Category: Civil Rights

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Just How Youthful Should Voters Be? Part II: Defining Electoral Decision-Making Competence

This is the second of three (or so) posts on the youth vote and the voting age. In a post last week, I suggested that the United States should join other democracies reevaluating their ages of electoral majority.

In this post, I argue that deciding whether a group of individuals is competent to vote first requires a conception of what constitutes electoral competence, and I offer such a conception. My next post will examine whether such competence is reliably achieved earlier than age 18.

Basic Voting Criteria: Connection/Interest and Competence. Basic voting criteria have remained essentially unchanged across the centuries and generally require for electoral inclusion  (1) a significant and ongoing interest in and connection to the community; and (2) vote decision-making competence. (Few democracy theorists, though, have sought to justify these intuitively-correct criteria. I attempt to do so here, pp. 1484-90.) But while the basic criteria have remained unchanged, notions of reliable indicia of them–reflected in specific voter qualification rules–have changed significantly.

Historically, property ownership was a voter qualification rule believed necessary to ensure a potential voter’s ongoing community connection and interest. Today, citizenship, residence, and law-abidingness qualifications all seek to ensure the same criteria (ongoing connection and interest). And historically, the intellectual independence required for electoral decision-making competence was deemed impossible in the absence of economic independence, since dependent voters might be unwilling to vote in a way that displeased those to whom they were economically beholden. Today, different voter qualification rules aim to ensure that voters possess electoral decision-making competence. State rules allow, for example, the disfranchisement of adults deemed mentally incompetent. The primary voter qualification rule aimed at ensuring that voters have developed the requisite competence, however, is the voting age.

Indicia of Competence: Political/Civics Knowledge? Rousseau believed that a well-informed citizenry was necessary to determine and implement the public good, and many modern theorists agree that informed and watchful citizens help ensure a responsive, accountable government. Yet the typical citizen, it is safe to say, is far removed from the ideal citizen of classic democratic theory.

Studies consistently find that public ignorance is widespread and extends to knowledge of basic civics and government. Mark Blumenthal, senior polling editor of the Huffington Post and founder of Pollster.com glumly wrote, “[one] can almost never underestimate the level of information about politics and government possessed by the voters who typically decide the outcome of elections.”

Incorporating even basic levels of civics or political knowledge into a conception of electoral competence theoretically justifies voter qualification rules that would operate to disfranchise a significant proportion of the current electorate. Moreover, rates of disfranchisement would be unequally distributed across the population based on differences in knowledge among various groups that have held steady over time: more women would be disfranchised than men; more African Americans than whites; more low-income earners than high-income earners; and more people under 30 than those 65 and older. Formal requirements aimed at ensuring well-informed voting would likely result in a better-informed electorate, but also a less representative and democratic one.

The Ill-Informed–Yet Competent-Enough–Voter. In lieu of incurring the costs of educating themselves, voters generally rely on more readily available information shortcuts (or heuristics), which substitute for more complete information. These can include party affiliation, group endorsements, or person stereotypes such as gender, race, or age. Heuristics allow voters (indeed, decision makers in innumerable contexts) to make decisions reasonably consistent with their preferences while expending relatively little effort. Empirical political scientists Richard Lau and David Redlawsk have extensively researched voter decision making and the effectiveness of heuristic use and found that their “limited information decision strategies not only may perform as well as, but in many instances may perform better than, traditional rational . . . decision strategies.” (For a detailed explanation of their findings, see the previous link at pp. 212-26; See also here, reporting studies finding that greater amounts of preexisting knowledge can in some instances hinder rational analysis of new facts.)

Lau and Redlawsk have found that the typical voter generally reaches a rational and “correct” voting decision (defined as one that is the same as the choice that the voter would have made under conditions of full information, given the voter’s subjective beliefs and values) by acquiring and processing smaller, readily available bits of meaningful information that function as serviceable substitutes for full information. Thus, not only does incorporating factual knowledge into a normative standard of electoral competence risk disfranchising much of the current electorate; it is also unnecessary to ensure generally correct vote decisions.

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The Youth Vote Matters. But Just How Young Should Voters Be? [Part I]

Happy New Year, and thanks to Solangel Maldonado for inviting me to participate.

One of the most consequential events of 2012 was the presidential election, and critical to it was the youth vote. Young voters aged 18 to 29 turned out at virtually the same rate as they had in 2008, despite predictions that their enthusiastic participation in that historic election would be a one-time anomaly. On November 6, a lopsided 60 percent of the youth vote went to the President, while 36 percent went to Mitt Romney. Had Romney managed to garner 50 percent of the youth vote in four swing states (Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), he would have won those states’ electoral votes, and the presidency. The political implications of the youth vote for future elections are thus significant. Young voters have established themselves as an important voting bloc, particularly in swing states.

Across the United States, the voting age to participate in general elections is 18, with age serving as a proxy for the attainment of electoral decision-making competence. Whether young voters will continue to lean left in future election cycles is a significant question. A more significant question, though, is whether the current voting age is the best available proxy for electoral competence. Indeed, the latter question cuts to the core of democratic government. I explore it in a recent article and will highlight aspects of this critical, yet largely ignored, question in upcoming posts.

More than a dozen nations have recently lowered local, state, or national voting ages to 16, aiming primarily to increase youths’ political engagement and counter the disproportionate political influence of older citizens. In Europe, these include Austria, Scotland, Wales, the self-governing British Crown Dependencies, nearly half of all German states, and several Swiss states (Scotland and Wales are awaiting from Westminster authority to effectuate the measure but have implemented it for local elections). Norway instituted a pilot project in 2011 allowing 16 year-olds to vote in local elections. Latin American countries that allow 16 year-olds to vote include Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and–as of October 2012–Argentina. British and Canadian Parliaments have voted on bills proposing to lower national voting ages (though these have so far failed to pass), and former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both announced while in office their support for a lower voting age.

That the global trend is to extend, or consider extending, the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds does not mean that the United States should automatically do the same, nor that doing so necessarily makes for better democracy. But for the United States, which holds itself out as a beacon of democratic participation, not to be among the world’s democracies at least evaluating the electoral inclusion of some cohort of its younger citizens demonstrates a complacency with respect to exclusion that is itself a democratic deficit.

In upcoming posts, I will explore ideals of the citizen-voter from classic democratic theory, argue for a conception of electoral competence, and examine research from several disciplines within the developmental sciences exploring the connection between age range and the attainment of certain cognitive competencies. I conclude that age 18 may have been the best available proxy for electoral competence when the nation adopted it as the voting age in 1971, but developments since then enable us to identify a better proxy.

That younger voters have demonstrated a proclivity to lean left may make some policy makers reluctant to even entertain what ought to be a question of democratic legitimacy, not politics. That may ultimately be political reality, but, as future posts will aim to show, it would also be a real shame.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Privilege and the Belfast Project

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a Note by Will Havemann entitled Privilege and the Belfast Project. Havemann argues that a recent First Circuit opinion goes too far and threatens the idea of academic privilege:

In 2001, two Irish scholars living in the United States set out to compile the recollections of men and women involved in the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland. The result was the Belfast Project, an oral history project housed at Boston College that collected interviews from many who were personally involved in the violent Northern Irish “Troubles.” To induce participants to document their memories for posterity, Belfast Project historians promised all those interviewed that the contents of their testimonials would remain confidential until they died. More than a decade later, this promise of confidentiality is at the heart of a legal dispute implicating the United States’ bilateral legal assistance treaty with the United Kingdom, the so-called academic’s privilege, and the First Amendment.

He concludes:

Given the confusion sown by Branzburg’s fractured opinion, the First Circuit’s hardnosed decision is unsurprising. But by disavowing the balancing approach recommended in Justice Powell’s concurring Branzburg opinion, and by overlooking the considerable interests supporting the Belfast Project’s confidentiality guarantee, the First Circuit erred both as a matter of precedent and of policy. At least one Supreme Court Justice has signaled a willingness to correct the mischief done by the First Circuit, and to clarify an area of First Amendment law where the Court’s guidance is sorely needed. The rest of the Court should take note.

Read the full article, Privilege and the Belfast Project at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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Professor Sherrilyn Ifill to Become the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.

I am so proud to share the news that my colleague Professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill will become President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF).  The LDF is the nation’s premier civil rights law organization.  Ifill will become the seventh Director-Counsel and the second woman to head the organization.  The LDF was founded by Thurgood Marshall, the pioneering civil rights lawyer and later U.S. Supreme Court justice.  Marshall’s first successful civil rights case was his suit challenging the exclusion of black students from the University of Maryland School of Law.  That case, decided in 1935, is largely credited as the first case on the road to Marshall’s ultimately successful and landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.  The law library at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law is named in honor of Justice Marshall.

As the University of Maryland School of Law website notes:

“Professor Ifill is an extraordinary member of our faculty,” said UM Carey Law Dean Phoebe A. Haddon.  “We are deeply proud that she has been called upon to lead this storied national organization at a critical time.  Her intellect, vision, and life-long dedication to advancing justice will improve the rights of all.”

Ifill began her legal career as an assistant counsel at the LDF, where she litigated voting rights cases.  She joined the Maryland Law faculty in 1993, where she has taught Civil Procedure, Complex Litigation, Constitutional Law, and a variety of civil rights courses.  Professor Ifill litigated environmental justice cases with students in her Legal Theory and Practice courses, and co-founded the Re-entry of Ex-Offenders Clinic.  Her book, On the Courthouse Lawn:  Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century was published in 2007.  She is expected to take a leave of absence from the law school, and will work in both the New York and Washington, D.C. offices of the LDF.

“I am deeply grateful to Dean Haddon and the University for their support as I take up this new challenge,” said Professor Ifill. “My loyalty, respect for and commitment to the law school and its wonderful students is undiminished. Indeed it is my hope that that we will find rich opportunities for collaboration during my tenure at LDF.”

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Stanford Law Review Online: The Hunt for Noncitizen Voters

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Fatma Marouf entitled The Hunt for Noncitizen Voters. Professor Marouf writes that recent efforts by several states to purge noncitizens from their voter rolls may prevent many more citizens than noncitizens from voting:

Over the past year, states have shown increasing angst about noncitizens registering to vote. Three states—Tennessee, Kansas, and Alabama—have passed new laws requiring documentary proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register. Arizona was the first state to pass such a requirement, but the Ninth Circuit struck it down in April 2012, finding it incompatible with the National Voter Registration Act. Two other states—Florida and Colorado—have waged aggressive campaigns in recent months to purge noncitizens from voter registration lists. These efforts to weed out noncitizen voters follow on the heels of legislation targeting undocumented immigrants in a number of states. Yet citizens may be more harmed by the new laws than noncitizens, especially since the number of noncitizens registering to vote has turned out to be quite small. Wrongfully targeting naturalized or minority citizens in the search for noncitizens could also have negative ramifications for society as a whole, reinforcing unconscious bias about who is a “real” American and creating subclasses of citizens who must overcome additional hurdles to exercise the right to vote.

She concludes:

Some of the laws require voters to show government-issued photo IDs, which 11% of U.S. citizens do not have. Some have placed new burdens on voter registration drives, through which African-American and Hispanic voters are twice as likely to register as Whites. Others restrict early voting, specifically eliminating Sunday voting, which African-Americans and Hispanics also utilize more often than Whites. In two states, new laws rolled back reforms that had restored voting rights to citizens with felony convictions, who are disproportionately African-American. Each of these laws is a stepping-stone on the path to subsidiary citizenship. Rather than creating new obstacles to democratic participation, we should focus our energy on ensuring that all eligible citizens are able to exercise the fundamental right to vote.

Read the full article, The Hunt for Noncitizen Voters at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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The Contraception Mandate Part I

The Affordable Care Act is changing the health care landscape. Among the changes is that employers that provide health insurance must cover preventive services, including contraception. Although the requirement does not apply to religious organizations, it does apply to religiously affiliated ones. This “contraception mandate” has generated a huge outcry from some religious leaders, most notably the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They insist that forcing Catholic hospitals, schools, or charities to include contraception in their employee insurance plans violates religious liberty.

It doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t violate the Free Exercise Clause. After Employment Division v. Smith, neutral laws of general applicability are constitutional, regardless of the burden they may impose on religious practices. Indeed, the law upheld in Smith banned a religious sacrament. But it was neutral, in that it did not intentionally target religion, and it was generally applicable, in that it was neither riddled with exceptions nor grossly underinclusive. The regulation requiring employers who provide health insurance to include contraception in that coverage is likewise a neutral law of general applicability.

While a recent Supreme Court decision (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC) carved out an exception to this “neutral-generally-applicable-laws-do-not-violate-the-Free-Exercise-Clause” rule, it does not apply here. This exception — which holds that religious institutions are immune from neutral, generally applicable anti-discrimination laws when they are sued by their ministers — was designed to protect churches’ ability to pick their leaders without interference from the state. However, the provision by religiously-affiliated organizations of health insurance to their employees, many of whom do not belong to the same faith as their religious employer, clearly does not involve ministers or internal church governance. In short, there is no valid Free Exercise Claim.

What about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? Stay tuned.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Dahlia v. Rodriguez

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a Note by Kendall Turner entitled Dahlia v. Rodriguez: A Chance to Overrule Dangerous Precedent. Turner argues that the Ninth Circuit has an opportunity to make an important change to the rules governing the application of First Amendment protections to the speech of public employees:

In December 2007, Angelo Dahlia, a detective for the City of Burbank, California, allegedly witnessed his fellow police officers using unlawful interrogation tactics. According to Dahlia, these officers beat multiple suspects, squeezed the throat of one suspect, and placed a gun directly under that suspect’s eye. The Burbank Chief of Police seemed to encourage this behavior: after learning that certain suspects were not yet under arrest, he allegedly urged his employees to “beat another [suspect] until they are all in custody.”

After some delay, Dahlia reported his colleagues’ conduct to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Four days later, Burbank’s Chief of Police placed Dahlia on administrative leave. Dahlia subsequently filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the Chief and other members of the Burbank Police Department, alleging that his placement on administrative leave was unconstitutional retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights.

She concludes:

Dahlia offers the Ninth Circuit an opportunity to overturn Huppert and articulate a narrow understanding of Garcetti. This narrow understanding accords with the reality of public employees’ duties—for the duties they are actually expected to perform may differ significantly from the responsibilities listed in their job descriptions. A narrow reading of Garcetti is also essential to ensuring adequate protection of free speech: The answer to the question of when the First Amendment protects a public employee’s statements made pursuant to his official duties may not be “always,” but it cannot be “never.”

Read the full article, Dahlia v. Rodriguez: A Chance to Overrule Dangerous Precedent at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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An Accommodation Too Far

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been leading the charge against the contraception mandate, but its opposition to the mandate does not represent the USCCB’s first entanglement with contraception lawsuits. ACLU of Massachusetts v. Sebelius involved an Establishment Clause challenge to a grant given to the USCCB pursuant to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The grant was to provide services to victims of sex trafficking, who are often forced into prostitution and forced to endure rape or other sexual abuse. In accepting the grant, the USCCB made very clear that its religious beliefs prevented them from providing contraception or abortion to their clients, or referring them to others who would. (More specifically, the USCCB stated it would bar its subcontractors from providing or referring these services.) Even though access to contraception and abortion are crucial for women and girls who have been sexually trafficked, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) nonetheless awarded the USCCB over $15 million dollars. The ACLU sued, alleging Establishment Clause violations. USCCB responded by claiming that HHS was merely accommodating its sincere religious beliefs. The ACLU won.

Sometimes the line between constitutional accommodation of religious belief and unconstitutional advancement of religion can be hard to draw. Sometimes, however, it is not. HHS should never have awarded the grant. It is true that religious groups may now compete on an equal basis with secular groups for government grants and contracts. But they should also be rejected on an equal basis if they cannot fulfill basic grant requirements. The point of the grant, after all, is to help the intended beneficiaries. Any group, secular or religious, that cannot provide the requisite services, which in this case includes contraception and abortion, is simply not qualified. To accommodate the USCCB at the expense of trafficked sex victims goes too far. At this point, “accommodation devolve[s] into an unlawful fostering of religion.”

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Expanding Bob Jones University v. United States

In Bob Jones University v. United States, the IRS revoked the tax exempt status of two religiously affiliated schools because they discriminated on the basis of race. One school (Goldsboro Christian Schools) refused admittance to black students, the other (Bob Jones University) barred interracial dating and marriage. Both schools claimed that the discrimination was religiously mandated, and that the loss of their tax exempt status violated the Free Exercise Clause. The schools lost. The Supreme Court characterized tax exemptions as a taxpayer subsidy for charitable organizations that, at the very least, do not contravene fundamental public policy like our commitment to racial equality, and held that racist schools did not satisfy that requirement: “[I]t cannot be said that educational institutions that, for whatever reasons, practice racial discrimination, are institutions exercising beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life or should be encouraged by having all taxpayers share in their support by way of special tax status.” In addition, the Court held that eliminating race discrimination in education was a narrowly tailored and compelling state interest. The bottom line is that a university may discriminate based on race, but it should not expect to be considered a beneficial organization entitled to tax subsidies.

Assuming Bob Jones was correctly decided, should its holding be limited to discrimination in education, or discrimination on the basis of race? I think not. In fact, the IRS denies tax exempt status to any nonprofit organization, religious or not, that invidiously discriminates on the basis of race. If you are a church that excludes blacks, or won’t let blacks become ministers, you may have the constitutional right to exist, but you won’t get any government money to help you prosper. Should the same policy apply to organizations, religious or not, that invidiously discriminate on the basis of sex?

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Professor Sherrilyn Ifill on Fisher v. University of Texas: Still Litigation Without Minority Representation

My colleague Sherrilyn Ifill has generously offered to share her insights on the Fisher case.  Professor Ifill is a nationally recognized expert on civil rights litigation: we are lucky to have her aboard as a guest commentator.  Here is Professor Ifill’s post:

Since the Bakke v. California case, higher education affirmative action cases have largely been litigated between white applicants who claim they were excluded from university admissions as a result of affirmative action, and historically white universities who have in the last 30 years sought to diversify their student bodies.  Minority students, whose interests are deeply affected by the litigation in these cases, are often relegated to the sidelines.

This troubling phenomenon was first the result of the federal court’s interpretation of intervention of a right under Rule 24 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. A year after the Bakke case, Professor Emma Coleman Jordan (nee Jones)  wrote powerfully about the refusal of the federal trial court in that case to allow black students to intervene in her Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review article Litigation Without Representation:  The Need for Intervention to Affirm Affirmative Action.

Post-Grutter, the exclusion of minority students as parties at trial may be even more firmly fixed. By grounding affirmative action’s constitutionality in the First Amendment rights of universities, the Court saved affirmative action in higher education, but may also have further reinforced the redundancy of minority student participation as full litigants in these cases.

 The result is that the Fisher v. University of Texas case was litigated at trial almost entirely between white applicants and a majority white public university.  No lawyer arguing the case in the Supreme Court represents the interests of minority students.  Certainly it’s true that civil right litigators at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund were permitted to file briefs and to present oral argument in the Court of Appeals in the Fisher case. But the real issue is the refusal of courts to allow minority students party status at trial.

The exception was the University of Michigan case, Grutter v. Bollinger, where black, Latino, Asian-American and Arab-American students were permitted to intervene at the trial phase of the case.  Their robust defense of the school’s affirmative action policy included strong and direct testimony and evidence about the school’s history of discrimination against blacks.  Strikingly, in contrast to the law school’s defense, the minority students challenged the University’s over-reliance on the LSAT in its admissions decisions, to the detriment of minority students, describing the LSAT as providing a “sharp, undeserved, disadvantage for minority LSAT-takers, and a sharp unearned advantage for white LSAT-takers.”

The participation of minority students as parties at trial is important because we can only expect universities like Michigan and Texas to defend their affirmative action initiatives in the furtherance of their own interests and goals.  Thus, the University of Michigan was unlikely, in the Grutter case, to explore its strong reliance on applicant LSAT scores in admissions.  Nor does the brief filed by Texas lay out in detail the history of discrimination at the University of Texas, and the ongoing alienation experienced by black students at the state’s flagship university, as set out in a recent article co-authored by Professor Lani Guinier.

Although some of the most compelling arguments advanced in this case are contained within the amicus briefs filed in the Fisher case, including one filed by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. on behalf of black students, another by the Advancement Project highlighting the history of discrimination by the University of Texas, and still another filed by the family of the man who challenged and defeated segregation at UT 60 years ago, amicus status is no substitute for party status at the trial phase.  All good litigators know that the ability to shape and develop a cause of action at trial, first by the allegations advanced in the complaint, then by the information sought on discovery and finally by the theory of the case advanced at trial – determines the substantive scope of the findings ultimately made in the case.  Thus, party standing in these cases is particularly important.

In fact, the trial judge in Fisher permitted the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the NAACP to submit amicus briefs at trial “in lieu of intervention,” and expressly denied permission to LULAC to submit any evidence in the case.

It’s certainly true that despite the party status of minority students in Grutter, the Supreme Court in its majority opinion appeared to ignore the students’ contribution to the case, not even mentioning the intervenors’ participation in the  recitation of the procedural history of the case. Some suggest that this demonstrates that even when intervention is permitted, courts may ignore the presentation made by minority students. But the mere fact that an appellate court fails to acknowledge the contribution of intervenors, is not evidence that those intervenors did not play an important role in shaping the record to which the appellate court was bound for its review.

There’s something deeply disquieting about higher education affirmative action cases in which blacks and Latinos are virtually litigation bystanders.  More than thirty years after the Bakke case, affirmative action in higher education has survived and may yet survive this latest challenge in Fisher, but the voice of racial minorities in shaping the presentation of these issues is at a low ebb.