Wednesday, July 1, 2015

To Term

The Supreme Court ended its 2014-15 term on Monday on a mixed note.  It ruled 5-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the conservative bloc, against the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to regulate mercury emissions from coal-powered electricity-generating plants because it failed to factor compliance costs in - but, the EPA can still regulate mercury emissions provided they factor in costs from the start, so it's not a total loss.  More jaw-dropping is the Supreme Court's decision that lethal drugs used in executions, which have been known to be subject to pain-inducing snafus, do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment and thus do not violate the Eighth Amendment.  Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the five-justice majority (the usual suspects), said that malfunctions in the use of lethal drugs in execution may cause pain to the inmate being put to death, but hey, lots of people die in pain, so what's the big deal?  This did not sit well with Justice Stephen Breyer, who brought up anew the theory that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it's cruel and unusual punishment in and of itself.  This theory was famously advanced by Arthur Goldberg, a Chicago labor lawyer who served as President Kennedy's Labor Secretary and then as a justice on the Supreme Court, where his clerking staff included a young man named . . . Stephen Breyer.  (You learned well from your master, my good man!)  
But the most significant ruling from the court this past Monday was the ruling from the Court that independent panels can draw electoral districts in place of state legislatures to reduce the risk of gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering was the brainchild of Elbridge Gerry (above), who was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1810.  A member of Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party in a mostly Federalist state, Gerry drew legislative districts in Massachusetts that looked like salamanders (hence, "gerrymander") on the map in order to maximize the Democratic-Republican vote at the expense of the Federalists.  This is what the Republicans did to the Democrats in many states after winning most of the 2010 elections when it came time to redraw electoral districts after the last census, the result being that Democrats are shut of power in many states and hold far fewer state and federal legislative offices, even in this Age of Obama.  The Democrats have their smallest U.S. House caucus in decades, and their best hope of regaining the House is after the 2020 census and the redrawing of the districts (if they're still around then). This ruling makes it easier for them to do that.  The Court ruled 5-4, with Justice Kennedy joining the Court's liberal bloc, that a 2000 initiative in Arizona approved by the voters is legal, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said that it was true to the spirit of the Constitution by prescribing the best way to apportion congressional districts in the best way that Arizona residents see fit. 
"The animating principle of our Constitution [is] that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government," Ginsburg wrote.
It's going to take time before we see any net results of this ruling in other states, but it will hopefully make it much harder for Republicans to manipulate the popular vote in their favor in redrawing districts for federal and local legislative representatives and help, ha ha, the Democrats or whatever party ultimately replaces it to gain ground.  The expectation is quite simple . . . that independent panels start to catch on all over the country and make or legislative elections freer and fairer.
Sorry, Elbridge.     

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