The 5th Circuit Agrees That Federal Officials Unconstitutionally ‘Coerced’ or ‘Encouraged’ Online Censorship

“Publicly, President Joe Biden accused the platforms of “killing people” by failing to suppress speech that discouraged vaccination against COVID-19. Murthy likewise said that failure was “costing people their lives.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declared that social media companies “have a responsibility related to the health and safety of all Americans to stop amplifying untrustworthy content, disinformation, and misinformation, especially related to COVID-19, vaccinations, and elections.” If they failed to meet that responsibility, Murthy said, “legal and regulatory measures” might be necessary. Psaki floated the possibility of new privacy regulations and threatened social media companies with “a robust anti-trust program.” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said the platforms “should be held accountable,” which she suggested could include reducing their legal protection against civil claims based on users’ posts.

Privately, administration officials pressed Facebook et al. to delete or downgrade specific posts and banish specific speakers, to take action against content even when it did not violate the platforms’ rules, and to expand those rules so that any speech federal officials viewed as dangerous to public health could be deemed a violation. Their “requests” were sometimes phrased as demands.”

“Flaherty emphasized that he was acting on the president’s behalf, that his concerns were “shared at the highest (and I mean highest) levels of the [White House].” White House officials invoked previous perceived failures at content moderation, which they said had been disastrous. “When Facebook did not take a prominent pundit’s ‘popular post[]’ down,” the 5th Circuit notes, senior White House COVID-19 adviser Andrew Slavitt “asked ‘what good is’ the reporting system, and signed off with ‘last time we did this dance, it ended in an insurrection.'” In another exchange, Flaherty “demand[ed] ‘assurances’ that [Facebook] was taking action” and “likened the platform’s alleged inaction to the 2020 election, which it ‘helped increase skepticism in,'” adding that “an insurrection…was plotted, in large part, on your platform.'”

When social media companies failed to do what the administration wanted, White House officials reacted angrily. Flaherty noted that a flagged Facebook post was “still up,” asking, “How does something like that happen?” Facebook was “hiding the ball,” Flaherty complained. “Are you guys fucking serious?” he said in another email to Facebook. “I want an answer on what happened here and I want it today.” Because Facebook was “not trying to solve the problem,” Slavitt said, the White House was “considering our options on what to do about it.””

“By and large, especially after Biden and Murthy accused social media companies of killing people, the platforms did what the White House wanted. They were eager to appease the president, repeatedly asking how they could work together to address his concerns. In this context, the 5th Circuit says, it is likely that the pressure campaign amounted to “coercion” and that the White House unconstitutionally shaped moderation decisions.”

Opinion | The Supreme Court Is Infected With the ‘Most Damaging’ Human Bias

“What is really different — and dangerous — about today’s justices is not partisanship, but rather a cognitive trap that Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has called the “most damaging” of all human biases: overconfidence. Put simply, today’s justices possess a frightening degree of certainty that they can alone answer society’s most pressing problems with just the right lawyerly argument.

The roots of this certitude developed, perhaps surprisingly, from a noble place. When confronted with legal challenges to a slew of racially discriminatory laws in the mid-20th century, the justices needed the ability to proclaim those laws inconsistent with our Constitution’s one, true meaning. For good and important reasons, that is exactly what the court did.

But the power to declare the law’s meaning — and to override democratically enacted policies — is seductive. High constitutional theories such as living constitutionalism and originalism were advanced to justify judicial intervention in disputes ranging from guns to abortion and religion to the death penalty. And our overconfident Supreme Court was born.

The evidence of this overconfidence is everywhere around us, and it affects both sides of the political spectrum. One rough measure is the frequency with which the court overrules the judgment of our nation’s elected lawmakers. Whereas the court struck down less than one act of Congress per year between 1788 and 1994, the court has invalidated an average of more than three federal laws per year since then.”

“Perhaps most significantly, the court’s overconfidence problem is apparent in its opinions. In overturning the right to abortion, for example, Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion declared that the legal reasoning embraced by respected jurists such as Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and Thurgood Marshall was “far outside the bounds of any reasonable interpretation.” Never mind that the “most important historical fact” on which Alito rested his own conclusion — the number of states that banned abortion in 1868 — was riddled with historical inaccuracies.
Opinions reaching liberal results often reflect overconfidence bias, too. In Kennedy v. Louisiana, for example, the court struck down the death penalty for cases of aggravated child rape. Although the Constitution was far from clear on the matter and elected officials had reached differing views, a bare five-justice majority wrote that “in the end,” it is “our judgment” that must decide “the question of the acceptability of the death penalty.””

“Overconfidence bias has led to the court’s legitimacy crisis by unleashing the justices’ underlying partisan instincts. Humble justices can overcome those instincts by admitting uncertainty and deferring to others.”

Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalizes abortion nationwide

“Mexico’s Supreme Court threw out all federal criminal penalties for abortion Wednesday, ruling that national laws prohibiting the procedure are unconstitutional and violate women’s rights in a sweeping decision that extended Latin America’s trend of widening abortion access.”

America’s Trumpiest court just put itself in charge of nuclear safety

“Judge James Ho is not a nuclear scientist, an expert in energy policy, an atomic engineer, or anyone else with any specialized knowledge whatsoever on how to store and dispose of nuclear waste.
Nevertheless, Ho and two of his far-right colleagues on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit just put themselves in charge of much of America’s nuclear safety regime — invalidating the power of actual nuclear policy regulators to decide how to deal with nuclear waste in the process.”

Opinion | If You Want the Public’s Trust, Broadcast the Trump Trials

“U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan has scheduled former President Donald Trump’s federal criminal trial for his deliberate and systematic attempts to overturn the will of American voters for March 4. And if current rules remain, the American people will never see it. Instead, many will hear about it second-hand through siloed media ecosystems and from sources whose fidelity to the facts are tenuous at best.
Now is the time for this to change.”

” If ever there was a moment in American history that should prompt the federal courts to change their outdated policy, surely the prosecution of a former president for attempting to overturn the will of the voters would be it. The time has come for the federal court system to catch-up with the times — many state courts already broadcast live trial proceedings.”

“I suspect my former colleagues at the Justice Department are hesitant to depart from existing norms that date back to 1946 because they have been largely effective in keeping decorum in federal court rooms and protecting witnesses, jurors and judges.

But these are extraordinary times, and extraordinary times demand extraordinary transparency. At the least, the Justice Department should inform the Judicial Conference that it does not oppose efforts to broadcast Trump’s trials live.

The bright light of transparency into both of Trump’s federal cases would communicate an unfiltered and unbiased accounting of trial events, and the strong evidence the government has alleged in its indictments. Equally important, it would show Americans and the world what it means to pursue justice without regard to partisan politics.”

The case for optimism about the Supreme Court

“If you are angry at the Supreme Court, you are right to be angry. Many of this Court’s decisions are completely lawless — such as the Court’s recent decision in Biden v. Nebraska (2023), which ignored a federal law that unambiguously authorized Biden’s student loan forgiveness program. They demand anger. And that anger isn’t just righteous, it is useful.
But I also want to counsel against despair — that is, I want to counsel against the absence of hope.

The Court’s GOP-appointed majority is starting to draw some fences around the conservative legal project. The Court appears unwilling to attack entrenched parts of the American welfare state. It smacked down a Trump judge who attempted to ban the abortion drug mifepristone. It has rejected legal arguments that would devastate the US economy or threaten its national security.

And, most importantly, the Court is now signaling that it may preserve America’s ability to hold free and fair elections (or, at least, to hold elections that are as free and fair as possible in a nation with an Electoral College and a malapportioned Senate).”

Texas Attorney General Blocks Injunction, Will Keep Enforcing Anti-Abortion Law

“According to the lawsuit, two plaintiffs experienced severe complications from miscarriages that went untreated due to the ban. The three other plaintiffs had fetuses with severe abnormalities that carried high risks of medical complications for the mother, like hemorrhaging.
Texas law currently bans almost all abortions, providing an exception only in the case of a “medical emergency,” defined as a “life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy that, as certified by a physician, places the woman in danger of death or a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function unless an abortion is performed.”

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs argue the law is too vague, leading doctors to deny them abortions—placing the women at risk—due to concerns that the women were not in sufficiently imminent danger of death for doctors to risk possible prosecution if they performed an abortion. Under the law, doctors who perform illegal abortions face life in prison.

“With the threat of losing their medical licenses, fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and up to 99 years in prison lingering over their heads,” the suit states, “it is no wonder that doctors and hospitals are turning patients away—even patients in medical emergencies.””

The Supreme Court Had A Few Surprises This Year. That Doesn’t Make It Moderate.

“the fact that they’re unwilling to give conservatives a win in every case may say as much about what advocates are asking for as it does about the court’s ideological bent. The two big surprises this term — the ruling involving the Constitution’s elections clause and the decision involving the Voting Rights Act — were both cases that previous courts probably wouldn’t have agreed to hear at all. The aggressive arguments in both cases are just two examples of the way the court’s docket is changing, with right-wing legal groups and politicians asking for much further-reaching outcomes than they would have even five or six years ago.”

Will anyone trust these hyper-politicized courts to try Donald Trump?

“In 2016, after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death gave Democrats their first chance in a generation to control the Supreme Court — and with it the federal judiciary — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced that no nominee would receive a confirmation hearing until after that year’s presidential election. He claimed that this newly invented rule against election-year confirmations was necessary to ensure that “the American people have a voice in this momentous decision.”
Yet, after McConnell successfully held this seat open until Trump could fill it, Republicans reversed course when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died fewer than two months before the 2020 election that cast Trump out of office. Republicans didn’t just give Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett a confirmation hearing, they raced to confirm her just eight days before the election.”

“Any trial of a former head of state would be a difficult endeavor. Anyone elected to the nation’s highest office is likely to have many loyal supporters throughout the country, who will be skeptical of claims that their political leader is actually a criminal. And, in the United States, any former president will have appointed a significant percentage of the federal judiciary.

And again, Trump’s criminal trials will not be heard under the best of circumstances. Trump may try to rally his supporters to commit acts of violence similar to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Many of Trump’s judges aren’t just unusually conservative, they show little regard for the rule of law. And, in part because the United States has never tried a former president before, Trump’s criminal trials are likely to produce a raft of novel legal questions that can be readily appealed to higher courts — including the hyper-politicized Supreme Court.

On top of all of this, at least one of the former president’s trials will be overseen by Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee who has previously behaved like she is a member of Trump’s legal defense team.

It is far from clear, in other words, that the judiciary enjoys enough public trust that it can endure the political strain Trump’s trials will put on its spine — even assuming that every judge who hears one of Trump’s criminal cases acts in good faith.”

“One reason to worry about what appellate judges, including the justices of the Supreme Court, might think about Trump is that criminal trials involving famous criminal defendants often present unusual legal questions that don’t typically arise in other cases. And Trump isn’t just famous, he’s the first former president ever to be indicted. And he’s a current candidate for the presidency.

These unique facts are likely to produce unprecedented legal questions that will need to be resolved by appellate courts. And that gives the justices an unusual amount of ability to sabotage these prosecutions if they chose to do so.”