Arguments Against Expanded Background Checks

Here’s Mike Lee (R-Utah) speaking last week on the floor of the Senate about the provisions of the expanded background check legislation that was defeated yesterday.  His comments are a useful tool to help understand why the Senate rejected a measure that was supported by such a large majority of the American people.  Your thoughts?

Segregated Prom

Interesting (and timely) story about a segregated Prom in Georgia (yes, in 2013).  Since it’s hosted by parents, it doesn’t violate the Constitution.  So should we be concerned or should we allow local traditions to continue without interference?  And one wants to bring about change, how does one do that in this case?

States’ rights and religion

So the following isn’t big news, but it’s of interest because of its relevance to the cases we have studied.  Note the precedents that are referenced!

Could North Carolina actually declare a state religion?
First Amendment, Shmirst Amendment
By Keith Wagstaff | 1:07pm EST
Rep. Harry Warren, one of the two North Carolina lawmakers who filed a bill to declare a state religion.
Rep. Harry Warren, one of the two North Carolina lawmakers who filed a bill to declare a state religion.


As amendments go, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” is kind of a biggie. Don’t tell that to the North Carolina lawmakers behind the Defense of Religion Act.

The bill asserts that “the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

According to The Huffington Post, the bill “was filed in response to a lawsuit to stop county commissioners in Rowan County from opening meetings with a Christian prayer,” leading us to assume that the religion they want to establish isn’t Duke basketball. Could legislators in North Carolina actually pull this off?

It’s not likely. Rick Ungar of Forbes points to Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court case that established the “Lemon Test” for whether a state law is violating the First Amendment:

The law or state policy must have been adopted with a neutral or non-religious purpose.
The principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.
The statute or policy must not result in an “excessive entanglement” of government with religion. [Forbes]

Declaring an official religion doesn’t seem to pass the test. Not that states haven’t tried to exempt themselves from federal law before.

“We saw this in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education,” Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College, tells NBCNews.com. “The belief is that the states hold more power than the federal government. If the federal government does something, the states can simply ignore it.”

Philip Bump of The Atlantic Wire says the Republicans are pinning their hopes on the interpretation that “since the Tenth Amendment says that anything not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution becomes the province of the states, that means North Carolina can determine for itself what is and isn’t unconstitutional.” This strategy, he notes, has been tried by states many times before and has always failed.

The bill might have had a chance, Ian Millhiser of Think Progress says, if the Fourteenth Amendment hadn’t been ratified in 1868:

While the early Constitution envisioned “rights” as little more than a battle between central and local government, the Fourteenth Amendment ushered in a more modern understanding. Under this amendment, “[n]o State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” nor may any state “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” [Think Progress]

Don’t worry, if the North Carolina lawmakers behind the bill fail, they can always go the Texan route and try to secede.

An argument against same-sex marriage…

Given last week’s Supreme Court oral arguments, I thought it important to post some views on same sex marriage.  The following may be a point of view you are unfamiliar with, but which is quite widely followed.  It comes from Erick Erickson, a well-known conservative blogger who publishes redstate.com.  I have edited his post for the sake of brevity, and you are welcome to respond (in a civil manner, please…).

‘Gay Marriage’ and Religious Freedom Are Not Compatible

By: Erick Erickson (Diary)  |  March 26th, 2013 at 06:30 AM  |  267

The kids these days on the right are full of a great libertarian notion that “hey, let’s just get the government out of marriage.”

“Rock on,” say other libertarians.

They then all smugly self-congratulate themselves, pat themselves on the back, and move on to other issues.

What they ignore is that the left will never take marriage out of the hands of the government. The left cannot. But it goes beyond that. The left cannot take marriage out of government because for so long it has been government through which marriages were legitimized to the public and the left must also use government to silence those, particularly the religious, who refuse to play along…

The left has done an admirable job in secular society making the case that gay marriage merely allows a class of people to be happy and have what everyone else has.

The front on which the gay rights movement has failed is the religious and, in particular in the United States, the Christian front.

From Matthew 19:4-6:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

The Christian Left would prefer to view Matthew 19 as a passage on divorce, which is discussed. But they willfully ignore Christ’s definition of what a marriage is — one man and one woman united to become one.

As much as many would ignore, obfuscate, or try to confuse the beginning of Matthew 19, Christ makes it very clear. The Creator made a male and a female and the two become one. That is marriage in Christianity, despite what a bunch of progressive Christians who have no use for the Bible would have the world believe…

As long as there are still Christians who actually follow Christ and uphold his word, a vast amount of people around the world — never mind Islam — will never ever see gay marriage as anything other than a legal encroachment of God’s intent…

Already we have seen florists, bakers, and photographers suffer because they have refused to go along with the cultural shift toward gay marriage. There will be more.

Once the world decides that real marriage is something other than natural or Godly, those who would point it out must be silenced and, if not, punished. The state must be used to do this. Consequently, the libertarian pipe dream of getting government out of marriage can never ever be possible.

Within a year or two we will see Christian schools attacked for refusing to admit students whose parents are gay. We will see churches suffer the loss of their tax exempt status for refusing to hold gay weddings. We will see private businesses shut down because they refuse to treat as legitimate that which perverts God’s own established plan. In some places this is already happening…

Now many of you have read through this and you are shaking your head in denial. “No way this is possible,” you say. But then just a decade ago no one seriously considered gay marriage as possible. And we are already seeing signs we’re headed in this direction. It’s coming. Get ready.

Libertarians will have to decide which they value more — the ability of a single digit percentage of Americans to get married or the first amendment. The two are not compatible.

Transgender Rights in Schools

The following is from the NY Times over spring break.  What do you think?

 

Dispute on Transgender Rights Unfolds at a Colorado School

By

FOUNTAIN, Colo. — Coy Mathis was born a boy. But after just a few years, biology succumbed to a more powerful force.

A buzz cut grew into long hair. Jeans gave way to pink dresses. And the child’s big cheeks trembled with tears when anyone referred to Coy as male.

Halfway through kindergarten, after consulting with doctors, Coy’s parents informed their child’s school that Coy identified as a girl and should be treated as one — whether that meant using feminine pronouns to describe her or letting Coy wear her favorite dresses.

“It became really clear that it wasn’t just about liking pink or feminine things,” said Kathryn Mathis, Coy’s mother, recounting how Coy had anxiety attacks when people treated her as a boy. “It was that she was trying so hard to show us that she was a girl.”

In December, however, when Coy, 6, was a few months into the first grade, the Mathises angrily pulled her out of school after being told that she could no longer use the girls’ bathroom but could instead use a gender-neutral restroom.

A letter from a lawyer for the Fountain-Fort Carson school district explained that “as Coy grows older and his male genitals develop along with the rest of his body, at least some parents and students are likely to become uncomfortable with his continued use of the girls’ restroom.”

Now, Coy’s case is at the heart of legal dispute that is likely to test Colorado’s anti-discrimination law, which expanded protections for transgender people in 2008.

The case is unfolding in this small town just south of Colorado Springs, as other states across the country seek to clarify their policies relating to transgender students.

It is an issue that has become more commonplace in recent years as advocacy groups push to ensure that school districts are more attuned to the needs of transgender children.

According to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has filed a complaint with Colorado’s civil rights division on the Mathises’ behalf, 16 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of legal protections for transgender people.

In many instances, those protections extend to schools, where the most mundane rituals like going to the bathroom and using a locker room can be especially traumatic for transgender students.

These days, even in states where no protections exist, school districts have become more amenable to meting out a solution when a dispute arises, said Michael D. Silverman, the group’s executive director.

Mr. Silverman cited a recent Kansas case handled by his group, in which a 10-year-old biologically male student wanted to be known by a female name and dress like a girl. The school, he said, ultimately agreed.

“In most cases, when you’re dealing with children this age, nobody is usually fussing about this sort of thing,” Mr. Silverman said. “The schools are much more willing to work with families to ensure that their child is successfully integrated.”

Nonetheless, conflicts over gender identity are, understandably, sensitive territory for administrators, transgender students and their families.

Last month in Batesville, Miss., a group of high school students protested after a transgender classmate was permitted to wear women’s clothing. The students felt that their classmate was being given preferential treatment given the school district’s gender-specific dress code, according to local news reports.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently issued guidelines on the treatment of transgender students, two years after the legislature passed a law banning discrimination based on gender identity.

The guidelines explain the new law and lay out scenarios that schools might encounter.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that every child has a safe and supportive learning environment,” said Jonathan Considine, a spokesman for the department.

The guidelines point out that deciding how best to handle bathroom access for transgender students can be especially challenging. The department recommended that students be permitted to use bathrooms that conform to the gender they identify with and also suggested that schools create gender-neutral restrooms.

“I have been stunned over the last three years by the explosion of concerns and interest and outreach coming from educational professionals around transgender issues,” said Eliza Byard, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Still, gay and transgender advocates say transgender students, while typically a small minority, are particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment.

In a 2012 study by Dr. Byard’s organization, many elementary school students reported hearing comments from fellow students about how both boys and girls should act and look.

About a third of teachers surveyed said that elementary school students who did not conform to gender norms would feel uncomfortable at their schools.

The Mathis case has drawn particular attention, advocates said, because Coy is so young and the Colorado school district had clashed with her parents over what was best.

In that case, the state’s civil rights division is looking into whether the district violated Colorado law by prohibiting Coy from using the girls’ bathroom.

A lawyer for the district, Kelly Dude, declined to comment. In recent public statements, the school district criticized the Mathises for widely publicizing Coy’s situation while it was under review and said it had acted “reasonably and fairly” in the matter.

In a letter to Mr. Silverman, Mr. Dude wrote that Coy was allowed to wear girls’ clothing to school and was referred to as female, as the Mathises had requested. Though Coy could no longer use the girls’ restroom at her elementary school, Mr. Dude said she still had access to staff bathrooms and a gender-neutral restroom in the school’s “health room.”

Mr. Silverman countered that the school district was, he said, “punishing a little girl for what may or may not happen down the road.”

At the Mathises’ home along a stretch of rolling hills, Coy’s parents said they were still mystified over what prompted the school district to change its mind, especially because school administrators seemed so supportive at first.

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” said Jeremy Mathis, a stocky Marine veteran and Coy’s father, noting that Coy had made plenty of friends and grown noticeably happier since identifying as a girl.

“This is elementary school, and you’re singling out this one kid and saying she has to use a special bathroom?”

In the meantime, Coy and her sister and brother — they are triplets — are being home-schooled. While torn about it, the Mathises said they would not return them to school until Coy is allowed to use the girls’ bathroom again.

In the backyard, Coy played happily with her bike, dirt dusting her face and her pink, sparkly boots. She said she would rather be back in school with her friends but knows why she is not.

“They’re being mean to me,” she said. “And they’re telling me that I’m a boy when I’m really a girl.”

Gideon v. Wainwright 50 years later

From today’s New York Times, the following is an excerpt from a story that describes the reality of one’s right to an attorney.  Note that the right doesn’t extend to civil trials, among others.

 

Right to Lawyer Can Be Empty Promise for Poor

By

ADEL, Ga. — Billy Jerome Presley spent 17 months in a Georgia jail because he did not have $2,700 for a child support payment. He had no prior jail record but also no lawyer. In Baltimore last fall, Carl Hymes, 21, was arrested on charges of shining a laser into the eyes of a police officer. Bail was set at $75,000. He had no arrest record but also no lawyer. In West Orange, N.J., last summer, Walter Bloss, 89, was served with an eviction notice from the rent-controlled apartment he had lived in for 43 years after a dispute with his landlord. He had gone to court without a lawyer.

Fifty years ago, on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that those accused of a crime have a constitutional right to a lawyer whether or not they can afford one. But as legal officials observe the anniversary of what is widely considered one of the most significant judicial declarations of equality under law, many say that the promise inherent in the Gideon ruling remains unfulfilled because so many legal needs still go unmet.

Civil matters — including legal issues like home foreclosure, job loss, spousal abuse and parental custody — were not covered by the decision. Today, many states and counties do not offer lawyers to the poor in major civil disputes, and in some criminal ones as well. Those states that do are finding that more people than ever are qualifying for such help, making it impossible to keep up with the need. The result is that even at a time when many law school graduates are without work, many Americans are without lawyers.

The Legal Services Corporation, the Congressionally financed organization that provides lawyers to the poor in civil matters, says there are more than 60 million Americans — 35 percent more than in 2005 — who qualify for its services. But it calculates that 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. In state after state, according to a survey of trial judges, more people are now representing themselves in court and they are failing to present necessary evidence, committing procedural errors and poorly examining witnesses, all while new lawyers remain unemployed.

“Some of our most essential rights — those involving our families, our homes, our livelihoods — are the least protected,” Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson of the Texas Supreme Court, said in a recent speech at New York University. He noted that a family of four earning $30,000 annually does not qualify for legal aid in many states.

James J. Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, said, “Most Americans don’t realize that you can have your home taken away, your children taken away and you can be a victim of domestic violence but you have no constitutional right to a lawyer to protect you.”

According to the World Justice Project, a nonprofit group promoting the rule of law that got its start through the American Bar Association, the United States ranks 66th out of 98 countries in access to and affordability of civil legal services.

“In most countries, equality before the law means equality between those of high and low income,” remarked Earl Johnson Jr., a retired justice of the California Court of Appeal. “In this country for some reason we are concerned more with individuals versus government.”

With law school graduates hurting for work, it may appear that there is a glut of lawyers. But many experts say that is a misunderstanding.

“We don’t have an excess of lawyers,” said Martin Guggenheim, a law professor at New York University. “What we have is a miserable fit. In many areas like family and housing law, there is simply no private bar to go to. You couldn’t find a lawyer to help you even if you had the money because there isn’t a dime to be made in those cases.”

Even in situations where an individual is up against a state prosecutor and jail may result, not every jurisdiction provides lawyers to the defendants. In Georgia, those charged with failing to pay child support face a prosecutor and jail but are not supplied with a lawyer.

Justice Scalia: Judicial Activist?

The following piece from The Economist is critical of what it describes as Justice Scalia’s inconsistent judicial philosophy.  Is this a fair criticism?  Or is Justice Scalia, in this case, justified in seeking to overturn the actions of the legislative branch?

The Voting Rights Act

Antonin Scalia’s uber-activism

WEDNESDAY’S oral argument at the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought an extraordinary piece of analysis from Justice Antonin Scalia—a comment that drew gasps from the audience. The law’s utility as a shield against voting practices that discriminate based on race, Mr Scalia suggested, had evaporated. He argued that requiring nine Southern states and sections of seven others, all with a history of discrimination, to “pre-clear” changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department is now needless interference with “state sovereignty”.

Analysing the most recent reauthorisation of the act in 2006, Mr Scalia explained away its lopsided support in the Senate (98-0) and House of Representatives (390-33):

And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same….I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

After his comment caused a minor stir in the courtroom, Mr Scalia added:

I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity unless—unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution… [T]his is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress….Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?

This is not Mr Scalia’s first impolitic outburst. But for a justice who stakes his jurisprudence on deferring to the democratically elected branches of government, it is a stunning line of reasoning. Consider, by comparison, Mr Scalia’s endorsement of Justice Benjamin Cordozo’s 1933 statement decrying judicial second-guessing of legislative acts:

We do not pause to consider whether a statute differently conceived and framed would yield results more consonant with fairness and reason. We take the statute as we find it.

And recall Mr Scalia’s claim in the 1990 euthanasia case Cruzan v Missouri that it is not for judges to decide when a patient’s life is “worthless”, but “it is up to the citizens of Missouri to decide, through their elected representatives, whether that wish [to end a life] will be honored.”

So why not let the people’s elected representatives handle the matter of racial discrimination and voting? Why, in this case, does Mr Scalia believe he should substitute his views for those of legislators? Members of Congress, after all, considered 12,000 pages worth of testimony in 2006, which showed “pervasive discrimination” in the covered districts. As Justice Elena Kagan said yesterday to Burt Rein, the attorney for the petitioner, “that’s a big, new power that you are giving us…the power now to decide whether racial discrimination has been solved. I did not think that that fell within our bailiwick.”

For a justice who sniffs out closet activism even in his fellow conservative justices—in 2007 he criticised Chief Justice John Roberts for exercising “faux judicial restraint“—Mr Scalia apparently finds the Voting Rights Act to be a uniquely egregious specimen of legislative incompetence. While Mr Scalia has voted to overturn congressional laws from time to time, such as in City of Boerne v Flores (which got a brief mention during Wednesday’s argument), never has he couched his judicial activism in such cynical terms. We cannot trust the Congress to legislate earnestly on questions of race, Mr Scalia implied, because senators and representatives feel bound to uphold “racial entitlements” that their forebears have enacted. Political correctness rules.

Let us posit for the sake of argument that Mr Scalia’s cynicism is on target: American senators voted unanimously to extend the law in 2006 not because they found merit in its provisions but because they feared that a “no” vote would earn them condemnation as racists. What then? Should America trust its Supreme Court to bring a more careful, measured eye to the question? The tenor of the comments from the conservative justices suggests the answer is no. Consider the simplistic suggestion from the chief justice that because “the citizens in the South are [no] more racist than citizens in the North” we can safely ignore evidence that Southern states still systematically discriminate against minorities. Consider the ease with which Mr Scalia equated the guarantee of an equal right to vote with the concept of “racial entitlement”. And consider the failure of any justice to mention efforts in many of the covered states to depress voter turnout among minority voters in 2012. It remains highly questionable whether a majority of the Supreme Court is up to the task of diagnosing America’s racial challenges.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The following two videos give you some background on the Voting Rights Act dispute that was argued in front of the Supreme Court last month, and then give you a taste for the two sides of the argument on whether Section 5 of the Act is unconstitutional.  In your view, should the Court uphold Section 5, or not?

The Fourth Amendment and Government Surveillance

Today’s Supreme Court decision revolved around “standing” (whether anyone was hurt by the law) but it also raises broader issues along the lines that we discussed in class.  Under what circumstances should the government be permitted to eavesdrop on Americans’ telephone calls without a warrant to do so?

Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Surveillance Law

By

WASHINGTON — In a 5-to-4 decision that broke along ideological lines, the Supreme Court on Tuesday turned back a challenge to a federal law that authorized intercepting international communications involving Americans.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that the journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates who challenged the constitutionality of the law could not show they had been harmed by it and so lacked standing to sue. Their fear that they would be subject to surveillance in the future was too speculative to establish standing, he wrote.

Justice Alito also rejected arguments based on the steps the plaintiffs had taken to escape surveillance, including traveling to meet sources and clients in person rather than talking to them over the phone. “They cannot manufacture standing by incurring costs in anticipation of non-imminent harms,” he wrote of the plaintiffs.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion.

In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the harm claimed by the plaintiffs was not speculative. “Indeed,” he wrote, “it is as likely to take place as are most future events that common-sense inference and ordinary knowledge of human nature tell us will happen.” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined his dissenting opinion.

The decision, Clapper v. Amnesty International, No. 11-1025, probably means the Supreme Court will never rule on the constitutionality of the law, a 2008 measure that broadened the government’s power to eavesdrop on international communications. The law, an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was passed after the 2005 disclosure of the Bush administration’s secret program to wiretap international communications of people inside the United States without obtaining court warrants. The electronic spying, intended to help pursue terrorists, began after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The 2008 law was challenged by Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups and individuals, including journalists and lawyers who represent prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The plaintiffs said the law violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment by allowing the government to intercept their international telephone calls and e-mails.

In 2011, a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, ruled for the plaintiffs on the threshold question of whether they had standing.

Judge Gerard E. Lynch, writing for the court, said the plaintiffs had shown that they had a reasonable fear that their communications would be monitored and had taken “costly measures to avoid being monitored.”

The full Second Circuit declined to rehear the panel’s ruling by a 6-to-6 vote.

Sequestration

So this is the first of what I expect to be several posts regarding sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that will take effect next Friday unless Congress and the President take action to avert them.  Many say that the budget cuts will hurt the economy, and most agree that some important services will be cut if the sequestration goes through.  Others say that these budget cuts are a necessary to reduce the size of the federal government.  If sequestration goes through, who is to blame?  Or is sequestration a good thing?