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Justice Alito: Words v. Actions [VIDEO]

The media spent much of last week obsessing over Justice Samuel Alito's injudicious show of disapproval during the State of the Union. They went a bit overboard to be sure, but were it not for that, millions of Americans may have missed the Citizens United ruling entirely.

Citizens United, as you probably know, opened up elections to unlimited corporate spending. The 5-4 decision overturned a century of precedent and was made possible by Justice Alito -- President Bush's nominee to replace moderate Sandra Day O'Connor.

Sorely absent from last week's coverage was how far Alito's actions on the bench have departed from his words as a nominee. With that in mind I've pulled some relevant clips from the confirmation hearing.

Alito praised the principle of stare decisis (respect for precedent) throughout his hearing but hasn't let it prevent him back brashly overruling longstanding decisions. Here, in conversaton with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), he argued that the court should take limited actions and use its ability to overrule precedent sparingly:

HATCH: Does that mean that the Supreme Court should perhaps be even more cautious, even more self-restrained, since there is no appeal from any errors that they might make?

ALITO: I think that's a solemn responsibility that they have. When you know that you are the court of last resort, you have to make sure that you get it right. It is not true, in my judgment, that the Supreme Court is free to do anything that it wants. It has to follow the Constitution and it has to follow the laws. Stare decisis, which I was talking about earlier, is an important limitation on what the Supreme Court does. And although the Supreme Court has the power to overrule a prior precedent, it uses that power sparingly, and rightfully so. It should be limited in what it does.

Alito frequently said that his judicial philosophy discourages him from reaching overly broad decisions when a narrower ruling is possible. Yet he and the other conservatives went far out of their way in order to strike down as many restrictions on corporate influence in elections as possible. Here, still speaking to Senator Hatch, Alito praised narrow rulings and noted that court rulings on consitutional grounds often cannot be undone by Congress (indeed, we are coming up against that limitation now with Citizens United):

ALITO: Because a constitutional decision of the Supreme Court has a permanency that a decision on an issue of statutory interpretation doesn't have. So if a case is decided on statutory grounds, there's a possibility of Congress amending the statute to correct the decision if it's perceived that the decision is incorrect or it's producing undesirable results. I think that my philosophy of the way I approached issues is to try to make sure that I get right what I decide. And that counsels in favor of not trying to do too much, not trying to decide questions that are too broad, not trying to decide questions that don't have to be decided, and not going to broader grounds for a decision when a narrower ground is available.

Alito also made a good show of deference to the elected branches of government, arguing that the role of a judge is to interpret the law, not make public policy. He clearly disregarded these remarks to Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) when he joined with four other judges to strike down decades of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the President:

SESSIONS: But we really want the court to be more modest and to draw back from some of its intervention and policy issues that are causing much angst around the country. You want to comment on that? Otherwise, Mr. Chairman, I would yield my time.

ALITO: Well, Senator, I think your policy views are much more legitimate than the policy views of the judiciary because members of Congress are elected for the purpose of formulating and implementing public policy and members of the judiciary are appointed for the purpose of interpreting and applying the law.

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Senator Kerry Speaks Out for a Constitutional Amendment

During a hearing of the Senate Rules Committee today, Senator John Kerry announced his intention to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to repair the damage done by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC.

We face two challenges: first, to mediate the impact of the Court's decision and stop the bleeding through immediate countermeasures and, second, to think boldly about the best way to free our democracy from the dominance of big money.

Mr. Chairman, the reform ideas already circulating are promising - mandating shareholder approval of spending, prohibiting spending by domestic subsidiaries of foreign corporations and government contractors, giving candidates primetime access to the public airwaves at the lowest rates.

We must do those things quickly. But we may also need to think bigger. I think we need a constitutional amendment to make it clear once and for all that corporations do not have the same free speech rights as individuals.

The entire statement is worth a read.
 

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What Moderates?

Last night, Patricia Smith, President Obama’s choice to be Solicitor of the Department of Labor, passed an important procedural hurdle: the Senate decided to vote on her nomination.

What’s remarkable is that, unlike past attempts to block votes on executive branch nominees, the vote was entirely along party lines.  Even the so-called moderates in the Republican party, like Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, voted against allowing an up or down vote on a second-tier executive branch nomination.

For a party that railed against the use of the filibuster even in the case of judicial nominees, the hypocrisy is remarkable.

Perhaps, you think, Patricia Smith is far outside the mainstream, and the GOP was using it’s last tactic to stop an extreme nominee. 

Nope.  

But filibustering a nominee like Smith for a position most people have never heard of in a department that is rarely in the news still requires some justification. After all, most of the GOP senators have been around long enough that they served during a time when such a filibuster would be unimaginable.

So they called Smith a liar.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wy.), the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led the pack, decrying her "lack of candor" and cited "discrepancies in her testimony." The issue -- which was really not, of course, the issue -- centered on a small pilot program in New York called Wage Watch, which aims to educate workers about the minimum wage is and when they are entitled to overtime. Republicans, during committee hearings, insisted that it was a Big Labor plot, but Smith said the idea had been generated within her office. It was later shown that apparently a labor representative had suggested it to an employee, who then suggested it to Smith.

The GOP also lambasted Smith for categorizing the pilot program as "educational" rather than "enforcement." Democrats pointed out that the distinction was an irrelevant one: The purpose of the education was to improve enforcement efforts.

The pilot program cost $6,000. Smith manages some 4,000 employees and oversees an $11 billion annual budget.

The conclusion is obvious.  The GOP, including so-called moderates, are obstructing nominations for the sake of obstruction, throwing sand into the gears of government and attempting to hobble the Obama administration by any means necessary.  That tactic is irresponsible and unacceptable.  Americans deserve better.

 

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Justice Alito Begs to Differ

If you watched the State of the Union last week, you probably saw Justice Samuel Alito take exception to President Obama's entirely accurate characterization of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

Some people were outraged by Justice Alito's lack of decorum, but not E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post.

Alito did not like the president making an issue of the court's truly radical intervention in politics. I disagree with Alito on the law and the policy, but I have no problem with his personal expression of displeasure.

On the contrary, I salute him because his candid response brought home to the country how high the stakes are in the battle over the conservative activism of Chief Justice John Roberts's court.

Hopefully, Justice Alito's actions at the State of the Union will help feed the conversation about the damage done by the Court's decision in Citizens United and what can be done to fix it.

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Upcoming Progressive Book Club Events

Book Talk Radio: a weekly online radio show hosted by columnist Joe Conason on the Blog Talk Radio platform.

February 3 -- 8pm (EST)
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. From Iraq to Afghanistan, Americans are learning the wrong lessons about the use and abuse of military force. Join Joe Conason and author Andrew Bacevich for a discussion about the use of America's military might.

RSVP and get The Limits of Power for free when you join the Progressive Book Club:

http://www.progressivebookclub.com/pbc2/emailSignUp.pbc?splash_id=252&srcKey=211aac

Moving Forward: Foundations of a New Progressive Era

Once a month, PBC holds an online discussion about the history and future of the progressive movement with our partners at the Center for American Progress.

February 10 -- 6pm (EST)
Interesting Times: George Packer and Todd Gitlin on the Future of American Foreign Policy.  In his new collection of essays, New Yorker journalist George Packer turns a critical eye on the Bush years.  Join us for a look back at the past, and ahead to the future, of American foreign policy with two leading progressive thinkers.

RSVP to watch online, or attend in person if you are in New York City:

http://www.progressivebookclub.com/pbc2/emailSignUp.pbc?splash_id=262&srcKey=211aac

The Progressive Book Club offers some pretty great opportunities to engage with some of the leading voices in progressive politics.

Don't forget, you can get these books -- or any other book offered by the PBC -- for free when you become a full member.
 

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Leahy Smacks Down Alito

From Ryan Grim via The Huffington Post:

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) lashed into Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Thursday morning on the Senate floor, calling out the swing vote who overturned a hundred years of precedent to legalize deep corporate involvement in elections.

Leahy said that, in 36 years in the Senate he had never come to the floor to criticize a court decision, but was moved to do so by the activist nature of last week's 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United case.

He personally attacked Alito, noting that his confirmation testimony was under oath, yet was proven false by his brazen and radical dismissal of a century of precedent.

Read more and watch Sen. Leahy on video at Huffington Post >

(It's worth it!)

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Correcting the Court is nothing new

On January 29, 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, restoring the rights taken away by the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. One year to the day, a new movement is afoot to correct the Court.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to protect individuals from discrimination they face in the workplace.  In Ledbetter, the Supreme Court undermined that protection by holding that employees who are subjected to pay discrimination must bring a complaint within 180 days of the discriminatory compensation decision and that each paycheck that is lower because of such discrimination does not restart the clock.  Advocates fought hard for a law that would reiterate Congress’ intent to hold employers accountable for their discriminatory practices and to allow employees a fair chance to challenge unlawful pay discrimination.

Advocates are now calling for another Court correction, this time in response to the Citizens United ruling, which prohibits Congress from limiting the influence of corporations in elections for public office. Not only is this a radical departure from longstanding precedent, it defies common sense: it argues that corporations and American citizens have identical free speech rights under the Constitution. As Justice Stevens pointed out in his dissent, corporations are not people. They cannot vote, they cannot hold office, and they should not be allowed to pour billions of dollars into our system of government.

Unfortunately the fix we found in for the Ledbetter decision is not enough to fix Citizens United. Legislation, while important and critically needed to mitigate the effects of the decision, may ultimately prove to be inadequate against the unfettered influx of corporate election spending. Only a constitutional amendment can restore the American people’s authority to regulate corporate influence in our elections and restore our democracy.

People For the American Way is calling for just such an amendment. Click here for more information and to sign our petition.

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Obama: Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

In last night's State of the Union Address, President Obama pledged to work with Congress and the military to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" this year.
 

Thousands of activists joined People For the American Way in urging the President to include the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the defense budget proposal he sends to Congress early next month.
 

While it's not yet clear what the vehicle is going to be for repeal, the President's strong statement last night is an indication that he's getting the message. Now, it's up to the Obama administration to deliver on last night's pledge and it's up to all of us to make sure that it does.
 

We can't slack up in our fight to make sure that the administration and Congress advance pro-equality reforms this year. Anti-LGBT discrimination in the military, the workplace and, yes, in the institution of civil marriage must be addressed by this president and this Congress without delay.
 

You can join the fight for equality at:
 

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President Obama Addresses Supreme Court Decision

In his weekly address today, President Obama addressed the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

You can read his address here.  And you can sign People For's petition to pass a Constitutional Amendment allowing Congress to regulate corporate influence in elections.

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Rev. Madison Shockley Reflects on the 37th Anniversary of Roe and Stupak Amendment

As we reflect upon the 37th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, I had the privilege of speaking with Rev. Madison Shockley, pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif. briefly about the anniversary, health care reform and the Stupak amendment, and why he feels “the struggle still continues and we must be vigilant.”

Stacey (SG): What do you see as the enduring legacy of Roe v. Wade?
Rev. Madison Shockley (MS): The major accomplishment of Roe was to establish fairly firmly in our culture that women are full citizens and have the right to control their lives. In a modern society, their lives are no longer pre-determined by the demands of the larger agricultural industrial society that, in times, past determined-child rearing. We’ve left the notion of women as baby factories behind and entered into an era of women as full persons.

SG: Recently, we’ve seen renewed attacks on a woman’s right to choose, particularly within the health care reform bill and the Stupak amendment.
MS: Stupak is part of the ongoing strategy of people who opposed full personhood of women. They label themselves as pro-life, which is abhorrent to all of us because we are all pro-life. They are anti-women’s reproductive rights, anti-women’s personhood. This is part of an ongoing effort to impede upon a woman deciding what to do with a woman’s reproductive right. As we are on the brink of providing health care reform, this pokes women in the eye by managing what women do with their reproductive rights. They do that by saying you can be part of this historical movement for health care reform, but you also have to leave your reproductive rights behind.

SG: Why did you feel it was important to travel to Washington, DC to travel lobby against the Stupak amendment?
MS: I represent a constituency whose voice is not heard often enough – black men, black clergymen. There are men, and black men, people of faith, African American men and clergy that are strongly committed to women’s reproductive rights and full personhood. I wanted to share my insight, and to represent this underrepresented population of people in this movement.

SG: What are you doing in your church and community to convince people of the need to reject the Stupak amendment?
MS: The main thing I want people to know is that the struggle continues and we must be vigilant. In my church, we’ve preached against Stupak on Sunday mornings as an infringement upon the divine personhood of women, and we’ve also done letter writing campaigns. I want my community to know that health care is the best way for all who are concerned about life to achieve the goal of women being able to welcome each pregnancy with joy.

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Reproductive rights 37 years later

Roe v. Wade established a constitutional right to privacy and protected a woman's right to make reproductive decisions based on her own life, health, and conscience. Today, on the 37th anniversary of this landmark ruling, we face a new call to action.

People For the American Way shares the widely held view that abortion should be safe, rare, and legal. We believe that healthcare reform can and should uphold these principles. Unfortunately, current legislation would do more to restrict the rights of women than it would to protect them.

In the House, health insurance plans that participate in the new exchange would be prohibited from providing full reproductive health benefits to millions of American women. Senate language sets up an unworkable system in which women are forced to purchase abortion coverage separately from other healthcare needs, which violates privacy and stigmatizes abortion, and also has the potential to dissuade insurance companies from offering abortion coverage in the first place.

While the Senate has not gone as far as the House in its restrictions, neither bill upholds President Obama’s promise that those who are happy with their healthcare before reform will be able to keep it after. It is critical that whatever he is asked to sign is, at the very least, abortion neutral. Now is the time to defend women’s rights – not roll them back.

Please stand up to right-wing activists who want to hold healthcare reform hostage.

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The New Preamble

The New Preamble:

We the corporations of the United States, in order to accumulate historically unparalleled wealth, take advantage of limited liability, control the nation's news media, exercise monopolistic and oligarchic control over trade, and secure the blessings of power to ourselves and our subsidiaries, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Personally, I kind of liked the old "We the People" idea, back when we thought the Constitution existed to protect people's liberty. Guess I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy. It'll take a constitutional amendment to get our Constitution back.

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Extra! Extra! 59 is more than 41!

In the wake of yesterday's extremely disappointing election in Massachusetts, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Democrats had somehow lost control of the Senate.  In fact, the Democrats still have an 18 vote majority--an enormous power base in a legislative chamber with only 100 seats.

Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger points out that on Supreme Court nominations, President Obama has a majority that most presidents would envy:

President George H. W. Bush had only 43 Republican Senators when he nominated Judge Clarence Thomas – undoubtedly the most conservative nominee of the past half-century – to the Supreme Court. That’s right: 43 Senators of his party. In the end, Justice Thomas was confirmed 52 to 48. The nomination was not remotely close to having enough Senators to prevail on a cloture vote – that would have required all 43 Republicans, joined by 17 Democrats. But he was confirmed because the settled expectation was that the President and the country are entitled to have an up or down vote on a matter such as a Supreme Court nomination. A filibuster that prevented such a vote was politically unthinkable.

And if there aren't 60 votes in favor of a particular issue or nominee?  Let them filibuster.  After a while, voters might start wondering why it is that 41 senators won't allow a vote on legislation with clear majority support.

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Justice Department Intervenes in LGBT Rights Case

Think Progress points out that the Department of Justice is intervening in an LGBT rights case for the first time in a decade.

The case centers on an openly gay 14-year old student named Jacob in Mowhawk, New York* who sued his school district for failing to appropriately respond to the repeated harassment he suffered at school.  Now the DOJ, citing Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is intervening in the suit, arguing that “the law also covers discrimination based on gender stereotypes.”

According to the Utica Observer-Dispatch, the school district claims that it’s close to a settlement.  It also contains an apt summation of the case from Jacob’s father: “He has the right to go to school and feel safe.”

We’re glad that the Justice Department feels the same way.

* - Side Note: Can we all agree on how awesome it is that Mowhawk, New York has an openly gay 14 year old willing to stand up for his rights?  Jacob – When you get to college, give us a call.  I know some people you should meet.

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Rev. Byron Williams: Robertson Making his own Deal with the Devil

You know by now that less than 24 hours after a massive earthquake destroyed Haiti’s capitol city Port-au-Prince, Pat Robertson took to the airwaves to declare the nation cursed a result of a so-called “pact with the Devil.” In a piece entitled, “Robertson Making his own Deal with the Devil,” syndicated columnist Rev. Byron Williams, also a member of our African American Ministers In Action, examines Religious Right leaders such as Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell’s impulse to declare natural disasters as God’s punishment:

It is always problematic when any type of religious discourse offers definitive answers to the complexities of the human condition.

The so-called deal with the Devil that Robertson refers is the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). If we momentarily suspend reality by granting Robertson’s words a scintilla of legitimacy, is he suggesting the only way Haitians could act on the most basic instinct humans possess, which is the freedom guaranteed by self-determination, was to enter into agreement with Satan?

This leaves us to conclude that God was siding with the French and their desires to occupy and enslave a foreign land.

It is this type of Neanderthal thinking as it relates to theology that justified Manifest Destiny, The Trail of Tears, African American chattel slavery, as well of other atrocities under the pseudonym progress.

And instead of distancing themselves from Robertson, some on the Right are sticking by him. From our statement: “Guess Who's Coming to the McDonnell Inauguration:”

When Bob McDonnell is sworn into office as governor tomorrow, one of his most steadfast supporters will be there too: Religious Right leader Pat Robertson, fresh off of his recent comments about Haiti. Rather than being a fringe element, Robertson's presence will be a vivid illustration of how the Religious Right movement remains deeply influential in today's GOP

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Albert Mohler even went a step further and declared that God does hate Haiti.

As for me, I’m inclined to agree with Rev. Byron Williams’ conclusion:

I’m quite certain it was a sudden release of energy from the Earth’s crust creating seismic waves in 2010 that had more to do with the earthquake in Haiti than some alleged satanic pact in 1791.
 

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