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“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial…”

[ 82 ] June 14, 2015 |


I’m sure some of you have read Jennifer Gonnerman’s extraordinary story about Kalief Browder, who was arrested and on the most threadbare of evidence charged with a minor theft. He was held at Riker’s Island, sometimes in solitary confinement and sometimes subject to horrible abuse, for three years without trial.

There’s no way for this story to have a happy ending, but there could be better and worse ones. You’ve probably anticipated that Browder’s case falls into the latter category:

Last Monday, Prestia, who had filed a lawsuit on Browder’s behalf against the city, noticed that Browder had put up a couple of odd posts on Facebook. When Prestia sent him a text message, asking what was going on, Browder insisted he was O.K. “Are you sure everything is cool?” Prestia wrote. Browder replied: “Yea I’m alright thanks man.” The two spoke on Wednesday, and Browder did seem fine. On Saturday afternoon, Prestia got a call from Browder’s mother: he had committed suicide.

Almost everything wrong with American criminal justice in one story: ginning up baseless charges based on particularly unreliable eyewitness testimony; prisons being run as torture camps; not only denials of basic due process rights but a hopelessly clogged system that relies on the vast majority of the accused to waive their right to a public trial and has various means of punishing people who won’t play ball. And, remember, this is a story of New York City — this is not just a red state phenomenon by any means.

Today in the Omnipotent Presidency

[ 46 ] June 12, 2015 |

Clearly, Obama doesn’t really want TAA or the TPP to pass.

Obviously, congressional gridlock in general is not a good thing for the country, but hey sometimes is has an upside.

NC v. the Rule of Law

[ 49 ] June 12, 2015 |

Next, perhaps North Carolina will empower DMV employees to arbitrarily deny licenses to people.

We were talking yesterday about Harris v. McRae. Stevens’s dissent always repays re-reading:

The federal sovereign, like the States, must govern impartially. The concept of equal justice under law is served by the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process, as well as by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. When the sovereign provides a special benefit or a special protection for a class of persons, it must define the membership in the class by neutral criteria; it may not make special exceptions for reasons that are constitutionally insufficient.

The Gold Standard of Hackery

[ 135 ] June 11, 2015 |


Committing the odd factual error is an occupational hazard in journalism. For Niall Ferguson, the commission of error is more than a hazard. It’s a cherished way of life.

Reproductive Freedom, the Courts, and the Limits of Doctrine

[ 53 ] June 11, 2015 |


As I mentioned recently, Jill Lepore had an article in the New Yorker arguing that reproductive rights have fared less well than gay and lesbian rights because Roe rooted the former in privacy rather than equality. As longtime readers will know, I strenuously disagree with this line of argument. To summarize:

  • To the general public, how Blackmun justified the holding in Roe is irrelevant, because essentially nobody who doesn’t have a professional obligation to do so reads Supreme Court opinions.  Only a tiny fraction of the public could tell you the rationales of Roe or Casey.
  • To the audience that does read Supreme Court opinions, again, it’s irrelevant.  Nobody who believes that the Constitution protects a woman’s reproductive rights is going to change their mind because they would have written Roe differently.  Nobody who thinks that the Constitution doesn’t protect a woman’s reproductive rights would be persuaded by any rationale.  No case would have come out differently had Blackmun rooted the holding in Roe in the equal protection clause rather than the due process clause.
  • The proof of the pudding is in the eating.  On point one, Roe is at least as popular with the public as legal pre-viability abortions.  On the second point, a woman’s right to choose has in fact become much more closely linked with gender equality…but, as we saw all too vividly earlier this week, has also become much less secure. 


Counterfactuals are famously foolish, not to mention futile. Still, it’s hard not to ask: If the Nineteenth Amendment had been a broadway in constitutional law, instead of a dead end, and if, beginning with, say, Trubek v. Ullman, reproductive-rights cases had proceeded from arguments for equality, rather than for privacy, would Justices Scalia, Alito, Kennedy, Thomas, and Roberts still have been able to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby?

Um, yes?

As Mark Graber observes, the idea that equality is a winning argument and privacy is to pitch arguments to a Supreme Court liberals wish he have had rather than the actually existing one. To swing voters like Lewis Powell and Anthony Kennedy, privacy is more likely to be a winning argument than gender equality. I find Lepore’s argument about Hobby Lobby particularly curious given Kennedy’s concurrence. Kennedy explicitly acknowledged — as Alito’s opinion instructively refused to — that Congress had a compelling interest in protecting women’s equality, and yet found that the religious freedom of employers trumped the equality rights of female employees anyway. I’m at a loss to understand how rooting a woman’s right to choose in the equal protection clause could have changed Kennedy’s vote. And, certainly, gender equity claims would have no appeal to Samuel “Concerned Alumni of Princeton” Alito or the U.S. v. Virginia dissenter Antonin Scalia.

The regulatory scope the Supreme Court gives to states on abortion matters enormously, but how precisely the Court justifies its holdings is of trivial practical importance. Reproductive freedom is a particularly good illustration of this truth.

…Irin Carmon has a good question:

Harris, as some of you know, was the case that upheld the Hyde Amendment.

As I would look at it, Harris is a perfect illustration of Graber’s point. Three members of the Roe majority — Powell, Stewart, and Burger — flipped on the Hyde Amendment. The lesson here is that the country-club Republicans who have controlled Supreme Court outcomes since the first term of the Nixon administration find privacy arguments much more compelling than equality arguments. By 1980, after all, the doctrinal tools were there had either Powell or Stewart wanted to strike down the Hyde Amendment on equal protection grounds. Craig v. Boren, which subjected gender classifications to heightened scrutiny, had been on the books since 1976. For that matter, Eisenstadt v. Baird — the bridge between Griswold and Roe — was decided on equal protection grounds. Powell and Stewart had plenty of doctrinal justification available had they wanted to strike down the Hyde Amendment; the four dissents present numerous alternative paths rooted in Supreme Court precdent. They didn’t vote to strike the Hyde Amendment because they didn’t want to. Roe being decided on equal protection grounds wouldn’t have compelled Powell or Stewart to hold the Hyde Amendment unconstitutional any more than it required Kennedy, O’Connor and Souter to accept the trimester framework rather than the “undue burden” standard. You can always find ways to distinguish or set aside inconvenient precedent, which is one reason why the grounds of Blackmun’s opinion in Roe just don’t matter very much.

More on a Moops Aftermath

[ 48 ] June 11, 2015 |


A commenter observed that I didn’t really address the substance of a Jon Chait post about what would happen should the Supreme Court wreck most of the health care exchanges. Fair enough! So while I stand by everything I argued in my longerform about the question, a few additional points:

  • To be clear, it’s entirely plausible that the Court going the full Moops it will be, on net, a political negative for the Republican Party.  The fact that the Democratic message is clear, the fact that it will be a Republican Congress and Republican statehouses who refuse to do anything — these are real factors.  There are also real countervailing factors: the president tends to get disproportionate credit/blame for any results of federal policy that happen under his watch, and blaming Obama for anything to do with “Obamacare” is also a simple and potentially effective message.  Nonetheless, I’m willing to assume arguendo that the Court reversing in King will make the political situation worse for Republicans ceteris paribus.  I also agree that congressional Republicans are enormously unlikely to pass a Potemkin, poison-pill laden “fix” even though it’s in their political interest to do so.
  • But in terms of policy and electoral results, that’s not the end of the story.  There are similarities with this argument and the argument that overruling Roe v. Wade would be  Overruling Roe would indeed be unpopular, but elections are not referenda on individuals issues.  Parties can do unpopular things and take unpopular positions and still win.  The vast majority of Republican public officials and the federal and state level will not pay any price for the Supreme Court doing their dirty work, and votes to fix the hole the Supreme Court created will also potentially expose a Republican to a primary challenge.  It would be almost impossible for any political blowback to cost Republicans the House or most of the state governments they control.  Given this, it’s hard to see how such Republicans will be compelled to act.  There may be some exceptions in Republican-controlled blue states with state exchanges.  The biggest potential effect is on the Senate elections — not trivial, but only under some pretty precise circumstances would a backlash be the crucial variable handing the Senate to the Democrats.
  • Chait draws a comparison with the government shutdown and the debt ceiling round 2, where the GOP was force to cave.  But there’s a big difference.  Those disputes, for Republicans, were about means, not ends.  Republicans don’t favor defaulting on the debt or shutting down the government per se; they don’t do these things when Republicans control the White House, and the people who pay their bills really don’t like them either.  They’re only useful if they provide leverage; if they’re not providing leverage and are doing political damage, they have no reason to continue to pursue them.  This is different — taking away health care subsidies and damaging the ACA are, in themselves, victories for the GOP.  There would have to be a lot of political damage for Republicans to back down soon.  Federally, and in most affected states, I just don’t see it happening anytime soon.

Roe in the Cross-hairs

[ 134 ] June 10, 2015 |


Yesterday, the Fifth Circuit upheld the Texas near-ban on abortion. So either Kennedy is going to have to agree to give Casey some actual content, or admit that Roe is effectively overruled:

In 1992, the supreme court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v Casey nominally upheld Roe v Wade, but it replaced Roe’s clear rules with a holding that abortion regulations, even in the first trimester of pregnancy, were unconstitutional only if they constituted an “undue burden”. As applied by federal courts, the Casey standard has been a disaster, allowing states to pass increasingly restrictive rules.

The three judges who wrote the fifth circuit opinion – all nominated, you’ll be shocked to discover, by George W Bush – make good use out of the extent to which the supreme court has undermined Roe in the name of saving it. The opinion is appalling if you care about the equality and autonomy of American women, but it’s not stupid. It’s written in a way designed to appeal to Anthony Kennedy, the only member of the Casey majority still on the court, and the swing vote in abortion cases.

Casey’s biggest sin was ruling that Pennsylvania’s 24-hour waiting period was constitutional. As the fifth circuit opinion observes, the Casey decision acknowledged that the regulation would be “particularly burdensome” for poor rural women and conceded that it would have “the effect of increasing the cost and risk of delay of abortions.” And yet, justices still found that it was not an undue burden. The road between this and So what if women in west Texas have to drive 150 miles to find an abortion clinic? is shorter than it should be.

This reasoning doesn’t guarantee a supreme court ruling in favor of HB2 – the Texas regulations are more restrictive in their cumulative impact than the waiting period and the other regulations upheld in Casey. But Casey put a loaded weapon in the hands of opponents of safe, legal abortions, and the fifth circuit has now pointed it squarely at the reproductive freedom of American women.

So the access many American women will have to safe abortions will now rest on the most conservative member of the Casey triad. What could possib-lie go wrong?


[ 41 ] June 10, 2015 |

I’m sure he’ll enjoy life on the wingnut welfare circuit.

Prison Break

[ 106 ] June 9, 2015 |

Obviously, there’s nothing remotely funny about two murderers being at large, and I hope they are captured before anyone gets hurt. But this really is an incredible story.

The ACA Deus Ex Machina

[ 22 ] June 9, 2015 |

Now this is how you bullshit people with a “poll,” ladies and gentlemen:

The most ideologically hard-core elements of the party have tried to make the case that Republicans should do nothing at all. One libertarian organization commissioned a poll designed to show that voters would not blame Republicans for doing nothing in the face of massive suffering. The poll has an unusually blunt method for producing this result. It asks, in the event the lawsuit is successful, whom voters would blame. The choices are:

“Congress, for poorly writing the law”
“The IRS, for giving out illegal subsidies in the first place”
“States, for refusing to establish Obamacare exchanges”

Notice that, even aside from the loaded terms (“poorly writing,” “illegal”), none of those choices allows voters to blame the current, Republican-run Congress for failing to fix the law. The only “Congress” voters can blame is the old Democratic one that wrote the law in 2009–10. The poll does prove that the public will not blame Republicans in Congress if it is given a fixed menu of choices, of which blaming the Republican Congress is not one.

And, of course, there’s en more glaring omission: the Supreme Court. (Or, as the equivalent question would be worded, “a bare majority of the Supreme Court for willfully misreading the Affordable Care Act and taking subsidies away from more than 6 million people.”) The hack pollsters anticipated John Thune!

What Congress will do if the subsidies vanish because of some eternally unknowable cause is nothing. Which, alas, is better than any possible Republican alternative.

Two Cheers for the USA Freedom Act

[ 14 ] June 8, 2015 |


It’s a step in the right direction, albeit a pretty small one.

You will also be surprised to learn that America’s Foremost Civil Libertarian did a great deal to draw attention to himself while doing not much of anything to substantively improve the statute.

Monday Links and Observations

[ 139 ] June 8, 2015 |
  • Erik said most of what needs to be said about this silly NYT thumbsucker.  Like Jamelle, though, I was particularly struck by the sentence “she is poised to retrace Barack Obama’s far narrower path to the presidency.”  On what planet were Barack Obama’s coalitions “more narrow” than Bill Clinton’s?  Is it his higher share of the popular vote?  Er, the much higher turnout?  Nope — it’s that hardy perennial, “white voters count more than other voters.”  This is both wrong and offensive before you get to the massive implausibility of the idea that Clinton would be able to win in West Virginia and Arkansas if she just campaigned there really hard, hard enough to make it 1996 again apparently.  (Cf. also that other favorite of American political discourse, “Durr, Al Gore couldn’t even win his own state [drools on self.]”)
  • As Jeff Sessions trenchantly notes, if Obama had wanted Obamacare to provide affordable health care to all Americans, he presumably would have mentioned that at some point, or perhaps even put it in the title of the legislation or something. (Relevant context.)
  • More of this, please.
  • I see that our conservative intellgentsia might be poised to move on from the most important question of out time — “Lena Dunham, hot or not?” — and move on to an equally important question, “Emma Sulkowicz, hot or not?”  To save you the trouble, the answer will always be “no,” expressed in the most misogynist way possible.  I would also assume that the conservative hacks in question spend most of their spare time doing model shoots for Italian fashion magazines.
  • I’m curious as to what will happen with this sad case. Intuitively, it certainly seems as if a psychic bilking someone out of $700K should be a serious criminal offense.   And, yet, it’s always a racket, but as far as I can tell it’s not illegal to sell people psychic readings or tarot readings or astrological readings or whatever.  Is it just that the frauds are tolerable at a low level but unacceptable beyond a certain level?  I honestly don’t know.
  • Speaking of lucrative grift, a Dayen must-read about Corinthian College.
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