Supreme Court Goes Back to Work in January and Shows Again Why Election Day is Judgment Day

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

After a Holiday break, the Supreme Court returned to a full schedule of arguments and other activity in January. The crucial oral argument before the Court this month in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, as well as several cases that the Court agreed to review later this year, again show that on a variety of important issues, the Court has enormous influence but is closely divided. With the president elected in November likely to select as many as four new Supreme Court justices beginning as early as next year, the person we elect as president will be critical. That’s why Election Day 2016 will be Judgment Day for the Court and our rights and liberties.

Friedrichs is the latest battle in what the New York Times has called the “war on workers” and unions being waged by Justice Alito and other conservatives on the Court. A primary target of that war has been a decision almost 40 years ago inAbood v. Detroit Board of Education. In that case the Court determined that although workers cannot be forced to join a union or contribute to its political activities, since that would violate their First Amendment rights, they can be required to help pay for the costs of collective bargaining and related activities from which they benefit even if they are not union members. That solution to what would otherwise be a “free rider” problem is crucial to the ability of unions to effectively represent the interests of workers.  Even though a unanimous Supreme Court recognized the principle of Abood as recently as 2009, subsequent 5-4 decisions written by Justice Alito have criticized that ruling and effectively invited attempts to overturn it. That is exactly what the plaintiffs in Friedrichs, a small group of California teachers, are attempting to do, claiming they should not have to join or pay “fair share” costs to the state teachers union and that Abood should be overturned.

The justices’ comments at the oral argument made clear that the conservative 5-4 majority remains hostile to unions and Abood, and may well be prepared to overrule it this year. (As usual, Justice Thomas did not speak at the argument, but his negative views in this area have been made clear in past opinions). Particularly troubling were some comments by Justice Kennedy, who is often the “swing” vote on the Court, but in this case maintained that “free riders” are really “compelled riders” who, he claimed, are forced to support unions on “issues on which they strongly disagree.” Regardless of the merits of that claim, on which many have disagreed, it strongly suggests that there may now be five votes to overturnAbood, with disastrous consequences for unions and workers.

It is impossible, of course, to predict the precise outcome of a Supreme Court case based on the oral argument, and the Court could issue a decision that does not completely overrule Abood. The Court could send the case back to a lower court for specific fact-finding on issues like the impact of eliminating “free rider” payments on unions, as was suggested at one point in the argument, or could limit its holding to the specific case in California. Particularly if the Court chooses one of those alternatives, the question of who will replace older justices like Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Scalia when they retire will be critical. That is why the election in November of our next president, who will nominate such replacements, is crucial for the Court and workers’ rights. Even an outright overruling of Abood could be softened or revisited, but only if a progressive president is elected and selects more progressives Justices for the Court.

During January, the Court also agreed to review several important cases on other subjects this year. The case that has generated the most controversy is United States v. Texas, where lower courts have put on hold the president’s executive orders on immigration that would defer deportation enforcement against millions of undocumented immigrants who have children who are citizens or legal permanent residents and would be able to apply for jobs and stay in the U.S. for three years.  Twenty-six states led by Texas filed the challenge, and the huge partisan divide on the question almost guarantees that it will be an election issue this fall. The most extreme Justices on the Court (Scalia, Alito and Thomas) have voted against virtually every significant Obama initiative that has come before the Court, and the Court’s decision to add a question for the parties to address - whether the Obama order is consistent with the Constitution’s language that the president should “take care” that federal laws be “faithfully executed” -- suggests deep skepticism by some of the justices. The decision itself could have a huge impact not only on this specific issue, but also on the ability of a future progressive president to take other executive action in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. However this case is decided, there is also little question that these issues will return to the Court in 2017 or later, and the views of the president who will appoint future justices will be crucial to the results. 

The Court also decided in January to review several other important cases this year. In one, the Court has been asked to decide whether a state constitution can more strictly separate church and state than the increasingly conservative Supreme Court has and can prohibit any direct state financial aid to religious institutions. Thirty-five states have such constitutional provisions, and the Court is very divided on such religion issues, which are very likely to come up in the future as well. And in another big business vs. consumers case, the Court will consider what must be proven to prosecute someone for illegally using inside company information for stock or other trading. This issue has divided lower courts, one of which has adopted a narrow interpretation that has dealt a significant setback to the efforts of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to crack down on insider trading in the $3 trillion hedge fund industry. The Court is likely to be divided on this issue as well.

The Court’s decisions in both these cases later this year will be important in and of themselves. But they are also very unlikely to be the last word on the significant big business, consumer, and religion issues they raise. The fact that these and other crucial issues will be decided by this divided Court in the future, and the fact that four justices on the current Court will be over 80 in the next president’s first term, is what makes the identity of the president who will appoint future justices so important. Statements this month by both Democratic and Republican candidates show that, even as they also discuss other issues, they clearly recognize the importance of the election for the future direction of the Court. In short, Election Day 2016 truly is Judgment Day for the Supreme Court and for all of our rights and liberties.

PFAW

Supreme Court Rejects Attempt At Restrictive Six-Week Abortion Ban

There has long been a debate raging within the anti-abortion movement between those who have mapped out a careful strategy to slowly chip away at Roe v. Wade through incremental restrictions on abortion and those who want to launch legal broadsides against abortion rights in the hopes that one will take Roe down once and for all.

The incrementalists will have their big day in court on March 2, when the Supreme Court hears arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a challenge to a set of laws in Texas that seeks to cut off access to legal abortion even as the procedure remains legal. Whole Woman’s Health is the culmination of a decades-long strategy by groups like Americans United for Life to choke off abortion access by creating unnecessary regulations on clinics. These groups are also hoping to get the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe in the form of laws banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, just before when the court has said that abortion bans are legal.

But those who want to find a silver bullet to end abortion rights completely just had a day in court too … and it didn’t go well for them.

The Supreme Court today declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down North Dakota’s “fetal heartbeat” law, which would have banned abortion at about six weeks of pregnancy, before many women even know that they are pregnant. The law was clearly unconstitutional — one prominent anti-choice lawyer has called such efforts “futile” — but North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said that it was an “attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.”

The boundaries of Roe v. Wade, it turns out, however much they may be weakened by incremental restrictions, still prevent banning almost all abortions.

Yet today’s rejection is unlikely to halt the efforts of “heartbeat bill” crusaders, the most prominent of whom is Religious Right activist Janet Porter, who is currently running for the legislature in her home state of Ohio in an effort to push such a bill through.

PFAW

Divided Supreme Court Issues Good Decision in Important Class Action Case

On Wednesday of this week, in an important case on class actions previewed last September by PFAWF, the Supreme Court handed down a good ruling for consumers concerning class actions. This was an unusual development for the Roberts-Alito Court, which has generally gone along with big business efforts to limit class actions as an important remedy. This time, although Roberts and Alito (and Scalia) dissented, six justices led by Justice Ginsburg rejected a corporation’s effort to hurt consumers.

Class actions are a crucial type of lawsuit that allows consumers and others with relatively small individual claims to band together and seek large amounts of damages to help hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing. In this case, Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, the corporation had violated federal law by sending unwanted telephone solicitations to some 100,000 people. Jose Gomez got one of those solicitations and filed a lawsuit, asking  for the maximum statutory remedy for himself of $1500 but also seeking to bring a class action on behalf of the tens of thousands of other people who received the unwanted solicitations. The corporation tried to end the suit by offering to pay Mr. Gomez  his $1500 and then arguing that its offer ended the lawsuit and the basis for the class action.  If allowed, that would give corporations an easy and inexpensive way to prevent most class action lawsuits.

The Supreme Court rejected the corporation’s ploy in a 6-3 vote. As Justice Ginsburg explained, if a plaintiff like Mr. Gomez rejects an offer, even if it is for the maximum amount that could be recovered individually, the case remains alive and able to be pursued  as a class action.  Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Alito and Scalia, dissented and argued, as they usually do, that the corporation should prevail , since it was willing to give Mr. Gomez “everything he asks for.” As Justice Ginsburg explained in response, that “would place the defendant in the driver’s seat”, improperly allowing corporations to spend minimal amounts to pay off individual plaintiffs and forestall class actions.

This decision will not remedy the damage that the Roberts-Alito Court has previously done, and could well do in the future, to limit class actions and harm consumers. And the Court left open the question of whether a corporation can stop a class action by formally placing the full amount of an individual’s claim in an account and getting a lower court to rule for the individual and dismiss the class action claim. This loophole should be closed by the Court, as the New York Times explained, to “protect what remains of the class action from the unrelenting efforts of business to undermine it.” At least in this case, however, even Roberts and Alito could not muster the votes needed to further harm consumers and help big business.

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Hosts Briefing & Rallies at the Supreme Court for Workers’ Rights Case

Just hours after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in a case that will likely have a profound impact on the rights of working people, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, People For the American Way hosted a member telebriefing to help unpack what’s at stake in the case.

On the call, PFAW Senior Fellow and constitutional law scholar Jamie Raskin explained that at issue in Friedrichs are “agency fees” that allow the costs of collective bargaining and other union benefits to be shared by all public sector employees rather than by union members alone. Attacking this practice amounts to “a broad-based assault on public sector unions,” Raskin said.

PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker situated the case within the context of the Roberts-Alito Court’s pro-corporate record, where the high court has consistently privileged the interests of corporations over the rights of individual people, such as in the Citizens United decision.

“Workers have a right to stand up for themselves” and to “represent their own interests,” Baker added.

Before the telebriefing, PFAW staff and supporters were at the Supreme Court demonstrating in support of the rights of working people as the justices heard arguments in the case.


You can listen to the full telebriefing below, and read affiliate PFAW Foundation’s new report on “Corporations, Unions, and Constitutional Democracy” here.

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PFAW

Ginsburg Calls Out the Roberts Court's Empowering of the Powerful

The Supreme Court issued a ruling today in another of its series of arbitration cases.  Yet again, the Court upheld the ability of a powerful corporation to force consumers to agree to arbitration and sign away their right to engage in class action should the company violate their legal rights.  Class actions are a vital mechanism to hold large businesses accountable.  We’ve been writing about this trend for the past several years in cases like AT&T v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant.

Unlike the other cases, today's ruling in DIRECTV v. Imburgia was not 5-4 in the predictable lineup.  Instead, it was 6-3, with Justice Breyer writing the opinion, joined by Justices Kagan, Scalia, Alito, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts.  Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justice Sotomayor) dissented, while Justice Thomas had a separate dissent.

Ginsburg’s dissent opened up with clear description of how the Roberts Court has empowered corporations and weakened consumers:

It has become routine, in a large part due to this Court’s decisions, for powerful economic enterprises to write into their form contracts with consumers and employees no-class-action arbitration clauses.  …  Acknowledging the precedent so far set by the Court, I would take no further step to disarm consumers, leaving them without effective access to justice.

Americans have long been able to count on strong consumer protection laws to protect them for being victimized by predatory corporations.  Those laws, including the right to class actions, have been essential in letting ordinary people stand as equals to giant corporations and hold those businesses accountable.  Ginsburg is correct to say that the line of 5-4 arbitration cases has left us “disarmed,” because giant corporations are increasingly empowered to change the relationship between buyer and seller into one between predator and prey.

We are, indeed, disarmed and without effective access to justice … despite laws designed to protect us.

In closing, Ginsburg wrote that the Court is:

further degrading the rights of consumers and further insulating already powerful economic entities from liability for unlawful acts.

We deserve better from our nation’s Supreme Court.

PFAW Foundation

Justice Scalia's Ironic Comments About Democracy

Justice Antonin Scalia had some interesting things to say at a speech yesterday to Georgetown University law students.  The Washington Post reports on Scalia’s response to a question about minority rights:

But a question about whether courts have a responsibility to protect minorities that cannot win rights through the democratic process — the issue that animated the court’s landmark decision this year on same-sex marriage — brought a caustic response.

“You either believe in a democracy or you don’t,” Scalia said. “You talk about minorities — what minorities deserve protection?”

Religious minorities are protected by the First Amendment, Scalia said, and so are political minorities. But beyond that, he asked rhetorically, what empowers Supreme Court justices to expand the list.

“It’s up to me to decide deserving minorities?” Scalia asked. “What about pederasts? What about child abusers? So should I on the Supreme Court [say] this is a deserving minority. Nobody loves them.”

“No, if you believe in democracy, you should put it to the people,” he said.

No, Justice Scalia, if you believe in democracy governed by the Bill of Rights, people have rights that cannot be violated by majorities.  The majesty of the Equal Protection Clause is that it was intentionally written broadly, rather than being limited to certain people.  And it doesn’t have a clause saying “except for gay people.”

In addition, given Scalia’s caustic dissents in cases recognizing the constitutional equality and basic humanity of gay people, it is hardly a surprise that he answered a question implicating LGBT equality by dragging in pederasts and child abusers.  From a legal perspective, can he really not see any difference between protecting innocent but unpopular people who aren’t harming anyone, and policies designed to prevent adults from committing acts of violence against unwilling children?

Legal comparisons aside, why bring up child molesters at all?  For far too long, far right extremists have long peddled the pernicious lie that gay people are inherently a threat to children.  Why did Scalia’s mind go there?  Surely there are other categories of people he could have mentioned to make the same point.

Scalia’s comment about believing in a democracy also has to be taken in context: He voted with the 5-4 majorities in Citizens United (opening up our elections to unlimited corporate and special-interest money) and Shelby County (gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act and empowering those who seek to win elections by disenfranchising Americans who might vote against them).  And, of course, he was with the 5-4 majority in the ultimate judicial middle finger to democracy, Bush v. Gore.

At the heart of our democracy is the right to vote in free and fair elections.  That means elections without barriers designed to keep the “wrong” people from voting, and elections where the voices of ordinary people are not drowned out by a tiny sliver of phenomenally wealthy and powerful interests.  That is what a healthy democracy looks like, and it makes Scalia’s comments quite ironic.

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court Takes Up Most Significant Reproductive Rights Cases in Decades

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

The Supreme Court announced today that it will decide on the constitutionality ofsevere restrictions adopted in Texas that threaten to make it virtually impossible for many women there to obtain safe and legal abortions.

Coupled with the Court's recent decision to hear cases on whether certain employers can effectively deny their female employees the contraceptive coverage they are entitled to receive under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the 2015-16 Supreme Court term could well become the most significant for women's reproductive rights since the Court upheld the right to choose in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 -- and almost as significant as when the Court overturned a law banning contraception 50 years ago in Griswold v. Connecticut.

The Texas case, Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, concerns a law imposing restrictions on clinics so severe that they would reduce the number of clinics that perform abortions in the state from more than 40 a few years ago to just 10, including none at all in the 500 miles between San Antonio and the New Mexico border. The state has claimed that the limits, requiring extensive hospital-like equipment and doctors with hospital admitting privileges even for clinics that offer abortions only through oral medication, are important to protect women's health.

These claims are belied not only by the medical evidence, but also by Texas politicians'; statements, such as Governor Rick Perry's vow to "pass laws to ensure" that abortions are "as rare as possible."

That law clearly violates the 5-4 ruling of the Court in Casey, which upheld the basic right to choose of Roe v. Wade, and held that such laws must truly be important to protect women's health and not impose an "undue burden" on that right. Will the Court uphold and correctly apply Casey and continue to protect reproductive rights? Given the stark divisions on the Court, the answer may well come down to the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the last member of the five-person Casey majority who is still on the Court today.

The Court has also agreed to hear what many are already calling "Hobby Lobby II." Last year, the Court ruled 5-4 that owners of for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby could use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to raise religious objections and exempt themselves from providing contraceptive coverage to female employees as required by the ACA. To do so, the Court suggested that the companies could use the opt-out mechanism available to religiously-affiliated colleges and other nonprofits and inform the government of their religious objections, so the government could arrange for insurers to provide the coverage without cost to the employer.

Now, however, many of these nonprofits are claiming that the opt-out mechanism itself violates RFRA. In other words, they want to not just refuse to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, they also want to make sure the government cannot make other arrangements, so that the women will be deprived of contraceptive coverage guaranteed by the ACA.

Seven out of eight lower federal appeals courts have rejected these claims, ruling that simply telling the government of their objections and the identity of their insurer is not a "substantial burden" on nonprofits' religious free exercise under RFRA and that the government has a compelling interest in providing contraceptive coverage.

Justice Kennedy, who provided the fifth vote in Hobby Lobby, suggested in a concurring opinion that the opt-out was an appropriate accommodation. But if the Court upholds the nonprofits' objections in Zubik v. Burwell, the result will be devastating to the ability of women to get contraceptive coverage, especially since for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby will likely make the same claim that religion allows them also to completely deprive their female employees of contraceptive coverage. Although not as coercive as the Connecticut ban on contraceptives overruled in Griswold, the result could well be even more devastating to reproductive freedom across the country, allowing employers to transform RFRA from a shield to protect religion into a sword to harm reproductive rights.

Both the clinic and the contraceptive cases are highly likely to produce divided 5-4 decisions that will be enormously important to women' reproductive rights. With four of the justices in their 80s during the term of the president elected next year, these cases once again demonstrate the crucial stakes in the 2016 election for reproductive rights, as well as for so many other rights central to our liberty and freedom.

PFAW

SCOTUS Will Hear Latest Contraception Coverage Refusal Cases

The Supreme Court today announced that it will hear several cases involving the accommodation for religious nonprofits seeking to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage requirement.  This is not a surprise; as we wrote in our Supreme Court 2015-2016 Term Preview:

Under the accommodation, the employers simply tell the insurer or the federal government of their objection, at which point the insurer must offer the coverage separately to employees who want it. This way, the employees can get the coverage without their employers having to contract, arrange, or pay for it.  But some religious nonprofits assert that even the accommodation violates their religious liberty under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  Under RFRA, no federal law imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise can be sustained unless it is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government purpose.

The list of circuit courts that have roundly rejected this argument is long:  The DC Circuit, the Second Circuit, Third Circuit, the Fifth Circuit, the Sixth Circuit, the Seventh Circuit, and the Tenth Circuit.  But in September 2015, the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of the nonprofits and found the accommodation violated RFRA.  Now that there is a circuit split, it seems likely that the Supreme Court will take up the issue via the appeals from one or more of these circuit decisions.

The premise of those challenging the accommodation is a severe distortion of RFRA and of the very concept of religious liberty set forth by the Court’s hard-right conservatives in the 5-4 ruling in Hobby Lobby.  That law was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1993 as a means to protect the free exercise of religion.  But conservative ideologues have sought to transform RFRA from a shield into a sword, one that they can use to violate the rights of third parties.  The right wing’s enthusiastic embrace of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis shows just how far they want to extend the reasoning of Hobby Lobby.

Here, the conservatives argue that filling out a form so that insurance companies can know about their legal obligations to provide certain coverage is a substantial burden on the exercise of their religion.  That strained reasoning is a cynical use of religion to deprive women of needed healthcare, an effort to force women employees to live by their employers’ religious strictures rather than their own.  But what the Supreme Court said about the First Amendment in a 1985 case called Estate of Thornton v. Caldor is equally true of RFRA:

The First Amendment . . . gives no one the right to insist that in pursuit of their own interests others must conform their conduct to his own religious necessities. [quoting from a lower court opinion by Judge Learned Hand]

Justice Kennedy, who voted with the Hobby Lobby majority, is likely to be the deciding vote in this case.  His concurrence in Hobby Lobby hinted that he might not go as far as his fellow conservatives in granting people the latitude to use RFRA to deprive others of their rights:

Among the reasons the United States is so open, so tolerant, and so free is that no person may be restricted or demeaned by government in exercising his or her religion.  Yet neither may that same exercise unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling.  In these cases [involving for-profit employers] the means to reconcile those two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation the Government has designed, identified, and used for circumstances closely parallel to those presented here [the accommodation for religious non-profits].

Given the circuit split on the accommodation for religious nonprofits, the Supreme Court had little choice but to take this issue on.  They do have a choice, however, in how they rule.  Hopefully, a majority of justices will take the first step in restoring RFRA to the law it was intended to be.

PFAW Foundation

35 Years After Reagan's Election, His Justices Still Have a Huge Impact

On November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, setting in motion a number of trends that continue to harm our country today.

Reagan and his ideological followers set out to delegitimize efforts to use our elected government to benefit the common good, to accomplish things that the market cannot do effectively or fairly, and to correct for the massive imbalance in power between large corporations and lone individuals.  Two specific actions he took continue to have a direct and devastating impact on our nation today: his selection of Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy as Supreme Court justices.

Scalia and Kennedy are part of the narrow 5-4 majority that has decimated Americans’ ability to limit money in politics, empowered the disenfranchisement of targeted Americans, severely weakened our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and found ways to prevent everyday Americans from having their day in court.  Reagan may have been elected 35 years ago, but his chosen Supreme Court justices continue to make the difference in narrowly-decided cases involving any number of issues … money and politics, civil and voting rights, reproductive freedom and women’s rights, religious liberty, and so many more.

With the Court divided 5-4 in favor of the far-right conservatives on so many issues, the fact that four of the justices will be in their 80s by the end of the next president’s first term becomes enormously important.  Presidential candidates in both parties have made it clear what kind of justices they would place on the Court.  If a Republican wins the White House next year, the Supreme Court’s sharp and damaging rightward shift of the past ten years will continue and likely become even worse.  In contrast, a Democratic president’s chosen justices would likely restore a fairer and more balanced court, one that no longer bends the law and ignores logic in order to favor corporate and wealthy interests and undermine our country’s democracy.

Anyone seeking examples of just what a difference one justice can make on any number of issues need look no farther than People For the American Way’s Judgment Day 2016 report.

It’s a chilling summary of just how many rights and liberties have been eroded by the conservative 5-4 majority of the Roberts-Alito Court.  And each of those decisions was made possible by the two justices nominated by the president elected 35 years ago today.

PFAW

Eliminating Courts, Eliminating Justice

If you ever think that courts don’t matter, ask yourself this: Why are major corporations and arch-conservative judges going to such lengths to prevent you from having your day in court when someone has violated your legal rights?

The New York Times has an in-depth three-part series of reports on arbitration, the system by which ordinary people are increasingly being coerced into surrendering their right to the protections provided by the American judicial system. Agreements to resolve disputes by arbitration are increasingly becoming a standard part of the all-or-nothing contracts that enormous corporations force individuals to sign as a condition of doing business with them. With private arbitration, you surrender your right to a courtroom with a neutral judge and a wide variety of substantive and procedural protections for all parties. Instead, the company picks a private arbitrator whose living depends on getting cases from corporate interests. The protections of the court system are cast aside. And you can’t have class action lawsuits, which are often the only way to hold wrongdoers accountable when they harm large numbers of individuals relatively small amounts, so it is often not worthwhile for a wronged party to pursue arbitration.

Contracts have existed for centuries. In theory, they are negotiated by two people or businesses in a process of give-and-take, where both parties fully understand what they are agreeing to. But as anyone who has cable TV or a cell phone can tell you, most contracts we sign are handed to us “as is,” take it or leave it. If you don’t agree to the terms imposed by some enormous corporation with millions of customers, the cost to you (life without a phone) is a lot more than the cost to the company (the loss of one of millions of customers). With vastly unequal bargaining power, the consumer has little choice but to agree. And, in fact, most people sign consumer contracts or click the “I agree” box online with little to no knowledge or understanding of the agreement.

As the Times reports:

By inserting individual arbitration clauses into a soaring number of consumer and employment contracts, companies like American Express devised a way to circumvent the courts and bar people from joining together in class-action lawsuits, realistically the only tool citizens have to fight illegal or deceitful business practices.

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult to apply for a credit card, use a cellphone, get cable or Internet service, or shop online without agreeing to private arbitration. The same applies to getting a job, renting a car or placing a relative in a nursing home.

By banning class actions, companies have essentially disabled consumer challenges to practices like predatory lending, wage theft and discrimination, court records show.

“This is among the most profound shifts in our legal history,” William G. Young, a federal judge in Boston who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, said in an interview. “Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach.”

How did we reach a point where individuals can be routinely victimized by large corporations and denied access to the courts to vindicate their legal rights?

To a great extent, the blame can be laid at the feet of five people: The conservative majority of the Supreme Court. Their devastating 5-4 rulings like those eviscerating the Voting Rights Act or allowing billionaires and special interests to spend unlimited money in politics are well known. Less well known are 5-4 decisions in arbitration cases. Particularly notorious are AT&T v. Concepcion, where the conservatives ruled that giant corporations can use arbitration agreements to undermine state consumer protection laws across the country, and American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant, where the conservatives empowered monopolists to use arbitration agreements to bypass federal antitrust laws.

As if this weren’t bad enough, arbitration is hardly the only weapon corporate interests are using to block their victims from vindicating their rights in court.

In fact, just today, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in Spokeo v. Robins, where corporate interests claim that their victims can’t sue in federal court if their “only” injury is that a right created by Congress was violated. Last month, the Court heard oral arguments in Campbell-Ewald Company v. Gomez, where a large company argued for the power to terminate a class action suit against it early on by quickly offering a settlement to the lead plaintiff representing the class.

Fair and just courts are vitally important in providing equal justice under the law to those who would otherwise be powerless against the enormous entities who have so much more power and resources. So it is no surprise that those powerful interests are so dedicated to blocking ordinary people from having their day in court.

PFAW Foundation