Supreme Court’s role in immunity for the police – the importance of voting for democracy, not partisanship

How Supreme Court puts its thumb on the scale to seemingly savor the police

Qualified immunity is a legal protection granted by Supreme Court to shield government employees from frivolous lawsuits. In the case of the police which can exercise lethal forces upon citizens, the implications of qualified immunity can be profound. While it’s legitimate to offer police officers latitude in doing their job, qualified immunity can also be overused as a protection from misdemeanors. In this article, Reuters looked into how Supreme Court sided with the police in case involving use of excessive force. I highly recommend that you read the article. Some highlights that I think are important are as follows

In a dissent to a 2018 ruling, Sotomayor, joined by fellow liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that the majority’s decision favoring the cops tells police that “they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”

In that case, Kisela v. Hughes, the justices threw out a lower court’s ruling that denied immunity to a Tucson, Arizona, cop who shot a mentally ill woman four times as she walked down her driveway while holding a large kitchen knife.

A year earlier, Sotomayor in another dissent called out her fellow justices for a “disturbing trend” of favoring police. “We have not hesitated to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity,” Sotomayor wrote, citing several recent rulings. “But we rarely intervene where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity.”

Source: Reuters

The main challenge for plaintiffs in excessive force cases is to show that police behavior violated a “clearly established” precedent. The Supreme Court has continually reinforced a narrow definition of “clearly established,” requiring lower courts to accept as precedent only cases that have detailed circumstances very similar to the case they are weighing.

In February, the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Ohio, granted immunity to an officer who shot and wounded a 14-year-old boy in the shoulder after the boy dropped a BB gun and raised his hands. The court rejected as a precedent a 2011 case in which an officer shot and killed a man as he began lowering a shotgun. The difference between the incidents was too great, the court determined, because the boy had first drawn the BB gun from his waistband before dropping it.

In other recent cases, courts have sided with police because of the difference between subduing a woman for walking away from an officer, and subduing a woman for refusing to end a phone call; between shooting at a dog and instead hitting a child, and shooting at a truck and hitting a passenger; and between unleashing a police dog to bite a motionless suspect in a bushy ravine, and unleashing a police dog to bite a compliant suspect in a canal in the woods.

The Supreme Court in 2009 raised the bar even higher for plaintiffs to overcome qualified immunity. In Pearson v. Callahan, it gave judges the option to simply ignore the question of whether a cop used excessive force and instead focus solely on whether the conduct was clearly established as unlawful.

By allowing judges to consider only the question of clearly established law in excessive force cases, the Supreme Court created a closed loop in which “the case law gets frozen,” said lawyer Matt Farmer, who represented Lewis’s family.

Source: Reuters

I am not sure I know of situations where the odds are stacked against citizens more. Citizens, in general, do not possess weapons or resources to self-defend against authority which, ironically, is supposed to protect citizens in the first place. In cases where abuse of power is apparent, the laws, as you already see, are not on citizens’ side, either. It’s obviously a disturbing phenomenon to witness. One must wonder whether this qualified immunity and the Supreme Court’s tendency to rule in favor of the police contributes to the abuse of power and excessive use of force.

Vote. Vote. Vote. On every level.

Former President Obama penned a thoughtful blog post detailing his opinion on how the country can move forward from the current crisis. You can read it here

Second, I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices— and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

Source: Barack Obama

Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.

So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.

Finally, the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away

Source: Barack Obama

The former President said it better than I think I can. So, vote whenever you can because our life depends on your votes a lot. It’s the most powerful weapon you can have in a democracy. What I really hate is that some folks relinquish their voting duty because their “guy or gal” isn’t a candidate or there is only one or two issues that they disagree with their candidate.

Vote for democracy, not partisanship

A study published on Cambridge Press examined whether Americans were willing to trade democracy for partisanship in voting.

…in states and districts where one party enjoys a significant electoral advantage, politicians from the majority party may be effectively insulated from an electoral punishment for violating democratic principles. To get a sense of the real-world relevance of this implication, consider that in 2016 only 5.1% of US House districts were won by a margin of less than 6.9%—the smallest margin that Table 4 implies is necessary for violations of democratic principles to be electorally self-defeating. That share of districts was still only 15.2% in 2018. Put bluntly, our estimates suggest that in the vast majority of U.S. House districts, a majority-party candidate could openly violate one of the democratic principles we examined and nonetheless get away with it.

Source: Cambridge Press

Our analysis of a candidate-choice experiment as well as a natural experiment consistently found that only a small fraction of Americans prioritize democratic principles in their electoral choices when doing so goes against their partisan identification or favorite policies. We proposed that this is the consequence of two mechanisms: (i) voters are willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan ends and (ii) voters employ a partisan “double standard” when punishing candidates who violate democratic principles. These tendencies were exacerbated by several types of polarization, including intense partisanship, extreme policy preferences, and divergence in candidate platforms. Put simply, polarization undermines the public’s ability to serve as a democratic check.

We conclude by discussing the implications of these findings for our understanding of democratic stability in the United States and the rest of the world. We saw that roughly 10–13% of our respondents—depending on the type of contests considered—value democracy enough to punish otherwise favored candidates for violating democratic principles by voting against them

Source: Cambridge Press

What does that mean? In my opinion, if voters were more willing to cross the partisanship line and vote for a person of a different party, it means that the partisanship and the divide within the country would be less severe. Lawmakers would be forced to be more accountable and to offer bipartisan legislations. The world is too diverse and lively for any of us to stubbornly stick to a rigid ideology. If one party is too egregious and the other party’s candidate shares more values with you, you should vote on shared human values, not partisan ideologies or “stick it to somebody else”.

Thought on Howard Schultz’s alleged presidential run

There has been significant coverage on Howard Schultz’s intention of running in 2020 as an Independent. The coverage, as I have seen so far, has been pretty negative, coming from multiple angles and parties. Most don’t want him to run. The hostility makes me think about the implications of democracy. Specifically, the reaction from Democrats startles me.

In a democratic society, everyone is allowed to voice their opinion and do what is permitted by the laws. Hence, the criticisms and hostility towards Howard Schultz are perfectly fine. What should have been better is the reaction from Democrats, in my opinion. It’s almost a given that Donald Trump, as the sitting president, will be the GOP nominee in 2020. The GOP so far has shown in multiple instances that it is no longer the party of rules, laws and principles as it claims. As a party that advocates democracy and the word is actually part of the party’s name, the Democrats should encourage the principles of a democratic society.

Instead, they complain about the possibility that Independents such as Howard Schultz will take votes away from their candidates and help re-elect Trump. In truth, so many voters in 2016 sat out of the election because they didn’t like any of the candidates from the two main parties. I myself talked to a few of them in Nebraska. Therefore, if voters don’t like your candidates, what difference would having Independents like Schultz make?

Plus, telling Howard Schultz to stand down goes against the principles of democracy. In the time of confusion right now, the Democrats ought to try to emphasize the principles of democracy. Also, they should just stop trying too hard to be relevant such as Elizabeth Warren’s DNA going-nowhere story or her having a beer in the kitchen on Instagram. Instead, work on practical agendas and communication. Convince voters why your candidates should be elected, rather than criticize or discourage those who just exercise their rights.

At the end of the day, there is a price for everything, including living in a democratic society, isn’t there?

Midterms and why you should vote

I do discuss politics, but with my friends only or those who are open-minded enough to do it without engaging in a shouting match or escalating it to another level. I don’t want to talk politics on this blog because it’s a black hole. But today I want to.

Midterm ads

As the midterms are coming around the corner, I have seen more ads on YouTube. Mostly attack ads that are sponsored by  a candidate to attack his or her opponents. That’s pitiful. A lot of money is spent on attacking opponents. Instead, such money should have been spent in a more meaningful way.

Politics in America is about the extreme. It’s either one end of the stick or the other end. Nothing in between. It’s common to advance by attacking others. Meanwhile, plenty of important issues in our life go unnoticed or misunderstood by the public. Issues such as foreign policies, trade or healthcare are highly complicated and most of us don’t quite get them. Even if we understand, the compartmentalization and secrecy born out of how governments work in general, not just the US government, make information inaccessible and misunderstanding more palpable.

Call me an idealist, but if public servants as these politicians all claim to be want to serve the public, wouldn’t it benefit the public if they spent their money on educating their constituents on important issues, instead of attacking their opponents? I am not talking about last-minute vids when campaigns start. I am talking about a year-long constant effort on trying to help constituents understand issues more. It’s likely that they wouldn’t understand some highly highly complex issues anyway, but at least they would understand more what is going on. And that is the essence of serving the public.

In business, the surest way to attract users/customers is to be helpful/useful to them. It should be the same here. Politicians wouldn’t need to be helpful for the public. They could do it for themselves. By making themselves a reliable source of information and knowledge on what matters in constituents’ lives, I believe politicians would find it easier to earn trust. Even if things go wrong, they could always say: hey, I have been telling you that we have to compromise in politics and things are not straightforward 9 out of 10 cases. That’s the truth, provided that these politicians are forthcoming and transparent.

Sadly, it is not the case.

The importance of voting

I have talked to a few folks in Nebraska. Some didn’t vote in 2016 because they didn’t like either candidate. Low turnout is not really that uncommon here. But I’d like to talk about what happens on tonight’s episode of Madam Secretary, a show I talked about in the past.

On this episode, the Secretary had to find a way to work with a dictator in Philippines to retrieve the bodies of dead American soldiers who died in, probably, WW2 (I don’t remember the show mentioning it clearly but it was 1945, so WW2 was my guess). The dictator refused to endorse the request to retrieve the bodies, unless America gave him money that would be used to buy weapons and suppress his citizens in the future. Some compromise would be required here.

Meanwhile, her daughter worked for a candidate who pledged to campaign on student loans as one of his principles. But he left it out of his agenda. Her daughter quit the campaign because of that. Listen to this clip to see how the Secretary taught her daughter on the importance of voting.

I was about to go to bed and like I said, politics is not what I like to talk about on this blog. Nonetheless, I figured I had to do this because it mattered. If you read this and are eligible to vote in a few days, do vote. Like the Secretary said, many died for you to be able to vote. And why wouldn’t you? It will affect your life for years to come. It will also affect the world for years to come. If your representative is a decisive vote on a bill that will affect other countries, imagine that.

Do a quick research on your representatives, senators, attorney generals or governors. Any position that is on the ballot. Chances are you won’t agree with everything a candidate has to offer, but it’s life and it may be because some compromise had been made and you don’t know about it. Nonetheless, do vote.

Democracy is not perfect

America is very proud of the democracy that it claims to have. I wrote “claims to have” because whether the claim is true depends on one’s interpretation of the electoral college, voting suppression and gerrymandering taking place now. While democracy has its values, like everything else, it is not bullet-proof. It is not perfect.

At the end of the day, democracy is essentially a popularity contest. Anyone getting the most votes wins an election in a democratic society. However, such popularity may not guarantee the best outcomes for that society. Let’s look at a system in which there is no electoral college, voting suppression or gerrymandering.

To get the most votes, a candidate has to present an agenda that voters will deem to be bringing benefits to the voters’ lives. Unfortunately, voters in different living environments, or business settings need and want different things. A person in an industrial rural area will have different needs and perspectives than a person in a technology hub on the East/West coast. To win the most votes, an agenda has to address different and sometimes contrasting needs across the country. Eventually, a winning agenda (the most popular as well) is usually compromised, but not the best agenda for anyone.

To make democracy work, I believe that a country should ideally have as small a population as possible and less diversity. The more diversity in a country, the less effective democracy. America is as diverse as it can get in terms of race, culture, income level, business environments and resources across the states and even counties in one state. Hence, I believe that democracy would not be as effective in America as it can be in theory.

If you look at Singapore or China, the two countries’ economy and living standards have been improved drastically under arguably the authoritative leaderships of their leaders. Obviously, some may argue that the meteoric rise came at the cost of individual freedom, especially in the case of China.

In summary, I don’t believe that there is a perfect social system. Democracy is not an exception either. Additionally, I don’t believe that a social system works in every country regardless of any differences in social fiber. There is no formula that can be used to pre-determine the effectiveness of a social system. There are too many factors in play. I cannot say that I understand how an authoritative, democratic or socialist model works in one country and doesn’t in another. But I do believe that it is wrong to overestimate or underestimate a model just because it works or doesn’t work in other countries.