Monday, May 29, 2017

At White House, Urgent Calls to Lawyer Up

      Trump was home alone, in the residence, tired of cable news and surfing around for one of those old movies that made America great. How the West Was Won: perfect. But then came one of those lawyer commercials. "If you have a phone, you have a lawyer."
      Then, it hit him: I have a phone! I need a lawyer! Sure, Trump said to himself, Don McGahn is White House counsel. He's a good man, but he keeps telling me what I should do instead of letting me do what I want to do. I'm calling Marc Kasowitz: he's been with me all these years, through the divorce, the bankruptcies, the Trump University fake lawsuit, on and on. Him, I can trust. Just like my friend Mike Flynn.
      Thus Kasowitz was brought in to head an outside legal team to help with the Russia investigations that are swirling ever more ominously around the White House. Not just the White House: now it's Jared too. Good son-in-law. Done nothing wrong. Fake news. But McGahn says he can't help. Bad precedent. White House counsel can't give away 'get out of jail free' cards to everybody.
      The Washington Post reports that Trump is looking at others to beef up the team: maybe Ted Olson, maybe Paul Clement. Surely, they understand that everyone's entitled to legal representation in this country. But already on the blogosphere some nigglers are suggesting that Olson and Clement have nothing to gain with this brief — and a lot to lose, like their reputations.
      Lawyering, it turns out, has been one of the Achilles' heels of this administration, now just past the 125-day mark. Yes, the Justice Department lawyers put up a good fight, but federal appeals courts appeared to have blocked the president's signature policy achievement of his first full week in office: Executive Order Protecting The Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States.
      The courts blocked the first version. Muslim ban, they said. "We all know what that means," Trump said as he signed the order. Apparently, yes, the so-called judges did.
      After the courts blocked the first version, Team Trump worked with the lawyers on a revised version. Significant tweaks. The new version exempted green-card holders —  lawful permanent residents, in legal speak. It also gave immigration officers discretion to waive the ban. And the lawyers added six paragraphs of "findings" to explain why these six countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Again, the nigglers. Why not Saudi Arabia, they asked, since that's where the 9/11 hijackers came from?
      Despite all that lawyering, the courts still aren't buying it. The old saying is right: You can put a dress on a pig, but it's still a pig. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc in Richmond, Va., came out with a 10-3 decision blocking Executive Order 2.0. More than 200 pages of opinions less than three weeks after oral arguments. The majority stopped just short of calling the president a liar.
      Trump takes note, of course, that the 10 judges who ruled against him are all Democratic appointees and the three on his side are Republicans. He thinks back to something Gorsuch said. "There are no Republican judges; there are no Democratic judges." Well, Trump thinks, he was half right. There are no Democratic judges for the next four years: that's for damn sure.
      Sessions is quick out of the box with one of those boilerplate responses: disagree strongly, you betcha. Will appeal, of course. At the Supreme Court, Gorsuch could be the fifth vote that the White House needs to reverse the ruling.
      Justice Neil Gorsuch is exhibit number one for Trump's accomplishments at the 125-day mark. Oddly, however, Team Trump had very little to do with it. Supreme Court vetting was turned over to the Federalist Society back in the campaign. Twenty candidates on the list: all of them Republican judges, naturally. All good candidates, but Gorsuch was head and shoulders above any of them. Look at those credentials: better even than Garland's, he muses.
      Once Gorsuch was nominated, it was McConnell's job to get him through. And he did: the Democrats came close to blocking him, but close doesn't count except in horseshoes. The Democrats decided to dare the Republicans to change the Senate rules to get him confirmed. Republicans took up the dare. Republicans won't need 60 votes next time either.
      Lawyering, of course, was never Trump's forte. Dealmaking was: The Art of the Deal was a best-seller: it was yuge. As for dealmaking, however, nothing yet to crow about. "Repeal and replace Obamacare" is stuck in the Senate; Ryan got that through the House, but McConnell says he doesn't know where he gets 50 votes, much less 60. As for the tax reform bill: not yet written. Why can't they just pass my talking points, Trump asks himself. This place really is a swamp.
      And the wall? Now Trump frets that he's being told some of it will be on private property. That means eminent domain lawsuits. They think that scares me, he says to himself. Real estate litigation is right up my alley, he assures himself. Just hire some more lawyers.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

As White House Counsel, McGahn Seen Failing in Role

      Rod Rosenstein took a major hit to his previously unblemished reputation by lending support as deputy attorney general to President Trump's decision to fire FBI director James Comey. Now, a lawyer who works right outside Trump's office is similarly taking hits to his admittedly somewhat checkered reputation. Don McGahn, Trump's pick to be his White House counsel, is now being blamed for what a wide range of legal observers are calling the ethical and legal disarray in the Trump presidency.
      McGahn now serves in the same behind-the-scenes role that John Dean occupied in the Nixon White House and used to warn Nixon, in vain, about the "cancer" on his presidency. Like Dean before him, McGahn has a client with a tin ear as to ethics and conflicts issues. Even so, legal observers say McGahn has to bear responsibility for such seemingly avoidable missteps as the delayed firing of Michael Flynn as national security adviser and the clumsy explanations for Comey's dismissal.
      "So much of what’s gone wrong in the Trump administration . . . might have been prevented by some good lawyering up front," reporter Jenna Greene wrote in a story for the on-line legal publication Litigation Daily with the provocative headline "The Case for Giving White House Counsel Don McGahn the Boot" [May 18]. "The president, no doubt, is an extraordinarily difficult client," Greene added, "but McGahn doesn’t seem willing or able to rein him in."
      McGahn came to the post as an expert on campaign finance and election law based in part on a combative five years as a Republican appointee to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Back in private practice with the well-connected D.C. law firm Jones Day, McGahn gained entree into Trump's inner circle by becoming one of the first high-profile Washington lawyers to join the campaign. McGahn was credited with playing an important role in blocking efforts to block Trump from the ballot in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary early in 2016.
      As White House counsel, McGahn fits a Trumpian model of high-level appointments. For secretary of education, Trump picked Betsy DeVos, a sharp critic of public education as a leader of the school-choice movement. To head the Environmental Protection Agency, he named Scott Pruitt, an opponent of EPA policies as a former Oklahoma attorney general.
      At the FEC, McGahn had a reputation of being rude and abrasive to staff and even to fellow commissioners and worked single-mindedly to weaken or dismantle campaign finance restrictions. Ann Ravel, a Democratic appointee to the FEC after McGahn's term had ended, commented to Greene that she found McGahn's appointment as White House counsel "shocking." "His record indicates that he’s not particularly concerned about conflicts or ethics issues," Ravel told the reporter.
      As early as mid-February, Jack Goldsmith, who headed the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel during part of President George W. Bush's second term, was blaming McGahn for some of the White House problems. “The multiple ethics problems swirling around the White House are squarely McGahn’s responsibility,” Goldsmith, now a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote in a post for the middle-of-the-road legal blog Lawfare.
      Within the past week, the New York Times strengthened the critique by disclosing that McGahn was informed on Jan. 4 that Flynn, who was already functioning as Trump's national security adviser, was under an FBI investigation for his contacts with the Russians during the campaign and his work as a paid lobbyist for the Turkish government. Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman in the Obama administration, responded critically to the information in an appearance on CNN. "If you were under an FBI investigation," he said of Obama administration personnel policies, "you couldn't get hired as a staff assistant, much less national security adviser."
      Once Flynn's role emerged into headlines, the White House used McGahn, just as it was to use Rosenstein later, to try to defend its actions--in this case, the failure to fire Flynn immediately after learning that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about contacts with Russians. "The White House Counsel reviewed and determined that there is not a legal issue, but rather a trust issue," press secretary Sean Spicer said at a briefing.
      Accepting that account, Goldsmith wrote in his blog post that McGahn had failed in his role. "The legality of Flynn’s actions was not McGahn’s call to make," Goldsmith wrote, "and if McGahn were properly carrying out his responsibilities to ensure lawful action in the White House and to minimize law-related political damage to the President, he would have acted differently."
      Goldsmith's critique was noted in an unflattering profile by reporter Nancy Cook in Politico in February. “McGahn will embolden Trump,” an unnamed former FEC official told Cook. “He is not going to be a truth teller. He’s going to be an enabler.”
      Rosenstein, the former federal prosecutor and Justice Department official, salvaged some of his reputation last week by appointing former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate "Russiagate." McGahn's reputation is likely to suffer more hits as his role draws more attention. He can protect his reputation, if at all, only by showing more moral courage than he has to date in telling a wayward president to try to straighten up.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Trump's Arrogance, Deceit Fuel Constitutional Crisis

      President Trump's decision to fire FBI director James Comey was a calculated act of constitutional arrogance and political deceit: lawful on the surface but deeply damaging to the rule of law and possibly criminal or impeachable as an obstruction of justice.
      Trump's extraordinary comments to NBC's Lester Holt [May 11] make clear that he fired Comey in an attempt to truncate the FBI's investigation of possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russian agents interfering with the U.S. election. Seemingly oblivious to the damning implications. Trump acknowledged to Holt that he had planned to fire Comey without regard to the pretext that he had arranged by ordering up a recommendation from the nation's two highest law enforcement officials at the Justice Department.
      Attorney General Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein are two of the collateral damage victims of Trump's deceit. Sessions' letter recommending Comey's dismissal violated his pledge during his Senate confirmation process to recuse himself from all investigations of the Trump campaign. Any self-respecting senator on either side of the aisle should rise in indignation and demand at the least an investigation of Sessions' action by the department's inspector general.
      Sessions had been damaged goods already given his false testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had never met with Russian officials as a Trump surrogate during the presidential campaign. Rosenstein, on the other hand, had an unblemished reputation as a U.S. attorney in Maryland that gained him Senate confirmation on a 94-6 vote for the Justice Department's second-ranking position.
      Presciently, however, the six Democratic senators who voted against Rosenstein's confirmation were troubled by his balking at a promise to appoint a special prosecutor for the Russia probe. Now, he has allowed himself to be co-opted into the president's plot to thwart the investigation.
      Rosenstein affixed his signature—and his reputation—to a slap-dash letter listing Comey's missteps that exaggerated the damage to the FBI's reputation and that ignored the inspector general's pending investigation of Comey's actions. As the always thoughtful Benjamin Wittes wrote on Lawfare, "Rosenstein was tasked to provide a pretext, and he did just that." Wittes's recommendation sums up the difficult choice Rosenstein now faces: appoint a special prosecutor and then resign.
      Trump also threw press secretary Sean Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders under the bus by letting them spin the press -- and the public -- on the basis of palpably false talking points. CNN ran a devastating compilation of sound-bites from Vice President Mike Pence, Spicer, and Sanders, all using the identically phrased description that Trump "took the recommendation of the deputy attorney general" in firing Comey.
      Deviously, Trump soiled Comey's reputation further by claiming in his own letter that the FBI director had personally assured him not once but three times that he himself was not under investigation  As Trump depicted the most specific episode, Comey asked for a dinner meeting because he wanted to keep his job and gave the assurance when the president asked.
      The account strains credulity. It is far more plausible, as those close to Comey recounted, that the president asked for the meeting and Comey felt obliged to accept. In any event, the meeting and the subsequent telephone conversations breached Justice Department protocols regarding pending investigations--and the claimed assurances, if given, all the more.
      In the wake of all these disclosures, legal experts mulled whether the president had committed an obstruction of justice, as broadly defined in federal law. To begin, it must be conceded that despite the fixed 10-year term for the FBI director, the president had the authority to fire Comey with or without cause. The post-Watergate tenure provision was designed more to limit the FBI director's power than the president's.
      On the surface, however, Trump's actions seem to fit the wording in 18 U.S.C. §1512, which makes it a crime if someone corruptly "obstructs, influences or impedes any official proceeding." The practical obstacles to such a charge would be daunting, according to a survey by Charlie Savage, the New York Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent who has been dogging presidential abuses since George W. Bush's years in the White House. The Justice Department is unlikely to bring the charge, Savage noted, and proof of motive would be very hard to prove in any event.
      With criminal prosecution improbable, critics and experts naturally turned to impeachment. Trump's description of the Russia probe as "a made-up thing" has echoes of the Nixonian description of Watergate as a "third-rate burglary." Trump's conduct seems to fit the wording in the first article of impeachment against Nixon that he has "prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice." Harvard's distinguished constitutional law expert Laurence Tribe was perhaps the most prominent expert seen to be tweeting that it was not too early to consider impeachment as the constitutional remedy for Trump's abuses in office.
      Impeachment is beyond the realm of possibility, however, unless House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell decide to put country over party and stand up against the president. Trump remains popular with his minority political base even as a majority of Americans strongly disapprove his performance, according to the most recent poll. The path out of what amounts to a genuine constitutional crisis—a president who respects neither the law nor the truth—is nowhere in sight.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Banks May Pay for Ravaging Minority Neighborhoods

      The nation's big banks got by mostly scot-free for the harm they did to the nation's economy and in particular the housing market leading up to the Great Recession of 2007-08. But the Supreme Court cleared the way last week [May 1] for the nation's cities to hold the banks at least somewhat accountable for the particular harm they did to minority homebuyers and the boarded-up minority neighborhoods left behind after waves of foreclosures.
      The Supreme Court's decision in Bank of America v. Miami clears the way for the city of Miami to use the Fair Housing Act to try to recover damages from BofA and Wells Fargo for financial losses the city blames on the banks' policies of targeting predatory mortgage loans to African American and Latino customers. The city's complaint, yet to be tested at trial, includes statistics and whistle-blower affidavits substantiating the banks' practices of steering minority homebuyers to mortgages with less favorable terms than those offered to white customers.
      The banks made money on the loans and then ended up with the houses by foreclosing on the properties when the would-be homeowners, predictably, defaulted on the lender-friendly mortgages. Miami was one of several big cities that claimed that boarded-up minority neighborhoods cost them property tax revenue and added to the cost of providing law enforcement and other municipal services. Two cities have won seven-figure settlements in such cases, but Miami's prospects in an eventual trial are uncertain.
      The racial discrimination was both more subtle and more pervasive than was practiced in the bad old days. Back before the Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968 and still afterward, real estate agents helped create and maintain residential segregation in cities and suburbs alike simply by steering black clients away from white neighborhoods.
      The Fair Housing Act had been on the books for only a decade when the Supreme Court first confronted the question whether a city could use the law to sue real estate agents for financial losses attributable to residential segregation. The court answered in the affirmative in Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood (1979) by broadly construing the statutory terms allowing any "aggrieved person" to sue for damages if "injured by a discriminatory housing practice."
      Bellwood, a tiny village in the Chicago suburbs, joined individual plaintiffs in suing two real estate firms that housing "testers" had shown to have been practicing racial steering. The court's 7-2 decision went so far as to allow suits by the individual testers even though they were gathering evidence and not actually looking for apartments. In its complaint, Bellwood claimed that the practices were lowering property values and robbing the village of racial balance and stability.
      Writing for the majority, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. accepted the village's standing to sue the two firms for damages. "A significant reduction in property values directly injures a municipality by diminishing its tax base, thus threatening its ability to bear the costs of local government and provide services," Powell wrote. "Other harms flowing from the realities of a racially segregated community are not unlikely," he added.
      In the new case, Justice Stephen G. Breyer led a 5-3 majority in relying on the Bellwood decision to uphold Miami's effort to sue the two banks. Miami's claimed injuries, he wrote, "arguably fall within the FHA's zone of interests, as we have previously interpreted that statute." Breyer's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who assigned the opinion to Breyer as the senior justice in the majority, and Breyer's three liberal colleagues: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr., dissented on the point.
      The justices were unanimous, however, in tightening somewhat the burden of proof that Miami will have to meet to prevail at trial. Breyer said that the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had been too lax in allowing Miami to recover for any "foreseeable" losses. Instead, Breyer said, the city would have to show "some direct relation" between the banks' practices and the claimed losses. In his dissenting opinion, Thomas said that Miami's allegations were "extremely attenuated" and predicted that the city could not meet the "rigorous" standard laid out in Breyer's opinion.
      The banks both issued statements vowing to defend the suits and predicting eventual vindication. For his part, civil rights lawyer Robert Peck, who argued Miami's case at the Supreme Court, said he was confident that Miami could meet the causation standard. Peck will be arguing an appeal by the city of Los Angeles later this month seeking to reinstate a similar suit ordered dismissed by a district court judge.
      Erwin Chemerinsky, a leading liberal academic and dean of the University of California-Irvine School of Law, called the ruling "an important victory for civil rights." It is a measure of the court's retreat on racial justice that the justices reaffirmed a 7-2 decision only by a narrower 5-3 vote and only with an 8-0 burden of proof ruling casting some doubt on the city's eventual claims. But Amanda Kellar, general counsel for the International Municipal Lawyers Association, predicted cities would succeed in making banks pay. "There's plenty of evidence," Kellar said, "that discriminatory lending practices not only caused devastating losses to individuals but also had concrete effects on municipalities."


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Under Trump, Stock Market Up, Justice Index Down

      The Trump presidency has marked its 100th day with the stock markets up, but the justice index sharply down. The markets may have fallen victim to premature exuberance over the cloudy prospects for tax breaks for the well-to-do and regulatory relief for business and industry. But justice advocates are rightly troubled by all the steps the administration has already taken and seems intent on pursuing to set back the cause of equal rights and social justice both at home and abroad.
      A word first about the Trump stock market bubble. The S&P index closed on Friday [April 28] up 5 percent from its setting on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. Among post-World War II presidents, that gives Trump bragging rights over all but two: Kennedy and Bush41, who saw the market rise 9 percent in 1961 and almost 8 percent in 1989 respectively. The market fell 5.5 percent in Bush43's first 100 days, according to data from CNBC; it rose 2.8 percent in Obama's first 100 days and then another 18.7 percent over the next six months as Obama's policies helped lift the country from the Great Recession.
      The current stock market gains mean very little for the supposedly forgotten white working-class voters who gave Trump the margin for his Electoral College victory in a few battleground states and who depend on wages and salaries to earn a living. The fragmentary tax plan released by the White House on Wednesday [April 26] confirms the hopes of Trump's better-heeled supporters for lower tax bills for the rich and for corporations and dashes any hopes for significant tax breaks for middle- and lower-income taxpayers.
      To date, Trump has done little for the economically stressed middle-class workers he promised during his campaign to help, apart from photo-op announcements of supposedly saving factory jobs. And in a telling policy move on Trump's first full day in office the  Department of Housing and Urban Development reversed an Obama administration decision that would have lowered mortgage insurance premiums on loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration. FHA-insured loans are popular among first-time homebuyers and those with poor credit; they stood to save hundreds of dollars a year under the policy quietly jettisoned by Trump's HUD.
      On issues more directly related to law and justice, the administration has been anything but quiet in instituting policies or signaling future moves to set back criminal justice, LGBT rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, and human rights abroad. The setbacks for justice policies come as no surprise given Trump's selection of the conservative Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general to head what, it must be remembered, is called the Department of Justice.
      Sessions has echoed the president's inaugural address warning about the supposed "carnage" in American cities, inciting public support for punitive anti-crime policies even with the crime rate at historically low levels. In perhaps the most distressing and least justifiable of his policy moves, Sessions has scaled back the Justice Department's oversight of local police departments. Sessions called the kinds of investigations that brought court-monitored, agreed-upon reforms to such troubled cities as Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., as part of a war on police. He directed a review of the existing consent decrees in nearly two dozen cities and stalled work on future agreements.
      As attorney general, Sessions has also echoed Trump in unsubstantiated warnings about voter fraud, thus attempting to shore up the dubious rationales for stricter voter ID laws even as federal court challenges proceed. In the highest-profile of such cases, the department under Sessions switched its previous position that Texas was guilty of intentional racial discrimination in enacting its strict voter ID law in 2011. Private plaintiffs fortunately are still pressing the claim, which could result in reinstituting preclearance requirements for any Texas voting law changes.
      Sessions also played a decisive role in reversing another Obama administration policy: the Education Department's directive to local school districts to allow transgender pupils to use restrooms and locker facilities corresponding to their gender identity. Reportedly, Sessions had to prevail on a reluctant Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reverse the Obama administration policy guidance broadly interpreting the sex discrimination law known as Title IX to encompass gender identity. The move caused the Supreme Court to back away from a ruling in a transgender rights case, Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., by sending the case back to a federal appeals court to take account of the new Trump administration policy.
      The Justice Department was also tasked with defending two of Trump's most legally dubious moves. So far, federal courts have rejected Trump's first and second "travel ban" executive orders that amounted to thinly disguised Muslim bans as Trump had called for in his campaign. A federal judge in San Francisco last week also rejected the executive order Trump issued in his first week threatening to cut off federal funds to so-called "sanctuary cities" that resist being commandeered into enforcing federal immigration law.
      Trump's most concrete legal accomplishment, of course, has been his appointment of the committed conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. In 13 oral arguments over the past two weeks, Gorsuch gave court watchers no reason to doubt his future alignment with the court's conservatives in pro-law enforcement positions in criminal cases and pro-business stances in regulatory and civil justice cases. Even without recorded votes, Gorsuch evidently saw no need to tighten Supreme Court review of death penalty procedures as the justices allowed to go on an unseemly execution spree over the past two weeks.
      Far from concerned about these issues, Trump signaled his confidence in administration policies and U.S. standing in the world by proclaiming May 1 to be Loyalty Day. "The United States stands as the world's leader in upholding the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice," Trump declared. However true or not in years past, that claim rings hollow indeed as his administration moves past the 100-day milestone used to judge previous presidents.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Judges' Role in Death Cases Curbed as Sotomayor Urged

      Justice Sonia Sotomayor can now take a bow for significant reforms in death penalty cases in two of the states with among the highest number of executions since capital punishment was reinstituted in 1976: Alabama and Florida.  Those two states were until recently the only two where judges in recent years could and actually did impose death sentences even after juries voted for life or long prison sentences instead.
      Both states have now enacted laws eliminating judges' power to impose a death sentence except based on factual findings or recommendations from a jury. Alabama's new governor, Kay Ivey, signed a bill repealing the state's judicial override procedure earlier this month [April 11] just one day after taking over following the resignation of her sex scandal-plagued predecessor, Robert Bentley.
      Florida changed its law in March 2016 to eliminate a judge's power to impose a death sentence without input from the trial jury. The change came three months after the Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that the state's procedure ran afoul of a decade-long line of precedents generally limiting a judge's power to make factual findings needed to increase a defendant's sentence.
      Sotomayor authored the 8-1 decision in the Florida case, but she had first spoken out against judge-imposed death sentences in an Alabama case two Supreme Court terms earlier. In Woodward v. Alabama, Sotomayor wrote an impassioned dissenting opinion
from the court's refusal in November 2013 to consider an Alabama death row inmate's challenge to the judicial override procedure.
      A judge had sentenced Mario Dion Woodward to death for the killing of a Montgomery police officer, but in the face of an 8-4 jury recommendation that he be spared the death penalty and sentenced to life imprisonment instead. In her opinion, Sotomayor noted that Alabama was the only state within the previous decade where judges had actually imposed death sentences in the face of contrary verdicts.
      Alabama judges had actually made somewhat frequent use of this power, Sotomayor noted. She listed in an appendix the 95 defendants sentenced to death by Alabama judges after contrary sentencing recommendations by juries. By contrast, Alabama judges had overridden jury-recommended death sentences only nine times. And Sotomayor pointed out that the number of judge-imposed death sentences appeared to spike in election seasons. One judge, she noted, had noted in his campaign literature the six defendants he had sentenced to death, including one that the jury had recommended be given a life sentence instead.
      Sotomayor was joined in her dissent by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, but not by the court's other two liberal justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. She acknowledged in her opinion that the Supreme Court had previously upheld Florida's judicial override procedure in capital cases.
      Florida had once led the nation in what Sotomayor called "life-to-death overrides," with 89 in the 1980s compared to 30 in Alabama and six in Indiana. By the 1990s, Alabama had taken the lead with 44 compared to 26 in Florida and four in Indiana. After 2000, Alabama stood alone with 26 life-to-death overrides; in the only other case, in Delaware, the judge-imposed death sentence was reduced on appeal to a life term.
      Sotomayor achieved her goal in March 2015 when the court agreed to hear a new Florida case challenging that state's judicial override procedure in capital cases. The case was argued early in the new term, in October 2015, and ended with a nearly unanimous decision overruling the previous decisions upholding Florida's procedure. "Time and subsequent cases have washed away the logic of [the earlier decisions]," Sotomayor wrote. As the lone dissenter, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued that the "advisory" role played by the jury under Florida law satisfied the line of precedents requiring juries not judges to make factual findings needed to increase a defendant's sentence.
      Florida passed its new law three months later to eliminate judges' power to impose death sentences unless recommended by at least a 10-2 jury vote. The writing appeared to be on the wall for Alabama's judicial override procedure after the court sent an Alabama case back to the state's court to consider the impact of its decision in Hurst. The Alabama legislature completed approval of a bill to repeal the judicial override provision on April 4; Bentley had promised to sign it, but it fell to Ivey to sign the measure after Bentley's resignation.
      Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, called the repeal "significant." He noted to the Birmingham Times that historically judicial overrides had been seen as a safeguard against runaway juries, but that in contemporary times the power "has been used to impose death sentences against the will of the community and has been disproportionately used in election years in cases of white victims and African am defendants."
      Today, Sotomayor has become the court's most vocal critic of the lethal injection procedures currently used in death penalty states. She spoke for the four liberal justices in dissenting from the decision in Glossip v. Gross (2015) upholding the current three-step lethal injection procedure.
      Sotomayor reiterated her points from that dissent as recently as Thursday night [April 19] in voting to grant stays of executions to the Arkansas inmates seeking to halt the state's plans to carry out eight executions within a span of two weeks. With one significant reform to her credit, Sotomayor can be expected to keep up the pressure on this issue as well.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

On Use of Force, Law Is Toothless, Not Pointless

       The results of President Trump's decision to launch missile strikes against the Syrian air force base in retaliation for its use in a chemical weapons attack on civilian populations can now be toted up. In short, the strikes achieved little in terms of military or diplomatic objectives, but Trump got a bump in his approval rating and a distraction from the investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian government.
       The episode also lays bare for all to see the rank hypocrisy of Republican politicians and Republican voters who rushed to Trump's support despite having opposed any similar U.S. intervention four years ago when President Obama was in the White House. A survey by the Pew Research Center found overall support for Trump's action — 58 percent to 36 percent — with Republicans supportive by a 4-1 margin: 77 percent to 19 percent.
       Four years earlier, Pew's survey found Republicans opposed to intervention: 35 percent in favor, 40 percent opposed. The 2013 survey found Democrats and independents opposed by larger margins: 48 percent to 29 percent for Democrats, 50 percent to 29 percent for independents. But it was opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill that forced Obama to fold his cards. Obama had argued that he could act on his own but explained that he wanted Congress's support to strengthen the U.S. position.
       Trump's all but unilateral decision prompted a useful if inconclusive debate over the legality of his actions, with no more than minimal consultation with leaders in Congress and no resort to international law or the peacekeeping machinery of the United Nations. The history of this and similar debates earlier gives pause to any sticklers for separation of powers or international law. But it is too facile to treat either domestic or international law merely as toothless restraints on the president's power to use military force.
       The constitutional debate over the president's warmaking powers is long-lived, a built-in feature of the separate provisions that make the president the commander in chief but give Congress the power to "declare" war. The debate was well joined in the Vietnam era. The various legal challenges to the Vietnam War were never fully adjudicated, but Congress eventually responded by enacting the War Powers Act in an effort to limit any extended commitment of U.S. forces abroad without congressional approval.
       The law, adopted in November 1973 over President Richard Nixon's veto, requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing U.S. forces abroad and requires withdrawal of U.S. forces within 60 days unless Congress affirmatively approves. Trump followed other presidents' examples by notifying Congress of the missile strikes two days after the launches but without formally acknowledging any obligation to do so.
       The three-paragraph letter sent to Congress on April 8 was admittedly brief, but constitutes the most formal statement of Trump's intentions and justifications for his decision. "I directed this action in order to degrade the Syrian military's ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks and to dissuade the Syrian regime from using or proliferating chemical weapons," Trump wrote, "thereby promoting the stability of the region and averting a worsening of the region's current humanitarian catastrophe."
       Two days earlier, Trump had announced the missile strikes to Americans and the world in a televised address from Mar-a-Lago not even three minutes long: heavy on bathos, light on tactical or legal content. Now, more than a week later, Trump has still been light on explaining the policy or exploring the implications even as his principal advisers send conflicting signals on long-term goals regarding the future of the Syrian strongman Bashar Al Assad.
       As for the War Powers Act, Charles Stevenson, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, argues that the law has achieved its purposes even without formal presidential acknowledgment. Stevenson, an aide to the dovish Iowa senator Harold Hughes back in the Vietnam era, notes that no overseas conflict since 1973 has lasted more than three to four months without congressional approval.
       International law operates as even less of a formal restraint on presidential warmaking, but it too should not be completely discounted. Trump's televised address sounded not like an "America First" foreign policy but more like what some experts are calling an emerging doctrine of humanitarian intervention in international law.
       Ironically, Trump has gotten support for the missile strikes from a liberal veteran of the Obama administration: Harold Koh, the human rights-minded Yale law professor and State Department legal adviser under Obama. Koh argued in a law review article that humanitarian intervention, even without U.N. Security Council approval, may be legal under international law if various conditions are met. The humanitarian crisis must be one that threatens international order, and the intervention must be limited and necessary to prevent a per se violation of international law, such as use of chemical weapons.
       Trump's impulsive resort to missile strikes was satisfying no doubt: an eye poke to Assad and, incidentally, to his Russian ally Vladimir Putin. But Trump could have strengthened his case, and shown more respect for public opinion at home and abroad, by dotting the i's and crossing the t's of applicable law, even now if only after the fact.