The Supreme Court as “Electoral Prize”

April 17, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

It is difficult to follow Linda Greenhouse’s reasoning that the Court has been “broken” because it has been made into an electoral “prize.” Presidential candidates campaign on promises to support the nomination and confirmation of Justices who will move the Court’s jurisprudence in a desired direction. Why should they not? The Court does not decide only abstruse legal issues of interest primarily to learned commentators. If electoral competition necessarily features arguments about--to name a few-- reproductive rights, or voting rights, or the role of money in politics, then it will require candidates to take a stand on the Court. And in some elections, the issue will be right in the thick of the fight.

Donald Trump made as much as he could of the critical importance to Republicans of a Court molded in the image of the late Justice Scalia. Secretary Clinton told the Democratic Convention that: “We need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights, not restrict them. And we’ll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.” No one doubted that the election would be consequential for the Court. Voters were entitled to know how much of a priority each party attached to the issue and what the candidates would look for in their nominees. The parties and their candidates obliged--as they should have.

None of this excuses the Republican refusal to provide a hearing for and allow a vote on the Garland nomination. But it is mistake to confuse this escalation in the struggle over the Court with the larger point about the central importance in national political conflicts of the Court’s composition. The Senate has an obligation to attend to the procedures and norms consistent with institutional interests and its governing responsibility in the long run. One aspect of this obligation is managing and translating political pressures, not giving entirely into them, in order to preserve the capacity of the body to function as a creditable legislature. If Senator McConnell were to announce that the Senate majority will closely coordinate legislative priorities with the RNC and that the RNC Chair will attend, to this end, the weekly Senate Republican Caucus lunches, there would be an outcry.

The Garland maneuver is an abuse close to this in kind. The Republican Senate majority decided to shape a process---in effect, to invent one--to enable the party’s Presidential candidate to campaign on a pledge to nominate the appropriate successor to Scalia, and to turn the nomination into electoral prize. The Senate subordinated its “advice and consent” function to Republican electoral objectives. Never before had the Senate taken the position that a duly elected President in an election year had no call on the Senate to advise and consent on a Court nomination. As Robin Bradley Kar and Jason Mazzone have shown, the Senate has “transferred” to the next administration the power to nominate to fill a vacancy only when the president had assumed office on the death of a predecessor, or a nomination was made by one president after another had been elected but not yet taken the oath.

The Wallace Global Fund fired Morgan Lewis for advising Donald Trump on the mechanisms for controlling conflict of interest. It scorned the firm’s legal analysis and its dismissal of counsel was meant to keep the Fund from being “complicit” in the President’s disregard of legal and ethical norms. The Fund has concluded that the president’s actions are, on the ethical merits, clearly indefensible--case closed. So the Fund deems the lawyers culpable for putting their names and reputations behind what it has concluded is beyond the pale.

There is a different way of looking at what may exceptional about the Trump ethics regime, and it does not require agreement on specific violations of ethical obligations, or arguments about the viability of specific legal theories, or the questioning of the professional standards followed by law firms or lawyers. It is more concerned with a change, for the worse, in the institutional safeguards for keeping government service under public ethical controls. The problem could be thought of as a sort of privatization of public ethics.

This privatizing element has been introduced through certain features of the Trump business interests, and even more, the issues presented by the family members that the President would like to have by his side. Some special arrangement is generally thought necessary to allow the president to have the counsel and company of his daughter and son in-law. They will take unpaid positions within the White House, but in form, as recently announced, they will be treated as employees subject to conflict of interest rules that apply to all others.

Both Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump have complex continuing interests in their businesses, and they argue that there is no fair or practical way to dispose of many of them. They will maintain and retain enough connection to their business to monitor, with the advice of counsel, potential problems that may arise. A similar mechanism was established by the president to administer his “trust,” run by his sons, and advised by a special ethics counsel selected from private practice. His trust also has added a compliance adviser, a long time lawyer and official in the Trump business.

All of this occurs “in the family,” and this is largely how it is reported. But it does not have to end there in future administrations. Another president may feel free to appoint “volunteer” senior White House advisers without family ties but with similarly far-flung and complex business interests. Paid their dollar a year, they would maintain much of their financial interests, perhaps excluding the simplest conflicts presented by easily disposable stock holdings. They would also set up with their lawyers a private arrangement for the management of any conflicts.

Fearful of the cost to the Senate’s institutional standing or just to “sane” strategic decision-making, commentators concerned about partisan filibusters and the invocation of the nuclear option are convinced that there is a better way for Senate Democrats. Let the Republicans have their vote, the argument goes, and the filibuster may survive for use in a later fight over a more controversial or unqualified nominee. Filibuster now but fail, when failure is assured, and when the nuclear option is invoked and the filibuster is gone, all defenses against future, extreme nominees will have collapsed. When it is over, the Senate will be the worse for it, a raw site of political conflict and power politics--more like the House, rather than the honorably deliberative body it is meant to be.

These objectives--the protection of the “unique” character of the Senate, and the construction of a smart Supreme Court nomination strategy--may in theory be consistent some of the time. But that is not necessarily case, and it is not clear why it is thought to be true here.

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.

Ethics Issues and Resolutions: The Conway Case

March 14, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Congress, the Office of Government Ethics, and the White House have been lobbing views back and forth on whether the White House is subject to executive branch-wide ethics standards. It all started with the White House Counsel’s response to Kellyanne Conway’s exhortation to the public to” go buy” Ivanka Trump-branded line of products.

This Administration’s complex--and in the perspective of critics, troubling--position on core ethics issues would seem to make it especially important for the resolution of a case like Conway’s to go smoothly. The President has to show that he can successfully deal with the conflicts presented by his and his family's business interests. He faces deep doubts about the structure set up for this purpose, which includes control of his interests put in the hands of his own children, one of whom recently declared that the Trump brand is “the hottest it has ever been.” Then there is the ambiguous if not dubious trail of statements from the Administration about how Mr. Trump understands ethical constraints. Early on, the President said he had been advised that he was free of any limits under federal conflict of interest regulation, while his Chief of State averred that every step would be taken to avoid any “undue influence” of business interests over the Administration’s policies and actions. And the President has not kept his executive duties apart from his commercial interests, just this last weekend holding meetings at the Trump National Golf Club in Virginia.

So all who are involved in settling or overseeing the conclusion to the Conway episode-- the White House, OGE and the Congress--have had special obligations to be clear about the issue and the reasons for the disposition. The public would then learn something about the ethics Standards and rules, about how the Administration will approach their interpretation and enforcement, and about whether there are holes to be filled or procedures to be tightened.

So how has it gone? Not especially well, except for the response from one senior Member of Congress, Elijah Cummings, who has raised the key questions that now have to be answered.