Clinton Recognizes the Key Role of Supreme Court Nominations in Protecting Our Democracy

Hillary Clinton's campaign has made clear perhaps the most important way that America's choice for president in 2016 will have a profound effect for good or for ill on the health of our democracy: the next president's Supreme Court nominees.

As reported in Bloomberg, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta noted the importance of Supreme Court nominations during an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose yesterday:

"What she's out there doing is saying that we need to clean up financial—the campaign finance. Just listen to the voices of everyday Americans to, you know, move forward, and if it takes a constitutional amendment, so be it. I think the first thing that she'll do, quite frankly—and that this will set her apart from her Republican opponents—is that she'll appoint Supreme Court justices who protect the right of every American to vote, not every corporation to buy an election."

The Roberts Court's devastating campaign finance rulings like Citizens United have all been 5-4. It is that one-vote margin that gave corporations the ability to pour unlimited amounts of dark money into influencing our elections, that has tossed out common-sense efforts to restore the voices of those who are not among the nation's financial elite, and that has ramped up the ability of millionaires and billionaires to give even more money directly to parties and campaigns.

But those recent cases are sharp departures from the Court's previous jurisprudence on the First Amendment, and it could take only one new Supreme Court Justice to overrule them.

Similarly, the rampant assault on voting rights we have seen in recent years can be traced back to bad rulings in Shelby County (gutting the Voting Rights Act) and Crawford (okaying restrictive photo ID requirements to vote). We can be sure that more challenges to the right to vote will make their way to the Supreme Court, and it is critical that we have Justices who understand the importance of protecting that right.

Three of the current Justices will be 80 or older by the time the next president is inaugurated, and a fourth will turn 80 in 2018. The next president may have one or more opportunities to change the Court, either to strengthen the current hard-right majority for a generation or more, or to restore a Court that we can rely on to protect our rights and our democracy.

PFAW

Arkansas Governor Does Only a Partial Retreat on RFRA

Yesterday, the Arkansas legislature approved a so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" bill similar to Indiana's RFRA. Today, the governor surprised people by rejecting the bill as written and asking for changes. As CNN reports:

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he does not plan to sign the religious freedom bill that sits on his desk right now, instead asking state lawmakers to make changes so the bill mirrors federal law.

The first-term Republican governor said he wants his state "to be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance."

While the requested change would remove some of the dangerous aspects of the bills that differentiated them from the federal version, it would still leave the door open to state-sanctioned discrimination in the name of religion.

The federal RFRA dates back to 1993, and neither its text nor its purpose empower anyone to bypass laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. However, as PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg has written, the Supreme Court drastically rewrote the law last year in its 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision:

[As Justice Ginsburg explained in her dissent,] the Court effectively rewrote RFRA so that it could be invoked by for-profit corporations, and so that the original law protecting individuals against a "substantial burden" on the exercise of religion was transformed to allow claims by a business owner that complying with a neutral law offended their religious beliefs in some way. Under the majority's view, Justice Ginsburg suggested, RFRA could be interpreted to "require exemptions" in cases where religious beliefs were used to justify actions that discriminated on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Pointedly, Justice Alito responded only that "prohibitions on racial discrimination" would be safe from a RFRA exemption claim, but said nothing about gender or LGBT status.

That's why Gov. Hutchinson's call for a bill that matches the federal RFRA does not solve the discrimination problem. A state law tracking the federal RFRA and passed after Hobby Lobby is far more likely to be interpreted by the courts along the same lines. This is especially so since the bill's supporters regularly cite their desire to "protect" businesspeople who are religiously offended by same-sex couples from serving them.

The Arkansas and Indiana RFRAs have features making them even more open to be used as vehicles for otherwise illegal discrimination than the federal RFRA as transmogrified by the Roberts Court. But if Gov. Hutchinson succeeds in getting a bill that matches the federal version, he still will not have accomplished his stated goal of making Arkansas "known as a state that does not discriminate."

PFAW

Supreme Court Sends Alabama Racial Gerrymandering Case Back to Lower Court

The Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling yesterday disagreeing with a lower court that had upheld Alabama's racially gerrymandered state legislative redistricting. The cases are Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama and Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama.

As we discussed in our Term Preview, the Republican-controlled Alabama legislature enacted a state redistricting plan after the 2010 Census that transferred a significant portion of the black population that had previously been in majority-white districts into districts that were already majority-black, a process some have called bleaching. (This plan was adopted while Alabama was still subject to the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, before Shelby County v. Holder.) Ostensibly to comply with the requirement under Section 5 that new lines not lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise, legislators decided that the African American percentages in the redrawn majority-minority districts had to be at least whatever they had become before redistricting. So if a district that was (say) 65% African American in 2002 had become 75% African American by 2010, the new lines had to keep the district at least 75% African American.

Because of population shifts over the past decade and a decision to minimize population differences among districts, this policy meant that African Americans in majority-white districts were redistricted into majority- and supermajority-black districts.

The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference argued that legislators had misinterpreted Section 5, that race was impermissibly the overriding criterion used by legislators in drawing lines, and that the redistricting plan violated the Fourteenth Amendment. But a special three-judge district court had upheld the redistricting, ruling that (1) minimizing population differences among districts, and not race, was the predominant factor in drawing the lines, so strict scrutiny didn't apply; and (2) even if strict scrutiny applied, the boundaries were narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling purpose of compliance with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 (which was in force then).

In an opinion written by Justice Breyer and joined by the other moderates plus Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court repudiated the lower court, sending the case back so certain districts can be reanalyzed under the proper standards to determine if they are racially discriminatory. They held that Alabama can't avoid an analysis of whether race was the predominant factor by pointing to its desire to have population balance among districts:

[I]f the legislature must place 1,000 or so additional voters in a particular district in order to achieve an equal population goal, the "predominance" question concerns which voters the legislature decides to choose, and specifically whether the legislature predominately uses race as opposed to other, "traditional" factors when doing so.

Another key part of the ruling was the discussion of Section 5, which the Court made clear does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority percentage. Instead, it requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority's ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice.

The state's Section 5 rationale seemed like a stretch designed to justify a redistricting process that some have called "bleaching." Yesterday's ruling will ensure that no one grasps for that particular straw again in an effort to cover up racial gerrymandering. (This assumes, of course, that Congress eventually restores Section 5's efficacy by adopting a new formula for coverage, since the Roberts Court struck down the existing formula in the infamous 5-4 Shelby County ruling.) The case is also important because the dissent by the four most right-wing Justices, which was only one vote from becoming the majority opinion, would have allowed the Alabama legislature in this case to use race in drawing districts in a way that would harm minority voters.

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Member Telebriefing: Preview of Upcoming PFAW Foundation Report, The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era

Yesterday, PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin previewed his upcoming report, The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era, during a member telebriefing. Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon also joined the call to answer questions from members and discuss PFAW efforts to promote fair and just courts. Drew Courtney, Director of Communications for PFAW, moderated.

To kick off the call, Raskin reviewed another period during which the Court granted unprecedented constitutional rights to corporations. Lochner v. NY, Raskin explained, began an era in which government at every level was prevented from interfering with corporate contracts—and thereby prevented from passing sensible health and safety regulations.

Today, said Raskin, we’re in an analogous period, with the Supreme Court now using the First Amendment as an excuse for expanding or inventing the political and religious rights of corporations. This time, it’s beyond what we’ve ever seen before; the Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby cases both demonstrate how the Court is putting the interests of corporations over the rights of people and making it more difficult to hold corporations accountable for their actions. Other cases allow corporations to insulate themselves through a host of legal immunities while at the same time, they’re able to spend unlimited amounts of money  influencing who gets elected to office.

In responding to a question from a PFAW member, Baker outlined the two key ways to fight the Court’s trend of empowering corporations over people: Elect Presidents who will nominate, and Senators who will confirm, Justices who share the ideology that corporations shouldn’t be favored in their legal rights over people; and amend the Constitution, which PFAW and other groups are working on now. She also directed PFAW members to www.united4thepeople.org and www.getmoneyoutaction.org to get more involved in these issues.

You can listen to the full telebriefing here:

PFAW Foundation

Peggy Young Will Get Her Day in Court

There's good news in the Supreme Court ruling in Peggy Young v. UPS, a case we discussed in our Term Preview and also blogged about after oral arguments. That's the case where UPS refused to give light duty to a pregnant employee who was under doctor's orders not to lift heavy packages, even though they gave light duty to other employees with similar lifting restrictions (those injured on the job, those who'd lost their DOT driving certification, and those with permanent disabilities).

The Court ruled in favor of Young in a five-Justice opinion written by Justice Breyer and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Chief Justice Roberts. (Justice Alito concurred in the result but didn't join the majority opinion.) It's an important victory for Peggy Young individually and for women across the country, since it shuts down corporate efforts to make it much easier to discriminate against pregnant workers.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), passed in 1978, says that pregnancy discrimination is a form of illegal sex discrimination. Congress had to make this explicit after the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in a 1976 case. But that isn't all the PDA says. It also has a second provision: women affected by pregnancy "shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."

The Court rejected UPS's extremely restrictive reading of the law. The corporation had argued that it hadn't discriminated on the basis of pregnancy because they were treating Young the same way they'd have treated a non-pregnant employee whose restrictions weren't caused by an on-the-job injury or other category. As Peggy Young learned the hard way when the lower courts ruled in favor of UPS without a trial, this made it much too easy for employers to force an employee to choose between her pregnancy and her job.

But the Supreme Court majority also rejected Young's reading of the law, where she would not have needed to show any intent to discriminate. Instead, the majority said that women in Young's situation – women asserting disparate treatment but without direct evidence of discriminatory intent – have to do more than show that they are being treated differently than workers with similar restrictions on their ability to work. Once they demonstrate the disparate treatment, the employer has a chance to offer up legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for their policy ("saving money" doesn't count). Then it's up to the employee to convince a jury that those reasons are just a pretext. This is the same framework used in other types of Title VII disparate treatment cases, and it can create a hurdle that can be hard for victims of discrimination to overcome.

So this was not the complete victory Young sought, but it is still a victory, because it vacated the lower court and gives her a chance to make her case.

In a brief paragraph, the majority noted that the law has changed since Young's pregnancy, to the benefit of women like her. Specifically, Congress modified the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008 to specify that impairments that limit your ability to lift, stand, or bend are disabilities under the law, thereby presenting legal options to women that were unavailable to Young. In addition, EEOC rules require employers to accommodate temporary lifting restrictions that originate off the job.

Not mentioned by the Court (appropriately enough, since it isn't the law) is a bill in Congress supported by a number of progressives – including our affiliate PFAW – called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. This would make clear that employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees.

The Court's ruling could have severely restricted women's rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Fortunately, the Court did not accept the misinterpretation of the law that would have benefited corporate interests at the expense of women everywhere.

PFAW Foundation

The Animus Amicus: Archive Activism and Marriage Equality

Note: This article first appeared at Huffington Post. 

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of state laws that ban same-sex couples from getting married. The historic case has attracted a wide array of amicus briefs; People For the American Way Foundation joined religious and civil rights groups on a brief urging the Court to reject discriminatory marriage bans and challenging “religious liberty” arguments opposing marriage equality.

One fascinating brief was filed by the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.  The original group by that name was led by Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was fired from his federal job for being gay and led some of the earliest gay-rights protests in the nation’s capital in the 1960s. The name and legacy have been revived by local activists Charles Francis and Pate Felts for the purpose of documenting decades of systematic anti-gay discrimination by the federal government. In partnership with pro bono attorneys from the firm of McDermott Will & Emery, the new Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is engaged in strategic “archive activism.” They are using the Freedom of Information Act to unearth a “culture of animus” that permeated the U.S. Civil Service Commission – now known as the Office of Personnel Management – and to bring to public light previously closed records about investigations challenging workers’ “loyalty” and “suitability.”

“The investigation and firing of gay and lesbian federal employees was like shooting fish in a barrel for the General Counsels and legal staff of the Civil Service Commission,” says Francis. “The animus, almost sports-like in their writings, is documented in decades of legal advisory files we discovered this year at the National Archives.”

Among the historical tidbits unearthed by the project: Nancy Reagan turning down a plea from a dying Rock Hudson for help getting into another hospital; and anti-gay activist Gary Bauer’s no-holds-barred, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to keep the White House from including a gay person on the nation’s first AIDS commission.

The Mattachine Society’s project is about preserving the historical record, but it also has an important legal purpose, which is demonstrating that anti-equality laws and regulations have long been grounded in hostility, or animus, that is not a permissible justification for discrimination.  Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent from the Supreme Court decision in Windsor, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, demonstrates the importance of this archival work. Roberts suggested there is insufficient evidence – he waved it away as “snippets of legislative history” – to demonstrate that DOMA’s purpose was to “codify malice.” Added Roberts, “I would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry.”

There’s no escaping the brush of bigotry, the reeking stench of bigotry, exposed by the Mattachine Society’s brief, which links to more than 35 historical documents that demonstrate the ways that the Civil Service Commission, often in partnership with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and other law enforcement agencies, investigated people suspected of sexual “perversion” and robbed them of their federal jobs and careers.

From the amicus:

For decades, this animus was one of the basic assumptions of American life. It was so persistent, so prevalent, and so instrumental to the way that we structured our institutions, treated our fellow citizens, and organized our lives that, in retrospect, it is often overlooked….

For decades, both federal and state governments targeted and persecuted homosexuals, individuals suspected of being homosexual, and even those believed to have engaged in homosexual acts, regardless of actual sexual orientation. The stated rationale shifted over time—from concerns about national security to code words, such as “suitability”—but the point was always the same: government officials, federal and state, high and low, felt a complete revulsion toward homosexuals and wanted to purge the country of even the hint of homosexuality.

Animus, therefore, was a culture. And with that culture came a language. For decades,  government officials referred to homosexuality in official, often highly confidential or privileged communications, as “unnatural,” “uniquely nasty,” “immoral,” “deviant,” “pervert[ed],” and an “abomination.” Even the FBI had a term for the program that it designed to rid the government of homosexuals—the “Sex Deviate Program.” Once it attached, whether based in fact or mere speculation, the label of homosexuality remained forever fixed. As one senior executive official wrote, “once a homo, always a homo.” And, as one state legislature put it, what homosexuals wanted was “recognition.” And “recognition” was something to fear….

The effort to purge “sex deviates” began well before President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order 10450, but that action explicitly made “sexual perversion” a disqualification from federal employment. Congress was in on the act as well. The Mattachine amicus quotes from a 1950 document from the US Senate Subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department:

There is no place in the United States Government for persons who violate the laws or the accepted standards of morality, or who otherwise bring disrepute to the Federal service by infamous or scandalous personal conduct . . . . It is the opinion of this subcommittee that those who engage in acts of homosexuality and other perverted sex activities are unsuitable for employment in the Federal Government.

The federal government also worked in concert with anti-gay activities being carried out at the state level. One of the documents uncovered by Mattachine’s Freedom of Information Act requests is a 1963 note from Civil Service Commission General Counsel L. V. Meloy to Charley Johns, chairman of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee on Homosexuality and Citizenship.

The infamous Johns Report wallowed in salacious descriptions of “the special world of homosexuality” and warned of “aggressive homosexuals” seeking recognition and legal equality. The report described teachers engaging in sex in public bathrooms and little league coaches seducing teenagers, asserting, “The plain fact of the matter is that a great many homosexuals have an insatiable appetite for sexual activities and find special gratification in the recruitment to their ranks of youth.” The report included a glossary of “sex offenses” that were illegal under Florida law and eight pages of homosexual slang and “deviate acts.”

Meloy’s letter asking for “several copies” of the report said that the “Federal Government has related problems in this area and … [the] investigation will shed additional light on a most difficult problem in suitability for government employment.” The Florida committee specifically targeted gay teachers but also resulted, according to the Mattachine amicus, in the removal of at least 37 federal employees.

The brief also documents that the Civil Service Commission shifted its strategies in response to court rulings challenging its policies. The brief goes into some depth documenting the case of William Dew, an African American Air Force veteran. Dew was married with a pregnant wife when he was fired from his job as an air traffic controller in 1958 for having admitted years earlier as part of a job application to the CIA that he had experimented with gay sex when he was in college. After a six-year legal battle, culminating in the Supreme Court agreeing to hear Dew’s appeal, the government settled with him. But rather than loosening the CSC’s anti-gay policies, the government strengthened its resolve in the wake of the Dew settlement and, in the words of the Mattachine amicus, “demonstrated its willingness to use all of its resources to crush homosexuals and those who engaged in homosexual acts with its suitability standards.”

Following a 1969 DC Circuit Court ruling that challenged the firing of federal workers for something that had nothing to do with the performance of their jobs, the CSC General Counsel at that time, Anthony Mondello, argued that federal agencies would have a hard time attracting quality workers if applicants knew they might have to work with “people who repeatedly engaged in serious misconduct offensive to community standards.”

The CSC and its successor, the Office of Personnel Management, continued to target gay federal employees throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s.

The Mattachine Society brief ends with an appeal to the Court’s history of addressing anti-gay animus:

The Dew case is important for another reason as well—one that goes to the heart of the cases now before this Court. For decades, there was no limit to the animus meted out against LGBT Americans and no end to its reach. It poisoned every institution in the United States and seeped into the lives of all Americans, not merely those of gays and lesbians. So too, the language of animus became commonplace among those in the highest positions in government: “homo,” “sexual deviant,” “pervert,” “abomination,” “uniquely nasty,” and other derogatory terms and phrases were used with bureaucratic ease as a way to define, cabin, and limit the citizenship of LGBT Americans. As the Dew case perfectly illustrates, the animus even extended to those who were not gay.

It was the courts—and in the case of Dew, this Court—that ultimately stepped in to set the course right. This Court knows animus when it sees it, and it has a well-established line of cases overturning laws that by their text, background history, and effect, relegate a class of citizens to second-class status. Seee.g., Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003); and United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). Indeed, this Court has already recognized the long history of discrimination and animus against homosexuals. Seee.g., Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 571.

The newly revealed documents cited herein merely reinforce what this Court already knows. For decades, there was a culture of animus against LGBT Americans that permeated every aspect of American life and every American institution. In many places, that culture continues to this day. To say that the marriage bans now at issue are not somehow the product of this historical animus is to ignore reality. We may not see the air that feeds the flame. But, for decades, animus against LGBT Americans fed the flames of hatred, revulsion, and disgust from which the current marriage bans arose.

The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is optimistic about the impact of its brief. “The government attorneys who administered the federal ban on homosexuals have met their match in our pro bono counsel McDermott, Will & Emery’s powerful amicus brief," says Francis, "The McDermott brief is a lasting account of an unconstitutional ‘culture of animus’ embedded through seven Presidencies.”

PFAW

Americans Will Know Who to Blame If the Roberts Court Wrecks Our Healthcare System

This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Some Supreme Court cases are really tough ones, with important, difficult, and complex legal questions about constitutional meaning or statutory interpretation, where justices have to choose between two powerful and compelling arguments. Sometimes the court is called upon to resolve an issue that has divided the circuit courts. Other times there is a lower court ruling so at odds with logic or precedent that it needs to be reviewed and corrected.

And then there's King v. Burwell, the Affordable Care Act subsidies case being argued this week.

Those challenging the law have an extremely weak legal case, there is no split in the lower courts, and there is no clearly wrong lower court ruling that needs to be corrected. This is a meritless case that was ginned up by conservatives seeking to enlist the Supreme Court in their political efforts to destroy the ACA. That at least four justices voted to hear the case is ominous enough. But a victory for the challengers would make it more clear than ever that political considerations are infecting a majority of the court.

Some background: Section 1311 of the ACA directs states to establish health insurance exchanges, creating competitive markets in every state for people to buy affordable insurance no matter where they live. But Congress also recognized that states might choose not do this, so Section 1321 says that in those cases the federal government should set up the exchange instead. The purpose of doing this was to ensure that even if states declined to set up an exchange pursuant to Section 1311, fully functional stand-ins would exist. This is essential to the structure of the law: The financial model relies on competitive markets with affordable insurance being available in every state.

To ensure affordability, the law also establishes subsidies for people below a certain income level to make sure they can buy insurance, which is necessary for the entire structure of the ACA to work. One subsection of the law establishes some key definitions, including an "eligible taxpayer" who is entitled to these subsidies, and the main criterion is income level. Try as you might, you won't find anything there saying that eligibility is at all tied to where someone lives.

A separate subsection says how to calculate the amount of the subsidy. Bizarrely, the conservative opponents of the ACA say that it is here that Congress chose to establish an enormously important additional eligibility criterion that, for some reason, they didn't put in the eligibility section: You have to live in a state that has set up its own exchange, rather than in one where the state has allowed the federal government to set it up instead.

This strange interpretation of the ACA depends on a deliberate misunderstanding of the subsidy provision's stating that the amount is based on the monthly premiums for a policy purchased through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. But to interpret this provision the way the anti-Obamacare activists do, we'd have to deliberately blind ourselves to how it clearly fits with the ACA as a whole.

So we're supposed to pretend that Congress didn't specifically empower the federal government to set up fully functional stand-ins for state exchanges in states that declined to create them. And we're supposed to think that Congress hid a critically important criterion for subsidy eligibility in a section on calculating the subsidy amount. And we're supposed to accept that Congress intended to undercut the financial viability of the law and thwart its central purpose of providing affordable health care to all. As D.C. Circuit Judge Harry Edwards wrote, "[i]t is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to crumble."

No one could possibly believe that. You can't possibly look at the text of the Affordable Care Act and interpret it in the way that its enemies have conjured up.

And as journalists like Glenn Kessler have pointed out, congressional Republicans who today insist that Congress intended for subsidy eligibility to depend on what state you live in were saying nothing of the sort when the law was being debated. Their statements at the time show they assumed subsidies would be available nationwide.

It is also clear that state legislators -- regardless of party -- deciding whether to set up their own exchanges never contemplated the possibility that choosing to let the federal government do it would deny much-needed subsidies to people in their state. In fact, that point is made quite effectively in an amicus brief authored by the Constitutional Accountability Center on behalf of members of Congress and state legislatures.

When this nonsensical lawsuit was heard at the Fourth Circuit, it was rejected by a unanimous panel of judges. In his concurring opinion, Judge Andre Davis wrote:

What [the ACA opponents] may not do is rely on our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.

Yet when the ACA opponents appealed to the Supreme Court, at least four justices (the minimum required to grant certiorari) agreed to hear the case.

It would be nice to believe that the only reason was to issue a 9-0 ruling slapping down this lawsuit and condemning those who would abuse the court system by seeking to enlist federal judges in their political fights. Unfortunately, this is the Roberts court, a court with a history of bending the rules, twisting the law, and doing whatever it takes to get to an outcome beneficial to conservative and corporate interests. With cases like Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, Ledbetter, Shelby County, and so many others, a narrow 5-4 majority has made opponents of the Affordable Care Act think they could gin up a meritless case and carry the day.

If the Roberts Court chooses to sabotage millions of Americans' access to health care, the consequences will be catastrophic for many everyday people, and possibly fatal to some. While there may be Americans who weren't paying attention to some of the wrongly decided cases noted above, it is hard to imagine any American missing this one -- and not knowing exactly who to blame.

PFAW Foundation

Ginsburg Concurrence Is an Important Reminder on Religious Liberty

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Holt v. Hobbs yesterday upholding the religious liberty claim of a Muslim prisoner who was prohibited by corrections officials from growing a half-inch beard. As noted in our Supreme Court term preview of Holt v. Hobbs, the case involves a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.

Similar to the better-known Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was at issue in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, RLUIPA is triggered when the government imposes a "substantial burden on the religious exercise" of a person confined to an institution. When that happens, the action can be upheld only if the government can demonstrate that the burden: "(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."

In this case, especially since so many other prisons around the country allow inmates to grow half-inch beards without a security problem, few expected the prison system would win this case. And it didn't. The Court's ruling was written by Justice Alito, author of the Hobby Lobby opinion, and all the other Justices signed on.

Importantly, while Justice Ginsburg – the author of the Hobby Lobby dissent – joined the Court's opinion, she also wrote a separate concurrence to emphasize a critically important point. In its entirety, it reads:

Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., accommodating petitioner's religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief. On that understanding, I join the Court's opinion. [internal citations removed]

The removed internal citations are to her Hobby Lobby dissent's discussion of how religious liberty has always been recognized as a shield to protect people's rights, not as a sword to deny others' rights. Fortunately, Holt v. Hobbs did not present an opportunity for the narrow five-person majority to continue their project, begun in Hobby Lobby, to wholly transform the concept of religious liberty. But Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justice Sotomayor) was right to remind us of the traditional meaning of that phrase in American society and law.

PFAW Foundation

Roberts Court Sets Its Eye on Fair Housing Law

Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that is being heard only because of the ideological zeal of its conservative Justices. In the case of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, the Court is being asked to severely undermine the Fair Housing Act.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the Roberts Court's right-wing majority has asked conservatives to send them a case giving them a chance to undermine the FHA, one of the most critically important tools we have to eradicate systemic discrimination in housing. Congress passed the law in 1968 in order to address obstacles to equal housing such as insurance redlining, discriminatory zoning ordinances, and unfair mortgage lending practices.

Under the FHA, a practice that has an unjustified discriminatory impact – even if you can't prove a discriminatory purpose – can be judged to violate the law. This is called "disparate impact." All 11 circuits to have considered the question carefully analyzed the text of the Fair Housing Act and agreed that disparate impact cases are covered under the law. These cases go back to the 1970s and 1980s, and Congress has never amended the law to say otherwise. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also interprets the law that way.

But conservatives have long been hostile to the idea of "disparate impact" anti-discrimination laws, whether in housing or elsewhere. This is a policy debate they have not been able to win in Congress, but they are hopeful that five right-wing Justices will change the Act for them.

That optimism stems from the fact that this isn't the first time the question has been before the Court. Despite the unanimity among the eleven circuit courts to address the issue, the Roberts Court in 2011 granted certiorari to a petitioner asking them to overturn the national consensus on the law. However, the parties in Magner v. Gallagher settled, meaning there was no longer any case for the Supreme Court to consider. The Roberts Court granted certiorari to a similar petition in 2013 (Mt. Holly v. Mt. Holly Citizens in Action), but that case, too, was settled before the Court could hear oral arguments.

In fact, HUD acted in 2013 in a way that makes the legal argument in support of disparate impact even stronger. While the circuit courts were uniform in their recognition that the FHA prohibits policies and practices with a discriminatory impact, they did not all agree on the same process the law requires lower courts to follow in disparate impact cases. So HUD adopted regulations interpreting the FHA and answering that question. Under Supreme Court precedent, the courts are supposed to defer to reasonable statutory interpretations by the agencies Congress has charged with enforcing those statutes, even if the judge would have interpreted the law differently. So HUD's new regulations make the argument against disparate impact even weaker.

Nevertheless, few were surprised in October of last year when the Roberts Court granted certiorari to yet another petitioner asking the Justices to eliminate the ability to target housing practices with an unjustified discriminatory effect. This is clearly an issue that at least four Justices (the number required to grant certiorari) are hungry to decide. They have a vision of what our nation's fair housing laws should look like, and they are set on turning that vision into reality.

Whether they have a majority is something we don't know yet. But we do know that the Court's decision (expected by the end of June) will have an enormous impact on whether we as a nation will be able to effectively confront and eliminate discrimination in housing.

PFAW Foundation

Sorry, Sen. McConnell, But on Judges, Your Party IS "Scary"

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says his strategy for the next two years is to make sure the Republican-controlled Congress doesn't scare Americans so much that they elect a Democrat for president in 2016. That means trying to sideline the likes of Ted Cruz and others who command the loyalty and enthusiasm of the GOP base.

"I don't want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that's going to be a scary outcome. I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority," the Kentucky Republican said in a broad interview just before Christmas in his Capitol office.

...

"There would be nothing frightening about adding a Republican president to that governing majority," McConnell said, explaining how he wants voters to view the party on the eve of the 2016 election.

Put aside for the moment what it tells you about the current GOP's extremism that the party's Senate leader recognizes that it frightens the American people.

Instead, focus on what McConnell and the Washington Post article left out of the mix: judges. It isn't hard to know what kind of judges we would get if Republicans controlled the White and House and the Senate. All we have to do is look to the last time that happened, during the George W. Bush presidency. At the Supreme Court, the GOP gave us John Roberts and Samuel Alito, who in turn gave us 5-4 rulings in cases like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. Bush and the Republican Senate also filled the nation's appeals courts with right-wing ideologues like Janice Rogers Brown (who defended the ideology of the Lochner era in a 2012 opinion).

And this was before the Tea Party drove the party even further rightward than it was in the Bush era. Just imagine the impact that Tea Party judges with the Mike Lee and Ted Cruz stamp of approval would have on our laws, our rights, and our country.

PFAW