On Capitol Hill yesterday, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Merkely (D-OR), Tom Udall (D-NM) and others took to the floor to speak about the state of campaign finance today, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Although the only way to completely fix the decision would be for the Supreme Court to reverse itself or to pass a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the DISCLOSE Act of 2012 (“Disclose 2.0”) is critically important legislation that would bring much-needed transparency to the political process.
Sen. Whitehouse began by analyzing the dramatic increase in unregulated, anonymous spending in our elections. “In the 2010 elections, the first after Citizens United, there was more than a four-fold increase in expenditures from Super PACS and other outside groups compared to 2006, with nearly three-fourths of political advertising coming from sources that were prohibited in 2006.” He noted that outside groups are vastly outspending the campaigns themselves – yet there is so much overlap between campaigns and PACs that their differences are hard to distinguish.
“Our campaign finance system is broken. Action is required to fix it,” Sen. Whitehouse said. “Americans are disgusted by campaigns that succeed or fail based on how many billionaires the candidates have in their pockets.”
Senator Udall made the case that amending the Constitution to ensure that elections remain about the quality of ideas instead of the quantity of dollars spent is a worthy cause: “We cannot truly fix this broken system until we undo the flawed premise that spending money on elections is the same thing as exercising free speech. That can only be achieved in two ways: the Court can overturn Buckley and subsequent decisions based on it, something the current court seems highly unlikely to do; or we can amend the Constitution to not only overturn the previous bad Court decision, but also to prevent future ones. Until then, we will fall short of the real reform that is needed.”
“I know amending the Constitution is difficult, and it should be,” continued Sen. Udall, who then quoted PFAW Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin: "'A constitutional amendment always seems impossible, until it becomes inevitable.’” Sen. Udall also noted the growing grassroots movement that has led to more than 200 state and local resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment that have been adopted around the country.
Senator Jeff Merkley engaged in a colloquy with Senator Whitehouse, focusing on the first three words of the preamble to the Constitution, “We the People.” The senators discussed the fundamental conflict with that fundamental value posed by the Citizens United decision. Watch below:
Thirteen members of the Senate are the latest voices in the It Gets Better Project. In this five-minute long video, senators from across the country speak out to send a message of hope and support for LGBT youth and a call to action for all Americans. Check it out:
Through its efforts and mission the It Gets Better Project sends a positive message to LGBT youth, but I applaud the senators for taking the message one step further by saying: “we’re making it better”. Going beyond the simple, yet powerful, message of “it gets better,” these senators show us that taking action—and not passively waiting—will result in significant advances and great victories for LGBT rights.
Pointing out their support for repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and some even speaking out in support of marriage equality, these senators show their commitment to fighting for the LGBT community.
“It’s going to get better. Believe in it, let’s fight for it.” - Senator Udall (CO)
It is disappointing, however, that we only hear from the voices of Democrats. Speaking out against harassment and discrimination of any form, against any group should transcend partisan politics and be countered with action from both sides of the aisle.
In talking about the importance and necessity of working together, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut put it best:
“Our nation has always done better when all of us, no matter where we’re from, what we look like, or whom we love, work together.”
Making it better to ensure that it gets better requires courage, commitment, and hard work on the part of both our leaders and individuals. I am so pleased to see a handful of senators coming out in support of LGBT rights and fighting to fulfill the promise of equality for all.
Special thanks to the following senators for speaking out in support of LGBT rights and continuing the fight for equality: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT), Sen. Sherrod Brown (OH), Sen. Maria Cantwell (WA.), Sen. Dick Durbin (IL.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (CA), Sen. Al Franken (MN), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Mark Udall (CO), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), and Sen. Ron Wyden (OR).
And I would like to extend a very special thank you to Senator Chris Coons (DE), who believes “equality is a question of morality,” for leading this important and inspiring effort.
It is my hope that we will soon hear from more members of Congress—Democrats and Republicans alike—with a similar message of making it better for LGBT youth.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has authored a thoughtful piece in the National Law Journal, one that makes an important contribution to our national dialogue on the role of the Supreme Court in Americans' lives. This is a must-read analysis of "judicial activism" - what it means, and how to identify it.
For years, using propaganda like "activist courts" and "legislating from the bench," the Right has demagogued against judges who protect basic American values like church-state separation, equal rights, freedom of speech, and the right to privacy. But the Roberts Court has made clear that the Right doesn't believe their own propaganda about "judicial activism."
Focusing attention on the real meaning of “judicial activism,” rather than simply using the term as an epithet to denigrate decisions one disagrees with, Sen. Whitehouse identifies five key characteristics - the "red flags"- that unmistakably signal judicial activism:
First, an activist court would be less likely to respect the judgments of the American people as expressed through state and federal legislation. ...
Second, an activist court would chafe at unwelcome prior precedents of the court. ...
Third, an activist court, facing the perennial choice between securing a broad consensus and allowing a bare majority to carry the day, would go down the path that allowed it to reach farther in the ideologically satisfactory direction. As a result, an activist court would likely render 5-4 decisions rather than strive to find broader common ground across the court. ...
Fourth, a discernible pattern of results would likely emerge: Whether conservative or liberal, an activist court would issue decisions consistent with its ideological preferences. ...
Fifth, an activist court might be prepared to violate rules and tenets of appellate decision-making that have long guided courts of final appeal. ...
Sen. Whitehouse then analyzes the jurisprudence of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court and demonstrates, step by step, that it raises all five of the red flags of "judicial activism." His objective analysis shows that the conservative justices who are praised by the right wing exemplify the judicial activism that the right claims to oppose.
The centerpiece of a generation’s worth of right-wing propaganda on the courts crumbles.
The article finishes on a hopeful note:
"Judicial activism" is often in the eye of the beholder. If, as I have suggested here, we can identify red flags for judicial activism, the conservative bloc on the current Supreme Court is flying all of those flags. Let's hope that [the 2010-2011] term sees a renewal of the best traditions of the Court, not merely the imposition on our Republic of the ideological or political will of a determined, but bare, majority of the justices.
Indeed, let us hope.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse just made a forceful presentation at the Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting about the unprecedented obstruction currently being waged by Republicans against judicial nominees. The statistics are powerful: from 1949, when Senate rules were changed to provide for cloture votes on nominees, until 2009, only three cloture motions were filed on District Court nominees, and one of those was withdrawn.
By contrast, three District Court nominees were voted out of Committee for a second (John McConnell) or third (Edward Chen, Louis Butler) time today after Republicans refused to permit votes on their nominations and forced their re-nomination by the President--Exhibit "A" of this unprecedented obstruction.
In the wake of Citizens United and other rulings that put corporate bank accounts ahead of individual rights, it has become increasingly clear where the priorities of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority lie. Republicans in Congress, unlike most Americans, like what they’re seeing—and are doing everything in their power to make sure the Roberts Court’s philosophy is reflected in lower courts throughout the country.
Apparently not satisfied with the current conservative bent of the nation’s entire judicial system (nearly 40% of federal judges nationwide were appointed by George W. Bush), Republican Senators are trying to stall district and circuit court judicial nominations until they are in a position to appoint federal judges once again, packing the court even more firmly for corporate interests.
A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that the current Republican obstruction of judicial nominations is truly unprecedented. The graph below pretty much says it all:
The current Republican obstructionism is unprecedented. Even George H.W. Bush, whose party never controlled the Senate during his term, enjoyed a confirmation rate nearly double that of President Obama and the current solidly Democratic Senate.
Yesterday, several senators put a much-needed spotlight on the GOP’s obstruction of judicial nominations. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island spoke about the special interests that are preventing public interest lawyer John McConnell, an extremely qualified nominee who enjoys bipartisan support, from serving his home state:
Why is it that nominees of President Obama are being held to a different, new standard than applied to the nominees of President Bush? Why have we departed from the longstanding tradition of respect to the views of home State Senators who know the nominees best and who best understand their home districts? … I ask this because we have a highly qualified nominee in Rhode Island, Jack McConnell, who was reported by the Judiciary Committee on June 17. It was a bipartisan vote, 13 to 6, with the support of Senator Lindsey Graham. Jack McConnell is a pillar of the legal community in Rhode Island…The Providence Chamber of Commerce has praised Jack McConnell as a well-respected member of the local community. Political figures from across our political spectrum have called for his confirmation, one of them being my predecessor as Rhode Island attorney general, Republican Jeffrey Pine.
…Notwithstanding the support of Senator Reed and myself, the two Senators from Rhode Island, notwithstanding that this is a district court nomination, notwithstanding the powerful support across Rhode Island from those who know Jack McConnell best, special interests from outside the State have interfered in his nomination. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, not the Rhode Island chapter, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has attacked Jack for having the temerity to stand up to big business, to the asbestos to representing the rights of the powerless. In doing so, the U.S. Chamber has created a cartoon image of Jack McConnell that bears no relation to the man Senator Reed and I know as a great lawyer, as a great Rhode Islander, and somebody who will be a great judge.
I ask my colleagues…do we want to let powerful out-of-State interests trump the better informed views of home State Senators about district court nominees?
This is not just a political question-- the GOP is so concerned about keeping the courts corporate-friendly in the long-term that they’re ignoring the very urgent short-term needs of the federal court system. While judicial positions around the country remain vacant, many Americans are forced to wait for inexcusably long periods to have their day in court as current judges struggle with an impossible workload. The Judicial Conference has declared 42 of the 99 current judicial vacancies “judicial emergencies.” Carolyn Lamm, President of the non-partisan American Bar Association, calls the current dearth of federal judges “urgent.” But the GOP clearly cares more about protecting their allies in the corporate world than allowing the lower court system to function.
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.
Democratic Senators used the opportunity of Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings today focus attention on nine people who were not in the room. The Senators called the Roberts Court out for some of its more outrageous decisions as they began to reframe the debate on the role of the Court and the Constitution. Central to the discussion was the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, in which it overturned a century of settled law to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was one of the chief designers of the campaign finance rules that the Supreme Court knocked down in Citizens United. He said:
[W]hen a decision like the one handed down earlier this year by a 5-4 vote in the Citizens United case uproots longstanding precedent and undermines our democratic system, the public’s confidence in the Court can’t help but be shaken. I was very disappointed in that decision, and in the Court for reaching out to change the landscape of election law in a drastic and wholly unnecessary way. By acting in such an extreme and unjustified manner, the Court badly damaged its own integrity. By elevating the rights of corporations over the rights of people, the Court damaged our democracy.
Only last week, the Rent-A-Center decision concluded that an employee who challenges as unconscionable an arbitration demand must have that challenge decided by the arbitrator. And the Citizens United decision -- yet another 5-4 decision -- created a constitutional right for corporations to spend unlimited money in American elections, opening our democratic system to a massive new threat of corruption and corporate control.
There is an unmistakable pattern. For all the talk of umpires and balls and strikes at the Supreme Court, the strike zone for corporations gets better every day.
Ted Kaufman of Delaware told Kagan, “I plan to spend the bulk of my time asking you about the Court’s business cases, based on my concern about its apparent bias.”
The Court’s decision last fall in the Citizens United case, which several of my colleagues have mentioned, is the latest example of the Court’s pro-corporate bent. The majority opinion in that case should put the nail in the coffin of claims that “judicial activism” is a sin committed by judges of only one political ideology.
What makes the Citizens United decision particularly troubling is that it is at odds with what some of the Court’s most recently confirmed members said during their confirmation hearings. We heard a great deal then about their deep respect for existing precedent. Now, however, that respect seems to vanish whenever it interferes with a desired pro-business outcome.
Al Franken of Minnesota explained the real impact of campaign finance laws:
Now, you’ve heard a lot about this decision already today, but I want to come at it from a slightly different angle.
There is no doubt: the Roberts Court’s disregard for a century of federal law—and decades of the Supreme Court’s own rulings—is wrong. It’s shocking. And it’s torn a gaping hole in our election laws.
So of course I’m worried about how Citizens United is going to change our elections.
But I am more worried about how this decision is going to affect our communities—and our ability to run those communities without a permission slip from big business.
Citizens United isn’t just about election law. It isn’t just about campaign finance.
It’s about seat belts. It’s about clean air and clean water. It’s about energy policy and the rights of workers and investors. It’s about health care. It’s about our ability to pass laws that protect the American people even if it hurts the corporate bottom line.
As Justice Stevens said, it’s about our “need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government.
We've heard from those across the aisle about their support for traditionalism, and their opposition to judicial activism. I have two words for them: Citizens United.
We’re looking forward to hearing a lot more about Citizens United and the Corporate Court as the hearings progress
Today, well over a year after she was originally nominated, the Senate Judiciary Committee once again approved the nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel.
As with any Judiciary Committee meeting, there was the requisite huffing and puffing by Republican Senators who never met a nominee they didn't want to obstruct. But anyone willing to sit through their tirades was treated to an energetic showing by Democrats who seem to have had enough of the delay and the baseless attacks.
A personal favorite is the remarks by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who showcased the bipartisan support that Johnsen has received and thoroughly demolished the ridiculous claims that the recent OPR report somehow vindicated the Bush Administration OLC.
Today I had the opportunity to moderate a discussion with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on a conference call with PFAW members and activists.
As we’ve mentioned before, Senator Whitehouse has been one of the leading voices in the push to restore the integrity of the Department of Justice and confirm Dawn Johnsen to the Office of Legal Counsel.
Before the conversation, we solicited questions from our participants and got an enthusiastic response. Many of those questions focused on similar themes: What exactly happened at OLC? How can we fix it? And what can individuals do to help move the process forward?
Senator Whitehouse repeatedly emphasized the importance of OLC in providing honest legal advice, and he called on citizens in red and blue states alike to urge their senators to support Dawn Johnsen’s confirmation (and although he didn’t mention it, I’m sure he’d be happy to have you sign our petition as well.)
If you weren’t able to join our call, you can get a taste of what Senator Whitehouse shared with us from his appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show earlier this week.
UPDATED: You can listen to the conference call using the player below, or read the transcript here.
Today, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), along with 10 of his colleagues, re-introduced his bill – the “Caging Prohibition Act” – that if enacted, would prevent political operatives from removing eligible voters from voting lists based on inaccurate and unreliable information. Like the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, originally introduced by then Senator Barack Obama, the need for this bill became increasingly evident in the most recent federal elections where we have seen an increase in dirty campaign tricks aimed at suppressing the vote.
From the press release:
The Caging Prohibition Act, which was first introduced in the 110th Congress, would prohibit interference with registration or voting based solely on unreliable information, such as a "caging list." Caging is a voter suppression tactic in which a political party, campaign, or other entity sends mail marked "do not forward" to a targeted group of voters - often minorities or residents of minority neighborhoods. A list of those whose mail was returned "undelivered" is then used as the basis for challenges to the right of those citizens to vote, on the grounds that the voter does not live at the address where he or she is registered. There are many reasons that mail is returned undelivered, however; an eligible voter could be overseas on active military service or a student registered at a parent's address.
The Caging Prohibition Act would mandate that anyone who challenges the right of another citizen to vote must set forth the specific grounds for that voter's alleged ineligibility and describe the evidence to support that conclusion, under penalty of perjury. Following allegations in 2008 that Republican Party officials in Michigan, Florida, Indiana, and Ohio were considering challenging the eligibility of voters who were on a list of people whose homes were subject to foreclosure, the sponsors updated last year's version of the Caging Prohibition Act to explicitly prohibit challenges based on the foreclosure status of a voter's residence.
People For the American Way is committed to passing legislation that will increase the franchise and eliminate barriers to the ballot. This is what a true democracy is all about. While this country may have passed a threshold in the 2008 elections such that those working to decrease the franchise were overtaken by voting right advocates and the massive participation of voters, we must still be vigilant in protecting the franchise lest we repeat the electoral tragedies experienced during the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections. Senator Whitehouse’s voter caging bill is a welcome step in this process and we encourage all Senators to support this bill in a timely fashion so that we can protect the rights of all voters.