J. Wellington Wimpy and the Gorsuch Nomination

March 31, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

There is bidding underway for the right to declare what is “precedent-shattering” in the votes ahead on the Gorsuch nomination. Democrats, The Wall Street Journal opines, may disregard institutional tradition by launching a full partisan filibuster. But the Republicans may answer with the nuclear option. In the one way or the other, there is the fear--or pretense--that ruin will have been brought to Senate practice.

But the process question is secondary, and only as important as what preceded it: the confirmation process. And that process is understood to have become a torpid affair. Whether it is characterized as “hollow” or, worse, “dishonest,” it now consists of a series of rituals with little substance. The process opens with the one-on-one "courtesy calls," proceeds to public testimony supplemented by written questions and answers for the record, and then comes the predictable finale on the floor of the Senate. No one expects anything useful to come of any of it.

It is not realistic to hope that a nominee will embrace candor and risk a 40 or more year position on the most Supreme of all courts. And the party whose president made the nomination will not urge the prospective Justice to take that risk. It has gotten to the point that, with other few measures available, nominees are judged on personality characteristics on display during the testimony: “seems nice,” v. “too smug.”

The FEC will be defending the “structure” of the contribution limits this week in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case, Holmes v. Federal Election Commission, tests the constitutionality of the "per election" limits as applied to a donor’s choice to participate only in the one--the general--election. If a donor skips a primary, and wishes only to contribute in the general, she now cannot give the full amount allowed for the election cycle cycle, $5400, but only half of that: $2700, the "per election" limit for the general.  The Holmes plaintiffs’ point is that this bifurcation of the limits serves no legitimate anti-corruption purpose. Donors do not potentially corrupt candidates in the primary, or the general, or a run-off: the corruption, if it occurs, is the result of the amounts given through the date that the candidate is elected to office, after which the new officeholder is in a position to return the favor. And the limit Congress settled on to serve this anticorruption interest is the combined allowance for the cycle, $5400, a point that the Supreme Court stressed in McCutcheon.

The problem presented by the bifurcation of the limits is worsened by the messiness of its application. Incumbents and other largely unopposed candidates do well under this system, collecting money for primaries they don’t have to compete in and transferring the money to their general election accounts. Both the candidates in this position and their donors are aware that the money being given to the “primary” is really for the “general.” And a candidate can collect a contribution designated for the general election before the primary election is decided, provided that the candidate escrows the money and does not spend it until after the date of the primary. In this case, the candidate has, in fact, accepted a full cycle contribution of $5400 prior to the general election. It may be subject to a restriction on when it is spent, but the donor looking to make an impression, with a full cycle’s worth of contributions before the primary, will have done so.  Or, knowing that a primary candidate is closing in on victory, a donor can give the full primary election amount the day before the primary, and the full general election amount the day after, with confidence that he or she has given $5400 for the general election.

And add to all this that by FEC rule, an opposed candidate who, by operation of state law is not even on the ballot may still raise a "primary" or "general" election contribution in the full amount. The regulation reads:

A primary or general election which is not held because a candidate is unopposed or received a majority of votes in a previous election is a separate election for the purposes of the limitations on contributions of this section. The date on which the election would have been held shall be considered to be the date of the election.

11 C.F.R. 110.1(j)(3).

The Deference Due “Any Presidential Nominee”?

March 24, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Here is a striking sentence in the Washington Post editorial calling for Senate Democrats to refrain from filibustering the Gorsuch nomination:

We are likely to disagree with Mr. Gorsuch on a variety of major legal questions. This is different from saying he is unfit to serve. He deserves the deference due any presidential nominee.
The thought here is that “elections have consequences,” and presidents winning an election have a claim on some measure of deference to their nominees--all of them, including presidential nominees.

The problem is this: Judge Gorsuch is not just “any presidential nominee.” He is a nominee for the United State Supreme Court who could serve for four decades, or more, in this position of extraordinary power. It is possible to have the utmost regard for Judge Gorsuch or any Court nominee and question why, in the name of "deference," members of one party would readily yield on any such appointment to the president affiliated with the other.

Few would have guessed that the First Amendment and its application to campaigns would somehow become an issue in the judicial review of President Trump’s beleaguered travel ban. And yet that is what happened, as Judge Kozinski has put this question into play in a dissent from the Ninth Circuit’s denial of en banc rehearing.

Judge Kozinski argues that the courts are opening up a potentially disastrous conflict with the First Amendment, by allowing for judicial inquiry into discriminatory purpose in an officeholder’s (and associates’) comments on the campaign trail. In the defense of the travel ban, the Administration has insisted on its facial neutrality, arguing that religious animus played no role. But a District Court in Hawaii found that repeated references to a Muslim ban during the campaign belied this suggestion of a secular purpose and doomed the order on an Establishment Clause analysis.

Rick Hasen has published a piece in this issue in Slate, arguing that this dissent is "bad on the merits," and would immunize obviously discriminatory purpose revealed in flat-out appeals to racial bias on the campaign trail.   He gives the example of a candidate for county prosecutor who declares that African-Americans should be kept off juries. Would we believe that, as a matter of formal doctrine, courts should ignore this? Kozinski imagines that they should, Hasen argues that they shouldn’t. Perhaps the answer is that they just wouldn’t.

Law and Opinion in the de Blasio Investigation

March 17, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

The de Blasio campaign finance investigation ended with explanations from federal and state authorities of their decision not to pursue charges. The Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. chose to give the lengthier account: ten pages of conclusions of law and facts in a letter to the State Board of Elections, which had referred the matter for investigation. Yet again in recent legal history, the prosecutor declines to prosecute but does not stop there, adding his disapproval of the conduct he would not indict.   He also suggests how the law could be improved so that it more directly, clearly prohibited the actions he does not approve of. The letter is something less than a model for productive prosecutorial encounters with the political process.

The District Attorney is passing on a case that involves a coordinated campaign of candidates, party leaders and party organizations to deliver support to targeted State Senate races. The question was whether party county committees became conduits for contributions to candidates that were larger in amount than what the candidates could accept directly. Donors were solicited for contributions to the parties, and the parties promptly provided the money to the campaigns for immediate use in paying their consultants. The coordinated campaign drew up plans for this arrangement with the county committees and submitted them to legal counsel for review. Counsel then approved of what the prosecutors refer to as an “end run” around the candidate contribution limits. The lawyer put his advice in writing and stayed in close contact with the client, providing “consistent advice” from planning to execution. The DA found no evidence of “bad faith” in the way the advice was sought or delivered.