Pandemic Journal (# 34): Grim Report Lightened by News of Vaccines   

One of the objectives of this Journal is recording what it is like to live during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is another such report. [1]

Current Status of the Pandemic[2]

The cumulative confirmed pandemic statistics as of November 21-22: the world has 55.6 million cases and 1.36 million deaths; the U.S., 12.2 million cases (the most in the world) and 256,000 deaths; and Minnesota, 262,952 cases and 3,201 deaths.

Minnesota like many other states continues to set record numbers of cases and deaths. As of November 21, the month “is on track to become the state’s deadliest month of the pandemic with 744 fatalities [so far],” accounting for 20% of the state’s total Covid-19 deaths. ” “Colder weather, drier conditions and the movement of people indoors have fueled the spread of the virus” in Minnesota and other states in the Upper Midwest.

This surge has put an enormous strain on hospitals and health care workers. For example, in Minnesota last week 79% of  available ICU beds are filled, and in some parts of the state open ICU beds were down to single digits. “More worrisome are the growing infections among health care workers who then cannot care for patients.”  Many hospitals in the state also do not  have stable supplies of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) and enacted conservation methods — such as bagging then reusing disposal N95 masks.

On November 18, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issued a detailed 23-page executive order, effective at the end of November 20 for the next four weeks: continuing the requirement for face masks and social distancing; prohibiting (with certain exceptions) social gatherings of individuals who are not members of the same household; limiting social gatherings to individual households; shutting down bars, restaurants, entertainment venues (movie theaters, museums, bowling alleys and fitness clubs); and pausing amateur sports.

In response to the Governor’s order, the management of our condo building on November 20 announced that “effective at the end of [that day] . . .  all association fitness rooms, indoor pools, community rooms, club rooms, libraries and other similar facilities that are currently open will be closed unless otherwise directed by your Board of Directors.”

This new condo building regulation unfortunately has caused me to cancel a weekly gathering in our entertainment center with two or three other male residents over coffee at a table with distanced chairs. There is no set agenda and instead we just start a conversation that usually lasts 60 to 90 minutes. We thereby learn more about one another and become better friends.

More optimistically, two vaccines with 95% success rates have been announced by two ventures (Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna), one of which last week was submitted to U.S. federal agencies for emergency approval and this coming week the other is expected to make a similar application. In addition, three other companies (AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novaax) are developing other vaccines that are still being tested. Everyone is hoping that the first two of these vaccines will be quickly approved by the federal government agencies and initially distributed to the public in mid-December.

My wife and I continue to be healthy while spending most of our time in our condo, except for trips to buy groceries and other supplies and for walks on nicer days. Yesterday just before the closing of our fitness facilities I walked for one mile in 20 minutes on a treadmill and had exercises in our weight room.  Our Thanksgiving Day will be celebrated in the condo by ourselves.

U.S. Presidential Election [3]

On November 3 the U.S. conducted its presidential election with a total popular vote of 153,628,574, which was 65% of all eligible voters, the highest since 1908.

On November 7 the Associated Press reported that the Democratic ticket (Joe Biden and Kamala Harris) won the election with 79,836,131 and 308 electoral votes while the Republican ticket (Donald Trump and Mike Pence) had 73,792,443 popular votes and 232 electoral votes. Thus, the Democratic margin of victory was 6,043,688 popular votes and 76 electoral votes.

President Trump, however, has refused to accept the above results of the election and has issued many tweets claiming the election was rigged and fraudulent. At his direction, the Republican Party or Campaign Team has commenced many lawsuits challenging the popular election in various states, but all of them have been dismissed or withdrawn with many of the judges castigating the poor legal arguments and the lack of supporting evidence offered by the attorneys for the Republicans. In addition, Trump has been attempting, so far unsuccessfully, to get Republican-controlled agencies in various states to appoint Republican electors to the Electoral College despite their popular vote having been for the Biden-Harris ticket.

As a Biden/Harris voter and as a lawyer interested in the rule of law, I have been, and continue to be, absolutely horrified by Trump’s efforts to steal this election.

In addition, Trump has instructed the official in charge of arranging for the president-elect’s transition to the presidency to refuse the  traditional provision of office space for the president-elect and the transition team and for national security briefings.

There has been a lot of speculation as to Trump’s motivation for not accepting the results of the election and engaging in these efforts to change the result of the election. One is his perceived psychological inability to accept defeat. The other is his realization that he faces immense problems if he is no longer president. One is his personal guaranties of over $300 million of loan liabilities of his various corporations. The other is his potential criminal liability for financial crimes, election-law violations, obstruction of justice, public corruption and partisan coercion. [4]

In any event, the Electoral College, under the Constitution, meets on January 6, 2021 to count the electoral votes and on January 15, the new president is inaugurated.

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[1] See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: Pandemic Journal.

[2} Our World in Data, Statistics and Research: Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19);Kumar, 40 more COVID-19 deaths, 7,219 new cases in Minnesota, StarTribune (Nov. 22, 2020); Snowbeck, November already sets record for COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota, StarTribune (Nov. 21, 2000); Howatt, November on track to be Minnesota’s deadliest month for COVID-19., StarTrib. (Nov. 20, 2020); Olson, ‘No beds anywhere’: Minnesota hospitals strained to limit by COVID-19, StarTribune (Nov. 22, 2020); Governor Walz, Emergency Order 20-99 (Nov. 18, 2020); Pfizer, BioNTech Ask FDA to Authorize Their Covid-19 Vaccine, W.S.J. (Nov. 20, 2020); Robbins & Mueller, AstraZeneca Releases Promising Data on Its Coronavirus Vaccine, N.Y. Times (Nov. 23, 2020).

[3] E.g., Riccardi, Biden approaches 80 million votes in historic victory, AP (Nov. 18, 2020); Trump’s legal team cried vote fraud, but courts found none, StarTribune (Nov. 22, 2020); National Archives, Electoral College Timeline of Events

[4] E.g., Choma, Trump Has a Half Billion in Loans Coming Due. They may Be His Biggest Conflict of Interest Yet, Mother Jones (July/August 2020); Mahler, Individual-1, N.Y. Times Magazine at 35 (Nov. 22, 2020); Jacobs, Trump’s post-presidency will be cluttered with potentially serious legal battles, Wash. Post (Nov. 22, 2020).

 

 

 

 

State Court Rejects Chauvin Divorce Settlement

As previously reported, only days after the May 25th killing of George Floyd, Kellie Chauvin filed an action for divorce from her husband, Derek Chauvin, who was a Minneapolis police officer and principal actor involved in that killing. This divorce case was filed in the Minnesota state court in Washington County, where they lived. [1]

In that divorce case it was revealed that the two Chauvins had an agreement whereby Kellie would receive all the equity in their homes in Minnesota and Florida, all of their funds in their bank and investment accounts, and all of Derek’s pension and retirememt accounts except for the non-marital portion of two accounts.[2]

On October 26, the Minnesota state court judge in that divorce case, District Court Judge Juanita Freeman, issued an order stating that the “court has a duty to ensure that marriage dissolution agreements are fair and equitable” and that “one badge of fraud is a party’s transfer of substantially all of his or her assets.” The court, therefore, ruled that their divorce settlement agreement was unenforceable and directed them to submit for the court’s consideration a revised agreement with a balance sheet showing all their assets and liabilities. If there is no revised agreement or if such a revision is not approved by the court, then Judge  Freeman would try and decide the case.

A Minnesota divorce attorney who is not involved in this case said, “This is just speculation, but it’s possible that the [agreement] was intentionally drafted to get assets out of Chauvin’s name in anticipation of a civil judgment against him from the estate of George Floyd.”

Indeed, in July, the attorneys  for the Floyd family filed a civil wrongful death action against Derek Chauvin and the other three police officers involved in the killing, and the lead attorney for the family, Benjamin Crump, said they they would seek “a precedent that makes it financially prohibitive for police to wrongfully kill marginalized people.”[3]

Also before the same state court are charges that the Chauvin couple engaged in tax fraud by failing to submit Minnesota income tax returns for several years and under reported their income.[4]

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[1] Developments in Criminal Cases Over Death of George Floyd, dwkcommentaries.com (June 28, 2020); Derek Chauvin’s Wife’s Divorce Petition Raises Questions, dwkcommentaries.com (July 8, 2020

[2] Xiong, Judge rejects proposed Derek Chauvin divorce agreement, citing possible fraud, StarTribune (Nov. 20, 2020); Semenov, Proposed divorce agreement between Chauvin and wife rejected for possible fraud, FOX9 News (Nov. 20, 2020).

[3] Floyd’s Family Sues City of Minneapolis and Four Ex-Officers Involved in George Floyd’s Death, dwkcommentaries.com (July 16, 2020); George Floyd Family’s Complaint Against Four Ex-Police Officers Involved in George Floyd’s Death, dwkcommentaries.com (July 17, 2020).

[4] Chauvin and Wife Now Charged with Minnesota Tax Crimes, dwkcommentaries.com (July 22, 2020); Derek Chauvin makes first court appearance on tax fraud charges, Fox9 News (Sept. 8, 2020).

Parties’ Latest Reactions to Issues for Trial in George Floyd Criminal Cases

On November 5, the Hennepin County District Court issued five significant orders regarding the joint criminal trial of Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao over the killing of George Floyd. These orders (1) granted the State’s motion for a joint trial of the four defendants; (2) preliminarily denied the defendants’ motions for change of venue; (3) provided for  juror anonymity and sequestration; (4) allowed audio and video coverage of the trial; and (5) narrowed its previous order regarding four members of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s participation in the cases.[1]

On November 16, various motions and briefs were submitted objecting to the recent orders for a joint trial and allowing audio and video coverage of the trial as well as the pending motions for allowance of evidence of prior incidents of the four defendants and of Mr. Floyd. The most significant of these papers, in this blogger’s judgment, was Thomas Lane’s motion for reconsideration of the order for a joint trial of the four defendants, which, therefore, will be discussed first.

Lane’s Motion To Reconsider Joinder for Trial[2]

Lane argued that the order for joinder is premature as it does not consider the prejudice that will be caused by admission of evidence of prior incidents involving the other three defendants, none of which involved Lane.

Most significantly, Lane asserted that his  defense will be antagonistic to Chauvin in that he will be “pointing the finger” at Chauvin and that if Lane had known of Chauvin’s prior incidents, Lane would have acted differently. (Emphasis added.) (This is believed to be the first time that any of the defendants has pointed the finger at Chauvin, the principal actor in the death of Floyd.)

Moreover, said Lane’s attorney, the Court’s opinion regarding aiding and abetting liability was erroneous since it was inconsistent with a 2014 opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court, which, among other things, said such liability requires the defendant to have “advance knowledge that a crime is being committed.” (Emphasis added.)[3]

Finally, according to Lane’s attorney, a recently disclosed FBI report about its July 8th interview of Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Dr. Andrew Baker, contains significant points helpful to Lane and the other defendants.. Here are this blogger’s extracts of that report with emphasis on the points helpful to the defendants.

  • Baker’s office’s press release about its examination of Floyd’s body apparently mentioned ”cardiopulmonary arrest,” which “for a lay person would be the stopping of the heart and lungs. Other factors that contributed to Floyd’s cardiopulmonary arrest included hypertension, the presence of fentanyl and methamphetamine, as well as arteriosclerotic heart disease.”(P. 038777) (Emphasis added.)
  • “The term ‘complicating’ in the case title was a medical term meaning occurring after, during, or as a result of.” (P. 03877)
  • Baker defined the mechanism of death as Floyd’s heart and lungs stopping due to the combined effects of his health problems as well as the exertion involved in Floyd’s interaction with police prior to being on the groun” (Pp. 038777-78.) (Emphasis added.)
  • There was no evidence that Floyd’s airway was literally blocked shut. When viewing the body camera footage, the pressure did not appear to be directly over Floyd’s airway. Floyd would have been unable to speak if pressure was directly over his airway.” (P. 03778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Officer Chauvin’s positioning on Floyd’s body does not fit anatomically with occluding Floyd’s airway.” (P. 038778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • There was no anatomic evidence of injury to Floyd’s neck but that does not rule out that pressure was applied by Chauvin.” (P. 038778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • The absence of petechiae weighs against strangulation.” (P. 038778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Baker noted that that Floyd had no injury to . . .[his lower buttocks or upper end of Floyd’s thigh which were being held by Kueng].” (P. 038778) (Emphasis added.)
  • Baker noted that there was no relation to Floyd’s cause of death by Lane’s position [on Floyd’s feet].” (P. 038778.) (Emphasis added.)
  • “The struggle between officers and Floyd weighed into Baker’s opinion because physical exertion increases heart rate, releases adrenaline, and increases respiratory rate as well as cardiac demand. All of these things increased the likelihood of a bad outcome.” (P. 038778.)
  • Baker had no opinion on when Floyd became critical or near death.” (P. 038780.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Baker did not believe that the prone position was any more dangerous than other positions based on an article or journal he had read. “ (P. 038780.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Baker could not provide an answer on a ‘but for’ cause [of death]. (P. 038781.) (Emphasis added.)
  • Absent suspicious circumstances, if Floyd had been found dead in his bed with the level of fentanyl in his blood that was present for this autopsy, it may be classified aa fentanyl fatality due to the level of fentanyl.” (P. 039781.) (Emphasis added.)
  • When a death was labeled a homicide, it was not a legal ruling being made. The label was classified as such for public health reasons.” (P. 0388782.) (Emphasis added.)

Parties’ Battle Over Evidence of Defendants’ Prior Incidents[4]

 The State previously had argued for admission of evidence of eight separate incidents involving Chauvin’s actions in the course of his duties as a Minneapolis Police Officer. On November 16 the State submitted a supplemental argument in support of such evidence in light of its obtaining the body worn camera videos for one of those incidents that are relevant to show modus operandi, intent and lack of mistake and rebut any defense of reasonable use of force and that their probative value outweighs any potential unfair prejudice.

Lane’s objection to such evidence was just discussed.

In addition,  Chauvin’s attorney argued that these incidents are inadmissible to show his intent in the Floyd case or his alleged knowledge of the need to move Floyd from the prone position or a common scheme or plan or modus operandi and that evidence of such incidents is cumulative and unfairly prejudicial.

State’s Objection to Evidence of  Floyd’s Prior Incident with Minneapolis Police[5]

All Defendants intend to offer evidence of George Floyd’s May 6, 2019, incident with the Minneapolis Police Department even though the Court at the September 11, 2020, hearing held that such evidence was inadmissible. The State said the Court’s prior decision was correct and that the defendants intend to offer this evidence at trial was for the improper purpose of attacking Floyd’s character and suggesting he had a propensity to commit crimes or should be punished for his prior actions; that the prior incident does not show Floyd’s common scheme or plan in the incident that led to his death; that his state of mind in the prior incident is irrelevant; that the unfair prejudice of evidence of that prior incident far outweighs its probative value and that the defendants’ other arguments for such evidence are unpersuasive.

State’s Objection to Audio and Video Trial Coverage[6]

The State asked the Court for reconsideration of its order for audio and video coverage of the trial. The motion provided no reasons for that motion other than its previous objection to such coverage under Minnesota Rule of Criminal Procedure 4.02(d) and a brief to be filed on or before November 30.

A StarTribune editorial, however, supported this court order. It said, “It is in the best interest of trial participants and the public for this high-profile trial to be as accessible as possible. . . . [Judge] Cahill’s ruling is well-reasoned and fair.”

Reactions

An important reason for the Court’s November 5th order for a joint trial of the four defendants was there was no indication at that stage of the proceedings “that any of the Defendants is likely to be prejudiced by joinder because their defenses are not antagonistic but instead are mutually supportive.” Now, however, Defendant Lane has stated that his  defense will be antagonistic to Chauvin in that Lane will be “pointing the finger” at Chauvin and that if Lane had known of Chauvin’s prior incidents, Lane would have acted differently. This latest statement, therefore, is a serious challenge to the wisdom of a joint trial.

In addition, Lane’s disclosure of the FBI memorandum of its interview of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, assuming it accurately reflects what the Examiner said, provides boosters for the defense and problems for the prosecution.

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[1] Court’s Orders Regarding Criminal Trial of Defendants in George Floyd Killing, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 5, 2020).

[2]  Defendant’s [Lane’s] Objection to the State’s Spreigl Notice and Motion to Reconsider the Court’s Order for Joinder, State v. Lane, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Nov. 16, 2020); Exhibit A [FBI Memorandum], Lane Objection to Spreigl and Motion to Reconsider Joinder Order,  State v. Lane, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Nov. 16, 2020).

[3]  This case was Rosemond v. United States, 572 U.S. 64 (2014), which requires close analysis.

[4]  State’s Supplemental Memorandum of Law in Support of Other Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 Nov. 16, 2020); Defendant’s [Chauvin’s] Objection to State’s Proposed Introduction of Spreigl Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 Nov. 16, 2020); Defendant’s [Kueng’s]Objection to the State’s 404(b) Evidence, State v. Kueng, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12953 Nov. 16, 2020); Defendant’s [Thao’s] Memorandum in Opposition to State’s Motion for Spreigl Evidence Against Mr. Thao, State v. Thao, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12949 Nov. 16, 2020); Defendant’s [Lane’s] Objection to the State’s Spreigl Notice and Motion to Reconsider the Court’s Order for Joinder, State v. Lane, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12951 (Nov. 16, 2020); Jany, Seeking to show pattern of excessive force by Chauvin, prosecutors cite incident with 14-year-old boy who couldn’t breathe, StarTribune (Nov. 17, 2020);Bailey, Former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death seeks to bar evidence of past neck and body restraints, Wash. Post (Nov. 17, 2020).

[5] State’s Response Opposing Defendants’ Motions To Admit Spreigl Evidence, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 Nov. 16, 2020).

[6] State’s Motion for Reconsideration, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646 Nov. 16, 2020) State asks judge to reconsider permission for audio, video coverage of officers’ trial in George Floyd Killing, StarTribune (Nov. 16, 2020); Editorial, A victory for courtroom access in George Floyd case, StarTribune (Nov. 17, 2020).

President Trump Announces Categories for U.S. Admission of Refugees for Fiscal 2021             

On September 30, the U.S. State Department announced that President Trump had reduced the U.S. quota for admission of refugees to 15,000 for Fiscal Year 2021 (October 1, 2020-September 30, 2021) that would be documented in a subsequent presidential determination.[1]

That Presidential Determination confirming the 15,000 limitation was issued on October 28 in the form of a memorandum to the Secretary of State. It also announced allocations “among refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States.”[2] Here are those allocations:

Number Category
5,000 Refugees who: have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion; or are within a category of aliens established under subsections (b) and (c) of section 599D of Title V, Public Law 101-167, as amended (the Lautenberg and Specter Amendments). [(i) “aliens who are or were nationals and residents of the Soviet Union and who share common characteristics that identify them as targets of persecution in the Soviet Union on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” including “nationals and residents of the Soviet Union and who are Jews or Evangelical Christians ” and (ii) “aliens who are or were nationals and residents of Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia and who share common characteristics that identify them as targets of persecution in such respective foreign state on such an account.
4,000 Refugees who are within a category of aliens listed in section 1243(a) of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007, Title XII, Div. A, Public Law 110-181, as amended: “[1) Iraqis who were or are employed by the United States Government, in Iraq;(2) Iraqis who establish to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State that they are or were employed in Iraq by–(A) a media or nongovernmental organization headquartered in the United States; or (B) an organization or entity closely associated with the United States mission in Iraq that has received United States Government funding through an official and documented contract, award, grant, or cooperative agreement; and 3) spouses, children, and parents whether or not  accompanying or following to join, and sons, daughters, and siblings of aliens described in paragraph (1), paragraph (2), or section 1244(b)(1); and(4) Iraqis who are members of a religious or minority community, have been identified by the Secretary of State, or the designee of the Secretary, as a persecuted group, and have close family members . . . in the United States.”
1,000 Refugees who are nationals or habitual residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.
5,000 Other refugees in the following groups: those referred to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) by a United States Embassy in any location; those who will be admitted through a Form I-730 following-to-join petition or who gain access to the USRAP for family reunification through the P-3 process; those currently located in Australia, Nauru, or Papua New Guinea who gain access to the USRAP pursuant to an arrangement between the United States and Australia; those who are nationals or habitual residents of Hong Kong, Venezuela, or Cuba; and those in the USRAP who were in “Ready for Departure” status as of September 30, 2019.
15,000 TOTAL

In addition, the President authorized the Secretary of State, subject to certain conditions, “to transfer unused admissions from a particular allocation above to one or more other allocations, if there is a need for greater admissions for the allocation to which the admissions will be transferred.”

The President, subject to certain conditions, also authorized the Secretary of State to consider “the following persons . . ., if otherwise qualified, . . . [as] refugees for the purpose of admission to the United States within their countries of nationality or habitual residence: a. persons in Cuba; b. persons in Eurasia and the Baltics; c. persons in Iraq; d. persons in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador; and e. in exceptional circumstances, persons identified by a United States Embassy in any location.”

The President specified “that persons from certain high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control, including Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, shall not be admitted as refugees, except those refugees of special humanitarian concern:  (1) who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion; (2) were referred to the USRAP by a United States Embassy in any location; or (3) who will be admitted through a Form I-730 following-to-join petition or who gain access to the USRAP for family reunification through the P‑3 process.  The threat to United States national security and public safety posed by the admission of refugees from high-risk areas of terrorist presence or control is significant and cannot be fully mitigated at this time.”

Another specification by the President was “ for FY 2021, newly admitted refugees should be placed, to the maximum extent possible, in States and localities that have clearly expressed their willingness to receive refugees under the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program.  Such cooperation ensures that refugees are resettled in communities that are eager and equipped to support their successful integration into American society and the labor force.”

Finally the President determined “hat assistance to or on behalf of persons applying for admission to the United States as part of the overseas refugee admissions program will contribute to the foreign policy interests of the United States, and I accordingly designate such persons for this purpose.”

Conclusion

 The principal objection to this presidential action is the overall limitation of resettled refugees to 15,000 in one year. The identification of the refugees in the above categories and their allocated numbers presumably are justified.

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[1] U.S. Reduces Refugee Admissions to 15,000 for Fiscal 2021, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 2, 2020).

[2] White House, Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2021 (Oct. 28, 2020).

 

U.S. Needs Federal Elections Agency

This year’s U.S. presidential election reminds us that such elections operate under 50 sets of confusing rules established by state legislatures. We, therefore, should be reminded of the need for a Federal Elections Agency to simplify this morass.

Latest Proposal for Such an Agency[1]

The latest proposal for such an agency has been put forward by Charlotte Hill (a board member of FairVote and RepresentUs and a PhD candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley) and Lee Drutman (a senior fellow at New America and the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: the Case for Multiparty Democracy in America).

They say, “Though the pandemic and this erratic president are stress-testing our election system like never before in recent memory, the challenges of holding a free and fair vote in America have been mounting for decades. Since the early 2000s, court battles over election rules have become constant, while global experts like those with The Economist’s “Democracy Index” have downgraded the quality of American democracy across multiple measures for years.”

“We often talk about elections as if voters across the country are participating in a single event. But the reality is that individual states and counties — and the partisan politicians who run them — largely make their own rules about ease of voting, ballots and district lines. The overall result is that in the 21st century, in the richest democracy in the world, some people must work much harder to exercise their basic right to vote — and even then, their ballot may be less potent than others.”

“Take rules around registration and voting. Some states and cities automatically register voters and proactively mail them their ballots. Other states require people to register weeks in advance of the election and, unless they have a valid excuse for voting absentee, to show up in person at the polls, where they may face long lines, poorly trained poll workers, and unreliable equipment — not to mention the chance of becoming infected with a lethal virus that thrives in crowded indoor environments.”

“If someone lives in a gerrymandered or lopsided district, that person’s vote might matter less. In the vast majority of states, partisan lawmakers decide how to draw district lines — carefully engineered to maintain power statewide, even if a majority of voters prefers the other party.”

“In the all too common worst-case scenarios, partisan officials take advantage of the lack of federal election standards to disproportionately purge minority voters from the registration rolls entirely, or invalidate their ballots because of minor technicalities at higher rates.”

The U.S. now has two federal election agencies: the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The FEC oversees campaign finance laws, and EAC was created to provide guidance to states for meeting the requirements of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 by creating voluntary voting system guidelines and a national clearinghouse of information on election administration. But neither one is very effective.

The EAC “is designed to be bipartisan, with an even number of commissioners from both parties (two Democrats and two Republicans). But amid our hyperpartisan, polarized politics, bipartisan balance has meant deadlock. The commissioners can’t even agree on core issues like how to handle foreign interference: One Republican commissioner even stated that reports of Russian election meddling are ‘deceptive propaganda perpetrated on the American public.’ Partisanship isn’t the only issue. The commission has been plagued in recent years with unfilled appointments, reduced staff and budget cuts. Perhaps most important, it does not have the authority to make sure its recommendations are followed.”

Therefore, “It is clear that Congress needs to establish a federal elections agency to ensure that the voting process is fair, consistent, secure and legitimate — from redistricting to registration to voting technology. Would this be constitutional? In short, absolutely: Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution explicitly gives Congress broad powers to ‘make or alter’ regulations affecting elections.”

Such an agency “could help oversee and administer the standards for voting access, legislative decisions on redistricting and election security. It could use formal orders, fines, lawsuits and even criminal enforcement actions to make sure that political campaigns are conducted with integrity, elections are not marred by fraud or interference and lawmakers are penalized for attempting to rig the system in their favor.”

Such an agency “could use new, safe technologies to modernize and streamline our elections, while consolidating and securing important data. It could also help pilot secure election technology, such as the ‘uncheckable’ open-source voting system currently being developed by the Department of Defense. Unlike current election software that is bought from private companies and shielded from public inspection, this system will run publicly available computer code that election security experts can scrutinize for issues.”

This proposed “agency could also better take on certain administrative functions that are currently carried out by the states: for example, the creation of a national voter roll, with all eligible citizens automatically registered to vote. This would bring our registration system up to the standards of most other advanced democracies. (And simultaneously make it easier for intelligence officials to detect security breaches.)”

In addition, it “could . . . regulate the distribution of false or misleading information about federal elections — an increasingly important challenge.”

This “agency would not stop at setting federal standards; it would also enforce them. That means ensuring that congressional redistricting is truly fair for all voters by reviewing district maps and — if they do not meet standards — require that new maps be drawn. And that means monitoring elections to ensure they’re free and fair, including by building out an ‘election forensics’ team that can determine whether fraud, interference, or suppression tipped the balance in a given race.”

This proposed “agency must have a strong mandate, based on widely supported principles of democratic fairness, as well as an empowered inspector general to monitor any potential abuses of that power. We propose an extensive vetting process for agency appointees: a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission could put forth a short list of names and nominees would be confirmed by the House of Representatives — a more broadly representative body than the Senate.”

“Appointees [to this agency] would have to abide by a robust conflict-of-interest policy, as well as a legally binding pledge of allegiance to the integrity of the voting process and the public interest. Taken together, these structural safeguards make us optimistic that the agency would serve its intended purpose.”

Concurring Opinion for a Federal Elections Agency[2]

Stephen I. Vladeck, a Professor and the holder of the Charles Alan Wright Chair in Federal Courts at the University of Texas School of Law, concurs in the conclusion that there should be a new federal elections agency.   He says, “centralizing the [federal election] process under uniform rules is one key reform.”  He points out that in Canada “a nonpartisan federal agency administers elections using a uniform set of rules and procedures across the country. Brazil has a similar system.”

In addition, Vladeck stresses that “the ‘torturous’ process for states’ reporting election results . . . [creates] the opportunity for at least one of the political parties ‘to conjure conspiracy theories to explain’ an election defeat.”

In this year’s U.S, election, for example, “the random way in which returns were counted and released by states — Election Day returns versus mail-in ballots, for instance — led to wild fluctuations as results were updated. The consequence, as experts predicted, was a series of shifts in early tabulations, as candidates seemed to outperform or underperform expectations. President Trump seized on these gyrations, warning that something ‘strange’ was going on and that a conspiracy was afoot to ‘steal’ the election.”

In addition, “the random dissemination of results gave the appearance of something that just wasn’t true — that the returns were dynamic, not static — and that the counting of votes reflected ‘trends’ when the result was already in. We simply needed to tally the votes to figure out what that result was.”

A related problem was the various ways of reporting the results “distorted our understanding of when votes were cast. In some states, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, rules prohibiting “pre-canvassing” — preparing early and mail-in ballots for counting — before Election Day meant that votes cast first could end up being counted last.”

This lack of uniform rules for counting and reporting election results “opens the door for charges that something is amiss, as it might have struck some with the returns from Pennsylvania, where the count first had one candidate up by thousands of votes, only to swing entirely in the other direction. This can leave the impression that sinister forces were at work, when it was just a function of the partisan makeup of the counties whose votes were being counted, or the type of vote — mail-ins, for example, which are disproportionately Democratic — being reported.”

Another problem is the rules for counting and reporting votes could be structured so that the initial reported results “look much better for . . . [one party’s] candidates than the overall tally, thus influencing the election narrative. There’s value in shaping the headlines even if the bottom line remains unchanged.”

Conclusion

There should be a Federal Election Agency establishing an uniform set of rules for federal elections.

========================================

[1] Hill & Drutman, America Votes by 50 Sets of Rules. We Need a Federal Elections Agency, N.Y. Times (Nov. 5, 2020).

[2] Vladeck, Elections Don’t Have To Be So Chaotic and Excruciating, N.Y. Times (Nov. 8, 2020).

 

 

 

 

Pompeo Discusses Unalienable Rights and the Geneva Consensus Declaration

On October 29, in Jakarta, Indonesia before an audience of diplomats and faith leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made an address he titled “Unalienable Rights and Traditions of Tolerance.” With him was the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, Mary Ann Glendon. Here is what the Secretary said on that topic while also mentioning the Geneva Consensus Declaration.

The Secretary’s Remarks [1]

“The founding principle of the United States is very, very simple. America’s Declaration of Independence affirms that governments exist – governments exist to secure the rights inherent in every human being. Indeed, as the commission’s report argues, the United States was the first nation founded on a commitment, a deep commitment to universal rights for all human beings.”

“Now, the most fundamental of these rights is the right to freedom of conscience, including religious freedom. It’s the basis for the most important conversations about what conscience tells us and about what God demands of each of us. It’s one reason that religious freedom is the very first freedom enumerated in our Constitution, in the American constitution. As an evangelical Christian, my faith informs how I live, how I work, how I think.”

“And it is exceedingly rare in the scope of human history for a nation to make those promises to its citizens. It is rarer for nations even to keep them.”
“America’s respect for God-given rights, is the defining feature of our national spirit. It’s why America stood tallest among Western democracies in supporting your independence from colonial rule and has been a stalwart supporter of Indonesia’s transition to democracy over these past two decades. The fact that our people embrace freedom and uphold a tradition of tolerance is very special. We should never lose it. We must continue upholding our traditions, and we must do so very actively. We can’t assume our freedoms and our faith will live on. We must stand for what we believe.”

“I’m here in Indonesia because I believe that Indonesia shows us the way forward. There is literally no reason that Islam can’t co-exist peacefully alongside Christianity or Buddhism. . .Indeed, Indonesia’s national motto, translated into English, is, ‘Unity Amid Diversity.’. . . [And] your Constitution from 1945 clearly declares that every person shall be free: ‘Every person shall be free to…practice the religion of his [or] her choice.’” [These values then were implemented in your “Pancasila – foundational principles that enshrined the importance of faith in the life of your country[and established] . . .that Indonesia’s embrace of diverse religions, people, and cultures would become a core pillar of your country’s success.”

“The flexible, inclusive, and tolerant democratic culture that has emerged since the Reformasi of 1998 has defied the skeptics, the skeptics who believed that Indonesia could only be governed by a strongman restricting the rights of its people. Indonesia has since then given the whole world a positive model of how different faiths, different ethnic groups . . can coexist peacefully and settle their disagreements through democratic means. This is glorious.”

The work of the groups here today “is now more important than ever. Blasphemy accusations, which destroy lives, have become more common. Discrimination against non-official religions renders their practitioners second-class citizens who are subject to abuse and deprivation.”

“I want you to urge the same actions I asked the Catholic Church’s leaders to do in the Vatican.” [2]

“We need more religious leaders to speak out on behalf of people of all faiths wherever their rights are being violated. We need more religious leaders to be a moral witness. We need more religious leaders to support principles of ‘humanity and justice,’ as your founders wrote, and as our respect for unalienable rights demands.”

After noting the U.S. complaints about the Burmese military and the Iranian regime’s persecution of religious groups, the Secretary said, “the gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.The atheist Chinese Communist Party has tried to convince the world that its brutalization of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang is necessary as a part of its counterterrorism efforts or poverty alleviation. . . . [but we know those claims to be false.] I know that the Chinese Communist Party has tried to convince Indonesians to look away, to look away from the torments your fellow Muslims are suffering.. . . [But] you know the ways that the Islamic tradition – and the Indonesian tradition – demand that we speak out and work for justice. . . .

“Free people of free nations must defend those [God-given unalienable] rights. It is our duty. Even as we each do this . . in our own and often different ways, we should recognize that we have strength in numbers. We should recognize that we can turn to each other for support in difficult times, and that our cherished rights and values are absolutely worth defending at every moment, as the birthright of every people.

The Secretary then gave the following responses to questions from the audience:

• Pompeo said the U.S. works on counter-terrorism and on developing “a model for Middle East peace” and respect for human rights.
• The Geneva Consensus Declaration that recently was signed by the U.S., Indonisia and others acknowledges these religious freedom rights and protects the unborn. [3]
• The recent peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan seek to improve the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. still supports a two-state solution.
• The Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights recognizes the U.S. Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an important aspirational document that calls on every nation to embrace and protect human rights. [4]

=========================================

[1] State Dep’t, Pompeo Speech: Unalienable Rights and Traditions of Tolerance (Oct. 29, 2020).

[2] On September 30 at the Vatican Secretary Pompeo gave a speech that criticized the Pope for having agreed to accept seven bishops appointed by China for the official, state-sanctioned church and for recently negotiating the renewal of that agreement. (See Secretary Pompeo Foments Conflict with the Holy See, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 3, 2020). Subsequently, on October 22, the Vatican announced such a two-year renewal although the exact details of the agreement were not released, but it contemplates ongoing dialogue about various issues. The Holy See said that it “considers the initial application of the agreement – which is of great ecclesial and pastoral value – to have been positive, thanks to good communication and cooperation between the parties on the matters agreed upon, and intends to pursue an open and constructive dialogue for the benefit of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of Chinese people.” And the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said the Vatican ‘does not fail to attract the attention of the Chinese government to encourage a more fruitful exercise of religious freedom.’” (Winfield, Vatican, China extend bishop agreement over U.S. opposition, Wash. Post (Oct. 22, 2020); Rocca & Wong, Vatican, Bejing Renew Deal on Bishop Appointments, as Catholics Remain Divided, W.S.J. (Oct. 22, 2020); Horowitz, Vatican Extends Deal With China Over Appointment of Bishops, N.Y. Times (Oct. 22, 2020).

[3] The Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 5, 2020).

[4] U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Issues Final Report, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 4, 2020).

 

 

Court’s Orders Regarding Criminal Trial of Defendants in George Floyd Killing

On November 5, Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill issued five significant orders relating to the trial in the criminal cases against the four former Minneapolis policemen involved in the killing of George Floyd: Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao. [1]

These orders (1) granted the State’s motion for a joint trial of the four defendants; 2) preliminarily denied the defendants’ motions for change of venue; (3) provided for  juror anonymity and sequestration; (4) allowed audio and video coverage of the trial; and (5) narrowed its previous order regarding four members of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s participation in the cases.

These five orders will be reviewed below.

                  Joint Trial of the Four Defendants[2]

The 51-page Order and Memorandum Opinion sets forth the Factual Background and then Discussion of the four-factor test for joinder established by the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure and Minnesota case law. The following is the Court’s Summary of that detailed discussion (pp. 4-5).

“The first factor weighs strongly in favor of joinder because of the similarity of the charges and evidence against all four Defendants.” Indeed, “the critical evidence at trial”—body-cam videos of three of the defendants and cell-phone video of a bystander; Minneapolis Police Department Policies and Procedures and Training Manuals; autopsy reports and medical and forensic testimony about the circumstances and causes of Floyd’s death; and eyewitness testimony—”will be the same for all four Defendants.”

“The second factor slightly favors joinder in view of the impact of conducting four separate trials . . . would have on eyewitnesses if . .. [they] were forced to relive the events of May 25, 2020, by testifying to the same events at multiple trials,” especially since one of these witnesses is a minor.

“The third factor also strongly favors joinder because there is no indication at this stage of the proceedings that any of the Defendants is likely to be prejudiced by joinder because their defenses are not antagonistic but instead are mutually supportive.”

The “fourth factor also strongly favors joinder because conducting four separate trials arising from the same underlying incident and involving the same evidence and the same witnesses would result in unwarranted delay and impose unnecessary burdens on the State, the court, and the witnesses. Moreover, in wake of the unprecedented . . . scope of the publicity [about these cases] . . . if trials were to proceed separately for each Defendant, trial-related publicity surrounding the first trial (and succeeding trials) could potentially compound the difficulty of selecting a fair and impartial jury in all subsequent trials. Thus, the interests of justice also warrant joinder.”

Preliminary Denial of Change of Venue[3]

 The Court considered two factors in preliminarily deny the Defendants’ motions to change venue and transfer the case from Hennepin County to another district court in Minnesota: prejudicial publicity and safety concerns of the defendants and their attorneys.

With respect to the first factor, the Court took “judicial notice that the death of George Floyd has generated thousands of articles, reports and commentary in Minnesota, the entire United States, and internationally.” (n. 10.) As a result, “no corner of the State of Minnesota has been shielded from pretrial publicity regarding the death of George Floyd. Because of that pervasive media coverage, a change of venue is unlikely to cure the taint of potentially prejudicial pretrial publicity. Nevertheless, this is only a preliminary ruling and the parties are free to present the evidence from public opinion surveys they are presently conducting. In addition, this Court is planning to issue jury summons earlier than usual and to require summoned jurors to fill out questionnaires well before trial to gauge their knowledge of the case and any potential bias.”

The second factor—safety concerns—calls for “better safety planning,” which is currently being conducted by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and the Court. The safety concerns regarding the 9/11/20 hearing at the smaller Hennepin County Family Justice Center with limited entrances and exits suggests it is more difficult to enhance security at such facilities, which would be true if the cases were transferred to a smaller county. Having the trial at the Hennepin county Government Center would facilitate tighter control of floor access and movement. In short, the “Court believes that safety issues can be mitigated to the point that a fair and safe trial may be had in Hennepin County and a jury can be insulated from outside influence and remain impartial.”

Juror Anonymity and Sequestration[4]

After reviewing the extensive publicity about the death of Mr. Floyd and these cases and related protest and unsolicited ex parte communications to the Court and counsel, there are “strong reasons to believe that threats to jurors’ safety and impartiality exist“ in these cases and that “all reasonable means should be taken to insulate the jury from such ex parte contacts.

Therefore, the Court ordered the “jurors’ names, addresses and other identifying information . .. [to] . . .be kept confidential  by the Court and all parties throughout the trial and deliberation” After the conclusion of the trial, any information about the jurors shall be disclosed only after a “subsequent written Order” by the Court.

Each Defendant shall have five preemptory challenges of prospective jurors, and the State twelve such challenges. There will be four alternate jurors.

The jurors will be partially sequestered during trial with possible full sequestration if the partial plan “proves ineffective in keeping jurors free from outside influence.” In addition, during jury deliberations at the end of the trial, there shall be full sequestration.

Audio and Video Coverage of the Trial [5]

 The trial shall commence on March 8, 2021, and “may be recorded, broadcast, and livestreamed in audio and video subject to the conditions” contained in the order.

Order Regarding Hennepin County Attorneys[6]

The Court’s oral order removing four members of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office from these cases is vacated although they may not “appear as advocates in the trials and may not sign any motions or pleadings in these cases.

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[1] Olson, Ex-officers charged in George Floyd case to be tried together in Hennepin County, cameras allowed in courtroom, StarTribune (Oct. 5, 2020).

[2] Order and Memorandum Opinion Granting State’s Motion for Trial Joinder, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

[3] Preliminary Order Regarding Change of Venue, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

[4] Order for Juror Anonymity and Sequestration, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

[5] Order Allowing Audio and Video Coverage of Trial, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

[6] Order, State v. Chauvin, Court File No. 27-CR-20-12646, Hennepin County District Court (Nov. 5, 2020).

The Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family

On October 22, the U.S. hosted a ceremony at the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)  for the signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family.[1]

Contents of the Declaration[2]

The Declaration was prepared because COVID-19 prevented the signatories from meeting in Geneva, Switzerland for the 2020 World Health Assembly “to review progress made and challenges to uphold the right to the highest attainable standards of health for women; to promote women’s essential contribution to health, and strength of the family and of a successful and flourishing society; and to express the essential priority of protecting the right to life, committing to coordinated efforts in multilateral fora.”

The signatories, therefore:

“1. Reaffirm ‘all are equal before the law,’  and ‘human rights of women are an inalienable, integral, and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms’;”

“2. Emphasize ‘the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights,’  as well as economic, social, and cultural rights; and the ‘equal rights, opportunities and access to resources and equal sharing of responsibilities for the family by men and women and a harmonious partnership between them are critical to their well-being and that of their families’ ; and that ‘women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources, and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making at all levels;’”

“3. Reaffirm the inherent ‘dignity and worth of the human person,’ that ‘every human being has the inherent right to life,’ and the commitment ‘to enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant;’”

“4. Emphasize that ‘in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning’ and that ‘any measures or changes related to abortion within the health system can only be determined at the national or local level according to the national legislative process’; Reaffirm that ‘the child… needs special safeguards and care… before as well as after birth’ and ‘special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children,’ based on the principle of the best interest of the child;”

” 5. Reaffirm that ‘the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State’; that ‘motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance,’ that ‘women play a critical role in the family’ and women’s ‘contribution to the welfare of the family and to the development of society’;”

“6. Recognize that ‘universal health coverage is fundamental for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals related not only to health and well-being,’ with further recognition that ‘health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ that ‘the predominant focus of health-care systems on treating illness rather than maintaining optimal health also prevents a holistic approach’; and that there are ‘needs that exist at different stages in an individual’s lifespan, which together support optimal health across the life course, entailing the provision of the necessary information, skills, and care for achieving the best possible health outcomes and reaching full human potential; and”

“7. Reaffirm ‘the importance of national ownership and the primary role and responsibility of governments at all levels to determine their own path towards achieving universal health coverage, in accordance with national contexts and priorities’, preserving human dignity and all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Furthermore, the signatories ”hereby declare in mutual friendship and respect, our commitment to work together to:

  • Ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and equal opportunity for women at all levels of political, economic, and public life;
  • Improve and secure access to health and development gains for women, including sexual and reproductive health, which must always promote optimal health, the highest attainable standard of health, without including abortion;
  • Reaffirm that there is no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of States to finance or facilitate abortion, consistent with the long-standing international consensus that each nation has the sovereign right to implement programs and activities consistent with their laws and policies;
  • Build our health system capacity and mobilize resources to implement health and development programs that address the needs of women and children in situations of vulnerability and advance universal health coverage;
  • Advance supportive public health policies for women and girls as well as families, including building our healthcare capacity and mobilizing resources within our own countries, bilaterally, and in multilateral fora;
  • Support the role of the family as foundational to society and as a source of health, support, and care; and
  • Engage across the UN system to realize these universal values, recognizing that individually we are strong, but together we are stronger.”

The Declaration’s Signatories[3]

The co-sponsors and signatories of this Declaration were the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil, Egypt, Hungary and Uganda. The other 26 signatories included Poland, the Belarus (where security forces are currently trying to suppress a women-led protest movement), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan and Libya.

According to the Women, Peace and Security Index that was established by Georgetown University, most of the signatories are among the worst countries for women’s rights, and none of the top twenty countries on that index—except for the U.S. which ranked 19th—signed the declaration.

At the ceremony, Alex Azar, the Secretary of DHHS, said, “too many wealthy nations and international institutions put a myopic focus on a radical agenda that is offensive to many cultures and derails agreement on women’s health priorities. Today, we put down a clear marker: No longer can U.N. agencies reinterpret and misinterpret agreed-upon language without accountability. Member States set the policy for the U.N. to pursue. Not the other way around.”

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo added that this document aims to “protect women’s health, defends the unborn and reiterates the vital importance of the family as the foundation of society.” He also stressed, “There is no international right to abortion.”

The document does not directly address same-sex marriage, but its statement that the family is “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” has clear meaning for those signatories that restrict LGBT rights like Egypt.

========================

[1] Health & Human Services Dep’t, Trump Administration Marks the Signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration (Oct. 22, 2020); Berger, U.S. signs international declaration challenging right to abortion and upholding ‘role of the family,’ Wash. Post (Oct. 22, 2020); Borger, U.S. signs anti-abortion declaration with group of largely authoritarian governments, Guardian (Oct. 22, 2020).

[2] Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family.

[3]  See n. 1; Azar, Remarks at the Geneva Consensus Declaration Signing Ceremony, DHHS (Oct. 22, 2020); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Participates in the Geneva Consensus Declaration Signing Ceremony (Oct. 21, 2020).

 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Issues Final Report 

As previously noted, on July 6, the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights issued its Draft Report.[1] The Final Report was issued 51 days later on August 26 as “a consensus document that was signed and approved unanimously by all 11 commissioners.”[2]

The latter was after the Commission had solicited and obtained a large number of comments, mainly negative, about the Draft Report.[3] But presumably after reviewing those comments, the Final Report was issued with “only [unidentified] small changes.”  The only public explanation of this decision was the following: “For the most part, the recent round of public comment restated perspectives and points shared before, during, and after the Commission’s five public meetings . . . and so already had been taken into account by the Commission.”

The most important criticisms of the Draft Report, which this blog shared, were its statement, “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty.” Also criticized were the draft Report’s downgrading of “positive rights,” i.e., rights that “owe their existence to custom, tradition, and to positive law, which is the law created by human beings,” and Secretary Pompeo’s objections to women’s reproductive rights (especially abortion) and to LGBTQ rights.

 Criticism of Draft Report

Here is a summary of some of the criticisms of the Draft Report from some of the respected international human rights non-profit organizations.

The Human Rights Watch submission stated, “With other organizations, we also remain concerned that the commission itself was not representative of the human rights community, did not take testimony from the full scope of the human rights community, and did not consider in its scope the range of issues the human rights framework aims to address. Freedom House pointed out that there already are mechanisms for interpreting human rights obligations of states at international and regional levels. The supposed gap the commission was created to fill is one that does not exist; therefore, the premise [for the Commission] is dubious and its work duplicative. . . . we continue to question its value and have increasing concerns about the repercussions that its work may have on the universality and efficacy of human rights protections and on the institutions designed to oversee compliance and implementation.” That submission also stated the following:

  • “The world has no shortage of actors who aim to weaken existing protections or call internationally recognized rights into question. Too often, that has included the United States. In recent years, the United States has moved sharply away from its longstanding if inconsistent role of seeking to advance human rights worldwide. Its decisions to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, stonewall UN human rights experts, make an extraordinary threat of vetoing a UN Security Council resolution on women, peace, and security because it mentioned survivors’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, and terminate funding for multilateral bodies like the United Nations Population Fund, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization that help advance rights to education and health worldwide have removed the United States as a key player on global human rights issues. The United States State Department’s creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights purports to scrutinize well-grounded rights and obligations and reinterpret them in a way that deprivileges certain human rights but poses a risk to all rights. The United States should prioritize fulfilling its commitments, not redefining them to fulfill the wishes of a few.”
  • The Report “sets dangerous precedent that countries should decide which internationally recognized rights are or are not valid. . . . appeals to history and tradition are frequently abused by governments to justify their rejection of internationally recognized human rights norms. . . . Such an approach is likely to fragment and weaken the international human rights system, not strengthen or revitalize it. “
  • The Declaration of Independence and UDHR “are statements of principle, not obligation. Using these documents without also considering relevant human rights treaties and other sources of international law to guide human rights policy leads to a distorted understanding of the United States’ binding international obligations and commitments.”
  • The Report “spends little time on the adoption of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, the enfranchisement of women, the strengthening of due process under the Warren Court, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and Americans With Disabilities Act, and jurisprudence recognizing the right to reproductive autonomy and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Similarly, it does little to acknowledge increased recognition over the years of economic and social rights as central to human rights discourse.”
  • U.S. “obligations under core human rights treaties coexist with other commitments the United States has made to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, which are largely absent from the commission’s report.”
  • “The human rights project is facing challenges, but they are “not a matter of too many people seeking or claiming their rights. Instead, they are challenges that arise from autocratic or authoritarian governments that have denied fundamental rights, silenced vulnerable populations, and diminished the institutions and civil society groups that protect human rights from erosion.”
  • “The [draft] report erroneously suggests “that human rights that are inconsistent with domestic traditions are less meaningful or real than those the United States deems to favor.. . . [and] does not sufficiently acknowledge the maintenance, scrutiny, and accountability that upholding human rights requires.”
  • “Efforts to secure access to abortion are . . . about rights to life, to health, and to bodily autonomy. Similarly, efforts to secure the freedom to marry are . . . about the right to form a family and equal access to existing rights and protections without discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Two other such organizations offered similar comments. Freedom House: Trump Administration ignored or excused violations by Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, N. Korea and rebuffed pressure for racial justice in U.S. The draft report also rejects LGBT+ people, women and minorities. In addition, Freedom House rejects prioritization of rights and failure to recognize change views of rights over time (Pp 21-22). Human Rights First said proliferation of rights claims has not undermined legitimacy and credibility of human rights framework; treaties have not created uncertainties; rights hierarchies are wrong; abortion, affirmative action & same-sex marriage are valid rights; effort to preclude extension of new rights is wrong. It is retreat from human rights. (Pp 80-94).

Human Rights First’s Criticism of Final Report[4]

According to Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights First, Secretary Pompeo “has imposed his personal preferences [in the Final Report]while relying on arguments that pose a profound threat to all human rights as well.”

The Final Report “is a frontal assault on international human rights law. The report treats the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], adopted in 1948 and drafted with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, as the heyday of the human rights movement.” But this important document “is a non-binding political declaration. It has been followed over the years by a series of legally binding treaties, each with an independent expert committee elected by treaty members to interpret its language and monitor compliance. The commission disparages this legal elucidation as a ‘proliferation’ of rights, suggesting that there are now too many rights.”

Initially, the UDHR was codified in two legally binding covenants. One, on civil and political rights, contains provisions similar to the US Constitution, and the US government has ratified it. Another, on economic, social, and cultural rights, finds parallels in US law but not the US Constitution. The US government signed but never ratified it or fully embraced its rights.”

“After these foundational covenants, a handful of other treaties were adopted, spelling out, for instance, the meaning of the prohibition of torture or ways to protect womenracial minoritieschildren, and people with disabilities from discrimination. What Pompeo’s commission disparages as “proliferation” is in fact a process to ensure respect for the rights of people who traditionally have been marginalized or neglected.”

The Commission seemed most concerned with “interpretations of human rights law to protect reproductive freedom and the rights of LGBT people. In the case of LGBT rights, for example, the Human Rights Committee—the official body for interpreting the civil and political rights covenant—has found that the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination based on sexual orientation, just as the US Supreme Court recently found that sex discrimination includes discrimination against LGBT people.”

“The Pompeo commission’s discomfort with the Human Rights Committee is why it lionizes the non-binding [UDHR]. The declaration, as a statement of principles, has no accompanying interpretive body of law. That allows the US government to interpret its broad principles on its own, as if the covenants had never been adopted as its legally binding version.”

The Commission “seems to favor an a la carte approach to rights: The US government will pick the rights that it wants to observe, and others can do the same. That approach would be music to the ears of the world’s autocrats, and many will happily take the opportunity to trample on certain basic rights that Pompeo himself has rightly defended in places like Hong Kong.”

“To effectively abandon binding treaties for the Pompeo commission’s a la carte approach is to relegate human rights to the vagaries of government preferences. That’s not a system of human rights. It’s an excuse for repression, discrimination, and abuse.”

Conclusion

The Final Report also completely ignores the language of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. After reciting “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as among “certain unalienable rights” that “ are endowed by their Creator,” the Declaration next states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, governments will need to enact various kinds of statutes and other rules “to secure . . .life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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[1[ See U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2020). Here are links to other posts on this blog about this Commission.

[2] State Dep’t, [Final] Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (Aug. 26, 2020).

[3] The Commission’s website has a page for Public Submissions to the Commission, but they are limited to submissions before the issuance of the Draft Report in light of this statement, “At each of its public meetings, the Commission solicited input from the general public on relevant topics regarding human rights. Sometimes comments came from audience members who attended the meetings in person and who generously offered their thoughts and posed questions to commissioners at the microphone. Other times, outside individuals and groups opted to send more detailed written commentary to the Commission.”

[4] Roth, Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights Will Endanger Everyone’s Human Rights, hrw.org (Oct. 27, 2020).

The Need To End Minority Rule in U.S.       

Harvard professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, make a convincing case that the structure of the U.S. government has permitted minority rule in the U.S. and they propose ways to change that structure to reduce the enabling of such minority rule.[1] We will examine their arguments about structure and reform. Then a couple of other ways to change one part of that structure—the Electoral College–will be proposed by this blog followed by looking at another critique of the current U.S. government structure provided by Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

Existing Structure Enabling Minority Rule

 “Democracy is supposed to be a game of numbers: The party with the most votes wins. In our political system, however, the majority does not govern. Constitutional design and recent political geographic trends — where Democrats and Republicans live — have unintentionally conspired to produce what is effectively becoming minority rule.”

“Our Constitution was designed to favor small (or low-population) states. Small states were given representation equal to that of big states in the Senate and an advantage in the Electoral College, as we are seeing in this year’s presidential election. What began as a minor small-state advantage evolved, over time, into a vast overrepresentation of rural states. For most of our history, this rural bias did not tilt the partisan playing field much because both major parties maintained huge urban and rural wings.”

“Today, however, American parties are starkly divided along urban-rural lines: Democrats are concentrated in big metropolitan centers, whereas Republicans are increasingly based in sparsely populated territories. This gives the Republicans an advantage in the Electoral College, the Senate and — because the president selects Supreme Court nominees and the Senate approves them — the Supreme Court.”

Moreover, “recent U.S. election results fly in the face of majority rule. Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years and yet have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 20 years. Democrats easily won more overall votes for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, and yet the Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. The 45 Democratic and two independent senators who caucus with them represent more people than the 53 Republicans.”

“This is minority rule.”

“The problem is exacerbated by Republican efforts to dampen turnout among younger, lower-income and minority voters. Republican state governments have purged voter rolls and closed polling places on college campuses and in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and since 2010, a dozen Republican-led states have passed laws making it more difficult to register or vote.”

Levitsky & Ziblatt’s Proposed Reforms

Eliminate the electoral college by constitutional amendment. This is not easy. Under Article V of the Constitution, the Congress shall propose amendments “whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary [Senate (2/3 x 50 = 33.3) and House (2/3 x 435 = 290). Or under Article V, the Congress shall call a Convention for proposing amendments “whenever . . . two-thirds of the Legislatures of the . . .States [currently 2/3 x 50 = 33.3] apply for such a convention). I agree.

Eliminate the filibuster, which has meant that “meaningful legislation now effectively requires 60 votes, which amounts to a permanent minority veto.”[2 ] This would require a Senate vote to change its rules. Under the current Senate Rules, I believe that would require a vote of at least 60 senators, but whenever a new congress convenes as it will do in January 2021, I believe it may do so by majority vote.   (Please advise by comments to this post if these beliefs about Senate Rules are wrong.).) I agree.

Offer statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Colombia, “which would provide full and equal representation to nearly four million Americans who are currently disenfranchised.” I agree.

Defend and expand “the right to vote. “HR-1 and HR-4, a package of reforms approved by the House of Representatives in 2019 but blocked by the Senate, is a good start. HR-1 would establish nationwide automatic and same-day registration, expand early and absentee voting, prohibit flawed purges that remove eligible voters from the rolls, require independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional maps, and restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. HR-4 would fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County vs. Holder ruling in 2013.” I agree.

Other Suggestions Regarding the Electoral College

There are at least two other methods of changing the anti-democratic nature of the current Electoral College that, at least in part, would not require constitutional amendment.

First. Peter Diamond, professor emeritus at M.I.T. and a 2010 Nobel laureate in economics, has suggested a constitutional amendment that would require each state to divide its electoral vote between the two leading candidates within the state in accordance with the popular vote. For example, a state with an even split in the popular vote and 10 electoral votes would allocate 5 such votes to each candidate.[3]  Yes, such a change would require such an amendment since it would require all states to do it this way.

Or each state independently could decide to do just that, without a constitutional amendment, since Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” the Electors to which it is entitled. (Emphasis added.)  It, however, seems unlikely that all 50 states independently would decide to do this as a matter of each state’s laws.

Another way of changing the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College is approval by additional states of the existing National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which requires signatory states to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia once the Compact is signed by states with at least 270 electoral college votes. As of October 2020 this compact had been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which have a total of 196 electoral college votes although one of the states (Colorado) has suspended its approval of the Compact.[4]

This proposal raises a number of legal issues. Some legal observers believe states have plenary power to appoint electors as prescribed by the Compact; others believe that the Compact will require congressional consent under the Constitution’s Compact Clause or that the presidential election process cannot be altered except by a constitutional amendment.

Another Challenging Critique of U.S. Government

Another challenging and surprising critique of the current governmental problems in the U.S. has been provided by Larry Diamond,  a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.[5]

According to Mr. Diamond, “Today, we are far closer to a breakdown than most democracy experts, myself included, would have dared anticipate just a few years ago. Even if we are spared the worst, it is long past time to renew the mechanisms of our democracy, learn from other democracies around the world and again make our republic a shining city on a hill.”

Moreover, “The very age of American democracy is part of the problem. The United States was the first country to become a democracy, emerging over a vast, dispersed and diverse set of colonies that feared the prospect of the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Hence, our constitutional system lacks some immunities against an electoral debacle that are common in newer democracies.”

Today, he asserts, “The American [election] system is a mishmash of state and local authorities. Most are staffed by dedicated professionals, but state legislatures and elected secretaries of state can introduce partisanship, casting doubt on its impartiality. No other advanced democracy falls so short of contemporary democratic standards of fairness, neutrality and rationality in its system of administering national elections.”

In contrast, “even though Mexico is a federal system like the United States, it has a strong, politically independent National Electoral Institute that administers its federal elections. The Election Commission of India has even more far-reaching and constitutionally protected authority to administer elections across that enormous country. Elections thus remain a crucial pillar of Indian democracy, even as the country’s populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, assaults press freedom, civil society and the rule of law. Other newer democracies, from South Africa to Taiwan, have strong national systems of election administration staffed and led by nonpartisan professionals.”

In addition, “more recent democratic countries have adopted constitutional provisions to strengthen checks and balances. Like many newer democracies, Latvia has established a strong independent anti-corruption bureau, which has investigative, preventive and educational functions and a substantial budget and staff. It even oversees political and campaign finance. South Africa has the independent Office of the Public Protector to perform a similar role.”

In contrast, the U.S. “has no comparable standing authority to investigate national-level corruption, and Congress largely investigates and punishes itself.”

On another issue, newer democracies have taken “measures to depoliticize the constitutional court. No other democracy gives life tenure to such a powerful position as constitutional court justice. They either face term limits (12 years in Germany and South Africa; eight in Taiwan) or age limits (70 years in Australia, Israel and South Korea; 75 in Canada), or both. Germany depoliticizes nominations to its constitutional court by requiring broad parliamentary consensus. In other democracies, a broader committee nominates Supreme Court justices. In Israel this involves not just the executive branch but the parliament, some of the existing justices and the bar association.”

In contrast, the U.S. “lacks national checks on executive corruption and national guarantees of electoral integrity that have become routine in other democracies around the world. And nominations to our Supreme Court have become far more politicized than in many peer democracies.”

Conclusion

A proposal for changing the undemocratic  structure of the U.S. Senate will be discussed in a future post.

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[1] Levitsky & Ziblatt, End Minority Rule, N.Y. Times (Oct. 23, 2020). Levitsky and Ziblatt also are co-authors of How Democracies Die, which was reviewed in the New York Times: Szalai, Will Democracy Survive Trump? Two New Books Aren’t So Sure, N.Y. Times Book Review (Jan 10, 2018).

[2] This blog has published posts that discuss the history of the filibuster rule, including modest reforms of the rule in 2013, and recent unsuccessful litigation challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster.

[3]  Diamond, Letter to the Editor: Let States Split the Electoral College Votes, N.Y. Times (Oct. 29, 2020).

[4] National Popular Vote, Inc., National Popular Vote!National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Wikipedia.

[5] Diamond, I’m a Democracy Expert. I Never Thought We’d Be So Close to a Breakdown, N.Y. Times (Nov. 1, 2020).  Diamond is the author, most recently, of  “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency,“ Penguin Random House, 2019, 2020).