wrote. "But it's more a question of degree than principle, for they both spring from the same taproot. Neither can exist without the foundational principle that it is acceptable to force someone into an unwanted economic relationship. Morally, and as a matter of law, they are the same."
First, let's clarify that this passage wasn't something Kelly wrote as a drunk sophomore in his university's "alternative" political magazine. He wrote it in 2014, and he included it in his Supreme Court application packet. This is an argument he is proud of.

And that aggravates me. For the obvious reasons, sure, but more because this isn't even the right way of making an idiotic analogy between affirmative action and slavery. The right way of doing that is something to the effect of "both involve the distribution of social benefits and burdens on the basis of skin color." That wouldn't make the conclusion that "Morally, and as a matter of law, they are the same" any less appalling, but at least it would have an internal consistency to it.

But Kelly can't even get that right. Affirmative action very rarely "force[s] someone into an unwanted economic relationship." Much the opposite -- typically affirmative action programs are voluntarily adopted by given institutions (e.g., the University of Wisconsin), and then challenged by external actors who want them instead to use a colorblind admissions/hiring process -- or, to put it another way, want the judiciary to force them into an economic transaction that differs from the one that the university or business would want to enter into if left to its own devices.

This is why I find it so baffling when libertarians say they oppose affirmative action. It takes either a private or quasi-private (where a governmental actor is behaving as a "market-participant") decision, and strips it from the normal decisionmaker in favor of a blanket command-and-control rule imposed by governmental fiat. Libertarians should hate that!

Actually, it seems evident that Kelly simply got his issues confused. The argument he's making has been applied to cherished elements of the civil rights project before -- but it's the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that's been the target (Rand Paul made precisely the argument that this law, by prohibiting racial discrimination in various economic transactions, "force[s] someone into an unwanted economic relationship."). So really Kelly should be arguing that its the Civil Rights Act that is "[m]orally, and as a matter of law" the same as slavery.

In conclusion, Kelly probably won't choke anybody, so he'll still likely be a net boon on the Wisconsin Supreme Court compared to the guy he's replacing.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sweeping Constitutional Text Aside, Virginia Supreme Court Invalidates Voting Rights Restoration

Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAullife used his executive powers to restore the voting rights to thousands of ex-felons who had finished their prison term, parole, and/or probation. Today, in a 4-3 decision, the Virginia Supreme Court invalidated the measure -- re-disenfranchising thousands of Virginians. This, simply put, is legally outrageous.

The relevant constitutional clause seems straight-forward enough: Article II, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution informs us that "No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority." Governor McAullife issued an order which restored voting rights to all persons convicted of a felony who had completed all portions of their sentence (including any parole or probation periods). One would think that would be that -- the constitutional text is clear, and so there is no further work to be done.

But no, says the Court. The structure of this provision indicates that felon re-enfranchisement is meant to be an exception to the rule. The Governor's blanket restoration of voting rights turns the rule into the exception -- effectively becoming a suspension of the constitutional mandate that felons normally experience a lifetime bar on voting.

This, to put it mildly, is jaw-dropping in its reach. It's not just that it is obviously extra-textual -- although it is. It's that it is obviously extra-textual without being bounded by anything that purports to be a judicially enforceable rule or standard for when the governor can exercise his re-enfranchisement power. We're told he can't do it in a "blanket" proceeding -- everybody, all at once. It is presumably evident, though, that the Governor maintains his authority to exercise his enfranchisement authority individually -- or even in groups. So we're left with a "how many grains make a heap" problem that is not conducive to any non-arbitrary answer. Reportedly, 11,000 persons have already registered to vote under Gov. McAullife's order (out of over 200,000 became eligible) and now will have their registration's purged. It seems to me that Governor McAullife's next move should be just be to restore voting rights to those 11,000 (if the Court is as concerned as it claims to be regarding the fact that McAullife didn't include their individual names, I'm sure judicious use of the ol' autopen could resolve that). Would that act convert the rule into the exception? Who knows -- this opinion certainly provides no guidance on the matter. The very fact that we could get caught in this sort of infinite ping-pong match between executive and judiciary without any hints as to where the Governor's authority ends is proof positive of the radically unprincipled nature of the Court's decision.

This, alone, would make for a good reason to defer to a member of one of those democratic branches the Court recognizes ought to be the default site for these sorts of political disputes. Yet the Court shows an astonishing lack of deference to its democratically-accountable fellow. Why? Well, the Court says, apparently no other Governor has used its enfranchisement authority in this sort of sweeping, broad manner; it infers that if such a power did exist, some other Virginia Governor would have exercised it by now. It seems evident that an equally-plausible alternative explanation exists, which is that no governor until now felt particularly interested in blanket reenfranchisement. This, after all, is a decision fraught with political risk, and therefore is perfectly guarded by regular political checks. If Virginia voters find blanket voting restorations intolerable, they are welcome to make their voices known in the next gubernatorial election. This is not the sort of decision that is either benefited by nor amenable to being taken out of the political arena shunted into the judiciary.

Indeed, it strikes me that this case represents the essence of the so-called "political questions" that Courts would be better off leaving aside for the democratic branches (here, the governor's office) to handle. In Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court outlined the factors which point towards a controversy being nonjusticiable as a poltical question. The first two (and in my view the most important two) are

  1. A textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; and
  2. A lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it.

The Virginia Constitution textually delegates the issue of felon reenfranchisement to the Governor's office, and there is no (and the Court does not even purport to provide) judicially manageable standard for administering the rule/exception doctrine the Court purports to lay out. The Court picking apart whether the Governor's "exceptions" are "exceptional" enough is precisely the sort of judicial micromanaging of an executive function that (to draw again from Baker) "express[es] lack of the respect due [to] coordinate branches of government." Basic recognition of the limits of the judicial role, if nothing else, should have convinced the Court to keep out of this thicket. Now, it is likely stuck in a morass of its own devise. I hope that Governor McAullife uses the power that he does have -- whatever that might be, since lord knows this decision blurs things up nicely -- to at least get those persons who already tried to register back on the rolls.

UPDATE: Looks like McAuliffe is going to try to restore voting rights one-by-one, if necessary. Bold move.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Taking Clients Seriously

A criminal defendant facing charges after a gun and drugs were found in his dorm room tells his attorney he was framed. The attorney was dubious -- sure you were -- but has the resources to check out his client's story. Turns out, the client was almost certainly right. After relaying this tale (taken from his own professional experience), Ken White writes the following:
Being an effective and responsible criminal defense attorney doesn't require believing everything a client says, exactly. The policy could be better described as "trust, but verify." The key isn't to build a defense on the premise that everything the client says is perfectly accurate. The key is to take what the client says seriously and follow up on it, rather than dismissing them out of hand. If you don't, you're not defending the client — you're defending your stereotype of the client.
I find it interesting that White's advice here parallels almost exactly my own advice vis-a-vis how we should respond to persons making discrimination claims.  And I don't think it is accidental that the claimants in either scenario -- minorities and marginalized persons, persons accused of crimes (these categories, of course, often intersect) -- are typically persons who tend to be given less credibility as a default; whom society tells it is okay to assume are not worth taking seriously.

"Consent" Isn't Consent If You Have To Consent To Everything

Radley Balko provides a worrisome story regarding the advice the Waterbury, Connecticut police chief gave to a largely black audience regarding how to interact with police:
If an officer stops your car, if they ask to search your person or vehicle, if they demand entry into your home, comply and then complain later to the department’s internal affairs office and police chief’s office if you feel your rights have been violated, [Chief Vernon] Riddick said.
Balko gives a host of reasons why this is an outrageous piece of advice to give. But I'll focus on one: If you consent to a search of your person or vehicle or home, that search is now legal. If the police ask to search you and you agree to it -- even if there's no probable cause, even if there's no warrant -- that search is entirely valid and admissible. There wouldn't be anything to complain to IA about -- at least with respect to the search.

There is plenty of scholarship which suggests that this entire notion of "consent" is more than a little fictitious. If a police officer is talking with you on the sidewalk and asks if he can take a look inside your bag, reflect on how likely you are to say "sorry, no" and walk away. Now think of how much that instinct is compounded if your city's chief of police has just publicly announced that the way to have a safe and healthy relationship with the officers under his command is to "consent" to everything they ask and then complain about it later. Is it realistic to say that any "consensual" searches in that context actually evince "consent" in any meaningful capacity?

This advice is entirely unbecoming of person tasked with enforcing the law in a nation where the Constitution is the most important law of all. There are plenty of lawful commands the police have the right to issue which you should obey; including some of which the right move is to obey and then challenge later. But when it comes to a search request in a scenario where there's no warrant and no exigent circumstances, consenting to the search permanently obliterates your right to challenge it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Trump Movement's Dark Reflective Equilibrium

All of us have certain broad principles of justice we claim to adhere to. All of us, equally, have a variety of individualized judgments we make on the particular moral cases and controversies we might consider on a daily basis. Needless to say, sometimes our broad principles and our particular judgments don't precisely line up. In such cases, we can either modify the principle to account for the particular judgment or modify our case-specific judgments so they match the principle. Neither move is inherently more or less legitimate than the other -- sometimes reference back to a broad principle can tell us that our assessment of an individual case is mistaken, other times the exigencies of a concrete scenario can illuminate a flaw or inadequacies in our principles. The process of moving back in forth between the general and the specific, trying to bring the two into alignment, is known as "reflective equilibrium".

The rise of Donald Trump -- openly racist, avowedly xenophobic, deeply misogynistic, contemptuous of the very idea of rule of law -- has made me rethink some very basic assumptions I had about the American polity. Most notably, it raised the question about whether racism really had just gone to ground -- people's views not so much changing from the 1960s as being covered up until the moment was right. Yet it remained difficult for me to accept the idea that nothing changed, that this was simply the people getting what they always wanted. Was it really the case that a good 45% or so of Americans had always been secretly thirsting for far-right autocracy, awaiting only the right standard-bearer? Did bedrock American values regarding rule of law, regarding basic temperament for office, regarding human rights and liberties, really have so little purchase?

As I've been thinking about it, I've wondered if we are witnessing folks go through the reflective equilibrium, darkly. Many Americans, it is clear, held some pretty brutal case-specific views regarding social outgroups -- including mass deportations of immigrants and religious tests on public office. And Trump stood before them and endorsed those views loud and clear, but also was unyielding in identifying the principles that such particularistic views were and were not compatible with. Even the time-worn platitudes about colorblindness wouldn't do. And people, as reflective equilibrium would predict, adjusted their principles accordingly. And in doing so, well, that made certain other, still more radical specific proposals seem a little less out-of-bounds. Maybe we should endorse violence against protesters. Maybe it's okay to lob Holocaust imagery at Jewish journalists. And back-and-forth we go, the boat rocking ever-steadily towards fascism.

When I fret about a Donald Trump presidency, the first thing that springs to my mind is not a particular policy -- as abhorrent as I'm sure I'd find most of them. It's a question of more fundamental principle: the very idea of "rule of law". If a court tells Donald Trump he can't do something, can anyone say with confidence he'll listen? Does he believe, in any meaningful sense, in limited authority when he's the authority? Does he believe he's constrained by the rules, orders, statutes, cases, precedents? This charge -- thrown with such reckless abandon at Hillary Clinton ("there’s no politician who has been at the center of so many scandals that have turned out to be worth so little") -- is a very real concern when it comes to Trump. This is not someone who will work the system in a way I'd cluck my tongue at. This is a guy who may well destroy the system if it doesn't bend to his every whim.

The scariest thing about the Trump movement, then, is not that its adherents don't see how their man flouts the conventions that keep America's constitutional system afloat. The scariest thing is the prospect that they do see it, and they're simply okay with it -- those values and principles aren't what guides them anymore. To support Trump and his specific policies would require tossing out significant swaths of what makes America recognizable as a constitutional democracy. And so, on reflection, they reached a new equilibrium.

Monday, July 18, 2016

"Should" Leftists Vote for Jill Stein?

A question that pops up periodically on my social media account is whether folks on the lefter-side of the left-spectrum "should" vote for Jill Stein come November. Persons answering no typically accuse their Jill-curious fellows of being selfish or of not actually caring about progressive outcomes (on the theory that their decision risks throwing the election to Trump). Persons answering yes sometimes make the trivial -- and uncontested -- point that everyone has the right to vote for whomever they want. But more often they make more serious arguments, such as the contention that politicians are not owed anyone's vote but have to earn them, or that given their political positions Clinton and Trump are not meaningfully distinct from one another.

My instinct, on reading these innumerable back-and-forths, has always been to dismiss the inclination to vote Stein as one only possessed by political imbeciles. But recently, it struck me that perhaps part of the problem with the discourse here was the conflation of more than one type of question. To illustrate this, consider a different voter asking if he should support Donald Trump. To simplify, let's say this voter's political views are as follows:

  1. By far, the thing he cares about most is insuring the absolute minimum amount of federal regulation on big business. He thinks Wall Street should be able to do effectively whatever it wants.
  2. If it were up to him, he would not be building an immigration wall or engaging in mass deportations of Muslims, but the issue is of comparatively little importance when weighed against his views on business deregulation.
"Should" this person vote for Trump? On the one hand, we could say "obviously yes" -- Donald Trump matches his policy preferences far better than Hillary Clinton does, and voting for Trump is the best way to bring his political desires into reality. On the other hand, we could as easily say "obviously no," for the simple reason that his policy views are substantively terrible. His preferences are bad and he should feel bad for having them.

The discourse regarding left-wingers voting for Stein likewise blurs these understandings of "should". To be sure, sometimes there is just pure confusion at play -- someone's positions are perfectly compatible with Clinton's but for whatever reason they're in denial about it. That said, there absolutely are sets of preferences where it makes more sense to cast a ballot for Jill Stein than Hillary Clinton. However, given the realities of American electoral politics (at least for voters in battleground states), these preferences would have to include general apathy regarding whatever chaos Trump would wreak upon America and the world -- including another generation of GOP dominance on the Supreme Court, massive rollbacks of labor and environmental regulations, evisceration of reproductive rights, probable crackdowns on racial and religious outgroups (the list goes on) -- at least as compared to the "message" voting Green would send.

Someone who is okay with that calculus -- that is, who finds the possibility of all the terrible things a Trump presidency would bring about less significant than whatever expressive joy or moral satisfaction they get from casting their Stein vote -- can reasonably say they "should" vote for Stein in the sense that she better maps onto their actual preferences, just as a right-wing corporate hack who doesn't even care about the lipservice they give to "colorblindness" "should" vote for Trump. But they "shouldn't" vote for her in the sense that this view is normatively appalling and is worthy of significant scorn, as is that held by our hypothetical Trump voter.

Part of the confusion, of course, stems from the fact that many in Camp Stein fervently contend that they do care a lot about the aforementioned litany of horribles, even as their actual behavior shows that they care about it less than "sending a message" or "rejecting the two-party system" or whatever. They sometimes try to square this circle by suggesting that Trump and Clinton are not meaningfully distinct from one another in the America their presidencies will produce. Once again, sometimes this is just confusion of the normal kind -- not having any clear sense of the actual havoc a Trump presidency could wreak (see "Meh, the Supreme Court will block anything too terrible" -- how adorable). But sometimes it can reflect a cohesive position. If you actually think, as Cornel West apparently does, the "neoliberal" and "neofascist" are morally indistinguishable from one another, then it may well be that the gaps between a Clinton and Trump presidency will likewise not strike you as morally relevant. But once again, while someone who thinks that way may in some sense be perfectly justified in casting a Stein ballot, the real problem with is that the analytical steps that lead to that conclusion are substantively awful.