Federal court: Michigan political maps illegally rigged to ‘historical proportions’

From today’s Detroit News:

Michigan must redraw legislative and congressional districts for the 2020 election because current maps drawn by Republicans represent a political gerrymander “of historical proportions,” a three-judge federal panel ruled Thursday.

The blockbuster ruling — which a GOP leader said the party will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — requires Michigan to conduct special state Senate elections for certain seats next year, cutting in half the four-year terms that current lawmakers are now serving. 

The “predominate purpose” of the redistricting plan approved by the Michigan Legislature in 2011 “was to subordinate the interests of Democratic voters and entrench Republicans in power,” said the unanimous decision written by U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“Therefore, the enacted plan constitutes a durable partisan gerrymander” that violates the First and 14th Amendment rights of plaintiff voters, the court concluded.

The panel is giving the Republican-led House and Senate until Aug. 1 to redraw the maps and get them signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The judges said they want all the parties and processes used in the redistricting process to be made public, including any alternative plans that the Legislature rejects.

If state officials do not finalize new maps by then, the federal court would draw new boundaries itself and could appoint a special master to do so. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Michigan and some aggrieved Democrats. The complaint was eventually narrowed down to target 34 of the state’s 162 congressional and legislative districts that would need to be redrawn, along with any bordering districts they impact. 

Read the complete article here.

Interior nominee David Bernhardt’s ethics problems aren’t going away

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

President Trump’s pick to the lead the Interior Department heads for a confirmation vote as early as Thursday, with his career as a lobbyist raising ethical and legal concerns and doubts about his independence from the energy and water industry groups he long represented.

Acting Secretary David Bernhardt spent about eight years as a partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the nation’s top-grossing law and lobbying firms, according to public rankings. There he represented energy, mining and Western water interests that deal with the Interior Department, including two California entities, Westlands Water District — the nation’s largest irrigation district — and Cadiz Inc.

Bernhardt’s firm sued the department four times on Westlands’ behalf. He personally argued one appeals case challenging federal endangered species protections for imperiled salmon. He did legal work for Cadiz, which wants to build a water pipeline on a railroad right of way that crosses federal land in the California desert.

When Bernhardt was confirmed as deputy secretary in 2017, he had to sign the administration’s ethics pledge and recuse himself from participating in “particular matters” involving more than two dozen former clients. Some of the recusals were effective for two years, others for one. In the last year, he has helped put policies in place that benefit businesses he once represented as a lobbyist.

Read the complete article here.

Op-Ed: Consumer rights are worthless without enforcement by the state

From today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

57 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made an impassioned pitch for stronger consumer rights.

“If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.”

Kennedy offered these words of warning on March 15, 1962, a date now celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day. He then called on Congress to enact legislation to protect four fundamental consumer rights: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and the right to be heard.

The address has become known as the “consumer bill of rights.” But Kennedy also discussed an equally important issue: how such rights would be enforced. After all, without enforcement, consumer rights are just empty promises.

Consumer rights flourish

The idea of consumer rights was nothing new in 1962.

As I describe in my research on the history of consumer credit regulation, the states took an early interest in protecting ordinary Americans against abuse by lenders and debt collectors, beginning in the earliest days of the republic. Most adopted usury laws limiting the price of credit in the colonial period, exemption laws shielding property from seizure by creditors in the 19th century and more tailored consumer credit regulations in the early and middle 20th century.

What was noteworthy about Kennedy’s address was not his push for more consumer rights, but rather his call for the federal government – “the highest spokesman for all the people” – to act on behalf of consumers instead of ceding the role of consumer protector to the states.

Congress heeded Kennedy’s call and passed a flurry of consumer legislation.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, it required lenders to clearly disclose loan terms through the Truth in Lending Act, mandated fair credit reporting and debt collection practices, created safety standards for cars and other consumer products, and banned discrimination in housing and consumer lending. More recently, in 2010, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and tasked the agency with guarding consumers against unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices in financial services.

The states also reinforced their decades-old consumer laws in the 1960s and ’70s by banning unfair and deceptive acts and practices under state “UDAP” laws.

Accordingly, consumer rights today are far more robust than they were when JFK gave his speech. To be sure, new business practices regularly require that existing laws be updated to address unanticipated threats.

But the biggest challenge today is not the need for new consumer rights. Rather, it is ensuring that existing rights are enforced.

Legal fee recovery and class actions

There are basically two ways to enforce a consumer right: privately with a lawsuit or publicly via regulators.

The biggest barrier to effective private enforcement is financial. First of all, the harm to an individual consumer from a rights violation is often small, reducing the economic incentive to sue. Secondly, to sue in court, a consumer generally requires the assistance of an attorney, who must be paid. Finally, even if the individual goes to court and wins, the damage award is frequently too insignificant to deter the violator from engaging in profitable but illegal practices in the future.

Fortunately, two legal innovations have helped consumers overcome some of these hurdles.

One, rules allowing prevailing plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees, expanded with the raft of consumer rights legislation of the late 1960s. These provisions gave consumers the right to recover the costs of their legal representation along with any actual damages for some rights violations.

The other was the birth of the modern class action lawsuit in 1966, which allowed consumers who suffer similar monetary harms to aggregate their claims into a single large lawsuit, leading to multimillion dollar settlements.

Public enforcement

The other way to give consumer rights teeth is through public enforcement. And besides the potential for monetary awards, this method opens the door to other types of remedies for consumers.

For example, the New Jersey attorney general recently sued two auto dealerships, alleging that they sold damaged vehicles at unaffordable prices to “financially vulnerable” customers who were then left stranded when the dealers repossessed the cars without advance warning. The complaint seeks to ban the violators from selling car in the future, in addition to monetary relief.

Enforcement shortfalls

Recent developments, however, raise concerns about the future of consumer rights enforcement through both public and private channels.

The strength of public enforcement is subject to the whims of state and federal officials, who may reduce enforcement resources or refuse to bring enforcement actions.

A prime example is the weakening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which from 2011 through 2017 helped millions of consumers receive nearly $12 billion back from misbehaving financial institutions. A recent study found that CFPB enforcement activity has declined significantly since the end of 2017, when Richard Cordray, its first director, stepped down.

Paper tigers

Compared with 1962, when President Kennedy put consumer concerns on the national agenda, ordinary Americans now have far more robust rights to safety, to information, to choice and to a fair hearing.

But consumer rights do not enforce themselves. Public enforcement requires funding and willing leaders. Private enforcement requires legal devices that allow consumers to pay attorneys for their work.

Without an ongoing commitment to enforcement, consumer rights may become paper tigers, offering the appearance of protection without any teeth.

Read the complete article here.

FBI analyzed NC political operative in May, took no action to stop fraud

From today’s Washington Post:

The FBI participated in a May surveillance operation of a GOP political operative at the center of an election fraud investigation in North Carolina, newly released court documents show, raising fresh questions about how long it has taken federal prosecutors to pursue the matter.

Federal and state investigators observed Leslie McCrae Dowless meeting with people he hired to collect ballots ahead of last year’s primary election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, according to state search warrants released Wednesday.

At the time, Dowless was working on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris, who went on to beat GOP incumbent Robert Pittenger by 828 votes. Dowless also worked for the Harris campaign in the fall, when Harris narrowly edged out Democrat Dan McCready in the unofficial results.

State officials ordered a new election in the 9th District last month after concluding that Dowless orchestrated a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced” scheme to collect, fill out, forge and in some cases discard absentee ballots on behalf of Harris.

Separately, the Wake County district attorney’s office in Raleigh last month charged Dowless and four others on felony counts, including possession of absentee ballots and obstruction of justice.

Harris has denied knowledge of the scheme. He said last month he would not run in the special election scheduled for later this year.

Read the complete article here.

Corruption: Cohen’s Testimony Opens New Phase of Turbulence for Trump

From today’s New York Times:

A small group of Republican strategists opposed to President Trump, branding themselves Defending Democracy Together, quietly conducted polling and focus groups last fall to gauge whether the president was vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2020. Assembling a presentation for sympathetic political donors, they listed points of weakness for Mr. Trump such as “tweeting/temperament” and “criminality/corruption.”

The group concluded that Mr. Trump’s scandals were not yet badly damaging him with Republican-leaning voters: “Even relatively high information voters aren’t paying particularly close attention to day-to-day scandals,” the presentation stated. But it added that there was “room to educate voters” on the subject.

Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, may have begun that education on Wednesday.

With Mr. Cohen’s appearance before a House committee, the public airing of ethical transgressions by Mr. Trump reached a new phase, one that may be harder to ignore for friends and foes alike. The spectacle of Mr. Trump’s onetime enforcer denouncing him in televised proceedings, detailing a catalog of alleged cruelty and crimes, signaled the pressure the president’s already strained coalition could feel in the coming months as Congress scrutinizes him and the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III completes his investigation.

Republicans still find it difficult to imagine that Mr. Trump’s electoral base would ever desert him, though they acknowledge that bond may soon be tested as never before. Mr. Trump’s core supporters — numbering about two in five American voters, polls suggest — have stayed with him through revelations of financial and sexual impropriety, painful electoral setbacks and the longest government shutdown in history.

Read the complete article here.

New election ordered in NC House district due to voter fraud in GOP candidate’s campaign

From today’s NBC News Online:

The North Carolina Board of Elections on Thursday ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District after allegations of illegal activity in the handling of mail-in ballots.

The five-member board’s unanimous action came after several days of hearings into Republican ballot-collecting practices in the 2018 general election.

Their decision was made after the GOP candidate, Mark Harris, surprisingly suggested Thursday that there should be a new election because the public had lost confidence in the results. On Election Day Harris had narrowly topped Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results.

“Through the testimony I listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called. It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the ninth district seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted,” Harris said.

It was a dramatic turn for Harris who had been aggressively defending himself throughout the months-long investigation and the four-day hearing, insisting that he had no knowledge of fraudulent activity involving absentee ballots in two rural counties in the ninth district.

Harris made his declaration one day after his son, John Harris, testified that he warned his father of the possible illegal tactics political operative McCrae Dowless used in an absentee ballot operation. Harris hired him anyway, saying on the stand that it was his son’s “opinion” about Dowless but that he was assured that Dowless worked within the confines of the law. He insisted that he that he had no knowledge of alleged illegal activities regarding mail-in ballots.

But Harris was at risk of perjuring himself during his testimony over a discussion he had with his son about emails being used as evidence. He said from the witness stand that he did not discuss the emails with anyone ahead of the hearing. After he said that, his attorney, David Friedman, immediately asked to speak to his client behind closed doors. The board agreed, called for a lunch break and then went into closed session. When they returned, Harris corrected the record.

Read the complete article here.

Texas is the Voter Suppression State

From today’s New York Times:

For those of you keeping track of the “As Texas goes, so goes the nation” notion, I have either very good or very bad news.

The state that gave you two recent mediocre-to-crummy Republican presidents (who are starting to look downright Lincolnesque compared to you-know-who), gerrymandering in the guise of redistricting (thanks a lot, Tom DeLay) and a profound if misguided antipathy to government in general is now surging ahead in a new field: voter suppression. As someone who loves Texas with a triple shot of ambivalence, I take no pleasure in spreading this news. But if it is your goal to keep people of color from the polls — some Republican leaders come to mind — it’s time once again to look to Texas for guidance.

Our state officials in their infinite wisdom last week announced that they hoped to excise 95,000 people from voter rolls because they didn’t seem to be citizens. Our secretary of state, David Whitley, insisted that, with the help of the Department of Public Safety, he had been able to compile a list of those supposedly illegally registered. It was even suggested that 58,000 of those folks had actually already voted, a felony in these parts. This finding was heralded in a tweet by ourattorney general, Ken Paxton, as an all-caps “Voter Fraud Alert.” Paxton, you may or may not know, is himself under indictment for securities fraud.

The state, which as yet cannot take anyone off the voter rolls, turned to county officials, who can. They are supposed to hunt those miscreants down by sending notices demanding they appear at voter registrars’ offices with proof of citizenship (birth certificate, passport, etc.) within 30 days. Otherwise, they would be stricken from the rolls and, presumably, ICE would be pounding on their doors soon after.

Among many who seized on this appalling narrative was President Trump, who tweeted: “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped!”

Well, yes, someone had to be stopped here in Texas, and the narrative was appalling, but not for the stated reasons. Within 24 hours, various groups devoted to voting rights had put on their thinking caps — they don’t give them out at the Statehouse — and were noting a few problems with the list.

Read the complete article here.

Senate votes to overturn Trump’s IRS disclosure rule allowing “dark money”

From today’s Politico Online:

The Senate passed legislation Wednesday to reverse a Trump administration policy limiting donor disclosure requirements for political nonprofits in a rare rebuke to the White House.

In a 50-49 vote, the Senate approved a resolution from Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that would block the recent Treasury Department change to IRS forms allowing political nonprofits to avoid listing some donors.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) joined every Democrat in support of the measure, which required only a simple majority to pass under the Congressional Review Act.

“The Trump administration’s dark money rule makes it easier for foreigners and special interests to corrupt and interfere in our elections,” said Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee in a Senate floor speech.

Tester had also been optimistic earlier this week about the resolution’s prospects.

“I think it’s gonna be close but I think we’ve got the votes,” he said Tuesday.

Prior to the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the resolution was an “attempt by some of our Democratic colleagues to undo a pro-privacy reform. … In a climate that is increasingly hostile to certain kinds of political expression and open debate, the last thing Washington needs to do is to chill the exercise of free speech and add to the sense of intimidation.”

Read the complete article here.

First Wisconsin, now Michigan GOP moves to strip Democrats’ power

From today’s MSNBC News:

Republicans who control Michigan’s Legislature voted Wednesday to advance a measure that strips campaign-finance oversight power from the Democratic secretary of state-elect, and they were poised to give lawmakers authority to stand up for GOP-backed laws if they think the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general are not adequately defending the state’s interests.

The lame-duck moves followed within hours of similar efforts in Wisconsin, where lawmakers voted earlier Wednesday to shift clout to the Republican-controlled Legislature and weaken the Democrat replacing the GOP governor.

Michigan Democrats in January will jointly hold the governor, attorney general and secretary offices for the first time in 28 years, but the Legislature will continue to be controlled by Republicans.

A day after GOP lawmakers finalized an unprecedented maneuver to gut minimum wage and paid sick leave laws, a Senate panel passed legislation that would create the Fair Political Practices Commission to enforce the campaign-finance law rather than Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, who ran in part on a pledge to advocate for election transparency.

Democrats called the bill a blatant power grab that would fly in the face of voters.

Read the complete article here.

WI Republicans Approve Bills Stripping Power From Incoming Dem. Governor

From today’s New York Times:

After a rancorous, sleepless night of debate, Republican lawmakers early Wednesday pushed through a sweeping set of bills that will limit the power of Wisconsin’s newly elected Democrats, including the incoming governor and attorney general.

The legislation, which Democrats vehemently opposed and protesters chanted their anger over, passed through the Republican-held State Legislature after hours of closed-door meetings and some amendments. The votes fell largely along party lines; no Democrats supported the measures.

“That’s what this is about: power-hungry politicians using their grubby hands in their last-ditch effort to desperately cling to power,” said State Representative Katrina Shankland, a Democrat, before the vote Wednesday morning. “All we’ve seen demonstrated today and over the past few days is a contempt for the public.”

The fight over power in Madison came after Republicans, who have controlled the state for the last eight years, lost the offices of governor and attorney general during the midterm elections. Tony Evers, a Democrat, defeated Scott Walker, a two-term governor who drew national attention with a brief run for president.

Read the complete article here.