A Flurry of Courts Have Ruled on Election Maps. Here’s What They’ve Said

From today’s New York Times:

Judges in a number of states have recently thrown out election maps, saying that they have been gerrymandered to the point of being unconstitutional, effectively dooming one party to permanent underrepresentation.

The decisions are certain to have drawn the Supreme Court’s interest as it mulls a resolution to the question of extreme partisan gerrymanders. The justices are expected to decide this spring whether the practice violates the Constitution, and if so, how to determine whether an electoral map is fairly drawn.

Here are the basics of the major contested cases.

Wisconsin: State Assembly districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In the most recent general election, 52 percent of the votes were cast for Republican Assembly candidates, who won almost two-thirds of the seats — 64 out of 99. Democrats received 46 percent of the vote and won 35 seats.

What’s happened so far?

In November 2016, a panel of three judges ruled that the map was unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republicans, the first time a partisan gerrymander was struck down in federal court. The ruling was notable, according to experts, because it provided a clear mathematical formula to measure how partisan a district map is.

The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which took the case(known as Gill v. Whitford) and heard arguments in October 2017.

What’s next?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the spring, probably setting the course for the other cases in federal court as well.

North Carolina: Congressional districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In 2016, Republican candidates received 53 percent of the votes cast, and won 10 of the state’s 13 seats; Democrats received 47 percent of the votes and won 3 seats.

What’s happened so far?

The map was thrown out and ordered redrawn by a panel of three federal judges on Jan. 9, who said that Republicans had drawn it most recently in 2016 in an attempt to gain a political advantage. The

Supreme Court temporarily blocked the lower court’s order to redraw the map nine days later.

What’s next?

It’s unclear. The Supreme Court has not said whether it will schedule arguments in the case, known as Rucho v. Common Cause. The court may choose instead to let whatever ruling it issues in another gerrymandering case stand as its final word on the matter. Because of the temporary block, experts say the current North Carolina map will probably remain in effect for the midterm elections this fall.

Read the complete article here.

Why the Trump-led GOP Continues to be the Party of Massive Budget Deficits

From today’s LA Times:

The Trump administration proposed a spending plan on Monday that projects deficits as far as the eye can see, giving up the longtime Republican goal of a balanced budget to champion a spending plan replete with cash for a host of military programs and some domestic ones the president’s supporters might admire.

The budget calls for about $716 billion in annual defense spending, more than $100 billion above the level Trump requested last year. Add in the tax cut Republicans pushed through in December and the extra spending Congress approved just last week, and the result is a flood of red ink projected to send the national debt ever higher.

Trump’s budget anticipates deficits throughout the next 10 years even if Congress were to approve some $3 trillion in cuts over that same time period that he’s proposing for a wide range of federal programs. Both parties already rejected most of those cuts last year and have shown little interest in pursuing them.

The deficits persist even though the White House is forecasting extremely optimistic levels of economic growth. If growth falls short of those projections — most economists think it will — deficits would be higher still.

As a result, the budget marks something of a milestone — the Trump administration’s abandonment of the quest for budget balance that the Republican Party has claimed as a guiding light for years, at least rhetorically.

In reality, deficits have often soared under Republican presidents as the party has put cutting taxes ahead of balancing budgets on its list of priorities. In the past, however, Republican administrations have taken pains to at least come up with a budget that would balance on paper.

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: The ‘Manly’ Jobs Problem

From today’s New York Times:

Insults, groping — even assault. That kind of sexual harassment came along with being one of the very few women on a construction site, in a mine, or in a shipyard. Those professions remain male-dominated and the harassment can seem, for countless women, to be intractable.

But what if the problem isn’t simply how their male co-workers behave? What if the problem is the very way society has come to see the jobs themselves? Some jobs are “male” — not just men’s work, but also a core definition of masculinity itself. Threatening that status quo is not just uppity — it can be dangerous.

This dynamic plays out in workplaces of all classes and crosses partisan political lines. But it is particularly stark in the blue-collar jobs that once scored a kind of manly trifecta: They paid a breadwinner’s wage, embodied strength and formed the backbone of the American economy.

As Christine Williams, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, pungently put it, women in so-called men’s jobs are labeled either “sluts or dykes,” each abused in their own ways. Although statistics are spotty, some studies have concluded that sexual harassment is more regular and severe in traditionally male occupations. And a Times Upshot analysis of blue-collar occupations showed that women’s presence in these jobs stayed static or shrank between 2000 and 2016.

Women are so scarce in these trades that some men refuse to see them as women. The only woman in a repair crew at wind-farm sites charged in a lawsuit that her co-workers called her by male nicknames, from common to obscene, because they thought only a man could handle the job. Men suggested she must have a penis or be a lesbian.

Read the complete article here.

When Wall Street Writes Its Own Rules, It’s An Age of Unprecedented Corruption

From today’s New York Times:

On July 25, 2013, a high-ranking federal law enforcement officer took a public stand against malfeasance on Wall Street. Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference to announce one of the largest Wall Street criminal cases the American justice system had ever seen.

Mr. Bharara’s office had just indicted the multibillion-dollar hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, charging it with wire fraud and insider trading. Standing before a row of television cameras, Mr. Bharara described the case in momentous terms, saying that it involved illegal trading that was “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” His legal action that day, he assured the public, would send a strong message to the financial industry that cheating was not acceptable and that prosecutors and regulators would take swift action when behavior crossed the line.

Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC and one of the world’s wealthiest men, was never criminally charged, but his company would end up paying $1.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, one of the largest settlements of its kind. He denied any culpability, but his reputation was still badly — some might argue irreparably — damaged. Eight of his former employees were charged by the government, and six pleaded guilty (a few later had their convictions or guilty pleas dismissed). Mr. Cohen was required to shut his fund down and was prohibited from managing outside investors’ money until 2018.

Now, with the prohibition having expired in December, Mr. Cohen has been raising money from investors and is set to start a new hedge fund. He’ll find himself in an environment very different from the one he last operated in. His resurrection arrives as Wall Street regulation is under assault and financiers are directing tax policy and other aspects of the economy — often to the benefit of their own industry. Mr. Cohen is a powerful symbol of Wall Street’s resurgence under President Trump.

As the stock market lurched through its stomach-turning swings over the past week, it was hard not to worry that Wall Street could once again torpedo an otherwise healthy economy and to think about how little Mr. Trump and his Congress have done to prepare for such a possibility. Stock market turbulence typically prompts calls for smart and stringent financial regulation, which is not part of the Trump agenda. One of Mr. Trump’s first acts as president was to fire Mr. Bharara, who made prosecuting Wall Street crime one of his priorities. Mr. Trump has also given many gifts to people like Mr. Cohen.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS conservatives set to strike down union fees on free-speech grounds

From today’s LA Times:

Paying union dues and baking a wedding cake may not seem like classic examples of free speech—except perhaps at the Supreme Court.

This year, the high court is poised to announce its most significant expansion of the 1st Amendment since the Citizens United decision in 2010, which struck down laws that limited campaign spending by corporations, unions and the very wealthy.

Now the “money is speech” doctrine is back and at the heart of a case to be heard this month that threatens the financial foundation of public employee unions in 22 “blue” states.

Like Citizens United, the union case is being closely watched for its potential to shift political power in states and across the nation.

The legal attack on the campaign funding laws was brought by conservative activists who hoped that the free flow of money from wealthy donors would boost Republican candidates. And since 2010, the GOP has achieved big gains in Congress and in state legislatures across the nation.

Conservatives also believe the attack on mandatory union fees has the potential to weaken the public sector unions that are strong supporters of the Democratic Party.

“This is a big deal,” Illinois’ Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said in September on the day the Supreme Court said it would hear the lawsuit that he initiated. A court victory would be “transformative for the state of Illinois, transformative for America and the relationship between our taxpayers and the people who work for our taxpayers.”

Read the complete article here.

#VotingRights Update: Group Targets GOP States to Attack Gerrymandering

From today’s New York Times:

A Democratic group backed by former President Barack Obama intends to pour millions of dollars into an eclectic array of elections in a dozen states, in an effort to block Republicans from single-handedly drawing congressional maps after 2020, officials leading the group said.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, formed last year under the leadership of Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, has settled on a strategy to contest a combination of governorships, legislative seats and more obscure state offices to chip away at Republicans’ sweeping control of the redistricting process.

Mr. Holder said in an interview that the group was chiefly determined to deny Republicans so-called trifectas in state governments — places where a single party controls the governorship and an entire legislature, as Republicans do in Ohio and Florida, among other critical battlegrounds.

The group’s list of high-priority states includes most of the critical states in presidential elections. Mr. Obama, who has made redistricting a focus of his attention since leaving office, plans to visit some of those states in 2018, and Mr. Holder reviewed his strategy with the former president in Washington on Monday, aides said.

States at the top of the just-finalized target list include traditional purple states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans can currently design maps without Democratic input, and others — including Colorado, Minnesota and Nevada — where Democrats have significant influence in government but must defend it in the 2018 elections.

Read the complete article here.

Market Update: Why Rising Wages Are Scaring the Hell Out of Stock Investors

From today’s Slate Magazine:

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor released a strong jobs report showing wages rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession. Then, the stock market promptly began to plummet. The Dow Jones fell an amusingly on-the-nose 666 points—its worst day since the U.K.’s Brexit surprise. Global markets subsequently took a beating, and U.S. equities are still sliding as I write this today.

Why is good news for workers turning into bad news for shareholders? The answer is a useful illustration of why the stock market is often a poor guide to the overall health of the economy.

Right now, traders seem to be worried that if wages rise too fast, it will cause the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates in order to head off inflation down the road. When, earlier this year, the central bank suggested that it would raise rates, much of the market was skeptical, in part because inflation has been so subdued for so long. But faster pay gains for workers make it more likely the Fed will follow through, both because rising wages are a sign that the whole economy is heating up and because employers will eventually have to raise prices to keep up with the cost of labor.

Read the complete article here.

How Wells Fargo and Federal Reserve Struck Deal to Hold Board Accountable

From today’s New York Times:

On a Thursday evening in mid-January, a group of top Wells Fargo executives sat down for dinner in an upscale surf-and-turf restaurant near the White House. At nearby tables, power brokers ate seafood on ice and sipped cocktails out of copper mugs.

The Wells Fargo executives — including the chief executive, Timothy J. Sloan, and the finance chief, John R. Shrewsberry — enjoyed their crab legs, but they were in Washington on unpleasant business. The Federal Reserve planned to impose tough sanctions on the San Francisco-based bank for years of misconduct and the shoddy governance that allowed it.

The executives’ mission, according to three people directly involved in the negotiations, was to avoid further shaking investor confidence in the bank and its management team.

Officials at the central bank had a different goal, according to people familiar with their thinking. They wanted to send a message to the Wells board that it would be held responsible for the company’s behavior.

After three weeks of frenzied negotiations, deal was announced on Friday night that represented a milestone in the evolving relationship between regulators and banks. Wells Fargo, one of the country’s largest banks, was banned from getting bigger until it can convince regulators that it has cleaned up its act.

Read the complete article here.

Justice Department Dismisses Corruption Case Against Menendez

From today’s New York Times:

The Department of Justice on Wednesday dismissed all the remaining charges against Senator Robert Menendez, a decision that underscores how a 2016 Supreme Court ruling has significantly raised the bar for prosecutors who try to pursue corruption cases against elected officials.

The motion to dismiss comes less than two weeks after prosecutors said they were intent on retrying Mr. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and it allows him to run for re-election without having to face a second trial.

The Justice Department on Wednesday cited last week’s decision by Judge William H. Walls to throw out several charges the senator had faced, including bribery counts stemming from accusations that Mr. Menendez lobbied on behalf of a wealthy Florida eye doctor in exchange for political donations. All charges against the doctor, Salomon Melgen, were also dismissed.

“Given the impact of the court’s Jan. 24 order on the charges and the evidence admissible in a retrial, the United States has determined that it will not retry the defendants on the remaining charges,” said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declining to provide any more details about the agency’s rationale.

The unraveling of the case against Mr. Menendez is the latest example of how difficult it has become to win public corruption cases after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn the conviction of the former Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, who had been accused of accepting luxury items, loans and vacations in exchange for helping a businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Read the complete article here.

Amazon, JPMorgan, Berkshire Hathaway team up to lower healthcare costs for their workers — and maybe everyone

From today’s LA Times:

Three of the nation’s most formidable companies — Amazon.com, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. — sent shock waves through the healthcare industry Tuesday by announcing a joint plan to reduce healthcare costs for their U.S. employees.

Although the companies said their focus mainly would be on providing improved healthcare for their own U.S. workers, which total nearly 1 million, the move immediately triggered speculation that any solutions they develop could spread throughout the industry.

That sent healthcare, drug and health-insurance stocks tumbling even though the three companies provided few initial details about their venture, with investors guessing that the trio’s initiative eventually could crimp sales growth and profits for others in the healthcare field.

Consumers might see a benefit if the companies could develop a blueprint for curbing the surge in healthcare and drug costs while maintaining or enhancing patient care, a scenario that government and the industry so far have struggled to achieve.

The speculation of a disruption to the industry was fueled by the stature of the three companies’ billionaire chief executives: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who already has radically changed the retail industry; Warren Buffett, the famed investor who also oversees dozens of companies under Berkshire’s umbrella; and Jamie Dimon, whose JPMorgan Chase is the nation’s largest bank with $2.5 trillion in assets.

Bezos and Buffett also are two of the nation’s richest people, with net worths of $119 billion and $92 billion, respectively, while Dimon’s net worth is just over $1 billion, according to Forbes.

The three said they would start “an independent company that is free from profit-making incentives and constraints” and that its early focus “will be on technology solutions” that would provide “simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.”

Read the complete article here.