Why November 8, 2016 is Judgment Day for the Supreme Court -- and Our Rights

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

What would have happened if a President McCain had appointed conservatives to the Supreme Court, instead of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, before the Court ruled on marriage equality in the Obergefell case? And what if a President Kerry had filled the seats that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito took before the Court decided theCitizens United campaign finance case? Clearly both those rulings would have come out very differently, with enormous consequences for all Americans. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Roberts-Alito Court and as the 2016 elections get more and more attention, these examples and many more should alert us that Election Day 2016 is truly judgment day for the Supreme Court and for Americans’ rights and liberties. 

Today, People For the American Way released a comprehensive report, Judgment Day 2016, which looks at pivotal Court decisions since Roberts and Alito joined the Court that were decided by a single vote. Many have seriously harmed the rights of ordinary Americans and promoted the interests of powerful corporations. Examples include Citizens United, the ruling striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act inShelby County v. Holder, the decision allowing corporations to claim religion and  deny contraceptive coverage to women in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, and the holding reinterpreting the Second Amendment and severely limiting efforts to limit gun violence in District of Columbia v. Heller. All these and many other decisions could be overruled or limited if a progressive justice replaces just one conservative on the Court, significantly blunting the right-wing judicial assault on a broad array of our rights and liberties.

But there have also been many critical 5-4 decisions over the past ten years where the Court’s  moderate justices, usually joined by Justice Kennedy, have succeeded in protecting Americans’  rights and liberties. In addition to Obergefell, which found a constitutional right to marriage equality, examples include Massachusetts v. EPA, where the Court upheld EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases; Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, which invalidated a state redistricting scheme that used race to harm minority voters; and Boumediene v. Bush, which narrowly ruled that prisoners detained at Guantanamo can challenge their detention through habeas corpus petitions. All these and many other rulings could be overturned or limited if a right-wing justice replaces just one of the moderates on the Court. A Supreme Court with a far-right supermajority would put more and more of our rights at risk.

Why is this particularly important now? During the first term of whoever is elected President in 2016, four Supreme Court justices - including extreme conservative Antonin Scalia, conservative swing vote Anthony Kennedy, and moderates Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer - will be over 80 years old. Given that the average retirement age for justices since 1971 is 78, the odds are overwhelming that the President elected next year will be able to nominate one or more justices who could produce a critical shift in the Court’s ideological balance.

Leading presidential candidates from both parties have already recognized the importance of future Supreme Court appointments and made clear their intent to nominate justices in accord with their views on crucial constitutional issues. In criticizing the Court’s recent 5-4 decision in Obergefell striking down discriminatory marriage bans, for example, Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio pledged to appoint to the Court “people with a proven record of judicial restraint” and “justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood,” in the hope of undermining or reversing the Court’s decision. On the other hand, in criticizing the Court’s 5-4 decisions striking down federal campaign finance law in Citizens United and part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County, Hillary Clinton pledged to “do everything I can to appoint Supreme Court justices who protect the right to vote and do not protect the right of billionaires to buy elections.”

PFAW’s report carefully reviews 5-4 decisions in eleven key areas where the next President and Supreme Court justice could make such a crucial difference to all Americans. These include money in politics; civil and voting rights (including immigration); LGBT rights; reproductive freedom and women’s rights; workplace fairness; protecting the environment; religious liberty; gun violence; marketplace and consumer fairness; access to justice; and protection against government abuse. In addition to past 5-4 rulings in these areas that could be limited or overruled, the Court is quite likely to be deciding cases on these and other key subjects in the years to come.

 Conservatives clearly understand the crucial importance of the Court and the next election in all these areas, with one far right activist noting that “we cannot overstate the importance of the Supreme Court in the next election.” In fact, her group - the Judicial Crisis Network - recently launched an ad campaign criticizing Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy as not conservative enough,  and demanding that Republican candidates pledge to appoint even more conservative justices. The group noted that Court decisions affect “every aspect of our lives today” and that “the next President could appoint a new majority to last a generation.” Hopefully, statements like that will help all Americans to pay close attention to the Supreme Court in the 2016 election and to recognize that November 8, 2016 truly is judgment day.


Resurrecting Lochner

Right-wing columnist George Will has a column this morning filled with deception and misdirection on the Supreme Court's infamous Lochner decision. Lochner was the decision in which arch-conservative Supreme Court Justices struck down New York's law setting a maximum work week for bakers (six days a week, ten hours a day).

Because of their much greater economic power, employers in New York had been able to compel employees to agree to terrible working conditions. The Lochner Court, seeking a way to impose its own economic and social policies, decided that the law violated the individual baker's constitutional right to freely contract his labor. As manipulated by these Justices, the Constitution enshrined the "right" of the powerless individual to remain powerless in the face of oppression.

Lochner has come to represent the far-right Court's use of the Constitution to impose its own preferred economic and policy goals. The Lochner era saw the Court strike down laws limiting child labor, setting a minimum wage and protecting union rights, all in the name of the Constitution.

Such wild judicial activism has been thoroughly discredited since the 1930s. But as the Roberts Court increasingly chooses to legislate from the bench to protect Big Business, forces of the Right are going so far as to seek to resurrect Lochner. Will writes that

Since the New Deal, courts have stopped defending liberty of contract and other unenumerated rights grounded in America's natural rights tradition. These are referred to by the Ninth Amendment, which explicitly protects unenumerated rights "retained by the people," and by the "privileges or immunities" and "liberty" cited in the 14th Amendment.

Reading that, you would never know that it is conservatives and not liberals who for decades have tossed the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments in the trash heap by claiming that if a right is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, then it does not exist. Conservatives have heaped scorn on the idea that the Constitution protects the right to privacy. How many times have they said that the word "abortion" doesn't appear in the Constitution, as if that was at all relevant?

And the idea that the Supreme Court has "stopped defending the liberty of contract" is absurd. What it has done is stop misusing the liberty of contract to strike down consumer and employee protections.

During the First Gilded Age of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American society had evolved significantly from our nation's founding. With the unprecedented consolidation of wealth, large corporations and their owners and managers dwarfed individuals in power in a way that our nation had never seen before. In addition, we were changing from an agricultural nation of independent farmers and small merchants into an industrial nation where millions of people began to rely on wage labor with vastly more powerful employers for survival.

Fortunately, the Constitution protects individuals from enthrallment to the powerful, whether it is a government or a private actor holding the whip. In the latter case, it empowers Americans to consolidate our power – through government – to accomplish that which individuals cannot do, including countering the otherwise unbridled power that economic forces have granted to some.

The corporate-funded Tea Party movement is perhaps the most visible effort to discredit the idea that Americans have the constitutional right to prevent giant corporations from oppressing workers, destroying the environment, and endangering consumers at will. The Constitution is not a tool to be wielded against Americans in the service of a developing and growing plutocracy; it's a shield to ensure all Americans have equal rights and protections under the law.


Today's Supreme Court: Not Since the Gilded Age

There was once a Monty Python sketch about Dennis Moore, a confused Robin Hood wannabe who steals from the poor and gives to the rich. Minus the laugh track, that more and more seems to be the mission of the Corporate Court. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne has a terrific column on this: "The Supreme Court's Continuing Defense of the Powerful."

The United States Supreme Court now sees its central task as comforting the already comfortable and afflicting those already afflicted.

If you are a large corporation or a political candidate backed by lots of private money, be assured that the court's conservative majority will be there for you, solicitous of your needs and ready to swat away those pesky little people who dare to contest your power.

After discussing some of the outrages of the arch-conservative majority, Dionne writes:

[P]ay heed to how this conservative court majority bristles at nearly every effort to give the less wealthy and less powerful an opportunity to prevail, whether at the ballot box or in the courtroom. Not since the Gilded Age has a Supreme Court been so determined to strengthen the hand of corporations and the wealthy.

People For the American Way Foundation recently submitted testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee analyzing the ominous pro-corporate tilt of the Roberts Court in the term that just ended.


Chamber's Influence on Corporate Court Examined

In the term that ended Monday, the Roberts Court continued its disturbing trend of removing the legal protections that are often the only way that individuals can avoid becoming victimized by giant corporations that dwarf them in size, wealth, and power. The Chamber of Commerce not only has been working to make this development happen, it has taken credit for it. As reported in Roll Call:

The liberal Constitutional Accountability Center released a report Tuesday pointing out the increasing philosophical alignment between the chamber and the Supreme Court.

The current court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has sided with the chamber's position on business cases 65 percent of the time, more than it did under any previous chief justice.

"The chamber is having a great deal of success in helping to shape the docket of cases that the Supreme Court hears and then having a lot of success in winning the cases," said Doug Kendall, a lead author of the report.


[T]he chamber has encouraged the notion that it is somehow influencing justices.

On the [Chamber's] litigation center's website, the group highlights a quote from Carter G. Phillips, a partner at Sidley Austin who often represents the chamber in the Supreme Court.

"Except for the solicitor general representing the United States, no single entity has more influence on what cases the Supreme Court decides and how it decides them than the National Chamber Litigation Center," he said.

You can read more about the Constitutional Accountability Center's report here.


Senate Judiciary Committee Exposes the Corporate Court

The Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing this morning looking into the disturbing trend of the Roberts Court to shut down people’s access to justice when they go to court to vindicate their rights against large corporations.

The hearing was on Barriers to Justice and Accountability: How the Supreme Court's Recent Rulings Will Affect Corporate Behavior. Chairman Leahy opened the hearing discussing how recent Supreme Court cases are making it harder for working Americans to get their day in court. He expressed particular concern about three cases:

  • Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which will make it harder to hold big companies accountable when they violate civil rights laws;
  • Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, which shielded from accountability those who knowingly committed securities fraud; and
  • AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which prevents victims of consumer fraud from the protections of jury trials and class actions.

The committee invited four distinguished people to address the issue: Betty Dukes (plaintiff in the sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart) was the one panelist who was also a party to one of the cases being discussed. She spoke poignantly about her experience at Wal-Mart and the fear that so many women have of going against their employer, especially one as powerful as Wal-Mart. She promised to continue her fight, but knows that without a national class action, many women will be intimidated into not litigating.

Andrew J. Pincus (a Washington lawyer who has argued many cases before the Court) and Robert Alt (from the Heritage Foundation) denied that the Court was tilting unfairly to favor corporations, argued that the cases were decided rightly, and stated that the Court was simply upholding existing law. In contrast, Melissa Hart (law professor at the University of Colorado) and James Cox (law professor at Duke) took the position that the Court is wrongly shielding wrongdoers from accountability.

Professor Hart correctly characterized as a policy decision the Roberts Court's tendency to interpret procedural law so restrictively, despite congressional intent otherwise, so that Americans become unable to present their case to an impartial court.

Senator Whitehouse discussed the critical role juries play in American government. He noted that juries are mentioned three times in the Constitution, and that they remain a government institution that Big Business cannot corrupt. For years, the far right has been denigrating "trial lawyers" and "runaway juries" in an effort to keep Americans from being able to hold the powerful accountable. Whitehouse argued that the Roberts Court is acting consistently with that pattern.

People For the American Way Foundation submitted testimony to the committee on how the Roberts Court has removed substantive and procedural protections that are the only way that individuals can avoid becoming victimized by giant corporations that dwarf them in size, wealth, and power. These decisions often provide road maps to corporate interests in how to avoid accountability for harm that they do. The constitutional design empowering individuals to consolidate their power against corporations is slowly being eroded by a fiercely ideological Court. Today's hearing is part of an effort to expose the harm that is being done.


Don’t Speak: The Supreme Court’s New Theory of Free Speech in Elections

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they want to influence elections. Yesterday, the Court ruled that wealthy candidates and campaign donors have the First Amendment right not to have their spending matched by their opponents.

Welcome to the new logic of free speech in elections.

In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that a crucial provision of Arizona’s landmark clean elections law, which provides matching funds to publicly financed candidates who are up against particularly well-financed opponents, to be unconstitutional. Why? Because the provision to put publicly financed candidates on even footing with their privately financed opponents “chills” the speech of wealthy individuals and groups who want to pour money into elections.

Yes, if you’re a wealthy person or interest group looking to buy an impact in an election, you might be put off by knowing that, because of matching funds, you would never be able to overwhelm a publicly funded opponent into comparative silence. But, looking at it from the other side, if you’re a candidate who wants to spend your campaign talking to voters rather than donors, you might hesitate to take public financing if you knew you would never be able to even come close the funds of your opponent – without matching funds, the public financing system is all but useless. By taking away the mechanism by which a greater number of candidates can make their voices heard, the Court has stifled speech, rather than protected it.

Justice Elena Kagan, in a zinger-laden dissent, took on the majority’s “more speech is less speech” argument:

The First Amendment's core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate. Nothing in Arizona's anticorruption statute, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, violates this constitutional protection. To the contrary, the Act promotes the values underlying both the First Amendment and our entire Constitution by enhancing the "opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people."

People For’s Marge Baker had this to say:

The Roberts Court has once again twisted the Constitution to benefit the wealthy and powerful while leaving ordinary Americans with a diminished voice. Like in Citizens United v. FEC, which prohibited legislatures from limiting corporate spending to influence elections, the Court’s majority has strayed from the text and history of the Constitution in order to prevent citizens from maintaining control over our democracy. The Roberts Court would do well to remember that the Constitution was written to protect democracy for all people, not just the rich and powerful. Today it has ruled not only that the wealthy have a right to spend more but that they have a right that everyone else spend less.


Roberts Court Strikes Down Medical Privacy Law in Gift to Pharmaceutical Companies

A divided Supreme Court issued two business-friendly decisions today that demonstrate why, under Chief Justice Roberts, it is frequently called the Corporate Court.

In the first of these, Sorrell v. IMS Health, a 6-3 Court (the five usual suspects joined by Justice Sotomayor) struck down a common-sense medical privacy law passed by Vermont. As part of its comprehensive regulation of pharmaceuticals, the state requires pharmacies to retain certain information about prescriptions and the doctors that order them. Knowing that the drug companies would love to take advantage of this information in order to target doctors to sell more of their product, Vermont protected medical privacy by prohibiting the sale to or use of this data by drug companies without the prescribing doctor's authorization.

According to the Roberts Court, the law allows anyone else to use the data for any other purpose and therefore cannot be defended as protecting medical privacy. It therefore characterizes the law as targeting speech based on the identity of the speaker and the content of the message, thereby triggering heightened First Amendment scrutiny (which – surprise, surprise – the privacy protection law fails to meet).

Justice Breyer's dissent recognizes the Vermont law as the standard, commonplace regulation of a commercial enterprise. It doesn't prohibit or require anyone to say anything, to engage in any form of symbolic speech, or to endorse any particular point of view. It simply addresses a problematic abuse of the prescription data. As the dissenters point out, the federal and state governments routinely limit the use of information that is collected in areas subject to their regulation, as pharmaceuticals have been for over 100 years. Surely heightened First Amendment scrutiny should not be triggered by a law that, for instance, prohibits a car dealer from using credit scores it gets for one purpose (to determine if customer is credit-worthy) for another (to search for new customers).

The dissent states that the Court has never before subjected standard, everyday regulation of this sort to heightened First Amendment scrutiny. Yet this is not the first time that arch-conservative ideologues have taken everyday economic regulation and struck it down on the basis of freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights. In fact, the dissenters specifically warn of a return to

the bygone era of Lochner v. New York, in which it was common practice for this Court to strike down economic regulations adopted by a State based on the Court's own notions of the most appropriate means for the State to implement its considered policies.

With Lochner, ideologues routinely struck down consumer and worker protection laws as violating the Due Process Clause so they could impose their own policy preferences. Simply replacing Due Process with Free Speech does not suddenly make this radicalism valid.


Wal-Mart, Class Action, and Rules Without Remedies

One of the daunting realities of modern life is that we as individuals are confronted by far more powerful corporations. When we want to buy a product, get a job, or seek to hold a large corporation accountable for its misdeeds, our negotiating power is limited by the fact that we are individuals. In contrast, due to its eternal life, its being composed of thousands or even millions of people, and its many state-granted benefits such as limited liability, corporations have consolidated vast resources that would be impossible for any living person attain.

So when that corporation does wrong against individuals – when it engages in a pattern of illegal discrimination, sells defective products, or cheats its customers – the victims often are powerless to hold the corporation accountable unless they, too, can consolidate their resources.

That’s why class actions are so important – and why Big Business keeps asking the Roberts Court to sabotage people’s ability to band together in class actions. Earlier this term, the Corporate Court undercut class actions against consumer fraud in AT&T v. Concepcion. And Monday, it struck out against women employees seeing to hold Wal-Mart accountable for illegal employment discrimination.

Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest private employer. Several women sued the corporate giant on behalf of themselves and similarly situated women around the country - anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million employees. To sue as a class, they would have to show that they have claims typical of the whole group.

So that’s what they did. As Justice Ginsburg’s dissent pointed out, the district court that had certified them as a class had identified systems for promoting in-store employees that were sufficiently similar across regions and stores to conclude that the manner in which these systems affect the class raises issues that are common to all class members. The women showed that Wal-Mart has a national corporate climate infused with invidious bias against women. Wal-Mart’s policy is to have personnel decisions made by local managers, all of whom are products of that toxic corporate climate.

But the conservative majority’s 5-4 opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, went out of its way to overlook that obvious commonality, focusing instead on the differences that will inevitably be present when a corporate giant targets so many people. The Roberts Court accepted Wal-Mart's assertion that the women cannot be designated a class because the representative plaintiffs do not have claims typical of the whole group.

What this 5-4 opinion states is that Wal-Mart is so large – and the discrimination it has allegedly engaged in is so great – that its victims cannot unify as one class to hold the company accountable. Individuals or small groups are much less likely to have the resources to seek justice.

Large corporations may be licking their chops at the opportunities the Roberts Court has opened to them to violate the law. They realize that a rule without a remedy is no rule at all.


This Time, the Roberts Court Keeps the Courthouse Doors Open

The Roberts Court is notorious for too often seeking excuses to close the courthouse door and keep individuals from vindicating their rights. So yesterday’s unanimous opinions in Bond v. US and Smith v. Bayer were refreshing.

In Bond, the Court ruled that an individual has standing to challenge a federal criminal conviction that she claims violates the Tenth Amendment. That Amendment states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Cited by many Tea Partiers as part of their efforts to diminish federal authority, it goes to the federal structure of our country and the rights of states; it does not directly address the rights of individuals. However, that does not bar individuals from standing to argue that they have been harmed by a congressional act that violates the Tenth Amendment.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision completely and correctly bypassed the substantive issue and remanded it to the lower courts. But regardless of the merits of Bond’s argument, she has the right to make it as someone whose freedom or imprisonment rests on whether the law she is challenging is constitutional.

Smith v. Bayer was similarly a breath of fresh air. The case asked if a federal court that has denied class certification can prohibit a separate West Virginia state court lawsuit seeking class certification in a case that is brought by people who had not been part of the federal lawsuit, but who would have belonged to the federal class had it gone through. A federal law called the Anti-Injunction Act authorizes a federal court to shut down state litigation of a claim or issue that was already presented to and decided by the federal court.

In an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court unanimously pointed out that the federal rules on when you can validly form a class are not necessarily the same as West Virginia’s rules. So the state court was addressing a new legal question, not the one that the federal court had already addressed. In addition, eight of the Justices (all but Justice Thomas) agreed that because the federal class status was denied, Smith was by definition not a party to the federal claim and cannot be bound by it.

While the Supreme Court kept the courthouse doors open in these two cases, there are still cases pending like Wal-Mart where the Corporate Court can do significant damage to people’s ability to hold corporations accountable.


Roberts Court Upholds Arizona's "Death Penalty" for Companies Hiring Undocumented Immigrants

With Chief Justice Roberts writing an opinion for the conservative majority (or, in parts of the decision, a plurality), the Supreme Court yesterday upheld an Arizona law imposing draconian penalties on employers for hiring undocumented aliens, evading a federal law preempting such state laws.

Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting involves a 2007 Arizona law that punishes employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens by suspending or revoking most of their state licenses. The Chamber of Commerce argued that the law is preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). IRCA prohibits the hiring of undocumented aliens and sets forth procedures employers must follow before hiring someone and the sanctions they will incur for violating the law.

Most importantly, IRCA expressly preempts local and state laws creating sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws).

It is the "licensing and similar laws" clause in the federal law that is crucial in this case, because the draconian punishment set forth in the Arizona law is the suspension and revocation of "licenses," a term defined so broadly in the Arizona statute that it even includes a company's articles of incorporation. Some have called this the "business death sentence."

The Court noted that in dictionary definitions and other statutes, the term "license" can have a very wide definition that includes articles of incorporation. The Court concluded that nothing in the federal law prohibits Arizona from broadly defining the term licenses, so it upholds the state law. However, Justices Breyer and Sotomayor's dissents pointed out that the opinion overlooks how context narrows the definition of a word. As Justice Breyer wrote:

But neither dictionary definitions nor the use of the word "license" in an unrelated statute can demonstrate what scope Congress intended the word "licensing" to have as it used that word in this federal statute. Instead, statutory context must ultimately determine the word's coverage.

Justice Breyer pointed out that IRCA is carefully calibrated to balance multiple competing goals. Arizona's "death penalty" for businesses and lax procedural safeguards throw IRCA's carefully calibrated balance into disarray. Justice Sotomayor explained that the uniform federal plan becomes wildly internally inconsistent if interpreted to allow state-by-state decisions as to whether an employer has hired an undocumented worker.

The Court also upheld Arizona's requiring employers to use the federal E-Verify database to confirm that a person is legally authorized to work. Federal law makes its use voluntary, but the Roberts Court held that means only that no federal agency can make its use mandatory. States are free to require it if they so choose. The fact that it is a pilot program and that Congress actually had reasons not to make its use mandatory seems not to matter.

Federal law mandates a unified federal approach to immigration issues, and comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue. But right-wing efforts in Arizona to attack immigrants on a state-by-state basis today got a green light from the Roberts Court. This may signal that the state's infamous "your papers please" anti-immigrant law may get a welcome reception from the conservative Justices.