24 April 2008

The Senate and the Filibuster

Last Monday, students of American Constitutional law were introduced (or possibly re-introduced) to the concept of a filibuster, which is unique to the U.S. Senate. By way of review, a filibuster is a tool that Senators can use to block debate of a bill they do not like. The filibuster itself is basically an endless debate that, because of it's duration (endless), prohibits the Senate from voting on a bill. The filibuster can only be stopped by way of a Cloture vote, which requires 60 Senators to vote in favor of ending the debate. Thus, a super-majority is needed to stop this delay action being taken by a minority of Senators. The mechanics of how this works are not really important for this class, especially considering that the Constitution itself does not grant this power to the Senate; so it's really outside the scope of this class. Nevertheless, there is an article in today's New York Times explaining how Republicans in the Senate are using the filibuster to block a vote on a bill that would make it easier to sue employers for wage discrimination. The article is worth a read if you are interested in how the filibuster can be used.

22 April 2008

The Commerce Clause and the Environment

Understanding Congressional power, especially as it relates to the Commerce Clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, is not an easy task. My hunch is that many students walked out of yesterday's lecture on the Commerce Clause wondering, "what the heck is LeMieux talking about." As I said yesterday, the central question here is what are the limits of Congressional power? That's really what's at the heart of discussions concerning the Commerce Clause. An excellent example of this concerns whether Congress can pass laws aimed at protecting the environment. As Benjamin Wittes, of the Atlantic Monthly, pointed out in a 2005 article:
Consider the Constitution's commerce clause, which empowers the national legislature to regulate "commerce … among the several states." Since the New Deal the commerce clause has been construed very broadly, becoming the constitutional backbone of much important civil-rights legislation and of all the major environmental laws. Yet since 1995 the Court has issued a series of decisions that emphasize the limits of the commerce power, requiring that laws enacted under it deal in some sense with—well, interstate commerce. I have considerable sympathy for this line of argument, but its potential dangers to the environment are hard to overstate. For while the environment itself is intrinsically interstate, not all environmental-protection measures obviously constitute regulations of commerce "among the several states"—or even regulations of commerce at all. Can the government, under the Endangered Species Act, protect—as one conservative judge poetically put it—"a hapless toad that, for reasons of its own, lives its entire life in California"? Can it, under the Clean Water Act, protect isolated seasonal pools (which are not interstate) used by migratory birds (which are)?
His point is, if enough judges on the Supreme Court believe that Congressional power under the Commerce Clause is not very broad, might the Court start striking down laws aimed at protecting endangered animals and wetlands? Good question and one that makes environmentalists in the United States lose sleep.

15 April 2008

What is a Secret

During yesterday's American Constitutional Law lecture, I spent a good deal of time discussing the concept of separation of powers, and I noted that the Bush Administration has taken actions over the past several years that raise significant questions about the balance of power in the U.S. government. While these battles between the branches don't receive a great deal of attention here in Germany, one particular case has: the case of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen who was "kidnapped" by the CIA as part of the Bush Administration's extraordinary rendition program. This case nicely illustrates the interplay between the three branches of government when it comes to something as sensitive as national security.

El Masri's case was dismissed by a federal court because the government claimed his lawsuit involved state secrets. As the Washington Post noted in an editorial earlier this week:
IN RECENT YEARS, a number of possibly deserving litigants have been denied their day in court after the Bush administration claimed that too many secrets would be spilled in an open trial. The cases of people who alleged they were subjected to illegal eavesdropping or were handed over to a foreign country in an "extraordinary rendition" have been fended off in this way.
But now Congress is trying to change this by passing a law that would allow courts to look more closely at the state secrets defense that has been raised in these cases. This is a classic example of one branch (Legislative) trying to place limitations on another branch (Executive) by giving the third branch (Judiciary) more power to check government actions. Whether Congress has the power to do this will be a topic we will address next week.