As a new presidency begins, a Fordham Law School clinic is proposing reforms for the White House and Congress to consider. The Democracy Clinic today released five new policy reports, advancing non-partisan recommendations aimed at bolstering the nation’s institutions and its democracy.
The reports, which are available here, present reforms related to the presidential pardon power, special counsel investigations, presidential primaries, public officials’ uses of social media, and the federal judiciary.
As discussions about democracy reform spiked during the last presidential administration, students in the Democracy Clinic responded with their own recommendations. A top priority was looking beyond the current moment to develop reforms that would serve the country well for generations to come.
“With a new administration comes a new beginning,” said Norris Professor and Dean Emeritus John D. Feerick, who co-taught the clinic. “Hopefully the coming years will be a time for the country’s leaders and citizens to reflect on what must be done to guarantee that our democracy endures and flourishes. The clinic students’ excellent work is an immensely valuable contribution to that process.”
The clinic released its first set of policy reports last year as well as a short article advocating for background checks for presidential candidates and an analysis of vote-by-mail policies in advance of the 2020 presidential election.
Launched in fall 2018, the Democracy Clinic was co-taught by Feerick and Visiting Clinical Professor John Rogan. Thirty-six students worked in the clinic during its two year run. To gain information and insights, the students interviewed nearly 60 experts, including members of Congress, leading scholars, journalists, and former government officials, including two former White House counsels, a former CIA director, and a former White House chief of staff.
The Democracy Clinic’s new reports are summarized below.
Investigations of the president and other high-ranking officials must be free from political interference yet cannot devolve into “runaway” inquiries. This report recommends reforms to the rules for every stage of special counsel investigations. Among the proposals is a requirement that federal judges oversee the attorney general’s appointment and removal of special counsels. Additionally, a special counsel should be mandatory when the president is suspected of a crime and reports on investigations should go directly to Congress.
The presidential pardon power can serve valuable purposes, but the lack of checks on the power invites abuses. This report calls for laws and executive orders to curtail misuses of the pardon power. Congress should pass laws banning the president from pardoning himself or herself and issuing pardons for conduct that has not yet occurred. Executive orders should set detailed procedures for considering pardons and require reports to Congress if the president pardons a family member or close associate.
The stability of the Supreme Court’s size and procedures is a critical source of legitimacy, but reforms might protect the Court’s independence from politics. Perceptions among members of the public that justices are political actors harms the rule of law. This report discusses reforms to ensure that each president receives the same number of appointments to the Supreme Court. The report also considers how to guarantee each nominee a Senate hearing and reforms to the retirement stage of justices’ tenures.
Government officials undermine a key platform for communication with the public when they block users or delete their comments on social media. Those actions also often run afoul of the First Amendment. To address a problem that exists at all levels of government, this report recommends legislation that bans public officials using social media for official purposes from blocking users or deleting their comments, except when comments are unprotected by the First Amendment.
The presidential primary processes used by the two major parties misses opportunities to engage voters and incorporate their input in selecting nominees. This report advances several reforms to make the primaries more inclusive, including reordering the primary calendar to give voters in more states a meaningful voice, eliminating caucuses, and opening primaries to independent voters. Additionally, the political parties should make primary debates more informative and limit party leaders’ opportunities to have disproportionate input in selecting presidential candidates.