The Supreme Court’s vote to uphold the Texas abortion law is an affront to democracy

Photo (cc) 2006 by OZinOH

In analyzing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote not to overturn Texas’ drastic new abortion restrictions, a number of commentators have focused on the role played by the three justices nominated by Donald Trump — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

All three, needless to say, are wildly controversial. Gorsuch was chosen after then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused even to take up Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, who’s now attorney general. Kavanaugh was confirmed despite serious and credible allegations of sexual assault. Barrett was rushed through before the 2020 election following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But there is a more systemic problem, and that’s the failure of democracy that made last’s week’s decision possible. Trump, as we all know, lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by about 3 million votes. He won only because the Electoral College, a relic of slavery, provides small rural states with disproportionate power. Yet he got to appoint one-third of the current court.

Moreover, all three of Trump’s justices were confirmed by a Senate controlled by the Republicans even though they represented fewer people than the Democrats. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were confirmed during the first two years of Trump’s term, when the Democratic senators represented 56% of the population nationwide compared to the Republican share of 44%. That margin had narrowed slightly by the time Barrett was confirmed, but 53% of the population was still represented by Democratic senators compared to 47% by Republicans. (See my analysis.)

The other two justices who voted to uphold the Texas law were Clarence Thomas, appointed by George H.W. Bush, who was a majority president, and Samuel Alito, appointed by George W. Bush during his second term, which he won by a majority after losing the popular vote the first time around. But that’s just two votes. If Obama and Clinton had named three justices instead of Trump, it’s easy to imagine that the Texas law would have been suspended by a 7-2 vote. It’s just as easy to imagine that the Texas legislature wouldn’t have passed such a perverse and draconian law in the first place.

This is not democracy. Nor is it republicanism, since a properly designed republic is supposed to represent a majority of the electorate by proxy. It’s fair to ask how long this can go on before the majority stands up and demands an end to government by the minority.

Garland makes good on Biden’s promise to stop harassing the press

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

Give President Joe Biden credit for having a keen understanding of what it takes to hold together his Democratic-liberal-progressive coalition.

When he said in May that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the government to spy on journalists, I was skeptical that he would follow up his sentiment with concrete action. After all, he was vice president under Barack Obama, whose harassment of reporters in his campaign against leaks was legendary. Other presidents also thought nothing about going after reporters, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and, of course, Richard Nixon.

But press secretary Jen Psaki followed up by assuring reporters that Biden meant what he said. And, on Monday, it came to fruition with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement that the administration would stop attempting to seize journalists’ records in nearly all circumstances. In a memo quoted by The New York Times, Garland wrote:

The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of news-gathering activities.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, issued a statement of approval, saying:

The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time. This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.

Technically, Garland was acting on his own. The attorney general is supposed to be independent of the president. But Garland could hardly continue with the anti-press policies of Biden’s predecessors after Biden himself had spoken out so strongly in favor of reform.

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Garland’s actions come in response to some truly shocking actions undertaken by the Trump administration, some of which spilled over into the first few months of the Biden presidency. Acting on what appeared to be political motivations, the Trump Justice Department sought phone and email records from journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Judging from the timeline, the Trumpsters seemed to be looking into those news organizations’ reporting on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interests.

There are some exceptions to Garland’s order in the case of life-or-death situations, or if a reporter is believed to be actively helping a source obtain classified information. But these exceptions strike me as reasonable rather than being easily exploited loopholes.

Garland’s memo also says that the Justice Department will support efforts to pass legislation making the guidelines permanent so that they don’t expire as soon as Biden leaves office. That’s really the key, since future presidents and attorneys general would otherwise not be bound by Biden and Garland’s good intentions.

What’s next following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg meets President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Photo in the public domain.

On this day of national mourning, do yourself a favor and read Linda Greenhouse’s magnificent obituary of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in The New York Times. The accompanying video is outstanding as well.

So where do we go from here? During the Democratic primary campaign, Pete Buttigieg called for expanding the size of the Supreme Court as retribution for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal even to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

Buttigieg’s idea gained no traction then. But Joe Biden and the Democratic congressional leadership should go to McConnell immediately and make it clear that expanding the size of the Supreme Court from nine to 11 is exactly what they’ll do if he moves ahead with his grotesquely hypocritical plan to fill Ginsburg’s seat before Jan. 3, when the next Congress is sworn in.

Of course, they will then have to go out and win the White House and Senate and hold onto the House. Otherwise, even if McConnell agrees, he’ll turn around and ram through President Trump’s choice during the lame-duck session.

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Yes, Dems should filibuster Gorsuch — even though it’s not really about Gorsuch

Judge Merrick Garland, left, meets Sen. Al Franken last March. Photo (cc) 2016 by Senate Democrats.

You may have missed it amid the Sturm und Drang over the fate of health care, but late last week Chuck Schumer announced that Senate Democrats would filibuster President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Schumer will almost certainly fail. But it’s worth trying to stop this illegitimate nomination. And if Senate Democrats approach it in the right way, they can make an important statement about our broken system of government and what happens when only one of our major parties is willing to respect the norms and traditions that have long guided us.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Linda Greenhouse dissects our partisan Supreme Court

Linda Greenhouse
Linda Greenhouse

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Just as Congress and the broader electorate are hopelessly divided along partisan and ideological lines, so, too, is the Supreme Court.

Before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, there were four liberals, four conservatives, and one centrist—Anthony Kennedy. All four liberals were appointed by Democratic presidents and all four conservatives (plus Kennedy) by Republicans.

And now a partisan battle has broken out over Scalia’s replacement. Despite President Obama’s choice of a respected moderate, federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has vowed not even to take up the nomination. Instead, McConnell insists the decision should be left to the next president.

It’s a dispiriting scenario—and a historical anomaly. As the retired New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse pointed out Tuesday, we only have to look at fairly recent history to observe a very different dynamic.

After all, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to the chief justice’s position, and Warren turned out (to Eisenhower’s chagrin) to be one of the most liberal justices in the court’s history. President John F. Kennedy appointed Byron White, who was liberal on civil rights but deeply conservative on social issues. And unlike today, when advocates expend most of their energy trying to persuade just one justice, Anthony Kennedy, years ago there were regularly three, four, or more justices who might vote either way.

“I’m deeply concerned as a citizen and as someone who cares about the court and about the consequences of the politicization of the court,” Greenhouse said. “The Roberts court is allowing the court to be used as a tool of partisan warfare.” As an example, she cited the court’s decision to rule on the legality of Obama’s executive order stopping the deportation of some undocumented immigrants—a decision that she said was accompanied by an overreaching aside questioning whether Obama’s order violated the Constitution.

Greenhouse, who currently teaches at Yale Law School and who still writes online commentaries about the court for the Times, spoke at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School. She offered a range of dyspeptic opinions on the political environment both inside and outside the court. To wit:

• On Justice Scalia’s legacy. “I think he degraded the discourse of the court, frankly,” Greenhouse said. “His snarky dissenting opinions were ill-advised and enabled snarkiness in others. I think his, quote, originalist understanding of constitutional interpretation goes nowhere. That died with him.” She added: “He was a very colorful figure and great at calling attention to himself. He was kind of a cult figure. But I don’t think he’ll have much lasting impact.”

• On McConnell’s refusal to consider Obama’s appointment of Judge Garland to the court. “It’s truly unprecedented. … It’s totally cynical. It’s totally playing to the base,” Greenhouse said. She also disagreed with an observation by Shorenstein Center interim director Tom Patterson that Obama should have chosen a woman or a member of a minority group who would be more appealing to Democratic voters. “The brilliance of this nomination,” she said, is that the Garland choice will make Republicans “squirm” because he is exactly the sort of moderate they had earlier said they would confirm.

• On the Supreme Court’s order that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reconsider the state’s ban on stun guns. By custom, Greenhouse said, the Supreme Court would make such a decision without comment. But Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas added a caustic opinion suggesting the SJC had put a woman’s safety at risk. “Something’s not right here,” she said. “The idea is you don’t wash your dirty linen in public. … They thought they had to enlighten us with this 10-page screed.”

Greenhouse said that one way to make the court less politicized would be to put more (as in any) politicians on it. At one time during the Warren era, she said, not a single member of the court had served as a federal judge. Warren himself had been governor of California. More recently, Sandra Day O’Connor had served as an elected official in Arizona before entering the judiciary.

“I think a diversity of characteristics on the Supreme Court is very helpful,” she said.

Given that many Supreme Court decisions can go either way (after all, Greenhouse added, the reason most cases are before the court in the first place is because federal appeals courts in different jurisdictions reached opposite conclusions), a politician’s willingness to seek compromise might sometimes be superior than the certainty with which judges with legal backgrounds often act.

WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy is a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.