Category: Politics

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Tribute: A Liberal in the House of Harry Jaffa (1918-2015)

Harry Jaffa (credit: Ohio State University)

Harry Jaffa (credit: Ohio State University)

1-14-15: 1:03 a.m. My mind races. How does one pay tribute to someone with whom one disagreed on several important issues? – issues about life and law and other things that matter. That question confronts me as I sit down to pay tribute to Harry Jaffa, someone who taught me much and always treated me kindly.

It’s rather late. I page through my tattered copy of Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln Douglas Debates (1959). I first read it in 1968 or thereabouts. It’s by Harry V. Jaffa, the noted conservative political philosopher. He died recently. I found out by way of a New York Times obit by Robert McFadden. (Jaffa died on the same day as Walter Berns, another political theorist.)

I stare at the black-and-white pic of the young Jaffa taken years before I met him. I peer into his distant eyes. What was he thinking at that moment in 1959 / in that bookstore / next to his newly released book / finely clad / grinning confidently / with a book of the poet C.C. Cummings lingering behind his left shoulder?

* *  * *

“Since the first and most successful enterprise of the Fathers was to produce disobedience to an ancient established order, it would have been peculiarly difficult for them to inculcate reverence.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 3.35.05 AMI marked that passage – one from a chapter titled “The Teaching Concerning Political Moderation.” It is one of many such markings.

I think more and more about Professor Jaffa as I glance at the row of books in my library bearing his name. Formally speaking, I never studied under him, though I did know him. We met in the 1970s at Claremont College where he taught with the noted constitutional historian Leonard W. Levy (1923-2006). I read Levy’s books, too, though I was never one of his students. But I knew both men rather well. Levy was quite liberal (my stripes), Jaffa was quite conservative. Both strong personality types and both friends (as far as I know).

The Students of Strauss

When I first encountered Professor Jaffa, the philosopher Leo Strauss had recently visited Claremont. Back in those days Jaffa was friendly with many of his colleagues who, like him, had been students of Strauss. There was, for example, Martin Diamond and Allan Bloom. Of them he wrote this in his Crisis book: “I owe much to the enthusiastic interest of Professors Allan Bloom . . . and Martin Diamond . . . .”

That was in the days before the name “Strauss” became politicized. It was also before Jaffa parted company (sometimes fiercely) with so many of his former friends and colleagues, including Diamond and Bloom. There was still peace in that valley, that intellectual oasis where so many young students like myself came to learn how to read and appreciate the great works of Western political thought.

I studied under other students of Strauss (Michael Ormond and Thomas S. Schrock) and thereby came to read many works by the famed University of Chicago scholar – works such as Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Natural Right and History (1953), On Tyranny (1963), and The City and Man (1964), among other books.

photoOf course, one of the mainstays of my liberal education back then was History of Political Philosophy (1963), a collection of thoughtful and carefully crafted essays on noted political philosophers from Plato to Dewey. Strauss and Joseph Cropsey edited the volume. There was a long essay in it on Aristotle written by Jaffa (removed in the 3rd edition at H.J.’s insistence, I believe). I studied that essay and learned much from it, so much that I set out to read more by him. In time I came to Crisis of the House Divided, which I spent many an hour savoring . . . but never as required reading.

Somehow I came to meet Professor Jaffa personally, though I do not quite remember how. By 1974 I knew him well enough to solicit something from him to publish in my law school’s law review. It was titled “Equality as a Conservative Principle,” 8 Loyola, Los Angeles, Law Review 471 (1975), reprinted in Jaffa’s How to Think About the American Revolution (1978).

Our Dialogues

In the years and decades that followed, from time to time I visited Professor Jaffa at his home with his wife Marjorie. They were routinely gracious. The talk: almost always about Plato or Aristotle or Machiavelli or Hobbes or De Tocqueville or Lincoln or Churchill or Strauss or the Declaration or the Constitution. I steered away from partisan politics. Why? Well, because what I admired about him, what was most important to me, were his talents as a teacher, someone who had carefully studied the great thinkers and was committed to teaching others how to appreciate their words and thoughts. Ideas mattered more to me than ideologies, so I veered away from Republican-Democrat talk, though I listened nonetheless when Jaffa ventured off into those worlds. Sometimes even that talk gave me pause, made me rethink a few of my own views. Then again, sometimes not.

If you would know the Harry Jaffa I knew as a mentor and a friend, read his Crisis or his Thomism and Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics (1952) or his book with Allan Bloom, Shakespeare’s Politics (1964), or his essay “The Case for a Stronger National Government,” in A Nation of States: Essays on the American Federal System (1963) edited by Robert A. Goldwin.  There is, to be sure, more, but I will lay my cards there.

∇ ∇ ∇

In these ideologically torn and tormenting times, it is ever more difficult to be objective and open-minded. Friends flee. Few wish to be Socratic, open-minded, and receptive to reconsidering their gospels. Such one-directional thinking wars with the basic tenets of philosophy, properly understood. But if the ideal of liberal education still means something, and if our commitment to being an open society still stands, then it is only just to be fair — even if it means cracking open the doors of our partisan minds enough to see what we would not otherwise see. There is, after all, no truth in blind denial.

I hope I have answered the question with which I began. However that may be, kindly permit me to close with a few words by Leo Strauss, from his Liberalism: Ancient & Modern (1968):

“Liberal education, which consists in the constant intercourse with the greatest minds, is a training in the highest form of modesty, not to say of humility.”

Indeed.

1

The 100 Year Bloom?: Wealth Inequality in the U.S.

The debates around Piketty’s analysis of wealth gaps will persist, but a recent paper by Emmanuel Saez (U.C. Berkeley) and Gabriel Zucman (London School of Economics) indicates that wealth disparity in the U.S. has hit the levels of about 100 years ago. As the Economist Espresso edition reports, the study finds that “In the late 1920s the bottom 90% held just 16% of America’s wealth; the top 0.1% had a quarter.” From the Depression until “well after” World War II, the middle class share went up. Since the go-go 1980s that tide reversed and now “The top 0.1% (160,000 families worth $73m on average) hold 22% of America’s wealth, just shy of the 1929 peak—and almost the same share as the bottom 90% of the population.” (The Economist link has a nice chart from the paper. The chart captures the trend well. I was unable to get the image from the paper, however.).

I have to wonder whether the intersection of wealth disparity, race and police tensions, health security, job prospects, lack of food, and perhaps other factors explain what seem to be larger examples of unrest and revolutionary impulses from all ranges of political interests all around the world. And, the general sense of rejecting all institutions (a millennial impulse if lack of joining a party is a signal) can still lead to the short term alliance of enough people to cause revolution (their cause is change and rage and unleashed energy against the unjust), the aftermath of which is rarely bloodless. Once the common enemy goes, the energies of the one truth turn on each other. The show Survivor is much more real: eliminate those who are strong and helped you win, for they may threaten your vision. In other words, I sense much anger out there (and it may be founded) on many fronts. I see lex talionis (eye for an eye), but that is not justice. The law is supposed to mediate our impulse to revenge, and yet the law lies behind the changing tides of wealth. The unarticulated sense of injustice and disenfranchisement can eat the system from the inside. And even those gaining the biggest benefit right now will not see that the bottom is falling out from under them.

Not all 100 year blooms are pretty or benign. Reorganizing a country or the world so that baseline well-being goes up and is shared by most, if not all, seems like a blip in historical terms (I am trying to think of an extended era, more than 100 years, when wealth disparity was not high). But it may be that if we don’t start to fix these problems, the desire for those blips will become real and travel with high costs: depressions, starvations, revolutions, and wars.

It may not take much to prevent the fall. Who knows? Maybe the Jam’s That’s Entertainment captures an odd, sad, equilibrium that barely satisfies.

Waking up at 6 A.M. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

If that is gone, well…

5

F.F. — Make of him what you will, but . . .

Felix Frankfurter

Felix Frankfurter

I want to recommend a relatively new article in the Journal of Supreme Court History. It is impressively researched, commendably thoughtful, and refreshingly balanced. Before doing so, however, permit me to say a few prefatory words.

It is hard to be fair when writing of those with whom we disagree, and harder still when we dislike their personal manner. Arrogant, argumentative, and devious – these are not the words that fair-minded scholars like to use unless the fit is fair. All of which takes us back in time to this man: Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).

What to make of him?

As a Supreme Court Justice he was, in Mel Urofsky’s words, “a divisive figure whose jurisprudential philosophy is all but ignored today.” Others have been even less kind in their assessment of the temperament and jurisprudence of the Justice from Vienna. While Cass Sunstein has recently labored to revive respect for Justice Frankfurter and his judicial opinions, that effort may prove Sisyphean (save, perhaps, in a few discrete areas involving federal jurisdiction).

Still, there was more to Felix Frankfurter than the life he led on the Court between 1939 and 1962. The trajectory of his career (fueled by hard work, ambition, and brilliance) is an immigrant-come-to-America success story at its best. His work – first with Louis Brandeis and then on his own – to advance the cause of fair and humane labor practices exemplifies the Progressive movement in its glory. Then there was the role he played early on in helping to launch the ACLU. With a mix of courage and insight, he later called for a retrial for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti by way of an impressive lawyer-like article he published in the Atlantic in 1927; the article was thereafter expanded into a small book. And, of course, there is more, much more, which brings me back to that article I alluded to earlier.

Sujit Raman

Sujit Raman

Sujit Raman (the chief appellate lawyer in Maryland’s U.S. Attorney’s office) has just published an engaging and highly informative article. Its title: “Felix Frankfurter and His Protégés: Re-examining the ‘Happy Hot Dogs.’” It captures Felix in all his complexity and does so with objective nuance. With skilled brevity Raman also sketches the story of the Jewish immigrant’s struggle to assimilate, the Harvard Law student’s meritocratic success, the progressive’s desire to improve government when he went to work for Henry Stimson (first in New York and then in Washington, D.C), and then the Harvard professor’s cultivation of the best and brightest, whom he invited to his Sunday teas.

Above all, Sujit Raman’s real story is about Felix Frankfurter’s “greatest legacy,” namely, the “legions of students he trained and nurtured at the Harvard Law School, . . . who, in their own right, shaped the age in which they lived.” Consistent with that objective, Frankfurter’s “avowed intent as a professor was to instill in his students an interest in public service, and from his earliest days, he began collecting recruits for his crusade.” In time, they would come to be known as Frankfurter’s “Happy Hot Dogs” as Hugh Samuel Johnson tagged them.MTE5NTU2MzE2MjE5NDc1NDY3

Could he be snobbish? Yes. Could he be petty? Yes. Spiteful? Yes. Did he delight in manipulating matters from unseen sidelines? Yes again.

Clearly, F.F. had his psychological warts. Yet, when one steps back and beholds the man and this patch of his life work at a detached distance, he stands rather tall. Why?

Now, to cut to the chase: “Frankfurter was one of the New Deal’s intellectual architects as well as one of its most accomplished draftsmen of policy – yet he had no legislative portfolio or any official position in the Roosevelt Administration.” Moreover, adds Raman, “Frankfurter was the New Deal’s principal recruiting agent. He placed his protégés in all levels of government, and consequently his vision was carried forth, albeit indirectly, by his able lieutenants.” In sum, “the New Deal was in many ways the embodiment and culmination of Frankfurter’s life work.”

James Landis

James Landis

In the span of 28 pages (buttressed by 127 scholarly endnotes), Sujit Raman fills in many of the blanks in the Professor-and-the-New-Deal story. While he is cautious not to exaggerate Frankfurter’s role and influence, Raman’s account makes it difficult to deny the remarkable magnitude of Frankfurter’s unique impact on public law and its operation at a crucial stage in our legal history.

True, the “Happy Hot Dogs” story has been told before and from a variety of perspectives (see, e.g.,  here and here). Even so, Mr. Raman does what others before him have not quite done: he tells the story in a concise yet authoritative way and with enough panache to draw the reader back in history for glimpses into the exciting world of F.F. and his adept protégés – the likes of Thomas G. Corcoran (video here), Benjamin V. CohenJames M. Landis, David Lilienthal, and Charles Wyzanski, among others. They were all part of Frankfurter’s network, all “elite lawyers” hand picked because of their ties to F.F. and their “reformist inclinations.”

Whatever your opinion of Felix Frankfurter, his star may yet brighten anew, though probably not in the universe of Supreme Court history and jurisprudence. His true galaxy was elsewhere – in that realm where the “minds of men” move the gears of government to places only once imagined in classrooms in Cambridge.

Ask your librarian for, or go online or order a copy of, Sujit Raman’s illuminating article in volume 39 (March 2014, #1, pp. 79-106)) of the Journal of Supreme Court History. Better still, join the Supreme Court Historical Society. Either way, it will serve you well.

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Signing off

AFC-cover      Thanks to all for having me back to Concurring Opinions.  I’ve enjoyed the visit immensely.

During my stay, I blogged about the conception of my new book, America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard, 2014).  I discussed ideas of constitutional formation and reorganization, alternative theories of popular consent, and certain black nationalists’ view of the Fourteenth Amendment (and even guns and self-defense).  I analyzed Cliven Bundy’s theory of rancher sovereignty, which is shared by many who rallied to his armed defense against the Bureau of Land Management (here and here).  I advocated the creation of a new national office, the Tribune of the People, whose sole responsibility would be defending civil and human rights. Finally, I discussed the Supreme Court’s recent decision on legislative prayer as an example of institutional withdrawal, as issues of prayer were thrown back to the hurly-burly of the public sphere.

News about America’s Forgotten Constitutions can be followed on my author’s page, book blog, facebook, or twitter.  On September 18, 2014, during the week celebrating the U.S. Constitution, I’ll be giving a noontime book talk and signing at the National Archives (more details later).  I hope to see you there.

I am working on a variety of other research projects, including books and papers exploring presidential leadership over individual rights, war-dependent forms of constitutional argumentation (to be published by Constitutional Commentary in the fall), and popular theories of law found in poetry and fiction (my latest, “‘Simple’ Takes On the Supreme Court” is hot off the press).  My papers can be downloaded here.

So long!

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Podcasts on America’s Forgotten Constitutions

For those who might be interested, I recently did two podcast interviews on my new book, America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard, 2014).

The Electric Politics interview is more far-ranging and can be found here.

The ConSource interview delves more deeply into the book itself, especially the settlers who broke away from New Hampshire to establish the Republic of Indian Stream, the nineteenth-century socialist constitution written by Icarians (and blessed by the State of Illinois), and John Brown’s armed efforts to refound the Republic.  We also talk a bit about archival work.  Go here.

1

Town of Greece v. Galloway and Institutional Withdrawal

Every so often, the Supreme Court seems to be doing something other than clarifying the principles of constitutional law to guide the resolution of future cases.  Instead, it may be doing little more than sketching the terms for institutional withdrawal from a field of social action.

Yesterday’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which allowed a town supervisor to pick someone to solemnize town meetings even though it is highly likely such statements will turn out to be sectarian, bears all the hallmarks of a hasty retreat.  First, there is the monumental move of describing the chosen prayer-givers as private speakers, subduing Establishment Clause objections by resorting to free speech ideas (I will note that Free Exercise language is sprinkled liberally throughout the opinion, but no one seriously claimed that one must have a right to speak at government functions in order to worship in a meaningful way).  Recall that when public school officials tried the private speech argument in the school prayer (Lee v. Weisman) and football prayer (Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe) cases, the Justices rejected it out of hand.  Now, the Court likes the argument in a prayer case. The main difference cited is that those cases involved children and this one involves adults, but fear of coercing children should hardly extinguish the objections of adults, who might very well need to be present for the people’s business.  We are quickly informed that adults in the religious minority must buck up (more on this in a moment).

Second, as some commentators have observed, the ruling gives very little by way of guidance to judges who must determine when the Establishment Clause has been transgressed (and when the Speech Clause has not).  It appears that the Court may be giving up on the idea that sectarian expressions must be guarded against, once you have an honest to goodness public forum. Even if a citizen isn’t forced to attend town meetings, does she have a right to be free from offensive prayer at court proceedings and other government-sponsored events?  Is the Court really going to start drawing fine lines between government settings (apart from schools), identifying ones that present an inherent risk of improper proselytizing?  Doubtful.

Third, if the answers to these questions are: probably not, then the Court may simply be giving the appearance of leaving serious questions open for litigation, but in fact be effectively insulating a certain kind of religious politics, i.e., over prayer, from judicial review.  Once the state creates a public forum, we are told it can’t censor the content of the expression that follows to ensure it is “generic or nonsectarian.”  Doing so would interfere with the invisible hand that governs the marketplace of ideas and often now trumps Establishment Clause concerns.

Since at least the Warren Court, legal liberals have believed that an alert judiciary policing the religious sphere helps keep the peace.  But conservatives learned a very different lesson over the years.  After decades of organizing against the mythical wall of separation between church and state, conservatives–and the jurists that represent their views–have arrived at the conviction that judicial involvement has marginalized people of faith and silenced them, while rendering the courts politically vulnerable.  The resolution in Town of Greece is best understood in this light of backlash politics and institutional withdrawal.

Prayer has been the single most visible issue, both real and symbolic, contributing to conservative counter-mobilization.  So if Engele v. Vitale represented the high point of judicial involvement in religious matters, and if Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe were holding pattern cases, Town of Greece finally absorbs and unleashes those political lessons with a vengeance. It does so by returning prayer issues back to the rough and tumble of ordinary politics. Outside of the school context, it seems that much is permissible by way of “ceremonial prayer” (but why leave it at “ceremonial” prayer?).  Justice Kennedy’s opinion tells us as much.  First, religious minorities who do not hear their religious leaders at government events are told to toughen up, for “[a]dults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.”  Once again, the resort to free speech rhetoric is undeniable: religious objectors are treated like hecklers who should not be given a veto over the religious majority.  An objector’s remedy is one of self-help, just like anyone who is confronted by objectionable speech on the streets: to remain and try to ignore the offending religious speech or leave the gathering.  Justice Kennedy suggests, in a hopeful way, that no one will think any less of you either way.  If you exit, your “absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy.” Staying won’t be “interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed.”

Second, citizens are explicitly warned not to run to court and make too much out of single invocations that go too far.  This is more language seeking to insulate prayer from further litigation.  A judicial remedy might be available only if a litigant demonstrates “a pattern and practice” of ceremonial prayer being used to “coerce or intimidate others.” It might be a problem if government officials directed audience members to pray, or “singled out dissenters for opprobrium,” or allocated “benefits and burdens” on the basis of participation in prayer. In “the general course,” however, mere exposure to unwanted or insulting religious ideas would not make out an Establishment Clause violation.

Will blurring the rules in an attempt to get the courts out of prayer disputes work to reduce religious strife?  I’m not as confident as Justice Kennedy that reduced judicial attention to government-organized prayer will diminish antagonistic politics. At best, it may displace conflict from the courts to local communities and disperse conflict regionally.  In fact, it may very well intensify the activity of legal liberals.  For one thing, we will now see redoubled efforts by religious minorities and nonbelievers to test whether these “public forums” springing up truly are open to all faiths (or those with no faith at all), or are actually shams.  In other words, will the Muslim, the atheist, the devil worshipper, the Odinist, and the Wiccan really be permitted to solemnize town meetings?  If they are not, will their exclusion be done on a content-neutral basis?  The people of Greece really did bend over backwards, apparently never once turning someone down who wanted to solemnize a town meeting.  What happens when citizens decide that only a Christian solemnization is appropriate for the occasion?  Under limited public forum rules, the government is accorded some leeway to determine the purpose of the forum; on the other hand, viewpoint discrimination presumably can still be a problem.

Second, we will surely experience a resurgence of prayers at legal proceedings and other government-sponsored events.  Those situations, too, will continue to be tested in the courts. The re-writing of doctrinal rules (what happened to the endorsement test?) incentivizes further government-religion partnerships through creative use of the public forum doctrine.  A public forum need no longer be a physical space in the traditional sense, but could be a metaphorical pot of money or now, a moment in the agenda when one might speak or pray.  Each time this strategy is judicially approved, it removes the state from constitutional responsibility over the religious activity that subsequently occurs.  At some point, this strategy of recharacterizing Establishment Clause issues as simple Speech issues must reach a logical limit.  Just not yet.

Will clashes over prayer become more intense or less so?  Will there be fewer religion cases in the courts?  Time will tell.  But one thing is apparent: the Supreme Court no longer wishes to be blamed for taking God out of the public square.

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Tribune of the People

bostonglobe-504oped_tsaiCLRYesterday, the Boston Globe published my piece proposing the creation of a new national office dedicated to the protection of civil and human rights. I wanted to give a little more context to the idea here, beyond what the op-ed format allowed.

The basic idea is that we need a single national figure to instantiate rights and defend them consistently. For a variety of reasons, our existing political-legal structure fails to do this robustly and consistently. Enforcement of civil and human rights is fractured among multiple bodies with narrow mandates (U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights), all of which are captured by party politics. Those in the trenches know how much a general commitment to rights, along with which rights to promote, can vary wildly depending on which party controls the White House. Amicus briefs offer only an ad hoc solution, because such writings are driven by interest group concerns, which can be quite distorting, and don’t carry the kind of institutional weight that government briefs do (if they are read at all by judges, as opposed to their clerks). All of these factors reinforce the idiosyncratic way in which relevant law, including international and comparative law, is presented to jurists.

Historically, presidential agendas have at times aligned with the goal of promoting civil or human rights. But case study after case study underscores how challenging this can be. The bureaucratic politics, party dynamics, and reputational hurdles can be daunting to navigate for anyone who might want a president to take vigorous action on behalf of individual rights.

The idea I have proposed is adapted from one presented by a group of experts based at the University of Chicago in the immediate post-World War II period. At the time, the group–led by the visionary Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chancellor of the University of Chicago and former Dean of Yale Law School) and the fiery Giuseppe A. Borgese (professor of Italian literature)–hoped to inspire the creation of a world constitution. Many later found the overall project too utopian. But whatever one thinks of such strong internationalist proposals, the project allowed Americans to reflect deeply on what ailed American constitutional self-governnance.

Perhaps the most penetrating critique that emerged from the working group’s many meetings involved separation of powers. They believed Americans had become slavish followers of Montesquieu, by insisting that institutional functions had to be strictly distinguished in the name of ensuring political liberty. But strict separation was a disaster: American politics had been consumed by paralyzing party politics and bureaucratic dysfunction, utterly incapable of dealing with urgent problems. Members of the Chicago group turned separation of powers orthodoxy on its head by offering reforms that retained some measure of institutional distinctiveness, but also dramatically increased the overlap of functions.  For example, they thought it wise to give a president explicit constitutional authority to initiate legislation and to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

These mid-century reformers felt comfortable injecting greater energy into government in part because they had a strong belief in rights. The Tribune of the People idea encapsulates that commitment, as it was intended to be an office charged with defending “the natural and civil rights of individuals and groups against violation or neglect” by government. The Chicago group tried to design an office that would “neither be a duplicate or retainer of the President in office, a Vice-President in disguise, nor his systematic heckler and rival.”  A Tribune should be “truly the spokesman for real minorities, not the exponent of a second party.”

In a sense, other countries heeded this call, while Americans have largely forgotten the conversation. Today, there are a number of analogues worth studying. Countries that have a national figure dedicated to the enforcement of rights include Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijian, Bulgaria, Columbia, Costa Rica, Estonia, France, Guatemala, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, and Serbia. Each of those countries has a Defender of Rights, Commissioner for Human Rights, or Chancellor of Justice. There exists a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who recently weighed in on Oklahoma’s bungled execution by lethal injection, but has no real power to influence rights development here.

So it seems it is well past the time to consider whether we are doing all that we can institutionally to protect civil and human rights.

 

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Self-Defense and the Fourteenth Amendment

negroes_with_guns-01

Dance and sing you black creatures

of Mother Africa.

Move to the sound of the drums

of your forefathers.

Hold on to your drums and beat

them in defiance of the slavemaster and

let their thundering sound awaken those who sleep.

–Mabel Robinson Williams, Transition (1966)

 

Mabel Robinson Williams passed away last week.  Williams may have been most famous for being married to Robert F. Williams, the controversial former head of the NAACP in Monroe County, NC, but she was an intriguing theorist and fierce activist in her own right.  She recalled that her father slept every night with a pearl-handled pistol under his pillow in case the Klan’s night riders attacked.  As an adult, she served as Secretary of the local NAACP, co-founded a newsletter called The Crusader, organized a mutual aid society called CARE, and helped run Radio Free Dixie.  Mabel called herself a “co-warrior” and “helpmate” to Robert, even as she served as a nurse’s aid and later operated a day care.  When her sons joined a picket against a segregated swimming pool, she sat in the car with guns, keeping one eye out for armed whites.  She and other female members of a rifle club trained to protect their families against the Klan.  Once, Mabel came out of her house with a shotgun and chased off deputies trying to arrest her husband.

Husband and wife worked together on Negroes With Guns (1962), which articulated a theory of self-defense of constitutional rights.  The Williamses “did not advocate violence for its own sake,” nor did they urge “reprisals against whites.”  Instead, they argued that armed self-reliance was compatible with the tactics of peaceful protest promoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote legal change (but they blamed proponents of non-violence for inflexibility in demanding that blacks renounce their right to self-protection).  In their view, armed self-defense was justified because of a “breakdown of the law” in failing to protect black families from armed whites.  As they tell it, Brown v. Board of Education unleashed not only generalized racial unrest in the South, but also a wave of violence directly against NAACP members and their allies.  “[T]here was no such thing as a 14th Amendment to the Constitution in Monroe, NC,” because local officials refused to enforce the law and protect the life, liberty, and property of black families.  Federal and state officials, too, were nowhere to be found.  In fact, many in the community believed that state and local officials were conspiring to deprive black Americans of their constitutional rights. Black self-defense filled this gap in the constitutional order.

Any limited theory of armed self-defense became greatly complicated by the pair’s embrace of Marxist revolutionary ideas about the worldwide liberation of the oppressed.  Negroes With Guns predicted a day when racial violence in the United States became so pervasive that “non-violence will be suicidal in itself.”  It cited with approval the legacy of John Brown favoring the “righteous use” of weapons to “destroy those things that block [the American Negro’s] path to a greater happiness in life.”  Linking armed tactics with revolutionary ends blurred the lines between constitutional preservation and constitutional usurpation–a recurring problem that faced all black power groups during this period.  In theory and practice, it became difficult to draw clear lines between self-defense and the armed instigation of foundational change.

After a protest turned unruly and Robert Williams was charged with kidnapping a white family (he claimed to be protecting the family from a mob), the pair fled.  While in exile in China, Robert briefly held the Presidency of the Republic of New Afrika, founded by the followers of Malcolm X after his assassination.  Professor Pero Gaglo Dagbovie recounts that in later years, Mabel became a community historian and keeper of an oral tradition of the Black Power period.  This tradition includes not only the major events that transpired during a tumultuous period of American history, but also popular interpretations of the law.

5

Contested Ideas About Consent

One of the challenging things about studying popular constitutionalism is that theories of power, community, and tactics can be all jumbled together.

For instance, from what I can gather, Cliven Bundy appears to be a rancher who holds a strong, individualist view of property rights and espouses a theory of government in which the local somehow trumps the national (and likely the state as well).  Tactically, he favors the use of private force in defense of constitutional rights and powers (he also believes that he is entitled to the assistance of local and state authorities to resist the federal government).  For now, his statements justifying the use of force seem to be limited to repelling invasions of property (his cattle, money) and personal security (his body, the safety of his family), so they can be plausibly defended on self-defense grounds (in natural law or other ethical terms, not based on statute or a written constitution).  His vague call for a “range war” muddies his claim to principled use of extralegal tactics and opens him up to charges that he is advocating organized violence against the state, so you can bet his next words and actions will be carefully scrutinized (recall that John Brown was tried for insurrection, and black nationalists were often accused of such crimes).

What’s harder to figure out is Bundy’s theory of consent.  Every popular constitutionalist must present a coherent theory of consent to rebut arguments that simple lawlessness is being advocated.  Secessionists favored the “compact theory” of consent, which holds that each state agreed to the formation of the U.S. Constitution and that each state could withdraw its consent.  Abraham Lincoln and defenders of the Union rejected this approach, saying that the people in the several states gave their consent and that only the people as a whole could dissolve the bonds of political community.

John Brown argued that groups of Americans (slaves, freedmen, and abolitionists) joined by their conviction and shared tragedy could disaffiliate from the existing form of government without committing treason.  From there, group-based theories of consent flourished.  Modern black nationalists and white separatists argue that racial or ethnic identity provides the basis for giving or withdrawing consent.  Typically, disgruntled Americans signal their disaffiliation through a public act: meeting in convention and signing a public declaration.

What makes sovereign citizens and their ilk different is that they often argue that each individual has the power to withhold the consent of the governed. For many observers, this is a theory of consent that descends into anarchy.  There is also a more selective, and sometimes mysterious, quality to the extent of their disaffiliation. Often, such figures “declare independence” when pressed, during criminal trials or litigation over taxes or property rights. Others, without any prompting, file documents in traditional government offices announcing their unorthodox legal views, sometimes over and over again.

Bundy has said he “respect[s] the federal government” but also that it “doesn’t have its place in the state of Nevada . . . and Clark County, and that’s where my ranch is. The federal government has no power and no ownership of this land.” Unless someone sees an open and notorious act of disaffiliation from the federal government, at this point it looks like he is engaged in selective (issue by issue?) rejection of jurisdiction, backed by an account of political structure that is clearly subversive but not fully implemented.

The task of ascertaining one’s constitutional theory is further complicated when more mainstream figures start using the language of popular sovereignty.  It can be hard to figure out how much an elected official believes and how much the official is simply catering to attitudes that are perceived to be widely shared by constituents.  See, for example, this candidate for Governor of South Dakota, who favors state nullification of unjust federal laws, admires Bundy, and shares his belief that sheriffs are the highest law enforcement officials in the land.  Lora Hubbel plainly has not disaffiliated from state government, holds radical localist views of government, supports extralegal tactics, and holds the federal government in antipathy (but it’s unclear whether she believes she owes allegiance to the U.S. government).

So, the next time you hear a political aspirant, activist, or lawyer deploy arguments about popular sovereignty, ask that person: (1) what is the basis for making such claims; (2) what tactics are justified; and (3) to what government(s), exactly, does he or she owe allegiance?

8

Legislative Separation of Powers

I find nowadays that many of my constitutional interests revolve around comparing the United States and Britain.  In that spirit, I want to raise the following issue about rule making within Congress.

A fundamental principle of our legal system is that no person should be a judge in his or her own case.  This idea dates back to Blackstone, and is behind many of our legal institutions and ideals.  There is, though, one significant exception.  Each House of Congress makes and applies its own rules.  This means that the majority can be a judge in its own case when the rules are inconvenient.  You can make a reasonable argument that the current lack of cooperation in Congress stems from this merger of procedure and partisanship.  The Speaker largely makes the rules in the House, and Senator Reid does the same in the Senate.  And you wouldn’t call either of these guys nonpartisan.

How do legislatures deal with this problem in other countries or in the states?  There are several options.  One is to say that the rules may only be changed by a supermajority, or may only be changed at a particular time (not just any time the majority wants).  Another thought is that there could be a norm that the rules should not be changed by the majority (even though it can be done that way).  A third possibility is that you delegate rules decisions to someone who is insulated from the majority in some way (a committee chairman or a neutral presiding officer).

None of these are being done now.  I wonder whether each House of Congress could, to so speak, do with a stronger dose of internal separation of powers.