The Supreme Court and the Political Parties

May 23, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

The Supreme Court has turned Jim Bopp away, denying his wish to have the parties relieved of core McCain-Feingold restrictions. There could be any number of explanations. The Court may have no appetite at the moment for a major campaign finance case. Or, having chipped away at McCain-Feingold, the Justices may not be inclined to demolish its centerpiece. After all, if the parties are hurting, then Congress, its membership filled with party members and candidates, is perfectly free to take stock of their needs and do away with a legal impediment if necessary.

There is one other possibility. If the Justices are concerned with the condition of parties, and they're relying on general commentary outside the court for their assessment, they would not have too much reason to worry. They would read that parties have found a way to adapt to McCain-Feingold. Various experts are telling them about energetic online fundraising and about more dramatic innovations, like the establishment of super PACs functioning as "shadow parties." On this account, the parties are not in crisis. They are thriving. The furniture is being rearranged and renovations are ever in progress, but the basic party structure remains healthy.

This is a paradox of the reform battles of recent years: how the erosion in the Buckley regulatory framework might persuade the Court to leave alone whatever is still standing. What really is the scale of the problem, they might ask? The prime actors of campaign finance have been busily working around the law. The reform community, partly stymied by the courts, has not been able to do much about it. The FEC has gone into hibernation, and it emerges only occasionally to exhibit paralysis. As a result, the prevailing view is that the parties may be restive under McCain-Feingold's strictures, and they are certainly disadvantaged in their competition with the "outside groups," but they are not on the verge of extinction. In fact, so it is believed, they're doing well enough, or at least better than expected.

My colleague Brian Svoboda, an expert in congressional ethics, has written an insightful commentary on how we might think about the ends and design of effective congressional ethics regulation. This is a complex and important question to which altogether too little attention has been devoted. Brian's extensive experience with these issues in private practice, coupled with his grasp on the broad policy and constitutional issues, enable him to effectively frame the issues for the discussion--and reforms-that are needed. He also tweets periodically on these issues at https://twitter.com/BrianSvoboda.

Brian's commentary follows:

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From an Essay on Impeachment, a Useful Perspective on Congressional Ethics

Greg Weiner cogently argues in The New York Times that we should view the impeachment process institutionally in light of its constitutional design. (Full disclosure: while I used to work with Weiner in the Senate, my views are meant neither to be his nor anyone else’s.) Weiner says that impeachment’s purpose is not retributive, but prophylactic and forward-looking. The process is meant to “protect the public against future acts of recklessness and abuse.” Impeachment serves as a safety valve in the overall constitutional machinery to keep the system functioning properly.

While the processes and standards are markedly different, Weiner’s argument is highly relevant to Congressional ethics enforcement also. Since the House last reformed the ethics process in 2008, creating the Office of Congressional Ethics as an independent investigative authority, there has been a conspicuous lack of reflection over what the purposes of ethics enforcement really are, and how those purposes are best served. Weiner’s institutional approach offers one good perspective for this sort of reflection.

The Political Parties and Their Problems

May 17, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

The Supreme Court has refused to review a Ninth Circuit ruling denying political parties the right to exclude nonmembers from participation in their primaries. Hawaii law requires an open primary, and under the Ninth Circuit decision, parties would bear the burden of showing that this requirement severely burdens their rights of association. In other words when parties must open their candidate selection processes to non-members, the infringement of that associational right is not, apparently, self-evident.

The Ninth Circuit decided this incorrectly. It misconstrues the controlling Supreme Court authority, and it disregards its own entirely inconsistent decision in Washington State Democratic Party v. Reed. It is revealing that the Court's panel’s denial of that inconsistency is tucked into a disingenuous footnote. Democratic Party of Hawaii v. Nago, 833 F.3d 1119, 1124 n.4 (2016)

So it goes nowadays for the parties. It is a sign of the times. A political party has to prove that it is harmed if forced to give nonmembers a full share of the authority to determine its nominees.

In apparent haste, with not all its members appointed, the President issued the executive order establishing the Pence vote fraud Commission. The appointments still to come will add only marginally to an understanding of this Commission’s objectives. As the Order is written, and with the naming of Kansas Secretary of State Kobach as Vice Chair, those objectives are clear, and the outcome not hard to forecast. And yet there are extraordinary features to the Commission, none of them surprising, and none are the result of error or lack of foresight.

Begin with the leadership:

The Chair is the Vice President of the President who has announced that millions of illegal votes were cast in the last election, all against him (or for his opponent). Now Mr. Kobach, as Vice Chair, has joined the leadership ranks as a public supporter of the President’s claims.  He has said that the “White House has provided enormous evidence with respect to voter fraud.” This is untrue.   As for the problem of non-citizen voting, Kobach has asserted that there is a “lot of evidence” of it. This is also untrue. The larger point is that the Vice Chair of the Commission has reached these conclusions long ago, before a day of testimony or an hour of deliberation. What are the chances that this Commission will arrive at judgments contrary to the ones asserted so confidently by the President--and echoed by Mr. Kobach whose bid for national prominence rests on loudly ringing the alarm about voter fraud?

Now, onto the Commission's purposes:

Legal Process and the Comey Firing

May 11, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer
This posting I prepared for Lawfare on the Comey firing and the issues of legal process--and of respect for law--appears at-- http://www.lawfareblog.com/how-it-was-done-problem-not-only-trump-fired-comey-how-he-did-it

The text is below: --------

In the critical response to the President’s firing of Jim Comey, much of the commentary has centered on the action itself, its motives and its potential effects.  Noah Feldman writes in Bloomberg that the President’s termination of the FBI Director was within his lawful authority, but that it breached a norm that secures the necessary measure of independence for law enforcement. He sees the crisis not so much as a constitutional crisis, as one of law, and no less serious for that. Here, on Lawfare,  Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey have similarly called attention to the threat to the integrity of the Russia inquiry. The emphasis is on what the President did and its implications for the rule of law.

The question of how the White House did this—the process followed and the explanation provided—tends to be of secondary concern in the analysis so far. The “how” issues are seen mainly as examples of botched political judgment or public communications strategy, or as clues to the real motives behind the action. This is a mistake. How Mr. Trump went about this firing has implications as profound as the action itself for the rule of law in his Administration.

The termination judged on its merits raises important questions, which the administration must answer, but this line of inquiry is complicated. After all, the President, as Feldman notes, has the authority to fire Mr. Comey, and some have argued that the Director may have exhausted his controversial tenure at the Bureau. Mr. Trump was quick in a late-night tweet to remind his audience that the Democratic Senate leadership had declared that Comey no longer had their confidence. Democrats and some in the press have understandably scorned the Administration’s opportunistic embrace of criticisms of Mr. Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation: They note that Mr. Trump had taken (and tweeted) flatly contrary positions on the campaign trail. But it seems odd to demand that the administration stay close to the positions the President staked out, in tweets and otherwise, as a candidate. Many hope, fervently, for better.

So a fair question is whether the issue of actual or perceived self-interest have made it impossible for Mr. Trump to have removed Mr. Comey at any time—or just until the conclusion of the Russia investigation? Assume that Mr. Trump had not fired Comey yesterday and that the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, now examining the Director’s handling of the Clinton email matter, issued a report finding that Mr. Comey had violated Department policies or norms. Could the President have dismissed him then?

The reason for putting the question this way is to shift the focus of inquiry from the “what Trump did” to the “how Trump did it” of the firing. This shift does not diminish the significance of the action for the rule of law. It brings out the importance of the “how” question for just this concern.