Tag Archives: federal judiciary

So much at stake … R.I.P., RBG

By JOHN KANELIS / johnkanelis_92@hotmail.com

This blog post was supposed to be a commentary on the stakes facing us in the upcoming presidential election and the impact it will have on the federal judiciary.

Then came the sad news: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died today of cancer at the age of 87. Folks, the stakes just got exponentially greater by a factor I cannot at this moment calculate.

But I’ll go on with what I had written. There will be much more to say about the immediate future of the Supreme Court.

***

Americans aren’t just voting for president of the United States. We also are casting our ballots to determine the course of constitutional interpretation by the powerful federal judiciary.

Donald Trump wants another four years to drag the nation’s highest court so far to the right as to make it unrecognizable from where it stands at this moment. He has boasted about possibly making two more appointments, to go along with the two men he picked during his current term. Now comes the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and quite suddenly, the balance of the court becomes a gigantic factor.

Trump even has gone so far as to offer a list of 20 candidates for the Supreme Court that he would consider were he re-elected.

So help me we cannot let that happen.

Joe Biden has declared his intention to select an African-American woman to the nation’s top appellate court. He did vow to select a woman with whom he would run for office and has made good on that pledge.

Given what we know — or think we know — about Joe Biden’s own judicial temperament, I am hoping he would go for center-left selections to the Supreme Court.

Of course, all of this depends on Biden getting elected president in November.

In addition, we have this other key set of elections occurring. They involve the U.S. Senate, which at the moment has 53 Republicans — a scant majority — in control of the upper legislative chamber. Democrats have to flip four Senate seats to claim a majority.

This is big stuff, man. We already have seen how the GOP majority conducts itself with Supreme Court appointments. The miserable raw political move in stymying President Obama’s choice in 2016 of Merrick Garland to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia told me plenty about how dirty the GOP can get.

That said, Senate control ranks a very close second to White House control in this upcoming election. The legislative, executive and judicial branches of government are separate and have equal power under the Constitution. They are linked inextricably, though, through the power of our individual votes.

I am one American patriot who does not want to see this delicate government balance upended if we fail to act on the need for change in the White House and the Senate.

SCOTUS provides wonderful civics lesson

Dear readers of High Plains Blogger, I am happy to report to you that our U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ruling that sparkles on a number of fronts.

It ruled 7-2 that the president of the United States is not above the law. The ruling said that Donald Trump’s financial records are open to grand jury scrutiny in Manhattan, New York City, which is examining potential criminal conduct from the president.

The ruling demonstrated the value of having an “independent federal judiciary.” Two justices who joined the majority were nominated by Donald Trump. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh sided with Justices Elana Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Chief Justice John Roberts in this seminal ruling

Why is that important? It’s because the federal judiciary has become the target of partisans who worry that the SCOTUS has tilted too far to the right, that it will bend to the will of a president who demands loyalty at all levels … even from members of the federal judiciary.

Federal judges get appointed for life. The founders intended for them to be free of political pressure. Today’s ruling suggests to me that the nation’s highest court is delivering on the founders’ promise.

It’s not clear whether the nation will see Trump’s tax returns prior to the November presidential election. That’s really not the point, as I have thought about the ruling over the past few hours. Trump will bob and weave for as long as he can to keep them out of public view.

The ruling, though, does establish a clear legal concept that presidents of the United States cannot invoke their incumbency as a shield against prosecutors.

I doubt it will prevent Donald Trump from trying every dodge he can find to keep those records out of public view.

Still, I am heartened to see the strength of an independent federal judiciary show itself in front of the nation.

Trump is correct: It is ‘legal’ for him to interfere with DOJ … but it’s not right!

Here’s a flash for you: Donald John Trump happens to be correct in saying that his meddling in U.S. Department of Justice criminal matters is “legal.”

It doesn’t make it right. However, what Trump is doing with his meddlesome tweets about DOJ cases and his undermining of the attorney general’s authority on certain matters doesn’t break any laws.

So, this president now freed of the threat of impeachment — at least for now — has embarked on a new campaign of heightened abuses of the office he still occupies.

Trump fired off a Twitter message that disparaged a sentence recommendation for his old pal Roger Stone, whom a jury convicted of multiple felonies. Attorney General William Barr then responded by reducing the recommendations. The line prosecutors who authored the initial request quit in protest.

Barr then told ABC News that Trump should stop tweeting about these matters, saying it makes it “impossible” for him to do his job.

Trump has kept tweeting messages. Barr is thought to be angry about it. Trump then said what he’s doing is “legal.” Yes. It is legal.

It is wrong, nonetheless. It is wrong for Trump to throw his weight around in this blatant manner. It is wrong to interfere with the attorney general’s duties. It is wrong to meddle in the nuts and bolts of sentencing, which is handled in this case by a federal judge … who also has drawn brickbats hurled at her by the president. Whatever happened to the “independent” federal judiciary? Trump is undermining that independence, too!

Ladies and gentlemen, we are witnessing in real time a president who is seeking to reconfigure the relationship between his office and the rule of law.

I am frightened at what we are seeing.

Chief justice delivers message worth heeding

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is a champion of an independent federal judiciary and seeks to instill a civics awareness in the nation he serves.

So it is that the chief justice has delivered in his annual state of the judiciary message a stern warning that needs to be taken to heart.

Roberts said the nation must be more aware of government, of civics and should beware of “fake news,” especially those who deliver it under the guise of “information.”

The chief justice is about to assume a most remarkably high profile post as the presiding judge in the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. On the eve of that historic event, he is seeking to deliver the nation from the dangers of false narratives, bogus news reporting and the “fake news” that the president himself is so adept at delivering.

As Politico reported: “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government and the protection it provides is ever more vital,” Roberts said in his annual New Year’s Eve message summing up the work of the federal judiciary.

Some critics have taken Roberts’ message as a direct criticism of Trump. Hmm. I won’t march precisely down that path. However, I do believe that the president has fed our social media fascination with much of the fiery rhetoric he spouts.

Trump has, for instance, insisted that the federal judiciary is politically biased when it doesn’t rule the way he prefers. Roberts did issue a stern rebuke of that notion a year ago when he declared: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.” 

The chief justice is seeking to restore dignity to the discussion of the federal courts. I wish him well. If only the public that feeds at the trough of innuendo and insult will listen.

Gov. Cuomo picks a needless fight

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has performed a rather remarkable political feat.

With his veto pen, Cuomo has turned an innocuous piece of legislation, approved by the New York Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, into a conversation piece. For what reason, well … that baffles me.

Cuomo said while issuing his veto that he cannot “in good conscience” allow federal judges appointed by Donald Trump to perform weddings in his state. It all makes me go, huh?

The legislation expanded federal judicial authority in New York to include all federal judges; currently, only some federal judges can officiate over weddings. Cuomo doesn’t want to expand the judges’ authority to bring all such federal jurists into the wedding officiating fold.

The New York Senate approved the bill 61-1; the New York House Assembly backed it 144-2. Oh, and then there’s this: Democrats who belong to the same party as Gov. Cuomo control both legislative chambers.

I don’t get this grandstanding act by Gov. Cuomo. I do get that he opposes Donald Trump with every fiber of his being. I do, too. However, Gov. Cuomo would well do well to do a better job of picking his fights.

This particular issue seems like such a needless battle.

Still a need to revamp the Texas Constitution

I am no fan of the Texas Constitution. I don’t like having to vote on amendments every other year. I don’t believe the Constitution works as well as it would work if it were modeled more like the U.S. Constitution.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

On Tuesday, those few Texans who bother to vote will get to decide on a constitutional amendment that has no real meaning. It would make it more difficult to enact a personal income tax in Texas. Here’s the deal: We already have an amendment to the Texas Constitution that requires voters to approve a state income tax. The proposed amendment on the Tuesday ballot makes it more difficult for the Legislature to refer a state income tax to voters for their approval or likely rejection.

What’s more, the amendment already on the books was enacted after an earlier Legislature approved a law requiring a statewide vote to approve a state income tax.

Texans will decide the fate of 10 Texas constitutional amendments all told.

This is an absurd way to govern a state as huge, diverse, modern, cosmopolitan and sophisticated as Texas.

The 1876 Texas Constitution has been saddled with roughly 700 amendments. They all have gone to the voters for their approval. Except that constitutional amendment elections — which occur every odd-numbered year after the Legislature adjourns in May — usually draw paltry voter turnouts. By “paltry” I mean, well, dismal, abysmal, minuscule. These elections usually do not reflect rank-and-file Texans’ view of the proposed amendments. We need to do a much better job of boosting voter turnout … but that’s another story for another day.

The state came close to changing the Texas governing document. There was a serious move toward convening a constitutional convention in 1974. It collapsed.

The federal Constitution has been amended just 27 times. Congress refers amendments to the states, which then charge their legislative assemblies with the task of ratifying the amendment. If three-fourths of the states’ legislatures ratify the amendment, it gets added to the U.S. Constitution.

We have the federal court system to interpret whether laws are constitutional. The U.S. Constitution can get rickety at times. It is facing a serious test of its durability and strength now with the pending impeachment of the president of the United States. I am certain the U.S. Constitution will survive.

The Texas Constitution was the product of a government principle that didn’t trust the Legislature to enact certain laws without an endorsement of voters. It’s a creaky document that seems beyond antique as we prepare to commence the third decade of the 21st century.

Will the Legislature ever find the will to tackle serious reform of the Texas Constitution? Oh, probably not in my lifetime. I just want to put it on the record that I believe a major Texas governmental makeover is long overdue.

POTUS fills judicial post with an inferior choice

Mary Lou Robinson once was hailed as the role model for judicial excellence during her time as the presiding judge of the Northern District of Texas.

Judge Robinson — who was appointed to the newly created judgeship in 1980 by President Carter — died earlier this year, giving Donald Trump a chance to fill her spot on the federal bench with his own pick. Who does he choose? A fellow named Matthew Kacsmaryk, who has elicited alarm among LGBT activists and other civil libertarians because of his decidedly anti-gay track record while working for right-wing think tanks and assorted political organizations.

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Kacsmaryk to the post in a virtually partisan vote; one Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, broke party ranks to join Senate Democrats in opposing Kacsmaryk.

Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the lowering of judicial standards in one of our nation’s courts.

Kacsmaryk’s writings and advocacy against gay rights and his comments about transgender children are cause for alarm. Indeed, one did not hear a hint of that kind of judicial philosophy about the woman he is succeeding in that court.

According to NBC NewsMara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, slammed the appointment.

“Transgender youth and their families are facing a crisis in this country, and they cannot afford an unqualified and clearly biased nominee like Matthew Kacsmaryk,” Keisling said in a statement shared with NBC News. “Our country needs fair-minded judges free of irrational prejudices against marginalized people.”

I interviewed many state and county judicial candidates during my years in the Texas Panhandle and almost all of them would cite the late Judge Robinson as their role model for judicial temperament, knowledge of the law and fairness from the bench.

Will the new judge elicit that kind of praise? Hah!

Sen. Romney stands on principle in voting ‘no’ on judge

I know that a single U.S. Senate vote does not signal a trend, but I have to be heartened by a principled “no” vote cast by Utah’s freshman Republican senator, Mitt Romney.

The former GOP presidential nominee was the lone Republican to vote against the nomination of Beaumont lawyer Michael Truncale to be a U.S. district judge. Truncale won confirmation by a narrow 49-46 vote to take a seat on the bench representing East Texas.

Why the “no” vote from Romney? Because Truncale describe President Obama in 2011 as an “un-American imposter,” which quite naturally was seen by many as a play into the “birther” lie that plagued Obama during much of his presidency; you know, what he was born in Kenya and, thus, was ineligible to run for, let alone serve as, president of the United States.

“He said some things disparaging of President (Barack) Obama and having been the Republican nominee in 2012, I couldn’t sign onto that for a district judge,” Romney told CNN.

Romney has demonstrated that he won’t be Donald Trump’s “yes man” on all matters that come before the Senate.

Truncale received a grilling from Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats about the remark and he answered that “it is possible” he was expressing frustration over what he called Obama’s lack of “overt patriotism.”

Yeah, sure thing, bub. Suppose he was merely popping off at that false assumption. Doesn’t that, therefore, speak to the man’s judicial temperament, or the lack thereof?

Romney famously said during the 2012 Al Smith Memorial Dinner in New York that he and President Obama — who were locked in a fierce battle for the White House at the time — did not harbor personal “ill will” toward each other despite their widely divergent world views.

Sen. Romney’s “no” vote against Michael Truncale keeps faith with that declaration.

This judge set the bar quite high for others to clear

I do not believe it is an overstatement to declare that the Texas Panhandle legal community has lost a legendary figure.

Senior U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson was that rare individual whom others aspired to emulate. She died this past weekend at the age of 92. To say she will be “missed” is to say that the Super Bowl is “just another football game.”

During my nearly 18 years as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News, I was privileged to interview dozens of candidates for state and county judgeships. Most of them were serious about seeking the job and in serving their community and state. Almost to a person they would include a laudatory statement about Judge Robinson. They would say that this veteran jurist set the standard for judicial excellence. They intended to pattern their conduct on the bench after her.

Yes, she was revered by those within the legal community.

Judge Robinson was a pioneering individual. She was the first woman to serve on the Potter County court at law bench; she would serve on the state district court bench and then on the Seventh Court of Appeals. After that she became the first judge appointed to fill a seat in the newly created Northern U.S. Judicial District of Texas. President Carter appointed her in 1980 and she worked full time as a federal judge until only recently, when she took “senior status,” enabling her to preside over trials of her choosing.

And let us not forget her presiding over the widely covered “beef trial” involving Oprah Winfrey, who got sued by some Panhandle cattlemen over a remark she made about mad cow disease during one of her TV shows. The cattlemen wanted the trial to occur in Amarillo, perhaps thinking they could get a favorable ruling from a local judge.

Winfrey prevailed in the lawsuit.

I did not know Judge Robinson well, although we did serve in the same Rotary Club for many years. She was always gracious, even though she knew I was a member of the media. I mention that because Judge Robinson rarely conducted interviews; I always had the sense that she was mildly uncomfortable with those of us who reported on and commented on issues of the day.

I want to share one more quick story. The Globe-News welcomed a young reporter some years ago who I believe was assigned to cover the courts. He wanted to meet Judge Robinson, who he knew only by reputation; he asked me if I could arrange the meeting. I approached the judge at a Rotary Club meeting and asked her if she would be willing to meet this young man. She agreed.

They met in her office in downtown Amarillo and, according to my colleague, she could not have been warmer, more welcoming and gracious. I recall him telling me she wanted to talk mostly “about her grandchildren” and showed off pictures of her family.

The jurists who will continue to seek to emulate this judicial icon could not have chosen a better model.

CNN/Acosta matter contains quiet back story

Psst. Let me bring you in on a secret that virtually no one is talking about.

Federal Judge Timothy Kelly’s ruling that required Donald Trump and the White House to reinstate CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press credentials speaks to the value of an independent federal judiciary.

The president ordered Acosta’s White House press pass yanked after the two men had a contentious exchange during a press conference the day after the midterm election.

CNN filed a complaint against the White House. Late this past week, Judge Kelly ruled in favor of CNN.

What makes the story interesting is that Kelly is a Donald Trump appointment. The new president nominated Kelly to the federal bench and he was confirmed by the Senate.

We’ve all talked at length about how U.S. Supreme Court justices side with the presidents who nominate them. The same occasionally is said about lower-court federal judges.

Judge Kelly took off in the opposite direction. His ruling wasn’t overly harsh, but it did go against the president who nominated him.

I mention this because it validates the value of an independent federal judiciary and the fact that these judges get lifetime appointments, leaving them free to rule independently. They are charged with interpreting the U.S. Constitution and with determining whether government actions concur or run counter to constitutional principles.

The president’s revocation of Acosta’s press credentials didn’t make the constitutional grade and Judge Kelly sided with the Constitution . . . and not the president who selected him.

That’s a good sign for the health of our federal judicial system.