Economic inequality

  • March 18, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Stephen B. Bright and Sia M. Sanneh. Bright teaches at Yale Law School and is President and Senior Counsel of The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. Sanneh is the Senior Liman Fellow at Yale Law School and an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. 


    Exactly 50 years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court declared the right to a lawyer “fundamental and essential” to fairness in the criminal courts and held that lawyers must be provided for people who could not afford them so that every person “stands equal before the law.” In later decisions, the Court ruled that a poor person facing any loss of liberty must have a lawyer “so that the accused may know precisely what he is doing, so that he is fully aware of the prospect of going to jail or prison, and so that he is treated fairly by the prosecution.”And yet, a half century later this right is violated every day in thousands of courts across the nation, at every stage of the process.

    In our forthcoming essay, Fifty Years of Defiance and Resistance After Gideon v. Wainwright, to be published in the Yale Law Journal, we chronicle the day-to-day denial of counsel in counties throughout the country; the refusal of governments to provide adequate funding for lawyers for the people they seek to convict, fine, imprison and execute; the complicity of judges in the denial of counsel; the enormous and unchecked power of prosecutors to decide cases, including sentences, often with little or no input from defense counsel; and the Supreme Court’s decision to paper over and ignore violations of the right to counsel instead of correcting them.

    As we argue in our essay:

    The cost of this one-sided system is enormous. Innocent people are convicted and sent to prison while the perpetrators remain at large. Important issues, such as the system’s pervasive racism—from stops by law enforcement officers to disparate sentencing—are ignored. People are sentenced without consideration of their individual characteristics, allowing race, politics, and other improper factors to influence sentences. Over 2.2 million people—a grossly disproportionate number of them African Americans and Latinos—are in prisons and jails at a cost of $75 billion a year. Nearly an additional five million people are on probation, parole, or supervised release. Over seventy thousand children are held in juvenile facilities. Even those who have completed their sentences may be deported, denied the right to vote, dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces, denied public benefits, and denied business or professional licenses. Reentry into society is extremely difficult, extending the costs to the families and communities of those who have been imprisoned.

    There are expressive costs as well. A system in which all of the key actors routinely ignore one of its most fundamental constitutional requirements is not a system based on the rule of law, no matter what it claims to be. When those actors shirk their constitutional obligations and bring the immense power of the state down most heavily on African Americans and Latinos, people cease to have confidence in the courts. The system lacks legitimacy and credibility and is undeserving of respect. For this to change, courts, legislatures, executives, and members of the legal profession will need to respond with a sense of urgency and commitment to justice that has been missing in most places during the last fifty years.

  • March 7, 2013
    BookTalk
    Lawless Capitalism
    The Subprime Crisis and the Case for an Economic Rule of Law
    By: 
    Steven A. Ramirez

    by Steven A. Ramirez, Professor of Law, Loyola University Chicago, School of Law

    Too much power in too few hands presents dangers of despotism.

    Americans traditionally deemed concentrated and unaccountable political power suspect. The United States Constitution reflects this suspicion by splitting sovereign power among state and federal governments, and then dividing it again between three co-equal branches that provide checks and balances against overreaching by any government official.

    Yet, the Constitution fails to splinter concentrated economic power. While Congress may act to check economic concentration, in the end, brakes on economic concentration rise or fall based upon political negotiation. Congress cannot legislate a King; it may, however, permit financial consolidation to such an extent that big finance holds an unlimited claim on government resources.

    Since 1978, bipartisan legislation created unprecedented economic concentration.  Tax cuts led to the highest income inequality on record. Financial deregulation birthed the largest financial behemoths ever. Restraints governing managers of public corporations vanished, and CEO compensation soared. Predictably, as more wealth became concentrated in fewer hands, costs to organize to lobby lawmakers plunged.

  • February 4, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Shortly after Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced so-called filibuster reform, TPM reported that the chamber’s chief ringleader of obstruction, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) “bragged” about killing the serious reforms that would have undermined obstructionists’ ability to so effectively wield the tool.

    In this post not long before the “filibuster reform,” was announced I noted that it appeared Reid was prepared to suffer even more obstructionism. (TPM had reported that Reid was ready to forgo a simple-majority vote to make real changes to the filibuster that would require senators to actually mount and sustain a filibuster, instead of relying on an easy and stealthy manner of deploying the filibuster.)

    Then late last week, as reported by TPM’s Brian Beutler, McConnell and 40 of his Republican colleagues promised try again to block the confirmation of Richard Cordray to permanently head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “unless Democrats agree to pass legislation dramatically weakening the agency.”

    President Obama overcame the first Republican blockade of his choice to the head the CFPB via a recess appointment that will leave him on the job until the end of the year. A recent, though widely attacked, opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, found that Obama’s recess appointment of Cordray and three nominees to fill vacant seats on the five-member National Labor Relations Board were unconstitutional. The Obama administration has signaled it will appeal the opinion, with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney calling it “novel and unprecedented.”

     

  • January 28, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Nearly a week after providing a staunchly liberal vision for a second term –– leading law professors, attorneys and other advocates are providing via an ACS project ideas and proposals for the administration’s second term. (Regarding the tone and vision of the president’s second Inaugural Address, some apparently believe the president was merely defending New Deal programs and policy the Clinton administration had supposedly advanced.)

    The ACS project, “Toward a More Perfect Union: A Progressive Blueprint for the Second Term,” was recently launched with three Issue Briefs:

    Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love looks at why the presidential pardon power “has lost its vigor, its integrity, and its sense of purpose,” and argues why it should be reinvigorated, as well as offering examples, many from the states, for reforming the process.

    Brookings Visiting Fellow Russell Wheeler examines the Obama administration’s record of filling federal judgeships during his first term and puts forth ideas for fixing a judicial nominations process that has become increasingly rancorous and ineffective. In a Brookings’ Up Frontblog post, Wheeler, a leading expert on the federal bench, explains, in part, why the process needs reforming. “First, judicial vacancies, which declined in Clinton’s and Bush’s first terms, increased during Obama’s. Empty judgeships hamper the federal courts’ ability to do their jobs – to sort out contractual disputes and other matters that, left unresolved, contribute to economic uncertainty, as well dispose of criminal complaints and adjudicate claims of discrimination and civil liberties violations.”

    University of Michigan Law School Professor David M. Uhlmann urges the Obama administration to exert great presidential leadership on climate change. Uhlmann, director of the law school’s Environmental Law and Policy Program, noted the small steps the Obama administration took during its first term. But, citing the work of climate scientists, Uhlmann warns that if our country fails “to limit greenhouse gas emissions, searing heat, widespread drought, destructive storms, and massive flooding will become commonplace.” Moreover, Uhlmann argues that climate change will be a “legacy issue” for the president – “either because he helped chart a course toward a sustainable future or because America failed to act while it was still possible to prevent catastrophic climate change. Uhlmann’s Issue Brief goes on to provide ways for the president to act, even without the help of Congress, to put the nation on a path toward sustainable resources.

    During his second inaugural, the president reminded us that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action” and unlike too many of his predecessors lauded the noble goal of advancing equality. Obama also took a shot at right-wing economic policy that is all about coddling the superwealthy at the expense of everyone else.

    The president also called for collective action on climate change.

  • January 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Senate Republicans devoted to protecting big business interests and undermining workers’ rights vigorously fought President Obama’s efforts during his first term to keep the National Labor Relations Board functioning and appoint a leader for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

    Republicans in the Senate have long sought to ensure that Obama could not alter the makeup of the NLRB, in order to keep it pro-business or inoperative. Moreover, Senate Republicans were opposed to the creation of the CFPB, intended to crack down on some of the shady business practices that helped lead to the Great Recession; and after its creation they were bent on making it as ineffective as possible.

    Earlier today, the Republican agenda of hobbling the NLRB, which exists to enforce the National Labor Relations Act, was advanced by a ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. According to the court, Obama’s appointments to the NLRB in early January 2012 during a 20-day recess of Congress were unconstitutional.

    The appeals court opinion is at odds with other rulings from appeals court circuits and the fact that for a century, presidents, citing Article II of the Constitution, have used recess appointments to fill executive branch vacancies.

    As The New York Times notes, the appeals court decision “also raises doubts about the legitimacy of Mr. Obama’s recess appointment” of Richard Cordray to the CFPB. Obama appointed Cordray the same time he selected the three members of the labor board. At the time Obama noted that he was forced to make the recess appointments because of the Senate’s refusal to move on his nominations to the board and the bureau. “The American people deserve to have qualified public servants fighting for them every day – whether it is to enforce new consumer protections or uphold the rights of working Americans. We can’t wait to act to strengthen the economy and restore security for our middle class and those trying to get in it, and that’s why I am proud to appoint these fine individuals to get to work for the American people.”  

    The opinion by the appeals court panel – all three judges are Republican appointees – is radical and sweeping. Adam Serwer, in a piece for Mother Jones, notes that if the appeals court decision were to be upheld – the Obama administration is likely to appeal it – it would invalidate NLRB decisions made since last January and also impact actions taken by the CFPB.

    The CFPB, Serwer writes “has done what liberals hoped and Republicans feared: Prevented companies from gouging consumers with the kind of unscrupulous business practices that caused a nationwide economic meltdown four years ago. Although Cordray’s appointment is being challenged separately, Friday’s ruling gives companies impacted by CFPG’s decisions an opening to argue that some of the CFPB’s actions should be invalidated.”

    But constitutional law experts argued at the time Obama made the recess appointments that he was on solid legal ground. In a Jan. 2012 piece for The Times, Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe said the president’s recess appointments “ought to be a slam dunk” and that the Constitution is clear on “reserving the authority the president needs to carry out his basic duties ….”