Prepare to be confused. This is a tough one.
The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in another government aid to religious schools case, this one from Montana. The Court has been wrestling with this issue since at least the 1940s. The Court still has not enunciated a bright line test or clear framework for deciding these cases. A number of factors have been cited over time, producing a mish-mash of results. For example, the government providing buses to take children to and from religious schools has been upheld, but not buses for field trips. Government money for administering standardized tests in religious schools is OK, but not for administering writing tests. The cases are all over the lot, just like the Court’s decisions in the Christmas display cases. Both situations involve the Court interpreting what is and is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. [Chemerinsky, Constitutional Law - Principles and Policies, 4th ed., pp. 1275-76]
At issue in the Montana case is a state tax credit program for people who donate to private schools. A state agency barred any of the donated money from ending up at religious schools, citing the so-called ‘Blaine Amendment’ in the state constitution which prohibits any direct or indirect aid to any school controlled by any church. The proposed Blaine Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was designed to deny any aid to religious schools. It passed the U.S. House in 1875, but failed in the Senate and never became law. However, 38 states including Montana adopted the provision in their own state constitutions. Much has been written about the motivation behind the Blaine Amendment - an attempt by bigoted anti-Catholic Protestants to deny aid to Catholic schools.
Montana is arguing that its Blaine Amendment “promotes religious freedom by preventing the government from using its leverage to dictate religious policy." It also protects the rights of people who don’t want to be forced to support a religion they don’t believe in.
The counter-argument is that it’s unconstitutional, as the Court has held, to deny a public benefit just because a church is involved. That would show impermissible hostility to religion. Justice Kavanaugh said something similar during oral arguments in the Montana case. He asked, if it’s OK to give a scholarship to students who are secular, how do you justify denying students scholarships just because they’re Catholic?
One legal expert predicted another narrow 5-4 decision limited to the specific facts of the Montana case that will clarify absolutely nothing and give very little guidance for the next case, just like the Christmas display rulings. A decision is expected by June.
My personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that religious schools should not want to take any government aid, period. Where government money goes, government control follows. I’m not saying government money will have kids in religious schools praying to Chairman Mao tomorrow, but I am saying government money creates dependency and religious schools will eventually succumb to pressure to follow the government line on religion in subtle ways. Better not to get hooked on government money at all than to be subverted in ways you can’t anticipate.
Let’s suppose you’re homeless and don’t have anywhere to sleep except a public park. Do you have a constitutional right to sleep in the park? Well, it’s a free country, isn’t it?
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away a case out of Boise, Idaho involving a camping ban on the homeless, with criminal penalties. An advocate for the homeless said it was a good decision because authorities should not be criminally punishing homeless people in America who have nowhere to go.
The Supreme Court’s decision let stand a 2018 ruling from the 9th Circuit that enforcing criminal penalties on the homeless for sleeping or camping in public places if shelter beds are not available violates the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But the 9th Circuit’s ruling hamstrung the ability of cities from Alaska to Arizona to deal with the homeless problem, local governments said. Boise had unsuccessfully argued its ordinance was necessary to prevent a humanitarian crisis on its streets and adversely affected public health and safety.
The 9th Circuit ruling affects different cities differently. Spokane is not affected, because its ordinance already prevented enforcement if shelter beds are not available. The situation is less clear in neighboring Spokane Valley which restricts camping unless there’s no shelter space available elsewhere in the region. Olympia and Aberdeen have opened official camps.
Homelessness is a complicated problem that may be exacerbated by bad policies and not letting the police enforce the drug laws, but it also intersects with difficult social problems like the opioid crisis. The 9th Circuit’s ruling only touches on one aspect of the overall situation. And, to be clear, it does NOT establish a blanket ‘right to camp’. It merely restricts the use of criminal penalties in certain instances. It says nothing about moving people to official camps or governmental inducements to get people to move to desired locations voluntarily.
The next lawsuit might come out of Berkeley which banned ‘objects’ on sidewalks - presumably including grocery carts and tents - perhaps as a way to get around the 9th Circuit’s ruling. Or the next case might come from Seattle, which is flexible in how it enforces its ordinance depending on what is happening each day. Advocates for the homeless are already grumbling about the increasing involvement of Seattle’s police force in clearing city streets of the homeless. But whatever happens in the so-called ‘right to camp’ cases, the Supreme Court won’t be weighing in any time soon.
President Trump commemorated National Religious Freedom Day with a group of teachers and students in the Oval Office this past week. During the event, the President affirmed the student’s right to pray in public schools. This is very much in keeping with the Trump administration’s efforts to support the free exercise of religion and improve how religious organizations are treated by the federal government.
One student, a Catholic boy from Utah, told Trump during the commemoration how he was forced to remove ashes from his forehead at his largely Mormon school. Another student, a girl from Texas, told how a teacher reprimanded her after she was seen praying with friends for a student who had been hurt in an accident. The teacher told her to hide her prayers in some secluded area in the future. Trump told the group the right to pray is a very important right. There’s nothing more important than that, he said.
A student’s personal right to pray is separate and distinct from the issues decided by the Supreme Court in the school prayer cases starting in the 1960s. The personal right to pray involves the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court cases were about government-sponsored prayers amounting to an unconstitutional establishment of religion, under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
In 1962, the Court - after a campaign by atheists - held that a nondenominational prayer composed by the government could not be read at the beginning of the school day. [Engel v. Vitale] The Court focused on the fact that the government wrote the prayer and directed it be read in school. A year later, the Court knocked down a state law and city rule requiring students to read Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer in unison at the start of school every day. [Abington School District v. Schempp] The cases went on from there to cover moments of silence, graduation ceremonies, and other particular questions. Some of the cases involved coercion, subtle or otherwise, where students would feel forced to go along with prayer or be made to feel unwelcome. The Court has ruled that even encouraging students to deliver prayers at a school football game constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion under the establishment clause. [Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 2000] [see discussion of cases in Chemerinsky, Constitutional Law - Principles and Policies (4th Ed.) at pp. 1260-1265]
Even though the commemoration in the Oval Office this past week involved personal prayer, not state action, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and other activists still criticized President Trump for blurring the lines between separation of church and state. They say there is an increasing number of instances of public schools promoting prayer in constitutionally impermissible ways.
But we’ve seen this before, where the authoritarian Left twists existing law and bullies people with it way beyond what the law actually says. It’s a leap to say that court decisions prohibiting public schools from opening with a government prayer each day also force kids to hide away somewhere if they want to pray on their own. That’s what former Justice Kennedy and former Chief Justice Rehnquist would call “hostility” to religion and it’s time for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and other militant atheists to live and let live. President Trump is to be commended for restoring some balance and common sense to the issue of personal prayer.
The Equal Rights Amendment was back in the news this week. All eyes are on Virginia where a bill to ratify the ERA is working its way through the state legislature. The bill is expected to pass, making Virginia the 38th state to ratify the amendment, setting up a big constitutional fight.
Congress set a seven-year deadline for ratification and only 35 states had done so before the allotted time expired in 1982. Recently, three states - Alabama, Louisiana, and South Dakota - have sued the Archivist of the U.S. for illegally holding the ratification process open beyond the deadline and refusing to recognize the fact that five states rescinded their ratification by 1982.
This past week, the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel weighed in with an opinion stating “because three-fourths of the state legislatures did not ratify before the deadline that Congress imposed, the Equal Rights Amendment has failed of adoption and is no longer pending before the States.” It would be unusual for the Archivist, who is part of the executive branch, to ignore the definitive statement of the executive branch on the subject.
Democrats have introduced legislation to have Congress remove the deadline. The Justice Department opinion said there is no constitutional text or judicial precedent allowing for that. [p.28] While Congress has already extended the ERA deadline once, the Justice Department said the pending legislation is different this go-around because it purports to remove ANY deadline, not just extend the ERA again for another definite period of years. [p. 26] Also, removing the deadline would raise a whole host of nettlesome questions, such as whether a future Congress could kill a proposed amendment by shortening the deadline, and whether a two-third’s vote would be required for all questions relating to changing the substance or procedures of proposed amendments.
But the Justice Department does not have the final say. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has already said he will defend the ERA in court when the state ratifies it.
You can be sure all of this will end up in the Supreme Court eventually. Don’t forget the question of whether states can rescind their ratifications. The Constitution is silent and the Justice Department gave no opinion.
Lots of unanswered constitutional questions here. The show is about to begin.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did the tree really fall?
If the House votes articles of impeachment and doesn’t transmit them to the Senate, is the President really impeached? Can the Senate proceed to a trial without the House formally presenting articles of impeachment?
We start, as always, with the Constitution but, unfortunately in this case, the Constitution doesn’t take us very far. Article I, Section 2 gives the House the sole power of impeachment. Article I, Section 3 gives the Senate the sole power to try all impeachments. Article II, Section 4 says the President and other civil officers of the U.S. “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” That’s pretty much it. Impeachment is mentioned in a couple other places in the Constitution not relevant to tonight’s discussion.
So the Constitution is silent on the current situation where the House has voted to impeach but has, so far, refused to present the articles of impeachment to the Senate. I’m sorry to have to tell you there is no clear answer to this quandary. Legal experts disagree.
Some of the commentary has focused on House and Senate rules. The Senate adopted its current impeachment rules in 1986. Rule 1 says the Senate impeachment process begins after the House appoints managers to carry the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Rule 3 says the Senate trial generally begins the day after the House formally presents articles of impeachment to the Senate.
Could the Senate change its rules and proceed now? After all, none of these steps are set forth in the text of the Constitution. One argument is that the Constitution gives the House the sole power of impeachment and this implies it includes the power to specify when the act is final. The counter-argument is that all of this puts form over substance and the Constitution does not require formal presentment. The Senate has the sole power to try impeachments and therefore has the power to decide when and how that happens.
If the Senate changed its rules, there would be a constitutional impasse. The Senate would say the President has been impeached and the House would say no, he has not. It’s not clear the courts would have any business wading in. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution says each house of Congress may determine its own rules. If the courts do wade in, another question would be whether Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would have to recuse himself since he would be presiding over any impeachment trial. That could leave the Supreme Court deadlocked at 4-4 and no way out of the impasse.
I tell you folks, the November election can’t get here soon enough.
You may have heard that the Second Amendment sanctuary movement is taking Virginia by storm. There are overflow crowds at city and county council meetings. Events are still unfolding. The best source for keeping up with the situation is the Virginia Citizens Defense League website - vcdl.org. At the moment, there are 93 Second Amendment sanctuary cities, towns, and counties. The number is sure to rise because sanctuary resolutions are being considered in two dozen more places.
There was a report that all of this caused the Democrats to abandon plans to introduce an assault weapons ban even though they now control the state legislature and have the Governor’s mansion. However, they modified their proposal to grandfather in existing weapons and want to require them to be registered. Critics say gun registration is the first step to gun confiscation and the Democrats’ new position must still be opposed.
The Democrats are also talking about calling out the National Guard to enforce future gun control measures. Governor Ralph Northam said there would be no ‘retaliation’ but did say there would be unspecified ‘consequences’ if law enforcement officers refuse to enforce laws on the books. Legal analysts agreed the Governor could call out the National Guard, but said it would be unprecedented to do so given it would be the first time the National Guard will have been used to enforce laws many see as tyrannical. The Virginia National Guard released a statement saying it would not speculate on the possible use of the National Guard for law enforcement purposes.
Other wild talk is flying around. A sheriff in Virginia threatened to deputize thousands of citizens to get around any gun control measures the new Democrat legislature might pass. One of the sanctuary counties passed an additional resolution allowing it to order up a militia to ensure that everyone can own a weapon. One commentator even said the globalists are trying to provoke a civil war and we might see a revolution if authorities try to use deadly force on the populace.
So it’s all pretty amazing to watch, especially since I live in Virginia, but there may be less to gun sanctuaries than meets the eye. There is commentary to the effect these sanctuary resolutions are just symbolic. They don’t have any teeth and won’t stop the enforcement of any state or federal gun laws. Unlike illegal immigration sanctuary city laws, the Second Amendment sanctuary measures generally don’t prohibit local government employees from using funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of federal or state gun laws or regulations. Moreover, these measures are generally nonbinding resolutions, not laws at all.
So it’s not clear how all this is going to shake out. I just wish there had been this kind of energy all along in Virginia. Then maybe Tea Partiers and others on the political right would not have to wonder what’s in store for us now that our state has gone blue.
Finally, if you don’t know why we have the Second Amendment, it’s to prevent tyranny. My Potomac Tea Party made a short video on this last year and it’s still on our Potomac Tea Party website. (Citizens, Give Up Your Guns! - Why We Have the Second Amendment)
Understand Clarence Thomas’ jurisprudence and you will understand a lot about the original intent of the Constitution.
In Thomas’ view, the Constitution is as current today as it was when it was drafted in 1787. It is the blueprint for our self-governing Republic where the People are sovereign, not subjects to be ruled.
If the Founders had wanted a ‘living, breathing Constitution’, they could simply have copied the British who don’t have a written constitution, Thomas has said. But the Founders chose to have a written Constitution and it was understood at the time that its meaning would not change, except through amendment.
Thus, the Founders’ design was ‘perfictible’, as Thomas has put it. This was illustrated by the Civil War amendments that secured the blessings of liberty for former slaves and their progeny.
Thomas believes the modern Supreme Court and the other branches of government have deformed the Constitution. He has taken it as his mission to remedy the situation. Thus, he views stare decisis - the doctrine that judges should follow precedent - as being applicable to the lower courts. But Supreme Court Justices must be faithful to the Constitution, not prior cases which should be overturned if they have deviated from our founding documents.
This makes Thomas often a minority of one on the Court, but his model is Justice Harlan’s solitary dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court has ever handed down. The Plessy Court ruled that ‘separate but equal’ satisfied the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, but Harlan’s dissent eviscerated this view and he eventually prevailed. Like Harlan, Thomas is leaving a road map for future Justices - in Thomas’ case, to return to the Founders’ original design.
To give one example, the Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s ban on owning handguns in the 2010 McDonald case on the grounds it violated the Second Amendment as applied to the states through the judicially-created ‘substantive due process’ doctrine under the 14th Amendment. Thomas agreed the ban should have been struck down but would have done so on the grounds that the Second Amendment is one of the liberties secured to U.S. citizens against the states by the Privileges or Immunities clause of the 14th Amendment. Thomas views ‘substantive due process’ as made up from whole cloth and as having the unfortunate consequence of letting the Supreme Court create new rights willy-nilly out of thin air. The Court has done on more than one occasion, such as the fundamental federal right to abortion created in Roe v. Wade. The Privileges or Immunities of U.S. citizenship, on the other hand, are relatively more circumscribed and much less subject to judicial mischief. Thomas would like to see previous erroneous Supreme Court rulings overturned, substantive due process scrapped, and the Supreme Court getting back to the original text of the Constitution.
Likewise, Thomas views the Supreme Court’s yielding to the New Deal and the consequent expansion of the Commerce Clause and the rise of the administrative state as additional judicial wrong turns that need to be corrected. Those wrong turns have given rise to any number of absurdities like the Montana rancher who dug two ponds on his own land and was imprisoned for supposedly polluting the navigable waterways of the United States.
Previous Constitution Minutes have pointed out instances where we are worse off by straying from the Founders’ design - for example, the ill-advised War Powers Act and the turning of the First Amendment proscription against the establishment of an official religion into a quagmire of hard-to-understand distinctions about what constitutes an endorsement of religion and what does not. All originalists owe a debt of gratitude to Justice Thomas for standing for First Principles even when it means standing alone.
Earlier this month, Attorney General William Barr gave a thoughtful and important speech on the nature of the executive power and the separation of powers under the Constitution. He opened by saying the Democrats’ unrelenting resistance to the legitimacy of the Trump presidency undermines the Rule of Law. But he mostly talked about how the legislative and judicial branches have improperly chipped away at the power of the executive branch in recent decades.
The current Congress has abused its advice and consent power by opposing every single one of Trump’s appointments. There have been 236 cloture votes so far to unblock Trump’s nominees, compared to just 17 in all of Obama’s presidency. Congress has also abused its oversight role, unleashing an avalanche of subpoenas to incapacitate the executive branch. There was a time when Congress respected the executive’s need to hold confidential internal discussions, but Congress now calls assertions of executive privilege obstruction of justice subject to congressional contempt.
The judiciary has also encroached on the Trump presidency by setting itself up as the ultimate arbiter of separation of powers questions between the legislative and the executive, instead of leaving such questions to the political process. Judges have also usurped presidential authority by expanding the scope of judicial review and substituting their own judgment in place of the executive’s in foreign policy and national security matters like the travel ban. Finally, federal district judges have stymied the executive like never before with nationwide injunctions. There have been 40 since Trump was elected, compared to just two in the first two years of Obama’s presidency.
Bottom line, Barr said, is the Left is “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the Rule of Law.”
The Founders carefully calibrated the executive power and intended for the executive to be independent, not subordinate to Congress. They drew up a Constitution with three co-equal branches and an executive strong and decisive enough to deal with national emergencies and the prosecution of war. They saw how the Articles of Confederation’s deficiencies in this regard almost caused us to lose the Revolutionary War. They put the Article II executive power in the hands of a single person, not a deliberative council. This is called the “unitary executive” and, while the Left may consider it merely a theory, it is nothing more than exactly what the Constitution says.
There is more - a lot more - in Barr’s speech and I commend it to you in its entirety. It’s well worth your time.
[Prepared Text] [Video]
It’s now legal to carry a handgun without a permit in Oklahoma. The law passed in February and took effect November 1st after court challenges failed. Most Oklahomans 21 and over can now carry firearms - concealed or openly - without a background check or training. There are exceptions for illegal aliens and certain criminal convictions, as well as for public buildings, bars, sporting events, and other venues.
Twenty states have some form of constitutional carry. Constitutional carry was the law in all states until the 19th century. The situation reversed by the 20th century when all states, except Vermont, passed concealed carry bans and most states required citizens to get a permit. For this reason, permitless carry is sometimes called ‘Vermont carry’.
It’s no accident that Vermont is the safest state in the country in terms of violent crime statistics. Funny how that works. But don’t expect facts and logic to make a dent on the Left.
It would be better to call it ‘natural rights carry’. If you have to ask permission or get government approval, it’s not really a right, is it? Carry without a permit makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of natural rights. Rights are not something the government gives you. As an American, you are born with unalienable rights, just like the Declaration of Independence says. Some say these rights come from nature, and call them ‘natural rights’. Others say they come from God, and call them ‘God-given rights’. The point is, YOUR RIGHTS DON’T COME FROM GOVERNMENT, or even the Constitution.
To those who find it strange that U.S. citizens should not have to ask government for permission to own a gun, I ask is it any more strange than free speech or freedom from search and seizure without a warrant based on probable cause? I’ll tell you what would be strange - having to get a license from the government before exercising any of your free speech rights, or paying government a fee to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. THAT would be strange.
Four more states are considering permitless carry. Good! We could use a little more natural rights theory around here. And a little less authoritarianism from the Left, okay Beto? Then I wouldn’t feel like such a target when I have to go to the DMV, a gun-free zone here in my state of Virginia.
In February, I told you about a Supreme Court case where the state of Indiana moved for the civil asset forfeiture of a drug dealer’s $42,000 Land Rover SUV. The drug dealer bought the SUV, not with drug money, but with the proceeds of a life insurance policy on his father who had passed away. The $42,000 purchase price was roughly four times the maximum allowable fine for the offense. The Supreme Court found the forfeiture disproportionate to the crime and sent the case back to the Indiana Supreme Court to reconsider the matter in light of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against excessive fines. The Supreme Court applied the Excessive Fines Clause to the states for the very first time in this case through the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment.
At the end of October, the Indiana Supreme Court rejected the prosecution’s argument that any property used in a crime is subject to seizure. Instead, the court ruled a number of factors must be taken into account in deciding whether a forfeiture is ‘excessive’ within the meaning of the 8th Amendment. The factors include the owner’s guilt and the extent of the misconduct, but also the owner’s financial circumstances. The court wrote it would be fictitious to believe that “taking away the same piece of property from a billionaire and from someone who owns nothing else punishes each person equally.” The case now goes back to the trial court for a final determination, after applying the new standard to the facts at hand. The trial court had originally ruled in the drug dealer’s favor in 2015 and ordered the SUV returned to him.
This case is not the end of the civil asset forfeiture issue. Several legislative reforms have been proposed to curb civil asset forfeiture abuse. These reforms include:
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