Tag Archives: Legal/Constitutional

Monday’s Mtg: The Elderly Prisoner Problem

Linda, who’s a criminal defense attorney in private practice, suggested this topic. Since 1995, the number of U.S. prison inmates over age 55 has roughly quadrupled. They now comprise one-sixth of the entire U.S. prison population.

Why so many aging prisoners?  One cause is the sheer size of violent crime wave that roiled the United States from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Another is that the country is aging in general, including those that commit serious crimes. But most notoriously to blame are all of those harsh sentencing laws passed by state legislatures and Congress in response to the crime wave and the War on Some People That Use Certain Drugs. Civilized Conversation has discussed both mandatory minimum sentences and racism in sentencing on separate occasions.

Having so many aging prisoners is a problem for a lot of reasons. As one of the links below says, older prisoners “require special attention in prison, as they often suffer from chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart failure, cognitive impairment, and liver disease, as well as age related disabilities. They are also more vulnerable to victimization in prison.” Just providing their health care costs a fortune.  Many prisons have expensive geriatric wards. Nearly 80% of all deaths in prison are older (55+) prisoners.

Recently, the Obama Administration and some state governments – including California’s – have tried to devise programs to speed compassionate release for the least dangerous elderly prisoners whose further imprisonment makes little sense. This has proven harder than you might think, both administratively and politically. I imagine that the Trump Administration will end all federal efforts and that bipartisan criminal justice reform of any kind is dead. But, who knows?

Below are some rather duh-level discussion questions and a few straightforward readings on the elderly prisoner problem and on mass incarceration. On Monday I will skip my usual opening presentation, except to briefly summarize the issue for any new members that might not have read the background materials.

Linda, with her many years of experience as a defense attorney, will then have the floor.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How big is this problem and what makes it a problem?
  2. What caused it? Whose “fault” is it? Was anybody thinking of this eventuality 30 or 20 or 10 years ago?
  3. Solutions:  What’s being tried, including by the USG and in California?
    How are those going? If not well, why, and what else should be done?
  4. Mass incarceration: Is the elderly prisoner problem another one of the consequences of America’s disastrous mass incarceration experiment? Or, is it a sad but inevitable consequence of our vast but in-the-past crime wave?
  5. CJ reform: Is there any hope for federal criminal justice reform now that Trump is president and the GOP controls USG?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  White male privilege – How real? How important?

Monday’s Mtg: A Progressive Constitution?

This one was Bruce idea, as a kind of follow-up to our 2015 meeting on the Founders’ view of government powers and in expectation that Hillary Clinton would be elected president. Now, of course, President Trump will fill the Supreme Court seat that congressional Republicans stole by refusing to fill Justice Scalia’s vacant seat for a year. Funny, but I can’t find the passage in the Constitution that allows the Party of strict constructionists and originalism to do this.

At any rate, no shift away from the long, conservative arc of constitutional law is going to happen in the next decade. Quite the opposite. That list of possible SCOTUS appointees that Trump issued during the campaign came straight from the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. An ultra-conservative constitutional restoration is on the launching pad, in the lower courts as well as SCOTUS.

Nevertheless, understanding progressive views (there are more than one) of constitutional interpretation is still relevant, for several reasons. First, presidents usually find a way to appoint federal judges that share their highest constitutional priorities. For example, the liberal Obama appointed judges that agreed with his expansive view of executive power in anti-terrorism matters. Donald Trump is an authoritarian figure unmatched in American history and he might try to stack the judiciary with cronies that place loyalty to him above ell else. If Trump does this and the GOP refuses to stand up to him, progressives and their living Constitutionalism will have to bear the full weight of opposition.

Second, being in the wilderness sharpens the mind. Over the next four years the Democrats must decide whether and how to revamp their message. A lot of people feel that the New Coke must include a version of constitutional interpretation that can compete with the simplistic but effective “original intent” and “obey the written Constitution” marketing slogan of the Right. Lastly, esoteric matters of law aside, the public is on progressives’ side on most major constitutional issues. They do not believe that Medicare, federal aid to education, and Social Security are unconstitutional. They don’t want Roe overturned or the last limits on corporate campaign contributions to be swept away.

Unfortunately, the progressive POV on constitutional law does not easily fit on a bumper sticker. The Left views the Constitution as a “living document,” one that laid down timeless principles but that still must be interpreted non-mechanically in order to apply it to the today’s real world. But, beyond that commonality, progressive experts differ on specific methods and priorities. There are competing camps with catchy names like “ordered liberty,” “progressive originalism,” “democratic constitutionalism,” and others.

I’m not qualified nor interested enough to explain these nuances. But, I do know a bit. I will open our meeting on Monday with the basic ideas behind progressive constitutional interpretation as I understand them. Then, we can talk.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Originalism: Why do progressives consider it unworkable and even kind of fraudulent?
  2. Basic liberal stance: Why do progressives say the Founders intended the Constitution to be a “living document” that must be interpreted for modern times?
  3. Rules for deciding: Okay, but how? What rules/priorities do progressives think we should use for interpretation? Original meaning, precedent, societal consensus, modern values, outcomes? Can these add up to a coherent philosophy?
  4. Differences/Labels: What are the biggest disagreements among progressives on this stuff and how do they end up as “democratic constitutionalism, “ordered liberty,” “New Textualism,” etc.
  5. Future: How will progressive react to the coming conservative constitutional revolution?  Will they find any common ground with (some) Republicans?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Who cares?

What might have been and what will be –

Critique of Conservative Methods –

Progressive constitutional interpretation –

NEXT WEEK: Are we living in the “Asian Century?”

Monday’s Mtg: Are There Better Ways to “Police the Police?”

This group’s ability to time its topics so well with breaking events is starting to scare me. We’ve discussed issues related to police use of violence several times recently, including in September 2014 on the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But, there have been some big developments in the field just in the past few days.

Today (Friday 6/3), the Chicago city government released previously undisclosed information on 101 controversial instances of officer-involved shootings and violence, including 68 dash/body cam videos. This was just the latest effort to respond to public outrage over that city’s police department’s use of force. A mayoral task force recently condemned the CPD’s “code of silence” and “institutionalized racism.” Public protests are ongoing and the USDOJ is investigating the CPD as it has many other municipal police departments. Here in San Diego, the SDPD just recently released videos of several controversial use of force.

More broadly, police use of force and racial bias have been on the front burner nationally for 3+ years now, and different types of reforms have been tried in at least some of the USA’s 18,000 (!) law enforcement agencies. Things like increased use of body/dashboard cams, revamped officer training, greater transparency, and civilian oversight boards.

Yes, change is hard. The police have difficult and complicated jobs. Police culture is notoriously slow to change. Law enforcement has powerful political protectors and allies (inc. unions and politicians) that resist change.  Still, I agree with Linda.  We should not let this moment in the spotlight pass without reflecting on what we’ve learned about how to make the police in this country both more effective and humane.

I’ll see you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The problem, if you want background:

Reforms Are Happening:

Of special interest – Civilian Oversight boards:

Next Week: Bernie, (The) Donald, and the meaning of populism.

 

Monday’s Mtg: From Bundy to Black Lives – When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?

Breaking the law in order to highlight its injustice (one, but not the only, definition of civil disobedience) is all around us these days. In our crowded media environment, many individual acts or organized campaigns of civil disobedience don’t break through to the mass media. But, some that did in a big way are:

  • Black Lives Matter;
  • Occupy Wall Street;
  • Protestors disrupting Donald Trump rallies;
  • Cliven Bundy, et. al., facing down authorities in Nevada and Oregon to protest federal govt land policies;
  • Local government officials (like Kim Davis in Kentucky) refusing to sign same sex marriage licenses;
  • Edward Snowden leaking classified information on NSA eavesdropping programs.

Some of thee efforts involved many legal as well as illegal acts, of course, and some have achieved a lot more than just publicity. Black Lives Matter has had a major impact on the Democratic presidential primary and renewed efforts to reform policing. (We will discuss police reform and oversight on June 8.) The anti-Trump protestors have influenced the Republican presidential primary process, just maybe not in the way they intended. Others either fizzled out (Bundy) or just need more time to grow support (Snowden, perhaps).

The perpetrators of all of these illegal acts done for a higher purpose routinely cite as their inspirations famous civil disobedience actions of the past by abolitionists, civil and women’s rights activists, etc.   As the author of one recent book on the subject puts it, civil disobedience is an American Tradition.

Now, I believe we may be entering a new era of political activism. Why is a subject for another days – many, actually.  But I see this new era as arising from widespread public discontent with our political system and parties, income stagnation, and rapid demographic and cultural change. I think civil disobedience will play a heightened role in our politics because of the Internet and social media.  Even if I’m wrong, the recent big protest movements cited above are well worth a meeting.

My idea here is for us to see if we can identify some universal principles on when civil disobedience might be morally and politically justifiable. We’ll look to our own values and our current political and social environment, sure. But we also can use our history, others’ histories (e.g., from Gandhi all the way to terrorism!), religion, and philosophy. The latter two have been arguing about when civil disobedience is and is not justified for generations. There are many interesting questions we can pose. For example…

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. DEFINITION: What is “civil disobedience [CD]?” How does it differ from passive resistance or non-cooperation?
    a.  Must CD be non-violent? What is non-violence, anyway?
    b.  When does CD become something else, like insurrection?
  2. CURRENT: What major CD movements/acts are occurring right now?
    a.  How have they been justified by their perpetrators?
    b.  Are they helping or hindering budding political movements?
  3. PAST: Are there any major lessons from U.S. history on when civil disobedience is justified? Do all Americans agree on them?
    a. Has it all depended on the object of the disobedience; i.e., on the morality of the goal? What else has mattered?
    b. Has CD ever worked by itself, unattached to a big political movement?
  4. RELIGION and PHILOSOPHY: What do they say about civil disobedience? When is it justified and within what limits?
  5. LAW/GOVT/YOU/ME: Should the law treat acts of civil disobedience differently from ordinary law-breaking?
    a.  What about when there is no democracy or no way to redress grievances?
    b. Is CD ever morally or religiously required?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Movements involving civil disobedience [CD]:

Justifications:

  • MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963. Highly recommended because notice how he justifies taking direct action.
  • Still, civil disobedience involves many thorny issues. Recommended.
  • Civil disobedience in philosophy. A hard read from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Problem with + limits to civil disobedience:

Building grass roots political movements

Next Week: Thomas Jefferson and His Legacy.  Jim Z. will guide us!

Monday’s Mtg: The Supreme Court and the 2016 Election.

The Supreme Court was always going to be the big prize of the 2016 election. Justice Antonin Scalia’s death on February 13, 2016, just raised the already high stakes to an unequaled plateau because we now know the Court’s 20+ year-long conservative ideological majority hangs in the balance.

I originally scheduled this topic to discuss the string of 5-4 conservative decisions on major cases that everybody expected to come down the pike in April to June. These cases included ones on Obama’s climate regulations, the 1-person-1-vote redistricting standard, union rights, abortion and contraception access, affirmative action, and the death penalty. Oops. Now, those cases either will be reargued next term, remanded to lower courts, or let stand because SCOTUS is tied.

So, I think it might be fun to re-purpose this meeting to look more broadly at the relationship between the Supreme Court and elections – and public opinion. We kind of did this 2012 (Whose side is SCOTUS on?). But, that was more about how public opinion influences SCOTUS and how often the Court has defied majority public opinion to make unpopular rulings.

On Monday, I’d like us to begin by asking about the reverse relationship: How much does the public care about SCOTUS and how do high-profile Supreme Court issues influence voting? As the first link or two below explain, typically SCOTUS is not a very visible issue in our elections except for political activists, the most well-informed voters, and the economic interests intimately affected by Court decisions. But, given the historic moment, it might be different this time. Especially with presidential candidates running on issues that are before the Court but in limbo because of Scalia’s death, like Ted Cruz running on abortion and immigration and Bernie Sanders demanding that the next SCOTUS justice commit to overturn Citizens United.

I will give a short introduction to our meeting that focuses on the public’s view of the Supreme Court and whether/why that matters. Then, we can discuss if that is changing.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Stakes: How high are the stakes in this election for the future of SCOTUS and American law and policy? Re:
    1. High-profile cases next term?
    2. Big areas of constitutional law, like civil rights, civil liberties, presidential power, natl security, voting rights and campaign finance, reproductive rights, labor unions, federalism, etc.?
    3. Obama’s achievements (many are reversible by SCOTUS)?
    4. Lower federal courts?
    5. Is a “constitutional revolution,” either progressive or conservative, at stake?
  2. History: Traditionally, how big an issue is SCOTUS in voters’ minds? Which voters care the most and why?
  3. 2016 Rhetoric: What are the candidates saying about SCOTUS stakes and who is the rhetoric aimed at (voters, activists, Media, donors)?
  4. 2016 Receptivity: Will it have any effect – how will we know? Will it raise expectations that have to be met?
  5. 2017 and beyond:
    1. What kinds of justices would Hillary/Bernie or Cruz/Trump/other nominate? Any chance of picking a moderate?
    2. Will GOP refuse any nominee, keeping a 4-4 Court?
    3. How would your answers to Q1/ a-e be different with a GOP or a Democratic Supreme Court?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: When is civil disobedience justified?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Our Legal System Being Privatized?

I’ve mentioned many times that in my view the modern conservative political program can be (simplistically, of course) described as in three words: Cut, deregulate, and privatize. Cut taxes, especially on investment. Deregulate industry, especially President Obamas new ones on Big Finance and the health care industries. Privatize public services at all levels of government. This week John S. wants us to talk about a little-understood but very important part of the last part of this three-pronged agenda: The growing privatization of our legal system, especially of the right to sue.

We’re all familiar with the growing private control over the making of our laws, due to lobbying and loosened campaign finance rules. John’s idea should spur us to talk about the increasing private control over the enforcement of our laws. This is true of both civil and criminal law.

In civil law, tort reform (a major conservative political priority) and the now-ubiquitous use by big corporations of binding arbitration clauses in consumer agreements and even employment contracts has severely limited your ability to sue for damages when you are wronged by a big company. Use of class action lawsuits, another check on corporate power, also have been curtailed. I suppose you also could add the rise of secretive investor dispute settlement panels in international trade agreements to this list, since they basically privatize a part of what used to be strictly government-to-government trade law enforcement.

In criminal law, we have privately-owned and operated prisons housing almost 10 percent of all prisoners, and outsourced probation enforcement. The incentives built into this privatizing of legal punishments can lead to sometimes disastrous results (see links). I’m sure I’m missing some of the ways our penal system has been turned over to private contractors.

Finally, and analogous to what is happening with corporations, we have seen our right to sue government when it harms us restricted. Government officials have always had qualified immunity from lawsuits when they are performing their statutorily-mandated duties. But, recent court decision have expanded this type of immunity, as well.

I don’t want to exaggerate these trends. Our entire legal system has not been handed over to corporations and private interests. Yet. Nor, of course, should they all be automatically condemned nor laid at the feet of political conservatives.  The public good may benefit from some of these developments.  But, I think you will learn some unsettling things about the bowels of our legal system on Monday.

Since I’m low on time this weekend, my research (and the readings, below) will focus on the binding arbitration and class action issues. My intro on Monday night will emphasize them. In addition, you may want to read one of the articles on the consequences of state/local governments privatizing the enforcement of probation.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: What Are the Sources of Islamist Radicalism?

Monday’s Mtg: Conservatives’ Religious Freedom of Conscience Movement and the Culture Wars

Happy Religious Freedom Day! January 16 commemorates the adoption in 1786 of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a pioneering law protecting religious faith and practice. Since then, the contours of and limits to religious liberty in our country have, like all other constitutional rights, evolved.

Since the at least the 1960s, state laws often have allowed people to claim an exemption from some secular laws in some circumstances based on their personal religious objection. Conscience clauses are common in education (opt-outs for vaccinations and sex education), health care (refusing to participate in abortions), and in other areas.

I had us discuss this topic in 2013 because conservatives had begun a political campaign to expand the scope of what they term ‘religious freedom” laws into new areas, like marriage equality and LGBT rights. I timed our meeting to coincide with oral arguments in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court case. In that case, the owners of a big craft chain store argued that their first amendment religious liberty included the right to disobey the Obamacare mandate to cover all effective forms of contraception in its employee health insurance plan.

A few months after we met, SCOTUS ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor. The Court’s reasoning was…innovative, to say the least. It said that the religious freedom of the companies’ owners extends through the corporate veil, all the way to the earned benefits of its employees. Hobby Lobby had the first amendment right, the Court said, to dictate which forms of contraception its health care plan would pay for, solely on the basis of its owners’ personal religious beliefs. Progressives immediately grew suspicious that SCOTUS had opened the door to new corporate abuses of power and/or new ways for conservatives to ignore law they didn’t like.

Don’t worry, said the Court. This ruling really is a narrow one. It applies only to “closely-held” companies and only to the specific forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby’s owners believed were immoral. If in the future other claimants tried to use this decision to make more outlandish religious claims – outlandish in the Court’s eyes, I guess – SCOTUS would not be receptive.

Well, guess what? In March 2016, SCOTUS will hear a new case in which a religious non-profit employer wants out of the Obamacare contraception mandate, too. The Court might use its ruling to open the religious conscience exemption door even wider – perhaps much wider. And it’s not just the Supreme Court. Since Hobby Lobby, congressional conservatives have introduced the First Amendment Defense Act and the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, both designed to protect conscientious religious objectors to federal LGBT laws. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio cosponsored both these bills and Donald Trump just said he would sign the latter. On the state level, GOP-controlled governments have tried to enact similar laws.

You see my motive for this topic revisit. Maybe all of these efforts to expand religious conscience laws to protect lost culture war battles will fade away or be contained by ether the courts or public opinion. (Maybe some are even sensible – we shouldn’t dismiss the whole idea of expanding conscience clauses out of hand, IMO). But, I doubt it. I think conservatives’ conscience clause/ religious freedom movement is major a new frontier of our 21st century culture wars.

On Monday, I’ll open our meeting with a little more info on what conservatives have planned in this area and a bit of the reasoning supporters and opponents use.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What is a religious conscience clause and what is its moral and constitutional justification? Historically, what were their limits?
  2. How did (or, did) the Hobby Lobby ruling change the limits of religious conscience?
  3. How do conservatives want to expand this part of the law? Do their ideas have merit?
  4. Is DavidG wrong: Are conservatives not going to keep the pedal to the metal on this issue?
  5. Are there other ways to split the baby on these tough moral questions; e.g., more federalism, or defining the limits to religious exemptions in a single, federal law?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Solutions to California’s Water Woes (yeah, yeah, it’s raining).

Monday’s Mtg: What Are Natural Rights and Why Does It Matter?

Yesterday (9/17/15) was national Constitution Day, so I thought Monday might be a good date to discuss this idea of Bruce’s. Natural rights may seem like an arcane philosophical matter. But, they are a huge deal to many conservatives. The existence and implications of natural rights is one of the main (although not the only) intellectual justifications for political conservativism. And, a moral foundation.  And a secret ingredient for constitutional interpretation, one that renders much of the 20th century’s activist government literally illegal.

In a nutshell, natural rights are a priori human rights, the basic freedoms that God or nature allegedly endows us with prior to any political arrangements we create. These rights are indefeasible: A political system based on natural law principles may not legitimately take them away from us except in narrow, exceptional circumstances. Conservatives that anchor themselves in natural law/natural rights, I’ve observed, tend towards libertarianism, believing that the natural right of life, liberty, and property are pretty much the only freedoms that the federal government must protect.  Congress can make “positive law” that advances other goals, but only in very limited circumstances.  The pursuit of happiness? To most conservatives I read and know, it’s something we’re entitled to chase after, but only with the protections of the Bill of Rights’ negative liberties to support us.

A natural rights-based philosophy, IMO, serves two other purposes, politically. First, arguments based on natural rights seem to be, well, natural and common sense, and who could be against nature?  Second, natural rights can be conceived of as either God-given or derived from nature or reason.  This helps to marry together religious conservatives and more secular-minded libertarian ones.  See, since natural rights are directly referenced in the Declaration of Independence (“inalienable rights”) and the Declaration also mentions God, then, if you’re a Declarationist, you can say that the Constitution has a fundamentally religious purpose even though God is absent from the Constitution’s text..

As for me, I’ve never quite figured out several things about natural rights. Such as how we’re supposed to be dead certain what they are and where they stop. Also, it’s unclear to me why any set of natural rights has to be eternally unchanging.  Can’t our conception of fundamental human rights that need protecting evolve as our societies evolve?. But, YMMV.

Below are some readings on natural rights and their political ramifications. Most are by conservative writers that put these rights at the center of our political system, plus a few progressive rebuttals. I also separated out some more complex articles on constitutional doctrine and legal history for the true masochists among us (you know who you are.).

I’ll open Monday’s meeting with a short summary of the issue of natural rights and then give Bruce a chance to do his thing.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Public Ignorance as a political problem.  Donald, here we come!

Monday’s Mtg (8/24/15): How Common Are Wrongful Criminal Convictions?

This week we have an interesting topic from Linda, our defense attorney. I  know little about the issue of wrongful criminal convictions. Like everybody else, I read about them on occasion. But, only the really egregious ones make the national news, like the recent case of a man freed after serving 34 years for a rape/murder he did not commit.

Fortunately for us (and for at least a few of the falsely imprisoned), a number of organizations are dedicated to exonerating such people, notably The Innocence Project and Wrongfulconvictions.org. Their heartbreaking cases, or even a quick Googling of the topic, suggests the scale of this problem could be larger than most people imagine. It’s not just murders and rapes and pre-DNA convictions. Wrongful convictions may be fairly common for lesser crimes, like assaults or burglaries. These miscarriages of justice have many causes, including:

  • Bad evidence: Shaky eyewitnesses, false confessions, and bad forensic science;
  • Police and prosecutorial misconduct: Some accidental, good-faith mistakes; some deliberate and malicious;
  • Incompetent defenses: Bad defense attorneys and underfunded and overworked public defender systems.

And those are just before the wrongful convictions. After a person goes down for a crime, the obstacles to getting his/her case reexamined are enormous. The burden of proof essentially transfers onto the convicted and it’s a large burden (I think). As I’ll discuss in my brief opening, one reason it’s so hard is that being innocent is no excuse. I’m serious. Generally under the law, a convicted criminal cannot be exonerated unless he/she can demonstrate (from prison, often!) that the process under which they were condemned violated their due process rights. If they got a “fair” trial but a wrong outcome, too bad. Plus, 95% of criminals plead guilty in a plea bargain. So, there is no trial at all to question, just the actions of the police and prosecutors, who, as we’ve all seen with recent killings of unarmed citizens, almost always get the benefit of any doubt..

Only a few links this week – Some broad overviews of the problem, plus a little bit on causes and ways to improve the system. My big question on this topic is the last one, below: What does this problem say about our legal system as a whole? Are wrongful convictions just the tragic but infrequent and inevitable “false positives” generated by a gigantic criminal justice system in a very high-crime country? Or, are they yet another manifestation of a rotten criminal justice system, intrinsically connected to mass incarceration, police abuse, etc.?

Hey, not every problem has to be connected to much bigger and long-festering systemic problems. But, where there is the former, there is usually the latter.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Frequency. What do we know about the problem of wrongful criminal conviction? How many are we sure have happened versus estimate? Is the problem a large or small part of American justice?
  2. Who/When: Who gets wrongfully convicted – Which types of crimes and/or defendants and/or victims and/or locales?
  3. Causes. Why does this happen? Is it individual errors or systemic problems?
  4. Solutions. What remedies have been suggested? Which ones have been implemented and by whom? Why/Why not? Results?
  5. Disease or symptom? What does this problem say about our criminal justice system? Tip of the iceberg of injustice? Small, isolated problem?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is the U.S. financial sector finally tamed?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Is the Presidency Too Powerful?

Presidential abuse of power is a hardy perennial issue in American politics. Every president gets accused (often with good reason) of unilaterally expanding the scope of the office, especially in times of war, national emergencies, and political gridlock. Since all of these conditions seem permanent these days, it’s a good time to revisit an issue we last discussed in 2012: Has the executive branch grown too powerful?

Bruce wanted to talk about this subject for a more specific reason. Conservatives are extremely agitated these days about President Obama’s use of executive power. They argue that he has abused his authority – in both foreign and domestic policy – in unprecedented ways. They cite his actions on, well, pretty much everything: Immigration, environmental regulations, Obamacare implementation, war and diplomacy, etc. In case you don’t follow conservative media, you should know it’s hard to overstate how endlessly these charges are repeated in conservative circles and how widely accepted it is on the Right that Obama is a “lawless president.”

Sure, it’s easy to dismiss this as just partisanship and anger over Obama’s ability to use executive action to get around the unprecedented legislative gridlock the GOP deliberately created. (Also, where were these principled critics during Bush 43’s staggering expansion of presidential power?) I think many of the charges against Obama are exaggerated, but I also believe there are real issues here. Obama did reign in some of Bush’s worst abuses, like torture. Yet, like almost all presidents, Obama pocketed most of his predecessors’ expanded authority and has added a few more of his own. Presidential power really does just keep expanding, and has been my entire adult life.

Bruce may want us to focus on specific charges against Obama, like his altering of statutory Obamacare deadlines, and his executive orders deferring deportation of large numbers of undocumented immigrants. Fair enough. I am more interested in pondering why executive branch power keeps on expanding, decade after decade and whether it can be – and should be – stopped.

On Monday, I’ll give some brief opening remarks, then ask Bruce for his POV on the subject. Note: The links this week do not crawl into specific issues, like warrantless surveillance, drones, immigration, EPA regs.  Each one would make a good separate topic someday.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS.

  1. How and why have recent presidents acquired new/expanded authority not explicitly granted in the Constitution? Has this accumulation been “natural;” i.e., a result of the needs of the modern Presidency/state?
  2. Bush: How radical versus necessary was GWB’s expansion of power? Why did we (Congress, Media, public) let it happen?
  3. Obama: Same Qs + How did Obama/Bush differ on expanding executive power?
  4. Okay, then: What’s the alternative to an imperial president?  Who would solve national problems – Congress?  The states?  No one?
  5. Could continued extreme polarization and permanent state of war lead to a presidential “soft-dictatorship” (see links)?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

G.W. Bush –

Obama –

The Future of Presidential Power:

Next Week: Free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.