William Forbath

  • July 31, 2015
    Video Interview

    by Nanya Springer

    In the current political climate, the idea that Congress should pass legislation redistributing wealth and resources is met with abhorrence by conservatives and, often, with apathy by liberals. This was not always the case, argues William Forbath, Associate Dean for Research and Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law at the University of Texas School of Law. At one time, liberals widely viewed economic inequality as a constitutional issue and believed redistributive measures were not only permissible, but constitutionally required to ensure the equal protection of the laws and to promote the general welfare.

    In an interview with ACSblog, Forbath explains that today’s liberals have come to think the Constitution does not speak to the redistribution of resources. This contradicts the views of key historical lawmakers who discussed anti-trust, banking, currency and trade as constitutional issues and who viewed Congress as constitutionally obliged to promote the country’s broad economic wellbeing through redistributive policies. Forbath adds that even before the Equal Protection Clause appeared in the federal Constitution, state constitution guarantees of equal protection focused on protecting the poor from legislation that favored economic elites. “The Constitution needs safeguards against oligarchy,” he asserts. “Ours is an anti-oligarchy Constitution.”

    Noting America’s shrinking middle class and diminishing equality of opportunity, Forbath concludes that “these older generations were right . . . You can’t keep a constitutional democracy or a republican form of government with boundless inequality. You can’t keep it without a broad middle class. You can’t keep it alongside an oligarchic, entrenched economic elite.” Instead he, along with fellow University of Texas Law Professor Joseph Fishkin, promotes a return to the idea that we have a “Constitution of opportunity” ― one that supports a robust middle class and ensures opportunity for all, not just the privileged.

    Watch the full interview here or below.

     

  • September 17, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Yeah it’s Constitution Day, and we have a blog symposium for that. But today also marks the anniversary of a gathering of protests aimed at blasting the risky ways of large financial institutions that brought on a global meltdown and America’s Great Recession. Occupy Wall Street protests also railed against the increasing corporate control of politics, and helped raise awareness of economic inequality that undermines democracy.

    When those protests gathered steam and formed organization in places like New York’s Zuccotti Park, many right-wing pundits, like some on Fox News, belittled the protests as run by brain-addled youngsters and aging hippies with no real message. (Some on Fox News also expressed amazement at why any person would care about economic inequality.) But like so much of what spews from cable news carnival barkers, they were wrong.

    As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick put it, many of the OWS protesters were exceedingly clear in their messaging. “They are holding up signs that are perfectly and intrinsically clear: They want accountability for the banks that took their money, they want to end corporate control of government. They want their jobs back. They would like to feed their children. They want – wait, no we want – to be heard by a media that has devoted four mind-numbing years to channeling and interpreting every word uttered by a member of the Palin family while ignoring the voices of everyone else.”

    In a Sept. 14 post on OccupyWallStreet, website the “common villain” is Wall Street, which “is robbing the 99% blind on behalf the 1%.”

    Likely a little hyperbole, but part of its message centers on the fact that for far too long, economic policy has been driven by lawmakers who cater to the superrich, ignoring a growing wealth gap and larger numbers of people falling into poverty.

    In So Rich, So Poor, Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman explains how right-wing economic policy has created a wholly ineffectual social safety net.

  • September 4, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Late last week seemingly as quiet as possible, the attorney general announced no efforts to prosecute CIA officials accused of being involved in the torture of military prisoners. As The New York Times put it, Attorney General Eric Holder’s “announcement closes a contentious three-year investigation by the Justice Department and brings to an end years of dispute over whether line intelligence or military personnel or their superiors would be held accountable for the abuse of prisoners ….”

    Of course Holder’s action will stir more discussion, some of it shrill and way over-the-top, about the Obama administration’s record on national security and conducting a seemingly never-ending war against terrorism. For many liberals the Obama administration’s record in those areas appears just like his predecessor’s.

    Human Rights First issued a strong, clear-headed statement against Holder’s action.

    “Torture is illegal and out of step with American values,” Human Rights First’s Melina Milazzo said in an Aug. 30 press statement. “Attorney General Holder’s announcement is disappointing because it’s well documented that in the aftermath of 9/11 torture and abuse was widespread and systematic. These cases deserved to be taken more seriously from the outset. When you don’t take seriously the duty to investigate criminal acts at the beginning, resolution becomes even more difficult a decade later. It’s is shocking that the department’s review of hundreds of instances of torture and abuse will fail to hold even one person accountable.”

    Such disappointment is warranted, so is sharp, thoughtful criticism.

    But then predictably we are also subject to the overwrought. For example, see actor John Cusack’s lengthy and often insufferable discussion with law professor Jonathan Turley for Truthout. Their discussion drones on and includes claims of “Rubicon lines” being crossed and constitutional principles being trampled. Cusack says Obama has created an “imperial presidency.” Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, whole-heartedly concurs, adding “Oh, President Obama has created an imperial presidency that would have made Richard Nixon bush. It is unbelievable.”

  • October 11, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    In the fourth session of the American Constitution Society’s webcast series, “What the Constitution Means and How to Interpret It,” University of Texas at Austin law professor William Forbath will explore the Constitution’s expansive promise to “promote the general welfare.”

    During a 30-minute live-streamed discussion, Forbath, the law school’s Lloyd M. Benson Chair in Law, will address how the general welfare clause has historically been interpreted and how social and economic rights fit into our constitutional system. Following a 15-minute presentation, Forbath will take questions for 15 minutes.

    Other webcasts in the nine-part series on understanding the Constitution will focus on democracy, criminal justice and liberty. Each session, led by a preeminent scholar, mirrors a chapter in the ACS-published book, Keeping Faith with the Constitution, by Pamela Karlan, Goodwin Liu and Christopher H. Schroeder.

    Lawyers, law students and non-lawyers are encouraged to participate and interact with questions, tweets andFacebook comments. If you are on Twitter, please join ACS both during and after tomorrow’s session at the hashtag #ACSclass.

    The Oct. 12 webcast will occur at 3 p.m. EDT and is free and open to everyone. To see the full schedule and accompanying readings, visit the web page for “What the Constitution Means and How to Interpret It.”