Minority rule: Why our undemocratic republic must give way to something else

The founders favored indirect democracy reflecting the will of the majority.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. And so it is with the current state of our democracy, which awards disproportionate power to an ever-shrinking slice of the electorate. Today the president, the Senate, and the Supreme Court reflect the will of a minority of voters. The majority is left out in the cold. At some point that has to change, even if it’s not at all clear how it’s going to happen.

Now, some of you are already sharpening your sticks and getting ready to poke holes in my argument. We’re not a democracy, you’ll say. We’re a constitutional republic. Well, you’re half-right. Living in a constitutional republic means that our democratic rights are sometimes exercised indirectly, and that there are certain protections that the majority may not take away from us. What it’s not supposed to mean is that some people’s votes counts more than others.

I’ll return to that argument later on. But first, as Kai Ryssdal says, let’s do the numbers.

The executive branch. After what happened in 2016, our undemocratic method of electing the president is well known, widely understood, and, at least among Democrats, widely reviled. The Electoral College is a vestige of the past and, as I’ve written before, an artifact of slavery: it gave slave states a louder voice in presidential elections by counting each slave as three-fifths of a person even though they had no right to vote.

That obscenity is long gone. But voters in small states still have more power than those in large ones. Why? In addition to casting an electoral vote for each House district, every state gets two bonus votes (reflecting its two senators) regardless of size. How unfair is that? In tiny Wyoming, each elector represents about 194,000 residents, whereas in giant California the number is 697,000. It is the equivalent of each Wyoming voter’s ballot being counted 3.6 times while those of California residents are counted only once.

Until George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote in 2000, the idea that the winner of the popular vote could lose the presidency seemed like a 19th-century anachronism, conjuring up images of Rutherford B. Hayes, known to his contemporaries as “His Fraudulency.” Then came 2016, when Donald Trump won despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by the not-insubstantial margin of 2.8 million votes. With more and more Democrats and liberals moving to blue states, the gap may only get worse.

The legislative branch. The anti-democratic nature of Congress is most obvious in the Senate, which is marred by the same small-state bias as the Electoral College. Each state, as we know, elects two senators regardless of size. To use our previous example, California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, represent more than 39 million people, whereas Wyoming’s two Republican senators, John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, represent just 580,000.

That is an absurd situation, far worse than what prevails in the Electoral College, which at least is partly based on population. One consequence of the large-state/small-state divide is that millions more Americans vote for Democratic Senate candidates than for Republicans. For instance, Dylan Matthews noted in Vox several years ago that the 46 Democratic senators who were seated in 2015 had received 20 million more votes than the 54 Republicans. (The Democratic total included two independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who caucus with the Democrats.)

As with the Electoral College, the two-senators-per-state arrangement was rooted in the need to grant greater power to the slave states in order to bring the union together. Today, given that most small states are Republican and most large states are Democratic, Republicans gain a huge advantage.

House districts, at least, are based on population. But gerrymandering by Republican-controlled governorships and legislatures has had its effect there as well. In 2016, for instance, Republicans won 241 of the 435 total House seats, beating the Democrats by 55.4 percent to 45.5 percent. Nationwide, voters favored Republican House candidates by the much slimmer margin of 49.1 percent to 48 percent. That raises the specter that, even if Democrats had received more votes, Republicans still would have won more House seats.

The judicial branch. With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as the ninth justice, the Supreme Court now includes two members who were appointed by a president who lost the popular vote — that is, President Trump. (George W. Bush appointed Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito only after his 2004 re-election, in which he won both the popular and electoral votes.)

Moreover, both of Trump’s nominees were confirmed by senators who received far fewer votes than the senators who opposed them. Michael Tomasky recently observed in The New York Times that in the case of Trump’s first choice, Neil Gorsuch, the 54 senators who voted to confirm him received 54 million votes whereas the 45 senators who were opposed won more than 73 million. That’s a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent against confirmation. The Kavanaugh confirmation vote broke along similar lines. Indeed, Philip Bump of The Washington Post estimated that the senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh represented just 44 percent of the population.

In other words, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and other liberties are now at risk because of two justices who were appointed by a president who lost the popular vote, and who were were confirmed by senators who received far fewer votes than those who were opposed. Is this any way to run a democracy in the 21st century?

And yes, let’s get back to that democracy-versus-republic argument. What does it mean to live in a constitutional republic rather than a democracy? It means that we don’t make laws directly — we let Congress do it. It means there are certain rights that even a majority can’t take away from us (except through a constitutional amendment), whether it be freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, or the right to a speedy and public trial by jury.

As Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig wrote two years ago, the “we’re a republic” retort favored by defenders of the Electoral College is nonsense. The founders defined a “republic” as a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy, not as a non-democracy. James Madison, Lessig pointed out, said that “in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.” (Lessig, I should add, is the force behind an intriguing idea to reform the Electoral College.) That doesn’t mean the minority gets to rule while the majority gets to shut up. It means the majority exercises its will indirectly rather than directly.

Writing in Philly.com, columnist Will Bunch offers some useful ideas to reform our anti-majoritarian system, ranging from abolishing the Electoral College to ending the two-senators-per-state arrangement.

Bunch goes so far as to compare our current situation to the run-up to the Civil War. “Let’s once again radically fix the way America does its business — this time, before a civil war breaks out,” he writes. That strikes me as hyperbolic, but maybe he’s right. We are facing a crisis of legitimacy We do not have a government of the people or for the people when any — or, as is now the case, all — branches of government exercise power against the wishes of most Americans. Because the status quo can’t be maintained, it won’t be. The only question is how we’ll fix a system that is irredeemably broken.

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The Swartz suicide and the sick culture of the Justice Dept.

Harvey headshotRepublished by permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where this article first appeared. Thanks to my friend Harvey for making this available to readers of Media Nation.

By Harvey A. Silverglate

Some lawyers are joking when they refer to the Moakley Courthouse as “the House of Pain.” I’m not.

The ill-considered prosecution leading to the suicide of computer prodigy Aaron Swartz is the most recent in a long line of abusive prosecutions coming out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, representing a disastrous culture shift. It sadly reflects what’s happened to the federal criminal courts, not only in Massachusetts but across the country.

It’s difficult for lawyers to step back and view the larger picture of the unflattering system from which we derive our status and our living. But we have an ethical obligation to criticize the legal system when warranted.

Who else, after all, knows as much about where the proverbial bodies are buried and is in as good a position to tell truth to power as members of the independent bar?

Yet the palpable injustices flowing regularly out of the federal criminal courts have by and large escaped the critical scrutiny of the lawyers who are in the best position to say something. And judges tend not to recognize what to outsiders are serious flaws, because the system touts itself as the best and fairest in the world.

Since the mid-1980s, a proliferation of vague and overlapping federal criminal statutes has given federal prosecutors the ability to indict, and convict, virtually anyone unfortunate enough to come within their sights. And sentencing guidelines confer yet additional power on prosecutors, who have the discretion to pick and choose from statutes covering the same behavior.

This dangerous state of affairs has resulted in countless miscarriages of justice, many of which aren’t recognized as such until long after unfairly incarcerated defendants have served “boxcar-length” sentences.

Aaron Swartz was a victim of this system run amok. He was indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.

As Harvard Law School Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig has written for The Atlantic: “For 25 years, the CFAA has given federal prosecutors almost unbridled discretion to bully practically anyone using a computer network in ways the government doesn’t like.”

Swartz believed that information on the Internet should be free to the extent possible. He entered the site operated by JSTOR, a repository of millions of pages of academic articles available for sale, and downloaded a huge cache. He did not sell any, and while it remains unclear exactly how or even if he intended to make his “information should be free” point, no one who knew Swartz, not even the government, thought he was in it to make money.

Therefore, JSTOR insisted that criminal charges not be brought.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz obscured that point when announcing the indictment. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, whether you take documents, data or dollars, and whether its to feed your children or for buying a new car” she said, failing to recognize the most basic fact: that Swartz neither deprived the owners of the articles of their property nor made a penny from his caper. Continue reading “The Swartz suicide and the sick culture of the Justice Dept.”

Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice

Aaron Swartz in January 2012. Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski. For details, click on image.
Aaron Swartz in January 2012

An earlier version of this commentary was published on Sunday at The Huffington Post.

The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has prompted a wave of revulsion directed at U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who was seeking to put him in prison for 35 years on charges that he illegally downloaded millions of academic articles.

Swartz, 26, who helped develop the RSS standard and was a co-founder of Reddit, was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying,” wrote his friend and lawyer Lawrence Lessig. “I get wrong,” Lessig added. “But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”

By Monday morning, more than 11,000 people had signed an online petition asking President Obama to remove Ortiz. Swartz’s family released a statement that said in part: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

Ortiz’s vindictiveness toward Swartz may have seemed shocking given that even the victim of Swartz’s alleged offense — the academic publisher JSTOR — did not wish to press charges. But it was no surprise to those of us who have been observing Ortiz’s official conduct as the top federal prosecutor in Boston.

Last July I singled out Ortiz as the lead villain in the 2012 Muzzle Awards, an annual feature I’ve been writing for the Phoenix newspapers of Boston, Providence and Portland since 1998. The reason: her prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, a Boston-area pharmacist who had acted as a propagandist for Al Qaeda.

Mehanna was sentenced to prison for 17 years — not because of what he did, but because of what he said, wrote and translated. Though Mehanna had once unsuccessfully sought training at a jihadi terrorist camp in Yemen, the government’s case was based almost entirely on activities that were, or should have been, protected by the First Amendment.

Make no mistake: Mehanna’s propaganda was “brutal, disgusting and unambiguously supportive of Islamic insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,” Yale political scientist Andrew March wrote in The New York Times. But as March, the ACLU and others pointed out in defense of Mehanna, the more loathsome the speech, the more it deserves protection under the Constitution.

In addition to the prosecution of Tarek Mehanna and the persecution of Aaron Swartz, there is the matter of Sal DiMasi, a former speaker of the Massachusetts House who is now serving time in federal prison on political corruption charges brought by Ortiz.

Last June DiMasi revealed he had advanced tongue cancer — and he accused federal prison authorities of ignoring his pleas for medical care while he was shuttled back and forth to Boston so that he could be questioned about a patronage scandal Ortiz’s office was investigating. It would be a stretch to connect Ortiz directly with DiMasi’s health woes. She is, nevertheless, a key player in a system that could transform DiMasi’s prison sentence into a death sentence.

Notwithstanding the anger that has been unleashed at Ortiz following Aaron Swartz’s death, she should not be regarded as an anomaly. As the noted civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in his 2009 book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” federal prosecutors have been given vague, broad powers that have led to outrages against justice across the country.

“Wrongful prosecution of innocent conduct that is twisted into a felony charge has wrecked many an innocent life and career,” wrote Silverglate, a friend and occasional collaborator. “Whole families have been devastated, as have myriad relationships and entire companies.”

Ortiz may now find that her willingness to use those vast powers against Swartz could have a harmful effect on her future.

As a Latina and as a tough law-and-order Democrat, she has been seen as a hot political property in Massachusetts. In 2011 The Boston Globe Magazine named her its “Bostonian of the Year.” She recently told the Boston Herald she was not interested in running for either the U.S. Senate or governor. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be persuaded. Now, though, she may be regarded as damaged goods.

Those who are mourning the death of Aaron Swartz should keep in mind that he had long struggled with depression. Blaming his suicide on Carmen Ortiz is unfair.

Nevertheless, the case she was pursuing against Swartz was wildly disproportionate, and illustrated much that is wrong with our system of justice. Nothing good can come from his death. But at the very least it should prompt consideration of why such brutality has become a routine part of the American system of justice.

Update: MIT, where Swartz allegedly downloaded the JSTOR articles, has announced an internal investigation, reports Evan Allen of The Boston Globe. Lauren Landry of BostInno has statements from MIT president Rafael Reif and from JSTOR.

Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski via Wikimedia Commons and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.