People For the American Way has been stressing the enormous importance of the Supreme Court in the next election, emphasizing that if Mitt Romney is elected, he has promised to nominate extreme right-wing judges who will limit our civil liberties and rescind equality measures. In a new ad, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren echoes these concerns, warning that a Senate dominated by Republicans has the potential to approve a justice that would help overturn Roe v. Wade. Warren’s opponent Scott Brown has already voiced his support for Justice Antonin Scalia, naming the ultra-conservative judge as his favorite on the Supreme Court. We cannot afford to elect candidates like Mitt Romney or Scott Brown, who are sure to nominate and confirm justices that will take us back in time and turn back the progress we have made on behalf of women’s rights, worker’s rights, voting rights, and more.
The Supreme Court announced today that it will hear a critical voting rights case next year. Arizona has appealed a 9th Circuit decision that barred the state from requiring proof of citizenship from those registering to vote via a federally-approved registration form. Current federal law allows voters to register via federal form instead of a state-specific form. Those opting to do so must swear under penalty of perjury that they are citizens. Arizona’s law, which is currently stayed, would require voters using that form to jump over an extra hurdle to register, requiring them to show proof of their citizenship, a provision disproportionately affecting low-income and minority voters.
The ruling applies only to people who seek to register using the federal mail-in form. Arizona has its own form and an online system to register when renewing a driver's license. The court ruling did not affect proof of citizenship requirements using the state forms.
Arizona officials have said most people use those methods and the state form is what county officials give people to use to register. But voting rights advocates had hoped the 9th Circuit decision would make the federal mail-in card more popular because it's more convenient than mailing in a state form with a photocopy of proof of citizenship.
The mail-in card is particularly useful for voter registration drives, said Robert Kengle of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing Native American and Hispanic groups in the case.
The conservative wing of the Supreme Court has been eager to challenge voting rights laws in recent years. In 2008, a 6-3 majority of the court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law, paving the way for suppressive voter ID measures throughout the country. The Court may also hear a challenge to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal preclearance for voting rights changes in states and counties with a history of discrimination at the ballot box. Successful court challenges to discriminatory voting law changes this year have shown just how essential that provision still is.
While the composition of the Supreme Court is unlikely to change before these cases are heard, they underscore the importance of federal courts in this election. Not only are federal courts the final protection we have against discriminatory voter suppression laws, the makeup of these courts is on the line in the presidential election. Either Mitt Romney or President Obama could pick up to three Supreme Court Justices and dozens of federal court judges in the next term. Romney has promised to appoint Justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who have both signaled their hostility to voting rights. If he does, and the Court shifts farther to the right, we could see decades of progress for fair and free elections slip away.
"The death penalty? Give me a break. It's easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state”
On CNN’s website today, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin laments out how small a role the Supreme Court has played in the presidential election so far. He writes:
With a little more than a month to go, it's not too late to ask the candidates to take a stand on their plans for the court. The president has already had two appointments, and he named Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. But what does Obama, a former law professor, think about the court? Does he believe in a "living" Constitution, whose meaning evolves over time? Or does he believe, like Justices Scalia and Thomas, that the meaning of the document was fixed when it was ratified, in the 18th century.
By the same token, what kind of justices would Romney appoint? Who are his judicial role models? Romney has praised Chief Justice John Roberts, but is the candidate still a fan even after the chief voted to uphold the ACA?
No one is asking these questions. But there are few more important things to know about our current and future presidents.
Toobin is absolutely right that the candidates’ plans for the Supreme Court deserve a lot more air time than they’re getting. But he’s wrong to suggest that we know nothing about what President Obama and Governor Romney have in mind for the Court.
President Obama has already picked two Supreme Court justices. Both, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, have been strong moderates, balancing out the retro extremism of Justices Scalia and Thomas. When female Wal-Mart employees wanted to band together to sue their employer for pay discrimination, Sotomayor and Kagan stood on the side of the women’s rights, while Scalia and Thomas twisted the law to side with the corporation. When Justices Thomas and Scalia ruled that a woman harmed by a generic drug couldn’t sue the drug’s manufacturer in state court, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan stood up for the rights of the consumer.
Mitt Romney obviously hasn’t had a chance to pick a Supreme Court justice yet, but he’s given us a pretty good idea of who he would choose if given the opportunity. On his website, Romney promises to “nominate judges in the mold of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito.” After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the health care reform case, Romney announced he had changed his mind about Roberts, who declined to destroy the law while still writing a stunningly retrogressive opinion redefining the Commerce Clause.
And, of course, Romney sent a clear signal to his conservative base when he tapped Robert Bork to advise him on legal and judicial issues. Bork’s record, and what he signals about Romney’s position on the Supreme Court, is chilling:
Mitt Romney’s Scalia-filled Supreme Court took to the streets again this week, this time in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following a successful Romney Court event in Columbus, Ohio, the Romney Court campaign, led in PA by People For the American Way’s Jodi Hirsh, revealed its Scalia-filled Supreme Court in Market Square to inform voters about the dangers of having Mitt Romney nominate Supreme Court justices for lifetime terms.
Justice Antonin Scalia gave a TV interview last night on CNN in which he reminded Americans of his right-wing ideology. Since Mitt Romney has said he would nominate Supreme Court Justices like Scalia if elected president, the interview also served as a warning to Americans of what's at stake this November. Talking Points Memo summarizes some of the interview's highlights:
Scalia defended Citizens United, which took elections from the people and handed them to often-secretive powerful interests that drown out the voices of non-millionaires. He added, however, that people are "entitled" to know who is financing the messages they are bombarded with.
In an era when Roe v. Wade has already been watered down, Scalia repeated his belief that women have no constitutional right to abortion at all. "[M]y only point is the Constitution does not say anything about it. It leaves it up to democratic choice." (That would be news to those who adopted the Ninth Amendment specifically to counter future assertions that the rights specifically mentioned in the Constitution are a ceiling, not a floor.)
Scalia also stated his opinion that torturing an innocent person taken from a battlefield isn't cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. "I don't think the Constitution addressed torture, it addressed … punishment for crimes."
When asked if he had ever broken the law, the justice said, "I've had a few speeding tickets, though none recently."
Let's hope for his sake that the traffic stop didn't lead to an unwarranted and humiliating strip search, as occurred to Albert Florence. When Florence challenged the strip search as unconstitutional, Scalia was part of the conservative 5-4 majority that denied his claim.
Do we really want a president who looks to Antonin Scalia as a model to emulate?
The New York Times posted a must-read editorial highlighting activities by Supreme Court justices, that, particularly in light of the Court’s recent 5-4 decisions favoring corporate special interests over the rights of individuals, create a compelling case for an ethical code of conduct for Supreme Court Justices.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito Jr., for example, appeared at political events. That kind of activity makes it less likely that the court’s decisions will be accepted as nonpartisan judgments. Part of the problem is that the justices are not bound by an ethics code. At the very least, the court should make itself subject to the code of conduct that applies to the rest of the federal judiciary.
So many of the Supreme Court’s decisions this term have worked in favor of powerful corporate interests that it’s becoming almost impossible to ignore the ideological biases of the justices. The editorial discusses some of these worrisome rulings, including making it harder “for private lawsuits to succeed against mutual fund malefactors, even when they have admitted to lying and cheating,” and making it “more difficult for class-action suits in all manner of cases to move forward.” in the recent Wal-Mart case.
The federal judiciary was set up to put space between the legal system and political sphere, but it seems more and more that some justices have brought an intense ideological agenda to the bench. If the American people are to trust in the impartiality of the Supreme Court, its justices are going to have to be held to the very highest of ethical standards.
In the year since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, there has been new scrutiny on the increasingly cozy relationship between corporate funders of elections and national policy makers. Exemplifying that relationship have been the Koch brothers, billionaires whose dollars have helped to fund right-wing organizations and campaigns for years, and who were behind one of the most powerful outside groups in the 2010 elections, Americans For Prosperity. The brothers also hold twice-yearly meetings of influential donors, pundits, and politicians—past guests have included Glenn Beck, Sens. Jim Demint and Tom Coburn, and even Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas (both of whom were in the Citizens United majority).
The Kochs held their most recent strategy meeting at a spa in Palm Springs this weekend. Attending the secretive event was House Republican Leader Eric Cantor, among other undisclosed guests. Outside were 800-1,000 protestors, 25 of whom were arrested for trespassing. The LA Times reports:
Protest organizers said they hoped to raise awareness about the Koch brothers and what activists portray as their shadowy attempts to weaken environmental protection laws and undercut campaign contribution limits.
The brothers control Koch Industries, the nation's second-largest privately held company. They have funded groups pushing a limited-government, libertarian agenda, helped organize "tea party" groups and contributed $1 million to a failed ballot initiative to suspend California's law to curb greenhouse gases.
"We cannot have democracy unless everyone has a voice," said Cathy Riddle, a Temecula website developer who held a sign reading "Corporations are not people." Donors like the Koch brothers are "drowning us out," she said. "Their voices are louder."
The protest, organized by Common Cause, included some members of People For the American Way. It came one week after activists, in events around the country, marked the first anniversary of Citizens United and called for a constitutional amendment to reverse it. Watch PFAW’s video explaining the decision and its impact:
People For's president, Michael Keegan, has a piece it the Huffington Post today on Justice Antonin Scalia's visit to Rep. Michele Bachmann's Constitution class:
Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia traveled to the Capitol to teach a class about the Constitution to members of Congress, led by controversial Tea Party caucus chairwoman Michele Bachmann. Justice Scalia's participation in Bachmann's Constitution school has prompted a heated debate about the proper relationship between Supreme Court justices and political leaders. But the real debate that should be raging is not about judicial ethics, but about the dubious vision of the Constitution that Scalia and leaders of the Tea Party will be discussing.
As Jonathan Turley pointed out in the Washington Post this weekend, while Supreme Court Justices across the ideological spectrum have taken on increasingly prominent public roles, Scalia has become a true "celebrity justice." But Scalia's pugnacious celebrity is in service of a distorted and bizarre reinterpretation of the Constitution championed by the Tea Party movement.
Although the Tea Party seeks to wrap the Constitutional founding in religious doctrine and intention, this view conveniently ignores the Establishment Clause, the clause forbidding religious tests for public office, and the fact that neither the Bible nor God is mentioned in the Constitution's text. Meanwhile, the Tea Party's Constitution offers very few of the hard-won protections ensuring equal rights and liberties for all Americans, and all but eliminates the power of government to protect and empower its citizens in interstate commerce. Tea Party candidates across America in 2010 also called for repeal of the 16th Amendment (making federal income taxation possible), the 17th Amendment (providing for direct popular election of U.S. Senators), and parts of the 14th Amendment.
Bachmann's Constitution classes are not so much an introduction to the founding documents, but to a new interpretation of the Constitution that mirrors the Tea Party's radical political agenda.
Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas raised eyebrows and ethics questions late last year when they attended a conference sponsored by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who head Koch Industries. A comprehensive expose from The New Yorkerreported on the Koch Brother’s immense financial and ideological ties to right-wing and pro-corporate groups, and the Koch-sponsored event that Scalia and Thomas attended was held “to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it.” The Koch Brothers have greatly benefited from the Supreme Court’s pro-corporate rulings, including the Citizens United decision which allowed corporations to use funds from their general treasuries to finance, sometimes secretly, political organizations. Tomorrow is the first anniversary of Citizens United, and Common Cause is requesting that the Justice Department look into whether Justices Scalia and Thomas should have recused themselves from the case:
The government reform advocacy group Common Cause today asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia should have recused themselves from the landmark Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision because they were involved with an array of conservative groups that stood to benefit from it.
In the case, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 margin struck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act that prevented corporations and unions from spending an unlimited amount of money on electioneering, such as campaign ads. Scalia and Thomas sided with the majority in the decision, which was made a year ago this week.
In a letter addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder, Common Cause President Bob Edgar said both justices should have been disqualified from hearing the case because of their ties to Charles and David Koch, wealthy brothers who fund an array of conservative causes.
The justices both attended “retreats” held by Koch Industries, Edgar said, that focused on championing conservative ideas including opposition to campaign finance laws.
Their attendance raises the question of whether the two judges were impartial in their decision, Edgar said. He also questioned Thomas's impartiality because his wife, Ginny, ran a nonprofit group that Edgar said benefited greatly from the Citizens United decision.
“Until these questions are resolved, public debate over the allegations of bias and conflicts of interest will serve to undermine the legitimacy of the Citizens United decision,” Edgar said.
Justice Antonin Scalia is in the news again, having pronounced yet again that the United States Constitution does not prohibit the government from discriminating against women. The Huffington Post reports on a newly-published interview with the legal magazine California Lawyer:
[Interviewer:] In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don't think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we've gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?
[Scalia:] Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. ... But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that's fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don't need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box.
The Huffington Post notes:
Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women's Law Center, called the justice's comments "shocking" and said he was essentially saying that if the government sanctions discrimination against women, the judiciary offers no recourse.
Although you might not know it from what Scalia says, there is nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment that puts women outside its scope. The text is quite plain on that regard: "No state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws" (emphasis added). The last anyone checked, women are people.
Scalia has previously discussed with legal audiences his opposition to constitutional equality for women. In fact, he wrote a lone dissent 15 years ago in United States v. Virginia making his view clear: He believes that the landmark 1971 Supreme Court case ruling that the government cannot discriminate against women simply because they are women was wrongly decided. (Then-litigator Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped write the brief arguing for equality in that case.)
When it comes to the rights of women, Scalia’s Constitution is a stiff, brittle document, relegating women to the limited rights they were allowed to have in 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted.
Interestingly, his approach is far more flexible for corporations, as we saw in Citizens United, when he concluded that mega-corporations have the same First Amendment rights as people for the purposes of election law.
Perhaps if a woman wants to have full constitutional protection from Justice Scalia, she needs to incorporate.
But for Bachmann’s Tea Party-inspired caucus, the language and spirit of the Constitution is altered and manipulated to fit their ultraconservative outlook on the country.
On Saturday, the New York Timescalled on Justice Scalia to bow out from his class for Bachmann’s group in order to maintain the independence of the Supreme Court and to avoid lending credence to the Tea Party’s radical approach to the Constitution:
The Tea Party epitomizes the kind of organization no justice should speak to — left, right or center — in the kind of seminar that has been described in the press. It has a well-known and extreme point of view about the Constitution and about cases and issues that will be decided by the Supreme Court.
By meeting behind closed doors, as is planned, and by presiding over a seminar, implying give and take, the justice would give the impression that he was joining the throng — confirming his new moniker as the “Justice from the Tea Party.” The ideological nature of the group and the seminar would eclipse the justice’s independence and leave him looking rash and biased.
There is nothing like the Tea Party on the left, but if there were and one of the more liberal justices accepted a similar invitation from it, that would be just as bad. This is not about who appointed the justice or which way the justice votes. Independence and the perception of being independent are essential for every justice.
By presiding over this seminar, Justice Scalia would provide strong reasons to doubt his impartiality when he ruled later on any topic discussed there. He can best convey his commitment to the importance of his independence, and the court’s, by deciding it would be best not to attend.
Just as Bachmann’s caucus won’t include balanced perspectives on the Constitution, there is nothing apolitical about Bachmann’s caucus either. Other lecturers for Bachmann’s group include right wing Fox News commentators Sean Hannity and Andrew Napolitano. She is also organizing a lecture by pseudo-historian David Barton, a Republican Party activist who has no training or expertise in history but publicizes the belief that the Framers intended to create a Constitution that reflected Biblical law.
Bachmann recently floated conspiracy theories about the Census and AmeriCorps, which she likened to reeducation camps, and demanded investigations of “people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?” But with increased influence in the House GOP and help from Justice Scalia, Bachmann and her radical ideas will have more power as Republicans hold the majority in the House next session.
Last week, SCOTUSBlog had a podcast interview with legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, discussing his new book The Conservative Assault on the Constitution. The blog has asked Chemerinsky some follow-up questions, and his responses are worth reading.
For instance, he discusses the concept of a living Constitution and the hypocrisy behind the Right's claims of a consistent approach to judging cases.
Q. Within the context of the "conservative assault" you discuss in the book, can you please define the terms "living constitution" and "strict constructionist"?
- Everyone is a strict constructionist in that everyone believes that the text of the Constitution should be followed where it is clear. But the phrase "strict constructionist" was coined by Richard Nixon to refer to something more ideological: Justices who followed the conservative approach to interpreting constitutional provisions. Interestingly, conservatives are not strict constructionists in interpreting the Second Amendment. There conservatives read the Second Amendment as if it simply said "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." They ignore the first half of the Amendment which speaks of the right existing for the purpose of having a well-regulated militia.
A belief in a "living Constitution" rejects the notion that the meaning of a constitutional provision is the same in 2011 as when it was adopted. A living Constitution says that in interpreting the Constitution, Justices and judges should consider history, tradition, precedent, and modern needs. There always has been a living Constitution and hopefully always will be. The opposite of a living Constitution is a dead Constitution and no society can be governed under that.
He also discusses how self-professed conservative "originalists" are selective in when they pay attention to original intent.
Q. You write in your book that "it is clear that conservatives often abandon the original-meaning approach when it does not serve their ideological purposes." Can you please elaborate - perhaps by providing an example or two?
- Affirmative action. I am skeptical that we can ever really know the original intent or meaning for a constitutional provision. But if ever it is clear, it is that the drafters of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to allow race-conscious programs of the sort that today we call affirmative action. The Congress that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment adopted many such programs. Yet originalist Justices, like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, pay no attention to this history in condemning affirmative action. Another example is campaign finance. There is absolutely no indication that the drafters of the First Amendment intended to protect the speech of corporations (that did not occur for the first time until 1978) or spending in election campaigns. But conservative Justices nonetheless find a First Amendment right for corporations to engage in unlimited expenditures in campaigns.
Of course, that is a reference to Citizens United, where the aggressively activist Roberts Court handed our elections over to powerful corporate interests. There is a direct line from that case to the new corporate-friendly gang that will be running the House of Representatives for the next two years.
Who sits on the Court has consequences for us all.