Guest: Slate's legal journalist Mark Joseph Stern; Also: Griner heading home; 'Respect for Marriage Act' to become law; Report: DoJ seeking to hold Trump in contempt in stolen docs case...
By Brad Friedman on 12/8/2022, 5:54pm PT  

It could have been much worse. That seems to be the message from our guest on today's BradCast after yesterday's oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court case that could blow up everything we know about American elections, including some 233 years of otherwise settled election laws in all 50 states. We'll hope he's right. [Audio link to full show follows this summary.]

But, first up today, some less ambiguous good news to kick things off. WNBA star Brittney Griner is on her way home from Russia, where she has been held as a prisoner for at least 8 months after authorities found less than a gram of cannabis oil in a vape cartridge in her suitcase. Her release comes as a swap for a notorious Russian arms dealer, but fails to include the release of Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned by Russia for nearly four years, who many hoped would also be included in the trade.

Griner's wife joined President Biden at the White House on Thursday to announce the good news, while urging the release of Whelan, whose brother praised the Administration for making "the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen."

Also on Thursday, more good news in D.C. as the U.S. House approved the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) with all Democrats voting in favor with almost 40 Republicans. Shamefully, 169 Republicans voted against recognizing the marriage rights of same-sex and interracial couples. The bill was passed by the U.S. Senate last week (also by all Democrats and opposed by the majority of Republicans) and now heads to the President's desk for his signature. Even though 2015's Obergefell ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land in all 50 states, federal lawmakers determined a statutory backstop was necessary after far-right activist Justice Clarence Thomas called for reconsidering the Obergefell decision when he voted with the Court's corrupted rightwing majority to overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

We're joined today by Slate's longtime legal journalist and SCOTUS expert MARK JOSEPH STERN. Last month, he responded to progressive critics of the RFMA who felt it should have gone farther to require all states to license same-sex marriages --- as Obergefell currently does --- rather than simply mandating that states legally recognize such marriages. Today, Stern breaks down his legal argument for why he believes those critics are wrong about the new, landmark federal statute and notes that, "as a progressive in a same-sex marriage, I feel like I have some skin in the game here."

But, our initial reason for booking Stern today was to discuss Moore v. Harper, the ridiculous --- if wildly dangerous --- case heard by the Supremes on Wednesday. As discussed on yesterday's show with FairVote's David Daley, who attended the oral argument, if a majority on the Court agrees with North Carolina Republican petitioners, the fallout for American elections from Moore will be "seismic".

The case argues that a fringe, so-called "Independent State Legislature" theory found in the U.S. Constitution's Elections Clause, means that only State Legislatures may craft specific state rules and laws for federal elections and may not be overruled or even reviewed by gubernatorial vetoes or state court review to ensure those laws meet requirements of state Constitutions. Even voter-approved ballot initiatives would be considered unlawful.

It would, in the case of Moore, allow North Carolina Republicans who control the gerrymandered majority in the evenly-divided state Legislature to gerrymander U.S. House districts however they like, even after the state Supreme Court determined their partisan gerrymander violated the state Constitution. By the same theory, a majority opinion in favor of the NC GOP, by the rigged 6 to 3 SCOTUS, could also allow state Legislatures to simply choose whichever Presidential Electors they preferred, even when voters voted otherwise. Yes, it's just that insane and, arguably, should never have even been heard at the High Court.

The good news today, is that, after yesterday's hearing --- when the "Court's most conservative justices got outplayed," as Stern reported at Slate --- he now believes the worst-case scenario is far less inevitable. "Those of us who’ve been ringing the alarm over this dangerous theory --- and who've been disgusted by the campaign to drag it from the far-right fringe all the way to the Supreme Court --- can take solace that these capable lawyers exposed [the Independent State Legislature theory] as an utter fraud," he wrote last night.

"Even though we have a ton of rules in every single state's Constitution that have been enforced for 230+ years, this theory says that all of those are invalid, we've been doing it wrong the whole time," Stern told me today, adding that he "heard maybe two votes for that position" during oral argument on Wednesday.

"But then, once you get into the more compromise positions, it gets harder to gauge," he warns. "I don't think the Court is going to totally cut out state Constitutions and state statutes from federal elections. I don't think that the Court is going to go as far as Republicans want. I think that there's a chance that the Court could issue a decision that is bad but not catastrophic, that essentially says that, as a general principle, state courts can regulate elections, but that federal courts get to double-check their work and decide if they got it wrong."

"But we have to be, when this decision comes down, really vigilant about drawing any conclusions before we figure out exactly where they land." If Federal courts can review state court rulings that are regarded as "egregious," Stern says he could live with that. But if they allow state courts only "mild deference," he explains, "that's no good, because that is really not how we do things in this country. State courts have the final say over the meaning of state law in almost all circumstances. And if we take that away, then it is just empowering this conservative super-majority on SCOTUS to decide all these cases in favor of Republicans."

Given the ridiculous basis for the Independent State Legislature theory --- that we've been doing it all wrong for more than 230 years since the nation's founding, but nobody noticed until now --- there would be hundreds of election laws in all 50 states that could then be challenged in federal courts. It's all somewhat ironic given that this fringe interpretation of the Elections Clause was, itself, built on "a fraudulent document that purported to be an account of the Constitutional Convention" that, as early as the 1800's, was described as "fake" by James Madison, "who actually did write the definitive account of the Constitutional Convention," notes Stern.

Much more on all of that today and, before he leaves, a quick explanation of how "stupid" the case heard earlier this week by SCOTUS regarding a web designer in Colorado who refuses to design a website for same-sex marriages actually is. Hint: She "has never been asked by any couple, gay or straight, to make a wedding website for them. Yet she sued before anyone could ask her, and argued that Colorado's civil rights law was infringing on her freedom of speech."

Finally, we're joined by Desi Doyen for our latest Green News Report with both good and bad news, as per usual, when news broke late from CNN that, according to their sources, the U.S. Dept. of Justice has asked a federal judge to hold Donald Trump in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena ordering him over the summer to turn over classified records he stolen upon leaving the White House.

It turns out that it may have been an even better day today than we originally thought...

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