Dahlia Lithwick

The Tea Party Constitution and the Debt Ceiling

Last year, we released a report on the myriad ways that the Tea Party movement – supposedly obsessed with the Constitution – twists the United States’ founding documents beyond recognition.

This month, in the debate over the normally routine process of raising the nation’s debt ceiling to prevent a default and the resulting massive setback to the recovering economy, we get another example.

Republicans in the House have introduced a plan that would, among other demands, require the passage of a constitutional “balanced budget” amendment before they will consider taking a simple step to avert economic disaster. In Slate on Friday, Dahlia Lithwick and Doug Kendall explained why a balanced budget amendment -- championed by Utah senator and Tea Party favorite Mike Lee -- would not just be bad policy…it would be a big departure from the original text and intent of the Constitution:

It's fairly certain that George Washington and the other Founders gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 would be appalled by the Lee amendment. It is not an accident that the first two enumerated powers the Constitution vests in Congress are the power "to lay and collect Taxes … to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States" and "to borrow money on the credit of the United States." The Constitution's broad textual grant of power was a direct response to the Articles of Confederation, which had imposed crippling restrictions on Congress's power to borrow and tax. These restrictions plagued the Revolutionary War effort and made a deep and lasting impression on Washington and other war veterans. Lee and the other proponents of shrinking the federal government to restore freedom misapprehend that the Constitution recognized there would be no freedom without a strong federal government to promote it.

Finally, in a Constitution filled with broad principles of governance, the amendment's arbitrary spending limit of 18 percent of GDP—an awkward and unworkable figure—would stick out like a sore thumb. Contrary to Chief Justice John Marshall's warning in the landmark decision of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Lee's arbitrary spending limit "partake[s] of the prolixity of a legal code," and would be out of place in a document that is designed to "to endure for ages to come … to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs."

We face a high duty when amending the Constitution: to match the Framers' maturity and foresight. By every measure that would have mattered to the Founders, Lee's proposed amendment easily flunks this test. Sen. Lee fancies himself a friend to the Constitution and an originalist. So why is he pushing for the ratification of an amendment that would take us back to the days before the Constitution was even ratified? The framers trusted in the wisdom of future legislators. The Balanced Budget Amendment represents a betrayal not only of our future but of our past as well.

Of course, the most pressing issue here is that House Republicans are playing chicken with the world economy in order to uphold massive tax breaks for the rich. But that they’re using such a misguided constitutional amendment as a bargaining chip speaks volumes about the Tea Party’s priorities.
 

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A Win for Fact Over Prejudice

California federal judge Vaughn Walker’s opinion yesterday in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger—in which he struck down the state’s ban on gay marriage—was a strong defense of the values embodied in the Constitution. But it was also something more. In his 136-page opinion, Judge Walker carefully dismantled dozens of the myths that opponents of marriage equality have attempted to use as legitimate legal arguments against allowing gay people to marry. And unlike the defenders of marriage discrimination, Walker didn’t make up evidence out of whole cloth—in his analysis, he relies on expert testimony, statistics, and the lessons of history. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick writes:

It's hard to read Judge Walker's opinion without sensing that what really won out today was science, methodology, and hard work. Had the proponents of Prop 8 made even a minimal effort to put on a case, to track down real experts, to do more than try to assert their way to legal victory, this would have been a closer case. But faced with one team that mounted a serious effort and another team that did little more than fire up their big, gay boogeyman screensaver for two straight weeks, it wasn't much of a fight. Judge Walker scolds them at the outset for promising in their trial brief to prove that same-sex marriage would "effect some twenty-three harmful consequences" and then putting on almost no case.

The stunning thing is that the feeble arguments that Prop 8 defenders were able to muster against marriage equality were in fact the best they could come up with. Kyle at Right Wing Watch writes that there was some in-fighting among the Right Wing over who would get to defend Proposition 8 in court. The fervently anti-gay Liberty Council tried to wrest the defense away from the equally anti-gay but slightly more street-smart Alliance Defense Fund, because the ADF wanted to base its case partially on factual evidence rather than purely on vitriol. The ADF won out, but they were left with a small problem: there was no factual evidence to be found.
 

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Making the Courts a Progressive Priority

If there’s one theme that’s prevalent here at Netroots Nation, it’s that elections matter—but what you do after elections matters more.

In a great panel discussion this morning, six judiciary-watchers discussed why the courts should matter to progressives, and why it’s dangerous when they don’t.

Pam Karlan, a professor at Stanford Law school who is frequently mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee herself, put it this way: “However much progressive legislation we get from Congress, unless it gets enforced every day by district courts, it’s just words on paper.”

Republicans have successfully made the courts an issue for their base, and are trying to work it to their advantage now that they’ve lost power in Congress and the White House. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month that nearly 40% of federal judges currently serving were appointed by George W. Bush, whose habit of recruiting from the conservative Federalist Society led to an intentional right-ward drift on courts across the country.

In their effort to keep the courts on the Right, Republicans are taking full advantage of their well-practiced obstruction skills.

Nan Aron, president of Alliance For Justice described the Republican game plan to keep the courts: “Hold seats open until a Republican president comes in and he’ll fill them in a New York minute.”

Which is exactly what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to do as he repeatedly refuses to hold votes on confirming President Obama’s judicial nominees. He’s making a deliberate effort to stall all Senate business, but also a calculated plan to keep seats on the federal bench empty for as long as possible with the hope that they won’t be filled by progressives.

What courts do every day—from the Supreme Court down—matters to ordinary people. Indeed, courts are central to our ability to hold corporations and other special interests accountable for harmful behavior. Judicial appointments are essential to securing corporate accountability for environmental safety (just look at the Fifth Circuit, where the judges making important decisions about oil drilling regulation are closely connected to the oil industry); they’re essential to holding businesses accountable for how they treat workers (see Rent-a-Center v. Jackson); and, of course, they’re a critical part of ensuring our civil rights.

Dahlia Lithwick, who covers the Supreme Court for Slate, pointed out that “conservatives have been laser-focused on the court,” while progressives don’t always connect the issues we care about with the courts that ultimately decide their fate.

It's time to change that.

UPDATE: You can watch the full discussion in the video above.

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The New Originalism Debate—An Early Roundup of Good Reads

A few weeks ago, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter delivered a call to arms against the misguided theory of “constitutional originalism” that has dominated recent debates on the Supreme Court. “The Constitution is no simple contract,” Souter said, “Not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language that a contract draftsman would try to avoid, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.”

Souter’s argument has started a robust and refreshing conversation about keeping faith with the Constitution …. and debunking the notion of justices as constitutional umpires who have to simply stand at the plate and call objective balls and strikes.

Constitutional law professor Alain L. Sanders weighed in today with an interesting take on what a literal adherence to the Constitution as originally written —sure to be invoked in the upcoming hearings on Elena Kagan’s nomination— would mean:

The political oratory will be enticing to many, and sound astute, learned and even well-grounded. But much of it will be misleading, wrong-headed, and unsupported by logic, history, or the principles of the Constitution. A simple examination of the Senate confirmation proceedings themselves illuminates the fallacies of the conservative assault.

Sitting on the Senate Judiciary panel will be California's Dianne Feinstein and Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar. To any and all true-blue strict constructionists, the presence of these two women legislators ought immediately to sound the alarm of unconstitutionality and invalidate the entire confirmation process. The Constitution states clearly, directly and consistently throughout its many provisions that federal officials are to be men.

Sanders’ argument brought to mind some other great riffs on Souter’s speech that we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. These articles are all worth a read:

The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Doug Kendall and UVA professor Jim Ryan argued that adherence to the full text and history of the Constitution – including all of its amendments - is something that progressives can and should embrace:

We live in an era thick with conservative nostalgia for the "original" Constitution and the ideas of our founding, even when those ideas have been repudiated or modified by subsequent constitutional amendments. Kagan would be doing the entire nation as well as the Constitution itself a service if she would use the confirmation process to express and explain her commitment to follow the Constitution—all of it. If Kagan does talk about the text and history of the Constitution, as well as the role of the court, it could go a long way toward recalibrating the current national debate on the judiciary and the Constitution.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asked why it’s fashionable to see the Constitution as a simple instructional manual:

So, as we look forward toward Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, the question isn't whether she will use the opportunity of her hearings to defend living constitutionalism or to debunk originalism. That is probably too freighted a discussion, and one that no progressive can possibly win in this day and age. The question I would ask is why it's so fashionable for nominees to suggest that the hard work of judging is simple; that the Constitution is no more complicated than the instructions for assembling an Ikea end table; and that the reason they are perfectly qualified for the job is that, well, they can read. What does it say about the court as an institution that everyone who goes through the interview process must downplay the difficulty of the job?

And Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, responding to Lithwick, calls originalism out as “a great hustle”:

Lithwick notes that the theory of orginalism assumes a "nonexistent universe in which all cases are easy and all the constitutional directives are perfectly clear." But to the originalists, it is always perfectly clear: The answer is whatever they want it to be, all other conclusions are inherently illegitimate. That's what makes originalism such a great hustle -- its arbitraryness is masked by nigh-bulletproof rhetorical argument -- that its adherents are simply "applying the law as written." In order to attack their reasoning, you first have to dismantle the idea that there are no inherent tensions within the Constitution that need to be resolved in order to reach a clear ruling. In a way, originalists are a bit like religious fundamentalists who insist on following their religious texts literally but in practice only select those that fit their prevailing cultural sympathies, dismissing others as heretics and unbelievers.

We’re hoping that the weeks since Souter’s commencement address are just the beginning of a new discussion about the Constitution and the importance of the Supreme Court in all of our lives - a discussion that should be at the center of the debate on Kagan’s confirmation.


 

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Reframing and Reclaiming the Conversation on the Courts

In a new piece for the Huffington Post, People For’s Michael B. Keegan argues that the confirmation process for Elena Kagan provides progressives with the perfect opportunity to take back a debate that the Right has dominated for far too long:

As Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has pointed out, the Republican message machine has managed to convince America at large that only two kinds of Justices exist: rigorous conservatives who scrupulously apply the original intent of the Constitution, and carefree liberals who flaunt the law to rule for whichever party their big, soft hearts prefer. It's a myth, but it didn't spring up from nowhere. It's the direct result of a concerted effort pushed by conservative ideologues like Ed Meese and supported by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and eventually the entire GOP machine.

For decades, this campaign has paid enormous dividends to the Right, with ultra conservative judges frustrating progressive goals and allowing elected conservatives to trample our Constitution. But over the last few years, a series of decisions by the Roberts Court have exposed its flaws and given progressives an opening to take back the conversation.

Take a look at the full piece on HuffPo.

And also don’t miss the debunking of conservative myths about judging that Former Justice David Souter offered up in last week’s Harvard commencement address.

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We couldn't have said it better

Republicans are trying to paint OLC nominee Dawn Johnsen as "out of the mainstream." Rachel Maddow turned the tables on them last night in an interview with Salon's Dahlia Lithwick. Lithwick noted that Republicans are creating a storm — threatening to filibuster — because of two things: First, that Johnsen was ahead of her time in pointing out what everyone now knows about how bad the OLC memos were, and second, that she's pro-choice... hardly positions that place her "out of the mainstream" since, unfortunately for Republicans, those views are shared by most Americans.

A bit from the interview:

Lithwick: This is a dry run for future confirmation wars. ... She's been very vocally critical of the work that happened at the OLC in the Bush administration. ...

I think this has nothing really to do with Dawn Johnsen It's sort of a little warm up, a practice run for when they REALLY go after someone in a confirmation hearing for the courts. ...

Maddow: At Johnsen's confirmation hearing there was one comment from Republican Senator Jeff Sessions that stuck with me because he accused her of, and I'm quoting here, "blogging, advocating, and speeching for the opposite sides." Essentially he's saying, "She's got a side, she has known positions on things." Does it make any reasonable sense that would be an objection to an OLC candidate?

Lithwick: Well, it's doubly paradoxical if you think about it, because the thing she was blogging and "speeching" about was torture! It was how bad OLC was and how sloppy their work was. So it puts the Republicans in this awful position of having to say "Because the work they did in the Bush OLC was terrific. How dare they call it into question?" ... This is an issue on which she was very clear — before the rest of us were clear — that the memos were bad, the lawyering was sloppy, and that torture was torture.

And video:

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

There was also a segment at the beginning of the show about impeaching Jay Bybee that was good. Watch it here.

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Beyond the Sigh of Relief...

Earlier this week, People For the American Way Foundation hosted -- and I moderated -- a panel at the National Press Club to discuss what the election of Barack Obama means for the future of the Supreme Court and what kind of justices we should be fighting for. The event's title, "Beyond the Sigh of Relief," says a lot in itself, and it's fantastic that our conversation could focus on the prospects for a return to justice on the High Court rather than strategizing about how to forestall complete disaster.

I hope to have video of the full discussion to share with you in a week or two. The next day, Maryland State Senator and Constitutional Law Professor Jamin Raskin (who was on the panel) and I were on Pacifica Radio in a very substantive joint interview on the same topic. You can listen to that segment here.

Sen. Raskin is also the director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project and shares my passion for civic education -- I've known and worked with him for years, going back to my time at Justice Talking. The other phenomenal panelists were: Julius Chambers, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and founder of Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter PA; John Payton, President, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and one of the finest Court journalists out there, Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor of Slate.

Any conversation about the future of the Court needs to start with acknowledging the voter mandate Obama received on Election Day to appoint judges with a strong commitment to constitutional rights and values. Redefining the conventional wisdom that the Supreme Court is an issue that only the Right Wing cares about, this time it was Obama voters who said that the Court was extremely important to them.

Here were a few quick highlights from the rest of the event:

  • Julius Chambers made some great points about the Court's role in protecting the poor. It's not just disputes over civil rights for minorities, workers rights and environmental protections on which the Court must sometimes weigh in when the government or companies violate constitutional rights. The poor deserve to be protected by the Constitution like we all do, and too often, they certainly do not receive equal justice under the law.

  • There was much discussion about promoting racial and gender diversity on the Court and there was a consensus among us that race, religion, gender and even sexual orientation could be important considerations because they can bring different perspectives to the Court. John Payton in particular stressed just how vital this diversity of perspectives is in having a Court that functions for the best benefit of the people and the law. We also speculated on the pedigrees and career tracks of recent and not so recent nominees -- why should they all come from the corporate world or the major law firms? There are tremendous lawyers working to advance justice at places like nonprofit organizations and unions.

  • Dahlia Lithwick stressed that we need to make sure people know that the judicial philosophies we believe in are based on rigorous interpretation and a sincere love of the Constitution. The public debate over judicial philosophies has too often bought into the Right's claims that so-called "strict constructionism" is the only rigorous approach to the Constitution. But the ideals embodied in both the main articles of the Constitution and the amendments are what John Payton referred to as "aspirational" -- and it's that aspirational view of the law and justice that we subscribe to and that we think President-elect Obama does as well. It's an understanding that the Constitution is a guardian of rights and opportunity for all Americans, including those without much power in our society.

The stimulating conversation left me feeling optimistic about advancing the constitutional principles that have been under attack from right-wing organizations and the Bush administration. After eight years of seeing right-wing ideologues nominated to the federal bench, there is immense opportunity to restore constitutional values. The only thing standing in our way is the Right and the senators who are already gearing up to fight good nominees -- senators like John Kyl (R-AZ), who promised a filibuster of any Court nominee he deemed too liberal... only three days after the election.

People For the American Way will be ready for Sen. Kyl, other right-wing senators and the Right's media echo chamber. Together, we'll make sure President Obama fulfills his mandate to give Americans the Supreme Court justices they deserve.

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