Alaska

Leahy: Senators Will Address Oil and the Courts in Kagan Hearings

Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he’s going to make sure the subject of oil and the courts comes up in Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which begin next week. The Hill reported Saturday:

The chairman, who will guide the confirmation hearing, pointed to controversial cases slashing a damages award in the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill incident, an environmental disaster that's now been dwarfed by the Gulf spill.

"Turning back the award in the Exxon-Valdez, I wonder if the Supreme Court would do that today as they watch what's happening in the Gulf," Leahy said on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program, to air this weekend.

"It wasn't the liberals who said that Exxon shouldn't have to pay the amount that a jury gave the people of Alaska for their oil spill," the Vermont senator added later, critiquing conservative judges' decisions in some cases.

We, too, wonder if the current Supreme Court’s allegiance to corporate interests would lead it to give the same sort of gift to BP as it did to Exxon in 2008, if damage claims from BP’s devastating spill make their way to the high court. In fact, the pro-corporate reflexes that led to the Court to halve a jury’s award to the Exxon spill’s victims are exactly what we’d like Kagan to address in the upcoming hearings.

Take a look at the 20 questions we’ve drafted for Kagan . We’re glad to hear that a few of them may be asked.

 

 

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Oil and the Courts: Will History Repeat Itself?

As BP begins a risky attempt to stem its still-leaking oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and oil starts to lap against the shores of the Gulf Coast, lawsuits against the oil giant have begun. The devastating oil spill has already surpassed the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, and the litigation that follows it is sure to be just as contentious and lengthy. Two years ago, 19 years after the Valdez spill, the tens of thousands of victims of the disaster saw their case end up before the Supreme Court…and the Court gave Exxon Mobil a huge handout. While the facts this time are different and the legal issues won’t be exactly the same, if their case ends up before the high court, victims of the BP spill will have a legitimate reason to worry –the Roberts Court has displayed a clear willingness to go out of its way to keep individual citizens from holding big oil accountable.

In 1989, an Exxon oil tanker carrying over a million barrels of crude oil crashed off the coast of Alaska, spilling at least ten million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound. The spill destroyed wildlife habitats and the livelihoods of fishermen up and down the Northwest coast. Those affected by the spill entered into years of litigation to try to recover from Exxon some of what they had lost. In 1994, a jury awarded the 32,677 plaintiffs in the case $5 billion in punitive damages. An appeals court judge halved the amount to $2.5 billion.

Then, in 2008, the Supreme Court gave Exxon Mobil a $2 billion gift. As our Rise of the Corporate Court report explains:

[E]ven this pared-down judgment was way too much for Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Souter and Scalia. In 2008, this bloc reduced the punitive damage award from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million. Indeed, the only thing that stopped them from deleting the award altogether was that they were one vote short of being able to find that a corporation is not responsible for the reckless acts of its own managers acting in the scope of their employment.

What the 5-justice majority found, over the objections of dissenting liberal justices who accused them of legislating from the bench, was that it would impose in maritime tort cases a 1-1 ratio between compensatory and punitive damages—a formula found nowhere in the statute and essentially pulled out of a hat made by a big corporation. In dissent, Justice Stevens chastised the majority for interpreting the "congressional choice not to limit the availability of punitive damages under maritime law" as "an invitation to make policy judgments on the basis of evidence in the public domain that Congress is better able to evaluate than is this Court."

But Exxon, which amazingly ended up making money on the spill because of the resulting increase in oil prices, got its way with a corporate-leaning Court and ended up paying punitive damages equal to a day or two of company profits.

The Exxon Valdez spill was the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters. Until now, that is.

As oil keeps leaking from a BP oil rig into the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Coast has started to feel the impact of what the White House yesterday declared to be the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

President Obama called the spill a "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster." 11 people died in the rig’s explosion, and the resulting spill has already begun to destroy Gulf Coast ecosystems and has started a devastating ripple effect through the economy.

An early estimate put the economic impact of the spill at $12.5 billion. And the damage could continue for decades.

Not surprisingly, the lawsuits from those who are losing their livelihoods have begun. As of May 21, more than 130 had been filed.

Lawsuits against BP will no doubt involve millions, and probably billions of dollars in both compensatory and punitive damages. While compensatory damages are essential to helping victims recover from a disaster of this size, punitive damages serve to dissuade the company and others like it from acting recklessly in the future. The Roberts Court’s willingness to invent a rule capping punitive damages against Exxon doesn’t bode well for anyone hoping to hold BP accountable for this disaster and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The Court has a responsibility to ensure that ordinary people get treated fairly, even when pitted against big corporations—but the current Supreme Court has made it clear that we can’t always count on that.

This disaster is a tragic reminder of why we need Justices who won’t favor the interests of the powerful over the rights of ordinary citizens.

 UPDATE (May 28, 2:30 PM):

For a sense of the scale of the disaster, take a look at NASA's stunning time-lapse video of the spill unfolding (via Mother Jones):

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Palin Favors Federal Gay Marriage Ban

Via ThinkProgress comes news that Gov. Palin said in a recent CBN interview that she (unlike her running mate) is in favor amending the Constitution to make gay marriage illegal:

In Alaska, Palin said,

I have voted along with the vast majority of Alaskans who had the opportunity to vote to amend our Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. I wish on a federal level that that’s where we would go because I don’t support gay marriage. I’m not going to be out there judging individuals, sitting in a seat of judgment telling what they can and can’t do, should and should not do.

 TP's got the video here.

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Lopez’s Tinkerbell Strategy

Kathryn Jean Lopez has a rather staggering column up over at NRO in which she basically announces that she is going to cover her eyes, stick her fingers in her ears, and stop watching any interview with Sarah Palin because she can’t stand to see her continue to humiliate herself any more and laments that Palin’s obvious inadequacies are ruining her fantasies: 

I watch these interviews and I cringe a little. That Russia answer with Couric. Oy. It was a loaded question to be sure. But I thought a certain governor of Alaska had told us this was a time for no blinking. For (Uncle) Sam’s sake. You’re Sarah Palin. You’re governor of Alaska. You’re the mom of five. You’re married to a tough guy. You can handle America’s Former Sweetheart. And yet, you didn’t. She may have come off catty, but you came off hesitant and unprepared. What happened to the pitbull? I see the lipstick.

My guess — based on nothing but hope for a change — is that Sarah Palin just needs some freedom … If Sarah Palin is John McCain’s secret weapon, let her go, whoever is holding her back … But if the Palin we know and love and have projected our hopes for sanity in American politics is the real Sarah Palin — then come out from the shadows, woman.

Lopez pleads with the McCain campaign to just let Sarah be Sarah because “if it turns out that the ‘authentic’ Palin of rallies and the Republican convention is just good speech delivery in a woman with some good spirit, I want to know that sooner rather than later. “ 

Sadly, Palin has revealed herself to be exactly that, but Lopez simply refuses to admit it.

Maybe you just have to clap harder K-Lo.

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Palin Takes Page from Bush-Cheney Abuse of Power Manual

Here's some more evidence of just how well Sarah Palin would have fit in with the Bush-Cheney style of governing, where the executive claims all the power with no accountability. It's a pretty astonishing article about how Palin's attorney general - an under-qualified person she appointed for the job - is thwarting the law by telling state employees not to comply with legislative subpoenas in the Troopergate affair. There is no legal justification, only the political claims by the governor, who has "strongly stated that the subpoenas issued by your committee are of questionable validity." It looks like what she's most likely to "shake up" if she comes to Washington is the rule of law.

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Don't Mourn, Organize!

If you're following the election news as closely as I am, you're probably finding a lot of reasons to holler at your TV. How about Todd Palin refusing a subpoena from the legislative committee investigating "Troopergate" in Alaska, and Sarah Palin ducking requests to testify with claims of "executive privilege" (sound familiar?) — haven't we had enough of executive branch officials insisting they're above the law? Or maybe for you it's the sight of the "get government out of the way" Republicans suddenly claiming that they're the ones to bring more effective government oversight to Wall Street. So much for free-market fundamentalism! Or maybe it's the implication by the McCain-Palin campaign with their "Country First" signs that anyone who does not support their ticket is not patriotic!

Another thing that is making me furious is that people may be kept from casting their vote. Our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation has been documenting and mobilizing opposition to voter suppression efforts around the country — but conservative officials keep finding new ways to try to keep some voters away from the polls. In Michigan — a key presidential battleground state — the Republican Party is training people to challenge voters at the polls, and is even planning to try to deny voters the chance to cast a ballot if their home has gone into foreclosure. It's disgusting, but it's only part of a much bigger picture -- we're seeing official efforts in other key states like Virginia, Ohio and Florida to find reasons to knock people off the voting rolls.

Whatever is driving you to distraction this week, keep in mind labor organizer Joe Hill's famous admonition: "Don't mourn, organize!"

There's a huge amount of exciting organizing People For and other progressive groups are doing right now — and a lot of ways for you to get involved in these last few weeks before the election.

First and foremost you should VOTE and take at least five friends to the polls with you. If your state lets you vote early, do it. But don't stop there. Here are three other things you can do to keep the White House and Supreme Court out of the hands of the radical Religious Right:

  1. Get your ringside seats on October 2 when "Amtrak Joe" debates "Mooseburger Sarah"... Host a People For vice presidential debate watch party with your friends. We have been documenting Sarah Palin's record of extremism, and we're going to keep it up — we'll help you host a great party and send people off with new ammunition for their conversations with friends and family. Sign up at http://site.pfaw.org/parties.

  2. Volunteer some of your time to a progressive campaign during the next six weeks. Campaigns need help with voter identification and turnout, and in a close election year, this kind of ground work is vitally important -- and it's a fun way to get to know others in your community who share your political passions. Soon we will have a complete list of the candidates who are endorsed by the People For the American Way Voters Alliance. Click here to affirm your membership with People For in one simple step so we can share those endorsements with you.

  3. Be on the front lines to protect voting rights and democracy. We can help you find a way to volunteer in key states on or before Election Day. Sign up here!  

Let's make sure that on November 5, we're tired but elated!

P.S.  Are you doing something new this election year that you've never done before? Do you have a creative idea for energizing people to take action? Let me know and we'll share some of your stories. You could inspire someone else to take the next step — and you could help turn the tide! E-mail me at Kathryn@pfaw.org.

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Talk About Judging a Book By Its Cover

More information came out this weekend about Sarah Palin's attempts to ban books while mayor of Wasilla, AK.

From a story in Sunday's New York Times:

Witnesses and contemporary news accounts say Ms. Palin asked the librarian about removing books from the shelves. The McCain-Palin presidential campaign says Ms. Palin never advocated censorship.

But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book "Daddy's Roommate" on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.

"Sarah said she didn't need to read that stuff," Ms. Chase said. "It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn't even read it."

"I'm still proud of Sarah," she added, "but she scares the bejeebers out of me."

As Palin didn't even take the time to read "Daddy's Roommate" — which, as a 32-page children's book, would probably have taken her about five minutes to get through — she didn't know anything about the book beyond its title and cover. So presumably what she found "offensive" was the book's acknowledgement that homosexuality exists.

As for the book's content? Here's a description of "Daddy's Roommate" from Publisher's Weekly:

The story's narrator begins with his parents' divorce, and continues, "Now there's somebody new at Daddy's house."

The new arrival is male; Frank and Daddy are seen pursuing their daily routine (eating, shaving, sleeping — even fighting), and on weekends the three interact easily on their various outings.

"Mommy says Frank and Daddy are gay" — this new concept is explained to the child as "just one more kind of love."

Yeah, it sounds super-offensive to me.

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Oh, What a Week

Sarah Palin and John McCain

By the end of the Democratic National Convention last week my feet were aching but my spirit was soaring. I loved meeting People For members, and had a chance to connect with a lot of progressive advocates, political leaders, and potential donors. Our standing-room-only panel on the future of the Supreme Court was thoughtful and lively. Several of our staff did magnificent jobs in other panel discussions throughout the week. And the whole event felt like history in the making.

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Governor Palin is Wrong; There's No Scientific "Debate" Over Evolution to Teach

Sarah Palin

As soon as news broke last Friday that Senator John McCain had chosen the relatively unknown governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, a media scramble began to find out more about her. In the brief period since then, one of the most concerning things to come to light about someone who holds public office and aspires to higher office is her belief that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes. As Palin has put it, "let kids debate both sides." This is a regurgitation of the right wing's "teach the debate" campaign. On the face of it, it sounds sort of benign, doesn't it? Give kids more information, let them decide? What could be wrong with that?

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