Topic: Government and Politics

Will the Supreme Court Take Up Marriage Cases After All?

While the Supreme Court’s decision last month not to take up the same-sex marriage cases that had accumulate over the summer surprised some (but not all), that “decision not to decide” was easily explained by the absence of a conflict in the lower courts. All of the federal courts of appeal to have ruled had held traditional state definitions of marriage to be unconstitutional. As of this past Thursday, however, that’s no longer the case.

In case you’ve been overly focused on the last few days’ other big legal news, the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-1 in favor of the state marriage laws of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee (cases in which Cato filed several briefs). Judge Jeffrey Sutton – whose previous turn in the national spotlight came when he voted to uphold Obamacare’ individual mandate before the Supreme Court got that case – wrote a magisterial opinion rejecting the challengers arguments regarding the Fourteenth Amendment. While I disagree with it for reasons spelled out in Cato’s various briefs, it’s seriously the best possible legal articulation of why states should remain free to restrict marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples. Sutton’s elegant and well-crafted opinion, though ultimately wrong, puts to shame many of the opinions that nevertheless correctly struck down state marriage laws – most notably Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner’s, which reads like a stream-of-consciousness college-sophomore sociology paper.

And this development wasn’t surprising. The conventional wisdom was that Sutton would be the swing vote on the panel and that he would invoke Baker v Nelson – the Supreme Court’s 1972 dismissal of a gay-marriage lawsuit “for want of a substantial federal question” – as binding lower courts’ hands notwithstanding Windsor v. United States and other legal developments. Ilya Somin makes an astute observation comparing Sutton’s approach to what he did in the Obamacare case:

Some of the flaws in Sutton’s analysis in the same-sex marriage case bear a surprising resemblance to those of his most famous previous opinion: his concurrence upholding the Obamacare individual health insurance mandate. In that case, he relied on an idiosyncratic interpretation of the distinction between facial and as-applied challenges that went against Supreme Court precedent, and was not adopted by any of the other judges who considered the issue on either the Supreme Court or the lower courts (including the many who voted to uphold the mandate on other grounds). Both opinions combine strong rhetorical statements about the humility required of lower court judges – especially when it comes to deferring to the Supreme Court – with neglect or significant misunderstanding of relevant Supreme Court precedent.

The practical question now is whether the cert-petition process will be completed quickly enough for the Court to consider these cases this term or whether it’s pushed to next fall (meaning a ruling as late as June 2016). Dale Carpenter and Josh Blackman sketch out the twists and turns we can expect, ultimately concluding that it’ll be very close, given that generally only cases the Court takes by early January make it onto the argument calendar for the same term. The challengers will be filing their cert petition(s) this very week, which makes an argument in late April still theoretically possible. 

My bet is that Chief Justice Roberts maneuvers behind the scenes in such a way that argument won’t be until next term begins in October but the ruling will come by Christmas 2015. Of course, if Justice Ginsburg retires or is otherwise unable to perform her duties at any point in this process, the case/ruling will be held up, thus setting up a presidential election in which same-sex marriage figures much more prominently than any we’ve had.

New Attorney General Pick a Savvy Move

President Obama has finally managed to strike the proper political tone on something. His nomination of federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch is unlikely to ruffle the feathers of the lame duck Congress and should let the Justice Department operate with less political opposition. Like George W. Bush’s appointment of Michael Mukasey to replace the embattled Alberto Gonzalez, Lynch is likely to be a low-profile steady hand to replace the radioactive Eric Holder.

At the same time, picking the first black woman AG allows the president to further his diversity agenda without spending tremendous political capital (which he doesn’t now have) – in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with Tom Perez, the controversial labor secretary who was also thought to be a contender for the job. All in all, while I’m sure I’ll disagree with some of Lynch’s enforcement decisions, this nomination means that legal analysts’ focus will largely remain on those policy issues rather than the controversial personalities and politics behind them.

Not These Guys Again! The Case for Term Limits

At NBCNews.com, I make the case for term limits in a video sidebar to Meet the Press.

For those who prefer print, I summarize my argument here (not all of which survived NBC’s editing):

Only 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance. Yet we’re about to have another election where more than 90 percent of incumbents are reelected. In fact, the most common reelection rate for House members over the past 30 years is 98 percent.

98 percent reelection—that’s what you expect to see in Russia, not in a democracy.

Americans don’t want a permanent ruling class of career politicians. But that’s what the power of incumbency and all the perks that incumbents give themselves are giving us.

We want a citizen legislature and a citizen Congress—a government of, by, and for the people.

To get that, we need term limits. We should limit members to three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. Let more people serve. Let more people make the laws.

And let’s get some people who don’t want to make Congress a lifelong career.

Some say that term limits would deprive us of the skills of experienced lawmakers. Really? It’s the experienced legislators who gave us a $17 trillion national debt, and the endless war in Iraq, and a Veterans Affairs system that got no oversight, and massive government spying with no congressional oversight, and the Wall Street bailout.

Politicians go to Washington and they forget what it’s like to live under the laws they pass. As we’ve seen in some recent elections, they may not even keep a home in the district they represent.

The American Founders believed in rotation in office. They wanted lawmakers to live under the laws they passed—and wanted to draw the Congress from people who have been living under them.

For more on term limits, see the Cato Handbook for Congress, Ed Crane’s 1995 congressional testimony, or this very thoughtful article by Mark Petracca, “The Poison of Professional Politics.”

What Should Republicans Do?

Having taken both houses of Congress, Republicans are eager to make changes. Here are some guidelines they should follow: 1. Learn from history. At least since the Clinton administration, this country has suffered from a consistent pattern: First, one party takes the White House and Congress. Thrilled with the taste of power, they overreach, provoking a backlash. This allows the other party to soon take control of at least one house of Congress, leading to gridlock for the next several years. Republicans can avoid this scenario. Instead of immediately trying to pass legislation that will please certain of their constituents, Republicans should propose changes that will build strategic alliances with a wide range of groups. That may mean an incremental approach to change, but each increment should be designed to make the next increment more—not less—politically feasible. 2. Focus on fiscal issues. Part of the historic pattern is that Democrats win on social issues while Republicans win on fiscal issues. Whichever party is in power usually shoots itself in the foot by giving the other party ammunition on its winning issues. For example, Democrats’ obsession with government-run health insurance turned a social issue—poor people’s access to health care—into a fiscal issue. Republicans’ obsessions with abortion and gay rights give Democrats tools to bring them down. Since tax and fiscal issues are what Republicans win on, they should stick to those issues. That means no introducing bills to limit third-trimester abortions, no proposals for constitutional amendments to declare that marriage is between a man and a woman, and no efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. Any of those efforts would give fiscal liberals the openings they need to retake at least one house of Congress in 2018 (if not 2016), thus restoring gridlock. 3. Fix incentives, not outcomes. Nearly all of the problems with the federal government are due to poor incentives. It is incentives that determine what agencies do and whether they will be efficient doing it. In the long run, if the incentives are right, everything else will take care of itself (including a reduction in the size of government). Unfortunately, members of Congress almost never think about incentives when they pass legislation—or when they do, they think about them the wrong way, as in “How can I create an incentive to produce the outcome I want?” Instead of worrying about outcomes, Congress should create a level playing field, with a minimal amount of regulation and subsidies.

Should Republicans Restore the Judicial Filibuster?

When Republicans take control of the Senate in January, should they revive the judicial filibuster that Democrats instituted in 2003 when George W. Bush was president, but ended last November when Republicans were filibustering Obama nominees? That heads-I-win-tails-you-lose question probably answers itself, but the background is a bit more complicated.

In fact, in a post I rushed into print yesterday morning I mangled some elementary filibuster facts, which I partially corrected late in the day after a reader kindly alerted me to the error. I’m tempted to say that an impostor was writing under my name, but the better explanation perhaps is too little sleep from following overnight election returns. In any event, it turns out that Harry Reid, having gone “nuclear” by ending the judicial filibuster a year ago is in no worse shape going into the next two years, as I’d initially implied, than he would have been had he kept it in place. It’s after that, if there’s a Republican president, that he’ll no longer have the filibuster at hand.

So what’s going on here? Let’s start at the beginning. Article I, section 5 of the Constitution says that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” As students of the subject know, those rules can be arcane. And they change, about which there are also rules. The filibuster is a case in point. It’s nowhere in the Constitution, and it’s changed over the years. On the merits, a good case can be made on either side of the practice. In general, it can keep bad (or good) laws from being enacted—or bad (or good) laws from being removed. In the abstract, therefore, it’s a wash. Empirically, it depends on the history of its use—and where you sit.

Money Rules Elections — Except When It Doesn’t

If money rules American politics, as we constantly hear from some quarters, you sure couldn’t tell from the stunning upset in the Maryland governor’s race (which I saw coming, having had a good chance to watch as a local resident and citizen volunteer.) Here’s blogger/Republican consultant Mark Newgent:

Anthony Brown lost despite outspending Larry Hogan by $15 million and with the aid of two Super PACs. Hogan took public financing. The Maryland gubernatorial race shows that no amount of money can change a bad message — or overcome a lack of message. The Maryland Democratic Party screamed like banshees over the Citizens United decision yet bit their collective tongue when their candidate availed himself of the very “dark money” they pretend to abhor. That Brown supporters Ben Cardin, Barbara Mikulski, and Donna Edwards all supported amending the First Amendment to allow Congress to regulate speech reveals that [some] Maryland Democrats don’t dislike money in politics — they dislike the opposition’s money in politics.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group alone said it would pour $500,000 in outside money into attacking Hogan. That had no visible effect, and it was worth putting up with the ads for the sake of getting a governor who certifiably owes nothing whatever to Michael Bloomberg. 

We now return you to the regularly scheduled rants about how American democracy cannot possibly survive the free-speech guarantees of Citizens United.

You Shouldn’t Have to Register with the Government to Engage in Political Advocacy

Vermont Right to Life Committee, Inc. (VRLC) is a non-profit advocacy group organized as a “social welfare organization” under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. It seeks to achieve “universal recognition of the sanctity of human life from conception through natural death.” To accomplish this, VRLC publishes pamphlets, newsletters, brochures, mass e-mails, newspaper articles, and radio ads. The group does not advocate for the election of any candidate or coordinate its actions with any candidate. It simply take donations from supporters and tries to educate people about the sanctity of human life.

Nevertheless, Vermont has required VRLC to register as a political committee because it takes in more than $1000 in donations and seeks to “influence elections.” This means that VRLC has to (1) register with the state, which includes appointing a treasurer and creating a special bank account; (2) keep extensive records about its activities; and (3) regularly give the government extensive reports. All of these requirements add up to a significant burden on VRLC’s educational activities and advocacy while not furthering any real government interest. After all, if VRLC is talking about issues not candidates, then, according to the Supreme Court, there is little or no chance that it will corrupt candidates.

Or, to put it another way, if VRLC has to register and report to the government—and just think for a moment how ridiculous and Orwellian (and Putinesque) that statement is—then who doesn’t have to register with the government to speak about political issues?

The registration and reporting burdens on VRLC are so great, in fact, that the group has said it’s “simply not worth it” to engage in constitutionally protected speech if it has to comply with Vermont’s regulations. VRLC thus brought a First Amendment challenge to many of the state’s convoluted campaign finance laws. The trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with the state government, however, and held that the burdens on VRLC’s speech were constitutionally acceptable.

VRLC has now petitioned the Supreme Court. Cato, joining the Center for Competitive Politics, has filed a supporting brief.

We argue that the Court should take the case in order to clarify the test for when an organization’s “major purpose” is the “nomination or election of candidates.” The “major purpose test,” which derives from the foundational campaign finance case of Buckley v. Valeo (1976), exists to save issue-advocacy groups from burdensome requirements like Vermont’s. Unfortunately, courts throughout the country misapply this test and place heightened burdens on organizations that simply want to talk about issues of public concern.

We also argue that regulations like Vermont’s place unique and often insurmountable burdens on small organizations. These laws are expensive to comply with, so larger organizations with more resources for accountants and lawyers—overhead that can be better absorbed—have a comparative advantage over smaller players. If the Supreme Court doesn’t take this case, states will continue to find it easy to shut down the political speech—particularly of feisty small idea entrepreneurs—while labeling such censorship as ordinary campaign finance regulations.

The Supreme Court will decide later this year or early next year whether to review Vermont Right to Life Committee v. Sorrell.