Recommendations to help with SCOTUS’ innumeracy

In the wake of recent comments about “sociological gobbledygook” and measures of gerrymandering, here are some suggestions for how the Supreme Court can better use statistical evidence:

McGhee, who helped develop the efficiency gap measure, wondered if the court should hire a trusted staff of social scientists to help the justices parse empirical arguments. Levinson, the Texas professor, felt that the problem was a lack of rigorous empirical training at most elite law schools, so the long-term solution would be a change in curriculum. Enos and his coauthors proposed “that courts alter their norms and standards regarding the consideration of statistical evidence”; judges are free to ignore statistical evidence, so perhaps nothing will change unless they take this category of evidence more seriously.

But maybe this allergy to statistical evidence is really a smoke screen — a convenient way to make a decision based on ideology while couching it in terms of practicality.

“I don’t put much stock in the claim that the Supreme Court is afraid of adjudicating partisan gerrymanders because it’s afraid of math,” Daniel Hemel, who teaches law at the University of Chicago, told me. “[Roberts] is very smart and so are the judges who would be adjudicating partisan gerrymandering claims — I’m sure he and they could wrap their minds around the math. The ‘gobbledygook’ argument seems to be masking whatever his real objection might be.”

If there is indeed innumeracy present, the justices would not be alone in this. Many Americans do not receive an education in statistics, let alone have enough training to make sense of the statistics regularly used in academic studies.

At the same time, we might go further than the argument made above: should judges make decisions based on statistics (roughly facts) more than ideology or arguments (roughly interpretation)? Again, many Americans struggle with this: there can be broad empirical patterns or even correlations but some would insist that their own personal experiences do not match these. Should judicial decisions be guided by principles and existing case law or by current statistical realities? The courts are not the only social spheres that struggle with this.

Ongoing zoning controversies with mosques in New Jersey

Two recent zoning cases involving proposed mosques in New Jersey have garnered attention. A quick overview of each.

First, a newly filed federal lawsuit in Bayonne, New Jersey:

The mosque is proposed for an old warehouse at the end of a dead-end street on the city’s east side. The structure, built as a factory, previously housed a chapter of the Hired Guns Motorcycle Club, “made up of sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website

To build the mosque into the existing space, Bayonne Muslims — the nonprofit organization that owns the space — went to the city in August 2015 to request zoning exemptions. It asked for requirements that a buffer between the existing building and adjacent properties be waived, and that it be able to provide less parking than required.
Ultimately, after three tumultuous public hearings, the proposal failed to gain approval at a March 6 meeting. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the project, but a supermajority — greater than the four votes in favor — was required under state law…
During the public hearings, some opponents expressed concern over the traffic and noise a mosque might bring to their dead-end street. Others cited verses from the Koran they asserted supported violence against non-Muslims.

A New Jersey town will pay an Islamic group $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit over its denial of a permit to build a mosque, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday…

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township, an upscale town in central New Jersey, last year, claiming it changed its zoning ordinances in order to deny the group’s plans. The Justice Department also sued the town last year, alleging it treated the group differently than other religious groups…

Central among those was parking: Township planners had concluded that because Friday afternoon was considered peak worship time, congregants would most likely be arriving straight from work and would each need a parking space.

But a federal judge disagreed, and wrote in a ruling Dec. 31 that the town hadn’t conducted similar assessments of worship habits when churches or synagogues had made applications.

The Justice Department lawsuit also alleged the town changed its zoning laws to require houses of worship in residential districts to be at least 6 acres — larger than the lot the Islamic Society had purchased in 2011.

There are multiple issues at play in these cases:
1. Do municipalities apply the same standards to all religious groups? If not, why do particular groups receive more attention? (The two cases above involve Muslim groups. Do orthodox Jewish groups also receive a lot of attention?)
2. Is it legitimate to deny religious land uses for issues like traffic and parking (common complaints in suburban settings regarding many proposed land use changes)? In other words, are these typical NIMBY complaints or is there something unique about religious buildings?
3. Why are a number of these cases popping up in New Jersey? The state has a long history with exclusionary zoning issues – see the Mt. Laurel doctrine which developed out of a lawsuit. Additionally, it is home to a number of white suburbanites living in suburbs that they would like to preserve or protect.
4. Is the only path to resolution a federal lawsuit? Once such cases reach the level of a federal lawsuit, I would argue the communities have already lost. This is not just because RLUIPA cases tend to be settled in favor of the religious groups. I also imagine such lawsuits can bring negative attention to a community; do they really want to be known as the suburb that refused a certain group to worship there?
(These are not issues isolated to New Jersey. Perhaps there are similar conditions in the Chicago area suburbs. See earlier posts about mosque controversies in the Chicago region including here, here, and here.)

Why Google’s plan to scan every book in the world was halted

Google had plans to scan every book but the project hit some legal bumps along the way and now the company has “a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them”:

Google thought that creating a card catalog was protected by “fair use,” the same doctrine of copyright law that lets a scholar excerpt someone’s else’s work in order to talk about it. “A key part of the line between what’s fair use and what’s not is transformation,” Google’s lawyer, David Drummond, has said. “Yes, we’re making a copy when we digitize. But surely the ability to find something because a term appears in a book is not the same thing as reading the book. That’s why Google Books is a different product from the book itself.”…

It’s been estimated that about half the books published between 1923 and 1963 are actually in the public domain—it’s just that no one knows which half. Copyrights back then had to be renewed, and often the rightsholder wouldn’t bother filing the paperwork; if they did, the paperwork could be lost. The cost of figuring out who owns the rights to a given book can end up being greater than the market value of the book itself. “To have people go and research each one of these titles,” Sarnoff said to me, “It’s not just Sisyphean—it’s an impossible task economically.” Most out-of-print books are therefore locked up, if not by copyright then by inconvenience…

What became known as the Google Books Search Amended Settlement Agreement came to 165 pages and more than a dozen appendices. It took two and a half years to hammer out the details. Sarnoff described the negotiations as “four-dimensional chess” between the authors, publishers, libraries, and Google. “Everyone involved,” he said to me, “and I mean everyone—on all sides of this issue—thought that if we were going to get this through, this would be the single most important thing they did in their careers.” Ultimately the deal put Google on the hook for about $125 million, including a one-time $45 million payout to the copyright holders of books it had scanned—something like $60 per book—along with $15.5 million in legal fees to the publishers, $30 million to the authors, and $34.5 million toward creating the Registry….

This objection got the attention of the Justice Department, in particular the Antitrust division, who began investigating the settlement. In a statement filed with the court, the DOJ argued that the settlement would give Google a de facto monopoly on out-of-print books. That’s because for Google’s competitors to get the same rights to those books, they’d basically have to go through the exact same bizarre process: scan them en masse, get sued in a class action, and try to settle. “Even if there were reason to think history could repeat itself in this unlikely fashion,” the DOJ wrote, “it would scarcely be sound policy to encourage deliberate copyright violations and additional litigation.”

Out-of-print books with uncertain copyright status scuttle what could be one of the great treasure troves of information? This suggests we still have a ways to go until we have legal structures that can deal with the information-rich and easily accessible online realm. If a deal could eventually be worked out for books, what about older music, art, and other cultural works?

A related thought: having all those books available might indeed change the academic enterprise in several ways. First, we could easily access more sources of data. Second, we could potentially cite many more sources.

U.S. allowed assassination attempts for leaders like Castro

Part of the post-World War II tactics of the United States included supporting assassination attempts against foreign leaders with Fidel Castro leading the way:

In fact, Cuban intelligence estimated there were precisely 638 attempts on his life – many backed by the US.

The bearded leader is said to have survived exploding cigars, exploding seashells, a poisonous fountain pen and even a mafia-style execution…

“If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” he would later joke.

But, Castro wasn’t the only one. The Church Committee of the mid-1970s revealed a number of attempts on foreign leaders (from Wikipedia):

Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Welsh Dulles‘s plan (approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower) to use the Sicilian Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Under recommendations and pressure by this committee, President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (ultimately replaced in 1981 by President Reagan‘s Executive Order 12333) to ban U.S. sanctioned assassinations of foreign leaders.

Together, the Church Committee’s reports have been said to constitute the most extensive review of intelligence activities ever made available to the public. Much of the contents were classified, but over 50,000 pages were declassified under the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

Despite all the talk of the United States acting as the world’s policeman (and this presumes police act in the public’s best interest), the United States has a sordid past of foreign involvement. It is not just a recent thing. The drone strikes of today can be seen as descendants of these earlier activities. And the legality of it all is still questionable: we are not often officially at war with some of these other nations (at least there has not been an official declaration from Congress) though the activities are said to be against “enemy combatants.”

Miami in front of the Supreme Court arguing for damages due to subprime loans

The Supreme Court just heard a case presented by the city of Miami that they should receive monies from banks because of the subprime loan crisis:

The story begins, Rugh said, in the late 1990s, when banks began marketing high-risk, high-fee home loans to black and Latino borrowers, especially those living in segregated neighborhoods. In a study published in 2015, Rugh and his co-authors examined 3,027 home loans in Baltimore (one of the few cities that has successfully settled a Fair Housing Act lawsuit against a bank) made between 2000 and 2008.When they controlled for basic loan characteristics such as credit score, down payment, and income, they found that black borrowers were channeled into higher-risk, higher-fee loans than were white borrowers with similar credit histories. These findings were compounded for black borrowers living in predominantly black neighborhoods: The study found that relative to comparable white borrowers, the average black borrower in Baltimore paid an estimated $1,739 in excess mortgage payments from the time the loan was made, a figure that was even higher for black borrowers in black neighborhoods…

In an amicus brief filed in support of Miami, a group of housing scholars argued that there is a direct link between the harm to borrowers documented by people such as Rugh and financial losses incurred by cities. Citing more than a decade of economic and sociological research from a variety of sources, Justin Steil, a professor of law and urban planning at MIT and one of the authors of the brief, explained, “the data is well established that foreclosures do lead to decreases in neighboring property values, which then lead to decreases in city revenues. Foreclosures,” he added, “also lead to more expenditures by the city in re-securing those properties, dealing with the vandalism, squatting, fires. And if the neighborhoods don’t recover, it just remains an ongoing problem for those communities to deal with.”

Supporters of the banks in this case say that if anything, leaders of cities like Miami encouraged the influx of credit into their municipalities. “I really think Miami wants to have this both ways,” said Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute. “If the banks weren’t doing business in Miami, they’d have a problem with that. It’s hard for me to believe that Miami would have been better off if Bank of America and Wells Fargo hadn’t been there.”

There are a lot of interesting aspects of this case, including the question of whether cities were harmed by loans made to individuals. But, there is little question in the sociological and additional social sciences literature: minority borrowers were steered toward loans with worse terms. (And other research suggests these worse terms for minorities extends to other areas including car loans and rental housing.)

Let’s say the court case goes in Miami’s favor and they receive some money. Two questions: (1) what do they do with this money? (2) What responsibility does the city have for not combating these loans in the first place and what are they responsible forward regarding disadvantaged neighborhoods? I hope one of the outcomes of this effort is not that cities can punt on their own policies and solely blame banks.

Race affects why Americans don’t like people walking on their property

One writer contrasts the approach in Europe and the United States toward walking through the countryside:

In Sweden, they call it “allemansrätt.” In Finland, it’s “jokamiehenoikeus.” In Scotland, it’s “the right to roam.” Germany allows walking through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields. In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people access to “mountain, moor, heath or down.”

Nordic and Scottish laws are even more generous. The 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act opened up the whole country for a number of pastimes, including mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, sledding, camping and most any activity that does not involve a motorized vehicle, so long as it’s carried out “responsibly.” In Sweden, landowners may be prohibited from putting up fences for the sole purpose of keeping people out. Walkers in many of these places do not have to pay money, ask for permission or obtain permits.

We’re not nearly as welcoming in America. Travel across rural America and you’ll spot “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs posted on trees and fence posts everywhere. And even where there aren’t signs, Americans know they don’t have the implicit permission to visit their town’s neighboring woods, fields and coastlines. Long gone are the days when we could, like Henry David Thoreau on the outskirts of his native Concord, Mass., freely saunter “through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”…

Roaming rights began to erode in the late 19th century, according to Mr. Sawers. In the South, states passed trespassing laws for racial reasons, seeking to keep blacks from hunting and fishing so as to starve them into submission. Elsewhere, wealthy landowners of the Gilded Era became concerned with game populations, and trespassing and hunting laws were passed to restrict immigrants, he said.

It is interesting to note both (1) the historical change in the United States toward property rights and exclusion and (2) European countries may allow walking through property but have restrictions such as committing damage, walking near homes, and hunting. But, perhaps even more noteworthy is the suggestion that race matters here as well: as the United States was moving toward more equality and racial/ethnic diversity, property rights were another means by which to keep groups separate. We know that this would soon matter tremendously in terms of restrictive covenants and segregated neighborhoods but even restricting the simple act of walking was seen as necessary to keep certain boundaries.

Regulating sex businesses in the suburbs

Many suburbs want nothing to do with strip clubs and similar businesses so they employ several methods to discourage them:

Warren is running into something that has plagued businesses dealing in sex for decades. Local governments — and the officials elected to govern them — don’t want these businesses around, according to Judith Hanna, a professor at the University of Maryland.

Hanna has testified as an expert witness in more than 150 court cases involving sexually oriented businesses. She even wrote a book about her experiences…

The majority of the cases she testified for involve strip clubs, which Supreme Court rulings protect because of First Amendment rights…

Menelaos Triantafillou, a professor at the University of Cincinnati who teaches courses in planning and urban design, explains: “The only thing you can regulate is not the use itself,” he said, “but the specific location.”

Local governments typically allow these businesses to exist in industrial areas. Restrictions are placed on how close they can be to other establishments such as schools and day cares.

In the particular case discussed in this article, the community is working hard to make a swingers club go away. But, it sounds like they are making it up as they go to appease voters as several local officials have privately supported the new business.

Perhaps an alternative strategy is in order. Zoning is a big deal in suburbs as they get to keep uses that limit endanger property values or a high quality of life away from single-family homes. But, zoning can only do so much. Yet, communities can make it clear that certain businesses are not welcome. While suburbs often welcome new businesses (they provide jobs, property tax revenue, perhaps sales tax revenue), couldn’t they also make it hard for the new business to make money? I’m thinking bad publicity, protests, no invitations to the local chamber of commerce and local events.