After Kennedy

Because of the two defining features of modern American politics – Republican ruthlessness and Democratic strategic blunders – President Trump will almost certainly get to choose a more conservative replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

There is one way the Democrats’ minority in the Senate would prevent a new Justice from being confirmed before the midterm elections, by taking the risky and unprecedented step of simply refusing to show up for work:

Currently, Democrats control 49 Senate seats — two short of the simple majority they would need to filibuster a Trump nominee. So how could they “technically” block the president’s pick? And even with all the outrage on the left, why are they still unlikely to do it?

Earlier this month, University of Miami political scientist Gregory Koger, a specialist in filibustering and legislative obstructionism, explained on Vox.com that, according to Article 1, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution, “a majority … shall constitute a quorum to do business” in the Senate — meaning that Democrats can basically shut the place down by refusing to vote on anything.

With only the barest 51-vote majority — and one of their own, Arizona Sen. John McCain, on extended leave in Arizona as he grapples with what is likely to be terminal brain cancer — Republicans would have difficultly mustering a quorum without at least some Democratic help. “In the month of June, there have been an average of 1.8 Republican absences across 18 roll call votes,” Koger wrote, “so even if McCain returned to the Senate, the majority would struggle to consistently provide a floor majority.” If McCain doesn’t return, and all 49 Democrats refuse to participate, the 50 Republican senators left in Washington would fall one short of a quorum. (The Senate precedents on quorums do not mention whether Vice President Mike Pence could contribute a 51st vote.)

In that case, “the Senate can do nothing,” Koger concluded. “No bill can pass, no amendment can be decided on, no nominations can get approved.” The Senate would screech to a halt for lack of a quorum — and Democrats could conceivably delay a confirmation vote until a new Senate, perhaps with a narrow Democratic majority, is seated next January.

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The fact that Democrats can shut down the Senate, however, doesn’t mean they will. “This would be a confrontational tactic,” Koger explained. “Confrontational” is probably too gentle a word for it. Obstructing a president’s Supreme Court pick by completely shutting down the Senate would require political winds that were blowing strongly in Senate Democrats’ favor. It’s not clear they are.

For one thing, 10 Democratic senators are running for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana all voted to confirm Gorsuch. Would every one of these at-risk senators be willing to imperil their reelection chances by striking over Trump’s next nominee? Democrats can’t afford a single defection.

Politico has a short list from whom Kennedy’s likely replacement will be appointed – most of whom certainly appear qualified, though we all know this has much more to do with partisan politics than it does with legal qualifications.

One further point for despairing liberals, from conservative Marc Thiessen: it is by no means guaranteed that a Republican appointee will be as doctrinaire as they think.

…Trump will have to break the mold of his Republican predecessors. Over the past three decades, presidents from his party have picked seven justices, and several have turned out to be disappointments to conservatives. President Ronald Reagan picked three justices (Sandra Day O’Connor, Scalia and Kennedy), but only one, Scalia, was a consistent conservative. President George H.W. Bush picked one solid conservative (Clarence Thomas) and one (David Souter) who was not. George W. Bush did better, appointing two conservatives, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and John G. Roberts Jr. But even Roberts disappointed conservatives when he cast the deciding vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act in a stroke of judicial activism. If Trump picks not one, but two reliable conservative justices, he will secure the best record of Supreme Court appointments by any modern Republican president.

The new guy, like Gorsuch, likely will not be a Souter.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if Roberts provides Republicans with some unpleasant surprises in the coming years.

“The Rise and Fall of Aereo”

Damon Root, in the latest issue of Reason, has an interesting piece explaining the U.S. Supreme Court battle between Aereo, makers of a tiny antenna which allowed subscribers to watch and record TV broadcasts on their mobile phones, and the major American TV networks. 

“Subscribers” might be the key word here. I get the impression that Aereo might have won its case had its device been more like an old-fashioned rabbit-ears antenna, which you paid for once, transmitted nothing and received television signals broadcast for free over the public airwaves.

The Aereo model was found to violate the 1976 Copyright Act, but even some justices who sided with the broadcasters asked pointed questions about how their (ultimately successful) argument could affect cloud computing services. There’s too much here to excerpt, so read the whole thing.

Who’s afraid of Hobby Lobby?

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision exempting closely-held, for-profit corporations from having to pay for health plans that cover certain forms of contraception, should the owners have a religious objection to same.

A predictable outcry from the left (and plenty of gloating from the right) resulted.  But Doug Mataconis (whose readers will know he has no religious objections to birth control – or anything else, really) argues that the decision is quite limited in scope, and was probably inevitable under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by President Clinton:

First of all, the Supreme Court did not rule today that all for-profit corporations may make claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Instead, it limited its opinion to “closely held corporations,” which are typically defined as corporations where a majority of the shares are owned by five or fewer people (although the number can vary from state to state). Most closely held corporations are small businesses that don’t even have enough employees to fall under the requirement that employers provide coverage to their employees under the PPACA. Some, however, like Hobby Lobby, are larger corporations that still happened to be owned by a small number of people. …

…Reading the language of the statute, one has to admit that they had a strong argument in their favor in that regard and it’s difficult for me to say that the Court was wrong in its interpretation of the law here. Part of what the law requires is that the Court balance the religious claims asserted by the employers with the interests asserted by the government. In this case, the interest in question would be providing increased access to birth control to women. Even if you agree that this is a legitimate and important government interest though, it’s plainly obvious that there are means by which the government could accomplish this goal without requiring employers like the Greens to violate their religious beliefs. The most obvious means, of course, would be some form of direct subsidy to employees but there are other means as well. In addition, the Court found that the mandate in question placed a “substantial burden” on the religious liberties of the Greens and those similarly situated to them. Given this, the balancing test came down clearly in favor of the Greens.

Third, as noted above, the Court did not say that RFRA gives owners of companies like Hobby Lobby the right to refuse a whole host of items typically covered under a health insurance policy just because they might have a religious objection to those procedures. So, this case is not going to lead to Jehovah Witness employers refusing to cover blood transfusions or transplants. The Court also said that the holding should not be seen as meaning that a private employer of any kind could avoid liability for a claim of illegal discrimination based on their religious beliefs. This would seem to be addressed to concerns regarding people trying to use religion to avoid liability under laws banning discrimination against people based on sexual orientation. Obviously, what this decision actually means for future cases will depend on the facts of those cases and the Judges that hear them. However, it’s important to note that, just as it did in the Heller gun control case, the Supreme Court seems to be sending a signal here that its holding is not as broad as some advocates for one side or the other might hope or fear.

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As for the opinion itself, I think the Court got the result right for the most part. In the end, a closely held corporation is really nothing more than a partnership with tax advantages. What ever you might call it, it is still a business that is owned by a small amount of people. If Hobby Lobby were a partnership or sole proprietorship, there would be no question that the Greens would be within their rights to assert a religious objection under the RFRA. Given that, it doesn’t strike me as being all that radical to say that they retain those rights when they enter into a different kind of business form that, ultimately, was chosen so that they could expand the company to the national operation employing thousands of people that it is today. We are still talking ultimately about the individuals who own the company and their rights, which is why this decision would not make any sense if you applied it to a publicly traded corporation owned by tens of thousands of individuals and institutions like Apple, or Exxon Mobil. …

There are perfectly reasonable objections to the Hobby Lobby ruling, but I don’t think it brings America any closer to The Handmaid’s Tale any more than the recent flurry of pro-gay-marriage rulings is turning the country into Sodom.

Speaking of which…