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Exclusive: Justice Stephen Breyer on politics and the rule of law – Axios

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Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer sitting for an interview

Photo: Axios on HBO

In an interview with “Axios on HBO,” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer urged Americans to re-engage in civics and vote — and not to expect the judiciary to resolve political questions.

Driving the news: It’s more than knowing that “judges are not just shouldn’t-be-politicians,” he said. “They’re very bad politicians. Don’t get involved in that. That’s not your job.”

The state of play: Breyer, whom Bill Clinton named to the court in 1994, joined me for a wide-ranging “Axios on HBO” interview at the Supreme Court on Feb. 25, weeks before the coronavirus triggered a national emergency in the U.S. and prompted the court to postpone oral arguments.

  • When I asked him whether the rule of law is in trouble today, he responded, “It’s always in trouble. It’s always touch-and-go. … The rule of law means a willingness to accept decisions you don’t like, and they might be wrong.”
  • The coronavirus came up just once in our conversation — when I asked if the U.S. legal system is equipped to deal with questions connected to globalization.
  • His answer was essentially yes — that while judges look at what’s going on in other countries, ultimately cases here depend on U.S. laws, not geopolitics.
  • “There are all kinds of things that now have a world basis,” but decisions still revolve around “primarily this document, the Constitution.”

I asked Breyer what most Americans get wrong about the Supreme Court. He said, “I think the most common perception, which is wrong, in my opinion, is they think that we’re just junior-league politicians and they think that all these cases are decided on political grounds.”

  • “We won’t always get it right, but we’re trying to do our best to figure out how law applies in this situation,” he said. “And that’s sometimes pretty tough. And the decisions people think are so obvious, they’re not so obvious.”
  • “Look, I am who I am. I was brought up in San Francisco. I went to public schools. I grew up in the ’50s, which I like. I think I was lucky. And I spent my time teaching. And you are who you are.”

He declined to discuss President Trump’s recent call for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor to recuse themselves from cases involving his administration —though Breyer said it has to be a very high bar for a justice to step back.

  • “If you’re in a court of appeals and you’re uncertain, you know, it’s a sort of borderline, take yourself out of it,” Breyer said. “Because there are a lot of other judges who can step in.”
  • But on the Supreme Court, “If you take yourself out of a case, it could affect the result. And therefore, you have to be careful on the one hand to take yourself out of the case if there is an ethical conflict of some kind, and not to take yourself out of the case if there isn’t, because you have to participate.”

Between the lines: Breyer repeatedly declined to discuss controversies or upcoming cases and said it’s obvious why.

  • “We’re here for 320 million Americans, and they think all kinds of different things,” he said. “And if they should have the good luck or the bad luck to be in front of a court, whatever kind of judge you are, whether it’s in what court it is, it doesn’t matter. They must have the feeling that you will be fair.”

I asked Breyer if the First Amendment is as safe as it used to be in this era of misinformation and rising authoritarianism.

  • He questioned the premise, recalling past suppressions including in World War I. “It’s more now protected, I think, than it was, certainly, then,” Breyer said. “And of course, I have confidence in the First Amendment — and we depend on it.” That includes a free press, he said, and a means to public opinion that is “informed.”

One fun thing: Breyer said he sometimes follows current events on Twitter, “but I never answer.” When I asked if he reads President Trump’s tweets, he told me, “I don’t want to make a news story out of this, but I will, sometimes, sure.”

The bottom line: At 81, he said he feels healthy and he has no plans to retire. Who the president is and what the balance on the court could become is “not totally irrelevant” for a justice to consider, he said. But, as for retirement, “I don’t really think about it” and “I enjoy what I’m doing.”

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Gen Z was fed up with the status quo. The coronavirus could reinforce their liberal politics. – Washington Post

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“There’s so much anger and frustration that these are things that have been impacting us for so long, and it took a pandemic?” Rehac said. “Here’s all of this attention and, all of a sudden, all of these resources that everyone said didn’t exist.”

Generation Z was already politically liberal, increasingly activist and fed up with the status quo. The oldest members of the generation — which includes those born from 1997 to 2012, according to the Pew Research Center — grew up amid soaring inequality and overwhelmingly backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primaries for the presidential nomination.

Now the coronavirus crisis may solidify their political identity, experts say. As the pandemic and its economic havoc exacerbate disparities, some Gen Zers see grim validation of their support for the government-run programs and social-welfare policies less popular with their parents and grandparents. Seventy percent of them believe the government should be doing more to solve problems, compared to 53 percent of Gen Xers and 49 percent of baby boomers, according to Pew.

Gen Z caresreally deeply about inequalities and addressing that directly,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, who directs the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “And that’s part of the reason big government appeals to them … universal health care, universal income and all that. And I think this pandemic, if anything, would really kind of affirm their position.”

Images of carefree spring breakers, who traveled to beach towns last month as concerns mounted about the virus’s spread, have dominated popular views of the generation. The nation erupted with fury at Miami Beach revelers who griped about bar shutdowns. They fed the worst stereotypes of young people as self-absorbed and thoughtless about the elderly most likely to die if they didn’t help “flatten the curve” to slow the spread of infection so that the health-care system isn’t overwhelmed.

But for another segment of the generation — which turned the trauma of school shootings and grim forecasts about the climate into millions-strong movements — the virus has energized their political activism. They see this crisis as inextricably linked to other problems that plague them and wonder whether the coronavirus pandemic could bring more people around to their calls for radical change.

As the seriousness of the crisis settled in for 17-year-old Xiye Bastida, she canceled a trip to Mexico and drew up a strict “quarantine schedule” for her weekdays holed up indoors, limiting herself to one hour of Netflix.

Sacrifice is a driving philosophy of Bastida’s politics. The climate activist, whom news outlets have dubbed “America’s Greta Thunberg,” has begged others to make big, uncomfortable changes to avert disaster.

“It’s for the greater good,” she says of the societal shutdown that put her senior year in limbo.

She and other young activists have been using some of their time in self-quarantine to organize protests and grow the movements behind their own causes. They have incorporated the pandemic into their messaging about health care, climate change and income inequality.

Written into Bastida’s Friday schedule: “Strike for Climate and an appropriate government response to COVID-19. ”

“They will see this as a life-changing moment in many ways,” Kawashima-Ginsberg predicted, “whereas older adults may see this as a really major disruption in our lives, hopefully going back. ”

The crisis generation

Bastida doesn’t want the world to go back to normal, even as her life in New York City is upended. Yes, prom was canceled; her parents’ jobs and work visas are newly uncertain; her family has fled their apartment for a friend’s home in Massachusetts, worried about staying in the building where young and old share the same elevator.

But for Bastida, back to normal would mean returning to a society in which individual interest reigns and each generation fends for its own well-being.

“Emotionally, a lot of people are very unsettled … feeling like this is a crisis,” Bastida said of the pandemic. “And this is how we feel every day. ”

In a Pew poll conducted in late March, the majority of adult Gen Zers said the virus is a “major threat” to the country’s economy and the health of the population. While only 22 percent saw it as a threat to their own health, a majority believe the pandemic put their personal financial situation at risk.

Recent data from the center found workers age 16 to 24 — half of whom work in the hard-hit service sector — will be disproportionately affected by layoffs due to the virus, although most high school and college students won’t get checks from the government’s massive stimulus plan. Researchers are wondering whether the coronavirus pandemic will become to Gen Z what the Great Recession was to millennials.

Millennials “came into adulthood in a really difficult economic time, and they really struggled to get their footing,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center. “We thought it was going to be different for Gen Z. But now this sort of turns that all upside down.”

Rather than be sidelined by that turmoil, many young activists are finding ways to push their political efforts forward.

Normally, Bastida would march out after AP Calculus and set up at city hall for a climate change protest. But in these strange new times, it was a digital strike, with video chats and tweeted pictures of cardboard signs. Social media savvy and already serving as tech support for work-from-home parents, Gen Z was perfectly fine moving online.

Joe Hobbs, a 17-year-old volunteer for Fridays for Future, the youth climate movement that Thunberg founded, said the pandemic has only intensified many young people’s commitments to their causes.

“We’re finding that across the globe, Fridays for Future activists and organizers are doing even more because they have nothing else to do,” Hobbs said from Columbia, Md., where he’s under a stay-at-home order. “They don’t have school to distract them. ”

March for Our Lives, the student-led group that mobilized for gun control after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018, has been tweeting about two public health emergencies: “Denial isn’t a policy: not for #COVID19, and not for the gun violence epidemic.”

“We need our leaders to ACT to save lives,” the group wrote. “We need REAL policy solutions. ”

In Harlem last week, Rehac was talking about rent cancellation at a pro-Sanders town hall held by video. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has halted evictions for 90 days, but Housing Justice for All, a coalition that Rehac belongs to, is pushing him to completely wipe out those months of rent. Rehac argues it’s necessary as people stare down weeks and maybe months of unemployment.

She thinks the cancel-rent campaign is gaining steam. And maybe, she added, the pain of shutting down New York City could get more people to listen about the bigger ideas: more stringent rent control, more money for affordable housing.

“If we had a #HomesGuarantee millions of people wouldn’t be worried about paying rent tomorrow,” Housing Justice for All tweeted as the April 1 rent due date loomed. “Or on May 1. Or on June 1. Imagine that. ”

Other young devotees of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, also say the virus has underscored vast gaps in wealth and a broken health care system. Voters age 24 and younger favored Sanders by huge margins in this year’s Democratic primaries, with three-quarters choosing him in California and Michigan exit polling.

While their turnout lags behind their elders, Gen Z will comprise 1 in 10 eligible voters at the time of the November presidential election, according to Pew.

The coronavirus crisis “really does expose all the inequities that people knew existed but maybe couldn’t see as clearly until this point,” said Roxie Richner. Her high school in Michigan has turned to non-graded “enrichment” activities, she said, unsure how to handle the fact that not everyone has laptops and Internet access.

For years, Richner has been a fervent Sanders supporter — holding a campaign kickoff party in her living room, volunteering ahead of the March 10 Michigan primary and feeling crushed when her candidate lost every county. But maybe, she thought, this moment of upheaval could shift politics in the United States for good. The senator from Vermont has been tweeting about the millions of Americans laid off with “nothing in the bank,” the big companies that said they couldn’t afford paid sick leave, and the people who would die because they waited too long to go to the hospital, anxious about the bill.

A day after celebrating her 18th birthday on March 26 with friends over FaceTime — someone tried to light a toothpick because no one had candles — she was feeling stir-crazy and scared, but also wondering if the country might emerge from all this a bit more open to her generation’s demands.

“I think it does give people some insight into what it’s like experiencing a time of crisis,” Richner said, “and that realization that a lot of America lives in crisis mode 24-7, whether there’s a pandemic or not. ”

The greater good

Bastida is wondering whether the needle could move on climate change, the issue that she says became personal for her when her Mexican hometown flooded. She spent the last Friday night in March tuning in from her family friends’ kitchen to a “Zoom party,” which was really a planning meeting for the Earth Day demonstration that would now have to take place fully online.

“Every crisis needs to be treated like a crisis,” her fellow activist Thunberg had said on a public Zoom call last month, not long before announcing she was recovering after exhibiting symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Bastida ran down to-dos with 11 high school and college students calling in from various time zones, some of them wearing pajamas. They wondered who they could get to appear in an Earth Day video. Willow and Jaden Smith? What about Miley Cyrus? TikTok star Charli D’Amelio?

Someone had reached out to about 50 social media influencers and gotten encouraging responses, although one had asked whether the video would be a “paid gig. ”

Bastida and her friends laughed: No.

Back in the city she left, her 22-year-old friend Daphne Frias is fighting the coronavirus and pneumonia, isolated in a hotel room that ambulances wail past a dozen times a day.

Immunocompromised with cerebral palsy, Frias spent so much time in hospitals growing up that she calls herself a “professional patient.” She has gotten pneumonia almost every year for the past seven years. She didn’t wait for a stay-at-home order, retreating indoors before a single case of the coronavirus was confirmed in New York.

But March 9 was a beautiful, warm day, she said, and she allowed herself a trip outside. Four days later, she was coughing and tired, then dizzy and feverish. She tested positive for the coronavirus.

Her mother and sister quarantined with her at home, donning masks and gloves to throw out the garbage. Friends dropped off groceries outside their apartment. But after making a slow recovery, Frias’s fever came roaring back last week, and she decided she needed to separate from her family.

Some of Frias’s health-care costs were covered, she said, but other bills — the hotel room, the medications, the four-times-a-day inhalation treatments that clear her already-weak lungs — are adding up to the point that her bank sends fraud alerts. She needs savings to move to Baltimore in a few months for graduate school, where she’ll work toward a medical degree and master’s in public health. While she found financial relief in a friend’s GoFundMe campaign, she knows others are less fortunate.

Like Bastida, her friend and fellow activist, Frias sees an opening. The usual election-year politics seem distant to her as the ups and downs of campaigns gave way to headlines about the struggles of average Americans amid the pandemic.

We’re able to listen in a way that we haven’t been able to before,” Frias said. “And I hope that when things go back to normal and it gets noisy again, we can remember to still listen and help people the way that we have now.”

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On Politics: Trump Pushes Out a Watchdog – The New York Times

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Good morning and welcome to On Politics, a daily political analysis of the 2020 elections based on reporting by New York Times journalists.

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  • On its face, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that passed last month was a victory for liberals, at least by the standards of the Trump era. It was stuffed with money for unemployment relief, support for small businesses and $1,200 checks to most Americans. Still, critics on the left argued that it was an underregulated offering to the corporate elite. They may be even more worried now, after President Trump on Tuesday ousted the head watchdog for oversight of how the administration spends those trillions. What was his reasoning? “He doesn’t think he should be subjected to his political enemies in supposedly apolitical oversight roles,” Cliff Sims, a former White House aide, told our reporters Charlie Savage and Peter Baker. In their article, Charlie and Peter describe Trump’s firing of the official, Glenn Fine, as “the latest step in an abruptly unfolding White House power play against semi-independent inspectors general across the government.”

  • Is voting an “essential activity”? Or maybe it’s a “governmental function.” Hmm, “minimum basic operation,” perhaps? Those are some of the legitimate reasons to go outside, as named in Wisconsin’s statewide Safer at Home Order. But none of those provisions specifically pertain to voting, at least not according to the text of the order. So Wisconsinites found themselves in a bind yesterday, as their state became the first to hold in-person voting under a stay-at-home order. As you might have guessed, it played out chaotically. Poll workers dropped out by the thousands, and many polling places had to close. In Milwaukee, which normally has 180 voting sites, just five were open. And even as the Supreme Court ruled this week that Wisconsin could not extend its deadline for absentee voting, many who had requested a mail ballot said that it had never arrived.

  • Wisconsin is a historically Democratic state, but its heavily white population has been trending Republican over the past 10 years. Along the way it has become ground zero for battles over voting rights. Perhaps only North Carolina has had as many pitched battles in recent years over whether to expand or restrict the ability to vote. Yesterday’s elections — during which voting was also taking place for a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court — happened only after the conservative majority on the state’s high court ruled against the Democratic governor, who had sought to have in-person voting postponed.

  • A Kaiser Family Foundation investigation released on Tuesday found vast racial disparities in coronavirus mortality rates, with black and Latino Americans more likely than whites to die of the virus in areas across the country. A New York Times report found similar trends specifically among African-Americans. More on that is below, from our reporter Dionne Searcey.


Voters lined up on the sidewalk and in their cars outside Milwaukee Marshall High School on Tuesday.


By

A troubling new trend may be emerging as the coronavirus sweeps across America: It is infecting and killing black Americans at disproportionately high rates in some places, according to early data released by several states and big cities. It highlights what public health researchers say are entrenched inequalities in resources, health and access to care.

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Much remains unknown about infection rates, and the numbers coming out of the few cities that are reporting data by race right now are preliminary. But the initial indications are alarming enough that policymakers say they must act immediately to stem the potential devastation in black communities.

African-Americans account for disproportionately high rates of either positive tests or deaths in Michigan, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Connecticut and the Las Vegas area. Consider the numbers from Chicago: African-Americans account for more than half of those who have tested positive and a whopping 72 percent of virus-related fatalities, even though they make up a little less than a third of the population.

“Those numbers take your breath away, they really do,” said Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago. Another striking data point from Chicago: Even before the pandemic hit, officials had calculated that white Chicagoans’ average life expectancy was 8.8 years longer than that of black residents.

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Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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Coronavirus: EU top scientist resigns citing politics and red tape – BBC News

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The president of the European Union’s ERC scientific research council has resigned after three months in the job with an attack on the EU’s scientific governance and political operations.

Mauro Ferrari said he had lost faith in the system after he failed to set up a special programme to fight coronavirus.

The EU’s executive, the European Commission said it regretted his resignation at such an early stage.

It said it had the most comprehensive measures to combat the virus.

One MEP was quoted accusing Prof Ferrari of taking a “window-dressing public relations stand”.

Mauro Ferrari is an Italian-American scientist known as a pioneer in the field of nanomedicine with decades of work in the US. When he took up the role as head of the European Research Council he stressed his commitment to serving society.

In a statement to the Financial Times and Corriere della Sera in Italy, he spoke of his commitment to the “idealistic dream of a United Europe… crushed by a very different reality”.

As the tragedy of the pandemic became clear Prof Ferrari says he pushed for a special programme directed at combating Covid-19, with the world’s best scientists having the resources to fight it with new drugs, vaccines, diagnostic tools and behavioural approaches based on sciences “to replace the oft-improvised intuitions of political leaders”.

His proposals were rejected unanimously, he said, by the council’s governing body because the ERC funded “bottom-up” research proposed by scientists themselves and did not see the beneficial impact on society as a justification for funding.

Prof Ferrari describes how he then worked directly with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and developed a plan which she contributed to.

However, he complains his direct involvement with Mrs von der Leyen “created an internal political thunderstorm” and once it went to the different parts of the Commission he believes it “disintegrated upon impact”.

The EU has often struggled to reach a consensus on tackling the Covid-19 outbreak. Finance ministers suspended talks early on Wednesday on how to help southern eurozone countries worst affected by the pandemic. The talks were due to resume on Thursday.

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After Prof Ferrari’s resignation, German MEP Christian Ehler told the Science Business website that Prof Ferrari’s proposals contradicted the legal basis of the ERC and were a “window-dressing public relations stand on the coronavirus crisis”.

One of the conditions for an ERC grant is that scientists apply for funding on a “bottom-up” basis for research either in a public or private research organisation.

When he started work at the ERC on 1 January, he was reportedly given permission to continue some of the US work he had been involved in. Science Business reported that this arrangement was unusual for the ERC and had already prompted some outside criticism.

In its statement, a European Commission spokesman emphasised that the president of the ERC chaired the council and was special adviser to the Commission, while the council itself defined the “funding strategy and methodologies of the ERC”.

The Commission spokesman said more 50 ERC projects had been involved in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and 18 research and development proposals had been selected.- across a variety of scientific fields from virology to social behaviour.

Prof Ferrari said it was time for him to return to “the frontlines of the fight against Covid-19, with real resources and responsibilities, away from offices in Brussels, where my political skills are clearly inadequate”.

The Commission said it was grateful for Prof Ferrari’s “strong personal investment” and wished him well for the future.

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