Some government officials still haven’t gotten the message from the revolt that followed the Supreme Court’s overreaching Kelo eminent domain decision. Kelo, you may recall, puffed up eminent domain to allow governments to take private property for public benefit and economic development, not just for public use like a road. So, in New London, Connecticut, private homes were taken and transferred to another private owner for a medical research lab that was never built, all for the sake of economic development. After Kelo, 45 states enacted some kind of reform measure to rein in the use of eminent domain for economic purposes.
Rapacious Baltimore didn’t get the memo, however. In March, it filed a lawsuit to condemn the Preakness Triple Crown horse race - not just the Pimlico race track where the race is run, but the horse race itself.
Now comes the federal government which wants to get away without paying a dime for an airport terminal in Texas that was built and maintained with private investor funds and a lower court said was worth more than $133 million. The facts in the Love Terminal case [Love Terminal Partners v. United States] are convoluted, but the important point for present purposes is that the government says the terminal, now destroyed, was worthless because it had no tenants and was not earning a positive cash flow. Therefore, the government says - and the appeals court in this case agreed - no just compensation for the exercise of eminent domain is due.
However, by that logic, if the government decides to take any church or synagogue in the land - or any idle farm in the country waiting for a new owner to come work it - the government can get away with seizing the property and refusing to pay just compensation when these things clearly have value. Places of worship may not ever turn a profit, but they clearly have monetary value. Commercial assets may not be making a profit at the time the government decides to seize them, but they still have value. Doesn’t getting them for free sound too good to be true? More importantly, wouldn’t that be exactly the wrong signal to send to what is supposed to be limited government whose job it is to protect our rights, not line its own pockets at our expense?
There was a perfectly good doctrine in eminent domain law in use for decades - a property is worth what a willing buyer would pay in cash to a willing seller for it. There is no good reason I can see to replace it with a new doctrine that essentially says ‘we can take your property for free if it’s not earning anything at the moment, even if we’re the ones who caused your revenue to dry up.’
The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to take the case, but it should. There’s a lot at stake here.
Kamala Harris made news this past week by proposing that state laws restricting abortions be subject to preclearance by the U.S. Justice Department. The proposal is modeled after the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which forced state and counties with a history of discrimination to get preclearance from the federal government to make changes in their election procedures. The Feds blocked 86 measures in several states under voting rights preclearance. Preclearance for abortion restrictions could have just as big an impact - abortion restrictions have been enacted in ten states so far this year.
In 2013, the Supreme Court knocked down part of the voting rights preclearance scheme. The Court found that the formula used to determine whether states were still discriminating against minority voters were out of date and the Justice Department was acting like nothing had changed in the last 50 years when it clearly had. As applied, preclearance had become unconstitutional, violating the Tenth Amendment. [Shelby County v. Holder, 2013] “The Tenth Amendment reserves to the States all powers not specifically granted to the Federal Government, including ‘the power to regulate elections.’” Id. The Court found that the federal government could not disrupt the “equal sovereignty” of the states - that is, treat them differently from each other - on the basis of out-of-date information. [more here]
But here’s the rub: the Supreme Court did not say preclearance itself is unconstitutional or against the Tenth Amendment. Instead, it said Congress can mandate preclearance under “exceptional conditions”. Literacy tests and poll taxes were the “exceptional conditions” justifying preclearance in the voting rights context.
The analysis in the abortion context is different, and is of no comfort to friends of limited government. States have the power to regulate elections, but the Supreme Court declared a federal fundamental right to abortion in the Roe v. Wade case. The Court federalized the abortion issue and didn’t leave much in the way of state power on the issue. States can try, even citing health and safety concerns, but state restrictions on abortion can get knocked down if they are deemed an “undue burden” on the federal fundamental right to abortion. This has been the basic set-up since the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision in 1992.
We may not like it but, because of the way constitutional law has gone in this country, a President Kamala Harris would have at least as strong a case in asking Congress to enact preclearance in the abortion context as there was in the voting rights context. She can cite all the recent attempts to restrict abortions, claim that the heartbeat and other types of bills are “undue burdens” on the right to abortions, and say to Congress “exceptional conditions” exist to justify preclearance and require affected states to come begging to Washington before their legislatures can even take up any abortion bills at all. She’s not crazy, and that’s a problem for friends of the Tenth Amendment and limited government.
Alabama’s Governor signed into law a bill to ban most abortions in the state. The law is intended as a direct challenge to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision extending the fundamental right to privacy under the 14th Amendment Due Process clause to include a right to abortion. Alabama’s law does not take effect for 6 months but, already, at least one Alabama doctor has vowed to keep performing abortions when the law goes into effect.
Alabama joins other states that have recently passed restrictions on abortion. Heartbeat bills were passed in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio. In addition, Missouri’s Governor is expected to sign a heartbeat bill passed by the legislature this past week.
Meanwhile, observers reading the tea leaves in a different kind of case this past week said liberal Justice Breyer was sounding the alarm about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. The case had to do with where states can be sued but the opinion overruled a 40-year-old precedent in the process. Breyer’s dissent concluded: “Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the Court will overrule next.” Overturning precedent is rare because of the judicial doctrine of ‘stare decisis’ which, in Latin, means ‘to stand by things decided’.
Will the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and uphold Alabama’s abortion ban? The appointments of Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch give pro-lifers hope. But it’s dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future. There were five votes on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe in 1992, but it didn’t happen. Instead, Justice Kennedy switched his vote and the Casey case has been used numerous times since to knock down state restrictions as ‘undue burdens’ on the right to abortion. Some say Chief Justice John Roberts is in the role of swing justice today and point out that he has never voted to strike down a state abortion restriction.
So it’s anybody’s guess what will happen if the issue does head back to the Supreme Court. The Court could uphold Roe, knock it down - sending the entire issue back to the states - or modify it as it did in the Casey case. That we are still fighting about abortion 40 years after Roe became the law of the land is testimony to the passion and endless inventiveness of pro-life activists who have been holding annual marches, praying outside of Planned Parenthood clinics, and producing a veritable blizzard of state and federal legislation - pain capable bills, dismemberment bills, heartbeat bills, and 44 attempts in the U.S. House at last count to stop infanticide. Other activists on the right would do well to study their methods and bring them to bear on other policy issues. Perhaps most importantly, pro-lifers did not quit in the face of long odds. They kept fighting. They’re an inspiration to anyone fighting the Left on other issues.
There was no Constitution Minute last week because I was at a conservative conference in Michigan. While we were inside listening to the speakers, tires were slashed outside in the parking lot, cars with Trump bumper stickers being singled out. I came back from Michigan to news that Facebook banned Laura Loomer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, and other non-Left voices.
This is getting serious. While we are in a golden age of free speech in the courts with the Supreme Court issuing strong opinions like Citizens United and Janus, free expression in society overall is under attack like I’ve never seen before. The attacks are coming from several directions. In January, I told you about threats to free speech on college campuses; from the transgender pronoun police; from attempts to take banking services away from the NRA; from Google, YouTube, and other tech giants; and from Europe and the United Nations. [Constitution Minute, 1/27/19]
In April, I told you about Germany ratcheting up enforcement against so-called ‘hate speech’ online and new hate speech initiatives from the Attorneys General of Michigan and Minnesota that move in the same direction. [Constitution Minute, 4/14/19] The Michigan initiative includes a hate speech database to be maintained by the state civil rights agency that will collect remarks from individuals and groups for later use. This is a direct threat to free speech because hate speech, whether you like it or not, is protected under the First Amendment. Just think of the chilling effect on free expression in Michigan because now you have to worry about whether state bureaucrats will decide what you say is offensive and put you in their database.
The Michigan Attorney General’s office testified before a state legislative committee that they would not access the database in criminal hate crimes cases. But sharp legislators pointed out that enhanced hate crime penalties are a matter of proving intent and the database of prior remarks would most surely be mined for evidence of intent in criminal cases. The database will affect hate crimes cases from the charging decision all the way through to sentencing, the legislators pointed out. The fact that the Attorney General’s office would be so coy about this does not inspire confidence, especially when you consider the Attorney General herself led off her testimony with the correct but misleading statement her office did not have such a database. This was misleading because the database is at the civil rights agency, which she knows darn well. She also tried to square the circle that hate crime penalties do not punish people for what they think. Sure, and I’m the tooth fairy.
We have free speech under attack like never before and it’s metastasizing into governmental actions like the Michigan hate speech database. It’s become clear to me we’ve turned a corner in this country and our right to free expression is now in jeopardy. Therefore, I have decided to undertake a new project to push back on threats to free speech from the authoritarian Left, the Islamists, state bureaucrats with tunnel vision, and anyone else who would take away our First Amendment rights.
I will be using my Champions of the Constitution Grassroots Network to push back. We’re in 11 states and have been pushing back on attacks on the Constitution for the last year and a half. You are welcome to join. It doesn’t take a lot of time and will not pull you away from your other activist projects. I will also be collaborating with like-minded folks, for example, activists in Michigan who are trying to get their state civil rights agency brought before the same legislative committee to testify about their database.
I see that others are coming to similar conclusions, that it’s time to do something. Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots joined more than 400 scholars, writers, and group leaders in signing a joint statement in April calling for more protection for free speech on college campuses.
I applaud this and every other effort to protect free expression in this country. We live in a time when non-Left voices are being pushed to the margins. It’s not too hard to imagine a future where the authoritarian Left attempts to seize control of the Internet and talk radio to squelch non-Left voices entirely. At that point, they will not be content with slashing tires but will progress to slashing jugular veins. If you doubt me, read the blood-soaked history of the Left and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The time to act is now.
The leading Muslim organization in Germany called on the government to appoint a Federal Commissioner to fight anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, including so-called ‘hate comments’ on the Internet. That would raise First Amendment concerns, if an Islamophobia czar were appointed in the United States, but we’re only talking about Germany - so no worries, right?
Let’s talk about two other things that happened closer to home this week. First, Democrats in Minnesota asked the legislature to appoint a statewide “Task Force on Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism” to be chaired by Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s Muslim Attorney General or someone appointed by him. Second, Michigan’s Attorney General announced plans to ramp up hate crime prosecutions there and the Civil Rights Department will be documenting hate incidents that - get this - don’t rise to the level of a crime or even a civil infraction. Michigan’s moves are based on a report from the financially self-interested and now-discredited Southern Poverty Law Center claiming to find a six percent rise in the number of hate and extremist groups in the state. Anti-sharia groups are on that list. How would you like to be in Michigan’s new hate speech database and have the government come to your door telling you that you need to get your mind right?
Michele Bachmann said she has no doubt the task force in Minnesota, if created, would recommend authoritarian measures to curb ‘hate speech’ in the state. The goal is the insertion of Islamic blasphemy law into the state code, she said. In case you don’t know, Islamic notions of blasphemy are very different from defamation law in America. In America, truth is generally a defense to a charge of defamation. But in Sharia law, blasphemy is whatever offends a Muslim. If you say, ‘Muhammad was a pedophile’, Muslims will take offense and you will have committed blasphemy, even it’s true. It’s the ultimate heckler’s veto - find one Muslim anywhere in the world who is offended by your speech and your speech is no longer protected. Also in America, under current law, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Adopt Sharia blasphemy law and you can pretty much say goodbye to free speech. Free speech advocates are worried that the task force will recommend legislation penalizing hate speech in Minnesota and adopting sharia speech codes for the state, pointing to probable members of the task force from CAIR, which has ties to terror, and Muslim Brotherhood front groups.
We have kind of a paradox at the moment. We’re living in a golden age of free speech, as far as court decisions go. There have been very strong First Amendment cases coming out of the Supreme Court in recent years - Citizens United and Janus, for example. At the same time, support for free expression in society overall is being attacked by Muslims, the SPLC, and others. Conservative speakers aren’t allowed on many campuses, and that’s just fine with a distressingly high percentage of college students. We either do a better job of educating people why we have the First Amendment, or we’ll have more moves like those in Michigan and Minnesota which would have government bureaucrats deciding the parameters of acceptable speech. We will have arrived in Germany, where the truth is now hate speech and can land you in jail.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently claimed the Republicans changed the Constitution to remove President Franklin Roosevelt from office. Of course, she was wrong. It’s common knowledge the 22nd Amendment was not ratified until 1951, six years after FDR died in office. My Champions of the Constitution network pushed back on AOC, as did many others.
But it got me to wondering: What is the story of the 22nd Amendment and why do we have it?
The 22nd Amendment reads, in pertinent part, “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice....” FDR would not have been eligible for reelection for his third and fourth terms if the 22nd Amendment had been in effect at the time.
There are additional provisions in the 22nd Amendment dealing with unexpired terms, but the main point is that the Amendment codifies the two-term tradition set by George Washington, a tradition unbroken until FDR won a third term in 1940. Washington was rightly celebrated around the world for declining to become President-for-Life, which he easily could have done. Congress approved the 22nd Amendment in 1947 and it took effect in 1951 after it was ratified by enough states. Oklahoma and Massachusetts were the only states to reject the amendment.
The Framers wrestled with presidential term limits at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Hamilton and Madison supported lifetime appointments for presidents. Mason and others believed that was too much like a monarchy. A single 7-year term was proposed, but the Framers settled on 4-year terms with no limit on the number. Presidential term limits were proposed numerous times in the 19th Century, but none passed. Ulysses S. Grant sought a third term - nonconsecutive - in 1880 but lost the Republican nomination to James Garfield. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also sought third terms, under various circumstances. FDR let himself be drafted for a third term in 1940, the widening war in Europe being his excuse. Dewey, who ran unsuccessfully against FDR in 1944, supported presidential term limits, calling unlimited presidencies “the most dangerous threat to our freedom”.
We think of term limits for president as being settled, but more than 50 resolutions to repeal the 22nd Amendment were introduced in Congress, starting just five years after it was ratified and continuing up until 2013. Harry Truman, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid all supported repeal. So did Ronald Reagan, who said the 22nd Amendment is antidemocratic.
The subject of reparations was back in the news recently, when presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris voiced their support for reparations for black Americans to redress the legacy of slavery. Warren would also consider reparations for American Indians. So I got to wondering whether reparations would be constitutional.
The subject comes up every few years and can be traced back to Martin Luther King’s call for reparations in 1963 which referred to General William Sherman’s order to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War. Sherman’s order was rescinded and land that had been distributed was taken back.
Does that mean that reparations should be made today? Lots of legal arguments stand in the way:
My concern is that reparations based on race breaches the principle of individual responsibility. I didn’t do anything to the black people I encounter in my life and I should not be made to pay just because I belong to a certain group. There are lots of white people whose ancestors weren’t even in the country in 1865. Group responsibility - otherwise known as guilt by association - is a very dangerous game, but let’s play it anyway, for a minute. Like a liberal friend of mine in Boston says, reparations - OK, but just wait for the counterclaim for making inner cities unlivable. Lots of blacks don’t cause problems or live outside of inner cities, you say? It doesn’t matter. The principle of group responsibility has been announced, so they shall pay no matter what they do or where they live. Here’s another claim on fairness - by the descendants of the 620,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War freeing the slaves. Under the principle of group responsibility, it is only fair and just that present-day blacks pay that counterclaim as well. So you see, all sorts of mischief starts when you breach the principle of individual responsibility and pit one group against another.
Let me suggest that we all find something better to do with our time.
Earlier this month, a heckler disrupted a College Republicans event at Portland State University in Oregon. The heckler walked around the room ringing a cowbell for an hour and blocked the projector for the speaker’s presentation, before leaving of his own accord. President Trump referred to this incident last Thursday when he signed an Executive Order intended to protect free speech on campus. Several students whose free expression had been infringed were at the signing ceremony, including Kaitlyn Mullen who was working a table for Turning Point USA at the University of Nebraska when school officials tried to bully her into leaving. She refused.
Under the Order, “federal agencies will use their authority under various grant-making programs to ensure that public universities protect, cherish ... the First Amendment and First Amendment rights of their students, or risk losing billions and billions of ... federal taxpayer dollars,” President Trump said. “We will not stand idly by and allow public institutions to violate their students’ constitutional rights. If a college or university doesn’t allow you to speak, we will not give them money. It’s very simple,” he went on to say.
Well, it might not be that simple. Critics have pointed out several potential pitfalls. Some critics say the data show the number of incidents threatening free speech on campus is small and declining. Other critics say the Order is merely symbolic and will have no real-world effect because it only requires schools to do what they are already supposed to be doing to promote free inquiry and uphold their own stated policies about free speech. It may have been written that way because the federal government cannot place conditions on federal grants unless Congress explicitly states those conditions in a statute. As you may recall, this is what prevented the Trump administration from placing conditions on federal grants to sanctuary cities.
Others say, however, that this is federal overreach that could lead to federal micro-management of cutting edge research. Some worry that academic freedom will be politicized and compromised.
A respected group that takes scalps in campus free speech cases pointed out that it’s not clear how federal agencies will enforce the Order and enforcement actions could very well conflict with the First Amendment. This group is called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and is commonly known as FIRE.
Finally, a student journalist at a religious school in Ohio worries that, if future administrations continue the Order, it will be used to require the expression of ideas on campus that run counter to the teachings of religious institutions.
The Order will likely be challenged in court when schools start losing money, so stay tuned for that. Also, the Order may encourage the strengthening of campus free speech laws that have passed at the state level in recent years and, further, prompt other states to enact similar laws of their own.
When Democrats took control of the House after the last election, the question many had was whether they would focus on passing legislation or spend the next two years talking about Trump’s tax returns. The answer has become pretty clear, with the Democrats holding, announcing, or threatening hearings or investigations on Trump/Russia collusion, Trump tax returns, Trump business dealings, Trump corruption, Trump abuse of power, Trump hush money payments, Trump obstruction of justice, Trump impeachment, Trump, Trump, and more Trump.
“The Constitution ... provided no express powers for Congress to investigate, issue subpoenas, or to punish for contempt,” according to a Congressional Research Service report. But the practice was carried over from the British House of Commons whose members were considered the “grand inquisitors of the realm”. (id., p.1) Congress’ power to investigate is implied from its enumerated powers and the Necessary and Proper Clause, all found in Article 1, Section 8.
The first Congressional investigation of the executive branch appears to have been in 1791, when prior business dealings of the Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris were called into question. (id., p.2)
The Supreme Court first placed limits on congressional investigations in 1821 [Anderson v. Dunn] (id. p.4). The Court upheld Congress’ power to hold people in contempt, but said Congress must use the least onerous means to achieve its legislative objectives and no term of imprisonment Congress imposed could extend beyond a Congressional term. In 1881, the Court placed more limits, saying Congress could not inquire into the personal affairs of individuals without actual “valid legislation” in mind. (id. p.5) This was later loosened to any legislative purpose, including oversight of alleged wrong-doing in the executive branch. (id. p.5) Oversight could potentially result in legislation, so a later Court viewed it as fair game for Congressional hearings and investigation.
The Supreme Court has also upheld Congress’ power to issue subpoenas as “an indispensable ingredient of lawmaking.” (id. p.6)
Congress has expanded its powers to investigate by statute on a number of occasions, notably after 1946. Congress beefed up oversight committee staff and upgraded the Government Accountability Office - GAO. Congress now requires more than 2,000 reports from the executive branch every year.
It’s a pretty safe bet that specific constitutional issues will come up as the House Democrats’ obsession with Donald Trump plays out. Will witnesses ‘take the 5th’ like Lois Lerner did? They’re certainly entitled to. The Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he Bill of Rights is applicable to congressional investigations, as it is to all forms of governmental action” in 1957 [Watkins v. United States]. Will Trump administration officials claim executive privilege and refuse to turn over documents? That didn’t work out so well for President Nixon [United States v. Nixon, 1974]. A unanimous Supreme Court rejected his claim of executive privilege and he resigned 16 days later. I’ll keep an eye out for specific issues that come up as the Democrats move forward and report back to you when I can add to your understanding of the constitutional dimensions of what is happening.
When the civil rights movement started, it was about simple justice - affording remedies where discrimination could be proven with real evidence in individual cases. I handled such a case when I was a trial attorney - a black man was fired from a beer distributor and replaced with a white man who had previously worked there, and whose personnel file was marked ‘Do Not Rehire’. We found the proverbial smoking gun and got our client a nice settlement.
Unfortunately, civil rights moved on from there and the theories became more and more outlandish and poisonous. First came affirmative action - more discrimination to remedy previous discrimination, as in turning away Asian students from Harvard even though they are more qualified than the students of other races who are admitted. Then came structural racism - forget evidence of discriminatory intent in individual cases; we’ll just indict the whole society for being no darned good, without any evidence at all. And I’ve mentioned before Social Engineer-in-Chief former Justice Anthony Kennedy with his theories of unconscious bias which have been thoroughly debunked.
So I was glad to see that the Trump administration is considering an executive order to cut back on another overreaching civil rights theory - disparate impact, a heavy-handed approach aggressively pushed by the Obama administration. Disparate impact seeks to change outcomes in housing, hiring, consumer credit, student loans, student discipline, traffic stops, and many other domains on the basis of statistical disparities between racial groups - without any proof of discriminatory intent at all. Discrimination is considered proven if policies or practices have an unequal impact on one group versus another. Disparate impact theory is the reason landlords and employers have backed away from doing common-sense background checks on prospective tenants and employees, even though federal agencies routinely run background checks on their own hires. It’s also why mortgage lenders have gone back to making subprime loans in inner cities, to settle federal disparate impact lawsuits which have cost them billions in fines, even though federal pressure to make subprime loans was what caused the financial crisis of 2008. School violence spiked after Obama’s school discipline reforms, something that received a lot of attention at the time. Trump’s executive order, if signed, would prohibit federal agencies from using disparate impact theory in the application or enforcement of any civil rights law.
Disparate impact theory is not mandated by the Constitution. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection of the laws, but disparate impact theory is a concoction of bureaucrats that was adopted by the courts. Courts had to torture language in statutes to get to justify the theory. This was pointed out by the dissenters in a 2015 Supreme Court case, Texas Department of Housing v. Inclusive Communities. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion extending disparate impact theory to housing, but I have to tell you it’s about the weakest opinion I’ve ever read, full of made-up stuff and make-weight arguments. Kennedy’s opinion was fundamentally dishonest, the most blatant example of results-oriented jurisprudence I’ve ever seen. Justice Thomas pointed out in dissent that the EEOC wrote openly of creatively reading disparate impact theory into statutes knowing they would get away with it because courts grant administrative agencies a great deal of deference. Justice Alito, also in dissent, illustrated the folly of disparate impact theory by relating the story of the housing authority in St. Paul which had tried to fix locks, get rid of rats, and bring about other improvements in rental properties. But this raised rents and was deemed impermissible because of the disparate impact of higher rents on minorities. Alito wrote: “Something has gone badly awry when a city can’t even make slumlords kill rats without fear of a lawsuit.”
Once again we see liberal policies are not just wrong. They actually hurt people, and disparate impact theory is no exception. The theory turns the presumption of innocence on its head and is manifestly unjust. Not every statistical difference is about race. The Constitution is supposed to be about equal protection, not back-door redistribution or guaranteeing equal outcomes.
But disparate impact theory will be hard to uproot, spread as it is through so many agencies and areas of law. The theory is the driving force behind scores of regulations, thousands of government lawsuits, and billions of dollars in fines. Not only that, a resistance campaign is underway and lawsuits against the possible removal of disparate impact regulations have already been filed. Congressional hearings are also in the works in the Democrat-controlled House. But with changes in personnel at the Supreme Court, this will be one to watch if President Trump follows through and signs the order.