Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Actually, the Senate Can "Obstruct" a Supreme Court nomination; it's called refusing to consent.

In yesterday’s Journal Sentinel, Marquette Law Professor Ed Fallone suggests that the Senate would be somehow abdicating its constitutional responsibility should it fail to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the United States Supreme Court. He’s wrong.

Professor Fallone begins by stating the obvious – and, in this context – irrelevant. The President has the sole authority to nominate a justice. No one disputes that. No one argues that the Senate has any role in the “pre-nomination” process or that it can place conditions or restrictions on who the President may nominate. The Senate has not done that.  An announcement by Senate leadership that it will only consent to certain kinds of candidates or even that it will consent to no  candidate places no limitation on the President’s ability to nominate who he wishes just as an announcement that a particular budget will be dead on arrival does not limit the President’s ability to propose it. If the Senate has – or is contemplating – doing something inconsistent with its constitutional duty, it must be something that will be done – or not done – after Judge Garland’s nomination.

But there is no duty to vote upon – or even to consider – a judicial nominee.  The President’s authority to appoint someone to the federal bench is contingent on the Senate’s advice and consent – something that it is constitutionally free to withhold for any reason it deems appropriate. In fact, the very authority cited by Professor Fallone makes that clear.

In an attempt to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy, he cites to a 2005 article by a conservative law professor John McGinnis posted on the website of the Heritage Foundation, a group that Professor Fallone accuses of seeking to “obstruct” Judge Garland’s nomination.  (Full disclosure:  I am a member of Heritage’s Legal Strategy Network.)

Professor McGinnis did indeed say that the Senate may not restrict the President’s selection of a nominee.

But he said something else as well:

The Senate has independent authority in that it may constitutionally refuse to confirm a nominee for any reason. While ideology and jurisprudential "point of view" were not among the kinds of concerns listed by the Framers as justifying the requirement of advice and consent, nothing in the text of the clause appears to limit the kind of considerations the Senate can take up. It is thus reasonable to infer that the Framers located the process of advice and consent in the Senate as a check to prevent the President from appointing people who have unsound principles as well as blemished characters. As the President has complete discretion in the use of his veto power, the Senate has complete and final discretion in whether to accept or approve a nomination.

(Emphasis added.)

In other words, while the President can ask the Senate to consent to the nomination of anyone he chooses, the Senate can say no for whatever reason it wants, including the desire to have a vacancy filled by the next President. Nothing in the constitutional text requires any particular process for withholding consent. There is no mandate to hold hearings or to have an up or down vote. Indeed, many lawyers have been nominated for the federal bench only to see their nominations fail for want of a hearing or vote.  The same is true for nominees to other branches who the Senate either opposes personally, or opposes for other, often unstated reasons.

Professor Fallone makes one other obvious point. “Hypocrisy,” he writes,” is nothing new in politics.” It sure isn’t. In a 2005 speech to the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd  (D- W. Va.) said that “[t]he Senate can refuse to confirm a nominee simply by saying nothing and doing nothing.” (The Center for American Progress today finds itself outraged by such an idea.) In lengthy remarks during the final year of George H.W. Bush’s nomination, now Vice President Joe Biden said that the Senate was well within its rights to refuse to consider a nominee that was not to its liking “once the political season is underway.”

Indeed, the Alliance for Justice, a left-wing lawyers group sponsoring the statement signed by Professor Fallone urging consideration of Garland, is famous for “obstructing” the nominees of Republican Presidents, including by filibuster.

What we have here is not a failure to abide by commonly held or binding legal principles. It is a failure to agree. Sometimes this results in a stand-off that only the next election can break.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Judge Kloppenburg's Recusal Distinction Doesn't Work

In this morning's Journal Sentinel, Joanne Kloppenburg attempted to explain why she sat on a case arising from the John Doe investigation. One of the Doe's targets - Wisconsin Club for Growth - had spent large amounts of money criticizing her during her campaign for the Supreme Court in 2011.

Given her views on the matter of campaign support and recusal, it is astonishing that she did not step aside. She has been quite critical of Supreme Court rules that allow - but do not require - judges to sit on cases involving parties who have contributed to or spent in support of his or her campaign. She even has gone so far to suggest that those justices who were supported by Club for Growth and, like her, stayed on the case contributed to an appearance of impropriety because "people around the state are saying that the decision and several others look to them like they were foregone conclusions and they believe there was a conflict of interest."

Well, let's see. If Justice David Prosser should not sit on a case in which the Club spent money that sharply criticized Kloppenburg and benefited his campaign, why can Joanne Kloppenburg - the person who was criticized - sit on the same case? After all, politics is a zero sum game. What the Club did to benefit Prosser harmed Kloppenburg.

This is Joanne Kloppenburg's excuse: "When you someone running ads for you there is a perception of quid pro quo that doesn't exist when someone is running ads against you." (By "quid pro quo," she means the possibility that support was traded for some subsequent action.)

That won't fly. Even if you think the opposition of one group can be disentangled from the support of opposing groups, it is inconsistent with our common sense understanding of the sources of judicial bias - a concept that goes well beyond the risk of a "quid pro quo." It suggests that Judge Kloppenburg has not read or does not understand the United States Supreme Court's jurisprudence on this question. 

Judge Kloppenburg's focus on "quid pro quo" confuses the Supreme Court's campaign finance jurisprudence with its treatment of recusal. And it gets the former wrong. The Supreme Court has said that 1) only the potential for a quid pro quo arrangement justifies the restriction of campaign spending but  2) independent spending does not create the potential for a quid pro quo. Because the Club's spending in the Supreme Court race was independent (allegations in the Doe involved state legislative races), it could not have given rise to the risk of an actual or apparent quid pro quo.

But more importantly, in the recusal area, the Court's concern is not limited to the potential for a "quid pro quo." Rather, the constitutional inquiry is directed to any circumstance in which a judge's ability to be impartial might be questioned. Substantial and impactful campaign support can create a "debt of gratitude" that creates an unconstitutionally high appearance or risk of bias. But that's not the only source of bias. The Court made clear that the due process clause requires“a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness,” to determine whether there is “such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment" that recusal is required.

There is no reason to believe that the resentment or desire for vengeance that might be the result of spending against a judge is any less concerning than the "debt of gratitude" that might be the result of spending for that judge. You can be just as biased against those who have opposed you as you can be biased in favor of those who have supported you. In fact, I'd say that the former is more likely than the latter.

Don't believe me? Let's actually engage in a "realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weaknesses." Ask yourself if you would like to appear before a judge that you had just publicly denounced as unfit to serve on the bench? No "quid pro quo" to be sure, but I'm betting that you might feel a tad uncomfortable.*

This is why lawyers will rarely ever publicly criticize judges. It is why they rarely ask judges to recuse themselves. In the sage words of The Wire's Omar Little, "if you come at the king you best not miss."

I have always argued that Judge Kloppenburg was within her rights to sit on the case. I have explained why elsewhere. I think that Supreme Court justices, in particular, should be very reluctant to recuse themselves because of independent ideological support. But Judge Kloppenburg and her supporters don't agree with me. Given her more expansive view of the duty to recuse and her desire to kick dirt at Justice Prosser for not recusing in the very same case that she sat on, I don't see how she concluded that she should not recuse. The distinction between "supporting" and "opposing" is a chimera.

* By way of disclosure, I support Justice Bradley. I recommended her to the Governor and have contributed to her campaign. This view is not one I formed in the light of this campaign. I developed it in a law review article published in 2010.

The views expressed here are my own and are not those of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty which neither supports nor opposes candidates for public office.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

It seemed like 1968 in Chicago

I happened upon a left-leaning website the other day (sure, I read them) and read that “right wing voters love Donald Trump.”

Actually, we don’t.

Last weekend, I spoke at a panel at CPAC, a large national conservative gathering in Washington DC. Oh, I thought I was going to be brave. I resolved to let the chips fall where they may and boldly denounce Trump if given the chance. And I did. The subject was free speech and I said that Trump’s proposal to “open up” the libel laws so powerful politicians like him could sue their critics was antithetical to everything we believe in.  

Huge applause. Turns out I wasn’t being so brave after all.

The only thing that really surprised me was the near uniformity and intensity of the anti-Trump sentiment. It is a running joke among movement conservatives and libertarians that, like Pauline Kael who knew no one who voted for Richard Nixon in 1972, we don’t know anybody who is supporting this guy.  In fact, it seems that everyone we know not only does not support Trump, they can’t stand him.

That’s extraordinary.

But it makes perfect sense. In my view, the principle difference between the left and right in the United States has been over the extent to which the state ought to manage the life of its citizens. When should it take money from one group of citizens and give it to another? How closely should it manage economic activity? What steps should it take to control discourse and attitudes?  It has been about the relative values we attribute to, on the one hand, freedom and equality before the law and, on the other,  more political decision-making and greater equality of result.

Of course, these differences are between points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites.  In general, people like me are more skeptical of the need for state interventions and very pessimistic about the government’s ability to successfully accomplish them.  I appreciate that some positions taken by social conservatives complicate the matter, but not as much as it might seem and less so today than in the past. But that’s a topic for another time.

Donald Trump, of course, isn’t skeptical of government interventions or of collective control determined by politics at all– at least not if Trump is in charge.  He almost never talks about freedom or limited government. He flirts with single payer health care and loves eminent domain for private purposes. He wants to intervene in global markets with tariffs and trade wars. He wants to regulate speech. He has a capacious view of both executive and federal power. He is the quintessential crony capitalist.

This is why we think he’s closer to the Democrats than he is to us. That’s not surprising either. He’s been one most of his life. 

This is not to say that Trump is a man of the left. He transcends the dominant political divide in the United States, although not in a good way. What Trump represents is something that has not been strong in American politics, but has become increasingly present in Europe. He wants to change the Republican Party to something that is more nationalist and nativist; more collectivist and authoritarian. To use a British example, he wants it to be less like the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher and more like today’s British National Party.

One might call this “right-wing” – in Europe they do – but it would be a fundamental reorientation of the American political spectrum. A Trump Republican party might be attractive to many Democrats but it would be repulsive to many current Republicans.  I thought of this on Friday night while watching the disruption around a Trump rally in Chicago. It seemed  like something we haven't seen since the rending of the Democratic Party in 1968. The way in which both sides seemed fully enveloped in politics as salvation seemed foreign. We don't do angry mobs in America - at least not lately.

As much as I dislike him, Trump is not comparable to Hitler. Sanders is not like Lenin, Castro, Mao or any of the other monsters of the left. But the angry and public confrontations between large groups of partisans reminded me of German politics in the run-up to Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship. That was a time in which the center did not hold and politics was fought in the streets as well as with the ballot box.

Of course, we don’t have running battles between the Sturmabteilung and Rote Front – at least not yet. But Friday night seemed like something we haven’t seen for a long time. We’ve got reports that a Trump operative attacked a reporter. We have a candidate who calls on supporters to “beat the crap” out of people who might be “getting ready” to throw a tomato. We have organized efforts to shut down opposing political rallies. We have fights between protesters and Trump supporters.

On Friday night, it seemed to me that both groups – the authoritarian “right” (if that’s the term we want to use for Trump) and the authoritarian left – are equally unattractive. After the Trump rally was cancelled, the collection of BlackLivesMatter and Sandernistas chanted that “this is what democracy looks like.”

No, actually it isn’t. What I saw last night looked like something else altogether. Let’s hope we don’t see much more of it.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.