The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved the nomination of Maine attorney William Kayatta Jr. to sit on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Only two committee members voted against allowing Kayatta a vote from the full Senate: Utah’s Mike Lee, who is still protesting all Obama nominees, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who gave the following reason, according to the Portland Press Herald:
In a statement on his opposition to Kayatta's nomination, Sessions cited Kayatta's role as lead evaluator for the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary during the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
Sessions said Kayatta saw fit to give Kagen the highest rating despite her lack of substantial courtroom and trial experience, as a lawyer or trial judge. Sessions said the rating was "not only unsupported by the record, but, in my opinion, the product of political bias."
Yes, that’s right. Kayatta was involved in the American Bar Association’s nonpartisan rating process, which dared to call the solicitor general and former Harvard Law School dean “well qualified” for the job of Supreme Court Justice.
Sessions, one of the most outspoken opponents of Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination frequently slammed her lack of judicial experience in her confirmation hearings two years ago. He seemed to conveniently forget that the late conservative icon Chief Justice William Rehnquist also came to the High Court without having previously served as a judge – as have over one third of all Justices in U.S. history. The American Bar Association similarly found Rehnquist qualified for the job and called him “one of the best persons available for appointment to the Supreme Court [pdf].
It would be funny if it weren’t so appalling: Sessions’ grudge against Kagan runs so deep that he not only objected to her nomination, he’s objecting to anyone who who’s dared to call her qualified for her job.
At a speech yesterday at Southern Methodist University, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg touched upon the depressing state of our nation's judicial nominations process. As reported by the Associated Press:
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday that the confirmation process has become much more partisan and that she probably never would have made it to the high court under the current climate.
"I wish we could wave a magic wand and go back to the days when the process was bipartisan," Ginsburg told the crowd of about 2,000 as she spoke as part of a lecture series for Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.
While most of us cannot wave such a magic wand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can. With one word he could stop many of the GOP obstruction tactics against President Obama's judicial nominees. It was just such obstruction that prevented the Senate from voting to confirm twenty pending nominees before it left town several weeks ago, 17 of whom got through committee with no recorded opposition.
As ThinkProgress reported, Justice Ginsburg also noted the hostility felt by some senators toward the ACLU: "Today, my ACLU connection would probably disqualify me."
Unfortunately, she may be right. Late last year, Senator Jeff Sessions – then the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee – railed against judicial nominees who had worked with or been a member of the ACLU, specifically targeting William Martinez, Edward Chen, Goodwin Liu, Jack McConnell, Amy Totenberg, Robert Wilkins, and Michael Simon. He concluded his tirade with the following warning to President Obama:
I do believe the administration needs to understand that this is going to be a more contentious matter if we keep seeing the ACLU chromosome as part of this process.
Republican hostility to the ACLU – and to the constitutional rights it regularly protects – is extremely disturbing. At the same time, the blocking of even unopposed nominees suggests that the GOP's main problems with President Obama's nominees is that they are President Obama's nominees.
As we like to remind anyone who will listen, the current GOP senate has been shameless in its enthusiasm for obstructing judicial nominees just for the sake of obstruction. For instance, a PFAW memo on August 2 reported that of 24 nominees then waiting for confirmation votes, 21 had been voted through the Senate Judiciary Committee with no recorded opposition. Instead of sending through at least the unopposed nominees in a voice vote and moving on with its business, the Senate decided to keep these potential jurists off the bench for as long as possible – despite the pressing problem of unfilled judicial seats leading to slowed down justice. Ultimately, 4 of those nominees were confirmed by the Senate before it left for its August recess, and 20 remain waiting. (The Washington Post this morning lamented that such “gamesmanship is not only frustrating but also destructive”)
This sort of thing is a clear example of obstruction for obstruction’s sake. But what about the nominees who do face some GOP opposition? Last week, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen took an in-depth look at some of President Obama’s nominees who were ultimately confirmed by the Senate, but who received more than 25 “no” votes. The reason? Most were opposed because of a record fighting for civil liberties or against big corporations. Here are a few of Cohen’s examples:
7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hamilton (Votes 59-39). Even though his local Federalist Society endorsed this nephew of former Congressional leader Lee Hamilton, Senate Republicans mostly didn't because, as a trial judge, Hamilton had issued this 2005 ruling which had infuriated the religious right. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Judge Hamilton had ruled that Indiana's legislative prayer before each session could no longer be "sectarian" and regularly invoke the name of Jesus Christ.
Northern District of Ohio Judge Benita Y. Pearson (Votes 56-39). The first black female federal jurist in Ohio almost didn't get the gig. The precise reasons why are unclear. The People for the American Way suggested that she was a member of an animal rights group and thus earned the wrath of those in the cattle industries -- although 39 "no" votes is quite a lot of beef to have against a pioneering jurist.
District of Colorado Judge William J. Martinez (Votes 58-37). By contrast, it is not hard to understand why this Mexico-born nominee roused so much Republican opposition on the floor of the Senate. Before he was nominated, Martinez advised the Americans with Civil Liberties Union and was a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (just like Clarence Thomas before him, only Justice Thomas' EEOC experience evidently was a boon for his nomination). Of nominee Martinez, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said: "It seems that if you've got the ACLU DNA you've got a pretty good leg up to being nominated by this president."
District of Rhode Island Judge John J. McConnell (Votes 50-44). It's also fairly clear why Judge McConnell almost didn't make it onto the bench. Senate Republicans didn't like him because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn't like him because, as a lawyer, McConnell had successfully sued Big Tobacco and fought for those harmed by lead paint. Evidently that's five Republican votes more serious in the Senate than ticking off Big Beef.
Northern District of California Judge Edward M. Chen (Votes 56-42). Like Judge Martinez, Edward Chen evidently was touched with the "ACLU gene," which rendered him objectionable to Senate Republicans. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose state's Asian population is nearly three times lower than the American average, voted against Chen because he thought the well-respected former magistrate judge employed the "empathy standard" of judging.
District of Oregon Judge Michael H. Simon (Votes 64-35). Harvard educated? Check. Prior government experience with the Justice Department? Check. So why 35 "no" votes? Because Simon had worked for the ACLU. The seat he took on the federal bench, reported the Oregonian, had been vacant for 664 days, two months short of two years. How would you like to have been a litigant in Oregon during that time?
All of these nominees were ultimately confirmed – but not after plenty of stalling and debate over the value of “ACLU DNA” or of holding big corporations accountable for their actions. When we talk about the many nominees who are unopposed yet unaccountably stalled, it’s important to remember that the few nominees who do face GOP opposition don’t always face that opposition for the most convincing of reasons.
Back in September, we wrote about Sen. Jeff Sessions’ discovery of what he called the “ACLU chromosome”—according to the senator, a common genetic defect that disqualifies bearers from the federal judiciary.
Well, Dr. Sessions is back at it. TPM has this video of Sessions ranting yesterday about the supposed prevalence of the “ACLU chromosome” in President Obama’s judicial nominees:
As Sen. Mark Udall later pointed out on the Senate floor, it’s unlikely that Sen. Sessions would have a similar reaction to a “Federalist Society chromosome”. While a few of President Obama’s nominees have had a history working with the ACLU—for instance, Edward Chen of California who worked to prevent discrimination against Asian Americans—President Bush made a point of packing the courts with judges who belonged to the far-right Federalist Society.
It’s absurd arguments like Sessions’ that are keeping qualified, well-respected nominees like Chen from even receiving an up or down vote in the Senate. While reports say that the Senate GOP has finally agreed to vote on 19 judicial nominees who they have been stalling despite little or no opposition to their confirmations, four nominees, including Chen, will be left out to dry without even a vote.
And, for the record, the ACLU had this to say about Sessions’ rant:
"Senator Sessions' reference to 'ACLU DNA' in President Obama's judicial nominees should be greeted as a welcome discovery by all Americans, regardless of party. For 90 years, the ACLU has defended the rights enshrined in the Constitution for everyone, regardless of their political beliefs. While not everyone agrees with us on every issue, Americans have come to rely on the ACLU for its unyielding dedication to principle."
"There is a long record of highly respected ACLU-affiliated lawyers who have been appointed to the federal bench, including luminaries such as Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All have demonstrated their dedication to the Bill of Rights in important decisions supporting freedom of speech, the right to due process and gender and racial equality. There are also dozens of highly regarded district court and appellate court judges who have served or serve now on federal benches throughout the nation. Their ACLU background has helped them bring to the judicial system a steadfast commitment to constitutional values and an understanding of the critical role that the judiciary plays in safeguarding them."
"If you ask us, ACLU chromosomes make for a pretty remarkable gene pool," she added.
The Republican Party’s virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are far from mere political tactics, as GOP members of Congress usher in a radical agenda to rollback the rights of immigrants and their families. Iowa Rep. Steve King, who has appeared with violent vigilante groups and has referred to undocumented immigration as both a “slow-motion Holocaust” and a “slow-motion terrorist attack,” is set to chair the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration. Members of the House Republican Freshman Class, including Pennsylvania’s Tom Marino and Florida’s Allen West, frequently used immigrant-bashing in their campaigns, and Louisiana Senator David Vitter made demonizing immigrants the cornerstone of his reelection campaign.
Two new reports today demonstrate how extreme the Republican Party is moving to not only oppose immigration reform but also to undermine one of the most important protections guaranteed by the US Constitution:
GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees immigration, is expected to push a bill that would deny "birthright citizenship" to such children.
The measure, assailed by critics as unconstitutional, is an indication of how the new majority intends to flex its muscles on the volatile issue of illegal immigration.
The idea has a growing list of supporters, including Republican Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and Dan Lungren of Gold River, but it has aroused intense opposition, as well.
"I don't like it," said Chad Silva, statewide policy analyst for the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. "It's been something that's been a part of America for a very long time. … For us, it sort of flies in the face of what America is about."
Republicans are also gearing up to defeat the DREAM Act, which would allow students and military servicemembers who came into the country illegally as children and have a clean criminal record to gain a pathway to citizenship. Even though the DREAM Act has historically garnered bipartisan support, Politico reports that Republicans on the Hill are trying to deceptively tar the bill as amnesty for criminals:
Already, GOP staffers have begun circulating to senators and conservative groups a white paper outlining what they see as the social and financial costs of passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.
“In addition to immediately putting an estimated 2.1 million illegal immigrants (including certain criminal aliens) on a path to citizenship, the DREAM Act would give them access to in-state tuition rates at public universities, federal student loans and federal work-study programs,” said the research paper, being distributed by Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill’s backers, though, say it outlines a “rigorous and lengthy process” for legalization, hardly the amnesty plan that opponents have depicted.
Eligible immigrants must have entered the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country for at least five consecutive years before the bill’s enactment and been at least under age 35 at the time of enactment; been admitted to a college or earned a high-school diploma or GED certificate; and have no serious criminal record.
A recent Rasmussen poll found that a majority of Americans believe that “children brought to the U.S. illegally should get a chance at citizenship if they complete two years of college or participate in the military,” and military leaders have called on Congress to pass the DREAM Act as a way to strengthen the country’s armed forces. A study by UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center states that the DREAM Act both “offers a moral solution to the trap of being a young, motivated, undocumented immigrant in the U.S.” and is “an economically sensible piece of legislation that advances the interests of U.S. society as a whole.”
However, the extreme anti-immigrant sentiment that is pervasive within the GOP stands in the way of reasonable efforts at reform, and even leads to radical legislation that challenges the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.
The Blog of the Legal Times is reporting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning to call Senate Republicans on their obstruction of judicial nominees and break the gridlock that has kept four of these nominees pending, in some cases for over a year. Reid will attempt to stop the Republican filibuster of Ninth Circuit nominees Goodwin Liu and Edward Chen, Rhode Island District Court nominee John McConnell, and Wisconsin District nominee Louis Butler.
This is a critical moment for these nominees, who despite support from their home-state senators and endorsements across the ideological spectrum, have for various reasons been branded as “too extreme” by obstructionist Republicans in the Senate. McConnell has been up against an expensive lobbying campaign from the Chamber of Commerce, which objects to his work as a public interest lawyer representing victims of lead paint poisoning. Butler has been up against business interests who don’t think he was friendly enough to them when he was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chen was accused by Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee of having an apparently disqualifying “ACLU chromosome.”
Liu’s nomination has been the subject of the most partisan squabbling. Liu’s main obstacle, it seems, has been his own brilliance: some on the Right worry that if he makes it on to the bench, he could eventually become a Supreme Court nominee. But Liu’s nomination is backed by legal luminaries from across the ideological spectrum, including former Bush White House lawyer Richard Painter, who today wrote another plea for the Senate GOP to break the judicial gridlock and at least take a vote on Liu’s nomination:
In any event, nominees who should not be controversial, including Goodwin Liu (I have made previous posts here on his nomination), are described as radical activists, the same tactic that advocacy groups deployed to mischaracterize many of President Bush’s nominees.
Public opinion of Members of Congress (both parties) these days is lower, far lower, than it was in the days when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge used just the right term to describe what he saw going on when Senators filibustered legislation. Those of us who care about the future of the judiciary should make it clear that the delay must stop.
This does not mean the Senators should vote "yes". They can vote "no". But they should vote.
Specific nominations aside, the federal judicial system in general has taken a drubbing under the Senate GOP’s refusal to confirm nominees. A new report from the Alliance for Justice has found that the number of vacancies in the federal judiciary has nearly doubled since President Obama took office, and that the number of open seats designated as “judicial emergencies” has risen from 20 to 50, affecting 30 states.
Confirmation votes will become much more difficult next year, with Democrats hanging on to a much slimmer majority in the Senate. Now’s the time to push through the nominees whom the GOP has been the most eager to obstruct.
Politico today outlines an emerging trend in judicial obstruction. While partisan battles over judicial nominees have in past years focused on the occasional appellate court judge or Supreme Court justice, these days even nominees to lower-profile district courts are fair game for partisan obstructionism. Among other problems, this doesn’t make it easy to keep a well-functioning, fully staffed federal court system:
According to data collected by Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution and analyzed by POLITICO, Obama’s lower-court nominees have experienced an unusually low rate of confirmation and long periods of delay, especially after the Senate Judiciary Committee has referred the nomination for a confirmation vote by the full Senate. Sixty-four percent of the district court nominees Obama submitted to the Senate before May 2010 have been confirmed — a number dwarfed by the 91 percent confirmation rate for Bush’s district court nominees for the same period.
But analysts say the grindingly slow pace in the Senate, especially on district court nominations, will have serious consequences.
Apart from the burden of a heavier case load for current judges and big delays across the federal judicial system, Wheeler, a judicial selection scholar at Brookings, says that potential nominees for district courts may think twice before offering themselves up for a federal nomination if the process of confirmation continues to be both unpredictable and long.
"I think it means first that vacancies are going to persist for longer than they should. There’s just not the judge power that there should be," Wheeler said. And private lawyers who are not already judges may hesitate to put their practices on hold during the confirmation process, he added, because "you can’t be certain that you’ll get confirmed" for even a district judgeship, an entry-level position to the federal bench.
Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has been at the lead of the GOP’s obstruction of every judicial nominee who can possibly be obstructed. He told Politico that he simply wants to make sure every new federal judges passes his litmus test: "If they’re not committed to the law, they shouldn’t be a judge, in my opinion."
Sounds fair. But the problem is, of course, that Sessions’ definition of “committed to the law” is something more like “committed to the way Jeff Sessions sees the law.”
In a meeting yesterday to vote on eight judicial nominees-- five of whom were going through the Judiciary Committee for the second or third time after Senate Republicans refused to vote on their nominations--Sessions rallied his troops against Edward Chen, nominated to serve as a district court judge in California. Chen is a widely respected magistrate judge who spent years fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union. But Sessions smelled a rat: Chen, he said, has “the ACLU chromosome.”
The phrase really illuminates what Sessions and his cohort mean when they talk about finding judges “committed to the law” or who won’t stray from “the plain words of statutes or the Constitution.” It isn’t about an “objective” reading of the Constitution. It’s about appointing judges who will find ways to protect powerful interests like Exxon, BP, and the Chamber of Commerce, while denying legal protections to working people, women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and gays and lesbians.
(Sessions himself was nominated for a judgeship in 1986, but was rejected by a bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee for his history of not-so-ACLU-like activity).
Sessions’ warns that “Democrats hold federal judiciary as the great engine of the left,” but the reality is far from that. Besides having the most conservative Supreme Court in decades, nearly 40% of all current federal judges were appointed by George W. Bush, who made a point of recruiting judges with stellar right-wing credentials.
No matter how much disarray it causes in the federal courts, it’s in the interest of Sessions and the Right Wing to keep the number of judicial seats President Obama fills to a minimum. If they succeed, they keep their conservative, pro-corporate courts, tainted as little as possible by the sinister “ACLU chromosome.”
In a “Critical Judiciary Alert” released today on Facebook (where else?), Senator Jeff Sessions went on the attack against five of President Obama’s judicial nominees that the GOP has worked overtime to obstruct.
The whole piece is a fine example of the out of context scare quotes and blatant distortions that are the stock in trade for Senate Republicans trying to block President Obama’s judges. But it seems that Senator Sessions can’t even keep his arguments in line for the length of one piece.
Take for instance, his attacks against Jack McConnell, a nominee for the District of Rhode Island.
After McConnell’s questionable theory of liability against lead paint manufacturers was unanimously rejected by the Rhode Island Supreme Court, he publicly attacked the decision as letting “wrongdoers off the hook,” revealing a preference for outcome-driven judicial decisions.
Setting aside the fact that fighting against the ingestion of lead paint by children is apparently not a good thing in the eyes of the GOP, Sessions clearly doesn’t like “outcome-driven” judicial decisions (although any lawyer not looking for a positive outcome for his client, as McConnell was doing, seems like a pretty poor attorney to me.) Got it. Outcome driven rulings = bad.
But then, take a gander at Sessions’ attack on Louis Butler, a nominee for the Second Circuit and a former state judge.
In one case, he held that a manufacturer could be held liable for injuries from a product that, as the dissent explained it, the manufacturer “may or may not have produced, which may or may not have caused the plaintiff’s injuries, based on conduct that may have occurred over 100 years ago when some of the defendants were not even part of the relevant market.”
Why, it sounds like Sessions doesn’t like the outcome! And this unhappy outcome is apparently reason to think the judge is doing a poor job. Outcome driven rulings = good?
So what does Senator Sessions want? Outcomes that go his way, or judges who ignore political pressure to rule according to the law?
Of course, there might be a third option: It doesn’t matter. Senator Sessions will say whatever it takes to block judges nominated by President Obama.
Last month, Republican senators turned to a surprising strategy in their questioning of Supreme Court nominee (and now Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan. They attempted to smear Kagan by connecting her with a figure who most of us don’t see as a liability—the revered civil rights leader Justice Thurgood Marshall. The attacks Senators Charles Grassley, Jon Kyl, and Jeff Sessions levied at Marshall rang a bell for former NAACP member and People For board member Julian Bond. Bond writes in today’s Des Moines Register:
These attacks didn't surprise me because they're completely consistent with a party locked in the past, echoing the anti-civil rights message of those who opposed Justice Marshall's own confirmation in 1967.
Grassley, Sessions and their fellow Republicans roasted Solicitor General Kagan with the same attacks used against Marshall four decades earlier. Then, the late Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina complained about the likelihood that Marshall would be "a judicial activist," which he defined as someone "unable to exercise the self-restraint which is inherent in the judicial process when it is properly understood and applied, and who is willing to add to the Constitution things that are not in it and to subtract from the Constitution things which are in it."
When Ervin spoke of adding rights to the Constitution, there was no doubt that he was referring to the court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which he had fervently opposed. Ervin went on to join with 10 other southern Senators in voting against Marshall's confirmation.
Faced with the inevitable backlash for their attacks, today’s senators have tried to equivocate by saying they have no problem with Justice Marshall, just with his “judicial philosophy.” As Bond makes clear, that’s not a new—or convincing--argument.
For a refresher, take a look at the compilation of Marshall attacks Talking Points Memo put together after the first day of the Kagan hearings:
Either Senate Republicans have no idea what their co-conservatives are saying and doing, or they are just comfortable with their party’s hypocrisy.
In explaining why he didn’t plan to vote for Kagan, Senator Jeff Sessions said that she lacked judicial restraint, which he described as a potential judge’s most important quality.
He seems to have forgotten to send that memo to his colleague Senator Coburn, who during the hearing begged Kagan to ignore the Constitution, the law and judicial precedent and instead judge based on her opinion of mankind’s natural rights:
GOP Senator Jeff Sessions has taken to the Senate floor to oppose the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. He's accused Kagan of believing that judges can simply ignore the Constitution and replace it with her personal vision of what the law should be.
I think he's confusing Kagan for the five justices who decided in Citizens United that it was gigantic corporations who the founders had in mind when adopting the First Amendment. That's a vision of society totally at odds with what the founders had in mind, to say nothing of what the American people want. It's a vision shared only by extremist pro-business conservative ideologues.
Nine Democratic senators went to the Senate floor today to call for up-or-down votes on the confirmation of 20 federal judicial nominees, many of whom have been waiting months to be confirmed and several of whom passed out of the Judiciary Committee with little or no opposition from members of either party. The Senators who spoke on the floor today included Mark Udall (CO), Michael Bennet (CO), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Herb Kohl (WI), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Jack Reed (RI), Ben Cardin (MD), Tom Carper (DE), and Ted Kaufman (DE).
The explanation from Senator Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of the architects of the obstruction? "Things do not always go as smoothly as you would like."
Among the nominees Democratic senators sought votes on were several whose nomination sagas we've been following. There were Albert Diaz and James Wynn of North Carolina who would be be, respectively, the first Latino and fourth African American appointed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (and who garnered one no vote between the two of them in committee). There was John McConnell of Rhode Island, who has come under attack from the powerful lobbyists at the Chamber of Commerce because of his record of defending consumers in suits against large manufacturers. There was William Joseph Martinez, the Colorado judge who has come under attack for having sat on an advisory panel for the ACLU.
And then there was Goodwin Liu. Sen. Ben Cardin told a Netroots Nation panel last week that Liu's hearing with the Judiciary Committee was "one of the most impressive confirmation hearings we've ever had." Richard Painter, who served as a lawyer in the Bush White House, called him "a fine choice for the federal bench." Yet, inexplicably, Liu, a law professor at Berkeley who is respected by legal scholars across the political spectrum, has become a flash point for Republican obstruction.
It's time for the Senate GOP to stop stalling votes on these critical nominations and come clean about their true priorities for the courts.
Many thanks to the Senators who took to the floor today to shine a spotlight on this unprecedented and senseless obstruction.
Today I went back to the Heritage Foundation for their annual “Scholars and Scribes” panel reviewing the recent and upcoming activities of the Supreme Court. There was some discussion of judicial activism, but most of the panelists seemed to have finally given up on the claim that conservative Justices have acted as neutral “umpires” in the past year.
What is surprising is that, now that the Court’s decision in Citizens United ruined the “judicial activism” mantra for the Right, a new tactic has apparently taken hold. During a question and answer session, conservative legal scholar Richard Epstein echoed Senator Jeff Sessions in comparing the Citizens United decision to, of all things, Brown v. Board of Education. His take was slightly different and, if possible, even more unhinged from reality. Those of us who oppose and are working to overturn the Citizens United ruling, Epstein said, “look a little bit like the same kind of massive resistance” engendered by Brown v. Board.
To compare the 93% of Americans who think that there should be limits on corporate political spending to the recalcitrant racists who tried to stop the desegregation of public schools is absurd and offensive. If conservatives are trying to paint corporations as victims akin to those who have suffered from institutionalized racism, they’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.
When I got to the office this morning, I turned on C-SPAN, which was rerunning the confirmation hearings all over again. While I was listening, I heard again something that caught my ear yesterday.
Senator Sessions: I think that yesterday you indicated that the court could consider foreign court opinions as they could “learn about how other people might approach” and think about approaching legal issues. And you said, well I guess “I'm in favor of good ideas coming from wherever you can get them.” I think some of the judges on the court have used that phrase, but ideas sound like policy to me. It does not sound like authority to me.
Is Senator Sessions arguing that judges shouldn’t have ideas? That having ideas per se might undermine the authority of the Court?
On one level, it’s a bit frightening, but, on another, it’s Chief Justice Roberts’ “balls-and-strikes” theory of judging extended to its absurd, inevitable conclusion.
We were far from the only ones noting the surprising volume of GOP attacks on Justice Thurgood Marshall on Monday. Talking Points Memo counted the number of references to the illustrious Justice on the opening day of Kagan’s hearings:
In an example of how much the GOP focused on Marshall, his name came up 35 times. President Obama's name was mentioned just 14 times today.
Harpers Magazine shared my confusion about what might have motivated Republican Senators to engage in these attacks:
So what made Marshall the image of an “activist judge”? Was it his role in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that put an end to the lie of “separate but equal” education across the American South, forcing desegregation in public education? Or perhaps it was the fact that he won nearly all of his Supreme Court cases, most of them on behalf of the NAACP, and all of them testing the official refuges of bigotry and racism?
The attacks were led, predictably, by neoconfederate senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Republican ranking member and the Theodore Bilbo of his generation, who snarled that Kagan’s affection for her former boss “tells us much about the nominee”—a comment clearly intended as an insult. But so many other Republican senators joined in—Orrin Hatch, John Cornyn, and Jon Kyl, for instance—that it appears to have been an agreed talking point. (I see Dana Milbank reports that Republican staffers were actually handing out opposition research on Marshall’s voting record after the hearing–another sign that the war on Marshall was a formal strategy.)
At first it was unclear to me what possible complaint about Justice Marshall the Republican Senators could have had. But Dana Milbank at the Washington Post cleared things up:
Republicans saw trouble in this Marshall fellow. "In 2003, Ms. Kagan wrote a tribute to Justice Marshall in which she said that, 'in his view, it was the role of the courts in interpreting the Constitution to protect the people who went unprotected by every other organ of government,' " Kyl complained.
Protecting the unprotected? Say it ain't so!
And that wasn't all. Kagan also emphasized Marshall's "unshakable determination to protect the underdog," Kyl said.
Let’s take a moment to remember all the great things Justice Marshall did for this country. Stephanie Jones’ thoughtful piece in the Washington Post this morning details his vital role in fulfilling the promises of the Constitution. She summarizes:
Marshall was a great jurist who used his skills to move this country closer to being a more perfect union. As a lawyer and a justice, he protected us from activist judges and the cramped thinking of politicians who tried to keep our country in the muck. And he never forgot how the high court's rulings affect the least of us.
So what do Republicans have to gain from attacking this giant? Out west at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, columnist Joel Connelly reminded us that attacks on Marshall are just part of a larger right wing trend to de-legitimize American heroes with whom they disagree:
The political right has taken to beating up on great American presidents, with the "progressive" Theodore Roosevelt demonized by Fox's Glenn Beck, and Thomas Jefferson ordered banished from textbooks by the Texas Board of Education.
At confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, Senators from the party of Abraham Lincoln have discovered -- literally -- a new black hat. They are denouncing and labeling Thurgood Marshall, our country's greatest civil rights lawyer.
UPDATE: even conservatives are perplexed by the Republicans' anti-Marshall strategy. Check out Joe Scarborough mocking Senate Republicans:
You do have to feel for the big corporations who were being discriminated against before the Supreme Court decided they could spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, right? Jeff Sessions, for one, is standing up for corporate underdogs who have fallen victim to moral injustice. Talking Points Memo reports:
Last night, elaborating on his criticisms of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sessions made the unusual comparison of Citizens United v. FEC to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
"[Marshall] was right on Brown v. Board of Education. It's akin in my view to the Citizen's United case. The court sat down and we went back to first principles--What does the Constitution say? Everybody should be equal protection of the laws," Sessions told me after a Senate vote last night.
"Is it treating people equally to say you can go to this school because of the color of your skin and you can't?" Sessions asked rhetorically. "We've now honestly concluded and fairly concluded that it violates the equal protection clause."
Let’s break this down into a few points that I guess we shouldn’t assume are obvious:
The confusing logic aside, the main point here is that Sessions just compared limits on corporate spending in elections with systematic racial segregation. This is the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And abstract arguments about judicial philosophy aside, that’s just appalling.
In his opening remarks in the Elena Kagan nomination hearings, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) expressed concern about Gen. Kagan’s lack of judicial experience. Additionally, he chose to chastise her for opting to take jobs in the policy arena.
Professor Kagan left teaching law to spend five years at the center of politics, working in the Clinton White House, doing – as she describes it – mostly policy work… In many respects, Ms. Kagan’s career has been consumed more by politics than law.
How conveniently Sen. Sessions forgets that the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, served in both the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations, and also was a part of Bush Sr.’s Office of White House Counsel. Even more alarmingly, Jeff Sessions doesn’t seem to mind that Roberts flew to Florida in 2000 to stop the recount in the presidential election.
The GOP’s double standard becomes clearer and clearer.
The Elena Kagan confirmation hearings began at 12:30 p.m. today, and Jeff Sessions, the ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wasted no time in attacking the nominee for having “barely practiced law.” It seems the senator is once again conveniently overlooking Ms. Kagan’s tenure as Solicitor General, her service as Associate White House Counsel, and her years in private practice - all of which is certainly very real legal experience.
Mr. Sessions also appears to have forgotten that the reason Ms. Kagan is not already a judge is that in 1999, after then-President Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, refused to schedule confirmation hearings for her, effectively killing her nomination. So Republicans are now attacking Kagan for not having the experience that in fact they prevented her from gaining.
Let’s keep in mind some former justices who, like Kagan, had never served as judges prior to being named to the Court: William Rehnquist, Earl Warren, Louis Brandeis, Charles Evans Hughes, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, Lewis Powell, Byron White.
Senator Sessions pledged that Republicans would hold a respectful confirmation.
In the next breath he slammed Kagan’s legal experience, then moved on to attacking her college thesis, complaining about her support of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, misrepresenting her opposition to DADT (and claiming she was anti-military), and distorting her argument in Citizens United. Just for good measure, he smeared Justice Thurgood Marshall for being too activist, and then demanded that the Supreme Court engage in activism to limit “unprecedented government power” (by which he seems to mean stimulus and health care reform.)
You stay classy, GOP.