Tag Archives: law

Are Men Victims Now?

In an increasingly unequal society, it’s very soothing for the winners to hear that they’re the “real” victims.


In the film “How to Murder Your Wife“, Jack Lemmon’s character is innocent — in reality his wife isn’t dead at all — but as his trial progresses the evidence against him becomes so convincing that he decides to try a risky strategy: Confess, and make a closing argument that appeals to the self-interest of his all-male jury. Think how great it would be if women knew we could kill them!

If one man – just one man – can stick his wife in the goop from the gloppitta-gloppitta machine, and get away with it! Whoa-ho-ho, boy, we’ve got it made. We have got it made. All of us.

The men vote to acquit. (Then Lemmon’s wife turns up and there is a happy ending.)

In 1965, that was comedy: Men feel henpecked, so the fantasy of regaining respect by making women fear for their lives has enough appeal to be worth joking about.

Forty-three years later, the closing argument in the Brett Kavanaugh nomination was a strangely inverted version of Lemmon’s: If just one woman can stop a man from going to the Supreme Court by accusing him of sexual assault, then we’re finished. All of us.

President Trump made the argument like this:

I say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of. This is a very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice.

Asked what his message for young women was, Trump said “Women are doing great.”

He was echoing something his son, Don Jr., had said in an interview with Britain’s Daily Mail TV: He’s more afraid for his sons than his daughters:

I’ve got boys, and I’ve got girls. And when I see what’s going on right now, it’s scary.

Glenn Beck warned:

If the Democrats cram this down, I believe Americans will rise up at the polls, as we don’t want this to happen to our sons, brothers, husbands fathers.

“This”, apparently, is to pay some tangible price because a woman makes a false accusation against you. Many people making this argument don’t even claim that Christine Blasey Ford is lying about Kavanaugh. Even if she’s telling the truth, they say, she has little in the way of supporting evidence. And if just one woman can make a man pay a price purely on the strength of her testimony … then we’re finished, all of us.

The reverse-handmaid dystopia. Something strange is going on here, and it speaks to the roots of the conservative mindset: There is a fantasy dystopia that they can imagine we might be moving towards, and the fear of that dystopia outweighs reams and reams of actual injustice in the here and now.

In the dystopia, the reverse-Handmaid’s-Tale world, any woman can inflict dire consequences on any man just by making up an accusation against him. She will be believed and he won’t, so he’ll be “guilty until proven innocent“, as Mitch McConnell puts it. Every man will be forced to live in fear that a false accusation will suddenly “ruin his life“.

There are a number of weird things about this thought process:

  • Women live in fear now. Not fear of some imagined future damage to their reputations or career prospects, but of actual physical attacks that are happening every day.
  • False accusations already can be made against anyone for almost anything; sexual assault is not special in that way. So Hillary Clinton supposedly murdered Vince Foster and was also involved in a child sex ring hidden under a pizza restaurant. Barrack Obama, according to then-citizen Donald Trump, was a Kenyan Muslim who ascended to the presidency by fraud. Somehow, these well known recent examples of false accusations don’t cause us all to live in terror.
  • Black men actually lived in such a dystopia for centuries: If a white woman accused him of sexual impropriety (which could be little more than a lecherous glance), just about any black man could be lynched.

But the weirdest thing is the idea that society will suddenly flip from one extreme to the other, without ever occupying the reasonable ground in between. Right now, a woman’s report of sexual assault is often disbelieved, and is rarely seen as sufficient reason to impose any consequences at all on the reported attacker. It’s not just that you can go to the Supreme Court if one (or three) women accuse you, you can be elected president if more than a dozen women accuse you. If your rapist is viewed as a promising young white man from a good family, even a conviction might only result in a light sentence.

Perversely, the fact that women’s accounts of sexual assault so rarely lead to any serious consequences (except negative ones for the woman) is precisely the reason to believe them: Christine Blasey Ford went into the Kavanaugh hearings expecting to achieve nothing and knowing that her own life would be disrupted. That’s the typical situation these days. By far, the most likely explanation of why she would put herself through this ordeal is that Kavanaugh actually assaulted her.

False accusations are not impossible, but they are not common. False-accusation worriers still bring up the Duke lacrosse team case. But that was a dozen years ago. That’s still the standard example because false accusations that lead to punishments are so rare.

What’s the reasonable middle? If we ever got to a point where men could be jailed just on one woman’s say-so, the situation I just described wouldn’t hold any more: Women would have motive to make stories up, just as Mike Flynn’s son was motivated to promote false stories about PizzaGate, or Donald Trump Jr. to make false claims about Anderson Cooper.

Ideally, we could get to a point where sexual-assault accusations could be treated like other accusations: Absurd ones could be discounted, but plausible ones would be investigated, with the investigation becoming more serious as lighter investigations failed to disprove them. Different levels of plausibility would lead to different consequences: Proof beyond reasonable doubt would continue to be the standard for taking away someone’s liberty, but lesser standards would hold for lesser consequences.

That’s how things are now for non-sexual charges. Suppose your colleagues at work believe you’ve been stealing money out of their desks. If they have proof beyond reasonable doubt, you might go to jail. If they don’t, but a preponderance of evidence points to your guilt, your boss might agree with them and fire you. If your guilt or innocence is hard to determine, you might keep your job, but when a better job opens up that requires more trust, you might miss out.

As long as Donald Trump is president and Brett Kavanaugh has a lifetime appointment to our highest court, we’re not in that reasonable middle. We’re clearly not treating sexual assault charges like other charges.

Other conservative fantasies that overpower actual events. The male-threatening dystopia follows a common pattern on the right: a particularly worrisome fantasy or unique example often outweighs far more common real events.

So the fantasy that men will hang around in women’s bathrooms falsely claiming to be transsexual, and then assault women there — has that ever actually happened? But on the right, that imagined horror outweighs the actual problems of transsexuals, like the middle school student in Stafford County, Virginia who was left on the bleachers during an active-shooter drill and eventually told to sit in the hall between the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, because school officials couldn’t decide which one she should shelter in. (In essence, the school practiced letting the shooter kill her.) That happened last week, not a dozen years ago.

If you want to discuss limits on the size of gun magazines (which would save actual lives, because mass shooters are most commonly stopped when they have to reload), you’ll be met with fantasies of home invasions in which ten bullets (or any finite number) just aren’t enough. Even the most reasonable and toothless gun control proposal will invoke fantasies of a tyrannical government herding its disarmed populace into concentration camps. (Strangely, this doesn’t happen in Japan, or in any other democratic country with very few civilian guns.)

The reversal of victimhood. The person who best expressed what this is all about this week was Trevor Noah of The Daily Show.

“Trump’s most powerful tool,” Noah says, is that he knows how to wield victimhood. He knows how to offer victimhood to people who have the least claim to it.”

If you belong to a privileged group, quite possibly at some level you feel guilty about that. Or maybe you just feel vulnerable to the charge that you don’t deserve what you have, or that other people who deserve more actually have less. Although you try not to think about it, you may vaguely wonder if somewhere innocent people are being mistreated in your name.

So it’s very powerful when a demagogue like Trump can tell you that you are “the real victim”. He allows you to project your guilty feelings onto someone else, and instead to claim the moral righteousness of victimhood. Noah explains:

It’s not that we have to be feeling sorry for women, but women are the victims and that’s what we’re trying to fix. But Trump has managed to turn that, and he’s turned it with everybody. He goes: “The real victims in this story is not the kids in the cages, it’s you. It’s you who … they’re coming to take your place. The real victim isn’t the refugee from Syria, it’s you, who’s going to get blown up by a terrorist bomb.”

… People felt, because of Trump, like they were losing their country. They felt like America was losing. And feeling is oftentimes more powerful than what is actually happening.

So we wind up in the situation I described years ago in “The Distress of the Privileged“: Whites think they are the real victims of racism. Christians think their religious freedom is under attack, and needs the government’s defense. Anglos are being victimized by Hispanic immigrants who do our dirty work for almost no money. Rich people are being “punished” by taxes — even taxes far lower than rich people used to pay.

And men can still, with a great deal of impunity, harass women. It’s embarrassing when they start to complain about it, but that embarrassment doesn’t make us the victims. Dr. Blasey Ford has her memories, both of being attacked decades ago, and of being vilified in front of a cheering crowd by the President of the United States. Meanwhile, Justice Kavanaugh has the job he has wanted all his life. He is not the victim.

We live a nation that is becoming increasingly unequal, that is ever-more-harshly divided between winners and losers. If you are a winner with any semblance of a conscience, you probably are uneasy about that, whether you think about it consciously or not. It’s very soothing to be told that the situation is exactly the reverse of how it appears, that you, the winner, are the “real” victim.

It’s soothing, but it’s false. And the more we indulge in this kind of thinking, the more unjust our society will be.

Two Ways Brett Kavanaugh Could Be a Hero

What might Brett Kavanaugh do
if he really were the man his supporters claim he is?


[The bulk of this article was written before a second accuser came forward. At this moment, it’s still not clear how her account will affect the process.]

The most insightful piece on the Kavanaugh nomination I have seen so far was written by Benjamin Wittes and appeared at The Atlantic. Wittes claims to know something about Kavanaugh.

I have known Brett Kavanaugh for a long time—in many different contexts. I am fond of him personally. I think the world of him intellectually. I don’t believe he lied in his Senate testimony. I don’t believe he’s itching to get on the Supreme Court to protect Donald Trump from Robert Mueller. I’m much less afraid of conservative judges than are many of my liberal friends. As recently as a few days ago, I was cheerfully vouching for Kavanaugh’s character.

But then Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when she was 15 and he was 17. That allegation, Wittes says, is “credible” and “deserves to be taken seriously”. Kavanaugh’s supporters claim that there’s no good way to respond to an accusation like this and complain that the unanswerability of the charge makes it unfair. But Wittes takes that claim and goes somewhere else with it:

The circumstances in which he should fight this out are, in my view, extremely limited. I would advise him against letting Senate Republicans ram his nomination through in a fashion that will forever attach an asterisk to his service on the Supreme Court. Assuming she is not impugning him maliciously, Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, deserves better than that. The Court deserves better than that. And Kavanaugh himself, if he is telling the truth about his conduct in high school, deserves better than to be confirmed under circumstances which tens of millions of people will regard, with good reason, as tainted.

The real burden of proof. Given how long ago the attempted rape is supposed to have happened and the haziness of the details, it shouldn’t be hard for Kavanaugh and his defenders to create reasonable doubt. But that’s not enough in this situation: It’s Kavanaugh who should bear the burden of proof.

The question before us, after all, is not whether to punish Kavanaugh or whether to assign liability to him. It’s whether to bestow on him an immense honor that comes with great power. Kavanaugh is applying for a much-coveted job. And the burden of convincing in such situations always lies with the applicant. The standard for elevation to the nation’s highest court is not that the nominee established a “reasonable doubt” that the serious allegations against him were true.

In other words: It makes sense to let ten guilty people go free rather than send one innocent person to prison. But if we’re talking about positions of high power, I would rather turn down ten innocent people than elevate one guilty one.

Of course, there’s a very real possibility that Kavanaugh might prevail simply because the Republicans have the political power to confirm him. That would get him onto the Court, but would be

a disaster for anyone who believes in apolitical courts. And it is not what Kavanaugh should want. Clearing one’s name sufficiently to convince only senators who are already ideologically aligned is not, in fact, clearing one’s name. It’s winning. And while winning may be the highest value for Trump, it isn’t actually the highest value—particularly for a justice.

A scorched-earth campaign to impugn Blasey Ford’s credibility would leave a similar taint on the Court and on Kavanaugh’s reputation.

I would never say that no attack on Ford’s credibility could be appropriate; if Kavanaugh can produce some hypothetical emails in which she hatched the plot to bring him down, he certainly gets to use those. But an attack on Ford’s credibility that is not devastating and complete will only worsen Kavanaugh’s problem—and such an attack should worsen it.

Who pays the price? And so Wittes reaches the same point many of Kavanaugh’s defenders do: There’s no good way for him to respond to the accusation against him. But rather than rage at the injustice of that and focus their ire on Blasey Ford or Diane Feinstein or Democrats in general, Wittes calls on Kavanaugh to do what’s best for the country: withdraw.

Getting out does not mean admitting that Ford’s account of his behavior is accurate, something Kavanaugh should certainly not do if her account is not accurate. It means only acknowledging that there is no way to defend against it in a fashion that is both persuasive and honorable in the context of seeking elevation to a job that requires a certain moral viability. It means acknowledging that whatever the truth may be, Kavanaugh cannot carry his burden of proof given the constraints upon him.

It means accepting that it is better to continue serving as a D.C. Circuit judge than to play the sort of undignified games that Republicans are playing on his behalf.

There would be heroism in that path. I am reminded of the ending of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, when Quentin gets banished from the magical kingdom he has just saved. “I am the hero,” he protests, “and the hero gets the reward.”

But Ember, the god who is banishing him, disagrees: “No, Quentin. The hero pays the price.”

If his Republican support in the Senate holds firm, Kavanaugh can get the reward of a seat on the Supreme Court. But there is a price to be paid in this situation, and if Kavanaugh doesn’t pay it the nation does, in the form of a diminished Supreme Court whose moral authority will always be questionable when it rules on issues of women’s and victims’ rights. There’s nothing heroic about that.

The second heroic path. Wittes argues that Kavanaugh should withdraw even if he is innocent. But there is a second heroic path available if he is guilty, or if he honestly doesn’t remember Blasey Ford or anything about the night in question: Tell the truth.

Many of Kavanaugh’s supporters have been skipping past his denials and arguing for forgiveness: He’s not the same man today that he was at 17. What he did then shouldn’t disqualify him.

That, I think, is a discussion the nation needs to have: What is forgivable? How long should a youthful mistake hang over someone who has lived an admirable life since? How admirable does that life need to be? Does some other kind of restitution need to be made?

But if we were to have that discussion, it shouldn’t just apply to Kavanaugh, or to people on one side or the other of the partisan divide. It should apply, for example, to immigrants who are deportable for something they did decades ago, but have done good work, lived good lives, and been a credit to their communities in the years since. It should apply to people serving long prison sentences for non-violent drug crimes, some of which were committed when they were not much older than Kavanaugh was. You can’t expect forgiveness for the people on your side while you apply eye-for-eye justice to those you disagree with or disapprove of.

Even if we want to have that discussion, though, we can’t as long as Kavanaugh insists on his complete innocence. It’s unreasonable to expect to reap the benefits of forgiveness while simultaneously painting your accusers as liars. (That principle would also apply to President Trump.)

Imagine if Kavanaugh went before the Senate Judiciary Committee and told the nation, “Here’s how I remember that night.” What if he told his story without lawyerly caveats, but just as a human being trying to get a difficult memory off his chest? Or maybe he could say, “I don’t remember the event Dr. Blasey Ford describes. But I went to a hard-drinking school, and things may have happened that I don’t remember. I feel terrible that she has had to carry such a memory all these years, and I am ashamed to think that I could have been the cause of it.”

After all the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins we have seen, what a breath of fresh air that would be.

Who shoulders the risk? If Kavanaugh did throw himself on the nation’s mercy, what would happen then? I don’t think anyone knows. And that’s what makes the path heroic: Heroes take risks; they don’t push risks off on others. Blasey Ford took a risk by coming forward, and she has been paying for that decision. Kavanaugh could take much of that burden off of her. It wouldn’t make sense to threaten or abuse her any more, if Kavanaugh himself were taking her account seriously.

Instead, he would shoulder the risk of public judgment. Blasey Ford, the Senate, and the country as a whole would have to face squarely the issues of forgiveness and the passage of time, rather than consider them only as a Plan B for those who doubt Kavanaugh’s denials. That honest public debate would be a step in the direction of healing the wounds that the #MeToo movement has revealed. However it came out — whether Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court, remained where he is, or left public life entirely — it would be a service to the nation.

We keep hearing from Republicans, Evangelicals, and Kavanaugh’s other defenders what a fine man he is. He has a chance to prove them right. But you don’t get to be a hero just by claiming the reward. You have to pay the price.

What kind of justice would Brett Kavanaugh be?

Monday night, Trump named his second Supreme Court nominee: Brett Kavanaugh.

Immediately, legal and political pundits began speculating on how Kavanaugh’s appointment, if the Senate approves it, would affect abortion rights. Will Kavanaugh be the fifth vote to reverse Roe v Wade, allowing either states or the federal government to make abortion illegal? Or could he perhaps gut Roe while leaving it technically valid, perhaps by letting states regulate abortion in ways that make it practically unavailable, even if still theoretically legal? Or does he really believe in the principal of stare decisis, in which the Court leaves a precedent in place unless it proves unworkable?

Important as that issue is, it would be a shame if it sucked all the oxygen out of the room, leaving no space for discussion of the other implications of Kavanaugh joining the Court. Let’s look at a few of those issues.

Partisanship. One of the worst developments for the Supreme Court as an institution over the last two decades is the loss of its non-partisan image. Beginning with Bush v Gore in 2000, and going on through Citizens United (which destroyed campaign finance controls) and Shelby County (which gutted the Voting Rights Act), the public has gotten used to the idea that judges represent the party that appointed them. What the laws or the Constitution says is less important than which party a decision would benefit.

Kavanaugh is not going to improve that image. He first came to public attention as a main author of the Starr Report. While ostensibly non-partisan, the investigation into President Clinton lead by Kenneth Starr was transparently political. (Anyone who thinks the Mueller investigation is a “partisan witch hunt” has amnesia. Unlike the Mueller probe, Starr’s investigators regularly leaked damaging information to the press and timed their official announcements for maximum political effect. The Starr Report was written to be as sexually scurrilous as possible. Impeachment was a dim fantasy at that point, but at least the report could do political damage to the Clinton administration and embarrass Clinton personally.)

He subsequently was a lawyer for the Bush campaign during Bush v Gore, and then worked for Bush’s White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez. His wife has worked for the George W. Bush Library Foundation.

If you wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, you could imagine that he was sprinkled with non-partisan fairy dust when he became a judge. However, you have to wonder about one of the first things out of his mouth after Trump appointed him.

No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination

This claim is transparently, outrageously false: Trump limited himself to a list of judges given to him by Federalist Society Executive-Vice-President-on-leave Leonard Leo. By some accounts, appointing Kavanaugh was part of the deal that got Justice Kennedy to retire. There’s no reason to believe that anyone other than Leo, Kennedy, and Trump had anything to do with this decision. Quite likely, then, no president has ever consulted so narrowly or sought less input from fewer people about a Supreme Court nomination.

So Kavanaugh’s very first claim after being nominated was a pants-on-fire lie to flatter the president who appointed him. Former Senator Al Franken was blunt:

It’s just a totally made-up assertion that is exactly the opposite of the truth, flowing out of the mouth of a committed partisan who doesn’t care that it’s false…. [I]t’s critical to recognize that the very first thing he did as a Supreme Court nominee was to parrot a false, partisan talking point. Of course that’s what he did. Advancing the goals of the Republican Party and the conservative movement is what he’s there to do.

Workers and corporations. In the Confined Space blog, Jordan Barab examines Kavanaugh’s cavalier approach to worker safety, citing his dissent in a case in which OSHA fined Sea World for neglecting safety issues in a way that led to a trainer’s dismemberment by a killer whale.

Kavanaugh’s dissent drips with hostility toward OSHA and a basic misunderstanding of the act and the principles — and law — behind it. … Kavanaugh’s idea of making America great again apparently hearkens back to a time before the Workers Compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were passed. Back then employers who maimed or killed workers often escaped legal responsibility by arguing that the employee had “assumed” the risk when he or she took the job and the employer therefore had no responsibility to make the job safer.

The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein focuses on Kavanaugh’s pro-corporate views.

While Kavanaugh’s record offers few clues about his view on the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, he has demonstrated an unequivocal skepticism about federal regulation of business. Jennifer Mascott, a former Kavanaugh law clerk and an assistant professor at George Mason University’s law school, recently wrote that, “Even during this era of generous judicial deference to administrative agencies, Judge Kavanaugh has written 40 opinions finding agency action to be unlawful and joined majority opinions reversing agency action in at least 35 additional cases.”

Brownstein pictures a return to the Lochner Era, when the Court routinely invalidated state and federal laws that tried to establish a minimum wage or a limited work-week or workplace-safety rules. (A sharper name might be the Triangle Shirtwaist Era.)

Executive power. From his attitude towards regulation, you might imagine that Kavanaugh has a libertarian streak and is likely to oppose government power across the board. But not so: He takes a very expansive view of presidential war powers. Remember, he was part of the Bush administration when it claimed the power to jail American citizens without charges and torture prisoners. (I don’t know of any point where he publicly expressed an opinion about those issues, but he clearly had no problem continuing to serve.)

Steven Vladeck of the Just Security blog writes in The Washington Post about Kavanaugh’s deference to presidential power:

Kavanaugh’s many opinions concerning Guantanamo and related matters make it crystal clear that his confirmation would make the court far more deferential to the president’s exercise of aggressive war powers, would diminish the long – standing role of international law as a means of shaping executive authority and understanding congressional authorizations , and would more generally weaken the role of the courts as a check on the political branches in this profoundly important area of law.

Like Bush, Kavanaugh believes in the unitary executive theory, that all executive functions of the government should be under direct presidential control. In particular, Congress should not be able to establish semi-independent entities like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose director can only be fired for cause. If Congress would attempt to insulate Special Counsel Robert Mueller from Trump’s interference, Kavanaugh would probably find that unconstitutional.

Legal theory. The Mascott’s blog post Brownstein quoted is worth reading in full, as it spells out what a Kavanaugh protege admires about him. She talks a great deal about Kavanaugh’s “deeply rooted interpretive philosophy built on interpreting law in accordance with the statutory text and the meaning of the text of the Constitution”, a position which she traces back to Justice Scalia.

I usually dismiss this kind of talk as meaningless rhetoric, because it’s based on a straw man fallacy: Who exactly are these judges who advocate ignoring the text of the laws and the Constitution? I have never heard a judge at any level say “The law says X but I believe Y, so I’m going to rule Y.” The dispute is never about whether to read the text of the law, but how.

(For contrast, look at Justice Souter’s 2010 Harvard commencement speech. Mere textual interpretation is insufficient, Souter said, because the Constitution’s “language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.” Cases where the text is clear and just needs to be applied “do not usually come to court, or at least the Supreme Court.” Moreover, often concepts from other centuries can only be applied today by doing some kind of interpretation-after-the-fact: How, for example, should the word “arms” in the Second Amendment be applied to weapons radically different from anything that existed in the 18th century? James Madison surely was not picturing a shoulder-fired missile capable of taking down an airliner.)

But Mascott’s account does underline one thing for me: Like the Court’s other conservative justices, Kavanaugh will ignore precedent when it suits him, as, for example, Justice Scalia did when he invented an individual right to bear arms in his Heller decision. The process is simple, given Scalia’s (and Kavanaugh’s) text-interpretation method: You go back to the original text with a period-of-authorship dictionary, as if previous courts had never considered what the text-as-a-whole means. Decompose sentences into their constituent words, interpret them one-by-one, and then reassemble them into a meaning that no previous court has seen, and that the original authors quite possibly never imagined.

Unenumerated rights. Mascott quotes a Kavanaugh article (that none of her links go to and I haven’t been able to google up) agreeing with Justice Scalia’s interpretive theory:

In constitutional disputes, Justice Scalia recognized that the courts have an essential role in aggressively protecting the individual rights actually spelled out in the Constitution. … But on the flip side, courts have no legitimate role, Justice Scalia would say, in creating new rights not spelled out in the Constitution. On those issues, he believed in complete deference to the political branches and the states.

(Except for corporate rights, of course, which are not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but were consistently upheld by Scalia and presumably will be by Kavanaugh as well.)

In particular, Kavanaugh seems likely to demand a clear text stating any individual rights he doesn’t approve of, like the right to privacy that Roe is based on. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute last September, he praised Justice Rehnquist’s dissent in Roe v Wade, and his attitude towards “unenumerated rights” in general:

Rehnquist’s dissenting opinion did not suggest that the Constitution protected no rights other than those enumerated in the text of the Bill of Rights. But he stated that under the Court’s precedents, any such unenumerated right had to be rooted in the traditions [and] conscience of our people. Given the prevalence of abortion regulations both historically and at the time, Rehnquist said he could not reach such a conclusion about abortion.

Given that view, it’s hard to see how Kavanaugh could not reverse Roe, or the Obergfell decision finding a right for same-sex couples to marry. If people at the time were not applying their principles to such issues, how can we apply them now, even if they clearly do apply?

You have to wonder how far back Kavanaugh is willing to take that objection. I doubt, for example, that most of the congressmen and state legislators who voted for the 14th Amendment believed that “the equal protection of the laws” mandated racially integrated schools, as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v Board of Education in 1954. Given the prevalence of segregated schools “both historically and at the time” of the 14th Amendment, Brown would be hard to justify.

Who won the Masterpiece Cakeshop case?

Technically, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the baker. But it didn’t endorse any of the larger points he raised. What, if anything, does this mean for future cases?


The Masterpiece Cakeshop case is the legal equivalent of the movie Solo: Touted as a blockbuster in the series of landmark cases that includes Obergfell and Hobby Lobby, it turned out to be a dud.

You’ve probably already heard the basics of the case: In 2012, before same-sex marriage was legal in their state, Charlie Craig and David Mullins were planning to get married in Massachusetts, and then have a wedding reception back home in Colorado. They went to Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a custom-designed wedding cake, but the owner, Jack Phillips, refused to discuss it with them. Attributing his position to his Christian faith, he said he couldn’t be involved in celebrating a same-sex marriage. Craig and Mullins sued under Colorado’s anti-discrimination law, and they won at every level. So Phillips appealed to the Supreme Court.

What everybody expected. The case was supposed to be a 5-4 decision, as all nearly all the same-sex marriage decisions have been. Four conservatives (Thomas, Alito, Roberts, and Gorsuch) would line up with Phillips and four liberals (Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan) with Craig and Mullins, with Justice Kennedy casting the deciding vote, as he usually does.

Nobody was too sure what he would do. He has authored (badly, in my opinion) most of the landmark gay-rights decisions of recent years, but (as part of the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby) he also was also known to be sympathetic to the kinds of religious-liberty arguments Phillips was making.

However this case came out, though, we were all sure it would have sweeping consequences: Either the Court would affirm that gays and lesbians have to be treated like everyone else, or it would establish “sincere religious belief” as a permanent loophole in our discrimination laws. [1]That’s not what happened.

Instead, the Court decided 7-2 that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission hadn’t handled this particular case with proper respect for Phillips’ religious views, and so the Court threw out the decision against him. Essentially, we’re back to Square One: It’s as if Craig and Mullins had never filed their complaint.

Here’s how limited the decision is: If tomorrow another same-sex couple goes to Masterpiece Cakeshop asking for a wedding cake and Phillips turns them down, nobody knows what will happen next.

This is how that 7-2 breaks down:

Thomas. Justice Thomas went whole-heartedly for the baker’s argument: Phillips is an artist, and the government cannot command him to create a message he finds abhorrent. Quoting previous free-speech cases, he says:

Forcing Phillips to make custom wedding cakes for same-sex marriages re­quires him to, at the very least, acknowledge that same- sex weddings are “weddings” and suggest that they should be celebrated—the precise message he believes his faith forbids. The First Amendment prohibits Colorado from requiring Phillips to “bear witness to [these] fact[s],” or to “affir[m] . . . a belief with which [he] disagrees.”

Gorsuch and Alito. Justices Gorsuch and Alito (with Gorsuch writing for both of them) believe that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission has itself discriminated against Phillips because of its hostility to his religious views. They see Phillips’ case as being equivalent to that of William Jack, who intentionally tried to create such a comparison.

[Jack] approached three bakers and asked them to prepare cakes with messages disapproving same-sex marriage on religious grounds. All three bakers refused Mr. Jack’s request, stating that they found his request offensive to their secular convictions. But the Division declined to find a violation, reasoning that the bakers didn’t deny Mr. Jack service because of his religious faith but because the cakes he sought were offensive to their own moral convictions.

… The facts show that the two cases share all legally salient features. In both cases, the effect on the customer was the same: bakers refused service to persons who bore a statutorily protected trait (religious faith or sexual orientation). But in both cases the bakers refused service intending only to honor a personal conviction. To be sure, the bakers knew their conduct promised the effect of leaving a customer in a protected class unserved. But there’s no indication the bakers actually intended to refuse service because of a customer’s protected characteristic. We know this because all of the bakers explained without contradiction that they would not sell the requested cakes to anyone, while they would sell other cakes to members of the protected class (as well as to anyone else).

… Only one way forward now remains. Having failed to afford Mr. Phillips’s religious objections neutral consideration and without any compelling reason for its failure, the Commission must afford him the same result it afforded the bakers in Mr. Jack’s case.

So that’s three votes for the baker’s case on the merits. Two more votes and Phillips would get the kind of result he (and the Alliance for Defending Freedom, the Christian-religious-liberty organization arguing his case) had been hoping for: At least in Colorado, bakeries (and presumably florists and caterers and all kinds of other businesses) would be free to deny their services to same-sex couples.

Kagan and Breyer. But you may have noticed a problem in the Gorsuch-Alito reasoning. How could they say Phillips “would not sell the requested cakes to anyone”, when he happily makes wedding cakes for opposite-sex couples? That’s because in their reasoning, a gay wedding cake is a thing. Phillips also wouldn’t sell a “cake celebrating same-sex marriage” to Craig’s mother, who is straight, so he’s not just refusing to sell to gays.

Justices Kagan and Breyer (Kagan writing) found this ridiculous. There is no such thing as a gay wedding cake. The product is just a wedding cake, and the fact that the cake will find its way to either a same-sex or opposite-sex wedding reception does not make it a different product.

And that’s the difference between the Phillips case and the Jack case: The anti-gay message in the Jack case was on the cake. (One cake would have said “God hates sin. Psalm 45:7” on one side and “Homosexuality is a detestable sin. Leviticus 18:2” on the other. Another Jack cake would have put a red X over an image of two groomsmen holding hands.) In the Phillips case the only problem was in the use of the cake and who was using it. Phillips might legally have refused to put overt pro-gay symbols or messages on the cake (say, a rainbow flag). But refusing to make any wedding cake, even one identical to one he would make for an opposite-sex couple, was discrimination.

However, Kagan and Breyer found that the Civil Rights Commission didn’t make that argument properly, and instead some of the commissioners made statements hostile to Phillips religion. This created the impression that the commissioners were responding to their personal beliefs rather than legal principles: They found Jack’s message offensive, but not the Craig-Mullin wedding cake. In short: The CRC could have justified the findings it made, but it didn’t, so its decision in this particular case should be thrown out.

Ginsberg and Sotomayor. Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor (Ginsberg writing) spelled out in more detail the difference between the Jack and Phillips cases:

Phillips declined to make a cake he found offensive where the offensiveness of the product was determined solely by the identity of the customer requesting it. The three other bakeries declined to make cakes where their objection to the product was due to the demeaning message the requested product would literally display.

Ginsberg and Sotomayor scoff at Gorsuch’s notion that the product was a “cake celebrating same-sex marriage”.

When a couple contacts a bakery for a wedding cake, the product they are seeking is a cake celebrating their wedding—not a cake celebrating heterosexual weddings or same-sex weddings—and that is the service Craig and Mullins were denied.

The merits of the case matter more than any procedural errors the Commission may have made.

I see no reason why the comments of one or two Commissioners should be taken to overcome Phillips’ refusal to sell a wedding cake to Craig and Mullins. The proceedings involved several layers of independent decisionmaking, of which the Commission was but one.

The Colorado Court of Appeals, Ginsberg notes, “considered the case de novo“. (In other words: It started over, and considered the case on its merits rather than on the basis of what the Commission had done.)

What prejudice infected the determinations of the adjudicators in the case before and after the Commission? The Court does not say.

In a footnote, Ginsberg-Sotomayor also tear up Thomas’ free-speech argument: A message may be in Phillips’ mind, but it isn’t in the cake unless other people can see it there.

The record in this case is replete with Jack Phillips’ own views on the messages he believes his cakes convey. But Phillips submitted no evidence showing that an objective observer understands a wedding cake to convey a message, much less that the observer understands the message to be the baker’s, rather than the marrying couple’s.

It comes down to Kennedy and Roberts. So three justices agree with the baker on the merits and four don’t. But two of the four also find procedural problems in the rulings against the baker. So it’s already clear that the baker will win the case: The judgment against him will be thrown out. The question for the remaining two justices — Kennedy and Roberts — to decide is whether the Court will create a precedent that similar cases can appeal to.

Roberts’ thinking is usually subtle and often hidden. He will, at times, rule in a way that technically upholds a precedent, while re-interpreting it in a way that will ultimately undo it in subsequent cases. (In a current case that I’ll discuss in the weekly summary, his decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in 2012 is now the basis for a new case claiming it is unconstitutional. He does that kind of thing.)

Roberts is happiest when he is changing society in a conservative, pro-wealth, or pro-business direction, but doing it behind the scenes. He doesn’t want the Court to make the kind of waves that could result in a major political backlash. (So, for example, he will write a decision that celebrates the principles behind the Voting Rights Act, while gutting the provisions that enforce it.)

This case is not Roberts’ style. He doesn’t want to author a sweeping takedown of anti-discrimination laws, and Kennedy isn’t going to go for that anyway. Also, he knows that the wind is blowing against him here. More and more, society accepts gay rights. The kind of sweeping decision Thomas, Gorsuch, and Alito want won’t look good in five or ten years.

So on this case he will keep his powder dry, uphold his (mostly false) image as a moderate, and go with what Kennedy wants.

Kennedy wants this case to go away. The decisions leading up to the full legalization of same-sex marriage (in Obergfell) are his legacy. When he eventually dies, that’s what his obituary will be about. He doesn’t want that record tarnished, least of all by his own decision.

But Kennedy is an empathy-based judge rather than a principles-based judge. [2] In this case, he seems to empathize with both sides: Craig and Mullin just wanted to have the same kind of wedding reception anybody else might have. Phillips didn’t want to be forced to act against what he saw as his religious convictions.

So the deciding Kennedy-Roberts opinion lets the baker off the hook on the narrowest possible grounds, without giving future courts anything to work with in similar cases.

When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires. Given all these considerations, it is proper to hold that whatever the outcome of some future controversy involving facts similar to these, the Commission’s actions here violated the Free Exercise Clause; and its order must be set aside.

So the baker wins. But Kennedy leaves the larger issues open.

Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth. For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights. The exercise of their freedom on terms equal to others must be given great weight and respect by the courts. At the same time, the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression. [3]

I find myself sharing the concern Sarah Posner expressed in The Nation: “how assiduously Justice Kennedy labored to find government ‘hostility’ to Phillips’s religion”. If a judge searches the record hard enough, with hyper-sensitivity to a hostility that he has pre-decided must be there, won’t he always be able to find some evidence of anti-religious bias somewhere?

What will be the evidence of such supposed animus in the next case? A question from a judge at oral arguments? Deposition questions by government attorneys? That is the crucial open question from Masterpiece—not whether the next case will be more winnable for a gay couple without Masterpiece’s specific facts, but how hard opponents of LGBTQ rights will work to convince the courts that similar specific facts exist in that case, too.

What next? Neither side can take comfort in the numbers. Seven justices looks like a solid majority for the conservative side, but four of the seven are only citing procedural reasons for objecting to the Commission’s ruling, and not saying they should have ruled in the baker’s favor.

Similarly, six justices reaffirm that anti-discrimination laws can apply to gay couples, whose “dignity and worth” is not inferior to opposite-sex couples. But Roberts cannot be trusted. If he could have formed a conservative majority on the other side, he quite likely would have.

So here’s where I think we are: Roberts is stalling, with the hope of getting another conservative appointment out of Trump before the Court has to make a definitive ruling. If he gets that extra conservative justice, then the Court will rule decisively to gut anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians, using “sincere religious belief” as the loophole.

In the meantime, look for a series of cases like this one, decided on the narrowest possible terms, and usually in favor of the conservative side.


[1] Phillips’ defenders argue that discrimination against gays is special in some way, but it’s hard to see how. When inter-racial marriage was controversial, the arguments against it were also framed in religious terms. Slavery, segregation, discrimination against women — pretty much every kind of bigotry roots itself in religion when other supports start to fail. If “sincere religious belief” allows discrimination against Craig and Mullins, it’s hard to see how any discrimination law stands up.

BTW: Notice what I didn’t say there. I didn’t say that Christianity or any other religion is inherently bigoted. I’m saying that bigots will cloak themselves in religion, and will cherry-pick sacred texts to justify their bigotry. If courts let them get away with this dodge, anti-discrimination laws will be toothless.

[2] That is what has driven me nuts in his previous rulings. He consistently fails to enunciate principles that lower-court judges can apply, instead making what are essentially political arguments that one side or the other deserves to prevail. That is why same-sex marriage cases kept going to the Supreme Court. Kennedy’s opinions were murky, and lower-court judges disagreed about what they meant. Eventually each new case had to come back to Kennedy so that he could interpret himself.

[3] This kind of writing also drives social conservatives nuts. “Our society has come to the recognition …” What kind of legal principle is that?

Kennedy consistently acts the part of the stereotypic liberal-activist-judge who projects his own moral convictions onto the law. Ginsberg is much more liberal than Kennedy, but you’ll never find that kind of mushiness in her opinions. She defines terms, cites precedents, and enunciates principles that lower-court judges can apply with confidence.

What is impeachment for?

During Obama’s presidency, Republican standards for impeachment were low and Democratic standards high. Now it’s the reverse. We need American standards that don’t change with the political winds.


Someday — maybe sooner, maybe later — Bob Mueller is going to issue his report on the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia, whether Trump has been attempting to obstruct justice, and possibly other Trump-related scandals. When that happens, Congress and the American people will have to look at what has been found and decide what to do about it. Is it enough for an impeachment or not?

At that moment, partisans on both sides will adjust their standards to get the conclusion they want. Trumpists will put forward impossibly high standards for impeachment, and anti-Trumpists will drop their standards to match the facts available. Not admiring either of these approaches, I want to set out my general ideas about impeachment now, before we know what the evidence will say.

Previous impeachments. As background, let me start by confessing that I’m old enough to have watched two presidential impeachment processes: Nixon’s and Clinton’s. The two could not have been more different.

At the time of the Nixon impeachment hearings, the United States hadn’t impeached a president in a century. Leaders of both parties in Congress appreciated that they were wielding a fearful and awesome power. They felt the Eye of History watching them. So, while Democrats were in general the prosecutors and Republicans the defenders, both approached their roles with extreme scrupulousness. Both sides were determined to get to the truth of the matter rather than just to win.

The iconic question “What did the President know and when did he know it?” was asked by Republican Senator Howard Baker. The House Judiciary Committee’s decision to subpoena Nixon’s tapes of Oval Office conversations was overwhelmingly bipartisan (33-3). Of the five articles of impeachment considered by the committee, three were supported by some Republicans and three were opposed by some Democrats. In the end, Nixon resigned after a delegation of Republican leaders went to the White House to tell the President that they could no longer defend him.

By contrast, the Clinton impeachment was an entirely partisan exercise from beginning to end. Nixon’s special prosecutor (Leon Jaworski) had been a fellow Republican. But for Clinton, the first Republican special prosecutor hadn’t been rabid enough, so he was replaced with a more partisan one. The focus of the investigation kept shifting, eventually settling on Clinton’s sexual escapades. Even the obstruction of justice charge postulated a private conspiracy (inducing Monica Lewinsky to give false testimony in a civil lawsuit) rather than a misuse of presidential power. None of the 45 Democratic senators voted to convict on any charge.

During the Obama administration, Republicans would occasionally raise the idea of impeachment, but it was clear that their standards had declined even further since the Clinton era. Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio told a town hall meeting of impeachment-happy partisans that impeaching Obama would be “a dream come true”, but there was one tiny hurdle he didn’t know how to jump yet: “You’ve got to have evidence.”

Now, of course, Republican standards for impeachment are high again and Democratic standards have lowered. But what we need are American standards that we’re willing to apply to presidents of either party.

The Constitution only helps us up to a point. It lays down the basic process, but (as it so often does) leaves the details to the interpretation of later generations. Perhaps that openness is why the document has lasted this long.

I first formulated my ideas about impeachment during the Clinton process, and I will attempt to apply those theories to Trump, even though Clinton is a Democrat and Trump a Republican.

The bad-president problem. The Founders believed that any legitimate sovereignty had to come from the People, but they understood that the People would make mistakes. It was inevitable that sooner or later the United States would elect a bad president — a demagogue who was unwise, uninformed, and temperamentally unfit for the job.

It’s clear what they saw as the primary remedy for a bad president: Wait for his term to end and elect somebody else. (In the meantime, the other branches of government should use their checks and balances to minimize the harm he could do.) We may not have the same appreciation for the elect-somebody-else solution as the Founders, but you have to bear in mind that they were comparing the presidency to the monarchy of England. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #69:

The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for FOUR years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and HEREDITARY prince.

If England had a bad king, the solution was either to revolt or wait for him to die. But in the US, you could circle a date an a calendar and plan for the bad president to be gone. The Founders saw that as a big improvement.

So what is impeachment for? Impeachment is in the Constitution for those rare cases where the country just can’t wait. You can see that reflected in the clause that establishes it.

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

What makes treason and bribery so special that the Constitution names them? Each points to a problem more serious than mere incompetence or wrongheadedness or lax morals or bad temper. Both describe situations where the power of the presidency has been removed from the People and might possibly be used against them. A treasonous president is loyal to a foreign power; a bribed one is loyal to some private interest. The power of the presidency hasn’t just been used unwisely, it has been suborned or usurped. That’s a situation that can’t be allowed to continue.

Treason and bribery should be models for “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”. That phrase, I think, is intentionally vague, to give Congress the leeway to do what it thinks it needs to do. But treason and bribery should set the bar: A legitimate impeachment case needs to argue that the Republic is in danger. There must be some reason why waiting for the next election either won’t work or isn’t good enough.

Reasons to impeach. If you buy that general framework, then legitimate reasons to impeach fall into four categories:

  1. The president is not loyal to the People of the United States. Basically, treason or bribery. A third offense, which in the Nixon impeachment was called “abuse of power”, is similar if a bit more vague: Loyalty to self has eclipsed loyalty to the country. The power of the presidency is being used not for the common good, but to enrich the president, to reward the president’s friends, or to punish his or her enemies.
  2. The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process. One reason we might not be able to wait for the next election is that the next election has been compromised. This was the heart of the Nixon impeachment: If a president can harass and spy on political rivals with impunity, then the whole election process becomes untrustworthy. You can imagine extreme cases where the president is winning elections by stuffing the ballot box, as happens in many pseudo-democratic countries.
  3. The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2). Obstruction of justice can be an impeachable offense, but it should only be used if the underlying charge has some can’t-wait significance. Nixon’s attempt to obstruct the investigation of the Watergate burglary had clear implications for the integrity of the election process. But whether or not Clinton obstructed Paula Jones’ civil lawsuit was an issue that could have waited.
  4. Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment. This is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Constitution, but constitutional government doesn’t work otherwise. Congress necessarily relies on the executive branch to carry out the laws it passes. Presidents famously find loopholes that allow them to do things they want and avoid doing things they don’t want. But if a president ignores clear laws or disobeys direct court orders, Congress has to have some way to preserve the powers of the legislative and judicial branches of government. Waiting for the next election isn’t good enough, because (once the pattern is established) the next president might usurp power in the same way. Impeachment is the ultimate arrow in Congress’ quiver. If the Iran-Contra scandal had led to impeaching President Reagan, this would have been the justification.

A fifth condition is urgent in a similar way, but has its own constitutional process: A president who is insane or demented can be removed via the 25th Amendment, if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet believe he or she is unfit.

Reasons that aren’t good enough. Impeachment shouldn’t be seen as a do-over for the voters’ mistakes. No matter how many people change their minds, or how low the president’s popularity sinks, that by itself is not a reason to impeach.

Policy disagreements between the president and Congress aren’t impeachable, as long as the President is respecting Congress’ legitimate powers. Attempts to stretch presidential power into debatable areas — like Obama’s executive orders on immigration — are not impeachable if the president backs down when Congress passes new laws or the courts overturn the orders.

The president becoming an embarrassment to the country is not enough. This, I think, was the mistake at the heart of the Clinton impeachment: Many Americans were embarrassed to hear news reports about oral sex in the Oval Office. That might be a good reason to call for a president’s resignation, but not to impeach.

Loss of faith in the president’s judgment isn’t enough, unless it rises to 25th-amendment levels. If, say, a president were ready to start nuclear war for no reason, the vice president and the cabinet should step in. But if the president just demonstrates bad judgment within the ordinary human range, replacing him or her would be another form of election do-over.

Standards of proof. During the Clinton impeachment, my representative (Charlie Bass) was one of many Republicans who pledged that they would only vote for impeachment if the evidence were beyond reasonable doubt. (He lied, and voted to impeach anyway. It was certainly reasonable to believe that Clinton perjured himself or conspired in Lewinsky’s perjury. Depending on your opinion of Clinton’s character, that may even have been the more likely possibility. But by no stretch of the imagination was the case against Clinton proved beyond reasonable doubt.) I think they made that pledge because they knew that the charges against Clinton were legalistic rather than based on the kind of emergency concerns the Founders envisioned.

But is the criminal-trial standard — beyond reasonable doubt — really the appropriate one? What if members of Congress are only 90% convinced that the president is a traitor? Should they wait for the next election?

Clearly not.

Criminal conviction can take away the freedom we all value and view as our right. But political office, especially a high political office like the presidency, is an honor and a privilege rather than a right. Taking it away just reduces a president to the same level as the rest of us. So the standards of proof required shouldn’t be as high as in a criminal trial. (After a president is removed from office, a criminal indictment might follow. At that trial, the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard would apply. So it would not be unreasonable to remove a president from office via impeachment, and then fail to convict in the subsequent criminal trial. Both outcomes might be appropriate responses to the evidence.)

The House and Senate play different roles in an impeachment, and they should apply different standards. The House is like a grand jury; essentially, it is voting to indict. The Senate is the trial jury; it is deciding whether to convict. I think the House should turn the reasonable-doubt standard upside-down. Voting to impeach should mean two things:

  • The charges are serious enough that they can’t wait until the end of the president’s term, and Congress has no less drastic way to deal with them. If they are true, the president needs to be removed as soon as possible.
  • The evidence could lead reasonable people to believe that the charges are true.

The Senate is making the more serious decision. If the House impeaches, the trial in the Senate will be stressful for the country, but by itself the trial does no real harm. (The country survived the Clinton trial with little damage. The situation when Clinton’s term expired — peace, a budget surplus, low unemployment, low inflation — was arguably better than at any time since.) Improperly removing a duly elected president, though, would be a serious blow to our constitutional system.

The Senate has to weigh the risks on each side: Voting to acquit leaves a possibly dangerous president in office until the end of the term, and tells future presidents that Congress will tolerate the impeached behavior. Voting to convict might damage the presidency and devalue future elections. Which path into the future is better for the country and our system of government?

Application to Trump. It’s possible that Mueller might find the exact wrong-doing that the Constitution specifies: If Trump conspired with the Russian government to gain an advantage in the 2016 election, and if his subsequent favoritism to Russian interests stems from his political debt to Putin, that’s treason. If he has been making foreign-policy decisions based on foreign-government actions that benefit him financially (like the Chinese investment in the MNC Lido City project), that’s bribery. Those would be the slam-dunk cases.

Abuse of power accusations (like his alleged pressure on the postmaster general to raise rates on Amazon to strike back at Jeff Bezos for The Washington Post’s hostile coverage) haven’t gotten as much attention, but would also be serious if they could be proved — not just the fact of pressure, but also the intent. But I would want to see a pattern of such reprisals — like Nixon’s enemies list — rather than just one example.

The offense Mueller is most likely to find is obstruction of justice. The question I would have at that point is whether the obstruction succeeded. (Firing Comey, for example, may have been intended to derail the Russia investigation, but it obviously didn’t.) If Mueller’s conclusion is that Trump’s obstruction prevents us from knowing whether he was part of a treasonous conspiracy, then I would want to impeach him for that. But if Mueller did in fact get to the bottom of the Russia affair, then the impeachment decision should be based on the answer to that question.

One outcome, for example, could be that Trump played no part in the Russia conspiracy, but obstructed justice to cover up crimes committed by his sons or by son-in-law Jared Kushner. If that’s the case, I would indict those people immediately, and prosecute Trump for obstruction after his term ends. It’s a crime, but it’s over now, and waiting does not endanger the country.

I suspect there is considerable evidence that Trump is profiting off his presidency in ways that don’t quite rise to the level of bribery. For example, he could hardly be doing any more to promote Mar-a-Lago than he has been, including spending large quantities of public money there. (Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago have cost the taxpayers more than the entire Mueller investigation. “Probably several times over,” estimates the WaPo’s Philip Bump.) The Trump International Hotel in Washington profits extensively from foreigners attempting to curry the President’s favor. (The Trump Organization donated $151K in foreign-government profits to the Treasury, but has not explained how it came up with that number. I would be amazed if it were a fair accounting.) Michael Cohen has collected millions in what appear to be payments for access to the Trump administration, but we still don’t know if Trump conspired in that, or whether the payments bought any government favors.

However, Congress could crack down on Trump’s profiteering without resorting to impeachment. He (and future presidents) could be required to publish their tax returns. Congress could investigate the Trump Organization and do its own accounting of politically tainted profits, or insist that Trump divest (and let him decide whether he would rather resign). It could refuse to spend public funds on any businesses owned by the President. Conflict-of-interest rules that apply to every government official except the president could be extended.

Congress hasn’t done these things because Republicans don’t want to take any action against Trump. It’s crazy to imagine that impeachment is feasible as long as such common-sense moves haven’t been made. Impeachment is a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency last resort; if anything else could fix the problem, it should be tried first.

To be continued … Chances are, not all of the conclusions of the Mueller investigation will be clear-cut. There may be some evidence of collusion with Putin, but not definite proof. It may be impossible to establish whether Trump’s reluctance to sanction Russia was a quid-pro-quo or not. I’ve laid out my general principles on impeachment, but those kinds of judgment calls can’t be made without seeing the specific evidence.

When that evidence comes out, I can only hope that I and the Congress and Americans on both sides of the partisan divide will understand the gravity of the judgment to be made, and that we will all feel the Eye of History watching us.

Three Misunderstandings About Guns and the Constitution

I. Armed civilians and tyranny

What’s misunderstood about it. One common argument in favor of private ownership of military-style weapons like the AR-15 is that a well-armed population is a necessary defense against tyranny, i.e., that the general population needs to retain the ability to overthrow the central government by military force. Ted Cruz has written that the Second Amendment serves as “the ultimate check against government tyranny — for the protection of freedom.”

A parallel argument is that historically, dictators like Hitler disarmed the public before imposing full tyranny. Once disarmed, the argument goes, the people were as helpless as sheep. This Facebook meme is typical, and features typically misleading quotes.

Both quotes are doctored.

What’s wrong with that view? Just about everything.

Let’s start with Hitler. Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald debunks “The Hitler Gun-Control Lie“, leaning on a more scholarly article by historian Bernard Harcourt. The 1938 gun law that NRA voices like Wayne LaPierre so often cite actually weakened the gun-control laws of the Weimar Republic.

The 1938 law signed by Hitler that LaPierre mentions in his book basically does the opposite of what he says it did. “The 1938 revisions completely deregulated the acquisition and transfer of rifles and shotguns, as well as ammunition,” Harcourt wrote. Meanwhile, many more categories of people, including Nazi party members, were exempted from gun ownership regulations altogether, while the legal age of purchase was lowered from 20 to 18, and permit lengths were extended from one year to three years.

The Hitler quote in the illustration refers not to German civilians, but to non-Aryans in occupied Russian territory. Obviously, he would not have referred to himself as a “conqueror” of the German nation, or to the Nazi master race as a “subjected people”.

If the NRA’s point were valid, you would expect the most democratic nations in the world to be the ones with the most guns, but if anything, the correlation runs in the opposite direction. Here are the four most democratic nations, according to the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

Nation democracy index guns per 100 civilians
Norway 9.87 31.3
Iceland 9.58 30.3
Sweden 9.39 21
New Zealand 9.26 22.6

Even these gun-ownership numbers, I suspect, are exaggerated in comparison with the U.S., since they probably include very few weapons like the AR-15. (Norway’s parliament is reportedly ready to pass a complete ban on semi-automatic weapons, which would include a number of popular handguns as well as rifles.)

Here are the nations with the most guns in civilian hands.

Nation democracy index guns per 100 civilians
United States 7.98 101
Serbia 6.41 58.21
Yemen 2.07 54.8
Cyprus 7.59 36.4

Of particular note is Japan, where the average 100 civilians own a mere 0.6 guns, but whose democracy index on a par with the U.S.: 7.88. If a disarmed population is just asking for a totalitarian takeover, why isn’t one happening in Japan?

Switzerland and Israel are frequently cited as democratic countries with a large number of guns and little civilian gun violence, but in both countries possession of a gun is associated with military service, and is strongly regulated otherwise. The BBC quotes a Swiss gun-owner, who does not keep ammunition in his house and stores his gun’s barrel in a separate part of the house from its body:

The gun is not given to me to protect me or my family. I have been given this gun by my country to serve my country.

Finally, there are those quotes from the Founding Fathers like the one in the illustration above, nearly all of which have been either taken out of context, mis-attributed, or simply invented out of nothing. The Jefferson quote above is rejected on the official Monticello web site. Other frequently-cited fake quotes from the Founders are debunked at Guncite.com.

II. The original intent of the Second Amendment.

What’s misunderstood about it. It’s believed that the Founders passed the Second Amendment to protect an individual right to own militarily useful weapons (like, in our era, the AR-15), so that the People would have the ability to resist a tyrannical federal government.

What more people need to understand. That belief is historically baseless.

Legally, it doesn’t matter whether privately-owned weapons actually deter tyranny or not. (They don’t.) If the Founders believed they did, and wrote that belief into the Second Amendment, and if no generation since has seen fit to repeal it, then it’s the law. But that’s not what the Second Amendment is about at all.

At this point it’s worthwhile to look at the full text of the Amendment, which is short.

A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Militiaman.

Today, we often tend to read right past the first clause and focus on the second. But it’s worth remembering what the Founders thought of when they saw the word militia: the Minutemen. In other words, a force of citizen-soldiers authorized by state or local governments, which could be called into action in a crisis. The current-day successor to the federal-era militias is the National Guard, not the self-appointed sovereign-citizen yahoos who drill up in the woods of Montana. The Constitution makes that quite clear in Article I, Section 8.

The Congress shall have Power … To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

The so-called militias we hear about today refuse to be organized, armed, or disciplined by Congress, or to be trained or have their officers appointed the states. So they’re not at all what the Constitution is talking about.

Not a militiaman.

Why, then, was a well-regulated militia “necessary to the security of a free State”? Not so that it could fight against the federal government. In fact, Article I, Section 8 also explicitly gives Congress the power “to provide for calling forth the Militia”, which will then (Article II, Section 2) be under the command of the President. In case of insurrection, the Constitution foresees the militia fighting for the federal government, not against it.

The vision that worried the founding generation (enough to create the Second Amendment) was that the federal government might disband the militias and replace them with a large professional standing army, which would then need to have forts and bases throughout the country. Rather than repel an Indian raid itself, for example, a frontier community would have to call for help from the Army. Slave-owning states particularly worried about the possibility of an anti-slavery president refusing to put down a slave uprising (or maybe just dragging his feet). They wanted to be sure they would retain enough local power to keep their slaves under control.

Even more, the Founders feared that professional soldiers would grow to be loyal to their Commander in Chief rather than to the nation. The existence of this force might tempt a president to launch a coup and establish a military dictatorship. The point of a militia was to make that large permanent professional force unnecessary, not to fight pitched battles against it.

You can argue that we’ve already gone a long way down the road the Founders didn’t want us to travel: We have a large standing army with nationwide bases, and towns do not drill their citizens on the town green, as Lexington and Concord did. (However, we also have state and local police departments  — which didn’t exist in the Founding era — so we’re not entirely dependent on the federal government for our security.) But self-appointed Rambos arming themselves to resist the federal government was no part of the Founders’ vision. The whole point of the Constitutional system was to allow for peaceful replacement of an unpopular government. As the Supreme Court wrote in 1951:

Whatever theoretical merit there may be to the argument that there is a “right” to rebellion against dictatorial governments is without force where the existing structure of the government provides for peaceful and orderly change.

III. The weapons the Second Amendment protects.

What’s misunderstood about it. Some Americans see virtually any restriction on the weapons they can own, or even registration of those weapons, as a violation of their Second Amendment rights.

What’s wrong with that? In the entire history of the United States, no court has understood the Second Amendment that way.

Given that the Second Amendment was part of the Bill of Rights passed by the first Congress, you’d expect all its major provisions to have a long history of judicial interpretation. But in fact the individual right to own specific weapons wasn’t recognized until the 2008 Heller case, a hotly contested 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court. Prior to that, courts construed the Amendment’s “right to bear arms” as a collective right belonging to “the People” as a whole, not individual persons. Historian Michael Waldman wrote:

“A fraud on the American public.” That’s how former Chief Justice Warren Burger described the idea that the Second Amendment gives an unfettered individual right to a gun. When he spoke these words to PBS in 1990, the rock-ribbed conservative appointed by Richard Nixon was expressing the longtime consensus of historians and judges across the political spectrum.

Until Heller, the Supreme Court’s landmark gun-rights case was Miller, in which it rejected the argument that the National Firearms Act (regulating sawed-off shotguns, among other weapons) violated constitutional rights. Even the Heller decision (written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia) doesn’t endorse the NRA’s view of the Second Amendment. It struck down a District of Columbia law banning handguns, while allowing that

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.

Challenges to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in force from 1994 to 2004 never made it to the Supreme Court, though the law was upheld by lower courts.

What today’s Court would do with an assault-weapons ban, or even a complete ban on semi-automatic weapons, is very much up in the air. Scalia’s Heller opinion found an expectation that the militia would assemble carrying weapons “in common use at the time” for legal purposes. How extensive that use needs to be was not specified. Whether AR-15s and other assault weapons are “in common use” would no doubt be hotly debated. Certainly they are not as widely used as handguns were in 2008, and the main legal purpose for which handguns were used (self-defense) carries more constitutional weight than the nebulous legal uses of assault weapons.

No court decision anywhere invalidates the government’s legitimate power to register weapons.

No court has rejected the federal ban on automatic weapons or the regulation of high explosives, so there is clearly a line somewhere between weapons that can and can’t be banned. The question would be which side AR-15s fall on.

Just to give one obvious example, it would be incredibly stupid for the government to allow people who live on the flight paths of major airports to own surface-to-air missiles. And yet, the argument that individuals have to be prepared to fight a tyrannical government would seem to justify those weapons. (How are we going to resist the government if we can’t take down its air power?) Those who believe the resist-the-government interpretation of the Second Amendment should be pushed to say whether any weapons can be banned or regulated, and why exactly such limitations are consistent with their theory.

The Message in Joe Arpaio’s Pardon

[Disclosure: I was part of a protest outside of Tent City in 2012. That’s the trip I wrote about in “I Was Undocumented in Arizona“. I had misplaced my driver’s license before leaving home. But being white, I had no problems.]

President Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio got a lot of attention this weekend, but no one seemed to be pulling together everything we know.

Who is Arpaio and why do people have such strong feelings about him? For background on Arpaio’s 24-year reign of terror against Arizona’s Latinos, I recommend Rolling Stone‘s “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio” from 2012. Arpaio is best known for his Tent City

the infamous jail he set up 20 years ago, in which some 2,000 inmates live under canvas tarps in the desert, forced to wear pink underwear beneath their black-and-white-striped uniforms while cracking rocks in the stifling heat. … From the start, the jail was notorious for its minimalist living conditions, which Arpaio says have saved Maricopa County millions of dollars in building and operational costs. Arpaio fed prisoners two meals a day (valued at 30 cents each), banned cigarettes and coffee, and boasted that temperatures in the summer can hit 141 degrees.

Any savings, though, have been more than eaten up by legal settlements paid to abused prisoners or their heirs. Way back in 2007, Phoenix New Times calculated:

[T]he cost to insure for and defend against Arpaio lawsuits totals $41.4 million.

Francisco Chairez gives a first-person account of serving a year in Arpaio’s jails on a drunk-driving charge. Reading it makes sense of what PNT found regarding the death rate in Arpaio’s jails.

[P]eople hang themselves in the sheriff’s jail at a rate that dwarfs other county lockups. And many of the deaths are classified as having occurred in the county hospital or in a cell without further explanation. People die and no one asks how; no one asks why.

Asking Arpaio’s office for the number of dead prisoners proved useless, but the coroner documented 157 deaths: 39 by hanging. 34 prisoners were found dead in the jail with no cause of death given, and 39 other unexplained deaths came after prisoners were transferred to the county hospital.

That’s 73 deaths — nearly half of all deaths — that county authorities list as “who knows?”

A 2011 report from the Justice Department found “a chronic culture of disregard for basic legal and constitutional obligations.”

Based upon our extensive investigation, we find reasonable cause to believe that [Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] … engages in racial profiling of Latinos; unlawfully stops, detains, and arrests Latinos; and unlawfully retaliates against individuals who complain about or criticize MCSO’s policies or practices.

MCSO also

routinely punishes Latino [limited English proficient] inmates for failing to understand commands given in English and denies them critical services provided to the other inmates, all in violation of Title VI and its implementing regulations.

… MCSO has implemented practices that treat Latinos as if they are all undocumented, regardless of whether a legitimate factual basis exists to suspect that a person is undocumented.

DoJ brought in “a leading expert on measuring racial profiling through statistical analysis” who

concluded that this case involves the most egregious racial profiling in the United States that he has ever personally seen in the course of his work, observed in litigation, or reviewed in professional literature.

DoJ also found “a pattern of retaliatory actions intended to silence MCSO’s critics”.

MCSO command staff and deputies have arrested individuals without cause, filed meritless complaints against the political adversaries of Sheriff Arpaio, and initiated unfounded civil lawsuits and investigations against individuals critical of MCSO policies and practices.

For example, the two founders of PNT received a $3.75 million settlement from the County to compensate for Arpaio arresting them in the middle of the night on bogus charges.

The opposite of law and order. The manpower and resources for Arpaio’s anti-Latino crusade seem to have been drawn away from investigations of crimes with actual victims, making a joke out of Trump’s claim that “He kept Arizona safe!” The DoJ report says:

The Sheriff’s office has acknowledged that 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation were not properly investigated over a three-year period ending in 2007. These cases only came to light after a review by the El Mirage Police Department of a period in which MCSO was under contract to provide policing services to that community. It appears that many of the victims may have been Latino.

Phoenix’ local CBS station highlighted the case of Sabrina Morrison, who at age 13 was raped by her uncle. MCSO told her mother that there was no evidence of a rape. “So I thought she was lying the whole time.”

What the family did not know was the sheriff’s detective sent the rape kit to the state crime lab. Two weeks later, the crime lab sent a notice to the MCSO Special Victim’s Unit confirming the sample contained semen, and asking for a blood sample from the suspect, Patrick Morrison.

Instead of making an arrest, a detective filed the crime lab note and closed the case for four years. It was five years before they arrested Patrick Morrison.

Meanwhile, Patrick continued raping Sabrina, who became pregnant, had an abortion, and was sent to live in a group home for “acting out”. An internal MCSO memo “blames a high case load, says the special victims unit had gone from five detectives to just three, and the detectives left were often called off their cases to investigate special assignments.” The County had to pay $3.5 million on that one, though it’s hard to imagine how any amount of money could truly compensate.

As outrageous as all that seems, county sheriff is an elected position, so as long as Arpaio had the support of the voters of Maricopa County — and vast quantities of outside money to convince those voters — there wasn’t much anybody else could do. Arpaio finally was defeated in 2016.

What he was convicted of. Crimes by law enforcement officers are notoriously hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly when those crimes happen inside jails, where the perpetrators themselves control the crime scene. That’s why most of the cases against Arpaio have been tried in civil court, where the standard of proof is lower, but judgments are limited to monetary damages.

The crime Arpaio was pardoned for is criminal contempt of court, which carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison. Convicting him of contempt was somewhat like nailing Al Capone for tax evasion: It was far from the worst thing he did, but at least the evidence was clear. The satisfaction for Arpaio’s victims was mostly symbolic. Finally he had been recognized as a criminal.

That case has its origins in a 2007 civil suit about racial profiling. (Dan Magos, who joined the suit later and testified against Arpaio, describes what it’s like to be stopped and searched without any cause other than your ethnicity.) Vox tells how it became a criminal matter:

In 2011 … the judge in the racial profiling lawsuit issued an injunction preventing Arpaio from apprehending or detaining anyone purely on the basis of being a suspected unauthorized immigrant or turning such people over to federal agents.

In 2013, Arpaio officially lost the civil suit. But by that point, it had become clear that his department hadn’t actually been complying with Judge Murray Snow’s 2011 injunction. They’d continued to engage in immigration “sweeps,” turn people over to ICE (or, when ICE stopped accepting detainees from Arpaio’s deputies, Border Patrol), and hold suspected immigrants in jail after they’d otherwise be released for federal agents to pick them up.

After a series of hearings about the Maricopa Sheriff’s Office’s failure to comply with the 2011 order, Judge Snow cited Arpaio and a handful of his subordinates for civil contempt of court in 2015. Then, in 2016, he asked the US Attorney’s Office to charge Arpaio and three others with criminal contempt — which someone can only be convicted of if it’s shown they were willfully refusing to obey the court order, not just failing to make sure it was obeyed.

What job was he doing? During his recent rally in Phoenix, Trump asked the crowd “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” which strongly yelled its agreement that he was. Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger tweeted:

Of bad pardons, this is the worst because it is an assault on law itself. Says Joe’s “job” was violating a federal court order.

And The Week ‘s Scott Lemieux commented:

To allow [Arpaio] to go unpunished is to celebrate the arbitrary use of state violence and to show contempt for the legal restraints public officials are supposed to be constrained by.

The best case for the just-doing-his-job point was made by Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb. The court order didn’t just tell Arpaio to stop racial profiling — which would have been hard to enforce, since individual examples are easy to explain away. Instead, the judge ordered Arpaio to stay clear of the situations that led to abuses.

He ordered Arpaio to get out of the immigration enforcement business altogether. Even with a legal stop, Arpaio was to either charge people with a state crime or let them go. No detaining them or turning them over to federal officials for immigration violations. … Arpaio wasn’t criminally convicted for illegally using race in traffic stops. He was criminally convicted for turning illegal immigrants over to federal officials. And here things get messy.

To me, though, this is no more messy than getting convicted of violating a restraining order in a domestic violence case. Robb’s complaint (or Arpaio’s behalf) is like the guy who says, “They didn’t catch me hitting her again, they just arrested me for walking behind her on the street.”

Even Robb admits:

even if Snow’s order was an overreach, Arpaio’s duty was to obey it while appealing it.

“Constitutional” sheriffs. However, there’s another point of view at issue: Robb is assuming that federal judges have authority over county sheriffs. Not everybody, and not all sheriffs, agree.

One radical right-wing movement that gets little publicity has to do with so-called “constitutional sheriffs“. The idea is that the county sheriff is the only elected law enforcement officer, and so his authority is primary within his jurisdiction, superseding the authority of state and federal officials. So if agents of the FBI or IRS or BLM show up in your town, the county sheriff has the authority to tell them to go away. (So far as I know, no court recognizes this authority.)

If you have run into these folks before, it was probably during the standoff with the Bundy militia at Malheur National Forest last year. The constitutional sheriffs and the Bundies draw from the same well of crazy.

Like Nazis and Klansmen, constitutional sheriffs (and the people who support them) are part of a small radical fringe that Trump panders to and refuses to offend. Often he dog-whistles by using phrases that mean something special to them. The idea that Arpaio was “doing his job” rather than following federal court orders is right up their alley.

Sending a message. We have to wonder why the Arpaio pardon happened when it did, because the case was not in any sense ripe. Arpaio still had options to appeal his conviction. If the Supreme Court agreed with Robert Robb, that the order Arpaio disobeyed was an over-reach by the judge, they might have thrown the whole thing out. Even if the conviction stood, he hadn’t been sentenced yet, and might not have gotten jail time at all. (Since he isn’t sheriff any more, courts might not be motivated to teach him a lesson.)

So Trump might have gotten the result he wanted just by watching and doing nothing. If not, he could have intervened down the road, before Arpaio began serving his sentence. So why now?

One obvious implication is that the pardon is meant to send a message: to Trump’s base, obviously, but also to other law enforcement officers, to the courts, and to Trump associates who might be tempted to cut a deal with the Mueller investigation.

Law enforcement people have to see this as part of a package with other messages: Trump’s speech urging police to be “rough” with Hispanic gang suspects, his even-handed approach to Nazis and the people who protest against Nazis, and his unwillingness to speak out against the bombing of a Minneapolis mosque.  Put together, those all say: Violence is OK, as long as people Trump likes are doing it to people Trump doesn’t like. In particular, if you are in law enforcement and feel like violating the civil rights of non-whites or non-Christians, don’t worry; the President has your back.

Judges have to see the pardon as an attack on the independence of the judiciary. Contempt of court is the only real enforcement mechanism behind judicial injunctions. If a pardon is an option for local officials who follow the Trump agenda in defiance of court orders, that shakes up the balance of power between the judicial and executive branches of government.

Finally, it seems more and more apparent that the Mueller investigation is closing in on Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and maybe some lesser figures associated with them. If this were an investigation into a Mafia family or a corrupt corporation, investigators would be expecting to flip one of these underlings against the guy at the top. In this case, however, the guy at the top wields the pardon power. Trump just reminded everybody that he isn’t afraid to take heat for using it.

Still a Muslim Ban, Still Blocked

Judges have traditionally assumed that the executive branch is best equipped to deal with national security and foreign affairs, and so courts should defer to the judgment of the President in those areas. But what if the President is acting in bad faith?


Last week I characterized the second version of Trump’s Muslim ban like this:

the revised ban is more orderly than the original, and won’t produce the same kind of drama … but the essence is the same: It’s still a Muslim ban.

The new ban avoided the chaos and obvious due-process violations that made the original so easy for the courts to strike down. So the next round of cases would have to go to the heart of the matter: Does the order arise out of an unconstitutional intent to discriminate on the basis of religion?

The three-judge appellate panel that upheld the temporary restraining order against the original ban had reserved judgment on the religious-discrimination claim, reasoning that the due-process violations already justified a TRO. I suspect it did this to preserve the unanimity of its ruling, which made a stronger statement than a 2-1 decision. (In the face of that unanimity, Trump decided to revise that ban rather than appeal to the Supreme Court.)

To justify a religious-discrimination finding (i.e., one based on the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government establishing a religion, known as the Establishment Clause), a judge would have to reach outside the text of Trump’s executive order and connect it both to the previous attempt at a Muslim ban, and to the anti-Muslim bigotry in Trump’s campaign. I wondered if judges would have the guts to do that.

This week, two did: one in Hawaii and the other in Maryland. The new order was supposed to take effect at midnight Thursday morning, but Wednesday evening a federal judge in Hawaii issued a temporary restraining order blocking it nationwide. “Temporary” means until his court has a chance to hold more complete hearings on the case, and quite likely until all appeals are resolved. Judge Derrick Watson wrote:

Because a reasonable, objective observer — enlightened by the specific historical context, contemporaneous public statements, and specific sequence of events leading to its issuance — would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion, in spite of its stated, religiously-neutral purpose, the Court finds that Plaintiffs, and Dr. Elshikh in particular, are likely to succeed on the merits of their Establishment Clause claim.

Because it’s the second time around, some issues are easier, like standing: Who is sufficiently harmed by the executive order that they have grounds to sue? In this case, the State of Hawaii sued, claiming the same standing that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had already recognized the State of Washington having: The state operates a state university system, which recruits both students and faculty from the banned countries. Since Hawaii falls within the 9th Circuit, that doesn’t have to be argued again. (But there is a wrinkle: The new ban contains a more detailed process for obtaining waivers, so if this is the basis of standing, it can be argued that the case is not yet “ripe”: Perhaps the states need to wait and see how their recruited students and faculty fare in the waiver process. Judge Watson does not appear to consider this argument.)

Judge Watson also recognized the standing of Dr. Ismail Elshikh, a Muslim-American of Egyptian descent who lives in Hawaii and is the imam of the Muslim Association of Hawaii. Dr. Elshikh claims that his Syrian mother-in-law will be hindered from visiting his family in Hawaii, and also that he, his family, and his organization will suffer from the stigma that the order casts on Muslims in general.

In order not to violate the Establishment Clause, a government action must satisfy three criteria, collectively known as the Lemon Test. Judge Watson concluded that the Muslim Ban failed the first test: having  “a primary secular purpose”. (Here’s an example of secular purpose that passes muster: It’s OK for Medicaid funding to pass through Catholic hospitals, because the government’s primary purpose is to pay for medical care, not to promote Catholicism.)

Watson acknowledges that the text of the new executive order is “religiously neutral”. In other words, it does not mention Islam or any other religion by name. It applies equally to all residents of the six targeted countries, and does not apply to the majority of the world’s Muslims, who live in other countries. But he quoted the 9th Circuit’s opinion on the original ban:

It is well established that evidence of purpose beyond the face of the challenged law may be considered in evaluating Establishment and Equal Protection Clause claims.

and says that

The Supreme Court has been even more emphatic: courts may not “turn a blind eye to the context in which [a] policy arose.” … A review of the historical background here makes plain why the Government wishes to focus on the Executive Order’s text, rather than its context. The record before this Court is unique. It includes significant and unrebutted evidence of religious animus driving the promulgation of the Executive Order and its related predecessor.

Judge Watson traces the history of Trump’s explicit call for a Muslim ban, including his admission that his subsequent policy of “extreme vetting” was the Muslim ban in a new form.

Mr. Trump replied: “The Muslim ban is something that in some form has morphed into a[n] extreme vetting from certain areas of the world.” When asked to clarify whether “the Muslim ban still stands,” Mr. Trump said, “It’s called extreme vetting.”

Watson acknowledges the Trump administration’s point that judges should not look too hard for “veiled” and “secret” motives that make an action by the political branches of government unconstitutional. But he argues that there is nothing veiled or secret going on: The anti-Muslim motive has been front and center from the beginning, and the path from Trump’s original goal of a “Muslim ban” to the current order has likewise played out in public, in what he describes as “plain words”. Therefore:

Any reasonable, objective observer would conclude, as does the Court for purposes of the instant Motion for TRO, that the stated secular purpose of the Executive Order is, at the very least, “secondary to a religious objective” of temporarily suspending the entry of Muslims.


The Maryland ruling by Judge Theodor Chuang lays out similar logic. He cites many of the same public statements, and also the process by which the orders have been written:

the history of public statements continues to provide a convincing case that the purpose of the Second Executive Order remains the realization of the long-envisioned Muslim ban.

… In this highly unique case, the record provides strong indications that the national security purpose is not the primary purpose for the travel ban. First, the core concept of the travel ban was adopted in the First Executive Order, without the interagency consultation process typically followed on such matters. … The fact that the White House took the highly irregular step of first introducing the travel ban without receiving the input and judgment of the relevant national security agencies strongly suggests that the religious purpose was primary, and the national security purpose, even if legitimate, is a secondary post hoc rationale.

Second, the fact that the national security rationale was offered only after courts issued injunctions against the First Executive Order suggests that the religious purpose has been, and remains, primary.


Both opinions cite McCready County v ACLU, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling. Every time a court banned the Ten Commandments displays in McCready County’s schools and courthouses, they’d install new ones that supposedly fixed the problems the courts had cited. The case is a paradigm of a particular kind of denseness: when officials think they can achieve an unconstitutional purpose if they just get the details right.

McCready County and its religious-right fans kept reading judicial rejections as blueprints for designing the next attempt in the series, but eventually the series itself became evidence of an intent to endorse Christianity. The County argued that only the latest display mattered, and the Court shouldn’t consider the history of how they came up with it. Justice Souter disagreed:

But the world is not made brand new every morning, and the Counties are simply asking us to ignore perfectly probative evidence; they want an absentminded objective observer, not one presumed to be familiar with the history of the government’s actions and competent to learn what history has to show.

I think of McCready County’s religious displays (and the Muslim ban) like the carousing husband who believes his wife should be happy because he’s cleaned up all the telltale signs that have made her mad in the past: “I brushed the long hair off my suit, I cleaned the lipstick off my collar, I used mints to cover the alcohol on my breath … what do you want from me?”


Meanwhile, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as a whole decided not to reconsider the decision of the three-judge panel of its members who blocked the original executive order. But five of the 25 active judges signed an opinion denouncing that ruling. The opinion was written by Jay Bybee, who you may remember from his previous job: As Deputy Assistant Attorney General under George W. Bush, he signed the famous “torture memos” that OK’d waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques. (We’re never going to forget that, Jay. If you live to be 100, the headline on your obituary will still read: “Signer of Torture Memos Dies”.)


On the Lawfare blog, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institute has an interesting analysis: He thinks judges are giving less deference to Trump than they would to an ordinary president, because they see him as untrustworthy.

Perhaps everything Blackman and Margulies and Bybee are saying is right as a matter of law in the regular order, but there’s an unexpressed legal principle functionally at work here: That President Trump is a crazy person whose oath of office large numbers of judges simply don’t trust and to whom, therefore, a whole lot of normal rules of judicial conduct do not apply.

In this scenario, the underlying law is not actually moving much, or moving or at all, but the normal rules of deference and presumption of regularity in presidential conduct—the rules that underlie norms like not looking behind a facially valid purpose for a visa issuance decision—simply don’t apply to Trump. As we’ve argued, these norms are a function of the president’s oath of office and the working assumption that the President is bound by the Take Care Clause. If the judiciary doesn’t trust the sincerity of the president’s oath and doesn’t have any presumption that the president will take care that the laws are faithfully executed, why on earth would it assume that a facially valid purpose of the executive is its actual purpose?


And finally, speaking of crazy people, Mike Huckabee thinks Trump should just ignore the court orders, like Andrew Jackson did when he expelled the Cherokee nation from Georgia.

One measure of how far wrong things have gone is the number of shameful episodes in American history that are being cited as precedents. Here: the Trail of Tears. Previously, the Japanese internment as justification for a national Muslim registry.

What to do with Neil Gorsuch?

If these were normal times, if, say, Antonin Scalia had dropped dead yesterday, leaving new Republican President Jeb Bush (elected, as presidents usually are, with more votes than the other major-party candidate) the opportunity to nominate Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, I’d expect Gorsuch to be confirmed without a lot of bother.

I’d be bummed at the prospect of that seat remaining conservative for another 30-40 years. And I’d find a lot to criticize in Gorsuch’s approach to the law — mainly that he’s far too willing to side with the powerful against the powerless, and to invent new constitutional rights for corporations and fundamentalist Christians. But he is within the broad stream of American jurisprudence, and people who understand these things better than I do consider him an outstanding example of a conservative judge.

The Founders intended presidents to pick judges, and for the Senate to use its advise-and-consent power to weed out incompetence and cronyism. Gorsuch isn’t a Trump crony, and he seems competent. So after some hearings and speeches and a good look around for skeletons in his closet, I’d expect him to be confirmed with a large number of Democratic votes.

In normal times. Lawrence Lessig is looking at it pretty much the same way:

In normal times, with a normal (right wing) president, Neil Gorsuch would be a fine nominee for the Supreme Court. One can disagree with his views (I do); one can disagree with the manner in which he understands “originalism” (I do, in part). But if you believe (as I do) that an ordinary President has an ordinary right to choose the political character of his or her Supreme Court nominee, then, in ordinary times, the only question should be whether the nominee is qualified. Gorsuch is at least an order of magnitude better than qualified. He is a great, if very conservative, judge.

But these are not ordinary times.

No, they aren’t. The reason this seat is open is that the Republican Senate blockaded it during the last year of the Obama administration. If they had objected to Merrick Garland for some reason, they could have voted him down and Obama could have nominated someone else. Maybe Obama and McConnell could even have gotten together and agreed on somebody, moving the two parties back from the civil-war path they’ve been on for several years.

Voting down Garland would have been unprecedented in itself, because he is exactly the kind of experienced, respected, well-within-the-mainstream judge who usually sails through the Senate. But at least formally it would have fit the constitutional model. Instead, by simply refusing to hold hearings and announcing explicitly that they would similarly refuse any other Obama nominee, regardless of qualifications, Senate Republicans moved completely out of the previous course of American history.

That’s why it’s ironic that Gorsuch bills himself as an originalist, a judge who tries to find the lawmakers’ original intent and rule according to it — because the only reason this seat is open at all is that Republicans decided to let the Founders’ original intent be damned.

But their guy is in the White House now, so they want to turn the normal rules back on again, like the kid on the playground who calls time-out just before you tag him, and time-in when he’s safe on base. The question is whether Democrats should let them get away with it, and, if not, what the other options are.

This isn’t a stand-alone circumstance; it’s  part of the long-term decline of America’s democratic norms, which I’ve been writing about for several years (most recently when the Republicans blocked Garland). The model I always cite is the decline of the Roman Republic, where the norms were repeatedly whittled down for about a century until they were ultimately swept away by Augustus, who established the Empire.

Moments like this underline just how difficult it is to escape that downward spiral: Giving in won’t get you out of it, and there is usually not a reprisal option of just the right size to make your point without pushing further down the spiral.

For example, suppose Senate Democrats decided that they wanted to set a good example for future opposition parties and consider Gorsuch on his merits, independent of the history of this vacancy. In other words, they would accept getting rooked out of a liberal Supreme Court majority, in exchange for ending the cycle of attack-and-reprisal. They would sacrifice their partisan interests for the greater good of democracy in the United States.

The problem: This gracious move wouldn’t end the cycle of attack-and-reprisal. Quite the opposite, it would establish the precedent that Republicans can suspend democratic norms whenever it works to their advantage, and pay no price for it. It’s like when some guy sucker-punches you and then wants to declare peace. Agreeing to that deal won’t get you peace, it will just get you sucker-punched again somewhere down the line.

But what’s the alternative? Democrats are at a 48-52 disadvantage, so they can only block Gorsuch by filibustering. Republicans might then decide to escalate further by eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations (the only kind of nomination that was exempted when the Democrats limited the filibuster after Republicans came up with the unprecedented tactic of blockading positions entirely rather than just blocking particular nominees for cause). And if they don’t nuke the filibuster, and Gorsuch gets blocked, then what? Do the same thing with the next nominee, on and on for four years? That would also be an escalation. (Some Republicans threatened to do this if Hillary Clinton got elected, but it’s not clear whether they would have held together on that point.)

There is no reprisal of precisely the right size, and so we’re left with bad choices. Ideally, the process would go like this: Democrats would block Gorsuch, and Republicans would then negotiate in good faith, resulting in a nominee who moved the Court closer to consensus than to polarization. In other words, a new swing vote — someone ideologically between the most liberal conservative justice (Kennedy) and the most conservative liberal justice (Breyer). In other words, somebody in the mold of Sandra Day O’Connor. (It’s worth pointing out that Justice Garland would have fit that description as well. Obama was trying to do the right thing, and was spurned by Republicans.)

Do I expect that to happen? No. But I think we need to start down that road and let the Republicans be the ones to step off of it. So I support filibustering Gorsuch, while wishing somebody would offer me another viable option.


The argument Republicans made last year was that the American people should decide whether the Court flips from a conservative majority to a liberal majority. That’s explicitly not what the Founders wanted — they intentionally insulated the Court from politics — but even on those terms Gorsuch should be rejected, because the American people did not vote for Trump. As I said two weeks ago, Trump winning in the Electoral College makes him president; but losing the popular vote by such a wide margin wipes out any claim he might have to a mandate from the people. He certainly received no mandate to move the Court to the right.


If we ever do get back to a sane judicial appointment process, one piece of it should be that presidents stop appointing such young justices. Gorsuch is 49. If he lives as long as Ruth Bader Ginsberg already has, he’ll still be on the Court in 2051. This is a bipartisan thing, as presidents attempt to extend their influence as far into the future as possible: John Roberts was 50 when he joined the Court, Sonia Sotomayor 45.

This is another way that Merrick Garland would have been a step in the right direction, since he is 64. The Supreme Court ought to be the capstone of a long, distinguished career, not an attempt to claim an advantage 30 years in the future. It used to be that way: Oliver Wendell Holmes was 61 when Teddy Roosevelt appointed him in 1902. Thurgood Marshall was 59.

Another way to achieve the same result would be to term-limit Supreme Court justices at, say, 20 years. But that would take a constitutional amendment. Lifetime appointments were supposed to shield the Court from outside influences: It would be your final job, so you couldn’t be threatened with firing or bribed with the offer of a position after you left the Court. We’d have to address that problem some other way, but it doesn’t seem unsolvable.


Lawrence Lessig makes an alternative proposal: Gorsuch gets a hearing after McConnell resigns as majority leader. He calls it a “hypocrisy tax”. I think that’s about as likely to happen as getting an O’Connor-like replacement for Gorsuch.


Richard Primus expresses a somewhat nuanced approach on Balkinization: Yes, the Senate did wrong by Garland, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that the Republic survived Scalia and it will survive Gorsuch as well; the real threat is Trump. So the opposition to Gorsuch should always have its eye on Trump.

the Democrats need to see the confirmation process as an opportunity for shaping public discussion about Trump rather than as an occasion for attacking Gorsuch. Time spent attacking Gorsuch in particular (whether about qualifications or about substantive views or pretty much anything else) might not be time well spent: he is going to be confirmed. But what Democrats can do, I’d think, is keep saying that we are only here because the Republicans stonewalled a nominee at least as qualified as Gorsuch for no justifiable reason, and that the plurality of American voters voted to authorize Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, to fill the seat. They can ask Gorsuch himself to stand by his earlier written statements that Garland was a highly qualified nominee (for the DC Circuit) and to ask him whether the stonewall was appropriate. And they can ask him what he thinks about all sorts of Trump’s actions and statements. Is it appropriate for a public official to attack a federal judge as biased on the grounds of the judge’s ethnicity? What is the point of the Emoluments Clause? Do you think that this or that statement (quoted from Trump) is consistent with our constitutional values? And so on. Gorsuch might or might not answer, but the Democrats should find good ways to keep asking and to make those questions a big part of what people hear and talk about when they hear and talk about this process.

I don’t see why we can’t oppose both Gorsuch and Trump, but I agree this far: Personal attacks on Gorsuch, beyond his legal record, distract from the main narrative — unless somebody discovers something so damning that it will turn Republicans against him.

The Ban: Ten Days of Drama

It’s hard to believe how much drama has played out in the last ten days. Even the Advise and Consent style political novels I loved in high school didn’t move this fast.

It all started a week ago Friday, when President Trump signed Executive Order 13769 (a.k.a “the Muslim ban” and “it’s not a Muslim ban“) which Wikipedia summarizes like this:

The order limited refugee arrivals to 50,000 and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days, after which the program would be conditionally resumed for individual countries while prioritizing refugee claims from persecuted minority religions. The order also indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees. Further, the order suspended the entry of alien nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days, after which an updated list will be made. The order allows exceptions to these suspensions on a case-by-case basis. The Department of Homeland Security later exempted U.S. lawful permanent residents (green card holders).

The immediate result was chaos. The order had been reviewed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for “form and legality”, but beyond that was pretty much unvetted, parts of it apparently leaping straight into the world from Steve Bannon’s brain like a malformed Athena from a not-very-godlike Zeus-wannabee. Congressional leaders were not consulted. (Though Trump apparently was helped by Republican congressional staffers who were obliged by a non-disclosure agreement not to tell their bosses; so far history does not record what the out-in-the-cold Republican congressmen think of that.) The border-control officials who were supposed to implement the ban in America’s airports were not briefed in advance. (NYT: “customs and border control officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president’s orders.”)

People already in the air, including permanent legal residents (i.e. green-card holders) who were returning to their jobs or students with valid visas coming back to their universities, were sent back or detained in airports. City University of New York claims it has 100 students from the affected countries. Two Iraqis who had helped the American military and feared for their lives if they had to return to Iraq were detained at JFK airport.

The public response was immediate. On Saturday, crowds of protesters spontaneously formed at JFK and other airports. By 9 p.m., a federal judge had issued an order preventing the administration from sending the detainees back where they came from. Sunday, the administration backed off of the restrictions on green-card holders.

Internal dissent. On Monday, acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee held over until Trump can get his own AG approved) ordered the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s order in court.

I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.

Also on Monday, an internal State Department dissent-channel memo — reportedly with over 1000 signatures — leaked to the press. It called the Trump order “counter-productive” and said

Looking beyond its effectiveness, this ban stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold.

Rejecting the whole concept of internal dissent from experienced professionals, Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the signers “career bureaucrats” and responded that “they should either get with the program or they can go”. Yates was fired Monday night in typical Trump fashion; the White House statement descended from policy disagreement into personal insult: Yates had “betrayed the Justice Department” and was “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration”. (One of Trump’s most disturbing traits is his apparent belief that it’s not enough simply to overcome opposition; the people who oppose him must be shamed and punished. This authoritarian impulse alone should have disqualified him from the presidency.)

Also Monday night, Samantha Bee weighed in.

Defiance. Throughout the week, court orders piled up from judges around the country, and multiple reports indicated that the Trump administration was at best slow-rolling its compliance and at worst simply defying the orders. Friday Politico reported:

Hours after a federal judge ordered customs officers to provide lawyers to travelers detained at Dulles airport last Saturday, senior Trump administration officials instructed the guards to give the travelers phone numbers of legal services organizations, ignoring a mass of lawyers who had gathered at the airport. Most of the legal services offices were closed for the weekend, effectively preventing travelers with green cards from obtaining legal advice.

The move was part of what lawyers contend was a series of foot-dragging actions by the administration that appeared to violate court orders against the Trump’s controversial travel ban. … The [Customs and Border Protection] officers at airports were not rogue individual actors, according to the documents obtained and people interviewed by POLITICO. Rather, the agents on the ground were following orders from high in their chain of command.

For example, a federal judge in Boston ordered the administration to admit travelers with valid visas. The travelers did not get into the country, though, because the administration claimed it had the power to revoke those visas. Slate‘s Jeremy Stahl interviewed an immigration lawyer, who concluded:

When you have an executive that is acting the way that Donald Trump is acting and not controlling what his officers are doing in noncomplying, that’s a constitutional—that’s leading to a constitutional crisis.

Yonatan Zunger put a dark spin on it:

[T]he administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Yesterday was the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States. It gave them useful information.

Writing on the Lawfare blog, Ben Wittes put a dark spin on the whole enterprise: He thinks the ban’s whole purpose is to appeal to the anti-Muslim bigots in Trump’s base, and has nothing to do with keeping Americans safe.

Put simply, I don’t believe that the stated purpose is the real purpose. This is the first policy the United States has adopted in the post-9/11 era about which I have ever said this. It’s a grave charge, I know, and I’m not making it lightly. But in the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don’t marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process. You don’t target the wrong people in nutty ways when you’re rationally pursuing real security objectives.

When do you do these things? You do these things when you’re elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. You do them when you’ve made a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point. In other words, this is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.

Where it stands. Friday, a federal court ruling came down from Judge James Robart in Seattle, applying nationally and stated in as sweeping terms as possible, clearly intending to allow no wiggle room. Saturday, the Trump administration said it would comply, pending appeal.

Meanwhile, a State Department spokesperson tells NPR that officials with the department are also adhering to the decision. The department has provisionally revoked somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 individuals’ visas, according to different accounts; under Saturday’s announcement, the State Department says that move has been reversed — and that “individuals with visas that were not physically cancelled may now travel if the visa is otherwise valid.”

Trump again personalized the conflict, tweeting:

The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!

(Lots of people pointed out that Robart’s claim to be a judge is at least as good, if not better, than Trump’s claim to be a president.) Late Saturday night, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Justice Department’s motion to reverse the suspension of Trump’s executive order. The order will remain suspended until the court can make a ruling on the merits of the case. That could happen as early as today, or not.

Over the weekend, congressional Republicans gave strong indications that they don’t want this conflict to escalate to a constitutional crisis. Sunday, Mitch McConnell, who (like Paul Ryan) has been stepping very carefully to avoid the President’s sensitive toes, told CNN’s Jake Tapper:

The courts are going to decide whether the executive order the President issued is valid or not, and we all follow court orders.

The unstated implication is: “You’d better follow them too.”

What will the courts decide? Deborah Pearlstein posted a good summary of the arguments both ways on Jack Balkin’s legal blog Balkinization. And the answer is: It’s a close call.

On the one hand, the Constitution gives the President a lot of power to manage our dealings with other countries, and Congress has supplemented that power in various ways over the years. So the administration has a lot of possible arguments it might make to defend its actions.

On the other hand, courts often look beyond simple questions of authority to rule on intent: If your clear intent is to achieve an unconstitutional result, then a court might block your actions even if they fall within the letter of your legal powers. A good example of this came last summer, when a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter-suppression law. Everything in the law — changing the dates and hours of early voting, requiring IDs, etc. — was within the legislature’s power. But the fact that legislators researched how and when black North Carolinians vote, and then systematically restricted their favorite options, pushed the law beyond the pale.

Here, there is a clear record of intent to create a religious test for entering the United States, which would be unconstitutional. Trump promised a Muslim ban during his campaign. Advisors like Rudy Giuliani have spoken in public about coaching Trump on how to “do it legally” by focusing on the threat of terrorism from particular countries rather than on religion. The order’s provisions to prioritize religious minorities for exceptions to the ban seems intended to make sure Christians aren’t caught in a ban intended for Muslims. (If the administration is serious about offering refuge to persecuted religious minorities, that provision should apply to a lot of Muslims as well: Shia in Sunni-majority countries, Sunni in Shia-majority countries, and Sufis and other smaller Muslim sects everywhere. Will it? Or is it just a Christian loophole?)

Will that be enough to convince an appeals court, and to split the 4-4 Supreme Court so that it doesn’t overrule? Maybe. But even if it does, that ruling is likely to illuminate a path that would allow some future objectionable executive order to pass legal muster.

Then what? Pearlstein says it’s not enough to count on the courts: Protesters need to focus their attention on Congress as well:

There is, however, one foolproof way to ensure the President’s order in its current form does not stand. And it lies with the body that gave the President the authority to issue it in the first place. A growing, bipartisan group of congressional representatives have expressed concern about the order’s scope and effect. And while Senator McConnell has proposed the matter be left to the courts to decide, it is not wise – and should not be easy – for Congress to avoid responsibility here. At a minimum, it would be a serious strategic mistake for the many groups sprung up post-election to push back against the new administration not to focus some of their energies on demanding Congress act.

So far, McConnell, Ryan, and other congressional Republicans have had it both ways: They can tut-tut about executive overreach and incompetent implementation, while remaining uncommitted about the order’s overall intent. As much as possible, the public needs to pin them down. If a Muslim ban (or something like it) is a good thing, then Congress should authorize it. If not, it should establish specific boundaries on the President’s power.