SCOTUS Is Changing The Definition Of American Citizenship

In this post I discussed the Republican plan to rig SCOTUS by selecting SCOTUS nominees who would reliably vote their way on issues important to their base and their donors. They’ve succeeded. In this post I give a brief sketch of their goals for each group, the means of enforcement, and the impact on the nature and benefits of American citizenship.

1. Donors. There is an oligarchy inside our democracy, as I have been saying for over a decade. It dominates the Republican donor class. Oligarchs want the freedom to do anything they like with their money and the assets they control. They want the freedom to do whatever they think will make them richer. And they really hate the idea of taxation and all forms of redistribution of wealth. Their current goal is to weaken the ability of the federal agencies to regulate, because that reduces the value of their assets.

The first steps were legislative. The Administrative Procedures Act governs the way agencies make rules. Republicans and corporatist Democrats fiddled with it to make it harder for agencies to act quickly, and to increase the cost to the agencies of rule-making. Then the Office of Management and Budget was added as an additional check closer to the President.

Until recently the primary use of the courts was delay. Corporations and their front groups challenged every rule they didn’t like. Courts took these filings seriously, and allowed lawyers to spend years in costly litigation. Gradually courts created a new layer of rules that brought delay and increased costs of regulation. But even that wasn’t enough.

Right-wing lawyers have been arguing that there is no Constitutional basis for administrative agencies, and thus no basis for rules made by agencies. This led to the non-delegation doctrine which limited the power of Congress to delegate authority to agencies. The current version is called the major questions doctrine, which says Congress has to be very specific about what it delegates if there is a big effect. It essentially gives SCOTUS the power to overrule any agency action it doesn’t like by saying Congress wasn’t explicit. As an example, SCOTUS used the shadow docket to strike down a CDC rule extending the nationwide moratorium on evictions in Alabama Assn. Of Realtors v. Department of Health and Human Services, link here. The Court said the cost to landlords was so great that Congress had to explicitly give the agency poser to make such broad rules.

We get a similar result in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. OSHA. In another case on the shadow docket, a 5-4 majority declared that the number of people affected by a workplace safety requirement that people be vaccinated or tested weekly was really big, and only Congress could make such a big decision.

And who gets to decide if a decision is too big? Not Congress. Not the President. Not the elected representatives of the American people. Nope. SCOTUS gets to decide. In these cases the big beneficiaries are the donor class and the anti-vax Trumpists.

2. The religious fanatics. During the pandemic SCOTUS gutted the CDC rules on attendance at super-spreader events, asserting that Churches had to be treated like grocery stores. Here’s a more neutral discussion on ScotusBlog. These cases were also part of the general attack on agency rules dealing with the death and misery caused by Covid.

Of course, for the religious fanatics, the most important cases are attacks on Roe v. Wade. In the first set of cases, SCOTUS just couldn’t figure out how to stop that blatantly unconstitutional Texas bounty law. So they left it in place, seriously impacting abortion clinics in Texas.

The frontal assault is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which seeks to limit abortions to 15 weeks, or to get rid of Roe altogether. The case was argued late last year. Here’s a summary from SCOtUSBlog. A decision is expected in June, 2022, and everyone expects a big loss for citizens.

3. Cementing the outcome. It would be possible to get different outcomes if Congress actually represented the will of the majority. To make sure that doesn’t happen, state legislatures draw districts that favor the party in power in the state. In Rucho v. Common Cause, a 5-4 majority of SCOTUS said that partisan gerrymandering “is incompatible with democratic principles”, but sadly courts can’t do anything to protect democracy.

Even racial gerrymandering is fine because it’s always too close to an election, as the Court held in a bunch of shadow docket cases involving obviously racially gerrymandered districts. Here’s a discussion of the problem.

Another challenge to democracy is the idea that state legislatures can make election rules without the checks and balances of their state constitutions, including their governors and courts. This is called the independent state legislature doctrine. I love the idea that this garbage jurisprudence calls itself “doctrines”.

Each of these cases essentially means that we don’t live in a democracy, that the votes of millions of us don’t matter, and in turn, that government controlled by a minority of rich people and religious fanatics cannot be replaced by a majority of voters.

This may breing to mind the principle “one man one vote”, an idea laid out in Baker v. Carr, and the related cases of Reynolds v. Sims and Wesberry v. Sanders. Here’s the thing. Computerized map-drawing has made it so that everyone gets an equal vote, but some votes are more equal than others.

4. Citizenship. I went to law school in the early 70s, so most of the important cases we studied in Constitutional Law were Warren Court cases. I learned to think of them as giving practical effect to the rights and privileges of being a US citizen. For example, everyone has a right to counsel in a criminal case under the Sixth Amendment. Until 1963 everyone with money had that right, but those who didn’t have money didn’t have that right. Then in Gideon v. Wainwright, SCOTUS made that right a reality for every American. In the same way, everyone had a right not to incriminate themselves. That was meaningless until Miranda v. Arizona made it clear that people must be informed of their rights, including their right to have a lawyer present during interrogation.

Another group of decisions made it clear that there were limits on the ability of states and the federal government to control people’s private lives. Griswold v. Connecticut said states can’t regulate birth control for married people. Cases like this limited the ability of government at all levels to intrude on our private lives.

As a result we gradually gained a full panoply of rights as American citizens, rights which could not be infringed by federal, state and municipal governments.

In this post I cited constitutional scholars across the ideological spectrum saying that originalism and textualism were the conservative backlash against these and many other so-called liberal decisions of the Warren Court. The six conservatives now ruling over us plan to gut those decisions. They were all selected for that purpose. In the future, we will have very few meaningful rights as American citizens. The bulk of our rights will be set by states, many of which are gerrymandered so that a minority can decide what you can and cannot do.

That’s not my idea of America.

The Right-Wing Plan To Rig SCOTUS

We used to pretend that there was a bipartisan understanding that we would put reasonably independent people on the Supreme Court. Long after that became a obvious lie, nominees would pretend they cared about independence, and assert their neutrality. Remember the smarmy testimony of John Roberts at his confirmation hearing in 2005:

I have no agenda, but I do have a commitment. If I am confirmed, I will confront every case with an open mind. I will fully and fairly analyze the legal arguments that are presented. I will be open to the considered views of my colleagues on the bench. And I will decide every case based on the record, according to the rule of law, without fear or favor, to the best of my ability. And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

Those words are a sour joke now, but at the time most people at least pretended to believe them, and to believe that Roberts meant them. The questioning of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and the anticipated vote on her confirmation make it obvious that the Republicans aren’t even pretending now. Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., explained why he won’t vote to confirm Judge Jackson.

“Judge Jackson is an extraordinary person with an extraordinary American story,” Sasse said in a statement. “We both love this country, but we disagree on judicial philosophy and I am sadly unable to vote for this confirmation.

“Judge Jackson has impeccable credentials and a deep knowledge of the law, but at every turn this week she not only refused to claim originalism as her judicial philosophy, she refused to claim any judicial philosophy at all. Although she explained originalism and textualism in some detail to the committee, Judge Jackson refused to embrace them or any other precise system of limits on the judicial role,” the lawmaker said.

Sasse is blowing smoke. Judge Jackson has a judicial philosophy, and she explained it in her opening statement.

I have been a judge for nearly a decade now, and I take that responsibility and my duty to be independent very seriously. I decide cases from a neutral posture. I evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favor, consistent with my judicial oath.

Judge Jackson said she uses both originalism and textualism as helpful tools in making decisions, along with other tools developed over the past 230 years. But that’s not what Republicans want. They want assurances that they will win, and the code words are “originalism” and “textualism”.

Jack Balkin, a long-time law professor at Yale, wrote a short history of originalism and textualism. He explains that in the early 1970s, conservatives were looking for a judicial theory that would enable them to roll back the gains made by individuals and government in the Courts, and for ways to use courts to stall and kill government regulation of corporations and rich people. These two theories were created for the task. They are relentlessly pushed by right-wing rich people through their pet project, the Federalist Society and through support for conservative law professors.

Originalism is the idea that the Constitution should be construed in accordance with the public meaning of the words used at the time it was adopted. As a theory, it relies on the idea that SCOTUS can figure out what that public meaning was.

Textualism is the idea that statutes and the Constitution should be interpreted by reference solely to the words on the page, without regard to anything else. The goals of the legislation, the context, legislative history, none of it is relevant. Textualism relies on the idea that a legislature chooses every word in a law intentionally, that each word has only one meaning for purposes of the law, and that a judge can determine that meaning simply by reading the words maybe with the help of a dictionary.

There’s a germ of wisdom here. Some Constitutional language is capable of exactly one interpretation. Thus, the requirement that a person elected to the House have attained the age of 25 years when elected is capable of only one interpretation, as long as we agree that the election happens on the date of the election, and not the date when the vote is counted and certified under applicable state law.

No one really believes that there is a single fixed meaning to the words legislators use, or that they carefully picked every word, and no one really believes that every word of the Constitution was chosen to express some fixed idea. Let’s try some examples.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits Cruel and Unusual Punishments. SCOTUS recenetly ruled that the death penalty cannot be imposed for rape, but that was allowed for centuries. Does that mean that originalists and textualists would overturn Coker v. Georgia?

The Tenth Amendment says:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

There were no abortion laws in the US in 1791. Does that mean the matter is reserved to the people? Or to the states? How do you know which? Was there a Public Meaning of the words in the Tenth Amendment that would shed light on this question? Can you tell from the words?

Conservatives said that these two constructs, originalism and textualism, were neutral, and would constrain courts. That’s not what happened. In practice, textualism and originalism produced results in accordance with conservative demands in most cases. This essay lays out the evidence with links.

Lately there’s been concern among religious conservatives as to whether originalism and textualism are enough to get their way in full. Bostock v. Clayton County considered whether The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of “sex”, applied to gay and transgender people. J. Gorsuch held that it did on textualist grounds. J. Alito dissented on originalist grounds. The uproar that followed among the political Christians revealed the true focus of these two constructs: to use the courts to impose political preferences on a majority that has moved on.

Consider, as Professor Balkin does, the work of Adrian Vermuele, a Harvard professor and Catholic. Vermuele agrees with Balkin’s analysis of the history of originalism and textualism, but goes farther.

But originalism has now outlived its utility, and has become an obstacle to the development of a robust, substantively conservative approach to constitutional law and interpretation. Such an approach—one might call it “common-good constitutionalism”—should be based on the principles that government helps direct persons, associations, and society generally toward the common good, and that strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good is entirely legitimate.

For the right-wing it isn’t enough that a judge is fully qualified. They will only confirm nominees who will vote for conservative positions regardless of law or precedent or good sense. Republicans are the right-wing party. They want to rig SCOTUS.