Civil Rights

We’re on the Air in Iowa

One of the more baffling lines Republican lines of attack against Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan during her Senate confirmation hearings was the accusations of guilt-by-association with civil rights hero Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Many of Marshall’s critics tried to backtrack after realizing that criticizing the man who led the effort to desegregate American schools, and eventually became the first African American Supreme Court Justice, wasn’t exactly wise. But we don’t think they should be allowed to bury their attacks.

This week, People For went on the air in Iowa with a radio ad about Sen. Charles Grassley’s participation in the GOP’s anti-Marshall crusade. You can listen to it here.

And for more on why Grassley’s attacks on Marshall were so off-base, read People For board member Julian Bond’s op-ed in the Des Moines Register: “GOP attacks on Marshall echo anti-civil rights message of 1960s.”

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A World Without Progressive Judges

Conservatives who whine about liberal “judicial activism” are often dissing the very judges and decisions that make most of us proud to be Americans. See, for example, Republican Senators’ criticisms of civil rights hero Thurgood Marshall during the Kagan hearings.

Cartoonist Mark Fiore’s new video reveals some of the great decisions that conservatives seem happy to pit themselves against. It makes you wonder: what would our country be like today if not for the great progressive legal decisions of history?

 

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Julian Bond: In the Kagan Hearings, Echoes of the Past

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:
 

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Hatch: Defense of Thurgood Marshall is “Offensive”

Watching the Senate debate on Elena Kagan’s nomination yesterday afternoon, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly when Sen. Orrin Hatch called the backlash against the GOP’s anti-Thurgood Marshall campaign “offensive.” I heard correctly. Here’s the transcript:

While Ms. Kagan has not herself been a judge, she has singled out for particular praise judges who share this activist judicial philosophy. In a tribute she wrote for her mentor, Justice Thurgood Marshall, for example, she described his belief that the Supreme Court today has a mission to “safeguard the interests of people who had no other champion.” Ms. Kagan did more than simply describe Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy but wrote: “And however much some recent Justices have sniped at that vision, it remains a thing of glory.”

Justice Marshall was a pioneering leader in the civil rights movement. He blazed trails, he empowered generations, he led crusades. But he was also an activist Supreme Court Justice. He proudly took the activist side in the judicial philosophy debate. Some on the other side have suggested that honestly identifying Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy for what it is somehow disparages Justice Marshall himself. I assume that this ridiculous and offensive notion is their way of changing the subject because they cannot defend an activist, politicized role for judges.

Among the members of the GOP who continue to cling to this line of attack, variations of the “I’m not disparaging Justice Marshall, I just don’t like his judicial philosophy” argument are a mainstay. The problem is, Justice Marshall’s work as a Supreme Court Justice—or his “judicial philosophy”—is a key part of his legacy. He’s a hero for his years of work rooting out segregation as a lawyer for the NAACP; he’s also a hero for his adherence, as a Supreme Court justice, to the Constitution’s promise of “protecting individual freedoms and human rights.”

When Hatch attacks Marshall’s work as a justice, he attacks his entire legacy. I won’t call that “offensive”—but I can’t say it’s wise, either.
 

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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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Saying No To Good Government

Although Elena Kagan’s nomination moved out of committee yesterday, almost every Republican committee member voted against her, and most Senate Republicans are expected to follow suite. Why? As an editorial in the New York Times pointed out , Republican opposition to the broad interpretation of the commerce clause in recent decades may partly explain their refusal to support Kagan:

[D]ozens of Senate Republicans are ready to vote against [Kagan], and many are citing her interpretation of the commerce clause of the Constitution, the one that says Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states. At her confirmation hearings, Ms. Kagan refused to take the Republican bait and agree to suggest limits on that clause’s meaning. This infuriated the conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee because it has been that clause, more than any other, that has been at the heart of the expansion of government power since the New Deal.

The clause was the legal basis for any number of statutes of enormous benefit to society. It is why we have the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act. The Endangered Species Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a minimum wage and limiting child labor. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in the workplace and in public accommodations. In cases like these, the Supreme Court has said Congress can regulate activities that have a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce, even if they are not directly business-related.

…Make no mistake that such a vote is simply about her, or about President Obama. A vote against the commerce clause is a vote against some of the best things that government has done for the better part of a century, and some of the best things that lie ahead.

In voting against Kagan’s anticipated interpretation of the commerce clause, the “Party of No” isn’t just opposing the confirmation of extremely qualified Supreme Court Justice; they’re also opposing the government fulfilling its responsibility to protect clean air and water, fair labor standards, and civil rights for all.

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Thurgood Marshall Roundup

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:

 

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Kagan Defends Marshall

As we and others have noted, many Republican Senators have adopted the perplexing tactic of attacking Kagan’s strong ties to civil rights giant and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Today, Kagan masterfully defended Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy against Senator Kyl’s accusations of judicial activism.

Senator Kyl accused Justice Marshall of favoring the disadvantaged over the powerful – a critique that may reveal more about Senator Kyl than Justice Marshall. But as Kagan put it, Justice Marshall’s philosophy wasn’t about unfairly advantaging one group over another – it was about the “Court taking seriously claims that were not taken seriously anywhere else.” I think all of us, with the possible exception of Senator Kyl, can be glad that the Court gave Marshall and his colleagues a fair hearing in Brown v Board.

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The Odd Marshall Debate

Solicitor General Kagan started out the day defending her late mentor Justice Thurgood Marshall after yesterday’s GOP attacks. It’s odd that she even had to go there. Dana Milbank’s column in the Post this morning explains it well:

It was, to say the least, a curious strategy to go after Marshall, the iconic civil rights lawyer who successfully argued Brown vs. Board of Education. Did Republicans think it would help their cause to criticize the first African American on the Supreme Court, a revered figure who has been celebrated with an airport, a postage stamp and a Broadway show? The guy is a saint -- literally. Marshall this spring was added to the Episcopal Church's list of "Holy Women and Holy Men," which the Episcopal Diocese of New York says "is akin to being granted sainthood."

With Kagan's confirmation hearings expected to last most of the week, Republicans may still have time to make cases against Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Gandhi.

I had thought Republicans had learned their lesson after their first Marshall-based attacks on Kagan were met with a collective “Huh?
 

UPDATE: Brian Beutler over at Talking Points Memo asked three top Republicans on the Judiciary Committee which Marshall cases they objected to. They couldn't name a single one.

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Kagan: A Fake John Roberts, A Radical Homosexualist, and a Sign of The End Times

As the questioning in Elena Kagan's confirmation hearing finally gets underway, right-wing groups are busy releasing statements and reports claiming she is everything from a "clear and present danger to the Constitution" to a sign of the end times.

The Judicial Crisis Network's first day write-up is particularly confusing, as they seem convinced that Kagan is trying to "disguise herself as the next John Roberts" 

The Senate Judiciary Committee just concluded the first day of Elena Kagan's hearings to replace Justice Stevens on the Supreme Court. Our summary of Day 1: She may not be a Constitutionalist, but she sure plays one on TV.

As we expected, Kagan followed in Justice Sotomayor's footsteps and disguised herself as the next John Roberts, and Democratic Senators did their best to help her hide from her record of extreme activism on abortion, 2nd Amendment rights, and the scope of government power. According to Kagan, "what the Supreme Court does is to safeguard the rule of law, through a commitment to even-handedness, principle, and restraint." In the immortal words of The Who, "Don't get fooled again."

Seeing as it was John Roberts who "disguised" himself as a umpire who would just call balls and strikes and then, once confirmed, revealed himself to be a blatant judicial activist, that is a pretty ironic criticism for JCN to level.

But at least the JCN's complaints are at least coherent, unlike those of Gordon Klingenschmitt:

Chaplain Klingenschmitt has contracted with a team of investigative journalists including Brian Camenker, Amy Contrada and Peter LaBarbera to investigate and report breaking news about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

While serving as Dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan's administration demanded and forced Blue-Cross, Blue-Shield to cover sex-change operations as an "equal right" paid benefit, harming gender-confused students, as confirmed in 2006 and 2008 by Harvard Crimson newspaper articles.

Kagan also offered sympathetic ear to lesbian group Lambda's Transgender Task Force demand to force all women to share public bathrooms and locker-rooms with cross-dressing men, which is now part of Harvard's dormitory policy, according to the report.

"This is further proof Elena Kagan cannot be trusted to impartially rule on Obamacare or bathroom bills like ENDA, since she believes sin is a Constitutional right," said Chaplain Klingenschmitt, "but rights come from God, who never grants the right to sin."

Because if anything is going to clarify these confirmation hearings, is a report written by a bunch of militantly anti-gay activists like Klingenschmitt, Camenker, and LaBarbera ... and now that is exactly what we have:

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is committed to the radical campaign pushing acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism as “civil rights." Her unprecedented activism supporting that view as Dean of Harvard Law School (2003-2009) calls into question her ability to judge fairly and impartially on same-sex “marriage” and other homosexuality- or transgender-related issues that may come before the nation’s highest court.

Kagan’s record while Dean of Harvard Law School (HLS) demonstrates her agreement with the goals of the radical GLBT (gay lesbian bisexual transgender) movement and her solidarity with those activists. Working hand in hand with students to expel military recruiters in protest over the Armed Forces’ ban on homosexuals (a “moral injustice of the first order,” she wrote) is only the most obvious example of Kagan’s passionate dedication to this controversial and immoral agenda.

Kagan’s celebration and active promotion of the radical homosexualist and transgender worldview has profound implications. As a Supreme Court Justice, she could be expected to overturn traditional law and understandings of family, marriage, military order, and even our God-given sex (what transgender radicals call “gender identity or expression”). She is a most dangerous nominee who must be opposed by all who care about religious freedom, the preservation of marriage and traditional values.

There should be grave concern over Kagan’s issues advocacy concerning “sexual orientation.” Even before her nomination to the Court, her enthusiastic and committed pro-homosexuality activism at Harvard (including her recruitment to the faculty of radical “gay” activist scholars like former ACLU lawyer William Rubenstein and elevation of radical out lesbian Professor Janet Halley) was highly significant for the nation. Now, it is imperative that Senators and the U.S. public gain an accurate understanding of the radical, pro-homosexual environment that was Kagan’s home at Harvard – and the GLBT legal agenda that Kagan herself helped foster as Dean.

But that is actually quite reasonable compared to this statement from Tim LaHaye and Craig Parshall claiming that Kagan "presents a danger as old as the book of Genesis" and that her confirmation could be a sign of the End Times:

First, if she becomes a Supreme Court justice, she could be the all-important fifth vote in favor of interpreting our Constitution, not according to the vision of our Founding Fathers, but from an international law standpoint, a concept that would have seemed treasonous to our Founders. Three justices on the Court have already relied on foreign law in their opinions: Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Ginsburg. Recently-installed justice Sotomayor has praised Ruth Bader Ginsberg's penchant for international law, so we can assume she will be a legal globalist as well. Five justices create a majority and with Kagan on board they could begin radically steering us away from view of the Constitution that honors our Judeo-Christian heritage and founding.

Second, if this happens, it will usher America into a new age of global law. With Elena Kagan on the Supreme Court, international legal standards could well be imposed on Americans by the High Court's legal globalists, even without the Senate approving a specific international treaty. In our new novel, Edge of Apocalypse, we show how this trend might create a modern-day legal nightmare for conscientious Christians. We need only to turn to Genesis chapter 11 to see how God opposed the ancient attempt at global unification: the Lord declared the tragic result that would follow if a centralized group of fallen men were to consolidate an unlimited, unrestrained power over the planet.

Keep your eyes on the Supreme Court's view of global law. It could be one of the most telling 'signs of the times.'

Cross-posted from RightWingWatch.org

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Republicans Against Thurgood Marshall?

Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee tried to smear Elana Kagan all day by attacking her mentor and hero, Thurgood Marshall, as a “liberal activist judge.” Senator Jon Kyl in particular complained that Marshall’s judicial philosophy was “not what [he] would consider mainstream.” Really? Let’s not forget: this was the man who won the breakthrough victory for civil rights in Brown v Board of Education. Justice Marshall spent his quarter century tenure on the Supreme Court protecting the rights of privacy, equal opportunity, and a fair trial. According to Senate Republicans, that record makes Marshall a radical judicial activist.

Can the Republican Senators really be opposed to the legacy of Thurgood Marshall? If so, what in the world could they be for?

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Sessions' Dubious Sources

In Sen. Session’s opening remarks at the Kagan hearings, he lambasted her for association with so-called “activist” judges—including revered civil rights defender Thurgood Marshall, the widely respected Abner Mikva, and the Republicans' new, desperate talking point, Israeli judge Arahon Barak.

Sessions’ choice of words was interesting:

She clerked for Judge Mikva and Justice Marshall, each a well-known liberal activist judge. And she has called Israeli Judge Aharon Barak-who has been described as the most activist judge in the world-her hero.

Let’s take a look at who has been describing Judge Barak as the “most activist judge in the world”:

On Wednesday, Judge Robert Bork, whose own Supreme Court nomination in 1987 resulted in a Senate vote against confirmation, said Judge Barak “may be the worst judge on the planet, the most activist,” and argued that Ms. Kagan’s admiration for him is “disqualifying in and of itself.”

Yes, that’s Judge Robert Bork, the ultra-conservative whose Supreme Court nomination was sunk 23 years ago, and has been going to bat against Democratic Supreme Court nominees ever since.

In fact, Barak has done his so-called “activist judging” in a country with no written Constitution, and has received praise from conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

This isn’t about Barak or about a real threat of “judicial activism”—it’s about Senate Republicans desperately reaching for something to distort.
 

UPDATE: Sen. Jon Kyl is singing the same tune on Barak. Is this really all they have?

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A Victory For Religious Liberty

In today's 5-4 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court correctly ruled that a publicly funded law school need not provide funding and recognition to a campus group with policies that discriminate based on religion and sexual orientation.

The University of California, Hastings College of Law, is a public institution with a viewpoint-neutral policy of recognizing and providing some funding to official student organizations, as long as the groups open their membership to all comers regardless of their status or beliefs. The campus Christian Legal Society (CLS) denies voting membership to those who do not subscribe to its religious beliefs, including those which condemn sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Because the CLS's discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual orientation violates the school's "all comers" policy, Hastings denied them official recognition.

All student groups, the CLS included, are subject to the same rules. But the CLS demanded – and the four arch-conservative Justices would have given them – a special favored status denied to other groups: the right to the funds and benefits of recognition from a public institution, along with an exemption from the rules that apply to any other group seeking those funds and benefits.

People For the American Way Foundation filed an amicus brief with other civil rights organizations in support of Hastings College of Law in the case. The brief emphasized that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right of the states to withhold public funding that would support discrimination. This is particularly relevant in the context of government-funded "faith-based initiatives," where conservative Christian groups are demanding the right to receive public funds and then use them to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Had the four-Justice dissent carried the day, grave damage would have been done to the power of government to prohibit public funds from being used to forward invidious discrimination. Today is a victory for religious liberty.

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Some More Good Supreme Court Reads

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post highlighting some really excellent articles that have come out in response to former Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s recent takedown of the highly flawed (to put it mildly) analogy of the Justice as a sort of robotic constitutional umpire. Since then, the debate as continued, and I wanted to point out a few more that make for great reading going into Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings next week.

Donald Ayer, who was a deputy solicitor general in the Reagan Administration wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining why the Supreme Court’s work can’t be done by a constitutional calculator:


Here's the rub: In nearly all the high court's cases, doubt exists not because the half or so of judges who decided the issue are stupid, don't get it or otherwise made some identifiable mistake. Rather, doubts exist because there are substantial persuasive arguments on both sides that cannot be dismissed as invalid or wrong. These cases must be resolved by deciding which collection of arguments is the more compelling; the justices make decisions by choosing to give priority to one set of contentions or another.
This is true of many constitutional cases, both because the Constitution is often unspecific and, as retired Justice David Souter recently observed, because its splendid generalities, such as equality and liberty, are sometimes in tension with one another. It is also true in the much greater number of more routine cases, such as where the words of a statute leave doubt about its coverage or effect.


Sonja West in Slate, says Kagan “needs to throw away the script”:

The absence of any dialogue on substantive law at these hearings is regrettable, but the political theater of discussing judging as mere law-to-fact application is truly alarming in that it goes to the heart of the public's understanding of what it is Supreme Court justices actually do. That's why Kagan needs to talk to the American people honestly next week about the job for which she is applying and why she is so qualified to get it.

And, in the New York Times Magazine, Noah Feldman calls for a new progressive vision of the Constitution that deals with macroeconomics just as much as civil rights:

Why does the absence of this vision constitute a crisis for liberals? The answer is that new and pressing constitutional issues and problems loom on the horizon — and they cannot be easily solved or resolved using the now-familiar frameworks of liberty and equality. These problems cluster around the current economic situation, which has revealed the extraordinary power of capital markets and business corporations in shaping the structure and actions of our government. The great economic and political challenges of our present decade — salvaging and fixing financial institutions, delivering health care, protecting the environment — have major constitutional dimensions. They require us to determine the limits of government power and the extent to which the state can impinge on collective and individual freedoms. Progressive constitutional thinkers, so skilled in arguing about social and civil rights, are out of practice in addressing such structural economic questions.

Finally, if you don't feel like reading, watch Al Franken's great speech to the American Constitution Society. "Originalism isn't a pillar of our Constitutional history," he says, "It's a talking point."


 

 

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Al Franken Takes On the Corporate Court

I want to flag a speech that Al Franken made on the Senate floor yesterday about the Supreme Court’s decision this week in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson. The legal issues in question were complicated, to say the least, but the impact of the Court’s decision on individual Americans is simple and clear. This excerpt is a little long, but it’s worth going to the Congressional Record and reading the whole thing. Franken explains:

On one side of the courtroom in this case was Rent-A-Center, a corporation that runs over 3,000 furniture and electronics rent-to-own stores across North America, with 21,000 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits. On the other side stood Antonio Jackson, an African-American account manager in Nevada who sought to bring a civil rights claim against his employer. Jackson claims that Rent-A-Center repeatedly passed him over for promotions and promoted non-African-American employees with less experience.

Although Jackson signed an employment contract agreeing to arbitrate all employment claims, he also knew the contract was unfair, so he challenged it in court. But yesterday the Supreme Court sided with Rent-A-Center, ruling that an arbitrator, not a court, should decide whether an arbitration clause is valid. Let me say that again. The arbitrator gets to decide whether an arbitration clause is valid. Let me repeat that. The arbitrator gets to decide whether the arbitration clause is valid. That is just one step away from letting the corporation itself decide whether a contract is fair.

In doing so, the Supreme Court made it even harder for ordinary people to protect their rights at work. Justice Stevens, not surprisingly, wrote the dissent. As he did in Gross, Stevens notes that the Supreme Court, yet again, decided this case along lines ``neither briefed by the parties nor relied upon by the Court of Appeals.'' In other words, the Supreme Court went out of its way to close those bronze doors--and keep them closed. Clearly, this is a ruling that Congress needs to fix, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to do so.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that the Supreme Court matters to average people--to our neighbors and our kids. Some have tried to convince us that Supreme Court rulings only matter if you want to burn a flag or sell pornography or commit some horrendous crime. But as Jamie Leigh Jones and Antonio Jackson show us, the Supreme Court is about much more than that. It is about whether you have a right to a workplace where you won't get raped and whether you can defend those rights in court before a jury afterwards. It is about whether corporations will continue to have inordinate power to control your life with their armies of lawyers and their contracts filled with fine print. It is about whether they can force you to sign away your rights in an unfair employment contract so you never see the inside of a courtroom. It is, quite frankly, about the kind of society we want to live in.

Next week, the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Those hearings provide a good opportunity for us to examine the legacy of the Roberts Court and talk about what it would mean to have a Court that instead cares about hard-working Americans.

Cases like this one often fly under the radar because the legal issues they deal with are hard to boil down to a soundbite or even a paragraph (I couldn’t make heads or tails of this initial SCOTUSblog summary of the case, much less Scalia’s opinion…which is why it’s great to have a legal staff around). But this is the kind of case that is the bread and butter of the Supreme Court’s work—questions of contracts and business deals and real estate that aren’t as easy to grasp and explosive as abortion and marriage and school prayer, but still make a very real difference in all of our lives. And that’s the kind of case that the Roberts Court has consistently been deciding on the side of powerful interests like Rent-A-Center over people like Antonio Jackson.

We hope Franken’s right that the current Court’s pro-corporate leanings are major topic of discussion at Kagan’s upcoming hearings. We’ve saved up more than a few questions for her on the subject.

 

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Supreme Court Denies Access to Justice in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson

In yet another decision highlighting the Roberts Court's tendency to favor corporations over individual citizens, the Supreme Court on Monday made it more difficult for employees and consumers challenging their contracts to seek justice in court.

In Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, Antonio Jackson filed suit in a Nevada federal district court against his employer, Rent-A-Center, claiming that he had suffered racial discrimination and retaliation. Rent-A-Center tried to dismiss the lawsuit and force Jackson to move the dispute to arbitration, as was required by Jackson’s employment contract. The district court agreed with the company, but the Ninth Circuit court reversed, holding that when a person opposing arbitration claims that he or she could not have meaningfully consented to the agreement, the question of whether the original contract was fair must be decided by a court.

In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit's ruling, saying that Mr. Jackson failed to specifically challenge the arbitration provision in the agreement that requires challenges to the validity of the entire agreement to also be decided by an arbitrator. Previously, if an employee challenged certain aspects of a contract that included a binding arbitration clause but not necessarily the arbitration clause itself, the dispute would go to the arbitrators. However, the Court's decision expanded upon that to hold that even if an employee argues that the entire contract – including the arbitration clause – was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable, that person is still denied access to the courts unless he specifically and separately challenged the arbitration clause. In other words, arguing that the entire contract is illegitimate is not enough.

Treated as contracts, arbitration clauses waive one’s rights to go to court, meaning that any disputes must instead be settled through private arbitration. Often built into the fine print of a contract, these clauses are very common in the consumer context and usually there is little choice but to sign or not sign the contract. Most people at some point or another will become bound to an agreement with an arbitration clause, perhaps as part of a cell phone contract, a health insurance plan, or an employment contract. Although they are ostensibly for the benefit of both parties, they are primarily drafted to protect companies from litigation, as it is often too expensive for a claimant to even initiate the arbitration proceedings, much less pay the arbitrator’s hourly fees. In a telling signal of what a majority of the Court today thinks about these practical obstacles for ordinary Americans, Justice Scalia, in oral arguments, dismissed people who sign arbitration agreements as “stupid.”

Forced arbitration is an increasing problem as these clauses become standard parts of everyday contracts, but they are particularly troubling in civil rights cases such as this one. Mr. Jackson’s claim that his employer discriminated against him based on his race was brought under section 1981 of the Civil Rights Acts – legislation that was passed specifically to ensure that victims of such discrimination would have access to the federal courts. Instead, because Mr. Jackson signed an employment agreement - an agreement that he had little choice but to sign if he wanted the job - he is now precluded from asserting a violation of those rights and seeking justice in court.

As confirmed in Justice Stevens’ dissent, neither party even asked the Court for such a heightened standard of pleading, showing how once again, the Roberts Court is going out of its way to protect corporations and prevent real citizens - workers and consumers - from being able to access the federal courts.
 

PFAW

A New Ally For Kagan Opponents

As Republican leadership refuses to rule out filibustering Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination, it’s important to keep in mind the ideological company her opponents keep. One new critic is none other than failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, who plans to elaborate on his complaints against Kagan at a Wednesday news conference hosted by the anti-choice group Americans United for Life.

As we pointed out recently, Bork agrees with Republican Senate nominee and Tea Party darling Rand Paul that certain key parts of the Civil Rights Act should never have been passed. And lest his opposition to Kagan surprise anyone, he also opposed President Obama’s last nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. For more on Bork’s judicial philosophy, see the ad we made in 1987 to oppose Bork’s nomination:


 


It’s good to know that today Robert Bork is just another ultra-conservative lawyer and not a US Supreme Court Justice.

PFAW

Our Questions for Solicitor General Kagan

We’ve said repeatedly that Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which start in two weeks, open up the perfect opportunity to the country to have a real discussion of the meaning of the Constitution and the role of the Supreme Court in all of our lives.

Today, we’ve tried to start the conversation by coming up with 20 questions that we would love to see senators on the Judiciary committee ask Kagan.

We want to know Kagan’s answers to questions including:

  • Should Justices respect the original intent of the Constitution’s framers, even when that intent is antithetical to our current values and the Constitution as amended?
  • Does the Constitution give corporations the same First Amendment rights as ordinary citizens?
  • Has the Supreme Court, in cases like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. FEC, practiced proper judicial restraint?
  • What theory would govern your evaluation of civil rights laws passed by Congress?


You can read all 20 questions—including a lot more detail—here.
 

PFAW

Rand Paul, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the “Right” to Discriminate

Matt Coles at the ACLU has written an interesting blog post outlining some major reasons why the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is so important. One of his points especially resonated after last week’s firestorm around Republican Senatorial Candidate Rand Paul:

Second, we need to get rid of DADT because it is a blot on the Constitution. DADT enshrines in federal law a principle which had been rejected in most other contexts: that discrimination could be justified by the prejudice of others. In the 60s, businesses in the South said that the prejudice their customers had against black people ought to give them an exemption from discrimination laws. Congress and the courts disagreed. In the 80s, government agencies actually defended discrimination on the basis that neighbors (or others) had strong negative feelings about disabled people, "hippies" and even older people (in Miami of all places). Again, the courts disagreed. But in the Congress that passed it, the single justification for Don't Ask, Don't Tell was not that gay members of the Armed Forces couldn't do their jobs. It was rather that heterosexual service members would be so unnerved by the mere presence of gay people that they would be unable to perform theirs. As long as DADT endures, the idea that your rights can't be taken away just because someone else doesn't like you is hardly secure.

Last week, Rand Paul struggled to defend his view that the government should allow private enterprises to discriminate against people based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. He was forced to backtrack on his position after his statements were shot down by civil rights groups, the media, and members of his own party. His reasoning essentially amounted to the idea that the government has more of a duty to protect the right to discriminate than to protect those who are discriminated against. Sound familiar?

That’s a false and outdated interpretation of the Constitution—one that didn’t hold water in 1964, and doesn’t today.

(And, as a sidenote, check out the American Prospect’s takedown of another one of Paul’s perversions of the Constitution).

PFAW

PFAW and AAMIA tell Congress: Repeal DADT

People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action wrote to Congress today urging repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Votes are imminent in both the House and Senate.

According to PFAW’s Michael B. Keegan and Marge Baker:

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell runs counter to the honesty and integrity we associate with the armed forces, not to mention the values of equality and freedom of expression espoused by our Constitution. Repeal is necessary to restore these values. Until then, LGBT soldiers will have to lie and hide their true identity on a daily basis. Those who live openly and share information about their spouses, significant others, or dating life risk investigation and involuntary expulsion. Any statement that one is gay – to anyone, at any time, before or after enlistment – can be reason for discharge. Your life is a constant liability to your career when you are gay in the military.

AAMIA’s Reverend Timothy McDonald, III and Reverend Dr. Robert P. Shine further explored the ideas of equality and open service.

The faith community will continue in faithful dialogue to address the questions of LGBT equality and recognition of same-sex relationships. However, one thing people of faith should and do recognize is the need to protect constitutional and civil rights of all Americans, especially those who are discriminated against because of who they are. LGBT individuals are ready and willing to step up, and have stood up to the challenge of military service. They share in the sacrifices made by their family, friends, and neighbors. They deserve to serve honestly and openly with dignity.

Please write or call your Representative now and tell him or her that you support repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Share the same message with your Senators if they are on the Armed Services Committee.

PFAW