Legal scholars from George Washington University assessed President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office in a virtual panel that was part of the school’s bicentennial events.
“Celebrating 200 Years: A Report Card on the Legal Issues in Biden’s First 100 Days” was moderated by journalist Dr. Jamal Watson. Panelists included: Christopher A. Bracey, GW vice provost for faculty affairs; Dr. Dayna Bowen Matthew, dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law; Kate Weisburd, GW associate professor of law; Renée Lettow Lerner, GW Law Donald Phillip Rothschild Research Professor; and LeRoy C. Paddock, former GW Law associate dean for environmental law studies.
In a wide-ranging discussion, the panelists covered matters including COVID-19, healthcare, police reform, the U.S. Supreme Court, executive orders, climate change, clemency and the federal death penalty.
The federalist system of the U.S. has certain weaknesses, one of which became prominent during the pandemic, Matthew said, namely a lack of a federal policy to address the pandemic. But the Biden administration’s use of executive orders to address the pandemic was a change, she added.
“This president, Biden’s administration, immediately went to work using the avenue or the vehicle of executive orders to address the coronavirus pandemic, to distribute, to mandate distribution, to set targets, to announce that the standards being set by the CDC and others would be the policy of the department,” Matthew said. “This was a pivot and it was change and it was a use of the federal government’s power to fight the pandemic that was a pivot away from the prior administration.”
On the matter of police reform, Weisburd said there were some challenges that have emerged in Biden’s first 100 days, such as pressure to respond to violent crimes over the past year and pressure to reform policing in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“And while these two pressures and forces appear to be in conflict, I don’t think they actually are and certainly don’t need to be,” Weisburd said. “To date, there hasn’t yet been meaningful police reform so the crime that we’re seeing today reflects policing as its always been. So perhaps the Biden administration will see the rise in crime as a call to take swift and bold action to address violence in new ways.”
She pointed to how Biden has allocated $5 billion to invest in community-based gun violence prevention programs in his American Jobs Plan, calling it a huge federal investment.
Biden was repeatedly asked during his campaign run whether he would be in favor of expanding the U.S. Supreme Court. As it stands now, the former Trump administration was able to nominate and successfully appoint three new Justices in the span of four years.
Lerner said that expanding the court would be very difficult and that she doubted Biden’s Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court would recommend it.
“But that commission may recommend something else. And I think what that commission is likely to recommend is some form of term limits for the Justices,” Lerner said. “That will be difficult to implement. I myself am in favor of some form of term limits and staggered terms, so that each president gets a chance to appoint, say, two members to the Supreme Court per four-year term. I would be in favor of that. But I think that that would require a constitutional amendment.”
There continues to be disproportionality in the economy, Bracey said. The Biden administration has so far issued three relief packages and is considering a fourth, he said.
“I’m not sure the issue is compensation purely though,” Bracey said. “It’s the structure of the economy that puts minorities at disproportionate risk in the first instance. We know that racial minorities tend to be front-line workers – whether in hospitals and transportation, service workers in industries that often are shut down when the economy goes badly.”
Biden’s decision for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement was critical, Paddock said.
“I think the Trump decision to take us out of Paris also took us out of any real role that we could play in trying to urge other countries to act,” Paddock said. “So it’s critical in putting us back in a position where the U.S. can play a significant role and can encourage others to act.
“The commitments that the administration has made around energy efficiency, renewable energy, and its 2030 goals, its willingness to look at the role of natural gas being phased out over time, I think all make it possible that we can achieve the Paris goals.”
Arrman Kyaw can be reached at [email protected]