Saturday, July 16, 2016

On Trump, ACLU Hits Target That Ginsburg Missed

      Credit the American Civil Liberties Union for taking the debate about Donald Trump in the direction that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg might have been able to if she had gone beyond off-hand comments to a succession of three reporters. In a comprehensive, 27-page report released on Thursday [July 11], the ACLU makes the case that Trump’s stated policies in six major areas would violate the U.S. Constitution, U.S. law, or international law, or all three. Coincidentally, the report came just as Ginsburg was saying in a written statement that her comments were “ill-advised.”
      The ACLU report stresses at the outset that the organization does not endorse, and never has endorsed, candidates for public office. The ACLU does law, not politics. The report is thus heavy with legal citations and essentially void of political analysis and gains in credibility thereby. No one will be surprised that Trump’s views on abortion, immigration, libel, and torture run afoul of law, but the ACLU does a great service by proving it, point by point by point by point.
      As a justice, Ginsburg does law, not politics, but her comments about Trump were strictly political and void of legal analysis. In her most extended remarks, to CNN’s Joan Biskupic, she called Trump a “faker,” faulted him for “ego,” and accused him of “no consistency.” Only once did she touch on the issue of Trump’s lack of respect for judicial independence. “For the country, it could be four years,” she told the New York Times’s Adam Liptak. “For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that.”
      The comments predictably provoked Trump, who tweeted that Ginsburg was “a disgrace to the court” and suggested that she had “lost it.” In nonpolitical vein, many in political and legal worlds argued that Ginsburg had breached the ethical rule that judges should steer clear of politics. Two liberal newspapers, theNew York Times itself and the Washington Post, editorially criticized her. The Times aptly described her remarks as “political punditry” and “time-calling.”
      Some on the legal left, however, suggested that Ginsburg had the right and even the duty to speak out. Ginsburg was entitled to her surely well known opinions, they said, and it was good to unmask the fiction of judges as political ciphers. Trump’s candidacy poses a danger that demands speaking out and condemns silence. One writer, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern argued that Ginsburg was justified because of the “menace” that Trump poses for the country.
      Some continued to defend her even after the justice herself voiced her regrets. “Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office,” she said. “In the future, I will be more circumspect.”
      The ACLU report has no name-calling, no punditry, only legal analysis, issue by issue. It begins by noting Trump’s call for “a complete and total ban” on Muslims entering the country, as immigrants or tourists. The report infers that Trump has in mind the federal law authorizing the president to suspend entry of a “class of aliens.” But it argues that the law probably does not go that far and would violate the Constitution —  the Establishment Clause among other provisions — if a president tried to stretch it that far.
      In like vein, the report argues that Trump’s proposal for blanket surveillance and registration of Muslims in the United States would be unconstitutional, a violation of equal protection as well as the First Amendment’s free exercise and free speech clauses. Apart from the Constitution, the Muslim “database” would surely violate federal privacy statutes, the report adds.
      The report notes Trump’s endorsement in May 2015, before his presidential campaign, of legislation to allow the National Security Agency to collect “bulk metadata” of telephone calls by Americans. Congress changed the law less than two weeks later to prohibit collecting Americans’ call records in bulk, but Trump appears not to have changed his views. In an interview on MSNBC in November, Trump said in regard to telephone surveillance that he would “err on the side of security.” The report repeats the ACLU’s position that such surveillance is both unconstitutional and illegal.
      Trump has advocated waterboarding and other forms of torture, the report notes, seemingly reveling in the practice. He has said that he “love[s] waterboarding” and approves of the practice because “they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.” The Bush administration authorized waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” under a Justice Department memorandum that was later repudiated. As the ACLU report states bluntly, torture and “other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” are “banned” by the U.S. Constitution, domestic law, and international law--with no “deviations” permitted.
      On domestic issues, Trump has called for revising libel laws “so that we can sue [media outlets] and win money.” But there is no federal libel law — nor can the president write one without Congress — and any change would run into the Supreme Court’s famous New York Times v. Sullivan ruling and subsequent line of decisions.
      Trump stirred controversy in March by suggesting that women need to be “punished” for abortions. He tried to walk back from the stance while still calling for punishing doctors. Whatever his position, the ACLU report correctly notes that the Constitution “squarely prohibits” either the federal or state governments from prohibiting abortion.
      Unfortunately, the ACLU report got little attention in a week dominated by political events at home and terrorism abroad. Had Ginsburg given a formal speech or interview to question the legal basis of some of Trump’s proposals, it would have made a contribution worthy of and possibly within the ethical rules of a Supreme Court justice. She didn’t. Credit the ACLU for doing it instead.

2 comments:

  1. Has the ACLU done this type of analysis on other Presidential candidates in the past? Have they done one on Hillary Clinton (I can't find one)?

    I haven't looked at the ACLU analysis, but based on your post above the constitutionality of some of his proposals is subject to interpretation. The ban on Muslims doesn't seem much different from measures against Japanese, Germans, or Italians during the World Wars (religion vs ethnicity does complicate it). This isn't to say they WWI or WWII measures should be constitutional, but they were considered so at the time.

    Saying the president cannot write a libel law without Congress irrelevant. President Obama called for a new health care law as a candidate even though he could not "write one without Congress". The vast majority of presidential campaign promises cannot be implemented without Congressional action yet candidates continue to make them.

    I'm no fan of Donald Trump but there seems an ever rising level of panic over the chance he might be elected. Some of his proposals are constitutionally questionable. This has been true of numerous past proposals by candidates. Other proposals depend on the interpretation of the constitution by the current court (thus the emphasis on abortion each time a new Supreme Court nominee is to be confirmed). I have enough faith in our system to believe Donald Trump has as much chance to turn the United States into the fascist dictatorship some seem to fear as Barack Obama had to create the socialist dictatorship feared by some of his opponents.

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