Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

June 28th, 2019:

Census citizenship question stopped for now

“For now” being the key point.

The Supreme Court on Thursday put on hold the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form sent to every household, saying it had provided a “contrived” reason for wanting the information.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the splintered opinion. In a section agreed with by the court’s liberals, he said the Commerce Department must provide a clearer explanation.

Agencies must offer “genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,” Roberts wrote. “Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”

Roberts said a district judge was right to send the issue back to the Commerce Department for a better explanation.

A string of lower-court judges found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated federal law and regulations in attempting to include the question on the census. They starkly rebutted his claim that the information was first requested by the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and they noted his consultations with hard-line immigration advocates in the White House beforehand.

What happens next was not immediately clear; the department had said it must know by the summer whether the question can be added.

See here for some background. Trump has already tweeted that they will try again, so it’s mostly a question of timing. Rick Hasen thinks they may be able to get back before SCOTUS in time for the fall term, which would allow for the question to be re-decided in time. Ari Berman, talking to ACLU attorneys who were among the counsel for the plaintiffs, think it’s unlikely. Everyone agrees that SCOTUS ruled that the Commerce Department could add a citizenship question if it had followed the Administrative Procedures Act, so if they can get back to SCOTUS they will almost certainly prevail. The new questions raised by the Hofeller files may be an extra obstacle for the Commerce Department, but not necessarily. Hold onto your butts. Daily Kos and Texas Monthly have more.

You are free to redistrict to your partisan heart’s content

Your Supreme Court, ladies and gentlemen.

In an effort to appear as though it hovers permanently above the partisan fray, the Supreme Court on Thursday delivered perhaps the most staggering win to the Republican Party since Bush v. Gore. In a pair of cases out of North Carolina and Maryland raising the question of whether extreme partisan political gerrymanders can ever violate the Constitution, the five-justice conservative majority finally answered a decades-old question: The federal courts will have no role to play in overseeing whether political lines were drawn for the gain of the majority in violation of the Constitution. As Chief Justice John Roberts put it in his majority opinion:

We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions. “[J]udicial action must be governed by standard, by rule,” and must be “principled, rational, and based upon reasoned distinctions” found in the Constitution or laws [as a plurality of the court found in the 2004 case Vieth v. Jubelirer]. Judicial review of partisan gerrymandering does not meet those basic requirements.

With this opinion, the chief justice puts on a masterclass in legal analysis by way of hypothetical question. How much of a partisan gerrymander is too much? How can we know? Which tool could we use? Who knows what lurks in the heart of voters? It reads as a protracted still life in learned helplessness. If, as it turns out, a court genuinely doesn’t want to adjudicate a problem, they can always say it’s too hard.

[…]

To be sure, the chief justice knows how this all feels, to the millions of voters whose votes are and will be diluted and discounted by the majorities who draw lines: “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” he concedes. “But the fact that such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles,’ does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary.” The solution, he would suggest, lies in state courts, constitutional amendments, state redistricting commissions (which he has deemed unconstitutional in the past), Congress, and state legislatures, which is a tiny bit like putting the looters in charge of the looting problem.

He ends with the noble caution that “No one can accuse this Court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence.” And, indeed, nobody does. We have in recent terms witnessed the court’s view of its competence to dismantle the administrative state, to curb union power, to overturn prior precedent, to gut the Voting Rights Act, and to use the First Amendment as an all-purpose civil rights stun-gun. But its competence to do sweeping and consequential change stops, today, at the door of the political gerrymander. In the chief justice’s telling, this is neutral minimalism.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan calls out this learned helplessness in her very first line: “[F]or the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.” She adds that the doctrine here clouds the issue that:

The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives. In so doing, the partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people. These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.

Before laying out the specific grotesquerie of the Maryland and North Carolina gerrymanders at issue, Kagan asks her reader to consider: “As I relate what happened in those two States, ask yourself: Is this how American democracy is supposed to work?”

In John Roberts’ America, it is. Mark Joseph Stern, who notes that Roberts likes to call himself “the most aggressive defender of the First Amendment on the court now”, reviews a couple of his recent decisions and concludes that Roberts thinks billionaires deserve more First Amendment protections than regular voters do. And if you really want to go down a nighmarish path, consider this:

After today’s disastrous decision, here are some things that line-drawers could do in the future:

  • Instruct a computer algorithm to generate huge numbers of maps that comply with all nonpartisan criteria and produce as large and durable an advantage as possible for the line-drawing party. Then pick an actual plan from this array of potential gerrymanders. This plan will be close to impregnable if it’s challenged on nonpartisan grounds. But it will still massively benefit the line-drawing party, probably more than any human-drawn map could.
  • Revise districts after each election to optimize their performance in the next election. Any districts slipping away from the line-drawing party could have some copartisans added to them. Any districts becoming overly safe could have some copartisans subtracted. Decennial redistricting, in other words, could become a thing of the past. Redistricting every two years is so much more effective.
  • Design noncontiguous districts in order to avoid the constraints of political geography. A state with many Democrats concentrated in cities (like my Illinois) could join clusters of urban Democrats with slightly smaller clusters of rural Republicans hundreds of miles away. These clusters wouldn’t have to be connected since no federal law, and no other law in many states, mandates contiguity. A state could even adopt entirely nongeographic districts, e.g., by assigning a representative (and sufficiently numerous) sample of the state’s population to each district.

We’ve already established that mid-decade redistricting is a thing that happens. Who’s to say any of this is out of bounds? Not John Roberts, that’s for sure. ThinkProgress, Sam Wang, and the WaPo have more.

Still no more prosecutors

I remain fascinated by this dynamic.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for more staff to handle fallout from the Houston Police Department’s botched Pecan Park drug raid, the second time this year commissioners have turned down Ogg’s push for more prosecutors.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines after a feisty debate involving the court’s reform-minded Democratic majority, officials from Ogg’s office and the outnumbered conservative commissioners. In the end, Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined County Judge Lina Hidalgo in turning down the request.

Added to the court’s agenda late Friday, Ogg’s request would have granted the district attorney’s office 10 new positions — seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators — to handle what officials in Ogg’s office characterized as an overwhelming caseload aggravated by the Jan. 28 Harding Street raid.

The court’s decision came a day after HPD agreed to give prosecutors thousands of pages of records relating to their use of confidential narcotics informants, avoiding a legal showdown that loomed after prosecutors from Ogg’s office threatened to issue grand jury subpoenas to get the records.

Instead of granting Ogg more staff, Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia voiced support for an external review by an independent third party. They also cited a Chronicle report that raised questions about caseloads and Ogg’s push for more than 100 new lawyers earlier this year, which the court also rejected.

[…]

In a statement, Ogg said her office “remains dedicated to fully investigating the Harding Street shootings” and said the shooting victims’ family members “and our entire community deserve to know the truth sooner, not later. Unnecessary delay creates hardship for everyone associated with this tragedy. If police misconduct led to the wrongful convictions of anyone, then every extra day served in the penitentiary waiting for justice increases the potential financial liability for Harris County taxpayers.”

Ellis, a longtime criminal justice advocate, told officials from the district attorney’s office that he did not feel comfortable receiving Ogg’s request late Friday, and urged King to meet first with an independent prosecutor before having commissioners vote on additional staff.

Hidalgo suggested that Ogg’s request was a reaction to coverage of the botched raid, telling King that Commissioners Court members “don’t write budgets based on headlines.”

See here for more on the first time Ogg asked for more prosecutors, here for more on that Chron story about caseloads, and here for more about the late ask for more prosecutors this time around. I can think of three things to say. One is that Kim Ogg should listen to Rodney Ellis and consult with someone outside Harris County about their staffing needs before taking any further action. Two, that consultation should include reviewing and revising those numbers the Chron cited, if only to present an alternative report that conforms to the specifications cited. And three, one way or another she needs to build or rebuild trust between her office and the Democrats on Commissioners Court, because she sure isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from them. The campaign ads for her primary opposition are being written for them.