PEOPLE FOR BLOG

The Perils of Obstructionism

Senate obstructionism has so crippled one agency that the Supreme Court has ruled invalid over 500 decisions it made over a two-year period.

The National Labor Relations Board, meant to consist of five members, has a statutory quorum of three. But, from the end of 2007 through this March, it operated with just two members. A steel company contested a decision that the two-member board made, saying the board’s decisions weren’t valid without a three-person quorum, and the Supreme Court today agreed.

The question of whether the Supreme Court made the right decision aside (the court, along a 5-4 divide, quibbled about the intent of the statute governing the NLRB), it’s a pretty startling example of the real impact of the Senate’s stalling on executive appointments.

In fact, President Obama finally broke the NRLB’s gridlock in March when he bypassed the Senate to make two recess appointments to the board…after Chief Justice Roberts had urged him to do so in the case’s oral arguments.

By our count, there is currently a backlog of 96 executive nominees waiting for Senate floor votes. A situation like the NRLB’s is extreme, and rare. But it’s a reminder that while the Senate holds up nominees to make political points, there is important work being left undone.
 

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Chamber of Commerce Wages “Unprecedented” Campaign Against Lead Paint Lawyer

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Chamber of Commerce’s campaign to prevent the confirmation of attorney John McConnell to be a Rhode Island district court judge, because of his work as a personal injury lawyer to hold corporations accountable for damage caused by their products.

Well, they haven’t succeeded yet, but it looks like they’ve certainly made their presence known. The Senate Judiciary Committee today approved McConnell’s nomination almost entirely along party lines—all but one of the seven Republicans on the committee voted against it.

Today’s Providence Journal reports that the Chamber sent the Judiciary Committee’s members a letter yesterday that made it very clear where they stood:


The Chamber’s letter escalates what was already an extraordinary campaign against the seating of a nominee to the federal trial bench. It is not common for nominations to these courts — dozens of which can be routinely cleared in a given year — to generate controversy. The Chamber says it is unprecedented for it to mount the kind of organized opposition it has launched against this particular U.S. District Court nominee

The Chamber, which tends to support Republicans through its campaign spending arm, has lobbied actively for changes in the system that permits large numbers of plaintiffs to seek large damage awards from companies.

“The Chamber urges you to oppose this nomination,” Josten told the Judiciary Committee in Tuesday’s letter. “Should the committee report Mr. McConnell’s nomination to the full Senate, the Chamber would consider votes on, or in relation to, this nomination in our annual How They Voted Scorecard.”

The Chamber is the biggest lobbying spender on Capitol Hill and its annual scorecard is no joke for lawmakers running for reelection. We’ll be sure to keep following the organization’s crusade as McConnell’s nomination moves to the Senate floor.
 

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The Freedom to Marry

The American Foundation for Equal Rights has posted a transcript of yesterday's closing arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the trial challenging the constitutionality of California's ban on same-sex marriage. Theodore B. Olson, the attorney for the couples who are challenging the ban, went straight for the definition of marriage and what it means to individuals and to society.

Here are some excerpts from his closing arguments:

I think it's really important to set forth the prism through which this case must be viewed by the judiciary. And that is the perspective on marriage, the same subject that we're talking about, by the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court -- the freedom to marry, the freedom to make the choice to marry. The Supreme Court has said in -- I counted 14 cases going back to 1888, 122 years. And these are the words of all of those Supreme Court decisions about what marriage is.

And I set forth this distinction between what the plaintiffs have called it and what the Supreme Court has called it. The Supreme Court has said that: Marriage is the most important relation in life. Now that's being withheld from the plaintiffs. It is the foundation of society. It is essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness. It's a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights and older than our political parties. One of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause. A right of intimacy to the degree of being sacred. And a liberty right equally available to a person in a homosexual relationship as to heterosexual persons. That's the Lawrence vs. Texas case.

Marriage, the Supreme Court has said again and again, is a component of liberty, privacy, association, spirituality and autonomy. It is a right possessed by persons of different races, by persons in prison, and by individuals who are delinquent in paying child support.

I think it's really important, given what the Supreme Court has said about marriage and what the proponents said about marriage, to hear what the plaintiffs have said about marriage and what it means to them, in their own words.

They have said that marriage means -- and this means not a domestic partnership. This means marriage, the social institution of marriage that is so valuable that the Supreme Court says it's the most important relation in life. The plaintiffs have said that marriage means to them freedom, pride. These are their words. Dignity. Belonging. Respect. Equality. Permanence. Acceptance. Security. Honor. Dedication. And a public commitment to the world.

One of the plaintiffs said, "It's the most important decision you make as an adult." Who could disagree with that?

...

On the one hand, we have the proponents' argument that it's all about procreation and institutionalizing -- deinstitutionalizing marriage, but was not supported by credible evidence. I couldn't find it. That's the one hand.

On the other stands the combined weight of 14 Supreme Court opinions about marriage and the liberty and the privacy of marriage. The testimony of the plaintiffs, about their life and how they are affected by Proposition 8, and the combined expertise of the leading experts in the world, as far as we were able to find. It is no contest.

 

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The New Originalism Debate—An Early Roundup of Good Reads

A few weeks ago, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter delivered a call to arms against the misguided theory of “constitutional originalism” that has dominated recent debates on the Supreme Court. “The Constitution is no simple contract,” Souter said, “Not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language that a contract draftsman would try to avoid, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.”

Souter’s argument has started a robust and refreshing conversation about keeping faith with the Constitution …. and debunking the notion of justices as constitutional umpires who have to simply stand at the plate and call objective balls and strikes.

Constitutional law professor Alain L. Sanders weighed in today with an interesting take on what a literal adherence to the Constitution as originally written —sure to be invoked in the upcoming hearings on Elena Kagan’s nomination— would mean:

The political oratory will be enticing to many, and sound astute, learned and even well-grounded. But much of it will be misleading, wrong-headed, and unsupported by logic, history, or the principles of the Constitution. A simple examination of the Senate confirmation proceedings themselves illuminates the fallacies of the conservative assault.

Sitting on the Senate Judiciary panel will be California's Dianne Feinstein and Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar. To any and all true-blue strict constructionists, the presence of these two women legislators ought immediately to sound the alarm of unconstitutionality and invalidate the entire confirmation process. The Constitution states clearly, directly and consistently throughout its many provisions that federal officials are to be men.

Sanders’ argument brought to mind some other great riffs on Souter’s speech that we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. These articles are all worth a read:

The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Doug Kendall and UVA professor Jim Ryan argued that adherence to the full text and history of the Constitution – including all of its amendments - is something that progressives can and should embrace:

We live in an era thick with conservative nostalgia for the "original" Constitution and the ideas of our founding, even when those ideas have been repudiated or modified by subsequent constitutional amendments. Kagan would be doing the entire nation as well as the Constitution itself a service if she would use the confirmation process to express and explain her commitment to follow the Constitution—all of it. If Kagan does talk about the text and history of the Constitution, as well as the role of the court, it could go a long way toward recalibrating the current national debate on the judiciary and the Constitution.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asked why it’s fashionable to see the Constitution as a simple instructional manual:

So, as we look forward toward Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, the question isn't whether she will use the opportunity of her hearings to defend living constitutionalism or to debunk originalism. That is probably too freighted a discussion, and one that no progressive can possibly win in this day and age. The question I would ask is why it's so fashionable for nominees to suggest that the hard work of judging is simple; that the Constitution is no more complicated than the instructions for assembling an Ikea end table; and that the reason they are perfectly qualified for the job is that, well, they can read. What does it say about the court as an institution that everyone who goes through the interview process must downplay the difficulty of the job?

And Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, responding to Lithwick, calls originalism out as “a great hustle”:

Lithwick notes that the theory of orginalism assumes a "nonexistent universe in which all cases are easy and all the constitutional directives are perfectly clear." But to the originalists, it is always perfectly clear: The answer is whatever they want it to be, all other conclusions are inherently illegitimate. That's what makes originalism such a great hustle -- its arbitraryness is masked by nigh-bulletproof rhetorical argument -- that its adherents are simply "applying the law as written." In order to attack their reasoning, you first have to dismantle the idea that there are no inherent tensions within the Constitution that need to be resolved in order to reach a clear ruling. In a way, originalists are a bit like religious fundamentalists who insist on following their religious texts literally but in practice only select those that fit their prevailing cultural sympathies, dismissing others as heretics and unbelievers.

We’re hoping that the weeks since Souter’s commencement address are just the beginning of a new discussion about the Constitution and the importance of the Supreme Court in all of our lives - a discussion that should be at the center of the debate on Kagan’s confirmation.


 

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No-Fly Lists and Rendition

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by Maher Arar, a Canadian national who was sent to Syria and tortured after arriving in New York from a vacation.

The court did not comment Monday in ending Syrian-born Maher Arar's quest to sue top U.S. officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Arar says he was mistaken for a terrorist when he was changing planes in New York on his way home to Canada, a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He was instead sent to Syria, where he claims he was tortured.

Lower courts dismissed Arar's lawsuit, which asserts the U.S. purposely sent him to Syria to be tortured. Syria has denied he was tortured.

The Canadian government agreed to pay Arar $10 million and apologized to him for its role in the case.

Yesterday’s New York Times reported that Yahya Wehelie, a US citizen who was on his way home from Yemen, is in custody in Cairo after F.B.I. agents discovered that he was on a no-fly list.

For six weeks, Mr. Wehelie has been in limbo in the Egyptian capital. He and his parents say he has no radical views, despises Al Qaeda and merely wants to get home to complete his education and get a job.

But after many hours of questioning by F.B.I. agents, he remains on the no-fly list. When he offered to fly home handcuffed and flanked by air marshals, Mr. Wehelie said, F.B.I. agents turned him down.

“The lady told me that Columbus sailed the ocean blue a long time ago when there were no planes,” Mr. Wehelie said in a telephone interview from Cairo. “I’m an innocent American in exile, and I have no way to get home.”

The common thread uniting these two situations is silence. By refusing to hear Mr. Arar’s case, the Supreme Court tacitly acknowledges the government’s argument (a carryover from the Bush administration) that any matter which could jeopardize national security does not belong in court. In Mr. Wehelie’s case, the FBI invoked a policy that precludes it from discussing persons on watch lists or no fly lists.

By continuing his predecessor’s policies, President Obama is responding to the pressure placed upon him by recent terrorist threats. But at what cost? Do fundamental rights to due process stop applying as soon as the government decides you aren’t worthy of them?
 

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Who Will Make Amends to Maher Arar?

Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who the US detained in 2002 and sent to Syria to be imprisoned and tortured for a year—without ever being charged with a crime.

In an article for the New York Review of Books, David Cole, one of Arar’s lawyers, outlines the unconscionable treatment of Arar and the very different responses of the Canadian and US governments when it came to light:

Canada responded to Arar’s case as a nation who has wronged a human being should. It established a blue-ribbon commission to investigate his case, which wrote a 1,100-page report fully exonerating Arar, and faulting Canadian officials for erroneously telling US officials that Arar was the target of an investigation into possible al-Qaeda links. In fact, Arar was merely listed as one of many persons “of interest” to the investigation, because he was thought to know one of the individuals who was targeted. The commission found, however, that Canadian officials did not know that the United States was planning to send Arar to Syria. That decision was made by US officials with the Syrians and not shared with the Canadians.

Canada, in other words, played a relatively small part in Arar’s injuries, as compared to the United States. Yet Canada’s Parliament issued a unanimous apology, and the government paid Arar $10 million (Canadian) for its role in the wrong done to him.

Here in the United States, the response could not have been more different. US officials have never apologized to Arar. They persist in leaving him on a “no-fly” list, despite the fact that Canada has cleared him of any suspicion, much less wrongdoing. And when we filed suit in 2004 to seek damages from the US officials directly responsible for the decision to send Arar to his torturers, lawyers for the Bush administration argued that even assuming that federal officials had intentionally delivered Arar to Syria to be tortured, and blocked him from seeking court protection while he was in their custody, they could not be held liable for his injuries on the grounds that the case implicated secret communications and national security concerns not appropriate for court resolution.

Because the Supreme Court won’t hear Arar’s case, he doesn’t have any more hope of recourse from the courts. As Cole points out, the duty to make amends to Arar lie in the hands of the President and Congress. And, perhaps more importantly, it is their responsibility to make sure what happened to Arar never happens again.

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"Who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine"

In a letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward, Reps. Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak have laid out some startling examples of BP’s recklessness in the weeks before the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a sad illustration of why our elected officials and courts need to keep corporations like BP in check and hold them accountable for their bad decisions:

Waxman and Stupak also said BP apparently rejected advice of a subcontractor, Halliburton Inc., in preparing for a cementing job to close up the well. BP rejected Halliburton's recommendation to use 21 "centralizers" to make sure the casing ran down the center of the well bore, they said. Instead, BP used six centralizers.

In an e-mail on April 16, a BP official involved in the decision explained: "It will take 10 hours to install them. I do not like this." Later that day, another official recognized the risks of proceeding with insufficient centralizers but commented: "who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine."

In spite of the well's difficulties, "BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure," Waxman and Stupak said.
 

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Mississippi is 37% Black; It May Soon Have Its First African American Federal Appeals Court Judge

Last week’s appointment of James E. Graves Jr. to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t get a lot of attention. But his nomination represents a remarkable milestone. Graves is currently the only African American justice on the Supreme Court of Mississippi and, if confirmed, he will become the first African American Mississippi has ever sent to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mississippi, keep in mind, has the largest percentage of African American residents of any state in the country—37% at the time of the last census.

It’s a remarkable milestone…and it’s even more remarkable that it’s just now being reached.
 

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Citizens United panel at America's Future Now! Conference

Last week at the America’s Future Now! Conference, People For’s Marge Baker participated in a panel called "Changing Citizens United and Fixing the Supreme Court." The panelists explained the negative impact of the Roberts Court’s corporate bias, the Citizens United decision, and the influence of big businesses on our elections. But don’t worry, they also outlined all the things we can do about it: legislate change, fix the courts, and, most importantly, work towards amending the Constitution.

Check out some highlights from the panel:


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Recycled Arguments About Recycled Documents

The first paragraph of this Roll Call story tells you everything you have to know about the fit Senators Sessions and Kyl threw over some “troublingKagan memos yesterday afternoon:

Republicans, hoping to derail the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, have recently focused on “newly unearthed” documents from her time as a Supreme Court clerk — even though they not only had the documents last year, they also had asked her about them, Congressional transcripts show.

Not to be a killjoy here, but it seems that the debate would be a lot more constructive if we could focus on a real discussions about what the Supreme Court should be and have to respond to this kind of manufactured outrage. (Unfortunately, “discussion of real issues” is not included in the Right Wing’s Supreme Court Playbook).
 

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Previewing the Right’s Supreme Court Playbook

The Right wing has made it fairly clear that they will use whatever tactics necessary to make Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation process as noisy and contentious as possible—not because of any substantive objections to Kagan as a nominee, but because they think making a racket might help them out in November’s elections.


People For has been keeping an eye on the attacks that the Right wing has been lobbing on Kagan, and we’ve laid out the four main strategies we’re seeing in a new Right Wing Watch report.

  1. Push the circular logic that goes: “Obama is radical so Kagan is radical so Obama is radical.”
  2.  Recycle the old and distorted attacks about “empathy” to attack the nominee’s “understanding.”
  3. Lie big and lie often
  4. Use confirmation hearings to court anti-government tea-party voters


You can read the full report here or print yourself a copy and follow along as Kagan’s confirmation hearings unfold.

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Dawn Johnsen Speaks Out on the Office of Legal Counsel

Dawn Johnsen, the law professor who was forced in April to withdraw her nomination to head the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, has written a forceful op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Johnsen, an exceedingly qualified candidate who was the victim of a fifteen month Republican obstruction effort, writes that the President and Senate need to quickly install a new OLC head—and to pick someone who will lead the office in an honest and nonpartisan way:

In 2004, the leak of a controversial memo on the use of torture catapulted the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel into the spotlight. Fallout and debate continue, including in the context of my nomination -- withdrawn this spring -- to head this office. While attention understandably is focused on confirming the president's Supreme Court nominee, the OLC remains, after six years, without a confirmed leader.

It is long past time to halt the damage caused by the "torture memo" by settling on a bipartisan understanding of the proper role of this critical office and confirming an assistant attorney general committed to that understanding.

There is no simple answer to why my nomination failed. But I have no doubt that the OLC torture memo -- and my profoundly negative reaction to it -- was a critical factor behind the substantial Republican opposition that sustained a filibuster threat. Paradoxically, prominent Republicans earlier had offered criticisms strikingly similar to my own. A bipartisan acceptance of those criticisms is key to moving forward. The Senate should not confirm anyone who defends that memo as acceptable legal advice.

Johnsen is right that the OLC should be led by a fierce advocate of the rule of law—someone like Johnsen herself. We hope that the debate over the next OLC nominee will, unlike the last debate, reflect the importance of this qualification.

 

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LGBT Candidates Did Well in Tuesday’s Primaries

Not only did Tuesday’s primaries fail to bring about the wave of anti-gay sentiment that some conservatives had hoped for…it was a banner day for openly LGBT candidates. Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a PAC that endorses “qualified, committed LGBT candidates,” backed 21 candidates in Tuesday’s elections—and 17 of them won.

(This has, of course, been of great concern to some in the Religious Right, as Right Wing Watch reports).
 

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Progressive Candidate Wins Soundly in Iowa Gay Marriage Battleground

Among the interesting results of lower-profile races in yesterday’s primaries was the victory of progressive incumbent Ako Abdul-Samad over a well-funded socially conservative challenger in Iowa’s 66th House District. The victory is significant because the Des Moines district is at the center of the marriage equality battle, and Abdul-Samad’s challenger was well-funded by a group intent on axing the state’s new same-sex marriage law:

In the Democratic primary for House District 66 — considered by many to be ground zero in the battle over same-sex marriage — incumbent Ako Abdul-Samad of Des Moines won by a huge margin over social conservative Clair Rudison Jr. 75-25. Despite numerous attack mailers in the closing days of the race, as well as support from the anti-gay group Iowa Family Policy Center, Abdul-Samad emerged victorious in one of the most heavily Democratic districts in the state.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the tidal wave of voter outrage against same-sex marriage that Iowa social conservatives had hoped to see this year never materialized. Abdul-Samad’s sound victory in a race that had been making progressives nervous is a small but significant indicator of that.
 

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The Roberts Court’s Pro-Corporate Batting Average

The Constitutional Accountability Center has just released a statistical study of the current Supreme Court’s pro-corporate voting patterns. And guess what? The numbers back the trend that’s anecdotally hard to miss.

CAC’s statistical study tests empirically the idea that the conservatives on the Roberts Court tend to side with corporate interests. Our study examined every opinion released by the Roberts Court since Justice Samuel Alito began participating in decisions, and in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was either a party or an amicus curiae — a universe of 53 cases. This study reveals an overall success rate for the Chamber of 64% (34 victories in 53 cases), and a success rate of 71% in cases decided by a narrow (five-Justice) majority. The Court’s conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy) tend to vote together in their support for the Chamber, while the Court’s moderate/liberal bloc (including former Justice David Souter, who was on the Court for most of these rulings) was more centrist, casting only 41% of its votes in favor of the Chamber.

These data strongly support the proposition that there is a strong ideological component to the Justices’ rulings in business cases, with the Court’s conservatives frequently adopting the Chamber’s position. In one particularly startling finding, Justice Alito, since joining the Court, has never cast a vote against the Chamber of Commerce’s position in a closely divided case. This statistical evidence supports the charge by President Obama and Chairman Leahy that the Court’s conservative majority has a disturbing pro-corporate tilt, and this reality should provide an important frame for General Kagan’s upcoming confirmation hearing.

You can find CAC’s full report and analysis here. And check out People For’s extensive report on the Rise of the Corporate Court from earlier this year.
 

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