Brett Kavanaugh and the Case Against the Supreme Court (ep. 12)

September 6, 2018
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The Supreme Court is meant to protect the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Historically, however, it has repeatedly failed to live up to that promise. Can one justice change the course of the court? Erwin Chemerinsky, a Supreme Court litigator and dean of Berkeley Law School, discusses the court’s history and the threats a Justice Brett Kavanaugh could pose to our constitutional rights. 

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LEE ROWLAND
[00:00:04] I’m Lee Rowland. From the ACLU, this is At Liberty: the podcast where we discuss today's most important civil rights and civil liberties issues. Today we're talking all things Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has a vacant seat, and like all Supreme Court vacancies the choice of who fills it will have major consequences for the court, for the American public, for decades. But does one justice really make that much of a difference to the defense of people's constitutional rights? And what would a Justice Kavanaugh likely mean for our rights and liberties? Here to discuss it is Erwin Chemerinsky. He's the dean of Berkeley Law School. and he's been a leading legal scholar, professor, and Supreme Court litigator. He's argued many times before the Supreme Court and he's written books about it, including one called The Case Against The Supreme Court. Erwin, thank you so much for being here.

ERWIN CHEMERINSKY
It's truly my honor and pleasure to talk with you.

LEE
[00:01:09] You're a career civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court litigator, so people might have been surprised to hear you've authored a book called The Case Against the Supreme Court. Unpack that a little bit for us. Do you believe the court has fulfilled its role in defending Americans’ rights?

ERWIN
I believe that the Supreme Court has often failed, often at the most important times in American history. I think if you look at the Supreme Court with regard to race, the Supreme Court during times of crisis, you see a court that didn't live up to the promise of the Constitution.

LEE
Let's talk about both of those. How much of the court's history involves race?

ERWIN
De Tocqueville wrote early in American history that race is the central flaw upon which the American democracy was built. From 1787 to 1865 — that's a period of 78 years — the Supreme Court consistently upheld the institution of slavery. The court did nothing to chip away at the institution of slavery. In every case before and involving issues of slavery, the court ruled in favor of the slave owners and against any rights for the slaves.

From 1896 to 1954 — a period of 58 years — the Supreme Court articulated and then enforced the doctrine of separate but equal. Races were separated literally in every aspect of life in all of the southern states and many of the border states. It's tempting to want to think that that was all a long time ago, but just in recent years, the Supreme Court has struck down important laws advancing racial equality. For example, just a few years ago in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act. It’s the first time since the 19th century that a law advancing civil rights was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. And it’s having a devastating effect in terms of equality of voting across the country.

LEE
[0:03:20] Certainly the Supreme Court was founded and born into a slave-owning America, but so were all of our other institutions. Does the Supreme Court stand out as being particularly regressive on race?

ERWIN
I'm not saying that the Supreme Court is a failure often and the other institutions have been resounding successes. Obviously, Congress and the president have often failed with regard to race as well. But there is a difference — we ask the Supreme Court to enforce the Constitution. Supreme Court justices, unlike members of Congress and unlike the president, don't come up for electoral review. This was an intentional choice of the framers to ensure an independent judiciary. I think we rightly should have expected, could have expected, the Supreme Court to do a far better job with race than it has done through American history.

LEE
You also mentioned the court's failures in times of crisis. What do you mean by that?

ERWIN
During times of crisis, especially foreign-based crisis, the response has often been repression. Then we come to realize in hindsight that we weren't made any safer for a loss of rights. Let me give you some examples so this is concrete rather than abstract.

LEE
Great.

ERWIN
During World War I, Congress passed a couple of statutes and they, among other things, made it a federal crime to criticize the war and the draft effort. For example, United States v. Debs, that involved the Socialist leader Eugene Debs. He gave a speech to an audience in which he said, “you are good for more than cannon fodder. There's more that I'd like to say but I can't, for fear I’d go to prison.” For just saying that, and nothing else, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence.

[00:05:11] During World War II, 10,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their lifelong homes and placed in what President Franklin Roosevelt called concentration camps. Not one Japanese-American was ever indicted or convicted of espionage or a crime against national security. When the matter came before the Supreme Court in 1944, in Korematsu v. the United States, the Supreme Court — 6 to 3 — upheld the evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the west coast. Justice Hugo Black, who’s remembered as a civil libertarian, said that “war is about hardships. This is just hardship Japanese-Americans will have to bear.”

During the McCarthy era, in the late 40s and early 50s, it was really the age of suspicion. Just being suspected of being a communist was enough for a person to lose a job or even liberty. The leading Supreme Court case during that time was Dennis v. the United States, and it involved some individuals who would organize study groups to look at the works of Marx, and Engel, and Lenin. There was no evidence whatsoever that their organizing study groups had any adverse effect, or made it more likely to be a communist revolution. But, they were convicted of the crime of conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the United States government, and the Supreme Court upheld their conviction and their sentences. So that's what I mean when I say during times of crisis the court didn't stand up to public pressure. The court caved. It didn't enforce the Constitution.

LEE
One of those cases, Korematsu: I recall that case being part of the public conversation pretty recently when the Supreme Court ruled on President Trump's Muslim ban. Has that case been overruled? And do you think the current court has turned the page on what we now think of as a fairly loathsome old Supreme Court opinion?

ERWIN
[00:07:12] In Trump v. Hawaii, on June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court, 5 to 4, upheld what President Trump himself called a Muslim ban. Justice Sotomayor, in a vehement dissent, likened what the majority upheld to the Korematsu decision. Chief Justice Roberts took great exception to this in a majority opinion. It's obvious he was rankled by Justice Sotomayor’s analogy. Chief Justice Roberts said, “Korematsu is repudiated.” He said that Korematsu is no longer a good law.

However, I think Justice Sotomayor’s point is an important one. There are similarities between the Muslim ban and what went on during World War II. In each instance, individuals were seriously disadvantaged solely on the basis of race and ethnicity. The only thing that [in] World War II caused individuals to be uprooted from their lifelong home and placed in concentration camps was race. The only thing that's keeping people from being allowed into the United States is their ethnicity. In neither instance was there any proof of harm or danger. As I said, not one Japanese-American was ever indicted or convicted of a crime against national security. If you look at the countries on the list of President Trump's travel ban, they share three things in common: One is they are all populations over 90 percent Muslim; in none of them has there ever been a link toward terrorist activity in the United States; and none of them are countries where Donald Trump has economic investments. There are certainly predominantly Muslim countries, where Trump has economic investments and there's a link to terrorist activity, but they're not on the list. I think in this country what the rule of law should mean, among other things, is that we never disadvantage somebody solely on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin.

LEE
[00:09:09] Are there some bright spots? Are there areas where the court has played a particularly robust role in protecting our liberty?

ERWIN
There's no doubt that that's so, that's why I'm not making an overall judgment that the court has failed, and I'm not saying the court has always failed. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated California Governor Earl Warren to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. Warren was a lifelong Republican, he had been the attorney general of California. In fact, he had favored the Japanese internment and he was then governor of California. He was chief justice from 1954 to 1969. And this was the era where the Supreme Court did an enormous amount to advance racial justice.

For instance, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional state laws that required segregation of the races in schools. Following Brown v. Board of Education, there was a series of decisions where the Supreme Court found unconstitutional the laws that segregated every aspect of Southern life. Ultimately, it was the Supreme Court that was responsible for the end of these so-called “Jim Crow” laws. The Supreme Court has also advanced liberty. I think of the Supreme Court decision from three years ago, Obergefell v. Hodges, where the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional state laws that prohibited same-sex marriage. Quite famously in Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Supreme Court held that women have the right to choice when it comes to reproductive freedom.

LEE
Do you believe that any of those precedents, that you're sighting as bright spots, are vulnerable right now?

ERWIN
[00:10:53] I do. I think the last two cases I mentioned are vulnerable. Obergefell v. Hodges was a 5-4 decision striking down state laws that prohibited same sex marriage. Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Thomas, and Alito wrote vehement dissents. Of course, Roberts, Thomas, and Alito remain on the court.

A year ago, in a case called Pavan vs. Smith, Justice Gorsuch wrote a dissent from a law that was implementing the prohibition of same-sex marriage, and Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas and Alito, left no doubt that he would vote to overrule that case. With Justice Kennedy — the author of the majority opinion — gone, and assuming Brett Kavanaugh or another conservative replaces him, I could see five votes to overrule that decision. Or take Roe v. Wade, I believe right now on the Supreme Court, there are four justices — Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch — who would overrule Roe v. Wade in an instant. I think that Brett Kavanaugh is going to give them a fifth vote. Maybe it will simply be five votes to uphold all the state laws that create restrictions on abortion. Between 2010 and 2016, state governments across the country adopted 290 new different statutes imposing restrictions on abortion. These very well may be upheld, but I think it could even be the Supreme Court flat out overruling Roe v. Wade. This is what conservatives have wanted for decades. Now I think they’ll have the majority to do it.

LEE
In addition to ruling on the substance of people's civil rights claims, the Supreme Court, as you've argued, has also worked to actually keep people from having their claims in court. Can you tell us a little bit about how the court has worked to keep plaintiffs from even getting in the courthouse doors?

ERWIN
[00:12:53] One of the things that's very troubling to me about the Supreme Court in recent years is how it’s closed the courthouse doors to those who have been seriously injured. And to me, what’s particularly insidious about this is that if the Supreme Court takes away a right, it will get headlines, but if the Supreme Court holds that no one can go to court to enforce that right, the media doesn't pay any attention.

So if the Supreme Court were to say the government can give unlimited amounts of financial assistance to parochial schools, that will make headlines. But if the Supreme Court says no one has standing, the ability to go to court to challenge government aid to parochial schools, it has the same effect but it doesn't get headlines.

In a series of cases, including this term, the Supreme Court has said — and they’re all 5-4 decisions — that arbitration clauses should be enforced. These clauses say that if somebody has a dispute, that they can't go to court, they have to go to arbitration. So I went to see a new eye doctor recently and the receptionist gave me this big stack of papers to fill out. In the middle was a form that I had to sign, that if I had any claims against the doctor arising out of the treatment, I couldn't sue the doctor in court. I’d have to go to arbitration. I ask the receptionist if the doctor would still see me if I didn't sign the form. She said she didn't know.

Many consumer agreements — like with our cell phone companies — have arbitration clauses. Businesses want these arbitration clauses because they keep people from being able to be part of class actions. Just this past term, the Supreme Court ruled that employers as a condition of employment can insist that employees sign agreements that if they have any disputes with the employer that they won't sue in court, they'll have to go to arbitration. It was a case that involved wage theft. And if you have a large number of workers who each lose a small amount of money, they're not going to bring a lawsuit or an arbitration. It's really why we need class actions in court. And there's so many ways in which the Supreme Court has made it impossible for people whose constitutional rights have been infringed to be able to sue the government.

LEE
My understanding is that the Supreme Court's role is in part to protect individual rights when they're threatened by organized structures of power. Do you have thoughts about how we got here, how an institution designed to protect the individual seems to be siding so frequently with structures of power?

ERWIN
[00:15:25] In terms of what the Constitution is for, I think the Constitution exists to limit government. After all, what makes the Constitution different from all other laws? Any other law can be changed by the legislature. Any federal statute can be revised or repealed by Congress. But it's very difficult to change a Constitution. It takes approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, then passes by three-quarters of the states. Then you have to ask, why would we as a democracy want to be governed by a document that’s so difficult to change? I think the answer is that the framers were very distrustful of majority rule.

They were especially afraid of how majorities would treat minorities. The minorities they were concerned about were especially religious and political minorities. Today we would add to that racial minorities, sexual orientation minorities. And the framers wanted to make sure that the Constitution was enforced. They knew just leaving the Constitution to the president, to Congress, wasn't going to work. Especially when there are political pressures, the president, the Congress, were likely to cave in. These are people who want to get reelected. So the framers said that you have an independent judiciary — a judge has his or her position for life unless he or she is impeached and removed from office. And the framers thought that this was the best way to enforce the Constitution and protect minority rights.

But so often the Supreme Court has failed at this. The justices are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate. They often reflect those majoritarian sentiments. The justices live in society, and sometimes it's just been flat-out historical accidents, about which president got to make picks with the Supreme Court at a particular moment in time.

LEE
[00:17:20] You mentioned that the Supreme Court has been particularly bad in times of war or foreign policy. We're now in an era of American wars on abstract nouns. Right? The war on drugs, the war on terror. What does that mean for more recent decisions where plaintiffs tried to hold the government accountable for things like surveillance, or speech violations or human rights?

ERWIN
Again, the court has had a record that shows that it's often failed. I can give you many examples. Let's take Guantanamo for instance. There were some Supreme Court decisions in 2004 and in 2008 that said that Guantanamo detainees had a right to come to federal court with habeas corpus. But the last Supreme Court decision about Guantanamo was June 12, 2008. We're now more than a decade later. We have dozens of people still in Guantanamo, some who have been there since the spring of 2002. And the Supreme Court has done nothing to protect these individuals.

There was a Supreme Court decision in 2010, Humanitarian Law Project vs. Holder. It involved whether or not it can be deemed material support for terrorist activity to engage in speech to help groups. In one instance, Americans were trying to help a Kurdish group use international law to become an independent nation. In another instance, an American group was trying to help those in Sri Lanka apply for humanitarian assistance. The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that if the government had called those groups terrorist groups, even speaking to them in that way was material support for terrorist activity. To me, again, it's the Supreme Court failing to uphold the Constitution.

LEE
[00:19:12] Where does Brett Kavanaugh fit into this? Has he heard cases in his tenure involving national security claims or constitutional claims against the government?

ERWIN
He has and he’s been solidly on the side of government power. Brett Kavanaugh is not going to be a justice who sides with the liberals in these cases.

LEE
Let's turn to the justices as individuals. For pretty much my entire career, Justice Kennedy loomed over everything we did as lawyers, on the idea that he was the one vote on the court that mattered. I believe you yourself were in the business of evangelizing to Supreme Court litigators that they should write their briefs to one man — Justice Anthony Kennedy. If Kavanaugh is confirmed, do you see him stepping into those shoes? Or are there ways in which Kavanaugh is going to throw that understanding of that one powerful seat out of whack?

ERWIN
Kavanaugh is not going to step into Kennedy's shoes as being the swing justice on the court. That's for a simple reason. Brett Kavanaugh is significantly more conservative than Anthony Kennedy. There's a reason why the Federalist Society put Brett Kavanaugh at the top of its list. There's a reason why President Donald Trump picked Kavanaugh. He is very conservative. Think of it this way. Up until June 27, at the end of this term, there were four very conservative justices: Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch. Four liberal justices: Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. And that left Anthony Kennedy as the swing justice. When the court was split 5 to 4, about 75 percent of the time he would vote with the conservatives, about 25 percent of the time with the liberals. But he was the swing justice. I think that Brett Kavanaugh is going to be a conservative much in the mold of an Alito or a Gorsuch, not in the mold of a Kennedy.

[00:21:11] So instead of Kennedy being the swing justice, who now becomes, in the words of political scientists, the median justice? John Roberts. So compare Kennedy and Roberts with regard to key areas. Abortion: Kennedy has been the fifth vote to reaffirm Roe. Kennedy has voted to strike down restrictions on abortion.

Roberts has voted to uphold every law restricting abortions coming on the court. Affirmative action: Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion two years ago upholding an affirmative action plan from the University of Texas. Roberts has explicitly said that all forms of affirmative action should be found unconstitutional. Gay and lesbian rights. Kennedy wrote every opinion of the Supreme Court advancing rights for gays and lesbians, including the opinions with regard to marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Roberts dissented, would have upheld those laws. I can go on with other examples as well, but I think what this says is that in many critical areas, the shift from Kennedy to Kavanaugh is going to change the results and really be quite inimical to liberty and equality.

LEE
Do you believe that a court with Kavanaugh on it, and as you described, with Roberts as the swing justice, if we can call him that at all — do you think that is representative of where mainstream American politics are right now?

ERWIN
No, I think the majority of the court is going to be significantly more conservative than mainstream American politics. I've always thought, over the last, say, 50 years, that the country shifts with regard to national politics between slightly left of center — say a Clinton or an Obama — or slightly right of center in terms of the overall politics. On the other hand, I think that Donald Trump is significantly more conservative than the overall — wherever we put the American people even if you think of the American people as being right of center, not nearly as right of center as Donald Trump. I think that, likewise, the Supreme Court is significantly to the right of the American people.

[00:23:24] Every opinion poll shows that a majority of Americans believe that women should have reproductive choice and have the right to choose whether to have an abortion. But we're going to have a majority of the Supreme Court to say that there is no longer a right to abortion. Opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans now believe that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry. We’re going to have a majority of justices who don't believe that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry. So in these ways I think it's going to be a court much more conservative than the American people.

LEE
Have we ever had a historical version of the Supreme Court that was similarly far right of mainstream America?

ERWIN
Yes. From the 1890s through 1936, we had a very conservative Supreme Court, much more conservative overall than the American people. During this time, this very conservative pro-business court declared unconstitutional over 200 federal, state and local laws to protect consumers and employees. In fact, from 1933 to 1937, the Supreme Court, which was very conservative, was regularly striking down President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Because of pressures, because of deaths and retirements, the court then changed, and Roosevelt got to appoint justices. But during those four years there was often a Supreme Court much more conservative than the American people.

LEE
Do you think it's a flaw in the structure of the Supreme Court that it can produce a set of justices so far outside of mainstream America?

ERWIN
Yes, I do think it's a flaw. I think the flaw comes from the life tenure of Supreme Court justices have. I've come very much to believe that term limits for Supreme Court justices would be a good thing. I favor 18-year non-renewable terms. Some of it is just that, thankfully, life expectancy is a lot longer now than when the Constitution was written in 1787. We have situations now where John Paul Stevens was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1975 and served to the year 2010. Clarence Thomas was 43 years old when he was confirmed for the Supreme Court. Neil Gorsuch was 49. Elena Kagan was 50. John Roberts was 50. If they stay on the court until they're 90, the age at which Justice Stevens retired, we’re talking about individuals who would be on the Supreme Court for 40 to 50 years. That's too much power in a single person's hands for too long a period of time. And I'm gratified that both liberals and conservatives have been articulating this. The former governor of Texas Rick Perry argued for term limits for the Supreme Court. Liberals have done so. Unfortunately, though, I think it would take a constitutional amendment. And I don’t see that happening.

LEE
[00:26:18] Let's talk the Supreme Court confirmation process. I know you yourself have been involved. You testified against the confirmation of Justice Alito. And I believe you've said that you felt it was a bit of Kabuki theater, right, a bit of a dog and pony show. Do you still think that? And is that inevitable?

ERWIN
The phrase Kabuki theater actually comes from Senator Joe Biden. When I testified against Samuel Alito in January of 2006, there was a break in the proceedings. Senator Biden came up to me to make conversation and he said, you know, this is all an exercise in Kabuki theater. He said, everyone in this room knows that Sam Alito is going to be a conservative justice. The Republicans are all pretending that he has no ideology. The Democrats are all trying to ask him a question to trip him up, but he's too smart for that.

Everyone knows that Brett Kavanaugh is going to be a very conservative justice. Rarely is there a successful confirmation fight, when the president and the Senate are of the same political party. On the other hand, when the president and the Senate are different political parties, that's when you have meaningful confirmation fights. That's when Robert Bork was defeated in 1987, or Clement Haynsworth and Harrold Carswell in the early years of the Nixon presidency. Where John Parker in 1931 or in the 19th century, about 20 percent of presidential nominations for the Supreme Court never got confirmed. But it was always going to happen when the president and the majority the Senate are of different political parties.

LEE
Many people have argued that there is a cloud of suspicion around Kavanagh's confirmation in particular because the president has a cloud of criminal suspicion surrounding him. Is there any constitutional rule for considering the context under which a Supreme Court justice is nominated?

ERWIN
[00:28:11] Nope. If the president nominates and the majority of the Senate votes to confirm, the person is then a justice on the Supreme Court. Period. Nothing about context matters. Donald Trump lawfully nominated Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. If a majority of the Senate votes to confirm, he’s a Supreme Court justice for life.

LEE
Do you have a special concern about someone who is so deferential to government power being in place during a Trump presidency where we may see historical questions about the ability to, say, indict the president?

ERWIN
Very much so. For example, Brett Kavanaugh was asked in a speech he was giving what Supreme Court cases you'd like to see overruled? There's a case called Morrison v. Olson from 1988. In Morrison v. Olson the Supreme Court, seven to one, upheld the independent counsel. The independent counsel was created by federal law and it said if there are allegations of serious wrongdoing by the president or a high level executive official, that an independent counsel be appointed. The Supreme Court upheld that law and stressed the need to have independent investigation if the president is accused wrongdoing or somebody close to the president is accused of wrongdoing. This is the case that Brett Kavanaugh says should be overruled.

Brett Kavanaugh in another instance criticized the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Nixon in 1974. In Nixon, the Supreme Court held unanimously that President Nixon had to supply tapes that have been subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor to use in the prosecution of those involved in the Watergate cover-up. The Supreme Court said that the need for evidence in a criminal trial outweighs concerns with regard to executive privilege. Eight to zero. But Brett Kavanagh says that that case was wrongly decided.

LEE
[00:30:09] Taken together, I think it's fair to characterize what you've said as a pretty pessimistic take on the court's past and likely near future. What would you say to those of us who want to retain some optimism? Is there any hope on the horizon for the Supreme Court?

ERWIN
Sure. I think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best when he said, the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice. If you look at the sweep of American history, there’ve been tremendous advances in equality and liberty. We've gone from a nation where there was slavery, a nation where there were Jim Crow laws, to more racial equality, though there's still tremendous inequalities today. And tremendous advances in terms of rights of women — women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. Just in the last few years, the great advances in rights for gays and lesbians, including the right to marry. We could talk about the advances in freedom that there've been since the Constitution was written. I believe in the long term, that is the path for the United States. There will be advances of equality and liberty to come. Unfortunately, because of Donald Trump now being president and who he’s picked for the Supreme Court, it's going to be a lot longer than we wish before we're going to see those advances.

LEE
Erwin, thank you so much for joining us today and giving us hopefully some strength to last until that moral arc comes back to a place we think it should be.

ERWIN
My pleasure. It's always my honor to talk with you.

LEE
[00:31:50] Thanks for listening to At Liberty. Be sure to rate and subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts.

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