Topic: Government and Politics

Supreme Court Makes It a Little Interesting

The common refrain this Supreme Court term is that, after several years of blockbuster cases—race-based school assignment, partial-birth abortion, the rights of Guantánamo detainees, the D.C. gun ban, etc., etc.—this year the Court is giving the front pages a break. Indeed, as we celebrated the advent of 2009, the only cases guaranteed to make it into the Cato Supreme Court Review were a drug regulation case (Wyeth v. Levine) and one involving the detention of a civilian in the United States as an enemy combatant (Al-Marri v. Pucciarelli). Almost all the cases garnering media and scholarly attention would have been after-thoughts in previous years.

On Friday, however, as it rounded out its docket for the term (no more than a handful more will be added to the list of cases to be argued and decided before the Court recesses in June), the Court gave us four fascinating cases to chew on:

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One (“NAMUDNO”) v. Mukasey

This is a challenge to the requirement of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that certain state and local governments, mostly but not entirely in the South, obtain “preclearance” before making any changes affecting voting. A small (3,500 residents) utility district in Austin, Texas, argues that it has never been accused of voting discrimination or other irregularities and should not have to seek federal permission to, for example, move the location of a polling place or coordinate voting for its board with other county or state elections. You may recall that the latest extension of the VRA, in 2006, did not pass without some controversy. Indeed, in our federal system, should certain jurisdictions still be under the Justice Department’s thumb over 40 years after the demise of Jim Crow (and to this extent of micromanagement)?

Ricci v. DeStefano

A group of firefighters (19 white, 1 Hispanic) allege that New Haven city officials racially discriminated against them when they refused to certify the results of two race-neutral promotional exams that yielded racially disproportionate results (i.e., a much higher percentage of whites and Hispanics qualified for promotion than did blacks). As offensive as the facts of the case are, the way that the Second Circuit—a panel including oft-mentioned Supreme Court contender Sonia Sotomayor—summarily dismissed the petitioners’ appeal is even more disconcerting. When the full court voted 7-6 not to rehear the case en banc, Judge José Cabranes (a Clinton appointee) excoriated his colleagues, concluding that “[t]his perfunctory disposition rests uneasily with the weighty issues presented by this appeal.” I won’t get into the weeds of legal analysis here, but Ed Whelan has two excellent posts discussing the Second Circuit shenanigans over at NRO and Stuart Taylor last month wrote a typically hard-hitting piece on it for the National Journal. But again, however the Supreme Court decides this one, it has already provided a potent line of attack on Judge Sotomayor when the next vacancy arises on the high court.

Republic of Iraq v. Beaty

This case asks the simple question of whether U.S courts have jurisdiction over claims regarding misdeeds committed by the Saddam Hussein regime—or whether today’s Iraqi government can assert sovereign immunity. This simple question actually involves the interplay of a host of legislative and executive action that the Court will have to wade through. Beaty joins the Eurodif (international trade, about which I wrote here) and Elahi (treaty enforcement) cases as this year’s leading contributions to the Court’s international law jurisprudence.

Horne v. Flores

Taking up a complicated conflict between the No Child Left Behind Act and earlier legislation, this is the term’s leading education case. The main issue is whether a state, in this case Arizona, which complies with NCLB on English language instruction can still be violating the funding requirements for such instruction imposed by the Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1974. The Ninth Circuit declined to modify an eight-year-old injunction requiring Arizona to spend millions on this instruction and imposing millions in fines. It’s a highly technical case but one with significant ramifications for a key part of President Bush’s domestic policy legacy.

Despite these four grants, however, it is still safe to say that Court shied away from many, many cases that should interest readers of this blog—not least the patent/abuse of state sovereign immunity case called BPMC v. California, which I had earlier urged the Court to accept for review.  I will be commenting further at least on NAMUDNO and Ricci when the Court hears argument and decides them.

Rubin Resigns from Giant Bank Taxpayergroup

The Washington Post reports:

Robert Rubin, a key figure in the U.S. financial boom as Treasury secretary and then as a senior adviser at Citigroup, announced his retirement from the troubled New York bank yesterday in the latest sign that Citigroup wants to break from its recent past.

Rubin joined Citigroup in 1999, soon after the company emerged as a financial services giant. He has since earned more than $115 million as Citigroup has suffered through setbacks and missteps that culminated in a November bailout by the federal government….

Citigroup, the long-time champion of free markets and deregulation, is increasingly dependent on the federal government, which has invested more than $50 billion to help it weather the economic crisis.

After we’ve invested $50 billion in the company, seems like we ought to call it Taxpayergroup. It’s not really a private company more, though private parties like Rubin may still profit handsomely from it.

Too Close for Comfort

NPR reports on the Illinois legislative debate about impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich:

Their case for impeachment goes beyond criminal allegations. They say he abused the power of his office: bypassing the Legislature to create new programs he couldn’t pay for; circumventing hiring laws to give jobs to political allies; and misappropriating taxpayer funds.

“He has snubbed his nose at that oath of office and, therefore, snubbed his nose at the people and the constitution,” said Republican Rep. Mike Bost.

It’s a good thing for presidents that members of Congress don’t apply such standards in Washington.

You Say McCaskill, I Say McCaskill

A headline from yesterday’s online version of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

McCaskill joins McCain in anti-earmark effort, announces local grants

Ugh.  One of my chief policy pet peeves is the idea that congressfolk earmarking money to special interests is bad, but having bureaucrats dole out the same sort of cheese through grants and loans is A-OK.

Says Sen. McCaskill (D-MO):

We are looking at deficits in the trillions, and I think Americans are fed up with the way Washington has been spending their money…. Changing the earmark culture is not the whole solution to bringing fiscal responsibility back, but it’s a start.

So far so good, but then:

Also Wednesday, McCaskill announced two grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):

  • A total of $752,560 to the city of Silex in Lincoln County. “The money is being provided through the United State’s Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development funding initiative, which works to improve the economy and quality of life in rural communities by supporting and providing government loans and grants…. According to the USDA, the city will receive a grant of $387,560 and a low-interest government loan of $365,000. The funds will be used to upgrade the centralized sewer system, providing improved water treatment facilities and adding thousands of feet in main line.”
  • $50,000 to the city of Berger in Franklin County. The money comes from the same USDA program targeting rural communities. “According to the USDA, the funding will be used to provide a centralized sewer system that will improve the health and sanitary conditions of the area by providing water to residents who currently rely on failing septic tanks,” the senator’s office said.”

So, if another member of the Missouri congressional delegation had instead instructed the USDA to redistribute taxpayer money to these two Missouri communities via language in a piece of legislation it would have been bad?  According to Sen. McCaskill, the answer is apparently “yes.”

Look, I’m happy Sen. McCaskill is on board the anti-earmark train.  Kudos to her.  But whichever means Congress chooses, the end is the same: taxpayers on the hook for special interest spending.

Cass Sunstein and the Cato Institute

The Washington Post is reporting that Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein will be named director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the White House’s regulatory review office. The appointment is baffling, not because the Obama administration has chosen Sunstein (he is a first-rate thinker), but because Sunstein has (apparently) accepted it. OIRA chief is one of the most thankless jobs in Washington, and the office has historically shown itself to be a victim of the political winds no matter how sharp-minded and sincere the chief is.

Sunstein would not fit the label “libertarian,” but he is, in his own way, a supporter of liberty. And he has been a good friend to the Cato Institute, speaking here and writing for Regulation (1, 2).

I wish Cass well in this difficult new job.

Does Congress Deserve a Pay Hike?

Richard Rahn suggests they do not:

Most of us would like to be in the position of voting for our own pay raises from an employer who has almost unlimited access to money … . Given that members of Congress were in a large part responsible for the current economic mess, it is hard to see how they can justify a raise … .

Well, at least three bills in the new 111th Congress would deny members a pay increase in fiscal 2010.

One of them should be attached to any big “stimulus” spending bill. But I imagine Congress is less interested in shows of rectitude from its own membership than from the business leaders it has bailed out.