Righteous Indignation

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit released the latest opinion in UT v. Fisher, the ongoing battle over the role of race-based preferences in the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduate admissions policy. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Circuit had failed to apply the proper strict scrutiny standard to its earlier review of UT’s admissions scheme. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the court “must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” He cautioned that, if a non-race-discriminatory approach could bring about UT’s stated goal of a “critical mass” of campus diversity, “then the university may not consider race.” The Court remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit. This week, two of the three judges on the Fifth Circuit panel concluded that the use of race was, indeed, necessary.

Judge Emilio Garza’s dissent (beginning on page 44) criticizes the majority opinion for deferring impermissibly to UT’s claims, despite the Supreme Court’s instruction. He writes, “Although the University has articulated its diversity goal as a ‘critical mass,’ surprisingly, it has failed to define this term in any objective manner.” He later writes, “The majority entirely overlooks the University’s failure to define its ‘critical mass’ objective for the purposes of assessing narrow tailoring. This is the crux of this case — absent a meaningful explanation of its desired ends, the University cannot prove narrow tailoring under its strict scrutiny burden.”

How much diversity is a critical mass of diversity? Is this a unit of measure like a team of oxen or a murder of crows? How can a court possibly determine whether a given policy is necessary to achieve critical mass if we don’t know what that is? UT isn’t exactly the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, but a little bit more precision would be helpful.

The concept of critical mass is problematic for many reasons. Its vagueness provides a poor measure for reviewing courts. It packs in several dubious assumptions about the meaning of race. Here’s one more reason why “critical mass” is such a critical mess . . . .

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Earlier this week, several prominent LGBT advocacy groups announced that they would no longer support the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination ACT, known as ENDA. If the U.S. House of Representatives passes ENDA, it would create legal safeguards in the workplace for gay, lesbian, and transgendered employees. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund led the move, with the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Transgender Law Center later joining NGLTF’s initial statement. The groups fear that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hobby Lobby signals a move toward expansive religious exemptions. Consequently, the groups will now focus their efforts on securing rights for the LGBT community like those provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

A few months ago, I wrote about ENDA and why conservative Republicans in the House ought to pass the bill. I pointed to a novel D.C. district court ruling allowing a gay man to move forward with his Title VII employment discrimination claim, based on his status as a homosexual male. I described the differences between Title VII’s religious exemptions for employers and the much broader exemptions provided by ENDA. In my earlier piece, I wrote, “Republican Congress members should think twice about refusing to enact legislation that would provide ENDA’s key protection of religious freedom. If they fail to do so, and the push to expand the scope of Title VII in the courts continues, no such protection will exist.”

Instead of prioritizing religious freedom, social conservatives in Congress have held fast to a strident moral opposition to LGBT rights. Instead of pressing for new, democratically enacted statutory rights, many advocates of LGBT equality will increasingly double-down on judicial re-interpretation of Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause. As each side digs in, the other side digs in deeper. Workable compromises seem fewer….

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With the Supreme Court’s 2013 term concluding on Monday, many Americans are assessing how they feel about the judicial branch of their government. Even if you are still reeling about some of the decisions made recently by the least dangerous branch, don’t forget the executive. The president and his agencies can also make you wonder how the American experiment is panning out.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton issued an order to hear oral arguments from lawyers representing the Internal Revenue Service and the conservative nonprofit True the Vote. True the Vote is one of the conservative groups claiming IRS improperly targeted its application for nonprofit status based on the group’s political and philosophical affiliation. True the Vote filed a motion for a preliminary injunction and expedited discovery on Monday, calling for an independent forensics examination of any IRS hard drives, servers, or other computer hardware involved in the government agency’s possible targeting of conservative nonprofits’ applications for tax-exempt status. It wants an outside computer expert to try to ascertain how and when any electronic evidence, such as former IRS Commissioner Lois Lerner’s emails, may have been lost. Also, it would be great if the government didn’t spoliate — I mean “recycle” — any more evidence….

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Edward Snowden returned to the news this week when NBC aired an hour-long interview with him, the first on American TV. Anchor Brian Williams met with Snowden in a Moscow hotel. The 30-year-old former computer systems administrator described his motives for releasing an unprecedented payload of classified information about NSA surveillance.

Snowden is vexing. As a person, he seems a mix of likeable and unlikeable traits. He appears earnest, convinced of the rectitude of his choices even if, as he told NBC, “Sometimes, to do the right thing you have to break the law.” Yet he bristles at Obama Administration characterizations of him as a low-level employee, a high-school dropout. (For example, the president told reporters last year, “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.”) Even if Snowden is right to resist the connotations of those labels, listening to him defend himself in the interview can be painful. He insists he was “trained as a spy” who lived under an assumed identity and was a powerful operator. He sounds like a young man with a bruised ego. The last thing one wants to have to worry about in a situation of this great national and international importance, though, is one young man’s ego.

Snowden’s case is more important and more vexing. NSA’s surveillance programs are deeply troubling….

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Despite the ever-growing ways that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates what Americans can consume, FDA does not currently regulate genetically modified food. The State of Vermont wants to step in.

This week, Vermont will become the first state to mandate labeling of food products containing ingredients from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It would require retailers of raw agricultural commodities to clearly and conspicuously label GMO-sourced food with the words “produced with genetic engineering.” (Think ears of corn in your supermarket’s produce section.) Producers of packaged food products must label their products with similar language if any ingredient contained in the product comes from a genetically modified source. (Think of that 56-ingredient protein bar sitting on your desk.)

The bill passed the Vermont House and Senate, and Governor Peter Shumlin just signed it into law yesterday. The law is scheduled to take effect in July 2016.

Why are some people so lathered up about eating ingredients that come from genetically modified crops? “Monsanto” has become a dirty word, with nouveau-hippie parents washing out their kids’ mouths with biodegradable, SLS-free soap when they hear them say it. Unfortunately, much public debate conflates genetic modification, exposure to pesticides, and all sorts of other “unnatural” stuff related to food.

Ironically, genetic modification of seeds aims to make crops more resistant to pests, disease, and drought, thus reducing the need for conventional chemical pesticides and increasing crop yields. A growing world population demands innovation to produce more crops with fewer resources. Billions of people need to eat. Too many GMO opponents seem to picture Dr. Frankenstein when they should be picturing Gregor Mendel or Mother Teresa. (Or, to be fair, Walter De Jong.)

That, however, is only the beginning of what’s foolish about Vermont’s new law . . . .

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed
new rules targeting electronic cigarettes. By its authority under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, FDA now regulates “tobacco products” — cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco. The proposed regulation would “deem” additional products within the scope of the statutory definition of “tobacco product.” FDA would deem electronic cigarettes to be tobacco products, even though e-cigs don’t contain tobacco leaves. The deeming regulation would give FDA the power to govern e-cigs’ manufacture, sale, and use, implementing age restrictions, mandating additional scientific review of products, and scrutinizing claims made by the makers of e-cigs.

The new regulations would prevent e-cigarette manufacturers from telling consumers that their products are a safer alternative than tobacco cigarettes. The deeming regulations would prohibit claiming that vaporized nicotine “presents a lower risk of tobacco-related disease or is less harmful than one or more commercially marketed tobacco products.” In fact, the new rules would prevent them from even advertising to the public that their “product or its smoke does not contain or is free of a substance,” even though e-cigs do not produce smoke and do not contain tobacco in any common-sense meaning of the word.

Banning this sort of claims is absurd: e-cigs lack the more than 4,000 chemicals, many of them carcinogenic, of combustible tobacco cigarettes. Electronic nicotine vaporizers need not be particularly healthy in order to be less unhealthy than traditional cigarettes.

This regulatory push is poisoned by a bevy of bad arguments. Most of the rhetoric consists of pure emotion on the part of anti-tobacco activists. Certain anti-tobacco and anti-smoking factions grow hysterical at the mere specter of smoking. Unfortunately, a more powerful lobby is also trying to squelch e-cigs . . . .

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It’s been a week of strange splits and noteworthy dissents at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Navarette v. California, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a five-justice majority, holding that a traffic stop premised on an anonymous but reliable 911 tip about a swerving driver provided a police officer reasonable suspicion that the driver was intoxicated. So much the worse for the driver in this case, who happened to have thirty pounds of pot in the bed of his truck. Chief Justice Roberts agreed, as did Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito. Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan. The usual yammering about Thomas as Scalia’s lap dog was quiet in this case. In Navarette, they apparently don’t even agree about how booze works: Scalia writes, “Whether a drunk driver drives drunkenly, the Court seems to think, is up to him. That is not how I understand the influence of alcohol.” He then cites to an article on the science of drinking.

In Paroline v. United States, the case involving restitution for child pornography victims, Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan. The Chief dissented, along with Scalia and Thomas. Justice Sotomayor dissented separately. While none of the other justices joined her opinion, Sotomayor would have affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s en banc majority, granting the victim Amy full restitution. That majority included some conservative stalwarts (such as my former boss, Edith Jones) who aren’t often on the same side of divisive issues as the Wise Latina.

Justice Sotomayor also dissented in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, this term’s high-profile affirmative action case. Justice Ginsburg joined Sotomayor’s spirited (58-page!) dissent. Justice Kennedy, writing for himself, the Chief, and Alito, concluded that the Constitution does not require the Court to strike down Michigan voters’ ban on race-based admissions policies in higher education. Scalia and Thomas concurred only in the judgment. Breyer separately concurred, based on a different rationale. Kagan was recused.

If the Supreme Court this week is any indicator, we often agree on little. Where we do, we sometimes find ourselves sharing the sheets with some strange bedfellows. A week of vociferous dissents and unexpected alliances suits seems strangely appropriate to me this week . . . .

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Tax Day was earlier this week. Like many Americans, I said some prayers — and a few curses — and hoped that Turbo Tax made sense of my mid-year move from D.C. to Texas, my investment roll-overs, my handful of I-9s and W-2s. I did my damnedest to be “true, correct, and complete,” as the IRS insisted. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted via Twitter that he has “absolutely no idea whether our tax returns and our tax payments are accurate,” though, of course, he didn’t say that he knew that they weren’t accurate.

Campaign for Liberty, Ron Paul’s 501(c)(4) organization, announced this week that it’s actually pretty sure that its tax recent filings are incomplete, even if true and correct. (Two out of three ain’t bad?) According to C4L, the organization refused to divulge the names of its donors when it filed its IRS 990 forms. The IRS fined Campaign for Liberty just shy of $13,000, plus growing interest for each day the fine goes unpaid.

How did Campaign for Liberty respond? Not as you might expect….

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The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”) is proposed legislation that would prohibit most employers from discriminating on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The Senate passed the bill in November, but the proposal is currently languishing in the House.

President Obama supports ENDA. Recently, though, LGBT activists have criticized him for not pushing the proposed legislation harder and for not creating an executive order that would create ENDA-like protections for employees of federal contractors.

Republican lawmakers, though, are the ones who will ultimately rue not enacting ENDA while they have the chance. Here’s why….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “The ENDA Title VII As We Know It: Why House Republicans Should Pass The Employment Non-Discrimination Act”

After yesterday’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, where the Supreme Court found that aggregate contribution limits violate the First Amendment, campaign finance is back in the spotlight. In October, when the Court heard oral arguments for McCutcheon, I wrote about why I thought Shaun McCutcheon should prevail and why “rumors of democracy’s death are greatly exaggerated.” Others apparently still believe the rumors.

Something else this week delivered grist for the mill, as the country considers how political causes ought to be funded. Mozilla, the nonprofit foundation responsible for the Firefox browser and other open-source ventures, promoted Brendan Eich to CEO last week. California law required the public report of Eich’s 2008 contribution to the campaign to pass Proposition 8, the ballot measure amending the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Prop 8, of course, eventually gave rise to the Supreme Court’s decision last term in Hollingsworth v. Perry. Eich’s financial support of Prop 8 has now given rise to a slew of woes for Eich and Mozilla.

Half of Mozilla’s board members quit, protesting a CEO with a history of activism against same-sex marriage. Some Firefox app developers decided to boycott Firefox projects until Eich is removed from his position. Twitter has been, well, atwitter with criticism.

Then, earlier this week, the dating site OkCupid rerouted all of its users accessing its site from a Firefox browser to a message that began, “Hello there, Mozilla Firefox user. Pardon this interruption of your OkCupid experience. Mozilla’s new CEO, Brendan Eich, is an opponent of equal rights for gay couples. We would therefore prefer that our users not use Mozilla software to access OkCupid.” The message goes on to read, “Equality for gay relationships is personally important to many of us here at OkCupid. But it’s professionally important to the entire company. OkCupid is for creating love. Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.”

OkCupid’s arrow struck deep. What Eich now faces raises questions about political expression and association, laws requiring disclosure of political contributions, and the consequences of both….

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