SCOTUS defers gerrymandering ruling

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court declined on Monday to address the central questions in two closely watched challenges to partisan gerrymandering, putting off for another time a ruling on the constitutionality of voting districts designed by legislatures to amplify one party’s political power.

In a challenge to a redistricting plan devised by the Republican Legislature in Wisconsin, the court unanimously said that the plaintiffs had not proved that they had suffered the sort of direct injury that would give them standing to sue. The justices sent the case back to a trial court to allow the plaintiffs to try again to prove that their voting power had been directly affected by the way state lawmakers drew voting districts for the State Assembly.

In the second case, the court unanimously ruled against the Republican challengers to a Democratic plan to redraw a Maryland congressional district. In a brief unsigned opinion, the court said the challengers had waited too long to seek an injunction blocking the district, which was drawn in 2011.

Both cases had the potential to deliver a reckoning on a practice that dates to the early days of the Republic and got its name from one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry. The court instead kicked the can down the road, leaving the door open to further challenges.

But the decisions were a setback for critics of gerrymandering, who had hoped that the Supreme Court would transform American democracy by subjecting to close judicial scrutiny the way districts have been redrawn to accommodate the preferences of the party in power. When the dust settled Monday, the status quo remained in place.

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In parts of America, Department of Labor hasn’t updated “prevailing wage” for taxpayer-funded work in decades

From Bloomberg News Network:

Thanks to a web of loopholes and limits, the federal government has been green-lighting hourly pay of just $7.25 for some construction workers laboring on taxpayer-funded projects, despite decades-old laws that promise them the “prevailing wage.”

Over the past year, the U.S. Department of Labor has formally given approval for contractors to pay $7.25 for specific government-funded projects in six Texas counties, according to letters reviewed by Bloomberg. Those counties are among dozens around the nation where the government-calculated prevailing wage listed for certain work—such as by some carpenters in North Carolina, bulldozer operators in Kansas and cement masons in Nebraska—is just the minimum wage.

That’s in part because, according to publicly available data from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, the agency is relying on wage survey data in more than 50 jurisdictions that’s from the 1980s or earlier. Experts said that’s a far cry from what Congress intended when, starting with the Depression-era Davis Bacon Act, it passed a series of laws meant to ensure that private companies contracted for government-backed projects pay their workers at least in the vicinity of what others get for the same work in the same geographic area.

In an emailed statement, the Labor Department didn’t address whether the decades-old data is a problem.

“The Wage and Hour Division carefully plans where to survey on an annual basis to ensure that prevailing wage rates reflect the reality of construction pay practices in a locality. The division identifies potential survey areas based on a number of criteria, including where available data on active construction projects in an area reveal changes in local pay practices such that a survey is necessary,” the department said.

Because government contracts are often required to go to the “lowest responsible bidder,” supporters say prevailing wage rules prevent a “race to the bottom” in which exploitative companies who pay workers less outbid safer, higher-quality firms, and in turn drive down industry standards to pocket more taxpayer dollars. Opponents of prevailing wage rules counter that they’re intrusive mandates that waste money, inflating construction costs in order to help unionized firms beat non-union competitors.

In recent years, the opposition—largely Republicans and industry groups—scored a series of wins, successfully pressing state governments in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia to repeal their own “little Davis Bacon” rules. By contrast, the federal statutes remain in place, despite the efforts of Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, who said last year  that “no one can claim to be a fiscal conservative if they think the federal government needs to inflate the cost of wages.”

Read the complete article here.

Supreme Court Sides With Colorado Baker Who Turned Away Gay Couple

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court sided with a Colorado baker on Monday in a closely watched case pitting gay rights against claims of religious freedom.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 7-2 decision, relied on narrow grounds, saying a state commission had violated the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom in ruling against the baker, Jack Phillips, who had refused to create a custom wedding cake for a gay couple.

“The neutral and respectful consideration to which Phillips was entitled was compromised here,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of his case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated his objection.”

The Supreme Court’s decision, which turned on the commission’s asserted hostility to religion, strongly reaffirmed protections for gay rights and left open the possibility that other cases raising similar issues could be decided differently.

“The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Elena Kagan and Neil M. Gorsuch joined the majority opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority but would have adopted broader reasons.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented.

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Trump pardons Dinesh D’Souza on felony campaign contribution violation

From today’s CNBC “Politics” site:

Conservative commentator and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza revealed on Friday what he said President Donald Trump told him about why he was getting a pardon.

On Fox News, D’Souza said he didn’t know he was going to get it. “I was just in my office working away. And an operator came on the line and said, ‘Is this Dinesh D’Souza?’ Yes. ‘Hold the line for the president of the United States.’ And there was Trump.”

He said Trump said: “”You’ve been a great voice for freedom. I’ve got to tell you man to man, you’ve been screwed.’ He goes, ‘I’ve been looking at the case. I knew from the beginning that it was fishy.'”

D’Souza, who was convicted in 2014 of making an illegal campaign contribution, said, “[Trump] said upon reviewing it, he felt a great injustice had been done. And using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate. And he said he just wanted me to be out there and be a bigger voice than ever defending the principles that I believe in.”

A day earlier, Trump announced on Twitter his decision to pardon D’Souza, an outspoken critic of Democratic former President Barack Obama. D’Souza was prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, an Obama appointee who was later fired by Trump.

Read the complete article here.

Trump Changes Executive Regulations to Ease the Firing of Federal Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Seizing on a longtime ambition of many Republicans, President Trump on Friday overhauled rules affecting at least two million federal workers, making it easier to fire them and rolling back the workplace role of their unions.

Mr. Trump, furthering a goal cited in his State of the Union address this year, signed a series of executive orders affecting disciplinary procedures and contract negotiations and limiting the conduct of union business on government time.

Andrew Bremberg, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the president was “fulfilling his promise to promote more efficient government by reforming our Civil Service rules.”

Past administrations of both parties have argued that Civil Service rules are in need of modernization, but Mr. Trump zeroed in on aspects that create sharp partisan divisions. And the action follows growing acrimony between his supporters and the federal bureaucracy that they portray as the deep state.

Unions representing government workers were quick to denounce the actions. “This is more than union busting — it’s democracy busting,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said in a statement. “These executive orders are a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress has specifically guaranteed.”

The executive orders come after a series of prominent Republican victories against public employee unions in recent years at the state level and a rollback of Obama-era policies favorable to labor at the federal level.

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will rule on a case, propelled by years of conservative philanthropy, that could end mandatory fees for public-sector unions in more than 20 states, dealing a body blow to union coffers.

The Trump administration portrayed its new rules as a needed remedy to make a sclerotic work force more efficient and responsive, but Newt Gingrich, who has been an informal adviser to the White House on Civil Service issues, has given a different explanation in the past.

In an interview last year, when the administration was considering action, Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, said that a major impetus was the federal bureaucracy’s ideological opposition to the Trump agenda.

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The face of political corruption in DC? Emails show collaboration among EPA and climate change deniers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Newly released emails show senior Environmental Protection Agency officials collaborating with a conservative group that dismisses climate change to rally like-minded people for public hearings on science and global warming, counter negative news coverage and tout Administrator Scott Pruitt’s stewardship of the agency.

Emails show collaboration among EPA and climate change deniers

The emails were obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Southern Environmental Law Center through the Freedom of Information Act.

The emails show John Kokus, EPA’s deputy associate administrator for public affairs, repeatedly reached out to the conservative Heartland Institute.

EPA spokesman Lincoln Ferguson says the Heartland Institute is one of a broad range of groups the agency engages with.

Heartland’s Tim Huelskamp says it will continue to work with Pruitt and the EPA against a “radical climate alarmism agenda.”

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Democrats’ Next Big Thing: Government-Guaranteed Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

Prominent Democrats — stung by their eroding support from working-class voters but buoyed by the deficit-be-damned approach of ruling Republicans — are embracing a big idea from a bygone era: guaranteed employment.

The “job guarantee” plans, many of them pressed by Democratic White House hopefuls, vary in scope and cost, but they all center on government-sponsored employment that pays well above the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage — a New Deal for a new age, absent the bread lines and unemployment rates of the Great Depression. The most aggressive plans seek to all but eradicate unemployment and to set a new wage floor for all working Americans, pressuring private employers to raise wages if they want to compete for workers.

How such guarantees would be paid for is still largely unresolved. And criticism of the idea has emerged not only from conservatives who detect a whiff of socialism but also from liberals who say guaranteed employment is the wrong way to attack the central issue facing workers in this low-unemployment economy: stagnant wages.

But Democratic leaders hope the push will help their party bridge the growing political divide between white and minority workers, and silence the naysayers who accuse the party of being devoid of new, big ideas.

The employment plans, along with single-payer “Medicare for all” health care, free college, legalized marijuana and ever less restrictive immigration rules, are parts of a broader trend toward a more liberal Democratic Party in the Trump era.

“It’s going to create a more competitive labor market where people are going to start getting living wages, not just minimum wage,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, who unveiled a job-guarantee planin April. “Giving people the dignity of work, of being able to stand on their own two feet, there’s such a strengthening element of that.”

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS Upholds Workplace Arbitration Contracts Barring Class Actions

From today’s New York Times:

 The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that companies can use arbitration clauses in employment contracts to prohibit workers from banding together to take legal action over workplace issues.

The vote was 5 to 4, with the court’s more conservative justices in the majority. The court’s decision could affect some 25 million employment contracts.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the court’s conclusion was dictated by a federal law favoring arbitration and the court’s precedents. If workers were allowed to band together to press their claims, he wrote, “the virtues Congress originally saw in arbitration, its speed and simplicity and inexpensiveness, would be shorn away and arbitration would wind up looking like the litigation it was meant to displace.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, a sign of profound disagreement. In her written dissent, she called the majority opinion “egregiously wrong.” In her oral statement, she said the upshot of the decision “will be huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well being of vulnerable workers.”

Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to address the matter.

Brian T. Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who studies arbitrations and class actions, said the ruling was unsurprising in light of earlier Supreme Court decisions. Justice Gorsuch, he added, “appears to have put his cards on the table as firmly in favor of allowing class actions to be stamped out through arbitration agreements.”

As a result, Professor Fitzpatrick said “it is only a matter of time until the most powerful device to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds is lost altogether.”

But Gregory F. Jacob, a lawyer with O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, said the decision would have a limited impact, as many employers already use the contested arbitration clauses. “This decision thus will not see a huge increase in the use of such provisions,” he said, “but it does protect employers’ settled expectations and avoids placing our nation’s job providers under the threat of additional burdensome litigation drain.”

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: When Companies Supersize, Paychecks of Workers Shrink

From today’s New York Times:

Anyone with a cellphone should have paid attention to the big merger news on April 29: T-Mobile and Sprint announced their intention to tie the knot after years of speculation. If it goes through, it will leave the country with just three major wireless carriers instead of four.

Less noticed, on the same day, about a dozen other corporate marriages were announced worldwide, worth a combined $120 billion. So far this year, $1.7 trillion worth of deals have been declared globally, higher than the pre-financial-crisis record set in 2007. This year’s big-dollar mergers in the United States range from Cigna’s purchase of Express Scripts, oil refiner Marathon Petroleum buying rival Andeavor, and Dr Pepper Snapple cozying up to Keurig Green Mountain. That’s in addition to AT&T’s play for Time Warner in 2016, CVS’s offer for Aetna, and Amazon swallowing up Whole Foods.

All this activity means fewer companies, which means less competition. For consumers, that can raise prices if the merged companies face less pressure to keep things cheap. That’s the main test these deals have to pass: whether regulators, including the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission, think consumers will fare worse.

That narrow focus on consumer prices hides another, potentially more dangerous side effect. A growing body of evidence has found that as mergers thin the ranks of businesses, workers have fewer options when they look for jobs. That reduces their bargaining power and, in turn, is part of why wages have stagnated.

Read the complete article here.

Massive UC workers’ strike disrupts dining, classes and medical services

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

A massive labor strike across the University of California on Monday forced medical centers to reschedule more than 12,000 surgeries, cancer treatments and appointments, and campuses to cancel some classes and limit dining services.

More than 20,000 members of UC’s largest employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, walked off their jobs on the first day of a three-day strike. They include custodians, gardeners, cooks, truck drivers, lab technicians and nurse aides.

Two altercations involving protesters and people driving near the rallies were reported at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz. At UCLA, police took a man into custody Monday after he drove his vehicle into a crowd, hitting three staff members. They were treated for minor injuries at the scene and released, said Lt. Kevin Kilgore of the UCLA Police Department.

The system’s 10 campuses remained open, largely operating on regular schedules, and protests were peaceful and even festive.

At UCLA, workers marched through campus in green union shirts that said “We run UC” and held signs calling for equality, respect and more staff. Some brought children and walked dogs. Drivers honked in solidarity. Hundreds of workers rallied in front of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, taking taco breaks under green balloons.

Oscar Rubio, a UCLA food services worker, said that staffing at some dining hall stations has been cut from five workers to three, leading to more injuries for those who remain.

Top UC officials “make more money … while we suffer,” Rubio said. “We’re not asking to make like they make. We’re asking to support us enough to pay our rent.”

Read the complete article here.