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Government Ethics
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Nilmini Rubin

"The political foundations of the United States require maintenance and cannot be taken for granted," said Nilmini Rubin, who is leading the Fix the System coalition.

New coalition will push democracy reforms targeted to center and right

Six of the most influential democracy reform groups are at the core of a new coalition, dubbed Fix the System, with the goal of putting more conservative and corporate muscle behind a cause that's generally dominated by progressives.

The effort comes at a time when many in the good governance movement worry their efforts are too diffuse and disconnected, and tilted too far left at a time of divided government. The hope is that, during a time of pandemic fear and economic distress, political polarization will ease enough to permit some good governance changes to muster bipartisan support.

The alliance has been in the works for months but was formally unveiled this week, along with its first public effort: getting Congress to include money to make voting easier and safer this year in the nearly $2 trillion coronavirus stabilization package.

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Government Ethics
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A judge ruled this week that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has the authority to appoint someone to fill a judicial vacancy that does not yet exist.

Kemp's judicial election cancellation heads to Georgia appeals court

The two politicians who want to be candidates for the next opening on Georgia's highest court are appealing a judge's ruling that there doesn't have to be an election.

Their trips to the courthouse Wednesday and Thursday are the latest moves in what has rapidly become a flashpoint in the world of good governance: Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's declaration that he, not the voters, will decide how to fill a not-yet-empty seat on the state Supreme Court.

The law seems to have provisions supporting him as well as those desiring the special election the governor has called off. But the reality is that Kemp's motives are under heightened suspicion since he narrowly won the governorship in 2018 amid evidence that, as secretary of state, he was complicit in an array of voter suppression efforts.

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Big Picture
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6 of the most important democracy books of the past 6 months

"Groaning bookshelves about our divisive times" are one of the main features of the publishing world these days, Kirkus Reviews notes. So we identified six books, all published since last summer, that are particularly worthy of note in a campaign season when the faulty functionality of American democracy is getting discussed more than in any previous modern election.

The authors come from the political left, right and center — but they all have a broadly similar panoramic view of the dysfunction plaguing our democracy. And their prescriptions for reversing the decline have more in common than not. What they all agree on: The principles of our Constitution are under assault and the citizenry's only chance at a successful counter attack is by embracing a broad array of plans for strengthening democratic institutions.

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Government Ethics
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"My research found that lies by government officials can violate the Constitution in several different ways, especially when those lies deprive people of their rights," writes Helen Norton.

Can the Constitution stop the government from lying to the public?

Norton is the Rothgerber chair in Constitutional Law at the University of Colorado Boulder.

When regular people lie, sometimes their lies are detected, sometimes they're not. Legally speaking, sometimes they're protected by the First Amendment – and sometimes not, like when they commit fraud or perjury.

But what about when government officials lie?

I take up this question in my recent book, "The Government's Speech and the Constitution." It's not that surprising that public servants lie – they are human, after all. But when an agency or official backed by the power and resources of the government tells a lie, it sometimes causes harm that only the government can inflict.

My research found that lies by government officials can violate the Constitution in several different ways, especially when those lies deprive people of their rights.

Consider, for instance, police officers who falsely tell a suspect that they have a search warrant, or falsely say that the government will take the suspect's child away if the suspect doesn't waive his or her constitutional rights to a lawyer or against self-incrimination. These lies violate constitutional protections provided in the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

If the government jails, taxes or fines people because it disagrees with what they say, it violates the First Amendment. And under some circumstances, the government can silence dissent just as effectively through its lies that encourage employers and other third parties to punish the government's critics. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission spread damaging falsehoods to the employers, friends and neighbors of citizens who spoke out against segregation. As a federal court found decades later, the agency "harassed individuals who assisted organizations promoting desegregation or voter registration. In some instances, the commission would suggest job actions to employers, who would fire the targeted moderate or activist."

And some lawsuits have accused government officials of misrepresenting how dangerous a person was when putting them on a no-fly list. Some judges have expressed concern about whether the government's no-fly listing procedures are rigorous enough to justify restricting a person's freedom to travel.

In 1971, The New York Times and The Washington Pos published the Pentagon Papers, exposing officials' lies about the war in Vietnam. (AP Photo/Jim Wells) Can the Constitution stop the government from lying to the public? theconversation.com


When a person or agency backed by the power and resources of the government tells a lie, it sometimes causes harm that only the government can inflict.

But in other situations, it can be difficult to find a direct connection between the government's speech and the loss of an individual right. Think of government officials' lies about their own misconduct, or their colleagues', to avoid political and legal accountability – like the many lies about the Vietnam War by President Lyndon Johnson's administration, as revealed by the Pentagon Papers.

Those sorts of lies are part of what I've called "the government's manufacture of doubt." These include the government's falsehoods that seek to distract the public from efforts to discover the truth. For instance, in response to growing concerns about his campaign's connections to Russia, Donald Trump claimed his predecessor that Barack Obama had wiretapped him during the campaign, even though the Department of Justice confirmed that no evidence supported that claim.

Decades earlier, in the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy sought both media attention and political gain through outrageous and often unfounded claims that contributed to a culture of fear in the country.

When public officials speak in these ways, they undermine public trust and frustrate the public's ability to hold the government accountable for its performance. But they don't necessarily violate any particular person's constitutional rights, making lawsuits challenging at best. In other words, just because the government's lies hurt us does not always mean that they violate the Constitution.

There are other important options for protecting the public from the government's lies. Whistleblowers can help uncover the government's falsehoods and other misconduct. Recall FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, Watergate's "Deep Throat" source for The Washington Post's investigation, and Army Sgt. Joseph Darby, who revealed the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. And lawmakers can enact, and lawyers can help enforce, laws that protect whistleblowers who expose government lies.

Legislatures and agencies can exercise their oversight powers to hold other government officials accountable for their lies. For example, Senate hearings led McCarthy's colleagues to formally condemn his conduct as "contrary to senatorial traditions and … ethics."

In addition, the press can seek documents and information to check the government's claims, and the public can protest and vote against those in power who lie. Public outrage over the government's lies about the war in Vietnam, for example, contributed to Johnson's 1968 decision not to seek reelection. Similarly, the public's disapproval of government officials' lies to cover up the Watergate scandal helped lead to President President Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation.

It can be hard to prevent government officials from lying, and difficult to hold them accountable when they do. But the tools available for doing just that include not only the Constitution but also persistent pushback from other government officials, the press and the people themselves.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation