Saturday, January 15, 2022

Virginia's Newly Anointed Death Cult High Priest Prepares Initial Sacrifices

Death may be an inevitability, but the current Republican Party ethos appears to be to do everything in its power to speed the process along. Freshly minted Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has rolled out an initial series of executive orders, and I have to imagine that Thanatos is pleased. He repealed state masking and vaccine mandates, so COVID can get us in the short-term, and he withdrew from a major anti-greenhouse gas initiative, so climate change can kill us in the long-term. No matter which way you turn, the GOP is cuddling up with the Reaper.

Oh, and there's also the unavoidable "ban on critical race theory" (perhaps soon to be paired with mandatory lessons on Abraham Lincoln's famous debates with Frederick Douglass?). Admittedly not death-related, unless you count the death of civics education.

This is, to reiterate, the opening gambits from a Republican who squeaked into office in a purple-blue state by a 2% margin. It's as if Missouri elected a Democrat as Governor in an off-year and his first move in office was to abolish the police. The gumption is nearly unfathomable.

But this is the great thing about being a purple state Republican. The media -- and, admittedly, a certain cohort of voters -- is so thirsty for a "reasonable Republican" that if you just hold off on biting off a baby head during the campaign, they will decide that you represent the very essence of sobriety and moderation, and anyone who tries to tell otherwise is just fear-mongering (cf. Scott Lemieux: "The greatest act of incivility in American politics ... is to accurately describe a Republican’s publicly stated positions."). 

Then, once you enter office, you can bite as many baby heads as you want! And everyone will be so shocked, and sad, and surprised, that he is doing exactly what Democrats said Republicans will do because it's also what Republicans said Republicans will do.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Should I PlagueWatch It Revived, Quick Hits Edition

Last May, in a spate of foolish optimism, I retired my "should I PlagueWatch it" series. Now we're smack in the middle of the Omicron wave, and the Supreme Court has decided that this pandemic must last as long as possible because the Constitution, it turns out, is a suicide homicide pact.

I don't have the time to do full reviews of some of the shows I've been watching. So instead, here are some quick hits and ratings:

Industry: As a stopgap while you wait for Billions to come back, it's fine, but it's also one of those shows that conflates inscrutability with depth. A full season in and I still can't explain why the main character made 80% of her choices. B

Inside Job: Very funny, but which Qanon writer is going to treat it as documentary? A-

The Sex Lives of College Girls: Voted "most difficult to have a conversation about when you're in a public place populated by actual college girls"! Standard Mindy Kaling fare, taken to HBO, and it mostly works. A-

American Auto: None of the characters seem to possess a soul, or indeed, any interesting attribute whatsoever. This is the successor to Superstore? C

Abbott Elementary: Now this would be a worthy successor to Superstore! To think I watched Quinta Brunson back in her Buzzfeed days! A

Bridgerton: The Bridgerton family consists of one doe-faced blond and an indeterminate number of clones grown in a vat. That said, if you miss Downton Abbey but wished for more sexy times -- and lord knows I do -- this is good soapy fun. A-

Witcher: It no longer has the confusing separate timelines, but this was the rare show that was stronger when it was more "monster-of-the-week". B+

Nailed It!: Good-natured laughter at inevitable cake-fails is all anyone can ask for. A

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Dispatches From SCOTUS' War on the American People: Clear Text Won't Save You This Time

Today, the Supreme Court invalidated the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's vaccine-or-test COVID mandate for large businesses. The opinions span 30 pages. They could and should be less than one. The relevant statute authorizes OSHA to issue emergency rules when necessary to protect employees against "grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards." COVID is an "agent", it poses "grave danger" to employees, and vaccines and/or regular testing are necessary to protect workers from their toxic and/or physically harmful effects. The statutory language is clear, the application is straightforward and that should be the end of the story.

Of course, things are never so simple with this Court, which rarely has missed an opportunity to play doctor at the expense of actual doctors during a pandemic. The Court's analysis in this field has been almost utterly unmoored from pre-existing legal precedent and is, at best, "justified" by policy disagreements with Democratic elected officials which the conservative SCOTUS majority elevates to the level of novel doctrinal creations on the firm legalistic basis of "because we can". Rarely has Justice Brennan's quip that "with five votes you can do anything" been so enthusiastically lived out.

I've actually been repeatedly returning to one of the most prominent cases from my tenure as a judicial clerk, a case I've talked about before -- Keiran v. Home Capital, Inc. Keiran was a Truth in Lending Act case that was simultaneously technical and quite straightforward. TILA gives consumers making certain transactions a right to rescind those transactions within a given period of time -- typically three days, but (where the seller fails to make certain disclosures) sometimes up to three years. The statutory text states that "the obligor shall have the right to rescind the transaction ... by notifying the creditor, in accordance with regulations of the [Consumer Financial Protection] Bureau, of his intention to do so." The relevant regulations likewise state that a consumer can "exercise the right to rescind" by "notify[ing] the creditor of the rescission by mail, telegram, or other means of written communication." The CFPB, for its part, also took the view that a consumer exercises their right to rescind by notifying the creditor.

And the plaintiff in Keiran did exactly what the statute, and the regulation, and the enforcing agency, said he should do: notify the creditor that he was exercising his right of rescission. Nonetheless, a majority on the Eighth Circuit (my judge dissented) decided that the clear text of the statute, and the regulation, and the opinion of the relevant agency, all should be ignored in favor of an additional requirement -- the plaintiff must file suit within the relevant statutory time period. What motivated the court to graft on this invented hurdle? Basically, applying TILA as it was written would make big banks -- and therefore, it seems, the Eighth Circuit -- sad. That seems harsh, but there really isn't much more to it: the Eighth Circuit panel thought that this statutory process made rescission too easy, and created devious opportunities for evil, ruthless homeowners to exploit poor defenseless banks by manufacturing clouds on title. So the text doesn't matter, and the regulations don't matter, and the agency opinion doesn't matter, and the purpose of TILA as a consumer protection measure doesn't matter. If big banks need to be saved, by golly, the courts are there to come to the rescue.

Keiran was reversed unanimously by the Supreme Court in the shortest opinion of the term -- an outcome I chalked up to the difference between good lawyering the Supreme Court and mediocre lawyering at the appellate court. I still think there's something to that, at least in relatively low-salience cases. But just as Keiran demonstrated at the appellate level, NFIB demonstrates at the Supreme Court level that where a judicial majority is hell-bent on reaching a certain outcome, they certainly aren't going to let little things like clear textual mandates stop them.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

The Surprising War of ADL vs. Facebook

Am I the only one who's surprised by the intensity with which the ADL has been going after Facebook recently?

I want to be clear: For purposes of this post, I mean "surprised" in a wholly value-neutral way. I'm neither saying "about time" nor "this is out of control". One can make arguments either way about whether the ADL is right or not, and those arguments are worth having, but here I'm really just focusing on the descriptive character, because what we're seeing just seems very out of character for what we know about the ADL's standard operating procedures.

There are many strategies towards trying to effectuate social change. Some are more confrontational, others are more collaborative; some are more utopian, others are more pragmatic. Along that spectrum, I think it's fair to say the ADL tends to work mostly within established systems and structures rather than radically challenging them. Again, that's not a judgment -- there's a place for radical disruption and there's a place for negotiated advances, and it just so happens that the ADL tends to be more about the latter.

And that's why their campaign against Facebook stands out. Facebook is a tech heavyweight, the sort of entity with whom the ADL typically approaches in a more collaborative spirit, knowing full well that this will involve negotiation-with-the-devil compromises and suboptimal, half-a-loaf-is-better outcomes. Whatever when can say about the virtues and defects of that approach, the ADL is hardly naïve on the subject and is relatively comfortable in its own skin as an insider operation. And as I recall, initially that was how the ADL was relating to Facebook as well -- for example, bringing Facebook execs onboard its then-new Center for Technology and Society in 2017 specifically to help combat hate speech online.

But boy is that not their tenor today. Over the past few years, the ADL has been unabashedly presenting Facebook not as a partner to be reformed, but as a menace to be confronted head on. They've organized an advertiser boycott under the banner "Stop hate for profit". Their CEO has said of Facebook "I don't think ever before a single company has been responsible for so much misfortune." They've savaged Facebook for permitting Holocaust denial and for promoting manipulative political misinformation. It is, I think it's fair to say, a full-blown war, of the sort I cannot recall the ADL waging against any institution as prominent as Facebook. Again, this is just not how the ADL typically operates when relating to organizations of Facebook's size and stature.

So while the normative analysis of whether the ADL is right or wrong, or should be doing more or less campaigning like this, is plenty interesting, for the moment I'm just curious about how we got here. What is it that made the ADL break its normal boundaries? Just what happened during the earlier period of collaboration that seemingly made the ADL completely lose patience with Facebook as an even potentially viable partner? I bet there is a very interesting story here, and I'd love to hear about it.