In an op-ed printed in the Portland Press Herald this weekend, retired congressman Barney Frank offers a sharp critique of the far right Supreme Court under John Roberts. Explicitly noting the importance of the Court in defining law that affects all citizens, Frank makes clear not only that courts matter, but everyday citizens have a hand in how these courts are shaped.
Reviewing the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions — from overturning “more than 100 years of federal and state efforts to regulate the role of money in campaigns” to declaring that corporations have the right to religious freedom under RFRA—Frank states that “the court has ended this term with a barrage against laws it does not like” (emphasis added).
…The Supreme Court is now strongly inclined to impose conservative ideology via Constitutional interpretation on a broad range of public policy. It is true that Kennedy and to some extent Roberts occasionally deviate from this, but Justice Samuel Alito has surpassed even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in his ideological purity.
The relevance of this to the next two elections is very clear. Four of the sitting justices are in their late 70s or older. This means that there is a strong possibility that President Obama will have a chance to appoint another justice before his term expires, but his ability to do so will be determined not simply by the health of the justices in question, but by the composition of the U.S. Senate. The increasing partisanship in the Senate, the continued virulent influence of the tea party and recent history strongly suggest that even if a vacancy occurs, Obama will be prevented from filling it (emphasis added).
Frank refers to the unceasing Republican obstructionism and argues courts are critical for defining laws that affect Americans on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of this year’s midterm elections. As he concludes in this piece,
This makes it highly likely that among the issues that will be determined in the next senatorial and presidential election will be the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Voters should act accordingly.
Sometimes the damage from a bad court decision takes a while to make itself clear. Not so with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a town’s practice of beginning council meetings with prayers that are overwhelmingly Christian. Conservative political and legal groups called it a win for religious freedom, but it only took a few days to see just how much unnecessary and divisive conflict the Court’s decision could generate in communities across America.
Late last week the mayor of the New Jersey town of Carteret cited the Supreme Court ruling to justify cancelling the use of the borough hall for a Saturday naturalization ceremony. He was upset that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to allow the ceremony to begin with prayer. The INS says its rules are meant to ensure that naturalization ceremonies are "conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements." But Mayor Daniel Reiman said the INS could "host its godless ceremony someplace else." (It was held in Newark.)
What a sad object lesson for those aspiring American citizens and their friends and families. Who knows how many different faiths were represented among them? It shouldn’t matter, because one of the most precious benefits of being an American is that your rights and standing as a citizen do not depend on your holding any particular set of religious beliefs.
But don’t tell that to Al Bedrosian, a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. Last week after the Supreme Court ruling, Bedrosian declared that prayers to open board meetings should be given only by Christians. It is shameful that Bedrosian holds public office in Virginia, home of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the birthplace of the First Amendment. Bedrosian argued publicly several years ago that Christians should “rid ourselves of this notion of freedom of religion in America.” He said Christians “are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions” and called it one of the “greatest moments in US Senate history” when a group of Christians disrupted a Hindu religious leader who was giving an opening prayer.
Both Reiman and Bedrosian are misinterpreting the Court’s decision. But these episodes bring even greater clarity to a reality to which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court demonstrated “blindness” – in the words of dissenting Justice Elena Kagan. That is the exclusionary and divisive reality – as opposed to the theory – of government bodies opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.
The case decided by the Supreme Court came concerned the upstate New York town of Greece. For years, the town council has been inviting local clergy to open its meetings. Those clergy have been overwhelmingly Christian, and their prayers were sometimes highly sectarian, invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These were not, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, ceremonial invocations like the “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” which begins Supreme Court sessions.
The town’s prayer policy was challenged by two citizens (one Jew and one atheist) who felt coerced by the invitations to Christian prayer, and who felt as if they were being made outsiders in their own town based on their religious beliefs. They argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted as preventing the government from favoring religion in general or any religion in particular.
Some people, particularly those in the religious majority, have a hard time seeing why such prayer is a big deal. As Paul Waldman writes for the Washington Post, “the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”
But imagine, as Kagan did, a Muslim who has come before the city council seeking a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. When she is asked to join in prayer celebrating the divinity of Jesus, she has the option of not participating, or leaving the room. Either option identifies her as somehow different from her neighbors and from the councilmembers who will decide the fate of her request. A federal appeals court had ruled that the town’s practice was unconstitutional because, even if town officials had no bad intent, the consequence of the nearly uninterrupted parade of Christian prayers was to signal that Christianity was favored, and to make unequal citizens of people of other faiths or no faith.
Unfortunately, five Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying even an overwhelmingly Christian and sectarian prayer practice is OK unless there is a pattern of prayers denigrating other faiths or proselytizing or unless there is evidence that people are being legally coerced or punished for not participating. The Court has given a green light to “Christian Nation” advocates like Al Bedrosian to demand that their city council or county commission allow their official meetings to be regularly opened with explicitly Christian prayers. Some Religious Right leaders have said that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
Right now, practices vary. Some government bodies don’t bother with prayer; others invite clergy to open meetings, with guidelines that prayers be respectful or nonsectarian. But even that nod toward pluralism is at risk: Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said this ruling means government bodies can no longer make a distinction between nonsectarian prayer and “praying in Jesus’ name” and he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that will have an impact on a number of cases.”
It’s worth noting that some progressive Christians agree that “nonsectarian prayer” is a kind of oxymoron. But, says Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore, that is not a reason to push for sectarian prayer; it is instead a reason to do away with legislative prayer altogether. He writes that the effort to push more prayer in official settings is “offensive to those who pray as much as to those who don’t.” The pro-church-state-separation Baptist Joint Committee had filed a brief in the case stating that “prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of government.”
That brings us to a crucial distinction between what is constitutional and what is wise, particularly in a country that is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. As noted in People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, “Some things that are legally permissible may still be damaging to religious tolerance and civic discourse, and should be discouraged.”
The Supreme Court did not rule that legislative bodies have to begin their meetings with prayer; it ruled that the Constitution allows them to. In spite of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s portrayal of legislative prayer as a unifying force, it seems likely that an aggressive push for more sectarian prayer to open official meetings will be anything but unifying. Elected officials should think twice before going down that road.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he prays that the Court is showing a way toward “a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life.” But Moore is wrong: we already have a free marketplace of faith expression in America. The First Amendment has fostered a vibrant, flourishing, peaceful religious pluralism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Christian media has a massive presence on television, radio, and online. But what too many “Christian Nation” advocates want, and what the Court is opening the door to, is a system in which a religious majority can more easily use the institutions of government to promote its religious beliefs and label others as outsiders.
And that is not the American Way.
We write a lot about “judicial emergencies”—situations where slow-downs in the judicial nominations process have led court systems to be woefully understaffed. These cases are not emergencies because judges have to work harder—they’re emergencies because when courts are overworked, access to justice is delayed.
Last week, Politics Daily’s Andrew Cohen explained what is happening in Arizona, where Chief District Court Judge John Roll was murdered when he stopped by an event with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to talk with her about the overcrowded courts. Roll had been planning to request that Arizona be labeled a “judicial emergency” in order to loosen restrictions on speedy trials:
Roll did not live to see his request granted. But on Tuesday, less than three weeks after he was shot by accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner, Roll's successor finally did declare a "judicial emergency" in the state after consulting with the 9th Circuit's Judicial Council. The move by Chief U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver allows federal judges in the state to wait for as long as 180 days between the time of the indictment or complaint and the time of trial, even if a criminal defendant wants to go to trial more quickly.
The administrative move could delay the Loughner case itself, depending upon whether the 22-year-old defendant's attorneys try to change the trial venue from Arizona to another state or if federal prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty against Loughner. Most federal murder cases do not go to trial quickly anyway, in large part because of the significant pre-trial work it typically takes for lawyers to prepare their cases. The government has not yet charged Loughner with a capital crime. The next hearing in the case is set for March 9.
The extraordinary action by Silver was taken because of the sheer volume of cases. According to the 9th Circuit: "The Arizona federal court has the third highest criminal caseload in the nation, driven by illegal immigration and drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. Criminal cases have increased 65 percent since 2008, when the federal government greatly expanded its law enforcement efforts along the border. The bulk of the criminal caseload is assigned to the court's Tucson division, where three judges currently handle approximately 1,200 cases each" (emphasis added).
There are currently 101 empty seats in the federal courts, 49 of which have been labeled as judicial emergencies [pdf]. Chief Justice John Roberts recently pleaded with the Senate to stop holding up judicial nominees, saying their stalling had resulted in “acute difficulties for some judicial districts.” Justice Anthony Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times, “It's important for the public to understand that the excellence of the federal judiciary is at risk.”
In an editorial memo last week, PFAW outlined the Senate obstruction that has been largely responsible for the slow pace of filling judicial vacancies in the Obama administration:
On the occasions when it has confirmed nominees to the bench, the Senate has slowed down the process to the point of absurdity. During the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, District Court nominees were confirmed in an average of 25 days. Under President Obama, the wait has averaged 104 days. For Circuit Court judges, the time has increased six-fold, from 26 days to 163 days on average.
Senators need only to look to Arizona to see the real impact that playing politics with judicial nominations has on the ability of citizens to get prompt access to justice.
The Constitutional Accountability Center has just released a statistical study of the current Supreme Court’s pro-corporate voting patterns. And guess what? The numbers back the trend that’s anecdotally hard to miss.
CAC’s statistical study tests empirically the idea that the conservatives on the Roberts Court tend to side with corporate interests. Our study examined every opinion released by the Roberts Court since Justice Samuel Alito began participating in decisions, and in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was either a party or an amicus curiae — a universe of 53 cases. This study reveals an overall success rate for the Chamber of 64% (34 victories in 53 cases), and a success rate of 71% in cases decided by a narrow (five-Justice) majority. The Court’s conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy) tend to vote together in their support for the Chamber, while the Court’s moderate/liberal bloc (including former Justice David Souter, who was on the Court for most of these rulings) was more centrist, casting only 41% of its votes in favor of the Chamber.
These data strongly support the proposition that there is a strong ideological component to the Justices’ rulings in business cases, with the Court’s conservatives frequently adopting the Chamber’s position. In one particularly startling finding, Justice Alito, since joining the Court, has never cast a vote against the Chamber of Commerce’s position in a closely divided case. This statistical evidence supports the charge by President Obama and Chairman Leahy that the Court’s conservative majority has a disturbing pro-corporate tilt, and this reality should provide an important frame for General Kagan’s upcoming confirmation hearing.
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled today that suspects being interrogated can only invoke their right to be silent if they say so explicitly—they can’t just remain silent. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissenting opinion, called the ruling a "substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination that Miranda v. Arizona has long provided.” The Los Angeles Times explains:
In the past, the court has said the "burden rests on the government" to show that a crime suspect has "knowingly and intelligently waived" his rights.
But in a 5-4 decision Tuesday, the court said the suspect had the duty to invoke his rights. If he failed to do so, his later words can be used to convict him, the justices said.
The ruling comes in a case involving a murder suspect who, though read his Miranda rights, never said he would waive them. After three hours of interrogation, he offered a few monosyllabic responses that implicated him in the crime. The Supreme Court’s majority, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, went beyond the case in question to hold that suspects, rather than having to explicitly agree to be interrogated, have to explicitly invoke their Miranda rights in order to halt questioning.
Sotomayor pointed out that requiring a suspect to speak in order to remain silent doesn’t really make sense:
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's newest member, wrote a strongly worded dissent for the court's liberals, saying the majority's decision "turns Miranda upside down."
"Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent — which counterintuitively, requires them to speak," she said. "At the same time, suspects will be legally presumed to have waived their rights even if they have given no clear expression of their intent to do so. Those results, in my view, find no basis in Miranda or our subsequent cases and are inconsistent with the fair-trial principles on which those precedents are grounded."
She also criticized the majority for going beyond the decision necessary for the specific case in order to make new and broader rules:
If, in the Court’s view, the Michigan court did not unreasonably apply our Miranda precedents in denying Thompkins relief, it should simply say so and reverse the Sixth Circuit’s judgment on that ground. “It is a fundamental rule of judicial restraint . . . that this Court will not reach constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them.” Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P. C., 467 U. S. 138, 157 (1984).
Two disturbing habits of the Roberts Court are on display here: the tendency to ignore the common-sense practicalities faced by the person with the least power in a given situation; and the zeal for going beyond the narrow bounds of a given case and carving out a whole new set of rules not necessary to the resolution of the case before them.
It’s a perfect example of how the Roberts majority, while displaying remarkable ambivalence to the practical implications of its rulings, isn’t just calling “balls and strikes”—it’s going to bat for its own unprecedented agenda.
As George Orwell might put it, all Supreme Court decisions are important, but some are more important than others. And in the history of our country, there can be little doubt that one of the Court’s most important decisions was its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, decided 54 years ago this May 17th. Overturning the shameful “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and striking down school segregation laws, the ruling in Brown gave substance to the Constitution’s promise of equality for all. Without question, May 17, 1954 saw the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, at its very best.
Court watcher Jeffrey Toobin is launching his new book, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, with a round of media interviews. Asked by Time about "the impact of the two new Bush Justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito," Toobin could not have been more blunt — or correct: "This is a much more conservative institution than it was two years ago. There will be no surprises with the Chief and Justice Alito. They are committed fervent judicial conservatives, and they're not going to change."