Federal Courts and Nominations

Americans discover a new must-read for the Trump age: the US constitution

Interest in the United States’ oft-cited, little read founding document is booming as concerned citizens identify the law as a bulwark against executive overreach

By Joanna Walters

They drifted in, to the smell of pork roasting and the dulcet tones of Billie Holiday.

The apartment was cozy, as freezing rain fell outside, covering nearby Central Park and the rooftops of New York’s liberal Upper West Side neighborhood.

The dozen friends could have been meeting up for any one of their regular gatherings to eat, sip wine and shoot the breeze.

But with Donald Trump’s bombastic administration running amok, already in an epic confrontation with the courts over his executive order on immigration and refugees, the group was meeting to discuss the US constitution and the role the judiciary plays when citizens believe a president is overreaching.

“I want to learn more about the nooks and crannies of this branch of government, so I’ll be able to figure out who to write to spur legal challenges to Trump’s actions on refugees, access to healthcare or threats to the independence of the judiciary and the press,” said Victoria Foster, a public health manager who was hosting the group in her apartment.

The Trump candidacy and now presidency have brought the constitution and the courts into the everyday news cycle, shining greater light on the branch of the US government that is typically most likely to be ignored or overlooked.

And appetite is voracious for a greater understanding of the constitution and how courts can become an activist’s tool, experts say, particularly among activists resisting Trump.

“People are getting very excited and engaged about the role of the constitution and the power of the judiciary – you normally hear lots about the White House and Congress, and often the supreme court, but now people are realizing we have all these federal courts deciding pivotal cases every day,” said Zinelle October, vice-president of network advancement for the American Constitution Society.

ACS, a not-for-profit organization that promotes greater understanding of the constitution and the freedoms it protects, has seen an uptick in demand for the pocket-sized copies of the constitution it distributes and for experts to address groups about the document’s role in government, she said.

October pointed out that it was the attorney general of Washington state, an elected official, who got Trump’s travel ban blocked as unconstitutional via a federal court earlier this month.

ACS is non-partisan, but she added: “When you have someone in office threatening people’s rights, you have to be responsive to that and focus on how the constitution matters in such a situation.”

The friends meeting in New York to chat and chew have formed a small, French-style salon to strategize their newfound political activism against Trump.

Last Sunday, in only their second such meeting, they decided the theme should be the constitution and the courts.

Dipal Shah, an attorney in New York, had been invited to share his expertise on the constitution. He began with a sober message.

“It’s important to be non-partisan when you consider the constitution … It’s not a document for Republicans or Democrats. Now more than ever it’s being tugged at by those with a political agenda, rather than a philosophical one,” he said.

Friends uncorked more wine to digest his explanation that, yes, the staunchly conservative judge Neil Gorsuch would almost certainly be confirmed to the supreme court as Trump’s pick to replace the late Antonin Scalia, even though Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland was stalled by Republicans for nearly a year.

Paul de Lucena, 36, a software architect attending the salon, said he wanted to explore the legalities of churches, mosques and even private citizens harboring undocumented immigrants in the event of a crackdown.

And Noah Foster, a public school teacher and Victoria’s brother, who has already written to lawmakers in protest of Trump’s new controversial guns– and charter-school-loving education secretary, Betsy DeVos, asked the group: “Should we be writing to senators and identifying judges we would like to see nominated for federal court vacancies?”

The group murmured its affirmation.

Landon Ewers, chief information officer at Amalgamated Bank, said: “Donald Trump has personally attacked federal judges and a disturbing portion of Americans appear to think he should be able to override the courts. We must fight for the checks and balances in the constitution – there’s already fear that under the guise of religious freedom he will sanction discrimination against LGBT people.”

Doug Pennington, spokesman at the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington, a progressive thinktank and advocacy group, said many Americans are showing renewed interest in the importance of the US constitution.

“The more people understand the courts and feel their own power in advancing their rights [there], the better it is for American democracy. The third branch is the bulwark of liberty in this country,” he said.

Trump has a long history of fighting his business battles in court, both as plaintiff and defendant, and becoming president has not stopped lawsuits flying against him and now his administration more widely.

San Francisco is suing over Trump’s executive order targeting sanctuary cities for their stance on immigration. The legal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics filed a federal lawsuit against Trump shortly after his inauguration accusing the president of breaching the emoluments clause of the constitution, which prohibits receiving payments or gifts from foreign governments.

As part of an ACS project to educate people, Love our Constitution, Dan Cotter, an attorney in Chicago, gave a talk to a troop of Boy Scouts there last Monday night.

“We talked about Brown v Board, the same-sex marriage and Affordable Care Act cases, what happens when you have a vacancy in the supreme court that results in a four-four split,” said Cotter. “We talked about the recent executive order on travel. We had a pretty good discussion and the youngest scouts participated as much as anyone.”

And in New York, Jarrett Adams, a lawyer, gave a talk on Friday to 100 high schoolers.

He discussed Trump’s travel ban and court rulings but also told the students how, while an inmate for 10 years, he built a successful case that he had been denied his constitutional rights to an effective defense that could have proved his innocence in 1998, when he was arrested in Wisconsin at 17 for rape.

Adams was eventually exonerated and released. He graduated from law school last year and is now an attorney with the Innocence Project.

“When I was 17 I could recite an entire album by Tupac but I couldn’t recite the first through the fifth amendments of the constitution,” he said.

“Many can recite it but don’t really understand the implications.”

Friends and associates outside law circles have been flocking to ask him about such matters as the legality of the travel ban, whether Mexican co-workers will be deported, whether the federal government can intervene in the gang violence in Chicago, as Trump has hinted, and fears over gun safety, he said.

“When you have executive orders written overnight, we saw that you can file in federal court to challenge whether that’s legal,” he said. “The constitution is the fabric that holds this country together and the students need to understand and know how to use that, not just be able to recite it. Now especially.”


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