PEOPLE FOR BLOG

The Next Frontier in Undoing Campaign Finance Reform

Since the Supreme Court decided earlier this year that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend however much they like to influence elections, groups have been attempting to use that decision to hack away at the core of federal and state campaign finance laws.

Last month, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the federal ban on soft money (unlimited contributions to political parties), a centerpiece of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. Though that case was cut short, at least one other challenge to the law is in the works.

Now, groups at the state level are trying to use the Citizens United decision as leverage to do away with bans not only on independent expenditures by corporations, but also on corporate contributions directly to candidates’ bank accounts. 22 states, like the federal government, prohibit corporations from contributing directly to campaign committees. After Citizens United, business groups in Montana were the first out of the gates, filing suit to get rid of Montana’s 98-year old ban on both independent campaign expenditures by corporations (the spending that Citizens United allowed on the federal level) and direct corporate contributions to campaigns (which Citizens United didn’t touch).

In May, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce convinced a federal court to strike down that state’s independent expenditures ban. Now, Minnesota business interests are following the Montanans’ lead and broadening their challenge to include the state’s ban on direct contributions:

State law now allows corporations to spend money independently of campaigns on ads supporting or opposing candidates, an arrangement that the U.S. Supreme Court approved early this year.

But the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and Coastal Travel Enterprises seek to go beyond that ruling and allow direct contributions to candidates by corporations.

"Our clients believe ... that the First Amendment gives corporations ... the right to contribute to candidates and political parties through their general treasury funds," said Joe La Rue, an attorney for the plaintiffs, who sued this week in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court clearly created a slippery slope of corporate money in politics. State-level bans on independent spending by corporations have been the first to go. Will guards against corporate-to-candidate contributions—and the very clear appearance of corruption that they create—be next
 

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The Substance of the Kagan Hearings

Many viewed it as a foregone conclusion that Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings would lack any real discussion of law and the Constitution. In fact, People For’s Marge Baker argues in a new memo, Kagan’s hearings were more substantial than any in recent memory. Kagan politely but decisively refused to buy into empty conservative rhetoric, and laid out a strong view of the limited, but not simple, role of the courts in a democracy:

Kagan said a great deal about how judges should approach Congressional statutes and argued for significant deference to legislators and reluctance to strike down federal law. Even when invited to take on straw men (like Senator Coburn’s fruits-and-vegetables line of questioning) she went to great lengths to describe the latitude that Congress should be allowed, even pointing to Justice Holmes, approvingly noting that he “hated a lot of the legislation that was being enacted during those years, but insisted that if the people wanted it, it was their right to go hang themselves.”

In applying laws passed by Congress, she emphasized looking at Congressional intent and examining the Congressional record—approaches very much at issue in cases like Ledbetter and Citizens United. Her testimony made an unmistakable argument both for the importance of judges’ responsibility to uphold the Constitution and for the limits of what judges should do.

We’ve put together a collection of some of the most interesting moments from the hearings. Here, Kagan takes down Chief Justice Roberts’ flawed judge-as-umpire analogy:

Click here to watch our top ten favorite clips from the hearings.
 

PFAW

Alexander Hamilton's Plug for Kagan

For all the right wing talk of “strict constructionism" and the "original intent of the Founders," it’s important to bear in mind that the Founders themselves actually did envision the Constitution evolving to apply to new circumstances. Alexander Hamilton (who died 206 years ago today) put it this way:

Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things.

Elena Kagan echoed that sentiment in her hearing:

 

 

For more words of wisdom from Kagan’s testimony, see PFAW’s Top Ten Highlights of the Kagan Hearings.

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Bush’s Courts

We talk a lot about the purely political motives Republican senators have in their efforts to slow down the confirmation process for President Obama’s judicial nominees. It’s easy to forget that who those nominees are—and when they start working— makes a huge difference. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this weekend that nearly 40% of all federal judges currently on the bench were appointed by George W. Bush--who made a concerted effort to appoint judges with right-wing credentials, and, you might say, didn’t put much of a priority on gender or racial diversity.

Obama, in contrast, has returned to a more bipartisan appointment process and has a notably diverse list of appointees. But thanks to Republican obstruction, Obama’s appointees aren’t making it to the bench:

So far, nearly half of Obama's 73 appointments to the federal bench have been women, 25 percent have been African American, 11 percent Asian American, and 10 percent Hispanic. About 30 percent of Obama's nominees were white males. By contrast, two-thirds of George W. Bush's nominees were white males.

Obama's rate of appointing women and people of color is higher than those of any of his predecessors during the first year of their terms. But he is not the only one setting records.

According to a report by the Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group: "The Senate confirmed both fewer nominees and a smaller percentage of nominees under President Obama than under any other previous five presidents during their first year in office."

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had 91 percent of their nominees confirmed in their first year in office. Since then, however, the figure has sharply declined, with George H.W. Bush getting 65 percent of his early judicial nominees confirmed, followed by Bill Clinton at 57 percent, George W. Bush at 44 percent, and Obama at 36 percent.

As recent events in the Fifth Circuit reminded us, it really does matter who ends up in federal judgeships. And Republicans, booted from control of the legislative and executive branches, are fighting tooth and nail to keep the courts.
 

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A Hot Mess of Intolerance

In a new op-ed in the Huffington Post, Michael Keegan, People For’s president, asks why the GOP spent so much of Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings defending the nearly-dead Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The answer? They just can’t seem to quit gay people:

We were once again given a strong reminder of this at Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, when Republican senators hosted a four day-long attack on the nominee based on one issue--her opposition to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the anti-gay policy that is not only overwhelmingly unpopular across the political spectrum, but is unlikely to even be on the books by this time next year.

This line of attack was catnip for the GOP because it provided a too tempting mix of three Republican stock favorites: provoking resentment of gay people, accusing Democrats of being anti-military, and insinuating the existence of an Ivy League East Coast Elite Conspiracy. With so many critically important issues facing the country and the world, this Republican obsession came off as a ridiculous hot mess of intolerance and irrelevance.

Read the full piece at the Huffington Post.
 

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The “Irrational Prejudice” Behind DOMA

Yesterday, a federal judge in Massachusetts struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act on two separate constitutional challenges. Judge Joseph Tauro, a Nixon appointee, ruled that the provision banning the federal government from recognizing gay people’s marriages violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, and the principle of state sovereignty.

Tauro’s opinion in the equal protection case includes some strong words on the motivation behind DOMA, the 1996 law designed to push back against states granting marriage equality. The main purpose of the law was to disadvantage a particular set of people simply out of dislike for them, he writes…and that sort of motivation doesn’t pass constitutional muster:

This court simply “cannot say that [DOMA] is directed to any identifiable legitimate purpose or discrete objective. It is a status-based enactment divorced from any factual context from which [this court] could discern a relationship to legitimate [government] interests.” Indeed, Congress undertook this classification for the one purpose that lies entirely outside of legislative bounds, to disadvantage a group of which it disapproves. And such a classification, the Constitution clearly will not permit.

In the wake of DOMA, it is only sexual orientation that differentiates a married couple entitled to federal marriage-based benefits from one not so entitled. And this court can conceive of no way in which such a difference might be relevant to the provision of the benefits at issue. By premising eligibility for these benefits on marital status in the first instance, the federal government signals to this court that the relevant distinction to be drawn is between married individuals and unmarried individuals. To further divide the class of married individuals into those with spouses of the same sex and those with spouses of the opposite sex is to create a distinction without meaning. And where, as here, “there is no reason to believe that the disadvantaged class is different, in relevant respects” from a similarly situated class, this court may conclude that it is irrational prejudice that motivates the challenged classification. As irrational prejudice plainly never constitutes a legitimate government interest, this court must hold that Section 3 of DOMA as applied to Plaintiffs violates the equal protection principles embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

It seems pretty straight-forward to conclude that the Constitution doesn’t allow Congress to discriminate against people just because they dislike them…but, of course, conservative groups are already calling itactivism.”
 

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Judges Order Drilling to Continue

It looks like oil drilling will begin again in the Gulf of Mexico. Yesterday afternoon, three appeals court judges in New Orleans agreed with a lower court ruling that struck down the Obama Administration’s Gulf drilling moratorium. The President imposed the moratorium in order to allow for time to study what went wrong with the BP rig that burst in April, causing the worst oil spill in American history.

Alliance For Justice reported yesterday that the three judges on the panel all have significant ties to the oil industry.
 

The Oil Industry Ties of Oil Industry Judges

We’ve been worried about what will happen if liability suits from BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf reach the Supreme Court. But it sounds like fans of justice might have more immediate concerns.

When a district court judge halted the Obama administration’s Gulf drilling moratorium last month, that judge’s history of ties to the oil industry caused a stir. Today, a three judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear an appeal of the case.

But we shouldn’t get our hopes up. Alliance For Justice has looked into the backgrounds of the three judges on the panel and found some pretty startling oil industry ties: two of the judges represented major oil companies in previous jobs, two have major investments in oil companies, and two went on an oil industry-financed junket to Montana in 2004 to learn “why ecological values are not the only important ones.”

Read the full Alliance For Justice report here.


 

PFAW

Epstein Echoes Sessions: “Massive Resistance” to Citizens United

Today I went back to the Heritage Foundation for their annual “Scholars and Scribes” panel reviewing the recent and upcoming activities of the Supreme Court. There was some discussion of judicial activism, but most of the panelists seemed to have finally given up on the claim that conservative Justices have acted as neutral “umpires” in the past year.

What is surprising is that, now that the Court’s decision in Citizens United ruined the “judicial activism” mantra for the Right, a new tactic has apparently taken hold. During a question and answer session, conservative legal scholar Richard Epstein echoed Senator Jeff Sessions in comparing the Citizens United decision to, of all things, Brown v. Board of Education. His take was slightly different and, if possible, even more unhinged from reality. Those of us who oppose and are working to overturn the Citizens United ruling, Epstein said, “look a little bit like the same kind of massive resistance” engendered by Brown v. Board.

To compare the 93% of Americans who think that there should be limits on corporate political spending to the recalcitrant racists who tried to stop the desegregation of public schools is absurd and offensive. If conservatives are trying to paint corporations as victims akin to those who have suffered from institutionalized racism, they’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.

PFAW

Legislature-Passed Civil Unions Bill Not Democratic Enough, Says Hawaii Governor

Hawaii’s governor, Republican Linda Lingle, has vetoed a civil unions bill that was passed by the state legislature in April. Her reasoning was interesting:

Lingle said voters should decide the fate of civil unions, not politicians.

"The subject of this legislation has touched the hearts and minds of our citizens as no other social issue of our day," she said. "It would be a mistake to allow a decision of this magnitude to be made by one individual or a small group of elected officials."

Wait, isn’t that how representative democracy works?

Perhaps Lingle can chat with Sen. Tom Coburn about their apparent mistrust of democratically elected bodies. Or do they only come out against representative government when it produces legislation they don’t like?
 

PFAW

Regulation and the 2010 Elections

The Washington Post is reporting that Wall Street contributions to Democratic campaign committees are markedly lower than this time in 2006 or 2008.

The drop in support comes from many of the same bankers, hedge fund executives and financial services chief executives who are most upset about the financial regulatory reform bill that House Democrats passed last week with almost no Republican support. ... This fundraising free fall from the New York area has left Democrats with diminished resources to defend their House and Senate majorities in November's midterm elections.

With Democrats seeking to impose reasonable regulations designed to protect the American people, this is no surprise.

The Republican Congress was a dream come true for the rapacious financiers who dragged our economy over a cliff, just as it was for all manners of giant corporations. We're seeing the results of the Republican ideology of allowing the most powerful industries to write their own laws and draft their own regulations. Not even the Supreme Court is immune, as a recent report from our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation demonstrates.

Deregulation has made the most powerful even more powerful, while the rest of us find ourselves more and more helpless against corporate behemoths.

Anyone who's spent an hour on hold waiting to get through to a large corporation knows who holds the power in our society, and it isn't us. These companies have been allowed to become so large that they can afford to mistreat their consumers in ways that no business would have gotten away with a generation ago.

Are you happy with the level of corporate influence on our politicians and on our lives? Do you wish you could make Big Business even stronger?

Or do you think it's time for Americans to retake control of our lives? If so, then it's time to act. Because the corporations aren't sitting this election out.

PFAW

A Lopsided Witness List

There’s an interesting pattern among the members of the military who are weighing into Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination. On one side, we have members of the military who were at Harvard when Kagan was Dean and have showed up to testify or written letters in support her confirmation. And then there are the conservative activists who the GOP has recruited to testify against the Solicitor General and who, as far as I can tell, have never so much as met her.

All of these people should be commended for their military service. But are they equally qualified to speak about Kagan’s record?
 

PFAW

Jon Kyl Attacks Women, Older Workers, Baby Seals

Today, when questioning the first panel of witnesses for the Elena Kagan confirmation, Senator Jon Kyl decided not to ask questions, but simply to attack those who had agreed to testify.

Instead of, say, listening to the witnesses, or even ignoring them, he accused three witnesses testifying about sex discrimination, age discrimination, and the devastating impact of the Exxon Valdez spill of demanding a Justice who would rule for them. All they wanted, he claimed, was “results oriented judging.”

He didn’t give them a chance to answer the accusation, so maybe we can answer for them.

No, Senator Kyl, all we want is a Justice who will follow the law.

In Ledbetter, the Court read the law in a cramped and unnatural way in order to limit the right of women to sue for discrimination. In Gross, the Court arbitrarily changed the standard used to determine discrimination on the basis of age. And in Exxon v. Baker, the Court invented a limit on punitive damages out of whole cloth—the ruling was so bad that even the Heritage Foundation thought it was judicial activism.

In the Ledbetter, Gross and Exxon cases, the Court went out of its way to side with corporations and defend them from people who were trying to hold them accountable.

Remind me again, Senator Kyl: what’s the definition of “results oriented judging?”

PFAW

Lilly Ledbetter Recounts Her Fight

Lilly Ledbetter just appeared in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee to speak about the damage that can be done by a Supreme Court that’s not grounded in the realities of life for average Americans.

When Ledbetter found out that she’d been discriminated against, it would have been easy for her to just walk away—after all, it’s not in any way easy to pursue a discrimination claim—but Ledbetter was used to tough jobs. She stood up and demanded that Goodyear be held accountable for its actions. She fought hard, she pursued her case for many years, and she won.

But when the case made it to the Supreme Court, it decided that Goodyear couldn’t be held accountable for its actions. Because the company hid the discrimination for long enough, they were free to discriminate for as long as they wanted.

In 2007, when the Court denied her compensation for decades of pay discrimination, Ledbetter sat down with us to talk about her fight for fair pay for herself and others like her:

After the Supreme Court stopped her from collecting the pay she had earned, she led the fight to make sure it wouldn’t happen to anybody else—and she’s still fighting to make sure that the Supreme Court gives a fair hearing to people like her when they go up against big corporations like Goodyear.

She told the Judiciary Committee:

Since my case, I’ve talked to a lot of people around the country. Most can’t believe what happened to me and want to make sure that something like it doesn’t happen again. They don’t care if the Justices are Democrats or Republicans, or which President appointed them, or which Senators voted for them. They want a Supreme Court that makes decisions that make sense.

That’s why the hearings here are so important. We need Justices who understand that law must serve regular people who are just trying to work hard, do right, and make a good life for their families. And when the law isn’t clear, Justices need to use some common sense and keep in mind that the people who write laws are usually trying to make a law that’s fair and sensible. This isn’t a game. Real people’s lives are at stake. We need Supreme Court justices who understand that.
 

PFAW

Jeff Sessions Comes Out Against Ideas

When I got to the office this morning, I turned on C-SPAN, which was rerunning the confirmation hearings all over again. While I was listening, I heard again something that caught my ear yesterday.

Senator Sessions: I think that yesterday you indicated that the court could consider foreign court opinions as they could “learn about how other people might approach” and think about approaching legal issues. And you said, well I guess “I'm in favor of good ideas coming from wherever you can get them.” I think some of the judges on the court have used that phrase, but ideas sound like policy to me. It does not sound like authority to me.

Is Senator Sessions arguing that judges shouldn’t have ideas? That having ideas per se might undermine the authority of the Court?

On one level, it’s a bit frightening, but, on another, it’s Chief Justice Roberts’ “balls-and-strikes” theory of judging extended to its absurd, inevitable conclusion.

PFAW