Three Israeli teenagers, one of them also a US citizen, have been kidnapped in the occupied West Bank, presumably by Palestinians, the army said on Saturday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held the Palestinian Authority responsible for their…
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'An existential threat': Legal expert breaks down the Supreme Court case that could radically reshape US elections
On Wednesday, December 7, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Moore v. Harper, a case that deals with partisan gerrymandering and redistricting in North Carolina as well as a far-right legal idea known as the independent state legislature theory (often abbreviated as ISL). It is the ISL part that has civil libertarians especially worried; the ISL, in its most severe form, argues that only state legislatures should be allowed to govern the administration of elections in individual states — not governors, not judges, not state supreme courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the ISL over the years. But civil libertarians and legal experts fear that if the radical-right 2022 edition of the High Court accepts the ISL as valid, it could have dire consequences for democracy in the United States. Imagine a scenario in which a Democratic presidential candidate wins Wisconsin, for example, in 2024 or 2028 but MAGA Republicans in the Wisconsin State Legislature want to give the state’s electoral votes to the Republican nominee who lost; such a scenario, according to civil libertarians and experts on constitutional law, is not far-fetched if the High Court accepts the ISL in its most radical form.
Moore v. Harper isn’t about former President Donald Trump per se. But in an article published by The Atlantic on November 29, legal expert Quinta Jurecic (who is a fellow at the Brookings Institution) emphasizes that the case reflects the influence of Trump and his MAGA movement.
READ MORE: How a pending Supreme Court case could determine whether US democracy 'lives or dies': legal expert
“At the center of Moore is a ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court throwing out an aggressively gerrymandered congressional map put together by the state’s Republican legislature, which the Court found violated the state constitution,” Jurecic explains. “The GOP lawmakers are now challenging that ruling before the Supreme Court, arguing that, under the independent state legislature theory, the state court lacked the authority to involve itself in the legislature’s work…. The Constitution gives states the power to decide how they select members of Congress and pick presidential electors.”
Jurecic continues, “Proponents of the independent state legislature theory build their argument around the fact that the specific constitutional text in question refers not to states generally, but instead, to ‘the legislatures thereof.’ Thus, they argue, when administering federal elections, state legislatures are, to some extent, exempt from normal constraints; under this theory, other state-level entities, such as courts and election officials, would be restricted in their ability to check the legislature or act without its approval…. Moore involves only the constitutional language concerning the selection of members of Congress, but a Supreme Court ruling adopting some iteration of the independent state legislature theory could shape how federal courts understand state administration of presidential elections as well.”
The ISL, Jurecic notes, is highly controversial in legal circles. For example, Eric Holder, who served as U.S. attorney general under President Barack Obama, has warned that Moore — depending on how the High Court rules — could pose “an existential threat to our democracy.” And Rick Hasen, an expert on election law, has warned that “a muscular reading of the independent state legislature theory would provide a fig leaf for state legislators to try to reverse presidential election results and overturn the will of the people in a presidential election.”
Jurecic points out that “Trump’s attempted coup in 2020 depended in part on a bizarre overextension” of the ISL.
READ MORE: Robert Reich warns of Supreme Court case that could give GOP-led states 'total power over our democracy'
“John Eastman, the legal scholar advising Trump on the president’s efforts to overturn the election, proposed, in a now-notorious memo, that the Constitution provided legislatures in swing states with the power to simply toss out (Joe) Biden electors in favor of slates supporting Trump,” Jurecic observes. “Eastman himself has filed an amicus brief in Moore, though it is far less outrageous — adopting the maximalist view of the independent state legislature theory instead of his previous, even more extreme interpretation.”
Jurecic wraps up her piece by writing that “the picture is not entirely bleak” when it comes to Moore v. Harper and the wellbeing of U.S. democracy.
“The results of the 2022 midterms substantially limited the ability of election deniers to upend the 2024 presidential vote: Swing-state voters rejected Trump-backed candidates for governor and secretary of state who had expressed a willingness to meddle with elections going forward,” Jurecic explains. “And if the lame-duck Congress can pass reforms to the Electoral Count Act, the statute that governs Congress’ certification of the electoral vote and that Trump sought to exploit on January 6, this would close off avenues for rogue state legislatures operating under an extreme understanding of the independent state legislature theory to disrupt the 2024 certification. Still, Moore is a reminder of just how wobbly the guardrails protecting American democracy have become.”
READ MORE: Are SCOTUS Republicans in on a plot to end Democratic presidencies forever?
"Dimock residents have known for 14 years that Cabot Oil & Gas is guilty of contaminating our water."
Nearly 14 years after a well explosion on New Year's Day 2009 revealed to Dimock residents that methane had percolated into their groundwater, Cabot Oil & Gas pleaded no contest to 15 criminal charges, including nine felonies. The notorious driller, now owned by Coterra Energy, was featured in the 2010 HBO documentary Gasland.
In addition to taking full responsibility for destroying the small rural town's drinking water supplies for the first time—following more than a decade of denial and alleged harassment of residents—the Houston-based company agreed to pay $16.3 million to build new public water infrastructure and to cover the costs of delivering clean water to those who have been harmed for the next 75 years.
The historic settlement stems from charges that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat and the commonwealth's governor-elect, filed in June 2020 based on recommendations issued at the conclusion of a two-year grand jury investigation into the fracking industry.
"Dimock residents have known for 14 years that Cabot Oil & Gas is guilty of contaminating our water," Dimock resident Ray Kemble said Tuesday in a statement. "Finally, some justice."
"This case proves once and for all that drilling and fracking contaminated our drinking water," said Kemble, one of many victims who traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2014 to personally deliver samples to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Now we need immediate relief in the form of water deliveries."
Dimock residents were forced to go to the nation's capital due to regulatory inaction.
"There were failures at every level," Shapiro said after Tuesday's hearing. "The local elected officials where someone would normally go, ignored them. The regulators whose job it is to set the boundaries for industry to operate in, failed."
Food & Water Watch, a progressive advocacy group that has long supported anti-fracking struggles waged by the residents of Dimock and other communities, summarized those failures in a timeline.
Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, acknowledged in 2010 that Cabot's drilling activities had contaminated the drinking water of several Dimock households and ordered the company to stop fracking in part of the town. In August 2012, however, the agency allowed Cabot to resume fracking in the same area where it had previously been prohibited.
At the federal level, meanwhile, the EPA claimed in July 2012 that added filtration systems made the water in Dimock safe to drink and announced its plans to halt the testing it had begun earlier that year. The following summer, reporting showed that regional EPA staff wanted to continue their probe after tests found a link between fracking and methane contamination of drinking water.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ultimately confirmed the presence of harmful contaminants in Dimock's drinking water. In a 2016 report, the agency wrote that chemicals had been found in 44 private water wells "at levels high enough to affect health" or "pose a physical hazard." In addition, the agency warned that the presence of methane created "an immediate risk of explosion or fire" for five households.
Last summer, Physicians for Social Responsibility uncovered internal records revealing that since 2012, fossil fuel companies have injected potentially carcinogenic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or chemicals that can degrade into PFAS, into the ground while fracking for oil and gas—after the Obama administration approved their use despite EPA scientists' concerns about toxicity.
"Federal leaders must act to ensure that no American is subjected to continued poisoning, sickness, and harm from drilling and fracking."
"After more than a decade of glaring inaction from state and federal leaders, finally the people of Dimock have a measure of justice thanks to the work of Attorney General Shapiro," Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said Tuesday.
However, she continued, "countless other communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction in Pennsylvania and elsewhere will continue to suffer from the inherent health and safety risks of fracking until our country fully transitions to a clean, safe, renewable energy future."
"Pennsylvania needs more action from Shapiro to rein in the oil and gas industry," said Hauter, "and federal leaders must act to ensure that no American is subjected to continued poisoning, sickness, and harm from drilling and fracking."
Roughly 17.3 million people in the United States live within a half-mile radius of active oil and gas production, according to the Oil & Gas Threat Map, a geospatial analysis released in May.
A massive body of research has documented the deadly consequences of fracking and other forms of fossil fuel extraction, including planet-heating and illness-inducing air pollution as well as drinking water contamination, which creates another pathway of exposure to cancer-linked chemicals.
Peer-reviewed studies published earlier this year found that kids living in close proximity to fracking and other so-called "unconventional" drilling operations at birth are two to three times more likely to develop childhood leukemia and that elderly individuals who live near or downwind of fracking sites are at higher risk of early death.
Right-wing pranksters ordered to spend 500 hours registering voters over hoax targeting Black voters
Wohl and Burkman were behind the hoax robocalls seeking to intimidate Black voters out of casting mail-in ballots in the 2020 presidential election. The automated calls came during the height of the COVID pandemic, when mail-in voting was expanded throughout the country as a protective measure.
Both men were sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to wear GPS ankle monitors with home confinement for six months beginning at 8 pm every night. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge John Sutula also placed a $2,500 fine on each of them, comparing their actions to the widespread Black voter suppression in the 1960s.
"I think it's a despicable thing that you guys have done," Sutula said during the Zoom hearing. County Prosecutor Michael O'Malley added in a statement that the men "attempted to disrupt the foundation of our democracy."
When given the opportunity to address their charges for the first time, Wohl and Burkman were brief.
"I just really want to express my absolute regret and shame over all of this," Wohl said.
"I would just echo Mr. Wohl's sentiment," Burkman said. "I think the same."
Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor James Gutierrez said Cleveland's heavily Black city of East Cleveland was targeted with more than 6,400 robocalls, and that more than 3,400 voters were ultimately contacted.
The calls warned that voters should not fill in mail-in ballots because the police, credit card companies, and the U.S. Centers for Disease for Control would use their personal information to find people with outstanding arrest warrants and credit card debt.
"Don't be finessed into giving your private information to the man," the call said.
Gutierrez confirmed that all these claims are false. "There is not one kernel of truth into what they said in that recording," he said.
The voice of the robocalls came from someone who called herself Tamika Taylor and claimed to work for a civil rights organization called The 1599 Project. Gutierrez said that Tamika is also the name of the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot in her apartment on March 13, 2020, after Louisville police officers forced entry into her apartment while claiming to execute a drug raid.
Gutierrez pointed to data from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections that showed voter turnout decreased in 2020 as compared to 2016. The calls, he told Sutula, had a "chilling effect" on voters. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation found that 12 people who received calls were willing to testify had the case gone to trial.
He added that Wohl previously admitted to probation officers during his pre-sentencing investigation that the robocalls were "a political stunt meant for attention and profit."
After the hearing concluded, Gutierrez told reporters the robocalls were a form of voter intimidation and suppression.
"We've made convicted felons out of these two conspiracy theorists who did a political stunt that actually worked," Gutierrez said.
In recent years, Wohl and Burkman have also tried to harm Democrats and Republicans who are critical of former President Donald Trump by organizing press conferences to falsely accuse them of sexual misconduct.
They have been charged for the same robocalls in Michigan and are currently being sued by a civil rights organization in New York federal court.
Reporters asked Gutierrez after the hearing if he believed Wohl and Burkman's schemes were finished.
"In Cuyahoga County, yes," Gutierrez said. "As far as everything else goes, no. But that's just speculation."