Clarence Thomas

Justice Thomas, Activist

Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog has done an impressive analysis of the Supreme Court’s decisions this term, and found several surprising results. Among these is pretty clear evidence that Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative Justices on the court, is also by far the most willing to rewrite established law and overrule judicial precedent:

Among all the Justices, it is in fact Scalia and Thomas – frequently heralded by conservatives as ideal members of the Court – who hesitate the least in invalidating legislation or (with respect to Thomas) calling for the overruling of prior precedent. They not only joined the Citizens United majority, but they would also have held unconstitutional the “honest services” statute (Skilling), the civil commitment statute (Comstock), and the ruling upholding a beach-erosion statute (Stop the Beach).

Just as fascinating is Justice Thomas’s openness to reconsidering almost every issue in the law that he views as wrongly decided. This Term, he wrote eight separate opinions suggesting the reconsideration of existing law: McDonald (incorporation); Berghuis v. Smith (fair cross-section requirement for juries); Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz v. United States (commercial speech); Maryland v. Shatzer (custodial interrogation); Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter (interlocutory appeals); Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder (immigration); United States v. O’Brien (jury trial rights); and Wilkins v. Gaddy (cruel and unusual punishment). 

[Emphasis is mine].

We can’t say it here enough: it’s stunning that conservative Senators are still throwing around the term “judicial activism” with a straight face.
 

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The Roberts Court’s Pro-Corporate Batting Average

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.

You can find CAC’s full report and analysis here. And check out People For’s extensive report on the Rise of the Corporate Court from earlier this year.
 

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Extra! Extra! 59 is more than 41!

In the wake of yesterday's extremely disappointing election in Massachusetts, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Democrats had somehow lost control of the Senate.  In fact, the Democrats still have an 18 vote majority--an enormous power base in a legislative chamber with only 100 seats.

Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger points out that on Supreme Court nominations, President Obama has a majority that most presidents would envy:

President George H. W. Bush had only 43 Republican Senators when he nominated Judge Clarence Thomas – undoubtedly the most conservative nominee of the past half-century – to the Supreme Court. That’s right: 43 Senators of his party. In the end, Justice Thomas was confirmed 52 to 48. The nomination was not remotely close to having enough Senators to prevail on a cloture vote – that would have required all 43 Republicans, joined by 17 Democrats. But he was confirmed because the settled expectation was that the President and the country are entitled to have an up or down vote on a matter such as a Supreme Court nomination. A filibuster that prevented such a vote was politically unthinkable.

And if there aren't 60 votes in favor of a particular issue or nominee?  Let them filibuster.  After a while, voters might start wondering why it is that 41 senators won't allow a vote on legislation with clear majority support.

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Correcting the Court

Exhibit A from last term of the Roberts Court's conservative judicial activism is the Gross age discrimination case where the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reached out to decide an issue that hadn't been briefed and changed the law in a way that will make it much harder for older workers to prove that they were discriminated against in the workplace. Today, three key Democratic leaders, Senators Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy and Rep. George Miller, announced plans to introduce a bill to correct the Court's error. As noted in the coverage of the announcement, this is the second time in a year that Congress has reached out to correct the court, the first being the Lilly Ledbetter legislation, the first measure signed into law by President Obama in January of this year.

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Empathy as the Enemy

Taking a cue from Karl Rove’s playbook, the Right is trying to transform one of the key strengths of a top-quality jurist – empathy – into a serious flaw. For example, earlier today, Michael Steele told an audience that "the President is looking to put Doctor Phil on the Court."

Last Friday’s Washington Post reported on the Right’s strategy:

An early line of attack emerged last week when Obama told reporters that his eventual nominee would have, among other characteristics, a "quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

Wendy Long, chief counsel of the Judicial Confirmation Network, a small Manassas-based group that has been active in conservative judicial battles, immediately pounced on the remark. "What he means is he wants empathy for one side, and what's wrong with that is it is being partial instead of being impartial," said Long, a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas. "A judge is supposed to have empathy for no one but simply to follow the law."

A judge who is willfully blind to impact of the law on real people would be a throwback to the type of jurisprudence that once kept women from becoming lawyers, that kept blacks and whites in separate schools, that kept Japanese Americans in detention camps, and that kept gay men in constant fear of arrest and imprisonment.

Just take a look at Plessey v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that upheld racial segregation. The Court deliberately ignored the real-world effect of segregation:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument [that state-mandated segregation violates the Constitution] to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

African Americans living under Jim Crow would have to wait more than a half century before Justices with empathy would reconsider the issue.

Empathy is not a strike against a judge: No jurist committed to our core constitutional values can be without it. And that’s the type of jurist we need on the Court.

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Republican Senators Make Threats on Judges, Try to Force "Bipartisanship" at Gunpoint

From Poltico:

President Barack Obama should fill vacant spots on the federal bench with former President Bush's judicial nominees to help avoid another huge fight over the judiciary, all 41 Senate Republicans said Monday.

...

"Regretfully, if we are not consulted on, and approve of, a nominee from our states, the Republican Conference will be unable to support moving forward on that nominee," the letter warns. "And we will act to preserve this principle and the rights of our colleagues if it is not."

In other words, Republicans are threatening a filibuster of judges if they're not happy.

The letter talks about "bipartisanship" and, separate from the letter, several Republicans have been warning the president for some time against nominating "far left judges." But for all this talk about "bipartisanship" and throwing terms around like "far-left judges," what do they really mean?

Does bipartisanship mean nominating half right-wing judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and don't believe in the Constitution's promise of equal rights under the law; half who agree that the Constitution makes certain guarantees in terms of people's rights and liberties and that it gives the government the authority and the responsibility to protect those rights, not undermine them?

Or does it mean that all of the president's judicial nominees must be "moderates," and if so, what is their definition of "moderate?" Is a moderate someone who is respectful of fundamental constitutional rights and principles like privacy, equality, the right to choose and checks and balances… as long as they are pro-corporate? We already have a Supreme Court that is overwhelmingly pro-business, much more so than many precious Courts, including the four supposedly "liberal" Justices.

Of course that's probably not the case (not that the president should feel compelled to nominate judges with a corporate-friendly bent anyway, especially now that we are in the middle of the havoc wreaked by corporate greed and excess, but I digress).

When it comes to this issue, what they really care about is pleasing their base. And when it comes to their base, the ONLY judges who are acceptable are extreme right-wing ideologues. So any actual "moderate," mainstream judges of course will be rejected -- and they will be cast as "far-left."

The Right sees the Judicial Branch in very black and white terms. They have accused the Democrats of having a litmus test on judges when it comes to Roe v. Wade. But that was obviously proven wrong by the fact that both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were confirmed even though they both, according to many experts, would vote to overturn Roe. No, it's the Right that has strict litmus tests on everything from Roe v. Wade and gay rights to free speech, the separation of church and state and, yes, how "business-friendly" a judge may be. Their base demands it! And Republican Senators -- even the so-called moderates like Snowe, Collins and Specter -- are unified on this one.

The judicial philosophies of the jurists respected by the Right are defined by extremism -- plain and simple. It's one thing for a judge to find legal exception with the way a certain case was decided (even if that decision protects a fundamental right, like Roe v. Wade), but quite another to subscribe to theories and views that fly in the face of mainstream judicial thought like:

  • "Constitution in Exile," which takes an extreme and limited view of the Commerce Clause and basically states that the regulatory policies of the New Deal were unconstitutional... and a huge number of policies and Supreme Court decisions going back nearly a hundred years, including civil rights protections, are unconstitutional as well. (Opinions expressed by Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia support "restoring the lost constitution.")
     
  • "Unitary Executive Theory," which has been used to justify insanely expansive views of executive power that defy the most commonsense understanding of our founding principles relating to checks and balances and a limited executive (remember, our founders were breaking from a monarchy - they obviously didn't want to create another one). The Bush administration exploited this theory over and over again its now infamous abuses of executive power.; and
     
  • a blatant disregard for the bedrock judicial principle of stare decisis (which Justice Clarence Thomas is said, even by Justice Scalia, to show).  

This is par for the course for right-wing judges. While those of us on the progressive side are not devoid of ideology, and are proud to have our own ideology when it comes to the Constitution and the law, the Right is by far more ideological and Republicans need to be called out for doing the Far Right's bidding once again.
 
President Obama and the Senate Democrats should challenge these Republican Senators to define their terms more specifically -- to tell them and the country EXACTLY what they mean by "bipartisanship" in this case and what they would consider acceptable or "moderate" nominees.  And the president should reject the GOP's attempt to force bipartisanship at gunpoint, by making threats and trying to use coercion to get him to appease their base on judges.

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Supreme Court Says No to Obama Citizenship Challenge

The Supreme Court just rejected an appeal in a case challenging the validity of President-elect Obama's birth certificate, his citizenship and, in effect, his constitutional eligibility to assume the office of President. The fact that it took more than one split second to reject this preposterous, paranoid, conspiracy theory-based case is a little disturbing. A similar case had been thrown out this fall, but that did not stop Justice Clarence Thomas from circulating the appeal papers to his colleagues for consideration.

Read more here:

http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/08/supreme-court-rejects-appeal-over-obamas-citizenship/?hp

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Five Years Later: Decriminalizing Gay People

Many people probably don’t recall much, if anything, about June 26, 2003, but I recall a great deal. That’s because it’s the day on which the Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings in the area of individual rights and human dignity. In Lawrence v. Texas, a sharply divided Court struck down a Texas state law that prohibited consensual, private sex between adults of the same gender, a law that essentially made criminals out of gay men and lesbians. Five justices held that the law was an improper intrusion on the right to liberty guaranteed to everyone by the Constitution, effectively invalidating all state laws that invade the home to prohibit so-called sodomy.

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Five Years After Lawrence: Decriminalizing Gay People

Many people probably don’t recall much, if anything, about June 26, 2003, but I recall a great deal. That’s because it’s the day on which the Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings in the area of individual rights and human dignity. In Lawrence v. Texas, a sharply divided Court struck down a Texas state law that prohibited consensual, private sex between adults of the same gender, a law that essentially made criminals out of gay men and lesbians. Five justices held that the law was an improper intrusion on the right to liberty guaranteed to everyone by the Constitution, effectively invalidating all state laws that invade the home to prohibit so-called sodomy.

Five years later, I can still recall vividly the absolute joy and elation that I felt learning that these pernicious laws were no more. The Court’s ruling meant not only that these laws could no longer be used to intrude into a realm of personal conduct in which government has no place, but also that they could no longer be cited to deny gay people jobs or participation in any other aspect of human endeavor on the ground of criminality.

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was a ringing endorsement of constitutional liberty. According to Justice Kennedy:

Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.

As news of the Court’s decision unfolded, it was equally wonderful to learn that the five-justice majority had also overturned the Court’s 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the Court, by a vote of 5-4, had upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law under which Michael Hardwick had been arrested for having had sex in his own home with another man. Bowers was a strikingly anti-gay decision in substance and language and, like Plessy v. Ferguson, a low point in Supreme Court history and an instance of the Court’s abject failure to protect the constitutional rights of minorities. Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court in Lawrence, soundly declared that Bowers "was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent."

One of my law school classmates was Michael Hardwick’s original attorney. I accompanied her to the Supreme Court that day in March 1986 when Bowers was argued, and I commiserated with her when that terrible ruling came down several months later. She was the first person I called after learning that Bowers had been overturned, and we shared a long-delayed moment of joy.

And so June 26, 2003 is a day that I remember quite well. But as significant as the Lawrence ruling was, I am mindful that four justices did not join Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was part of the majority in Bowers (truly a low point in her judicial career as well), declined to join the majority in overruling that decision. She agreed, however, that the Texas "sodomy" law was unconstitutional, but only because it treated same-sex and opposite-sex couples differently.

Three justices dissented outright from the ruling in Lawrence: then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Scalia and Thomas are still on the bench today. The late Chief Justice Rehnquist has been replaced by the equally ultraconservative John Roberts, while Justice O’Connor has been replaced by the extreme right-wing Samuel Alito.

Counting the numbers, then, it’s very clear that the constitutional protection of the essential human dignity of gay men and lesbians is hanging by a slender thread on the Supreme Court. John McCain has praised Justice Scalia and has also promised to put more justices like Roberts and Alito on the Court, which should be a consideration for any voter who cares about gay rights and the future of the Supreme Court.

Cross-posted on The Huffington Post

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Brown v. Board of Education: a 54th Anniversary Reminder of the Importance of the Supreme Court

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.

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Roe v. Wade at 35: Up For Grabs in the Next Election

January 22, 2008 is the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision recognizing that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy includes the right to choose to end a pregnancy. Without question, Roe is one of the leading examples, and certainly one of the most famous, of the Court’s vital role in protecting Americans’ individual rights and freedoms.

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