The Supreme Court’s weirdly busy October brings to mind an old Cadillac commercial showing a sedan gliding silently down the highway, driver calm and confident in a hermetic, leather-appointed cabin, while the announcer intones, “quietly doing things very well.” Whether the justices are doing their jobs well depends on your point of view. But there is no disputing that they have been doing their most consequential work in uncharacteristic silence in recent weeks. The justices’ moves on gay marriage, abortion and voting rights have been delivered all but wordlessly, as Dahlia Lithwick of Slate recounts. The notable exception to the rule is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the justice who refused to hold her tongue over the weekend, when six of her colleagues permitted Texas to enforce its new photo identification law in the November elections.
The Court’s announcement came down at the ungodly hour of 5am on Saturday. It followed a federal district court decision on October 9th that the Texas law was discriminatory in both intent and effect and “constitutes a poll tax”—a ruling that was stayed by the Fifth Circuit Court on October 11th. The stay prompted an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court via Antonin Scalia, the justice assigned to the Fifth Circuit. The six justices who denied the request to lift the stay before dawn on October 18th were mum as to why; they released no reasoning for the decision, which effectively gives Texas’s questionable voter law a pass. But Justice Ginsburg and her clerks apparently ordered pizza and downed some Red Bull on Friday evening, pulling an all-nighter to compose a six-page dissent, which Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined. (Rick Hasen asks why Justice Stephen Breyer, the fourth liberal justice, did not sign on to the dissent; one strong possibility is that he was asleep.)
Octogenarian Supreme Court justices are not known for burning the midnight oil, but Justice Ginsburg had an unusually good reason to do so in Veasey v Perry. The Texas law she opposed is a transparent attempt to help Republican candidates by keeping racial minorities, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, home on Election Day. In the words of the trial judge, the law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” Justice Ginsburg’s wee-hours dissent drew on the district court’s ruling to issue a scathing rebuke to the Fifth Circuit and, by implication, to the six justices who refused to lift the Fifth Circuit’s stay. “In light of the ‘seismic demographic shift’ in Texas between 2000 and 2010, making Texas a ‘majority-minority state,’ ” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “the District Court observed that the Texas Legislature and Governor had an evident incentive to ‘gain partisan advantage by suppressing’ the ‘votes of African-Americans and Latinos.’ ”
Justice Ginsburg also criticised the law’s defenders who claim it is necessary to fight voter fraud: “Texas did not begin to demonstrate that the Bill’s discriminatory features were necessary to prevent fraud or to increase public confidence in the electoral process.” The upshot is disturbing: by refusing to act, the Supreme Court majority is allowing a law to take effect that “may prevent more than 600,000 registered Texas voters (about 4.5% of all registered voters) from voting in person for lack of compliant identification…A sharply disproportionate percentage of those voters are African-American or Hispanic.”
What was the majority’s reasoning for deferring to the Fifth Circuit, and by extension to Rick Perry, the governor of Texas? We don’t know; they didn’t tell us. The rationale probably has to do with Purcell v Gonzalez, a 2006 case in which the Court decided that courts should be wary of changing voting rules too close to an election. But Purcell does not lay down an ironclad rule against last-minute changes. And as Rick Hasen writes, “[i]t appears to be unprecedented to let a law that was deemed racially discriminatory go into effect simply to avoid the risk of voter confusion and election administration inefficiency.” If the six justices voting to let Texas law take effect thought that voter confusion was more worrisome than racial discrimination, they should have put that reasoning down on paper.
John Rawls, an influential political philosopher who died in 2002, described the Supreme Court as an “exemplar of public reason”, a tribunal that accounts for its decisions with reasoned reference to the laws and traditions of the country. “It is the only branch of government,” Mr Rawls wrote, “that is visibly on its face the creature of that reason and of that reason alone”:
To say that the court is the exemplar of public reason also means that it is the task of the justices to try to develop and express in their reasoned opinions the best interpretation of the constitution they can, using their knowledge of what the constitution and constitutional precedents require.
Echoing Kant, for whom the “publicity” of public decisions is a key component of a constitutional republic and is, indeed, the “transcendental principle of public right”, Rawls insisted that “the court’s role…is part of the publicity of reason” to which citizens should enjoy full and unfettered access. Normally the justices acquit themselves quite well in this regard: they spend months drafting and polishing lengthy opinions in argued cases, and they release their decisions to be consumed, interpreted and scrutinised by everybody. But this month, by keeping their reasoning close their robes on several big decisions, the justices are falling down on their duty to share what they are thinking.
Six justices allowing Texas to enforce a voter-identification law that a federal judge had characterised, in a 147-page decision, as a racist poll tax—and to do so with pursed lips—is not merely rude. It is a breach of the Court’s legitimacy in a constitutional democracy. When the stakes are this high, all the justices should follow Justice Ginsburg’s lead and stay up all night to explain to America just what they are up to and why.
By: Steven Mazie, Democracy in America, The Economist, October 22, 2014
“Election Rigging, Culture War Edition”: Republicans Relying On Gerrymandering And Voter Suppression To Hold Onto Power
Republicans in Texas have managed to finagle a world in which a gun permit counts as proof of voter eligibility, but a student ID does not.
A divided Supreme Court handed a big defeat to the Obama administration and numerous civil rights groups early Saturday morning when it ruled that Texas can enforce its 2011 voter ID law in November that some have called the strictest in the country. Three justices dissented from the ruling that rejected an emergency request that had been filed by the Justice Department and civil rights groups.
The decision appears to mark “the first time since 1982 that the Court has allowed a law restricting voters’ rights to be enforced after a federal court had ruled it to be unconstitutional,” notes Scotus Blog’s Lyle Denniston. A federal judge had struck down the law last week, saying that some 600,000 voters—mostly black or Latino—would face difficulties at the polls due to a lack of proper identification. The law, which was approved in 2011 but only came in effect in 2013 lays out seven approved forms of identification—a list many have questioned for including concealed handgun licenses but not college IDs, notes the Associated Press.
Earlier this week Rachel Maddow called these tactics exactly what they are: cheating. There’s no sense in which a gun permit is a more reliable form of identification than a student ID, and no sense in which it’s constitutional or fair to require a person who tends to move every year or more and often depends on public transit, to have a current driver’s license in order to vote.
It’s election rigging, plain and simple, designed to give Republican and conservative voters the opportunity to vote while denying the franchise to traditionally more Democratic and progressive demographics.
But while these tactics are an outrage, they are in a sense a mark of desperation by the Right. They know that they can’t compete electorally, and that demographics work more and more against them with every election cycle. They see the handwriting on the wall, and unable to win the argument on policy, they rely on gerrymandering and vote suppression to hold onto power for just a few more years.
A slim extremist majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is helping to enable these tactics, but it won’t serve them for long. Democrats have gotten very good at voter turnout operations, and it won’t be long before demographic pressures overwhelm the ability of conservatives to win elections by suppressing and slicing away a few percentages here and there. It simply delays the inevitable.
By: David Atkins, Washington Monthly Political Animal, October 19, 2014
“A Purposefully Discriminatory Law”: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Pens Scathing Dissent On Texas Voter ID Law
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a six-page dissent early Saturday morning, blasting the court’s decision to allow Texas to use its new voter ID law in the November elections. She was joined in the dissent by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
“The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Ginsburg wrote.
“In any event, there is little risk that the District Court’s injunction will in fact disrupt Texas’ electoral process,” she wrote. “Texas need only reinstate the voter identification procedures it employed for ten years (from 2003 to 2013) and in five federal general elections.”
Ginsburg argued that the Fifth Circuit was remiss to ignore the findings of a full trial in district court, which found that the law was “enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and would yield a prohibited disriminatory result.”
District Court Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos struck down the law earlier this month on the grounds that it would serve as a deterrent to a large number of registered voters, most of them black or Hispanic. “Based on the testimony and numerous statistical analyses provided at trial, this Court finds that approximately 608,470 registered voters in Texas, representing approximately 4.5% of all registered voters, lack qualified SB 14 ID and of these, 534,512 voters do not qualify for a disability exemption,” Gonzalez Ramos wrote.
Ginsburg echoed these findings in her dissent, though Texas officials dispute these figures. “The potential magnitude of racially discriminatory voter disenfranchisement counseled hesitation before disturbing the District Court’s findings and final judgment,” Ginsburg wrote. “Senate Bill 14 may prevent more than 600,000 registered Texas voters (about 4.5% of all registered voters) from voting in person for lack of compliant identification. A sharply disproportionate percentage of those voters are African-American or Hispanic.”
Ginsburg pointedly added that “racial discrimination in elections in Texas is no mere historical artifact. To the contrary, Texas has been found in violation of the Voting Rights Act in every redistricting cycle from and after 1970.”
By: Braden Goyette, The Huffington Post Blog, October 18, 2014
The poll tax is looking pretty tempting in the rear-view mirror. It was $1.50 in 1964, when the 24th Amendment outlawed it as a requirement for voting in federal elections. Adjusted for inflation, the tax would be less than $12 today. That makes it a lot cheaper — and infinitely easier — than getting hold of exactly the right documentation to cast a ballot under some state laws.
The recent wave of rulings and opinions on voter ID laws makes for depressing, at times infuriating, reading. There is the parade of “practical obstacles” summarized by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, writing on the Wisconsin law. Trying to learn what you need, collecting the documents, getting to and standing on line at one or more state offices that are open only during business hours, and perhaps having to deal with multiple other state and federal agencies to address discrepancies — just skimming the list will make your stomach clench and your head ache. It’s a major undertaking for a high-income, highly educated person with flexible work hours and access to public officials. It’s prohibitive in multiple ways for others.
There are the calculated choices majority Republicans made in Texas about what kinds of ID to accept and reject. They said yes to gun permits and military IDs and didn’t mess with absentee ballots — all ways to “broaden Anglo voting,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote. They rejected student IDs, state government employee IDs and federal IDs, all “disproportionately held by African-Americans and Hispanics.”
There is the barrier of cost, addressed in an opinion on the Wisconsin law by Judge Richard Posner, a conservative named by Ronald Reagan to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He cited a Harvard Law School report that found the cost of documentation, travel and waiting time to get an ID to be $75 to $175. That’s 50 to 100 times more than that $1.50 poll tax, and all you’d have to do is pay at the polling station before voting.
The poll tax, in many cases applied selectively and used to discriminate, had no place in a democracy. Yet how different was it from the hurdles placed in the path of so many voters today?
These burdens, and possibly even the outcome of a close race or two, hang in the balance as the courts whipsaw back and forth in the weeks before the Nov. 4 election. Ramos blocked the Texas law last week, she was reversed by a three-judge appeals panel this week, and the next day the Supreme Court was asked to again block the law from taking effect. The Wisconsin law went through a similar judicial rollercoaster before the Supreme Court last week said it could not go forward this year.
Posner’s dissent in the Wisconsin case is memorable for personal asides that inject bracing reminders of the real world, and an overall scathing tone. His 11-page appendix, for instance, is called “Scrounging for your birth certificate in Wisconsin.” All 11 pages are required forms and instructions on how to fill them out.
“Scrounge” was the Seventh Circuit panel’s verb of choice in its short-lived ruling to let the law take effect. The panel referred disapprovingly to people “unwilling to invest the necessary time” to “scrounge up a birth certificate and stand in line at the office that issues driver’s licenses.” To which Posner responded that “the author of this dissenting opinion” — that would be him — “has never seen his birth certificate and does not know how he would go about ‘scrounging’ it up. Nor does he enjoy waiting in line at motor vehicle bureaus.”
Posner wrote that since voter-impersonation fraud is virtually non-existent, the only motivation for such requirements is “to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.” He uses charts to show that of the nine states with the strictest ID requirements, eight laws were passed by all-GOP legislatures and seven of the eight also had GOP governors.
The morality of all this is bad enough — we’re talking about voting, for Pete’s sake, the bedrock of the republic, a right people died to win. But the voter ID fad also reveals flawed political strategy. It courts backlash, in the form of higher minority turnout. And it will make it harder to repair relations with the affected groups when demographic reality takes hold and the GOP needs their votes.
If the Supreme Court decides to rule on the merits of voter ID laws, let’s hope it acts with more dispatch than it did on poll taxes. The taxes were declared constitutional in 1937. It was not until 1966, two years after the 24th Amendment banning them in federal elections, that the high court ruled them unconstitutional in all elections. We don’t need 29 years to know that voter suppression is wrong.
By: Jill Lawrence, The National Memo, October 16, 2014
“A Much More Difficult Response”: Should The Democrats Abandon Hope Of Getting Relief From Voter Suppression In The Courts?
Yesterday there were two rulings on voting rights cases, both of which were decided in favor of the liberal side of the argument. But don’t get too excited. I hate to be an eternal pessimist on this issue, but neither case is likely to turn out the way liberals and Democrats want. In fact, we’re almost at the point where — until the current makeup of the Supreme Court changes — liberals should keep themselves from ever thinking the courts are going to stop Republican efforts at voter suppression.
I’ll get to the consequences of that in a moment, but first let’s look at the two cases yesterday. The first was in Texas, where a federal judge struck down the state’s voter ID law. In refreshingly blunt language, the judge called the law an “unconstitutional poll tax,” and said that the legislators who passed it “were motivated, at the very least in part, because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law’s detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate.” Which is absolutely true, but that doesn’t mean the ruling is going to be upheld by a Supreme Court that has made it clear that they have little problem with almost any restrictions on voting rights.
But what about the Wisconsin case? There, the Supreme Court halted the implementation of a voter ID law yesterday, so doesn’t that mean they’re open to striking down voter ID laws? Not really. Ian Millhiser explains:
Although the Supreme Court’s order does not explain why the Court halted the law, a short dissenting opinion by Justice Samuel Alito provides a window into the Court’s reasoning. Alito begins his dissent by admitting that “[t]here is a colorable basis for the Court’s decision due to the proximity of the upcoming general election.” In a 2006 case called Purcell v. Gonzalez, the Supreme Court explained that judges should be reluctant to issue orders affecting a state’s election law as an election approaches. “Court orders affecting elections,” according to Purcell, “can themselves result in voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls. As an election draws closer, that risk will increase.” It is likely that the six justices who agreed to halt the Wisconsin law relied on Purcell in reaching this decision.
Just the other day, the Court allowed a North Carolina voter suppression law to go forward, but in that case the law had already been implemented. And that’s why we shouldn’t be encouraged by the Wisconsin ruling: it doesn’t imply that the Court believes these restrictions are unconstitutional, only that it would be a mess to have them take effect just a few weeks before the election. It’s a narrow question of election procedure.
It would be going too far to say that Democrats should just abandon all court challenges to these voting laws. You never know what might happen—by the time the next major case reaches the Supreme Court, one of the five conservatives could have retired. But the only real response is the much more difficult one: a sustained, state-by-state campaign to counter voting suppression laws by registering as many people as possible, helping them acquire the ID the state is demanding, and getting them to the polls. That’s incredibly hard, time-consuming, and resource-intensive work—much more so than filing lawsuits. But Democrats don’t have much choice.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 10, 2014