Tag: equal protection

Liberty’s Big Day at SCOTUS

Today, the Court upheld the equal liberty and dignity of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation with its ruling in United States v. Windsor. This represents a major victory for gay rights, of course, but more broadly vindicates a robust view of individual liberty as protected by the Constitution. It should be axiomatic that the federal government has to treat all people equally, that it has to accept the several states’ sovereign laws on marriage (and many other subjects), and today there were five votes at the Supreme Court for that proposition.

It is now clear that there was simply no valid reason to uphold DOMA Section 3, no reason to deny the equal protection of more than 1,000 federal laws. As Justice Kennedy wrote for the unified majority, “the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage.”

This is exactly the result we were hoping for. 

UPDATE:

The Court’s ruling in the Prop 8 case is weird, frustrating, and leaves great uncertainty in both the law and practical effect. It’s also wrong: to say that private parties can’t step in to defend a law when the state government declines to is to allow the executive to erase properly enacted laws and even state constitutional amendments simply by not defending them in court.

For practical purposes, those of us who support marriage equality can be heartened that Prop 8 has been struck down – but there will still be extensive litigation over whether California can only issue marriage licenses to the two couples who were the plaintiffs in Perry, to everyone in the federal district where the lawsuit originated, or in the entire state. The Supreme Court may have thought it was putting off the difficult issues for another day, but it may simply have complicated matters. While clothed in complicated, technical language, and surrounded by the unusual atmospherics of gay marriage, this ruling boils down to the Court’s shying away from the full implications of its other ruling today.

In short, Perry was a frustrating decision but doesn’t detract from the significant constitutional win in Windsor.

D.C. Treats Celebrities Better Than Veterans, Illustrating the Absurdity of Gun Laws

Last month, D.C. attorney general Irvin Nathan announced that he would not be prosecuting David Gregory for displaying an empty ammunition magazine on his national TV show Meet the Press—even though NBC knew ahead of time that this action would violate D.C. law. In a letter to NBC, Nathan admonished Gregory for knowingly flouting the law, but said he decided to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” and not pursue a criminal case. “Prosecution would not promote public safety in the District of Columbia, nor serve the best interests of the people,” Nathan wrote.

In the Washington Post story about this episode, I was quoted as calling Nathan’s decision “a wise use of prosecutorial discretion” but that the episode “illustrates the absurdity of some of these gun laws.”  My position apparently paralleled that of the NRA—even though Gregory had waved the illegal magazine in front of the group’s executive VP, Wayne LaPierre—but “thousands of gun advocates” signed a White House petition calling for Gregory’s arrest because he ought to be treated the same as anyone else.

Indeed, a friend soon pointed out to me that D.C. authorities were not treating people equally: Last summer, Army Specialist Adam Meckler, a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, was arrested and jailed for having a few long-forgotten rounds of ordinary ammunition—but no gun—in his backpack in Washington. Meckler violated the same section of D.C. law as Gregory did, and both offenses carry the same maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.  [H/t: Jason Epstein]

Well, that’s disgusting, and D.C. authorities ought to be ashamed of themselves. But the correct response isn’t to waste taxpayer dollars on prosecuting David Gregory, but rather to not prosecute the Adam Mecklers of the world. 

Now, I’ve never been a prosecutor or even practiced criminal law, so it could well be that it’s outside the ethical bounds of discretion not to charge someone who so brazenly flaunts the law as Gregory and the NBC producers did. But if incidents like these doesn’t make people realize that it’s lunacy to criminalize, as a strict liability offense, no less (meaning that your knowledge or mental state is irrelevant), the mere possession of magazines, bullets, and other gun-related accoutrements (without even getting to an “assault weapon” ban, etc.), then nothing will. A magazine is a metal box with springs, of which there are hundreds of millions in the country.  A bullet is a piece of metal that, in the absence of a gun, is less deadly than a rubber band. It’s people who insist on demonizing such objects that lend creedence to those on the other side who believe that any gun regulation is a step toward confiscation and tyranny.

Let me be even clearer: Criminalizing the possession of a magazine or bullet is as extreme as legalizing the private ownership of nuclear missiles. The idea that celebrities should be treated no differently than anyone else is an important one to draw from the David Gregory incident.  But it’s even more important, at least in the context of our ongoing discussion over gun policy, to understand that putting stupid laws on the books doesn’t make us any safer and indeed draws resources away from actions (like investigating, prosecuting, and preventing violent crime) that do.

Will Debate Constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act — Anytime, Anywhere

Three years ago, some law professors were having a hard timing finding someone to debate the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate.  I naively stepped up to the plate, which resulted in over 100 debates, speeches, panels, and public events (and, as we know, an invalidation of the mandate but salvage of the relevant provision in the form of a tax).

Now we see a similar predicament with respect to Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, the provision that effectively makes the federal government a proconsul with respect to election administration in a seemingly random assortment of states, counties, and towns around the country.  As I’ve blogged and written in a Supreme Court brief, Section 5’s extraordinary powers were justified only under Jim Crow’s exceptional conditions; the Voting Rights Act’s success in eradicating those conditions has happily obviated Section 5’s constitutional legitimacy.  (As I noted more recently, and wrote in another brief, Section 2 has its problems as well.)

Yet my view isn’t shared in legal academia – surprise, surprise – and a leading election law scholar posits that “the case for Section 5’s constitutionality is so clear that the liberal election law professors simply have the better of the argument!”  Three weeks before the Supreme Court hears argument in the pivotal case of Shelby County v. Holder, there is apparently a dearth of scholars willing to speak out against this egregious violation of federalism and equal protection.

Well, in the words of How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson, challenge accepted!

I may not be full-time faculty anywhere – is that a negative? – but I hereby announce that I will travel anywhere at anytime to debate the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Whoever sets up the debate has to pay my travel expenses and take me out to a nice dinner, but that’s it.  Any takers?

Modern Voting Rights Act Takes Another Constitutional Stumble

In 2009, Irving, Texas, was forced to redraw its city council districts after a federal court held that its multi-member-district system discriminated against Hispanic voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects the rights of racial and linguistic minorities to elect their preferred candidates (whatever that means). Following complex Section 2 precedent, the court employed the requisite “citizen of voting age population” (CVAP) standard and found that, in the absence of at-large elections, Irving’s Hispanic voters could have constituted their own majority district.

When Irving finished redrawing its map, the total population count of residents inhabiting each district was roughly equal and one was indeed majority-Hispanic. Because the redistricting process used total population instead of CVAP, however, that particular district had a significant concentration of non-citizen residents. A relatively small constituency of eligible voters in that district thus had their votes so “over-weighted” that their voting power was effectively double that of voters in the other districts (which, again, were similarly populated but had twice the number of eligible voters).

Irving citizens sued the city, alleging violations of their voting rights as guaranteed by the one-person, one-vote (OPOV) principle under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a dismissal of these claims, following circuit precedent holding that the decision to use either total population or CVAP when applying OPOV should be left to elected officials’ discretion. Astonishingly, even though courts are required to use CVAP when examining Section 2 racial-discrimination claims—see above—the Fifth Circuit completely ignored the CVAP disparities in the redrawn districting plan.

Cato has now filed an amicus brief supporting the Irving citizens’ request that the Supreme Court take the case. We have frequently argued that courts confront a “bloody crossroads” when trying to reconcile the modern Voting Rights Act with the Constitution. Here, not only has the Fifth Circuit illustrated the tension between Section 2 and the Fourteenth Amendment, but similar rulings in the Fourth and Ninth Circuits—either deferring to the political branches or precluding the use of CVAP altogether—have heightened the conflict.

The Fourteenth Amendment and OPOV are emphatically within the province of the judiciary to enforce. We thus urge the Court to review the intolerable contradiction that arises when Section 2, intended to enforce the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment, is used to violate OPOV.

While once a functional proxy for equalizing the voting strength of eligible voters, the total population metric has become imprecise and outmoded. In areas with high concentrations of non-citizen, non-voter residents, it can conceal substantive demographic differences that undermine the principle of voter equality. CVAP, by contrast, is the most precise measure of the substantive electoral equality and the proper means for reconciling the conflict between Section 2 and the Fourteenth Amendment.

The name of the case is Lepak v. City of Irving. The city and certain activist groups that have intervened in the case will now file their opposition to the petition for review, and then the Supreme Court will decide this spring whether to take the case and set it for argument in the fall.

With All Due Respect, Rep. Cole, My Arguments Against Race-Based Government Are Quite Principled

While campaigning for former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle, who is now running for U.S. Senate, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), the only Native American in Congress, said that opposition to the Akaka Bill is “arrogant” meddling in local affairs.  (The Akaka Bill, which I’ve covered extensively, would create a race-based governing entity that would negotiate with the federal and state governments over all sorts of issues—effectively carving out an unconstitutional system of racial spoils.)

As quoted in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser ($):

“Hawaii has told us again and again, on a bipartisan basis, this is what we want to do,” Cole said. “I’d have to tell you, I think it’s incredibly arrogant, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat that opposes tribal sovereignty — in this case sovereignty for Native Hawaiians—when the people of Hawaii have told us we’d like it. Who are we to impose our opinions?”

Cole’s attack is not only a calumny on those who oppose the Akaka Bill in good faith—including all but six of his House Republicans who voted against it in 2010 after years of deliberation, public vetting, and a 2006 Department of Justice conclusion that the bill was unwise as a policy matter and presented serious constitutional difficulties—but itself displays a dangerous misunderstanding of the issues involved.

It’s easy to think of the Akaka Bill as being “merely” another request for self-governance by native peoples as was extended to Aleuts upon Alaskan statehood, but that’s simply not what’s going on in Hawaii.  Hawaiians, “Native” and otherwise, have a different history and political sociology from the tribes that are accommodated in our (dubious and counterproductive) Indian law, which itself is a unique compromise with pre-constitutional reality.  Congress can’t simply define Hawaiians as an “Indian tribe” because that term has a fixed meaning, limited to preexisting North American tribes that were “dependent nations” at the time of the Founding.  Such tribes, to benefit from the protections of Indian law, must have an independent existence and “community” apart from the rest of American society, and their separate government structure must have a continuous history for at least the past century.  By these standards, Hawaiians don’t qualify.

Moreover, it’s false to say that Hawaiians support the Akaka Bill or ethnic/racial preferences more broadly.  There has never been a public referendum—Akaka Bill supporters resist such a move—but a November 2009 Zogby poll revealed that 51% of Hawaiians oppose the bill, 60% opposed if you remove the undecideds.  In addition, 76% would oppose tax increases to pay for the Akaka nation-tribe (which would be inevitable), only 7% favor separate laws and regulations for a new native government, and only 28% say the bill is fair with respect to racial discrimination.  Perhaps most importantly, 58% would want a chance to vote before the Akaka Bill could become law, with only 28% saying that would be unnecessary.

Finally, and quite apart from the policy and political considerations, the Akaka Bill has serious constitutional defects. As mentioned above, the Constitution’s anamolous Indian law exception was created by the document itself and Congress still retains a great amount of oversight.  Once the Constitution was ratified, no government organized under it could create another government that can exempt itself from the Bill of Rights.  Even setting these structural issues aside, the Akaka Bill is facially disallowed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ explicit proscription against any state action that treats people differently based on their race or ethnicity. The Supreme Court has found Native Hawaiians to be an ethnic group, so Congress cannot pass a law giving them rights denied other Americans.

I respect Rep. Cole’s right to hold a different view of the Akaka Bill’s merits than mine, in which case he could have said something like, “Some folks have principled objections to this.  I think they’re wrong.  I think they misread the Constitution and don’t appreciate Hawaii’s unique history.  We need to show them why they should come over to our side, and Linda Lingle can help me do that.”  Instead, he accuses us critics of arrogance, ignorance, and willfully thwarting Hawaiians’ dreams of self-determination.

With all due respect, Rep. Cole (and Gov. Lingle to the extent she associates herself with his remarks), if you want to pass the Akaka Bill, you need to do a better job of answering some very valid concerns rather than engaging in base demagoguery.  And these concerns aren’t limited to parochial issues relevant only to Hawaiians.  So long as Hawaii remains part of the United States, all Americans have a stake in the future of the state and how it treats its citizens.

h/t Steven Duffield

Enforcing Housing Codes Is Not Racist

The federal Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful “[t]o refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer … or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.”  Magner v. Gallagher addresses the question of whether the FHA’s ban on racial discrimination can be violated by someone who does not actually engage in racial discrimination:  Owners of rental properties in St. Paul, Minnesota brought this suit claiming that the city’s enforcement of its housing code — ensuring that rental units were safe and otherwise habitable — violated the FHA because the repairs and maintenance necessary to comply with the code would increase rents and price out many of their African-American tenants.

Unable to show that the housing code intentionally discriminated based on race, however, the owners argued — and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals accepted — a “disparate impact” theory under which a plaintiff need only show that an otherwise neutral practice has a disproportionate effect on some racial group. Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute on an amicus brief supporting the city’s request for Supreme Court review and arguing that the statutory language and congressional intent of the FHA preclude disparate impact claims.

We argue that extending such claims to the FHA “would deeply intrude on the authority of state and local governments, and render much of their housing policies illegal,” and “would inappropriately alter the federal-state balance in far-reaching ways.” Indeed, disparate impact claims would preclude all institutions subject to the FHA — public and private — from implementing many practical policies. For example, “because [the FHA] applies to financial institutions, banks and mortgage companies would be pressured to provide loans to unqualified applicants in order to avoid disparate impact liability. Similar actions played a key role in triggering the mortgage crisis of 2007-2008.”

Moreover, the disparate impact doctrine directly conflicts with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees by forcing government agencies “to engage in unconstitutional race-conscious decision making” in order to avoid liability under the Act. In short, allowing disparate impact claims under the FHA would both lead to adverse economic consequences and create new constitutional tensions.

The Supreme Court will hear Magner v. Gallagher on Feb. 29.

Sneaking Race-Based Government Through the Tropical Back Door

Those of you who follow this blog know of the special place in my heart for Hawaiian constitutional issues.  Cato has even filed several Hawaii-related amicus briefs; here’s my post about the latest one, last month.  This is in part because thinking about the Constitution and individual liberty is even more fun in the context of palm trees, trade winds, and tiki bars, but more than that, developments in Hawaii tend to get overlooked or dismissed as parochial and “not really” relevant to the American project.

Unfortunately, that sort of benign neglect plays into the hands of those who want to wreak all sorts of havoc with our constitutional order.  And once those who don’t care about limited government, individual liberty, and equality under the law gain a toehold anywhere, Honolulu as much as Hartford, that creates a dangerous precedent – a political and jurisprudential tsunami, if you will, that threatens to swamp the mainland.

Such is the case with the infamous Akaka Bill (which I most recently covered in a blogpost that links to my previous work on the subject).  This bill, introduced in every Congress since 2000, would create a race-based governing entity that would negotiate with the federal and state governments over all sorts of issues – effectively carving out a system of racial spoils. 

Now, Hawaii’s senators, Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, have long said that their pursuit of this legislation would always be above-board and transparent… until a couple of weeks ago when Inouye, as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had a sentence inserted into the massive Interior Department funding bill allowing the federal government to recognize Native Hawaiians in the same way that American Indians and Native Alaskans are recognized (but without immediate federal benefits).  This, combined with a state resolution labeling the “Native Hawaiian people” as the only indigenous Hawaiians, is part of a piecemeal strategy to get the Akaka Bill in through the backdoor.

For more coverage of these developments, see this report, as well as these two articles ($).  For Hawaii’s fuzzy relationship with the Voting Rights Act, see this article.  For reasons on why this is all not just sneaky but a terrible idea – and unconstitutional – again, see my previous writings

At base, Hawaiians have a very different history and political sociology from the tribes that were accommodated in our (dubious and counterproductive) Indian law, which itself is a unique compromise with pre-constitutional reality.  It would be a shame to destroy that beautiful state’s spirit of aloha (welcome).