The Roberts Court vs. Ohio Voters

Earlier this month, supporters of voting rights cheered when a federal district judge struck down restrictions on early voting in Ohio. That ruling was upheld by the Sixth Circuit. But today, the five conservative members of the Supreme Court ordered that the ruling be stayed until the high court can act on a formal appeal by the state (which hasn't been filed yet).

There was no written opinion, just an order, along with a sentence saying that the four moderate Justices dissented.

It is a great day for those in Ohio who seek to make it harder for certain Americans to vote. But it is worth recalling the quote from a 1964 Supreme Court ruling cited by district court Judge Peter Economus earlier this month:

The right to vote is a fundamental right. "No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined."

Today, the Roberts Court seems to have said:

Never you mind all that pretty talk from the ‘60s about the right to vote.

This, just a few days before the official beginning of the 2014 Term. It is not an auspicious sign of things to come.

PFAW Foundation

Mike Boggs' Record Catches Up to Him

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

This is a good day for Americans who care about our federal courts. According to press reports, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has said that Georgia federal district court nominee Mike Boggs lacks majority support on the committee and that he should withdraw. The New York Times calls the nomination "dead."

Federal judicial nominees routinely - and appropriately - assure senators that their personal feelings and political positions will play no role in their judicial decisions. But this particular nominee did exactly the opposite when running for election as a state judge in 2004. That's when then-Rep. Boggs told voters at a judicial candidates' forum, "I am proud of my record. You don't have to guess where I stand - I oppose same-sex marriages. I supported and authored the Child Protection Act to protect children from predators. I have a record that tells you exactly what I stand for."

This connection - that Boggs himself made - between how he would approach judging cases to his views as a legislator on the legal issues that would be before him as a judge, compelled the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine Boggs' legislative record.

And what a disturbing record that was: He sought to amend the state constitution to forever lock gays and lesbians out of the promise of equality and to prohibit the Georgia legislature from ever extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians. He supported anti-choice legislation and even voted for a bill amendment that would have put abortion providers' lives at risk. He voted in support of having the Confederate battle symbol incorporated into the state flag. He sought to use the power of government to promote religion, church-state separation notwithstanding.

Given his 2004 assurance that his legislative record showed how he would rule as a judge, senators could certainly presume that Boggs has a severely cramped view of constitutional Equal Protection, reproductive rights, and church-state separation. LGBT people, religious minorities, African Americans, and women could not be assured that their basic rights would be recognized and fully protected in his courtroom.

To make things worse, his efforts to explain away his record to the Judiciary Committee raised questions about his candor.

For instance, at his hearing, he assured both Senators Mazie Hirono and Chris Coons that statements he made in 2004 while expressing his opposition to marriage equality about "the dangers that we face with respect to activist judges" were views he held as a legislator, not as a judge. Yet he sounded quite different as recently as November 2011, having been a judge for nearly seven years. At that time, Boggs was promoting himself to a different audience, the Judicial Nominating Commission of Georgia, which was considering recommending to the governor his appointment as a state appeals court judge. When asked then how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal system, Boggs cited as the problem "judges who abrogated their constitutionally created authority" and "judicial decisions that have ignored and violated the basic tenets of the judiciary."

At his Senate confirmation hearings just a few years later, Sen. Coons asked Boggs to name three or four examples of cases that he'd had in mind when he expressed those concerns in 2011. Boggs admitted that as a legislator in 2004, he considered cases recognizing marriage equality as a state constitutional right as fitting this category, but didn't say what cases he'd had in mind in 2011. In her written follow-up questions, Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Boggs if he could name any decisions that he believed abrogated the judiciary's constitutionally created authority (using his words). He responded that he could not recall any cases that he had been thinking of at the time.

Yeah, right. Based on what Boggs told the state Commission, he viewed this as extremely serious, going to the very legitimacy of the courts. Yet just a few years later, even after being given additional time to think about it, he could not recall even one case that he'd had in mind. One could be forgiven for believing instead that he actually had in mind the same cases he'd referred to in 2004, and that he was telling the commissioners - and ultimately, Georgia's governor - what he thought they wanted to hear.

His efforts to explain away his votes endangering abortion providers and supporting the Confederate battle symbol were equally not believable, and apparently they were not believed by a majority of committee members. Good for them.

Boggs' disturbing record showed he was unqualified for the federal bench. Today's news shows that a majority of the Judiciary Committee agrees.

PFAW

A New Reason to Confirm Texas Judicial Nominees This Fall

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts this morning formally reclassified a longstanding judicial vacancy in southern Texas as a judicial emergency. That means the caseload is too high for the work to get done in a fair and efficient manner, so Americans seeking to vindicate their rights can't be assured of getting their day in court. But this vacancy is hardly alone: Of the Lone Star State's 11 current vacancies, eight of them are judicial emergencies, and eight of them have no nominees. Those numbers are too high.

Fortunately, nominees for three of the state's emergencies are having hearings before the Judiciary Committee tomorrow: Amos Mazzant, Trey Schroeder, and Robert Pitman. They have the support of the White House that nominated them and the two Republican senators who recommended them. In a historic first, Pitman would be Texas's first openly gay federal judge. He would also fill a seat that has been vacant since 2008, the nation's second oldest vacancy.

If tomorrow's hearing doesn't uncover any problems, then Texans need for all three nominees to take their places in the courtroom as soon as possible. If the Judiciary Committee can vote them out before leaving town later this month, the Senate should be able to hold a confirmation vote before the election. Otherwise, senators will need to come back to approve them in a lame duck session. There is no excuse to leave any courtrooms empty until next year if they can be filled this fall – especially in a state with as many judicial emergencies as Texas.

PFAW

7th Circuit Says Arguments Against Marriage Equality "Cannot Be Taken Seriously"

Today's unanimous panel ruling by the Seventh Circuit striking down Wisconsin and Indiana's marriage bans is a well-written, carefully reasoned take-down of some of the ludicrous arguments that equality opponents have been making to defend their policy of discrimination. It was written by Richard Posner, a noted conservative put on the bench by Ronald Reagan, and joined by judges nominated by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Ruling on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the court summarizes its opinion nicely:

Our pair of cases is rich in detail but ultimately straightforward to decide. The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don't need marriage because same-sex couples can't produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.

Judge Posner writes:

Because homosexuality is not a voluntary condition and homosexuals are among the most stigmatized, misunderstood, and discriminated-against minorities in the history of the world, the disparagement of their sexual orientation, implicit in the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a source of continuing pain to the homosexual community.

He carefully considers the argument put forward by the states that marriage is restricted to one man and one woman to benefit children. Among the many ways this argument fails to hold water:

But then how to explain Indiana's decision to carve an exception to its prohibition against marriage of close relatives for first cousins 65 or older—a population guaranteed to be infertile because women can't conceive at that age? [Wisconsin also bans first cousins from marrying unless the woman is over 55 or where the couple presents a doctor's affidavit saying one of them is permanently infertile.] If the state's only interest in allowing marriage is to protect children, why has it gone out of its way to permit marriage of first cousins only after they are provably infertile? ... Elderly first cousins are permitted to marry because they can't produce children; homosexuals are forbidden to marry because they can't produce children. The state's argument that a marriage of first cousins who are past child-bearing age provides a "model [of] family life for younger, potentially procreative men and women" is impossible to take seriously.

With regard to the commonly heard refrain, echoed by attorneys for Indiana and Wisconsin, that courts should respect democratically-enacted bans on marriage by same-sex couples, Judge Posner points out what should be obvious to anyone who claims fealty to the United States Constitution:

Minorities trampled on by the democratic process have recourse to the courts; the recourse is called constitutional law.

Courts exist to enforce the Constitution against those who would subvert it. And that drives the right crazy.

PFAW Foundation

Court Restores Voting Opportunities for Ohioans

A federal district court ruled this morning that restrictions on early voting in Ohio violate both the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act. This is a major setback for right-wing officials dedicated to making it harder for certain people to vote, and a major victory for Ohioans seeking to exercise their right to vote.

The Ohio legislature passed a law reducing the time for early in-person (EIP) voting from 35 days to 28 days and eliminating "Golden Week" (the first week of early voting, when people can register and vote on the same day). Adding insult to injury, Secretary of State Jon Husted issued directives setting uniform (and limited) hours statewide for EIP voting, eliminating the ability of local boards to extend hours as needed for their specific communities. It was a transparent effort to make it harder for certain people to vote – primarily African Americans. The ACLU challenged the restrictions on behalf of the Ohio NAACP, the Ohio League of Women Voters, and several African American churches.

Judge Peter Economus considered the record before him and recognized that the new rules would significantly burden certain groups' right to vote, including African Americans as well as low-income and homeless Ohioans. He also concluded that the state's purported rationales for the restrictions fell apart under careful evaluation. Consequently, he ordered the state to restore the cuts for the 2014 election.

Quoting from decades-old Supreme Court precedent, the judge framed the issue well:

The right to vote is a fundamental right. No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined. [internal quotations and citations removed]

This showcases why our federal courts are so important. When government officials act to restrict our rights, we should be able to turn to our neutral federal judiciary to vindicate those rights. Our constitutional structure and basic liberties depend on that. And that is why those who would force through unconstitutional actions – restrictions on voting rights, violations of church-state separation, intrusions on reproductive choice – have long focused their efforts on putting like-minded ideologues on the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court and our nation's circuit courts.

Today, our judicial system worked exactly as intended. As a result, efforts to make it harder for African Americans in Ohio to vote have failed.

PFAW Foundation

Louisiana's Marriage Ban Is Upheld By Judge Citing "Lifestyle Choices"

Judge Martin Feldman, nominated to the Eastern District of Louisiana thirty years ago by President Reagan, today upheld that state's marriage ban against same-sex couples. But his opinion concluding that the ban is constitutional is hardly a model of rigorous and dispassionate legal or factual analysis.

Early in the opinion, he makes clear that he simply doesn't see gay and lesbian couples as anything at all like opposite-sex couples:

This national same-sex marriage struggle animates a clash between convictions regarding the value of state decisions reached by way of the democratic process as contrasted with personal, genuine, and sincere lifestyle choices recognition. (emphasis added)

This fundamental misunderstanding – reducing the love and commitment shared by lesbian and gay couples to nothing more than a simple "lifestyle choice" – colors his entire approach to the case.

In his Equal Protection analysis, he rules that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject only to the lowest-level, "rational basis" scrutiny. He gives two reasons. First, he cites higher court cases like Windsor that have avoided squarely answering that question, "despite opportunities to do so." Second, applying heightened scrutiny would "demean the democratic process." That's pretty circular reasoning, considering that heightened scrutiny exists in recognition that even democratically-enacted laws can violate a vulnerable group's Equal Protection rights.

His conclusion that the ban isn't sex discrimination is similarly flawed. Under the bans, your sex determines whether you can marry a particular person, playing the same role that race did in Loving v. Virginia. In that case, the Supreme Court rejected Virginia's argument that laws prohibiting interracial marriage did not trigger Equal Protection concerns because they applied to blacks and whites alike. Once the Court recognized that the law treated people differently based on their race, it followed standard Equal Protection analysis, striking down the law under the strict scrutiny that applies to racial discrimination. Other courts have recognized that bans against same-sex couples getting married similarly trigger Equal Protection concerns. In disagreeing with those courts, Judge Feldman rewrites Loving (and the Fourteenth Amendment):

Heightened scrutiny was warranted in Loving because the Fourteenth Amendment expressly condemns racial discrimination as a constitutional evil … [N]o analogy can defeat the plain reality that Louisiana's laws apply evenhandedly to both genders--whether between two men or two women. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Louisiana and is reasonably anchored to the democratic process. The Court is therefore satisfied that rational basis applies.

First off, the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't "expressly condemn racial discrimination" or even specifically mention race. Its ringing call for liberty and equality applies to "any person." Sorry, Judge Feldman, but that includes lesbians and gays.

Secondly, Feldman flips Loving on its head. Loving recognized that the state's marriage laws were subject to Equal Protection scrutiny despite, to use Feldman's formulation in this case, "the plain reality that [Virginia's] laws appl[ied] evenhandedly to both [races]." The Supreme Court didn't see through the ruse of "it applies to everyone" because of strict scrutiny; it used strict scrutiny because it saw through the ruse of "it applies to everyone."

Although other courts have struck down marriage bans under rational basis, Feldman upholds Louisiana's ban as related to the state's goals of linking children to their birth parents and managing social change through democratic consensus. He suggests that it could be struck down only if motivated solely by animus, which he rejects (although other courts have struck down the law under rational basis without a finding of animus). (The Supreme Court has held that animus against gays and lesbians is not a legitimate justification for a law.)

As for the Due Process claim, he sees the constitutional right at issue not as marriage, but as "same sex marriage." This is not surprising, since he doesn't see the couples before him as anything except people exercising and seeking approval of an alternative "lifestyle choice." And since there has not been a longstanding recognition of the right to "same sex marriage," he uses rational basis for the Due Process claim, and the couples before him lose again.

Toward the end of the opinion, Judge Feldman channels his inner Scalia, condemning judges who, like "philosopher kings," have ruled in favor of same-sex couples. He writes:

Perhaps in a new established point of view, marriage will be reduced to contract law, and, by contract, anyone will be able to claim marriage. … For example, must the states permit or recognize a marriage between an aunt and niece? Aunt and nephew? Brother/brother? Father and child?

That canard is so easily rejected. Can Judge Feldman really not come up with a single reason to ban child marriages or incestuous marriages that would not apply to marriages between unrelated adults of the same sex? Not one? The reasons for not letting a father marry his child really have nothing to do with the fact that one of the parties is a child, and that the other party is their father?

Judge Feldman was put in the bench back in 1983 by President Reagan. Our country was a much darker place for lesbians and gays then, and a ruling such as his would not have been surprising thirty years ago. But given the enormous changes in constitutional law that we have seen since then, Feldman's ruling is clearly a throwback to an earlier and less equal time.

PFAW Foundation

Senators Should Watch This Video from the Federal Judiciary

The federal judiciary today released a short educational video on the right to counsel that every member of the Senate should see ... especially those who participated in or acquiesced to the smear campaign against Debo Adegbile earlier this year. Adegbile, who had been nominated to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, was attacked because he was involved at the appeals stage in the representation of someone who had been convicted of killing a police officer. The Right Wing whipped up opposition to his nomination, linking him with his client and attacking him for providing representation at all. Every Republican present voted to filibuster Adegbile, as did seven Democrats.

This assault on the right to counsel, a fundamental constitutional right that undergirds our system of justice and protects the freedoms of all Americans, was widely condemned. For instance, more than 1,000 law professors wrote a letter to the Senate explaining the terrible ramifications of its action.

Released by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, today's video isn't about judicial nominations, and it wasn't made for senators. But they should watch it anyway. Too many of them need to be reminded that, as federal Magistrate Judge Jonathan Feldman of New York explains:

The right to counsel is really the fundamental cornerstone of our justice system. Imagine a system of justice where you don't have the right to a lawyer, where you could simply be accused of doing something wrong and taken right to prison.

The video also explains why people who don't commit crimes should nevertheless care about the right to counsel:

[Federal Judge Raner Collins of Arizona:] Even though you will never commit a crime yourself, you still may be accused of a crime. It's easy to accuse someone of doing something wrong.

[Sigmund Adams, former Assistant Federal Public Defender in Maryland]: These things are really about protecting all of us, not just people who are accused. They're about protecting all of us from an overreach by our government.

[Magistrate Judge Feldman:] You want to have confidence in our justice system, and if you have a lawyer on both sides, and both sides are well represented, that gives the public confidence that the result that comes out of that trial was fair and just.

Across America, hardworking attorneys are engaged in the valuable public service of representing indigent or highly unsavory people accused of crimes. Like John Adams defending British soldiers charged with killing Americans in the Boston Massacre, they embody the best of our nation's constitutional values.

Whether they have been nominated for an executive or a judicial position, senators should consider their service as a mark in their favor, not against them.

PFAW

GOP Forces Cloture Petition on 100th Obama Judicial Nominee

Yesterday, in what has become standard operating procedure in the era of Republican obstruction, Senate Majority Leader Reid had to file a cloture petition to end the silent filibuster of a judicial nominee. Like many others who have required cloture, 11th Circuit nominee Jill Pryor doesn't face any real opposition. In fact, she was approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee.

Pryor is the 100th Obama judicial nominee to need a cloture petition (as compared to 18 for the entire Bush Administration). (Since some cloture petitions before this year were cleared up without the need to hold a cloture vote, Pryor will be the 76th Obama judicial nominee rather than the 100th to have a cloture vote.)

In 2014, not one judicial nominee has been able to get a confirmation vote without first needing a cloture vote to break a Republican filibuster. Think about it: Republicans have refused to consent to even one judicial confirmation vote this year. The great progress Americans have seen during the past few months in getting judges confirmed has been in spite of GOP obstruction, not because of GOP cooperation.

Not that they have any problems with the nominees, most of whom are ultimately confirmed with overwhelming and often unanimous Republican support. So rather than confirming blocks of nominees in quick voice votes or by unanimous consent, the Senate is forced to hold time-consuming roll-call cloture and confirmation votes for each individual nominee (often with hours of time required between the two votes). At least during President Obama's first term, a number of cloture petitions were vitiated, meaning that Republicans eventually allowed a confirmation vote without the need for a cloture vote. But that doesn't happen anymore.

The Republican goal is what it has been since President Obama took office: Gum up the works and keep vacancies open as long as possible in order to minimize the president's impact on the nation's judiciary, and in order to maximize opportunities for a Republican president to fill the bench with right-wing ideologues. Senate Democrats are right to fight the obstruction and to allow the Senate to fulfill its constitutional responsibility of keeping our nation's courts functioning.

Just imagine the damage to our courts if Republicans control the Senate – and the confirmation process – during President Obama's last two years.

PFAW

Judicial Vacancies Wreaking Havoc In U.S. Courts

Judicial vacancies slow down courts’ work, drive up litigation costs, cause evidence to go stale, make it harder to settle civil cases, and even pressure defendants into pleading guilty, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center. The report cites example after example of how not having enough judges erodes our nation’s system of justice. Everyone counts on having their day in court, a fundamentally American principle that is threatened by persistent vacancies. The report quotes Chief Judge William Skretny of New York’s Western District:

We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.

Heavier caseloads and backlog created by vacancies also take a toll on judges, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on each case.

Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis in the Eastern District of Texas described the situation in his district as “simple math.” With more cases “you have less time to give to [an individual] case,” he explained. “It affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quantity of work you can complete,” he added.

[Judge Davis] also highlighted the impact of the Sherman vacancy on the timing of sentencing. “It’s a hardship for the litigants,” he explained. “Due to the backlog and [the] vacancy [in Sherman], we have a very high population of criminal defendants, about 200, sitting in county jails, having pled guilty and waiting for sentences. They can’t get their cases processed.” He noted that inmates are typically housed in a county jail because there are no federal facilities available, which is more costly for the government and leaves inmates with fewer work and educational opportunities. “That’s not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities,” he said.

As the report makes clear, vacancies have real impacts for all citizens. This is why PFAW supports the speedy confirmation of qualified judicial nominees to federal courts. Filling judicial vacancies with quality judges will reduce backlogs and costs while allowing the judicial system to better serve all Americans. Maintaining the third branch is one of the most important constitutional functions that the Senate performs.

PFAW

What Hobby Lobby Shows Us About the Supreme Court and Civil Rights Laws: Winners and Losers in the Roberts Court

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This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

In its recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the conservative 5-4 majority -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy -- did something that may appear very unusual. In divided cases, these five justices have the reputation for interpreting very narrowly laws passed by Congress to protect civil rights. So why did they interpret so broadly the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law passed by Congress to protect the important civil right of religious freedom? The answer, unfortunately, is all too clear. Comparing Hobby Lobby with the two rulings in civil rights law cases issued by the Court over the last year, the key factor that explains how the conservative majority ruled is not precedent, the language of the statute, or congressional intent, but who wins and who loses.

Let's start with last year's rulings, both of which concerned Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bans employment discrimination. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the majority ruled very narrowly in interpreting Title VII, deciding that the only way that employees can prevail on a claim that they have been fired in retaliation for raising job bias claims is to prove that they would not have been discharged "but for" the retaliatory motive. This was despite the fact that in order to strengthen Title VII, Congress added language to the law in 1991 to make clear that plaintiffs should prevail if they show that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in a job decision. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissecting Justice Alito's attempt for the majority to draw a distinction between retaliation and other claims under Title VII, the net effect of the majority's ruling was to make it harder to prove a Title VII retaliation claim than before the 1991 law and with respect to other civil rights statutes that don't explicitly mention retaliation. The 5-4 majority had "seized on a provision adopted by Congress as part of an endeavor to strengthen Title VII," she concluded, "and turned it into a measure reducing the force of the ban on retaliation."

In Nassar, in ruling against a doctor of Middle Eastern descent in a case also involving egregious ethnic and national origin discrimination, Alito disregarded clear legislative history and language showing Congress' broad intent, as well as the interpretation of the law by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Interestingly, towards the end of his opinion, Alito appeared to reveal a key consideration behind the majority's decision. The ruling was important, he explained, to "the fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation systems." After all, he pointed out, retaliation claims "are being made with ever-increasing frequency," although he did not even consider how many have been proven meritorious. Agreeing with the EEOC and the plaintiff on the "motivating factor" standard, he wrote instead, "could also contribute to the filing of frivolous claims." As Justice Ginsburg put it, the majority "appears driven by zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims against employers."

The other 2013 Title VII ruling also reflected an extremely narrow reading of the law. Vance v. Ball State University concerned a complaint by an African-American woman that she had been subjected to racial harassment and a racially hostile work environment. Under prior Title VII Court rulings agreed to by both conservative and moderate justices, the employer itself is often liable for such harassment claims when the harassment is committed by an employee's supervisor. But in Vance, in an opinion by Justice Alito, the familiar 5-4 Court majority significantly narrowed Title VII. It ruled that such vicarious employer liability applies only when the harassment is committed by a manager who can fire or reduce the pay or grade of the victim, not when it is committed by a manager who does not have that power but does control the day-to-day schedules, assignments, and working environment of the victim.

As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, the majority's holding again contradicted guidance issued by the EEOC as well as Congress' broad purpose to eliminate workplace discrimination. In fact, she pointed out, not even the university defendant in Vance itself "has advanced the restrictive definition the Court adopts." But again, Alito's opinion betrayed part of the majority's true motives. Its narrow interpretation would be "workable" and "readily applied," Alito explained. And it would promote "the limitation of employer liability in certain circumstances."

Something very different happened in the next Supreme Court case interpreting a Congressional civil rights statute: 2014's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

In that case, the same 5-4 majority that narrowly interpreted Title VII in Vance and Nassar adopted a very broad interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). All nine justices agreed that RFRA was enacted by Congress in response to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which restricted the protection of religious liberty by the Court under the First Amendment. But the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby ruled that RFRA provides "very broad protection for religious liberty" - "even broader protection than was available" under the First Amendment in pre-Smith decisions. As Justice Ginsburg put it in dissent, the majority interpreted RFRA "as a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence." She explained further that this broad interpretation contradicted the language of the statute, its legislative history, and a statement by the Court in a unanimous ruling in 2006 that in RFRA, Congress "adopt[ed] a statutory rule comparable to the constitutional rule rejected in Smith."

This difference in statutory interpretation was critical to the majority's ruling in Hobby Lobby -- that for-profit corporations whose owners had religious objections to contraceptives could invoke RFRA to refuse to obey the Affordable Care Act's mandate that they provide their employees with health plans under which contraceptives are available to female employees. As Justice Ginsburg explained, no previous Court decision under RFRA or the First Amendment had ever "recognized a for-profit corporation's qualification for a religious exemption" and such a ruling "surely is not grounded in the pre-Smith precedent Congress sought to preserve." The 5-4 majority's broad interpretation that RFRA applies to for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby was obviously crucial to its holding.

In addition, however, the 5-4 majority went beyond pre-Smith case law in another crucial respect. Before a person can claim an exemption from a generally applicable law under RFRA, he or she must prove that the law "substantially burden[s] a person's exercise of religion." According to the majority, the corporations in Hobby Lobby met that standard by demonstrating that the use of certain contraceptives that could be purchased by their employees under their health plans would seriously offend the deeply held religious beliefs of their owners. As Justice Ginsburg explained, however, that ruling conflicted with pre-Smith case law on what must be shown to prove a "substantial burden." In several pre-Smith cases, the Court had ruled that there was no "substantial burden" created by, for example, the government's use of a social security number to administer benefit programs or its requirement that social security taxes be paid, despite the genuine and sincere offense that these actions caused to some religious beliefs. As Justice Ginsburg stated, such religious "beliefs, however deeply held, do not suffice to sustain a RFRA claim," except under the extremely broad interpretation of RFRA by the 5-4 Court majority.

As in the Title VII cases, Justice Alito's opinion for the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby was revealing about some of the majority's underlying concerns. In explaining the majority's decision to interpret RFRA as applying to for-profit corporations, Justice Alito noted that "[w]hen rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people" - in this case "the humans who own and control those companies" in the Hobby Lobby case. As Justice Ginsburg observed, the 5-4 majority paid little attention to the Court's pronouncement in a pre-Smith case that permitting a religious exemption to a general law for a corporation would "operate[e] to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" of the corporation.

Even though the Supreme Court's 2013-14 rulings that interpreted civil rights laws passed by Congress may seem different, a common theme animates them all. Whether the 5-4 majority interpreted the statutes broadly or narrowly, the losers in all of them were women, minorities, and working people, and the winners were employers and corporations. In the majority's own words, the result is the "limitation of employer liability" under laws like Title VII designed to protect workers and the "protecting" of the "humans who own and control" corporations under RFRA.

Since all these rulings interpret Congressional statutes, not the Constitution, Congress clearly has the authority to reverse them. In fact, Congress has done exactly that with respect to other 5-4 rulings by the Court that misinterpreted civil rights statutes to harm women and minority workers and benefit their corporate employers. As recently as 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reversed a flawed 5-4 ruling that severely restricted workers' ability to file equal pay claims under Title VII. Congress is already considering legislation to reverse many of the effects of Hobby Lobby, a corrective effort that Senate Republicans have blocked by a filibuster to prevent the full Senate from even considering it. In our currently divided Congress, immediate prospects for the passage of such remedial legislation may not appear promising. But it is important to recognize the current 5-4 majority's pattern of favoring corporations and harming workers in its decisions interpreting federal civil rights laws, and to recognize and act on the ability to reverse these harmful rulings.

PFAW Foundation