Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin’s Primary Election

On Tuesday, April 7, the State of Wisconsin held a primary election in the midst of this Pandemic. Previously the State’s Democratic Governor,      , attempted to recognize the impact of the Pandemic on in-person voting by encouraging voting by mail through modifying the rules for the submission and counting of votes by mail, but the Republican-controlled state legislature objected to those changes. This led to litigation. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 6, by a 5-4 decision, granted the Republican National Committee’s application for a stay of the U.S. district court’s preliminary injunction requiring the State to count absentee ballots postmarked after April 7 (the date of the in-person voting).[1]

This post will examine that Supreme Court decision and the reactions thereto by the New York Times and the Washington Post) and by the Wall Street Journal. This blog post will conlclude by adding its comments to all of this.

The Lower Courts’ Decisions[2]

In early March several individual Wisconsin voters, community organizations and the state and national Democratic parties brought three  lawsuits  in a federal district court in Wisconsin against members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission seeking several forms of relief, all aimed at easing the effects of the pandemic on the upcoming election. The state and national Republican parties intervened as defendants, and on March 28, the federal court consolidated the three cases. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court entered a preliminary injunction extending the deadline for voters to request absentee ballots from April 2 to April 3 and also extending the deadline for election officials to receive completed absentee ballots from April 7 to April 13 (regardless of the postmark date). The preliminary injunction also barred the Elections Commission and election inspectors from releasing any report of the in-person polling before April 13.

The Elections Commission did not challenge the preliminary injunction, but the intervenors (the national and state Republican parties) appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit for a stay of the preliminary injunction’s extension of the deadline for returning absentee ballots. However, on April 3, the Seventh Circuit denied such a stay, but granted the application for intervention by the Wisconsin Legislature.

U.S. Supreme Court’s Proceedings

On April 4, the intervenors (state and national Republican parties and Wisconsin Legislature)  filed an emergency application with the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of the district court’s preliminary injunction insofar as it required the State to count absentee ballots postmarked after April 7 (the day of the election). [3]

The next day (April 5) the Democratic National Party filed its response followed by the Republican National Committee’s  reply. [4]

The very next day (April 6) the Supreme court issued its Per Curium majority opinion. This opinion was supported by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

The Majority Opinion. This opinion started by claiming, “The question before the Court is a narrow, technical questions about the absentee ballot process . . . whether absentee ballots now must be mailed and postmarked by election day, Tuesday, April 7, as state law would necessarily require, or instead by mailed and postmarked after election day, so long as they are received by Monday, April 13.”

Important for the majority of the Court was the fact that the plaintiffs did not seek a preliminary injunction extending the deadline for mailing of absentee ballots. More importantly, the district court’s order “contravened this Court’s precedents” that have “repeatedly emphasized that lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.” (Emphasis added for the unintended ironical use of the word “ordinarily.”)

The majority opinion then criticized the dissent, which will be discussed after the dissenting opinion is summarized.

The Dissenting Opinion . The dissent was authored by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

This opinion emphasized the importance of this primary election for U.S. president and many state positions in the context of the “COVID-19 pandemic” having become a “public health crisis” and the Governor’s March 24th ordering “Wisconsinites to stay home until April 24 to slow the spread of the disease.As a result, “an unprecedented number of Wisconsin voters—at the encouragement of public officials—have turned to voting absentee. . . . Accommodating the surge of absentee ballot requests has heavily burdened election officials, resulting in a severe backlog of ballots requested but not promptly mailed to voters.” (Emphasis added.)

In response, according to the dissent, after an evidentiary hearing, the district “court concluded that the existing deadlines for absentee voting would unconstitutionally burden Wisconsin citizens’ right to vote.,” and therefore entered the preliminary injunction. (Emphasis added.)

Justice Ginsburg then  pointed out that the Supreme court’s majority “requires absentee voters to postmark their ballots by election day, April 7—i.e., tomorrow—even if they did not receive their ballots by that date.” This “will result in massive disenfranchisement. A voter cannot deliver for postmarking a ballot she has not received. Yet tens of thousands of voters who timely requested ballots are unlikely to receive them by April 7, the Court’s postmark deadline.” (Emphasis added.)

The dissent continued, The majority opinion’s “suggestion that the current situation is not ‘substantially different’ from ‘an ordinary election’ boggles the mind.” (Emphasis added.)

The majority opinion claims that the plaintiffs in the district court did not ask for an injunction allowing ballots postmarked after April 7, but Justice Ginsburg pointed out that “the plaintiffs specifically requested that remedy at the preliminary-injunction hearing in view of the ever-increasing demand for absentee ballots.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, “The concerns advanced by the Court and the applicants pale in comparison to the risk that tens of thousands of voters will be disenfranchised. Ensuring an opportunity for the people of Wisconsin to exercise their votes should be our paramount concern.” (Emphasis added.)

The majority opinion is “wrong” to claim that this case presents a “narrow, technical question.” Instead, “The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic. Under the District Court’s order, they would be able to do so.” Under the majority opinion, “that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own. That is a matter of utmost importance—to the constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s citizens, the integrity of the State’s election process, and in this most extraordinary time, the health of the Nation” (Emphasis added.)

The Majority’s Response to the Dissent. This opinion asserts that before the preliminary injunction “the deadline for [election officials’] receiving ballots was already extended to accommodate Wisconsin voters, from April 7 to April 13. Again, that extension has the effect of extending the date for a voter to mail the ballot from, in effect, Saturday, April 4, to Tuesday, April 7. That extension was designed to ensure that the voters of Wisconsin can cast their ballots and have their votes count.” The preliminary injunction’s allowing “voters to mail their ballots after election day . . . is extraordinary relief and would fundamentally alter the nature of the election by allowing voting for six additional days after the election.”

Reactions to Supreme Court’s Decision[5]

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board and columnists as well as New York Times’ columnists unanimously criticized the Supreme Court’s decision. (The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board, however, supported that decision.)

The Post’s editorial pointed out that polling places in Milwaukee had been reduced from 180 to 5, causing “lines [of voters] snaked for blocks, with waits reported to be up to three hours long.” As a result, “plenty of people chose not to vote.” In contrast, “voters in Republican-leaning areas of the state reportedly had a far easier time.” The editorial also noted, “ When people are in line at a polling place at closing time, judges order the polls to stay open. It should have been the same for people who got in line properly for an absentee ballot. The conservative justices’ lack of concern for these thousands of voters will only encourage speculation that their motivation was partisan.”

The most stinging commentary was provided by the Post’s Jennifer Rubin. She noted the irony of the majority’s opinion that delaying the date for return of the absentee ballots “fundamentally alters the nature of the election.” Yes, Rubin said, “it would make it safer (fewer people would have to risk exposing themselves to the coronavirus at the polls) and would encourage more participation.”  This decision “is among the most irresponsible and anti-democratic in recent memory.” She also quoted Michael J. Abramowitz, the President of Freedom House,       , who said,, “the emerging debacle surrounding the Wisconsin primary demonstrates the crucial need to take strong measures to protect elections during the eCOVIS-19 pandemic.” Finally, “Republican politicians and conservative justices will not shy from making voting difficult, dangerous and confusing. Their highest goal is not robust elections, but elections in which fewer voters turnout.. . . [Such] motives (think, suppress voting) are obnoxious and anti-democratic.”

Another Post columnist, E.J. Dionne Jr., said that President Trump had made clear that “for Republicans voter suppression is part of the party’s game plan.” Under a Democratic proposal for federal financing of nation-wide mail-in voting, Trump said, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” He also recently tweeted that voting by mail “for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

Linda Greenhouse, who has spent four decades studying and writing about the Supreme Court for the New York Times, said, “I’ve rarely seen a development as disheartening as this one: a squirrelly, intellectually dishonest lecture in the form of an unsigned majority opinion . . . about how ‘this court has repeatedly emphasized that lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.’” (Emphasis added.)

“How could they say that,” according to Greenhouse, when “[p}eople shouldn’t ordinarily be afraid of catching a deadly virus when exercising their right to vote. Half the poll-worker shifts in the city of Madison are not ordinarily vacant, abandoned by a work force composed mostly of people at high risk because of their age.” And “Milwaukee voters are not ordinarily reduced to using only five polling places. [Voters and poll workers do not ordinarily hazmat suits.]  And the number of requests for absentee ballots in Milwaukee doesn’t ordinarily grow by a factor of 10, leading to a huge backlog for processing and mailing.” (Emphases added.)

Greenhouse concluded by asserting the Court’s majority was “unwilling to do what they could to help” the Wisconsin election by rejecting the Republicans’ challenge to “the common-sense solution that a federal judge had devised with the support of the officials who actually had to carry out the election.” That majority’s decision “raises the question whether the empowered conservative majority has the situational awareness to navigate the dire situation that faces the country, and whether it can avoid further displays of raw partisanship that threaten to inflict lasting institutional damage on the court itself. It’s a moment that calls on everyone in a position of power to display vision and a generosity of spirit.”  (Emphasis added.)

In addition,, some of the commentators had suggestions for improving election laws.

The previously mentioned E.J. Dionne suggested that “Congress must pass legislation as part of the next economic rescue package that will require mail-in ballots in every state and finance the effort with federal money” and that “Biden and Sanders . . . should hold a joint video news conference with Sens. Elizabeth Warner . . and Amy Klobuchar  . . .on behalf of Warren’s comprehensive bill to provide $4 billion for postage free mail ballots . . .  [and] a ban on onerous voting requirements, hazard pay for poll workers and an end to voter purges at a moment when it will be hard for voters to defend their rights.”  Finally Dionne advocated Liberals to press for “remedies (such as expanding the size of the court0 to battle both conservative court-packing and right-wing judicial activism.”

Richard Hasen,  Professor of Law and Political Science at University of California at Irvine School of Law, said, “[S]tates need to be prepared to thwart and prosecute any attempts to tamper with ballots. . . . states should send an application for an absentee ballot to every voter listed on voting rolls. . . .Voters should also be allowed to request absentee ballots online. . . . States should also prevent the unlimited collection of absentee ballots by private individuals . . . . some voters who need assistance getting their votes to the U.S. mail or to a state collection box . . . . Absentee voters should be told if their ballots are being rejected for technical reasons — such as a purported mismatched signature — and have the chance to cure the problem and have their ballot counted.”

David Byler, a data analyst and political columnist focusing on elections, polling, demographics and statistics, offered these thoughts. “We should keep one feature of this messy Wisconsin election around: a slower process for reporting results. . . .This restriction made for a relatively muted election night: Reporters weren’t live-tweeting votes as they came in, quickly writing takes on how to interpret the race or trying to spin out a second-day story. . . . Ramping up vote-by-mail would extend the franchise, help virus-proof our system and make the process more psychologically bearable.”

John Hickenlooper, a former mayor of Denver and governor of Colorado and current candidate for the U.S. Senate, described his state’s successful voting from home for the last six years as a model for reforming other jurisdictions’ election laws. “Every eligible Colorado voter receives a ballot in the mail roughly three weeks before Election Day, and after marking their choices from the comfort of their own home, voters mail the ballot back or deposit it at one of the hundreds of drop-off locations around the state (and put on their “I Voted” sticker). We also make it possible for voters to register through Election Day, and to vote in person. Denver city and county voters even have the ability to track the status of their ballots, with email or text notifications, as they travel through the postal system. The “Ballot TRACE” software ensures that every mailed ballot is accounted for.”

In addition, Hickenlooper says, “In Colorado, election officials conduct rigorous risk-limiting audits after elections. They also use a centralized database to compare signatures in the voter file with those on ballot envelopes and track ballot returns to keep an eye out for any possible irregularities. And, of course, one advantage of using mailed ballots is that paper can’t be hacked.”  This system has increased voter turnout by 3.3% and saved about $6 per voter from reduced printing, labor and other costs. In its first year it increased turnout of unlikely voters (younger and low-propensity voters) by 20 %.

The lone contrary voice on these issues from prominent mainline newspapers was the Wall Street Journal’s editorial, which said the Supreme Court “rightly reversed a district judge’s last-minute order that would have allowed Wisconsin ballots to be cast after the election was legally over. The confusing episode is a reminder that, even in a pandemic, steps as grave as rewriting voting rules should be up to elected representatives and not freelanced by judges.”

Conclusion

Needless to say, this blogger agrees with the Washington Post and New York Times. Voting by U.S. citizens is an unalienable right and needs to be encouraged and protected, not suppressed. This especially is true during times that are not ordinary, like the current pandemic.

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

 

[1] Opinions, Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., No. 19A1016 (U.S. Sup. Ct. April 6, 2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emergency Application for Stay, Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm, (No. 19A1016, U.S. Sup. Ct. April 4,  2020).

[4]   Response to Application for Emergency Stay, Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm (No. 19A1016  (U.S. Sup. Ct. April 5, 2020); Reply in Support of Emergency Application for Stay, Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm (No. 19A1016 U.S. Sup Ct. April 5, 2020).

[5] Editorial, Wisconsin Republican leaders put voters in an impossible position, Wash. Post (April 7, 2020); Rubin, Wisconsin shows the fragility of democracy, Wash. Post (April 7, 2020); E.J. Dionne, Jr., What we learned from Wisconsin, Wash. Post (April 8, 2020); Marcus, Wisconsin’s debacle may be the most infuriating of the coronavirus failures, Wash. Post (April 7, 2020); Waldman, Wisconsin’s election nightmare is a preview of what could happen in November, Wash. Post (April 7, 2020); Olsen, There’s plenty of room to compromise on mail-in voting. Get it done, Wash. Post (April 8, 2020); Byler, The Wisconsin election was a mess. But there’s one element of it worth emulating, Wash. Post (April 8, 2020); Hickenlooper, We’ve been voting at home for six years in my state. It’s time to do it nationally, Wash. Post (April 8, 2020); Hasen, Trump is wrong about the dangers of absentee ballots, Wash. Post (April 9, 2020); Editorial, You Shouldn’t Have to Risk Your Life to Vote, N.Y. Times (April 3, 2020); Greenhouse, The Supreme Court Fails Us, N.Y. Times (April 9, 2020); Assoc. Press, In Wisconsin, Missing Absentees Spur Questions and Anger, N.Y. Times (April 9, 2020) ;Boule, The G.O.P. Has Turned Voting in Person Into a Death Threat, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2020) (“There is no part of the Republican Party — not its president in the White House, not its leadership in Congress, not its conservative allies on the Supreme Court, not its interest groups or its affiliated media — that has an interest in or commitment to a fair, equal and expansive democracy.”); Douglas, Yes, Wisconsin Republicans used the pandemic to stop people from voting, Guardian (April 9, 2020) (Douglas, a professor at Amherst College: “Wisconsin, once a thriving crucible of progressive politics, has turned into a vanguard of the Republican assault on democracy.”); Editorial, Wisconsin’s Election Confusion, W.S.J. (April 7, 2020).

 

 

 

Two Federal Appellate Courts Uphold Subpoenas for Trump Accounting Records  (Updated 11/22/19)   

Over the last two weeks two federal appellate courts have upheld different subpoenas to the Mazars USA accounting firm for records relating to Donald J. Trump.

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

As discussed in a prior post, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on October 11, 2019, upheld (2-1) a subpoena by an U.S. House of Representatives committee to Mazars for certain Trump accounting records.

A month later, on November 13, that court denied, 8-3, Trump’s motion for the full (en banc) court to review that decision of the three-judge panel.[1] As is typical, there was no opinion by the eight judges denying the motion. However, two of the three dissenting judges, wrote opinions.

Judge Gregory Katsas joined by Judge Karen Henderson, said, “this case presents exceptionally important questions regarding the separation of powers among Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Judiciary. For the second time in American history, an Article III court has undertaken to enforce a congressional subpoena for the records of a sitting President. The first time this was attempted with then President Nixon, this court refused to enforce the subpoena, stressing “the availability of impeachment foreclosed any conclusion that the records at issue were ‘demonstrably critical to the responsible fulfillment’ of Congress’s legislative prerogatives, even when Congress was investigating significant allegations of presidential misconduct. Senate Select Comm. on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon, 498 F.2d 725, 731–33 (D.C. Cir. 1974) (en banc).”

The other dissenting opinion, by Judge Neomi Rao, who also was joined by Judge Henderson, emphasized that this subpoena was not really justifiable by the congressional power to enact new laws. It was really a subpoena looking for impeachable offenses, which is not part of the legislative power.

Afterwards an attorney for Trump said that he would now petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

And on November 15, his attorneys did just that by asking Chief Justice John Roberts, who is responsible for emergency requests from the D.C. Circuit, for a stay of proceedings while the Supreme Court considers his petition for review of the merits of the lower court’s decision. This request argued for such a stay for the following reasons: (I) “There is a reasonable probability that the Court will grant certiorari to determine whether the Committee’s subpoena is lawful.” (II) “There is a fair prospect that this Court will reverse the D.C. Circuit’s decision upholding the subpoena.” (III) “Applicants will suffer irreparable harm without a stay.” (IV) “The balance of equities and relative harms weigh strongly in favor of granting a stay.” [2]

On November 18, the attorneys for the House Committee filed a letter with the Supreme Court announcing that they planned to file an opposition to the requested stay on November 22, but that out of courtesy to the Court the Committee does not oppose “a short ten-day administrative stay, beginning on November 20, 2019, to enable the Court to receive an opposition by the Committee and then rule on the request for a stay. Thereafter the same day, Chief Justice Roberts ordered “that the mandate of . . . [the D.C. Circuit] is hereby stayed pending receipt of a response, due on or before Thursday, November 21, 2019, by 3 p.m. ET, and further order of the undersigned or of the Court.”[3]

One of Trump’s attorneys, William S. Consovoy, “said the Supreme Court’s intervention was imperative. Under the lower court’s decision, ‘any committee of Congress can subpoena any personal information from the President; all the committee needs to say is that it’s considering legislation that would force Presidents to disclose that same information. Given the temptation to dig up dirt on political rivals, intrusive subpoenas into personal lives of Presidents will become our new normal in times of divided government — no matter which party is in power. If every committee chairman is going to have this unbounded authority, this Court should be the one to say so.”

In accordance with that order, the House Committee on November 21 submitted its opposition to the Trump motion. It argued that the Court’s precedents involving Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton make clear that the chief executive enjoys no special privilege to be free from investigation or legal action and that a stay would cause irreparable harm to the Congress and the public, outweighing whatever harm enforcement of the subpoena would cause Trump and Mazars. The House Committee also argued that if the Court agrees to a stay of a lower court’s order, the Court should expedite a decision on whether to order a full briefing and a hearing on the case.[4]

Second Circuit Court of Appeals

Such a petition to the Supreme Court would join a similar one by Trump from a November 4 unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City upholding a state grand jury subpoena for accounting records from the Mazars firm relating to a probe into whether the accounting for payments Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, made to two women violated state laws against falsifying business documents. .[5]

During the oral appellate argument of this case, one of the judges asked the Trump attorney if local authorities could investigate President Trump if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and the attorney said the authorities could not so investigate.

After the Second Circuit’s decision, Jay Sekulow, an attorney for Trump, said that Trump would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case because, he claimed, ““The issue raised in this case goes to the heart of our republic. The constitutional issues are significant.”

In fact, on November 14, Trump petitioned the Supreme Court for a review of the following issues in this case: (I) “Whether the President is absolutely immune is an important and unsettled issue of federal law that the Court should resolve” and (II)   “The Second Circuit incorrectly decided this important immunity question.” The petition also alleged, “For the first time in our nation’s history, a state or local prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation of the President of the United States and subjected him to coercive criminal process. . . . Politically motivated subpoenas like this one are a perfect illustration of why a sitting president should be categorically immune from state criminal process.”[6]

In a contemporaneous statement, Sekelow stated, “”The Second Circuit decision is wrong and should be reversed. In our petition, we assert that the subpoena violates the U.S. Constitution and therefore is unenforceable. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant review in this significant constitutional case and reverse the dangerous and damaging decision of the appeals court.”

The Department of Justice also filed with the Supreme Court an amicus brief supporting Trump’s petition while saying that there are instances when a local prosecutor might legally seek a president’s documents — but that this was not one of them.[7]

Trump filed this petition so immediately because of his attorneys’ agreement with the New York prosecuting attorneys whereby the latter “agreed not to seek the tax returns until the case is resolved by the Supreme Court” so long as Trump agreed to “a very quick briefing schedule, one that would allow the Supreme Court to announce whether it will hear the case as soon as next month and to issue a decision by June, as the presidential election enters its final stages.”

Conclusion

Now the parties to these cases will be joined by all of us in the U.S. and elsewhere for the briefing on whether the Supreme Court should grant such review, the Court’s decision on these petitions and, if review is granted, the briefing and oral arguments in that court and its ultimate decision (in the midst of the 2020 presidential campaign).

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

[1]  Order, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP and Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, No. 19-5142 (D.C. Cir. Nov. 13, 2019); Savage, Court Rejects Trump’s Appeal in Fight to Keep Financial Records from Congress, N.Y. Times (Nov. 13, 2019); Reuters, U.S. Appeals Court Again Backs House Request for Trump Tax Documents, N.Y. Times (Nov. 14, 2019).

[2] Emergency Application for a Stay of Mandate Pending the Filing and Disposition of a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, No. 19A545 (Nov. 15, 2019); Liptak, Trump Again Asks Supreme Court to Block Release of His Financial Records, N.Y. Times (Nov. 15, 2019); Hurley & Freifeld, Trump asks Supreme Court to block disclosure of financial records to Congress, Reuters (Nov. 15, 2019); Barnes & Marimow, Trump appeals to Supreme Court again, this time to block House committee’s subpoena seeking his financial records, Wash. Post (Nov. 15, 2019).

[3] Letter, House Committee to Clerk of Supreme Court, Trump v. Mazars USA, No. 19A545 (Nov. 18, 2019); Order, Trump v. Mazars USA, No. 19A545 (Nov. 18, 2019) Trump v. Mazars USA, No. 19A545 (Nov. 18, 2019); Barnes, Supreme Court puts temporary hold on Trump financial records ruling, Wash. Post (Nov. 18, 2019); Liptak, Chief Justice Gives Trump Temporary Reprieve in Financial Records Case, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2019).

[4] Barnes, Supreme court precedents do not shield Trump financial records, House, prosecutors argue, Wash. Post (Nov. 21, 2019); Reuters, Democrats Urge U.S. Supreme Court Not to Protect Trump Financial Records, N.Y. Times (Nov. 21, 2019); House Committee, Opposition to Emergency Application for a Stay of Mandate, No. 19A545 (Sup. Ct. Nov. 21, 2019).

[5] Opinion, Trump v. Vance, No. 19-3204 (2d Cir. Nov. 4, 2019); Weiser & Liptak, Trump Taxes: Appeals Court Rules President Must Turn Over 8 Years of Tax Returns, N.Y. Times (Nov. 14, 2019); Neumeister, Appeals court agrees Trump tax returns can be turned over, Wash. Post (Nov. 4, 2019).

[6] Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Trump v. Vance, No. —- (U.S. Sup Ct. Nov. 14, 2019); Liptak, Trump Asks Supreme Court to Bar Release of His Tax Returns, N.Y. Times (Nov. 14, 2019); Barnes & Marimow, Trump asks Supreme Court to shield his tax returns from prosecutors, setting up historic separation-of-powers showdown, Wash. Post (Nov. 14, 2019); Bravin, Kendall & Ramey, Trump Asks Supreme Court to Block New York Subpoena for Tax Records, W.S.J. (Nov. 14, 2019); Samuelson & Gerstein, Trump lawyers take fight over tax returns to Supreme Court, Politico (Nov. 14, 2019); deVogue, Trump asks Supreme Court to block subpoena for tax returns, CNN.com (Nov. 14, 2019).

[7] Barnes, Supreme court precedents do not shield Trump financial records, House, prosecutors argue, Wash. Post (Nov. 21, 2019); Reuters, Democrats Urge U.S. Supreme Court Not to Protect Trump Financial Records, N.Y. Times (Nov. 21, 2019); Liptak, Justice Dept. Urges Supreme Court to Back Trump in Tax Records Case, N.Y. Times (Nov. 22, 2019); Vance, Jr.,  Brief in Opposition, No. 19-635 (Sup. Ct. Nov. 21, 2019).

 

 

 

 

Spain Ready to Proceed with Case Over the 1989 Killing of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador

For the last nine years, a court in Spain has been trying to obtain the presence of 20 former Salvadoran military officers to face trial on their alleged involvement in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador. Recently one of them—Inocente Orlando Montano Morales (“Montano”)—Is about to be sent to Spain for trial.[1]

 Montano

Former Colonel Montano was the deputy minister of Salvadoran Public Security from 1989 to 1992 and since April 2015 has been the subject of a judicial request by the U.S. Department of Justice for his extradition from the U.S. to Spain to face these charges.

On February 4, 2016, a Magistrate Judge in the U.S. District Court for the District Court of the Eastern District of North Carolina, after an evidentiary hearing, granted this request for extradition based upon the following conclusions: the court had personal jurisdiction over Montano; the U.S. and Spain had an extradition treaty; Montano had been charged with extraditable offenses under that treaty (the terrorist murder of five Jesuit priests of Spanish original nationality); and there was probable cause the Montano committed these offenses.[2]

Montano then exercised his only means of appealing that order by filing in April 2016 an application for a writ of habeas corpus in the same court. After briefing and a hearing, a district judge of that court in August 2017, granted the U.S. government’s motion to dismiss the application and dismissed the application.  This was based on the court’s conclusion that this extradition followed accepted practice and did not appear to be infirm; the treaty “provides for the extradition of a defendant charged with murder when committed outside the territory of the requesting nation {Spain]; . . . [its] laws allow for such a prosecution; and the laws of the requested nation [the U.S.] would allow for a prosecution in similar circumstances.”[3]

Montano then appealed this order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and simultaneously asked the district court for a stay or postponement of his extradition. This was denied by the district court on September 6 after concluding that he has “failed to make a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits [of his appeal]” and “cannot demonstrate that he will suffer irreparable injury in the absence of a stay.” Thereafter simple denials of the request for a stay were entered on September 28 by the Fourth Circuit and on November 15 by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.[4]

Undoubtedly important in Chief Justice Roberts’ denial of a stay was the brief in opposition to such a stay that was submitted by the U.S. Solicitor General, the principal attorney for the U.S. in the U.S. Supreme Court. In its first three of 29 pages, before setting forth a detailed review and approval of the lower courts’ actions, that brief set forth the following facts from the record: “Toward the end of that war [between the military –led government and a leftist guerrilla group]– on November 16, 1989—members of the El Salvador Armed Forces . . . murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter at the Universidad Centroamerica (UCA) in El Salvador. . . . Five of them were Spanish nationals.” Moreover, evidence submitted by the Spanish authorities showed that “in the days leading up to the murders, the . . .  radio station that [Montano] oversaw made threats against the Jesuit priests; that on the day before the murders, [Montano] participated in a meeting at which one of this fellow officers gave the order to kill the priests; that [Montano] provided ‘necessary information’—namely, the location of one of the priests—to those who carried out the murders; and that following the murders, [Montano] attempted to conceal [the Armed Forces] involvement by threatening the wife of a witness.”[5]

The Solicitor General concluded his brief with these comments: “the [U.S.] has a strong interest in having extradition requests resolved without undue delay, both to comply with its treaty obligations and to further its reciprocal interest in having other Nations cooperate swiftly with its own extradition requests and other law enforcement objectives.” Moreover, “Spain is an important partner of the [U.S.] in terrorism and other cases of national importance, and timely compliance with its extradition requests advances the [U.S.’] foreign policy and law enforcement interests.” (Pp. 27-28.)

As a result, Montano is now headed for imminent extradition to Spain. Almudena Bernabéu, an expert from the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) and a private prosecutor of the Jesuits case in Spain with her organization Guernica 37, said about four weeks ago the State Department determined that extradition was appropriate. “From that moment, the two countries are ready for delivery and reception of Montano, but they did not want to do it” until he had exhausted all of his U.S. remedies.

Other Former Salvadoran Military Officers

Of the other 19 former Salvadoran military officers charged with this horrible crime, one was convicted of the crime in El Salvador and was re-imprisoned after its Supreme Court invalidated its Amnesty law, one (former Defense Minister Emilio Ponce) is deceased and two others are cooperating with the Spanish prosecutors (Yussy Mendoza and Camilo Hernandez).

These other 15 still live in their home country, but its Supreme Court twice (2012 and 2016) has denied their extradition to Spain.

Manuel Escalante, a human rights lawyer at Jose Simeon Canas Central American University, where the murdered priests lived and worked and were murdered, after learning of the imminent extradition of Montano, called for prosecution of the 14 in El Salvador. He said that a conviction in Spain would be a big step toward “eliminating historical impunity” and that Salvadoran prosecutors must also act to advance the case in the Central American nation. The victims and their defenders “are going to seek justice. We are going to ask for the reopening of the trial.”[6]

The university, however, previously had said it considers the case closed against those who carried out the killings and even has called for clemency for former Col. Guillermo Benavides, who has served four years of a 30-year sentence as the only military official in prison for his role in the crime.

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[1] The charges subsequently were reduced to terrorist murder of the five priests of original Spanish nationality as a result of an amendment to Spain’s statute on universal jurisdiction. The priests, their murders, judicial proceedings about this crime, including the Spanish case, and these extradition proceeding have been discussed in the posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[2]  Certification of Extraditability & Order of Commitment, In re Request by Spain for the Extradition of Montano, Montano v. Elks. No. 2:15-MJ-1021-KS (E.D.N.C. Feb. 5, 2016).

[3] Order, Montano v.  Elks, No. 5-16-HC-2066-BO (E.D.N.C. Aug. 21, 2017).

[4] Order, Montano v.  Elks, No. 5-16-HC-2066-BO (E.D.N.C.. Sept. 6, 2017); Order, Montano v.  Elks, N0. 17-7091 (4th Cir. Sept. 28, 2017); Order, Montano v.  Elks, No. 17A445 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 15, 2017); Drew, Last hurdle cleared for ex-Salvadoran official’s extradition, Assoc. Press (Nov. 15, 2017); Labrador & Rauda, Colonel Montano to Spain for the  murder of the Jesuits, El Faro (Nov. 15, 2017); Progress in Jesuit murder case on 28th anniversary, El Salvador Perspectives (Nov. 16, 2017); Alonso, The Supreme Court of the United States approves extraditing a Salvadoran ex-military man to Spain for the killing of the six Jesuits, El Pais (Nov. 15, 2017).

[5] Memorandum for the Federal Respondents in Opposition, Montano v. Elks, No. 17A445 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 8, 2017).

[6] Assoc. Press, El Salvador Jesuits Seek Reopening of Case in 1989 Massacre, N.Y. Times (Nov. 16, 2017); Lafuente, A halo of justice in the killing of the Jesuits in El Salvador, El Pais (Nov. 17, 2017.

Senator Chuck Grassley’s Outrageous Conduct Regarding the Supreme Court Nomination of Merrick Garland 

 

Iowa Senator Charles (“Chuck”) Grassley, the current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is following the dictates of the Senate Majority Leader and his fellow Republican, Mitch McConnell, to not do anything with respect to President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. Grassley’s conduct with respect to this nomination stands in sharp contrast to the rational argument for the nomination recently offered by President Obama as discussed in a prior post and in the White House’s website for the nomination.

Grassley started out this “do-nothingism” on what was a high note for him. Immediately after the announcement of the Garland nomination Grassley said “Article II, Section 2 [of the Constitution grants] the power to nominate an individual to the Supreme Court . . . to the President and authority is given to the Senate to provide advice and consent.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it describe how the Senate should either provide its consent or withhold its consent.” In addition, according to the Senator, “A majority of the Senate [the Republicans] has decided to fulfill its constitutional role of advice and consent by withholding support for the nomination during a presidential election year.”[1]

Grassley, therefore, has not submitted any questionnaire to the nominee, has refused to schedule any hearing on the nomination and has promised not to submit the nomination for a vote by the entire Senate. In addition, Grassley initially even refused to extend the courtesy of meeting with Judge Garland. Subsequently, however, Grassley said he would meet with Garland to tell him why Grassley was not supporting the nomination.[2]

Grassley Speech on Senate Floor

On April 5, Grassley escalated his obstructionism by an intemperate speech on the Senate floor criticizing Chief Justice Roberts for saying, 10 days before the death of Associate Justice Scalia and thus before the controversy over the Garland nomination: “When you have a sharply divided political divisive hearing process, it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms.  You know if the Democrats and Republicans have been fighting so fiercely about whether you’re going to be confirmed, it’s natural for some members of the public to think, well, you must be identified in a particular way as a result of that process.” [3]

According to Grassley, “the Chief Justice has it exactly backwards.  The confirmation process doesn’t make the Justices appear political.  The confirmation process has gotten political precisely because the court has drifted from the constitutional text, and rendered decisions based instead on policy preferences. In short, the Justices themselves have gotten political.  And because the Justices’ decisions are often political and transgress their constitutional role, the process becomes more political.”

“In fact, many of my constituents believe, with all due respect, that the Chief Justice is part of this problem,” added Grassley. “And contrary to what the Chief Justice suggested, a major reason the confirmation process has become more divisive is that some of the Justices are voting too often based on politics and not on law.   If they’re going to be political actors after they’re confirmed, then the confirmation process necessarily will reflect that dynamic.”

This Grassley speech also criticized Roberts for trying to counter the perception by some Americans that the Court has become politicized. Said the Senator, “I think he is concerned with the wrong problem. He would be well served to address the reality, not perception, that too often there is little difference between the actions of the court and the actions of the political branches. So, physician, heal thyself.”

Reacting to this speech, Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, said this speech “was close to breathtaking in its intemperate incoherence.” It included an “extended attack on Chief Justice John Roberts, who had recently expressed the unexceptional view that the Court should stay out of politics as much as possible.” According to Grassley, “The confirmation process has gotten political precisely because the Court has drifted from the constitutional text and rendered decisions based instead on policy preferences.” Presumably Grassley was referring to two cases upholding the Affordable Care Act that were written by Roberts.

An editorial in the Baltimore Sun had similar words of condemnation. It said that Grassley’s argument was “infantile” and “allows Mr. Grassley or any other self-appointed expert on constitutional law to make a similar claim every time a justice interprets the law in a manner that is not lock-step with the critic’s own. . . . Shame on Senator Grassley for suggesting that Justice Roberts has somehow betrayed the institution when it is the judiciary chairman who seems to be bent on rewriting the Constitution — not only to limit President Barack Obama’s authority to fill a court vacancy but now to imply that the chief justice has somehow sabotaged the court. . . . Iowa voters, take note: Your six-term senator deserves to be put out to pasture, if only for sheer soft-headedness.”[4]

Grassley Op-Ed in Des Moines Register

On April 10, in reaction to a Des Moines Register editorial objecting to the Senate’s obstruction of the nomination and probably to Iowa voters objecting to his “do-nothingism,” Grassley published an op-ed in that newspaper” to defend his position.[5]

He asserted that it was absurd to argue that somehow “the federal judiciary is debilitated without a ninth Supreme Court justice for a brief period of time.  As the [changing] numbers [of the Justices over time] make clear, the size of the court as Congress designed it over the years has frequently changed, and hasn’t left the court in disarray.” He continued, “The temporary impact of a split decision pales in comparison to the damage an election-year political brawl would cause the court and the country . . . . A nomination considered during this heated campaign season would be all about politics, not the Constitution.”

Grassley-Garland Breakfast Meeting

The Grassley-Garland meeting did happen over breakfast in the Senate Dining Room on April 12. After the one-hour breakfast, Grassley tweeted that the meeting has been “pleasant” as he explained to Judge Garland why the Senate would not be moving forward with his nomination. Later the Senator’s staff released a statement: “The meeting was cordial and pleasant. As he indicated last week, Grassley explained why the Senate won’t be moving forward during this hyper-partisan election year. Grassley thanked Judge Garland for his service.” [6]

Grassley ‘s Reaction to President Obama’s Statement About the Nomination

Later that same day, April 12, the Senator released a statement to be made on the Senate floor in response to President Obama’s comments at the University of Chicago Law School that were discussed in an earlier post.[7]

“[U]nlike the President, I think it’s a bad thing that there’s politics in judicial decision-making these days. Politics in judicial rulings means that something other than law forms the basis of those decisions. It means the judge is reading his or her own views into the Constitution.  Unlike the President, I believe the biggest threat to public confidence in the court is the justices’ willingness to permit their own personal politics to influence their decisions. “

According to Grassley and contrary to the President, “what’s in a judge’s ‘heart,” or their personal “perspective [and] ethics’ have no place in judicial decision-making” and ‘is totally at odds with our constitutional system.   We are a government of laws and not a government of judges.”

Said Grassley, “Politics belongs to us—it’s between the people and their elected representatives.  It’s important that judges don’t get involved in politics. That’s because, unlike senators, lifetime-appointed federal judges aren’t accountable to the people in elections.  It’s also because when nine unelected justices make decisions based on their own policy preferences, rather than constitutional text, they rob from the American people the ability to govern themselves.”

Conclusion

A negative assessment of the obstructions to the Garland nomination by Chairman Grassley and other Republican Senators has been provided by 15 former presidents of the American Bar Association (ABA) and by this blogger.

The ABA leaders asserted in a letter to Senate leaders that “there is no election-year exception” to the Senate’s advice and consent responsibilities in the Constitution, that Chief Judge Merrick Garland is “one of the most outstanding judges in the country” and that leaving the seat vacant “injects a degree of politics into the judicial branch that materially hampers the effective operation of our nation’s highest court.” Therefore, say the bar leaders, “The president has fulfilled his constitutional duty, and it is time for the members of the United States Senate to fulfill theirs by holding a fair hearing and timely vote.”[8]

Grassley’s previously cited op-ed made what, in this blogger’s opinion, is an absurd argument. He contended that with a vacancy on the Court this election year, “the American people have a unique opportunity to engage in a serious discussion about the meaning of our Constitution and the way justices read it.” So far there has not been any such serious discussion of this or any other issue and it is unrealistic to expect that there will be any difference during the remaining six-plus months of this election.

Moreover, Grassley who is not an attorney and who, to my knowledge, has never studied constitutional law, proceeds from an over-simplistic view of how cases present constitutional questions and how courts resolve them. He also ignores the Senate’s own interpretation of the relevant constitutional provisions by its consistent practice of holding hearings and votes on nominations even in election years. Finally Grassley errs in suggesting that issues of constitutional law should be submitted to the average voter, similarly unversed in constitutional law. Instead the constitutional system submits selection of judges to the President and the Senate, neither of which originally was elected directly by the people.[9] This system of judicial selection is one way to preserve the independence of the judiciary.

Although I now live and vote in Minnesota, I am a native Iowan who obtained education in the public schools of the Iowa town of Perry and at the state’s Grinnell College. I, therefore, wrote to Senator Grassley on March 20, 2016. After reciting my Iowa background, I stated:

  • “I have long believed that most Iowans were reasonable, fair-minded people and that their elected representatives reflected this admirable trait.”
  • “You, however, disappointingly have dispelled this belief by your enlistment in the Republican Senate leadership campaign to deny a hearing and a Senate vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate on advising and consenting to President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the United States Supreme Court.”
  • “In so doing, you ignore that in 2012 President Obama won reelection for a term of office that does not end until January 20, 2017 with a popular vote of 65.9 million, which was nearly 5.0 million more votes than those received by the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. You also ignore that under Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution the President has the power and the duty to “nominate . . . Judges of the supreme Court” and that the Senate has the power and duty to provide its “Advice and Consent” to such nominations.”
  • “Remember this is the Senate Judiciary Committee, not the Republican Judiciary Committee nor “your” Judiciary Committee.”
  • “I hope during this Senate recess that your Iowa constituents will voice similar views to you and that you change your position on this important issue and authorize the Judiciary Committee to proceed with its consideration of this nomination.”

To date I have not received any response to this letter from the Senator.

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[1] Grassley, Grassley Statement on the President’s Nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court (Mar. 16, 2016)

[2] Reuters, Senator Grassley to Meet Garland Despite Opposition to Nominee, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2016); Shear, Meeting Merritt Garland to Tell Him Why G.O.P. Won’t Hold Hearings, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2016).

[3] Grassley, Grassley Floor Statement on the Public Perception of the Supreme Court (April 5, 2016); Assoc. Press, Capitol Hill Buzz: Grassley Takes on Chief Justice Roberts, N.Y. Times (April 5, 2016); Toobin, The Supreme Court Extremism of Clarence Thomas and Chuck Grassley, New Yorker (April 8, 2016).

[4] Editorial, Grassley v. Roberts, Baltimore Sun (April 10, 2016).

[5] Grassley: Grassley: Sky won’t fall with one less justice, Des Moines Register (April 10, 2016).

[6] Herszenhorn, Senator Grassley and Judge Garland Meet, and Rehash the Obvious, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016);Reuters, Senate Judiciary Chairman Grassley Tells Garland No Hearings, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016); Assoc. Press, Senate Judiciary Chair Grassley Has Breakfast with Garland, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016).

[7] Grassley, The Supreme Court and the Remarks of President Barack Obama at the University of Chicago (April 12, 2016).

[8] Assoc. Press, Ex-American Bar Association Chiefs Push for a Vote on Garland, N/Y. Times (April 11, 2016); Mascaro, Top GOP senator meets Obama’s Supreme court pick to tell him there will be no vote, Chic. Tribune (April 12, 2016).

[9]  U.S. Senators were not elected by popular vote of the people until 1913 with the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring such method of election. (U.S. Senate, Direct Election of Senators.) The President and Vice President, originally and still true today, are not elected by popular vote, but instead by electors in the Electoral College. And the first time there was a popular vote for electors was in 1824 with the procedure for the Electoral College established by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution that was adopted in 1804.