Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Understanding what happened

I am working on a several pieces regarding the annual early summer flurry of Supreme Court decisions, including the decision on same sex marriage and what I think it portends for the future. Without regard to whether the extension of marriage laws to same sex couples is or is not a good idea. I think that the Court got it wrong. In fact, as a matter of law (as opposed to public policy or moral philosophy), it is one of the worst decisions I have ever read. This is not because it recognizes same sex marriage. While I think the notion that the Constitution has anything to say on this is quite wrong, one could have written a much better opinion to argue that it does. In fact, Judge Barbara Crabb, even though I disagreed with her conclusion, did precisely that in striking down the definition of marriage chosen by the people of Wisconsin.

The problem with last week's decision is the  standardless way in which it was done. This will now haunt the law in other areas.  It is just not resemble anything that we might properly call legal reasoning and it has no boundaries. Although the Court feinted in the direction of equal protection, it engaged in nothing resembling equal protection analysis. Rather it relied on a handful of cases recognizing a free floating right to either be free of laws that restrict your ability to define yourself  (or, in this case, to demand the application of laws that help you to do so). If that's permissible, then the Court can strike down almost any law depending on what the current crop of Justices believe that self-definition requires. Our democracy will exist at the sufferance of unelected judges. But more on that later.

I wanted to post now to respond to a misstatement in a Journal Sentinel editorial praising the decision. (I'm helping them out this week.) The editorial board wrote that thirty-six states allow same sex marriage and that Friday's decision simply compels the fourteen remaining states to go along. This makes it seem like the Court simply roped in a few outliers. That's not accurate. In fact, only eleven states and the District of Columbia (all of them about as blue as you can get) decided to allow same sex marriage through democratic means. Another five have adopted it by the command of a state court interpreting a state constitution. All of the remaining states in which same sex marriage is recognized ("allow" is the wrong word; same sex couples were "allowed" to exist everywhere) did it by command of the federal courts. Most of those decisions came after Justice Kennedy had clearly signaled that there were five votes for Friday's result in the Windsor decision in 2013. Perhaps all of these states would have come to extend their marriage laws to same sex couples, but we'll never know.

If last week's decision had gone the other way - if no right to same sex marriage had been found - all of those federal decisions would have been effectively overruled and the law in each of those states, including Wisconsin,  would have returned to what it was before a federal court had intervened. So last week's decision actually invalidated or affirmed the invalidation of the law in thirty-four states.

This is not just a pedantic or technical point. In the history of the Court, I can think of only few decisions  - maybe as few as one - that imposed so radical a change on so many states. Love it or hate it, the Supreme Court has done something that it rarely does. You'd think there would be a strong legal basis for it. But more on that later.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Some observations on King v. Burwell

My friends at the Journal Sentinel editorial board like the Supreme Court's decision in King v. Burwell. Fair enough. My take is different. But they get some things about it wrong. Let me offer the following friendly correctives.

First, they say that they always regarded the challenge to the availability of subsidies in federal exchanges to be frivolous. They are entitled to that view, although how non-lawyers presume to know that is beyond me. The frequency with which lay people dismiss legal positions as frivolous is one of my pet peeves. To call a claim "frivolous" is not to say that you think its wrong or even unlikely to prevail. It is to say that no lawyer could make a reasonable argument for it. The claim in King v. Burwell was not even close to frivolous.

But don't take my word for it.  Here's who also didn't think it was frivolous. Every member of the United States Supreme Court. Obviously three Justices thought it meritorious. But writing for himself and the other five, Chief Justice Roberts said that "[p]etioners' arguments about the plain meaning of Section 36B are strong." Sorry, guys, "strong" is not the same as frivolous.

Second, they say that Chief Justice Roberts, reading the statute in context, found the answer to be "clear." No, he did not. In fact, that is precisely what he did not find. He went to great lengths - did "somersaults" and interpretive "jiggery-pokery"* in Justice Scalia's colorful terms - to find that the statute was not clear. It was ambiguous. That's important . Unless he could say that it was ambiguous, he would have no choice but to apply it as written.

Third, Chief Justice Roberts made no finding about legislative intent - at least not in the way that courts typically do. He did not scour the legislative history and learn that "Congress" had expressed an unrealized intent to have the subsidies available in federal exchanges. He couldn't. The legislative history is almost completely silent on this question.

Fourth, whatever Congress did, it was not, as the board puts it, a "clerical error." Any minimally competent lawyer who read this language would know immediately that it limited subsidies to state exchanges. In fact, if that what's you wanted to do, this is precisely how you'd go about it. This was no typo. (If, in fact, Congress did intend subsidies to be paid in the federal exchanges, it should frighten us all that none of the expensive lawyers who populate the District of Columbia caught this.)

Finally, the Board kicks dirt at the idea that courts ought to apply legal language "literally" as if statutory construction was best seen as a jazz riff. You might as well criticize your doctor for "literally" applying what she learned in medical school. Reading statutory language to do what you think will make a law work better (and, therefore, must be what Congress "really"meant) necessarily requires that you form your own judgment about what the law is supposed to do and how that should be done. But that will almost never be obvious. Even in King, the Court had to decide that Congress was not limiting subsidies to state exchanges in order to provide states with an incentive to create them. It had to decide that the possibility that the absence of subsidies would lead to adverse selection in federal exchanges such that Congress simply could not have meant what it seemed to say. Whether you think they got it right or not, these are legislative - not judicial - judgments.

The one thing about "formalistic" and "literal" applications of the law is that they prevent judges from doing whatever they want.  They respect the separation of powers. I don't think any particular law - no matter how much we may like it - is worth abandoning these foundational elements of our constitutional structure. If the ACA needed saving, it was a job for Congress and not the Supreme Court.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The real tragedy of hatred

Whenever there is one of these awful mass shootings, someone somewhere will blame some aspect of "society" for what happened. A collective "we" are said to share the blame and the actions of a mad man and whatever demons possessed him must be understood in the "context" of some social evil. There is usually a political slant. "Privileged" people don't value less privileged people. "Elites" encourage nihilism and resentment toward society.

President Obama went so far as to indict America for the Charleston shootings, falsely claiming that these shooting "don't happen" in other developed countries. This will come as a surprise to the people at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the AUF summer camp inTyrifjorden, Norway, the Tasso da Silveira Municipal School in Rio or the Dunblane Primary School in Scotland. It would have been accurate to say that mass shootings are more frequent in the United States but adding even that level of nuance would have stepped on his preferred narrative.

Of course, we can all play this game and find the villain we want, serving whatever hash tag philosophy we prefer. We can use the Charleston shootings to denounce white racism and public insensitivity to questions of "privilege." When two black teenagers set a kid on fire in Kansas City for being a "white boy" or a couple of cops in New York are executed as "revenge" for Eric Garner,  we can blame black racism and pundits who play "the race card."

If I want to rail against environmental extremism, I've got the Unabomber and Earth Liberation Front. If I want to smear folks who don't like the federal government, I can invoke Timothy McVeigh. If I think Islam is a problem, I invoke the Fort Hood shootings. If I'm worried about anti-Muslim bias, I can point to the Sikh Temple shootings. Anti-gay animus? Matthew Shepherd. Gay hostility against Christians? The shootings at the Family Research Council.

Even if a shooting was demonstrably not motivated by whatever or whomever we want to blame, folks will do it anyway. The "Tea Party" was blamed for the shooting of Gabby Giffords even though the shooter turned out not to be a political conservative. Even fifty years after the fact, supposedly responsible writers blame "the right" for the assassination of John F. Kennedy even though Oswald was a Marxist who targeted Kennedy for his anti-communism.

Sometimes violence is a manifestation of an organized political movement and it makes sense to treat it as such. But more often - at least in this country - lunacy precedes whatever rationale the lunatic chooses, The Charleston shooter rooted his insanity in racial animus but this tells us little about the state of race relations or what, beyond denouncing his vile delusions, to do about them. The confederate battle flag, for example, should not be flown in any context that implies official approval of the confederate cause which is inextricably intertwined with slavery. But the flag did not make him do it. Take it down, by all means, but removal of the flag will not make future violence less likely.

Some of this rush to politicize the actions of crazy persons is shameful opportunism, but not all of it. Events like the Charleston shootings are inexplicably evil. The notion that they may be random and unpredictable and beyond our control is frightening. We want to believe that we can order the world to prevent them. We want to believe that we can alter humanity's attitudes or relationships in a way that will assure that no human will do things like this. In a sense, when we believe that the wrong politics are to blame for unfathomable crimes and that new attitudes or social arrangements will prevent them, we are like Job crying out to a different type of God.

But Job got no answer and I'm afraid that we won't either. The problem is not in our politics, it's in ourselves - not as products of bad ideologies but as broken individuals.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Bucks and the billionaires

I think that there are very respectable arguments against public support for a new arena. But one that is not respectable goes like this: The guys who own the Bucks are billionaires. They can afford to pay for an arena.

Over at Right Wisconsin, I explain why. The point is not whether Marc Lasry and Wes Edens could pay for a new arena. It's whether it is in their interest to do so. Few people, even billionaires, give money away simply because they can. If Milwaukee wants someone to buy the Bucks and keep them here, it may need to pay them because it is asking them to do something that is not profit maximizing. The team would be worth more in Seattle. It is a fair criticism to say that we ought not give money to billionaires. But we've got to acknowledge that, in asking some billionaire to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee, we are asking him to give something to us.

But it turns out to be that it is very likely that Edens and Lasry should be willing to contribute something to the arena. You can thank Herb Kohl for that.

Descriptions of of the sale of the Bucks form Kohl to Edens and Lasry gives the NBA the right to buy the Bucks for $ 575 million should the arena not be built by 2017. In technical terms, the current owners do not have a "put" (the right to make the NBA buy the team), the league has a "call" (the right to make Edens and Lasry sell it.) The distinction is critical.

Edens and Lasry bought the team for $ 550 million. It may well be worth more than that today. Shortly after the Bucks were sold, the Los Angeles Clippers sold for $ 2 billion. The NBA has a very lucrative TV deal and, while the Bucks in Milwaukee are not going to be worth what a team in Los Angeles is worth, they may are almost certainly worth more than what they sold for. In a larger market (say Seattle), they would be worth a lot more.

But Edens and Lasry can't just move the team to Seattle. As Dan O'Donnell points out, if Milwaukee refuses to build an arena, the NBA will make them sell the team to the league. The league will then auction it off to the highest bidder. The profit (save $ 25 million) will be enjoyed by the NBA and the other 29 owners - not Edens and Lasry. If this is so, then Edens and Lasry need the arena deal to get done. They should be willing to pay something to make that happen - not because they "can afford it" but because it is in their interest.

But they won't necessarily be willing to pay for the entire cost of the building and perhaps not more than they have already agreed to pay. It all depends on what the team is worth - in Milwaukee. That is also critical. Unless the people negotiating this deal for the state are incompetent, the final arena deal will be structured in a way that ensures that the team remains in Milwaukee for a long time. The Milwaukee Bucks may be worth more than $ 550 - or even 575 - million, they will not be worth what the Seattle Bucks would be worth.

Let's try an example. Forbes estimates that the Bucks are worth $ 600 million in Milwaukee, but that's not necessarily all they would sell for -  even if they must remain in place. Forbes says, for example, that the Clippers are worth $ 1.6 billion. Yet that franchise sold for $ 2 billion. If you assume that the Bucks could be sold for a comparable 25% premium over Forbes evaluation, they might fetch $ 750 million. If that's so, then Edens and Lasry's $ 150 million is close to the top of the range of what  we can expect them to contribute.

I don't pretend to know what the team is worth or what the owners should be willing to pay. I make only two points. First, if they believe that the team is worth more than they paid for it, they should be willing to contribute something for the arena because they may lose that added value if it is not built. Second, because they must keep the team in Milwaukee if the arena is built, what they will be willing to contribute is going to be less than what it would be if they were free to do whatever they wanted with the team.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Political Tourette's, part I

Sometimes it seems that politicians speak to make noise.  To be sure, it is strategic bloviation. They string together of buzz words - lots of adjectives and emphatic ipse dixits - designed to evoke a mood, but nothing resembling an argument.  As one of the characters in HBO's VEEP observed, it's all "noise-shaped air."

One of the worst offenders is Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains). Recently, she put out an incomprehensible press release accusing School Choice Wisconsin President of "misrepresentation" of the demand for the choice program. SCW had put out a press release noting that the there by had been an increase in applications for the state wide Parental Choice Program. The problem, according to Rep. Pope, is that some of the applicants for 2015-2016 were in the program in 2014-2015 and should therefore be excluded from  the number of applicants in the latter year.

That is, of course, gibberish. These students "demanded" the program in 2014-2015 and continued to "demand" it in 2015-2016 by applying to remain in it. One does not calculate the level of demand for a given good or service by excluding those who demanded it in the past. If I want to know what the level of donations to the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty were in 2014, I don't exclude those who renewed donations that they made in 2013.

But I really wanted to focus on Rep. Pope's response to a memo by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau that calculated how much state aid would fund an expanded statewide voucher program if a given number of students enrolled in the program over the next ten years. The memo is of limited value. No one knows how many students will enroll in the voucher program. No one knows what other factors will be influencing the level of state aid over that period. And, of course, it makes no sense to discuss funding that has been "shifted" from public schools without considering the cost savings associated with students who those schools will no longer be educating. Whether the public schools will be better or worse off by allowing funding to follow the student is an empirical question.

But that's a subject for another day. In response to the LFB memo, Rep. Pope said that the point of choice expansion was to "reward the out-of-state interests that give millions to Republican campaigns …" This is a common meme of school choice opponents. They think that someone is out there profiting from the program.

I have yet to figure out who that is. The overwhelming number of schools accepting voucher students in Milwaukee are religious schools. Are the Archdiocese of Milwaukee or the Lutheran Missouri Synod (well, it does have Missouri in its name) "out-of state interests that give millions to Republican campaigns …." In these schools, the administrators and teachers generally make less money than those in public schools. If they are "profiteering," they seem to be making a hash of it. (While there have certainly been school operators who have misused voucher funds, public school employees have been known to do the same thing.)

In fairness, Rep. Pope - or whoever writes her press releases - is not the only one who seems to have some kind of phrase generation software that produces these word salads. I suppose that there is some perceived need to emote in response to something that you don't like.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Why takeovers happen

My colleague CJ Szafir has an op-ed in Saturday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the proposed Opportunity Schools Partnership Program. The OSPP would, among other things, allow the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a Commissioner who could run selected failing public schools in the City of Milwaukee. It is comparable to "opportunity" or "recovery" school districts that have been established around the country with some success.

Of course, as CJ points out, the proposal has been attacked as "racist" because … well, just because. It is apparently an act of bigotry to care about poor black kids attending failing schools.  The OSPP might not work, but MPS has had twenty five years of increased funding and has failed to turn these schools around. Trying something new can't hurt.

Against this, opponents of the proposal argue that it takes away "the democratic rights" of citizens of Milwaukee. They would still vote for the Milwaukee School Board. But a limited number of schools within Milwaukee would, at least for a time, no longer be run by the School Board. City voters also vote for the County Executive - so there would still be political accountability for operation of the OSPP. The County Executive is "local" but less "local" than a school board elected by only city voters.

That is a cost. But removing those schools from the control of the Board is not a bug in the proposal; it's a feature. School board elections tend to be dominated by persons with a special financial stake in the schools, most notably the teachers' unions. This is particularly so in Milwaukee where, until recently, all teachers were required to live in the city. This has a tendency to privilege the status quo and the parochial interests of those who work in the schools rather than those who learn in them. One of the ideas behind the OSPP is to move around this roadblock to reform.

Local control of schools is traditional and valuable, although over the years it has steadily eroded, often at the behest of the "progressives" who now lament its qualification by the proposed OSPP. But if it's broke, you've got to fix it.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin