Major network newscasts have given almost no coverage to an upcoming Supreme Court case that will decide whether judicial candidates can personally solicit campaign donations -- despite the risk of corruption.
On January 20, the court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, in which a candidate for an elected county judge position -- Lanell Williams-Yulee -- sent out a fundraising letter that she signed herself. As in the majority of states, judicial candidates in Florida are prohibited from sending out this kind of direct solicitation to prevent the appearance or risk of corruption. Instead, they are required to set up separate campaign committees to send out fundraising requests on their behalf. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against Williams-Yulee, who was ultimately reprimanded and fined. Williams-Yulee is now arguing that the ethical rule restricting her ability to ask for donations is an unconstitutional restriction of her free speech, an extension of the argument validated by the conservative justices in Citizens United and its progeny.
This case gives the conservative justices of the Supreme Court yet another chance to roll back restrictions on campaign finance -- which they have steadily gutted since 2010's Citizens United decision allowing millions of dollars to flood the federal election system. Most recently, the court struck down aggregate campaign limits in 2014's McCutcheon v. FEC, making it easier for wealthy donors to contribute to a virtually unlimited number of candidates and political parties.
Yet a Media Matters analysis of Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press) as well as nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS NewsHour) reveals just one segment that covered the Williams-Yulee case since it was appealed to the Supreme Court -- the October 2 edition of PBS NewsHour.
Many of the same right-wing media myths about legal issues that dominated coverage in 2014 will continue to make headlines in the new year. Here are some of the worst that will make a comeback in 2015.
Rarer than being struck and killed by lightning and far less common than UFO sightings, 31 out of one billion votes cast since 2000 was the number of credible allegations of in-person voter fraud that law professor Justin Levitt found nationwide in a 2014 report. But in the face of these findings and a constant parade of similar evidence, this phantom menace nevertheless was the bogeyman that right-wing media incessantly invoked in 2014 to justify their increasingly hostile assault on voting rights.
From strict voter ID to voter purges to Jim Crow-era "literacy tests," right-wing media championed unnecessary and redundant voting restrictions that have a disproportionately disenfranchising effect on Democratic voters of color. Despite criticism from leading conservative figures and smackdowns from federal and state courts, nothing seemed to dissuade right-wing media from twisting the truth and deceiving their audience to support a so-called solution to a virtually non-existent problem.
With a fix to the damage the conservative justices caused to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 still blocked in Congress, the misinformation is likely to only get worse, as legal challenges to the new wave of Republican-sponsored voting restrictions race to the Supreme Court and the 2016 presidential election cycle kicks into gear.
Media figures are criticizing President Obama for the current diplomatic re-engagement with Cuba by falsely suggesting that taking executive action to ease some travel and trade restrictions is legally questionable. In reality, the embargo is a result of decades of executive actions under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and Congress has explicitly reaffirmed executive discretion of the type the president is taking to modify U.S. relations with Cuba.
Fox News host Heather Nauert is calling a bizarre federal court opinion that found President Obama's executive action on immigration unconstitutional a "pretty simple" decision, despite the fact that even conservative legal experts have called it a stretch.
On the December 17 edition of Happening Now, Nauert turned to legal experts Robert Bianchi and Brian Claypool to discuss Judge Arthur Schwab's lower court ruling that, surprisingly, evaluated the constitutionality of the president's recent decision to exercise prosecutorial discretion and defer deportation for certain undocumented immigrants. Both Bianchi and Claypool explained that the judge's ruling had "no legal significance" and "doesn't make sense," but Nauert disagreed. Other conservative legal experts are also questioning how the judge came to this conclusion on an unrelated matter of civil immigration law, given the fact that neither party in this criminal case contested the constitutionality of Obama's executive order.
Although Nauert admitted that she is "not a lawyer," she nevertheless argued that the judge's decision "seems pretty simple":
But the ruling from Judge Schwab, who has seen his fair share of controversy with respect to his legal judgment since being appointed to the bench, wasn't quite as "simple" as Nauert insisted.
Legal experts across the political spectrum agree that the president has broad authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion when it comes to deportation proceedings, which the Supreme Court affirmed as recently as 2012. Despite right-wing media's unwillingness to accept the idea that Obama's order is lawful, immigration experts have noted that the president is not only acting "within the legal authority of the executive branch of the government of the United States" but is also authorized by federal statute to provide temporary administrative relief of this type, as presidents of both parties have done for decades.
Moreover, according to Jonathan Adler, a law professor and contributor for The Washington Post's libertarian Volokh Conspiracy blog, Judge Schwab overstepped his own authority in ruling on the constitutionality of Obama's executive order. As Adler explained, "it is quite unusual for a district court to reach this sort of constitutional issue in this sort of case":
Indeed, Judge Schwab appears to have reached out quite aggressively to engage the lawfulness of the President's actions. Based upon the procedural history recounted in the opinion, it appears the court requested briefing on the applicability of the new immigration policies on its own order. That is, the issue was not initially raised by the defendant in his own defense. As a result of the court's decision, however, the defendant now has the option of withdrawing his guilty plea and potentially seeking deferral of his deportation under the new policy.
On the merits, I understand the concerns that motivate Judge Schwab's reasoning, but I am not persuaded. First, it is important to note that the executive branch has exercised a substantial degree of discretion in implementing and enforcing immigration law for decades. Work permits have been issued in conjunction with deferred action for at least forty years. President Obama's actions are broader in scope, but not clearly different in kind from what his predecessors have done and to which Congress has acquiesced.
Adler's conservative colleagues at the Volokh Conspiracy agreed with this assessment, with law professors Ilya Somin and Orin Kerr calling it "poorly reasoned" with "serious flaws," and "exceedingly strange," respectively. Somin elaborated on how radical the opinion is, noting that "[i]f the Supreme Court were to adopt Judge Schwab's reasoning, federal law enforcement agencies would be barred from issuing general systematic guidelines about how their officials should exercise prosecutorial discretion. The exercise of discretion would then become arbitrary and capricious. Alternatively, perhaps they could still follow systematic policies, so long as those policies were not formally declared and announced to the public, as the president's order was. Neither possibility is particularly attractive, and neither is required by the Constitution."
On the other hand, Judge Schwab does have the support of Fox News host Sean Hannity, who crowed that the opinion "could've been written by me."
After relentlessly promoting several right-wing legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for over a year, The Wall Street Journal seems to have just now realized that the cases' potential to deny affordable health care coverage to millions of Americans is a catastrophe for the GOP -- even as it continues to downplay the human costs.
On November 7, the Supreme Court announced it would hear King v. Burwell, a lawsuit challenging the legality of the tax subsidies that the IRS provides to consumers who purchase health insurance over the federal exchange. The plaintiffs in King argue that, because one section of the ACA states that subsidies are available to consumers who enrolled "through an Exchange established by the State," the federal government isn't allowed to offer credits to people who live in states that refused to set up their own insurance exchanges.
This extremely literal reading of the ACA ignores other parts of the law that indicate the exact opposite and the overall context of the bill as well as the legislative history of its passage, but conservative media have nevertheless been boosters for the challenge. The Journal has been particularly supportive of King and related cases, suggesting that it "ought to be a straightforward matter of statutory construction" to rule in favor of the challengers. The Journal has rarely, if ever, acknowledged the human cost that would come with a Supreme Court decision striking down the availability of tax subsidies -- but in a recent editorial, the Journal seems to have discovered the devastating cost of its anti-ACA advocacy, at least for Republicans:
The time to define a strategy is soon, as King v. Burwell will be heard in March with a ruling likely in June. As a matter of ordinary statutory construction, the Court should find that when the law limited subsidies to insurance exchanges established by states, that does not include the 36 states where the feds run exchanges.
But in that event one result would be an immediate refugee crisis. Of the 5.4 million consumers on federal exchanges, some 87% drew subsidies in 2014, according to a Rand Corporation analysis.
In the GOP debate about how to respond, one side would prefer to wait for the judicial rapture to arrive. ObamaCare has never been popular, they argue, and if the subsidy foundation of the law is undermined, the rest will collapse of its own weight. And because ObamaCare's mandates and taxes are conditioned on the subsidies, more people will be helped than harmed if they are withdrawn.
This group is right about ObamaCare in the abstract, but the Treasury must comply with court orders 25 days after they're issued and such an abrupt policy shift will be a mess. The 17% of U.S. GDP that is health care has spent five years reorganizing to accommodate ObamaCare's dictates, and the watch-it-burn caucus is underestimating the economic, political and media blowback.
The White House could have avoided the problem by obeying its own law and not passing out illegal subsidies, but the public may not notice the difference once the press corps discovers a cancer patient or two who can't afford her ObamaCare plan without taxpayer support. This threatens to replay the "if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor" controversy in reverse, with Republicans accused of denying care to the sick.
Conservative media outlets both nationally and in California are campaigning against Gov. Jerry Brown's nominees for the state judiciary, attacking their political leanings and complaining about their "race, gender, or sexual orientation," in a baseless effort to suggest the nominees are unqualified and selected "strictly for reasons of affirmative action."
The recent round of attacks were given a national platform in a November 26 Wall Street Journal editorial, which, while questioning the lack of judicial experience of some of Brown's nominees, largely focused on whether the ideological leanings of Brown's nominees are similar to his own. The California Supreme Court was previously dominated by judges appointed under Republican governors, but Brown's picks, Journal columnist Allysia Finley complained, "have tilted the court left."
California media were more specific, and honed in on whether the nominees were from "the right racial groups," as San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer Marshall Kilduff put it. Ignoring the fact that multiple high court jurists had not previously served as judges before their appointments (such as current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and former Chief Justice and California governor Earl Warren), Kilduff also criticized Brown's nominees for a lack of experience with "sleepy jurors." But as The Los Angeles Times reported, Brown has no flat rule against trial or appellate experience with respect to his nominees -- similar to his choice for the San-Francisco-based appeals court, "Brown's picks for the Los Angeles-based appeals court were all sitting judges, suggesting he considers bench experience valuable."
The criticism of Brown's attempts to diversify the bench got uglier, however, after the Journal weighed in. The Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a Los Angeles legal newspaper, recently ran a column from Roger M. Grace, flatly concluding Brown's nominees were "bereft of credentials," and were "apt to be named ... strictly for reasons of affirmative action":
Surely, race should not be, ever, a factor in choosing judges.
It simply doesn't relate to a person's capacity to serve in a judicial role.
Yet, the reality is that to Jerry Brown, being a non-white is a huge plus for a seeker of a judgeship.
And so we return to young [Lamar Baker, former US Deputy Assistant Attorney General]. He is almost certain to be appointed to the state's intermediate appellate court--and would probably be under consideration for the Supreme Court were there any more vacancies. He, like [former U.S. deputy attorney general and current California Supreme Court nominee Leondra] Kruger, is an African American.
He has all the qualities that Brown is looking for in a justice.
And what he lacks -- the know-how and wisdom that can only be derived from experience -- is of no concern to the man once known as "Governor Moonbeam."
He's not called that anymore. But the lunar influences on him are as strong as ever they were.
Also apt to be named to the appeals court, strictly for reasons of affirmative action, is Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin. He's openly gay. That, and his law degree from Harvard, are probably enough to cinch an appointment -- unless the governor views him as being too old (he's 55) or holds against him his judicial experience.
From what I've seen, Lavin is a result-oriented jurist, lacking in intellectual honesty. But that sort of thing would, of course, be of no interest to Brown.
The Supreme Court will soon hear King v. Burwell, a challenge to tax credits for consumers who live in states that refused to set up their own health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and instead relied on the federal version. Right-wing media have repeatedly insisted that the ACA can only have been written to deny Americans affordable health insurance, but experts call this argument "political activism masquerading as statutory restraint."
The Washington Post editorial board is contesting the Obama administration's claim that his recent executive action on immigration is similar in scope to former President George H.W. Bush's temporary administrative relief for undocumented immigrants in 1990, which reportedly affected 1.5 million family members of legalization applicants. Calling the White House's 1.5 million figure "indefensible," the editorial also repeated the accusations of its fact checker, Glenn Kessler, who previously insisted that the figure is inflated despite contemporaneous congressional testimony to the contrary.
But now a leading immigration expert says the Post is "doubling down on a grievous error."
According to Charles Kamasaki, Executive Vice President of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), author of a forthcoming book on the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 and its subsequent effects, and one of the leading experts on immigration law and policy in the country, the White House's citation of the 1.5 million estimate of those who stood to benefit from Bush's 1990 action is "completely defensible."
In a December 4 letter published on the NCLR website, Kamasaki pointed out numerous mistakes in both the substance and reasoning in both the Post's editorial and fact check, and pointed out that a "'quick and dirty' analysis" that encompasses "Kessler's own reporting" demonstrates that the White House's "1.5 million estimate of ineligible family members of IRCA's legalization applicants is valid on its face":
There's a second way of looking at this issue, which is to take the available data and see whether, independent of take-up rates, the 1.5 million estimate of ineligible family members of IRCA's legalization applicants is valid on its face. A quick analysis suggests it is eminently plausible. First, consider the number of applicants: 3.3 million people applied for IRCA's two main legalization programs, another 40,000 or so for a special Cuban-Haitian program, and perhaps 75,000 for a registry program for those who had entered prior to 1972. So we start with a base of more than 3.4 million applicants.
But these were not the only applicants potentially covered by "family fairness" in 1990. Under two major national class action lawsuits, hundreds of thousands of people claimed they had been unfairly denied the opportunity to apply for legalization because of improper eligibility rules, inaccurate information, or other reasons. The plaintiffs largely won on the merits in the lower courts, although appeals courts later denied all but a few thousand the opportunity to apply. The key point, however, is that as of 1990, when the Bush policy was announced, this litigation was still pending, and thus several hundred thousand of these class members technically were still potential applicants. Adding these potential applicants to those who had applied brings the universe of total actual and potential IRCA applicants whose ineligible family members might've been covered by family fairness into the four million range.
- Kessler's own reporting shows that 42% of IRCA applicants were married. Multiplying four million by 42% produces a total of 1.7 million spouses. But many, arguably half, likely qualified for legalization themselves, bringing the number of spouses ineligible for legalization to perhaps 840,000.
- How many kids might've been covered? Here we have very good data on the contemporary undocumented population, which we might apply to 1986-1990 in a backward fashion. The Migration Policy Institute estimated last year that of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, there were more than 1.9 million unauthorized youth who were brought to the country by their parents. In other words, about 17% of the current undocumented population is made up of children analogous to those who would have been covered by the Bush policy. Applying this 17% figure to the estimated 5 million undocumented population as of 1986 produces a total of about 850,000 unauthorized children.
- Some number of those were likely older than 21 as of 1990; adjusting for this produces an estimated population of ineligible children of legalization applicants as of 1990 to perhaps 640,000. Still, 840,000 spouses added to 640,000 children equals 1.48 million, very close to the cited 1.5 million estimate.
Based on this "quick and dirty" analysis, there really were close to 1.5 million people eligible for relief in 1990, and it is a completely defensible number.
The Wall Street Journal is attacking the equal employment provision of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, claiming that this historic civil rights law's protection is unnecessary since "market forces" will ultimately reduce such workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.
On December 3, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Young v. UPS, a pregnancy discrimination case where former UPS driver Peggy Young alleges that her employer failed to treat her equally during her pregnancy. Even though UPS had previously accommodated other drivers who were unable to perform the specific duties required for their jobs, the company refused to reassign Young after her doctor told her she should avoid lifting more than 20 pounds. Because of this unequal treatment, Young is arguing that UPS violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, whose statutory text clearly guarantees pregnant workers the right to be "treated the same for all employment-related purposes" as other workers "similar in their ability or inability to work."
The Journal isn't convinced that Young has been discriminated against, however, or if she was, whether she deserved the protection of civil rights law. In a December 2 editorial, the Journal admitted that UPS had "acted like dunderheads" when they refused to accommodate Young's pregnancy and argued that "[s]ympathetic plaintiffs make good headlines, but they often make bad law." The Journal rejected Young's sex discrimination claim, suggesting that UPS's "pregnancy-neutral policies" were sufficient and that Young was asking for "a special accommodation" that her employer shouldn't have to provide.
The editorial went on to criticize Young's decision to sue, suggesting that she should have skipped the lawsuit and let "market forces" correct UPS' "dumb corporate behavior":
Typically, discrimination claims are brought either by showing disparate treatment of an individual or disparate impact on a group based on statistical evidence. Ms. Young took neither path. Her argument is that UPS is liable because it failed to extend a special accommodation beyond the neutral policies that otherwise cover workplace disability.
The effect would expand the boundaries of discrimination law and ramp up penalties for businesses. If Ms. Young's theory succeeds, Title VII would have a third category of discrimination for which employers could be accused of discrimination even if their policies were neutral.
In the real world, most employers aren't in the habit of picking fights with their pregnant employees to make their lives miserable. UPS had accommodated Ms. Young during previous pregnancy-related requests, including rounds of in vitro fertilization. We agree with Ms. Young that UPS managers acted like dunderheads when they sent a longtime employee on unpaid leave, but not being nice enough is not the same as discrimination under the law.
The answer to dumb corporate behavior is market forces, not more legislating through regulation or the courts. UPS has since changed its policy and other companies have been put on notice. We hope the Justices will resist creating a long-term problem to fix a temporary condition.
The Wall Street Journal is misrepresenting the legal justification for President Obama's executive actions on immigration from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) -- even falsely claiming that the OLC's opinion does not quote "specific statutory language."
On November 20, Obama announced that he would take executive action on immigration by prioritizing deportations of dangerous undocumented immigrants over the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who pass a criminal background check and register for temporary administrative relief. Right-wing media were quick to accuse Obama of lawlessness for this deferred action on deportations and to declare his order "unconstitutional," despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of legal experts agree that the president has the authority to exercise this sort of prosecutorial discretion in service of family unification.
The Wall Street Journal was no exception. Before the president issued his executive order, the Journal claimed in a November 16 editorial that the president didn't have the authority to act on immigration because his administration had not yet received a "written legal justification" from the OLC. According to the editorial, the "President should always seek legal justification for controversial actions to ensure that he is on solid constitutional ground" by asking for the OLC's guidance. The Journal ultimately concluded that "[i]t's possible" the Obama administration hadn't "sought an immigration opinion because they suspect there's little chance that even a pliant Office of Legal Counsel could find a legal justification" -- apparently unaware that Obama had already received legal advice from the OLC, Attorney General Eric Holder, and immigration experts before the Journal published its editorial.
As requested, the OLC published its official opinion on Obama's immigration proposal prior to his announcement on November 20. The opinion determined that the president had the authority to prioritize and defer some deportations over others -- but that apparently wasn't enough to appease the Journal. In a November 24 editorial, the Journal criticized the OLC's opinion: "Now that we've studied the legal memo his government used to support his order, his abuse of power looks even worse." But the editorial incorrectly claimed the opinion allowed the president to "rewrite" the law by "exempting whole categories of people and extending federal benefits that they aren't entitled to by statute." Worse, the Journal falsely claimed the memo omitted information that it actually included. From the November 24 editorial:
The problem, as the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) concedes in the 33-page document, is that "the Executive cannot, under the guise of exercising enforcement discretion, attempt to effectively rewrite laws to match its policy preferences" or apply "set formulas or bright-line rules." Yet Mr. Obama is making precisely such a rewrite, by exempting whole categories of people and extending federal benefits that they aren't entitled to by statute.
By recognizing that there is no categorical exemption, the OLC is implicitly admitting that Mr. Obama is stretching prosecutorial discretion beyond legal norms.
These are the kind of errors that normally scrupulous lawyers make under deadlines or political pressure. The OLC memo reveals that the White House did not submit formal legal questions until Wednesday, Nov. 19, and the OLC drafted the opinion the same day. The details of the new program weren't complete and submitted to the Justice Department until Monday. The OLC published the memo on Thursday, Nov. 20.
We wouldn't be surprised if some West Wing minion read our editorial [from November 16] "The Missing Immigration Memo," panicked, and rushed one out. Mr. Obama's political calculation --in keeping with his lawlessness on health care, drug policy and the rest -- seems to be that he'll dispense with laws or parts of laws that displease him and dare Congress to challenge him. Republicans can and should take the dare.