constitutional law

To Defeat Obama, A Simple, Dishonest Plan

We’ve been covering a number of attempts by state GOP lawmakers to prevent traditionally Democratic voters from casting votes that count – including a flood of new laws requiring photo ID to vote.

But all those are nothing compared to what Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature is considering: changing the state’s system of apportioning electoral votes so that even if President Obama wins the state’s popular vote in 2012, he’d take less than half of its electors. Nick Baumann at Mother Jones reports:

The problem for Obama, and the opportunity for Republicans, is the electoral college. Every political junkie knows that the presidential election isn't a truly national contest; it's a state-by-state fight, and each state is worth a number of electoral votes equal to the size of the state's congressional delegation. (The District of Columbia also gets three votes.) There are 538 electoral votes up for grabs; win 270, and you're the president.


Here's the rub, though: Each state gets to determine how its electoral votes are allocated. Currently, 48 states and DC use a winner-take-all system in which the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state gets all of its electoral votes. Under the Republican plan—which has been endorsed by top Republicans in both houses of the state's legislature, as well as the governor, Tom Corbett—Pennsylvania would change from this system to one where each congressional district gets its own electoral vote. (Two electoral votes—one for each of the state's two senators—would go to the statewide winner.)


This could cost Obama dearly. The GOP controls both houses of the state legislature plus the governor's mansion—the so-called "redistricting trifecta"—in Pennsylvania. Congressional district maps are adjusted after every census, and the last one just finished up. That means Pennsylvania Republicans get to draw the boundaries of the state's congressional districts without any input from Democrats. Some of the early maps have leaked to the press, and Democrats expect that the Pennsylvania congressional map for the 2012 elections will have 12 safe GOP seats compared to just 6 safe Democratic seats.


Under the Republican plan, if the GOP presidential nominee carries the GOP-leaning districts but Obama carries the state, the GOP nominee would get 12 electoral votes out of Pennsylvania, but Obama would only get eight—six for winning the blue districts, and two (representing the state's two senators) for carrying the state. This would have an effect equivalent to flipping a small winner-take-all state—say, Nevada, which has six electoral votes—from blue to red. And Republicans wouldn't even have to do any extra campaigning or spend any extra advertising dollars to do it.
 


Baumann adds:

Nebraska and Maine already have the system the Pennsylvania GOP is pushing. But the two states' small electoral vote values mean it's actually mathematically impossible for a candidate to win the popular vote there but lose the electoral vote, says Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional law professor at Yale University. Pennsylvania, however, is a different story: "It might be very likely to happen in [Pennsylvania], and that's what makes this something completely new under the sun," Amar says. "It's something that no previous legislature in America since the Civil War has ever had the audacity to impose."

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with apportioning electoral votes by congressional district like Maine and Nebraska do – but when the strategy is combined with political gerrymandering and applied only selectively it becomes decidedly undemocratic. That Pennsylvania Republicans are not planning to divvy up the state’s electoral votes to match the percentage breakdown of the popular vote indicates that this has nothing to do with reflecting the will of the people, and everything to do with aggressive anti-democratic power plays.

The plan, though dishonest, is perfectly legal – and available to a number of large states now controlled by GOP legislatures.

The plan seems almost too convenient for the Pennsylvania GOP, but I wonder if it would backfire – suppressive laws like voter ID requirements can be hidden under made-up “voter fraud” threats, but what excuse could a legislature come up with for a plan to make every single Democratic voter in the state count for less? I’d like to think that once fair-minded Pennsylvanians get a whiff of this, they won’t let their legislature get away with it.

h/t Digby’s Hullabaloo
 

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Goodwin Liu Nominated to California Supreme Court

Today, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Goodwin Liu to serve on the California Supreme Court. Liu, a professor at UC Berkeley with extensive experience in public service, is an exceptionally well-qualified legal scholar. 

“He is a nationally recognized expert on constitutional law and has experience in private practice, government service and in the academic community,” Brown said in his announcement. “I know that he will be an outstanding addition to our state supreme court.”

 Liu’s appointment to the California high court comes after President Obama had unsuccessfully nominated him to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Although his sterling credentials were not in doubt and he had strong bipartisan support outside the Senate, unprecedented obstruction by Senate Republicans eventually prevented Liu’s confirmation. After years of claiming that judicial filibusters were unconstitutional when George W. Bush was president, Republican Senators did an about-face that would have done Mitt Romney proud once Obama took office, and they shamefully prevented the Senate from voting on Liu’s nomination.

Governor Brown’s decision is a testament to Professor Liu’s outstanding judicial temperament and readiness to serve. Liu says he is “deeply honored” by the nomination – and this honor is well-earned. Californians will be fortunate to have someone of Goodwin Liu’s caliber on their state supreme court.

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It's Time to Confirm Goodwin Liu

The Senate is currently debating the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu is a phenomenally well qualified legal scholar who has support across the political spectrum, as well as among a majority of U.S. Senators. However, because Senate Republican leaders are putting politics over all else, they are set on stymieing the majority and filibustering the nomination. A cloture vote to end this stalling tactic may occur as soon as tomorrow morning.

People For the American Way supports the nomination. We sent a letter this morning that says much of what we have been saying in person on the Hill for over a year. Among other things, the letter states:

Perhaps the most powerful testament to Professor Liu's superb qualifications is the extensive support his nomination has garnered from across the ideological spectrum. It is not only progressive and moderate legal thinkers who admire his work: He has received endorsements from conservatives such as Ken Starr, Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan; Richard Painter, the chief ethics counsel for President George W. Bush; and Clint Bolick, Director of the conservative Goldwater Institute.

When a judicial nominee attracts such strong support independent of political ideology, you can be confident that he is exactly the kind of mainstream, talented, and fair jurist we need on the federal bench.

Although Liu has the support of a majority of senators, his opponents are working to block his nomination from receiving an up or down vote. Their claim is that Liu's nomination constitutes one of those rare "extraordinary circumstances" warranting a filibuster, under the benchmark developed by the Gang of 14 during the George W. Bush Administration.

By no measure can this nomination be considered to even approach "extraordinary circumstances." Even a cursory look at President Bush's nominees who were approved using that test – those whose nominations were not considered to constitute "extraordinary circumstances" – makes clear that Liu's nomination must be permitted to go forward.

  • Pricilla Owen's dissenting positions on the Texas Supreme Court were so extreme that even her fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court in different cases described them with phrases like "an unconscionable act of judicial activism," "disregard of the procedural elements the Legislature established," "def[ying] the Legislature's clear and express limits on our jurisdiction," and "inflammatory rhetoric." Her nomination was not considered extraordinary, and the Senate afforded her an up-or-down vote for a seat on the Fifth Circuit, where she is now serving.
  • Thomas Griffith pushed to severely curtail laws ending discrimination against women and girls' participation in school athletic programs, declaring "illegal" a test upheld by all eight of the nation's Circuit Courts of Appeals that had considered the issue. He was also suspended from the DC Bar for failure to pay mandatory Bar dues yet continued to practice law in the District during that time. Published reports and an examination of Utah law indicated that he had been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Utah for the four years prior to his nomination. Nevertheless, the Senate did not consider Griffith's nomination extraordinary, and he received an up-or-down vote confirming him to a seat on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Janice Rogers Brown criticized opposition to the Lochner decision, which began the period when the Supreme Court issued its most pro-corporate rulings—rulings that struck down laws requiring minimum wages, regulating working hours and conditions, and banning improper business practices. In addition, despite several Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, she explicitly suggested that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional. Despite this record, her nomination was not considered an "extraordinary circumstance," and the Senate was allowed to cast an up-or-down vote, confirming her to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • William Pryor called Roe v. Wade "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history" and urged Congress to consider repealing or amending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the significant opposition that these and other extreme positions garnered, his nomination was not filibustered, and he was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Each of these nominees attracted substantial controversy and was opposed by numerous civil rights and civil liberties groups, but not one was found to constitute "extraordinary circumstances."

The claim that Goodwin Liu is out of the mainstream as compared to any of these nominees simply does not bear scrutiny. In fact, a fair reading of his work makes clear that Liu is well within the judicial mainstream.

By any standard articulated by either party, Goodwin Liu's nomination deserves a vote on the Senate floor, and he should be confirmed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tomorrow, we will learn which Republican senators are willing to toss logic, consistency, principles, and the good of the nation's court system out the window in order to score political points against a Democratic president.

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Bruesewitz v. Wyeth: As Sotomayor Comes Out Strong Against Pro-Corporate Judicial Activism, Scalia May Have Met His Match

There is something wearily predictable about Justice Scalia’s straitjacket reinterpretation of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 (NCVIA) to eliminate the possibility of injured families suing manufacturers for design defects in vaccines. Justice Scalia brings his trademark sleight-of-hand to the task of explaining why the law does not provide for citizens what it obviously does provide and offers his well-developed rhetorical polish and high-minded sarcasm as a way to assure everyone that there is no reasonable alternative to his vigorous rewrite of the law in the interest of corporate immunity. Ah, another federal law, another judicial gloss for the corporations: business-as-usual on the Roberts Court.

What is startling and refreshing about this decision is that Justice Scalia has finally met his match in Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who comes out swinging hard in her powerful dissenting opinion against this aggressive pro-corporate judicial activism and impressionistic rewrite of the statute at hand. It seems that Justice Sotomayor is finding her voice defending popular legislation and democratic rights against the finger-painting and cut-and-paste rewrites of legislation that have become the specialty of free-wheeling conservative Justices.

Consider the numerous hard and effective punches Justice Sotomayor’s throws back at Justice Scalia here, quoting Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the “plain text and structure” of the statute, and the essential canons of statutory construction, to show who the real “judicial activists” are:

She starts off by blowing the whistle on Justice Scalia’s substitution of his political views for those of Congress: “In holding that the . . . Act pre-empts all design defect claims for injuries stemming from vaccines covered under the Act, the Court imposes its bare policy preference over the considered judgment of Congress.”

After a masterful explanation of the Act and why it permits causes of action related to design defects, Justice Sotomayor writes: “In contrast to the interpretation . . . set forth above, the majority’s interpretation does considerable violence to the statutory text, misconstrues the legislative history, and draws the wrong conclusions from the structure of the Vaccine Act . . .”

And, to leave no doubt about what has just taken place to rob the Bruesewitz family--whose daughter suffered more than 100 seizures after being vaccinated with the DTP vaccine made by Lederle Laboratories--of its fair day in court, she concludes that “whatever the merits of the majority’s policy preference, the decision to bar all design defect claims against vaccine manufacturers is one that Congress must make, not this Court.”

It’s good to know that Justice Sotomayor at least has woken up to the fact that we are headed at a high speed right back into a Lochner-era jurisprudence where conservative Justices work overtime to undo progressive legislation and substitute their own authoritarian judgments for democratic decision-making. The combination of this judicial assault on popularly enacted statutes with the decision in the Citizens United case to arm private corporations with political campaign spending rights under the First Amendment makes for a pretty scary polity and economy. We need more judges and Justices like Justice Sotomayor to stand up for democracy and the rule of law.

Jamie Raskin is a Maryland state senator, constitutional law professor at American University's Washington College of Law, and Senior Fellow at People For the American Way.

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One Year After Citizens United, Right-Wing Demands Even More Corporate Money and Less Transparency in Politics

As Americans remember the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United with calls for action to limit corporate influence in politics and reverse the Court’s reckless decision, pro-corporate activists and their Republican allies in Congress seek to further erode corporate accountability and transparency. As American University Constitutional law professor, Maryland State Senator, and People For Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin writes, Citizens United not only ushered an avalanche of corporate and secret money in elections but also paved the way for more attacks on restrictions on corporate power. Raskin asks:

Do you want to wipe out the ban on federal corporate contributions that has been in place since 1907? This should be a piece of cake. If a corporation is like any other group of citizens organized to participate in politics for the purpose of expenditures, why not contributions too?

Apparently, the answer is “yes.”  While the majority decision in Citizens United said that corporations can use money from their general treasuries to finance outside groups, the ban on direct donations from corporations to candidates was left intact. But as profiled in People For’s report “Citizens Blindsided,” corporations have a number of mouthpieces, front groups, and political allies who want to create even more ways for Big Business to influence American politics.

NPR’s Peter Overby reports that pro-corporate activists from groups like Citizens United and the Center for Competitive Politics now want Republicans in Congress to further weaken already-diluted laws on transparency and fairness in elections:

Citizens United has helped to upend the debate over political money — so much so that when the American Future Fund ran a radio ad targeting Sen. Kent Conrad earlier this month for the 2012 Senate race, it was treated as just part of the political game. Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said this week that he won't seek re-election.



Michael Franz, a political scientist with the Wesleyan Media Project, tracks political ads.

"The effect of Citizens United in 2010 may not have been as huge, because what was going on had been set in motion earlier," he said. "But what the court did in Citizens United could suggest huge effects for other campaign finance laws down the road."

First of all, disclosure is under attack.

"Just because it may be constitutional to impose these disclosure rules, doesn't mean it makes for sound policy," said Michael Boos, counsel to the group Citizens United.

The federal ban on foreign donors faces a court challenge. House Republicans plan to vote next week to kill off public financing in presidential elections.

And the Center for Competitive Politics, an anti-regulation group, wants to undo the century-old ban on corporate contributions to federal candidates.

That was one of the first campaign finance laws on the books. The center says the corporate world now is far different from what it was in 1907, when Congress imposed the ban.
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More Voices Call For a Constitutional Amendment to Reverse Citizens United as Ruling’s Anniversary Approaches

Friday is the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which helped unleash massive corporate spending in the 2010 elections, and more voices have emerged to denounce the Court’s wrongheaded and extreme ruling. The decision’s impact on public policy debates became more apparent today as the House of Representatives prepares to vote to repeal the health care reform law after pro-corporate groups spent handsomely to discredit the law with bogus charges and attack Congressmen which supported reform.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, along with companies like Patagonia, Stonyfield Farms and Honest Tea, have launched Business for Democracy, “a coalition of like-minded businesses to protest a Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on corporate campaign spending in candidate elections.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “members of ‘Business for Democracy’ believe ‘the decision is inconsistent with the basic ideal of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’" and support a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision.

In today’s Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed how the vast corporate spending to influence the midterm elections was “just an experiment” compared to how corporations plan to sway the 2012 election. But despite the push by pro-corporate groups to keep spending by businesses in elections unchecked, the efforts for legislative remedies and the push for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United persevere:

According to Bill de Blasio, New York City's public advocate, Citizens United spending - that is, spending that was only made possible by the court's ruling - accounted for 15 percent of the roughly $4 billion spent on the 2010 midterm elections. Eighty-five million dollars of Citizens United money was spent on U.S. Senate races alone. Worse, 30 percent of all spending by outside groups was funded by anonymous donations, an illegal action prior to the ruling. Forty million of the dollars spent on Senate races came from sources that might never be revealed.

But as striking as these consequences might be, the 2010 election was just an experiment, the first opportunity to test the new law. In future elections, corporations and shadowy organizations will have a clearer understanding of the boundaries they are operating within, a reality that is sure to translate into more undisclosed cash. And the savvier corporate players know that the mere threat of a corporate onslaught of funding for or against a candidate is enough to win legislative favor, in effect blunting prospects for sound regulation, consumer protection and fair tax policies. As former senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), himself a victim of Citizens United spending, said, "It is going to be worse in 2012 unless we do something - much worse."

Yet even as we lament this decision, we should recognize the opportunity it presents. Justice Roberts and his allies overreached so brazenly that they have created an opening for genuine reform.



The clearest and boldest counter to the court's ruling would be a constitutional amendment stating unequivocally that corporations are not people and do not have the right to buy elections. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced such an amendment to counter Citizens United during the last session of Congress and views it as the only sure way to beat back the court. "Justice Brandeis got it right," she noted last February. " 'We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.' "

Campaigns for constitutional amendments demand a great deal of patience and tenacity. But as Jamie Raskin, a Democratic Maryland state senator and professor of constitutional law at American University, notes, "American citizens have repeatedly amended the Constitution to defend democracy when the Supreme Court acts in collusion with democracy's enemies." Not only is a push for an amendment a worthy act, it also provides a unique opportunity to educate the broader public, raise the profile of this important issue and force elected officials to go on record as to where they stand. The campaign could create enormous pressure on state legislatures and Congress, prompting changes to campaign finance even before an amendment is ratified.

Success will require a coalition that transcends party. In this case, there is promising news. An August 2010 Survey USA poll found that 77 percent of all voters - including 70 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents - view corporate spending in elections as akin to bribery. Broad majorities favor limiting corporate control over our political lives. A coordinated effort, executed right, could unite progressives, good-government reformers and conservative libertarians in a fight to restore democracy.
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Ms. Angle’s Civics Class

In a remarkable speech reported today in the Mesquite (Nevada) Local News, Sharron Angle seemed to be taking her cues directly from our Rogues’ Gallery of right-wing candidates.

She started off with a novel civics lesson, telling her audience, "Government isn't what our founding fathers put into the Constitution.” (A statement that covers two favorite Tea Party themes: suspicion of the federal government as a whole, and made-to-order “facts” about the founding fathers).

Then, she articulated her priorities for the money saved by phasing out social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare: eliminate industry regulation, and “lower the corporate income tax from 35% to 20%.”

Finally, Angle threw in some classic right-wing fear-mongering. Asked a question about “Muslims taking over the U.S.," Angle replied that yes, a few U.S. cities with large Muslim populations are at risk of coming under Sharia law:

"We're talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn't a widespread thing, but it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it," Angle said.

"Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don't know how that happened in the United States. It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a foreign system of law to even take hold in any municipality or government situation in our United States."

Historical revisionism? Check.

Focus on corporate profits above the welfare of individuals? Check.

Stoking xenophobia for political gain? Check.

Angle’s statements are over the top even for this year’s far-right candidates—but the sentiments she expresses are being repeated by candidates across the country. Read more in the  Rogues’ Gallery.
 

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The Far-Right Agenda Rolls On In the Courts

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson refused to dismiss a lawsuit, filed by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, challenging the constitutionality of the recently passed healthcare reform bill. This procedural ruling will likely lead to years of litigation surrounding the law, which many constitutional law experts believe is well in line with the parameters of the Commerce Clause and Congressional authority.

But much as we have seen, this is just another example of right-wing judges pursuing an ideological agenda to harm progressive goals. Though Judge Hudson’s ruling (see career background here) did not explicitly discuss the merits of the case, it’s pretty clear which side he would rule on, according to Steven Schwinn at the Constitutional Law Prof Blog:

[H]e clearly framed the issues in terms of Virginia's theory of the case--that the mandate is a regulation of a decision not to participate in the interstate economy--and commented throughout on the "complex constitutional issues”. . . The federal government will likely have a tough time getting Judge Hudson to move away from Virginia's view of the case.

This is yet another reason why conservatives are so intently set on packing the courts with right-wing extremists. Time will tell if their strategy works with regards to ideological courts bending the law in order to strike down healthcare reform.

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GOP’s Citizens United Hypocrisy

As we witness the growing influx of corporate spending in elections from Kentucky to Minnesota as a result of the Citizens United ruling, campaigns across the country are bracing for a barrage of corporate expenditures. Senate Republicans claim that by refusing to allow the DISCLOSE Act to come up for a vote, they are defending free speech rights established by the Court. But Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute criticizes the Republicans’ dangerously selective view of the Citizens United decision. While the 5-4 decision grants for-profit corporations the same free speech rights as individuals, the Court also ruled 8-1 to affirm the government’s right to enact rigorous campaign disclosure laws:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who holds the undisputed twin titles of No. 1 campaign finance anti-reformer and No. 1 hypocrite, once said he didn't understand why a little disclosure is better than a lot of disclosure. Now the Kentucky Republican is leading his party and outside activists in spurning the clear, 8-1 mandate of the Roberts Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision to encourage robust disclosure, as they call the disclosure they once championed a horrendous burden and even an unconstitutional blockage of free speech.

Even though Senate Republicans defend Citizens United, going so far as to compare it to Brown v. Board of Education, they appear to dismiss the Supreme Court’s approval of disclosure requirements to prevent secretive and misleading campaign practices by corporations. Like candidates running for office, CEOs of corporations should appear in their advertisements and go on record with their political expenditures, and publicly report money used for political purposes. As constitutional law expert Lawrence Tribe writes:

[F]ederal legislation should, at a minimum, build on the disclosure and disclaimer requirements that the Court upheld by an 8-1 vote in Citizens United, requirements specifying that electioneering communications funded by anyone other than the candidate must disclose who is “responsible for the content of this advertising” and must display on screen “in a clearly readable manner” for at least four seconds the name and address or website of whoever funded the communication.


 

 

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The New Originalism Debate—An Early Roundup of Good Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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Advice for Obama from FDR

Jeff Shesol, author of the fascinating Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court, has some advice for President Obama in a new blog post for the American Constitution Society. Shesol argues that Obama can learn a thing or two from Roosevelt’s struggles with an “activist” Supreme Court that was overturning key legislative initiatives to protect individual rights and his success in shifting the frame of the public’s debate on the Court and the Constitution.

It's a paradox: we've got a former constitutional law professor as president, but he's had far less to say than his critics (and some of his supporters) about the relevance of the Constitution to key questions of national policy. No doubt he's got plenty to say on the subject. No doubt he's unwilling to cede the argument to Republicans mouthing pieties about "the plain language of the Constitution." So what's holding the professor back?

Understandably, his focus now is the confirmation of Elena Kagan, and that goal might not be served by starting a debate with the self-styled defenders of the Constitution. But as Senator Cornyn said last year, not incorrectly, "each Supreme Court nomination is a time for national conversation and reflection on the role of the Supreme Court." And by keeping mostly mum on the matter, President Obama is missing an important opportunity to "take the country to school," as Felix Frankfurter advised President Roosevelt to do in the mid-1930s. Frankfurter urged FDR to launch a campaign of "quiet education" about the Court's proper role and the ways in which ideologically driven conservative justices were overstepping it.

As Shesol points out, for decades conservatives have dominated the debate over the meaning of the Supreme Court and the Constitution. But in recent months, their talking points have been noticeably loosing credibility. The Roberts Court’s far-reaching decision in Citizens United—in which it went out of its way to upend 100 years of settled law to give corporations the same rights as citizens to influence elections— angered Americans across the political spectrum, and soundly debunked the myth of “judicial activism” as a liberal trait. And the Republican National Committee’s recent attempt to smear Elena Kagan for questioning the perfection of the original Constitution spectacularly backfired when the flaws in their argument became clear.

Americans are clearly ready to embrace a view of the Supreme Court and the Constitution that does not fit neatly into flawed baseball-themed talking points. The debate over Kagan’s nomination provides an opportunity to have that conversation.
 

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Business at the Court

It's the first Monday in October, and that means another Supreme Court term is upon us. In addition to cases addressing church-state separation and First Amendment protections, the Court will be hearing a load of cases relating to business and finance that could have broad implications for all Americans.

The justices’ decisions will be closely watched at a time when, constitutional scholars say, Obama administration initiatives are generating fundamental questions about the structure and limits of government power that will, in short order, reach the court.

“There will be major ways in which these interventions will produce legal and constitutional issues,” said Michael W. McConnell, a former federal appeals court judge who is now director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center.

And these aren't even the kinds of business cases we're used to talking about with relation to the Court.

In recent terms, the business docket was studded with cases about employment discrimination, federal pre-emption of injury suits and the environment. With the exception of a single employment case, all of those categories are missing.

In their stead, important questions about bankruptcy, corporate compensation, patents, antitrust and government oversight of the financial system will confront the justices.

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Justice Souter to Retire at the End of the Term

Ending months of speculation, several news outlets reported last night Supreme Court Justice David Souter is planning to retire at the end of the term, after 19 years on the bench. People For the American Way released a statement expressing gratitude Justice Souter’s years of service to the Court, and called on President Obama to nominate “someone who can continue his work to defend our personal freedoms and ensure that every person has equal access to justice.”

On the campaign trail, then-Sen. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, told Wolf Blitzer of CNN “I I think that my first criteria is to make sure that these are people who are capable and competent, and that they are interpreting the law. And, 95 percent of the time, the law is so clear, that it's just a matter of applying the law. I'm not somebody who believes in a bunch of judicial lawmaking.” An excerpt from the transcript:

What you're looking for is somebody who is going to apply the law where it's clear. Now, there's going to be those 5 percent of cases or 1 percent of cases where the law isn't clear. And the judge then has to bring in his or her own perspectives, his ethics, his or her moral bearings. …

That's been its historic role. That was its role in Brown vs. Board of Education. I think a judge who is unsympathetic to the fact that, in some cases, we have got to make sure that civil rights are protected, that we have got to make sure that civil liberties are protected, because, oftentimes, there's pressures that are placed on politicians to want to set civil liberties aside, especially at a time when we have had terrorist attacks, making sure that we maintain our separation of powers, so that we don't have a president who is taking over more and more power.

I think those are all criteria by which I would judge whether or not this is a good appointee.

Well put, Mr. President. November’s election results were a mandate to President Obama to appoint judges committed to justice, equality, and opportunity for all Americans.

Soon after the election, People For the American Way Foundation hosted a panel called “Beyond the Sigh of Relief: Justices in the Mold of Marshall and Brennan.” It’s newly relevant, so take a look.
 

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Justice Stevens moderates panel on Marbury v. Madison

Today, at an event sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Supreme Court Fellows Program Alumni Association, Justice John Paul Stevens, the Senior Associate on the Supreme Court, moderated a discussion with the authors of a new book, The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the Battle for the Supreme Court, Clifford Sloan and David McKean. The Justice gave only a brief introduction before the authors spoke about the book and answered questions. Justice Stevens first spoke about his initial exposure to Marbury v. Madison in law school. He jokingly reminisced about the length of time spent on the case, stating that his teacher spent the first six weeks of a constitutional law class devoted solely to the intricacies of the case. He voiced his admiration for the case, calling it fascinating, and agreeing with the assertions by the panelists that the case is “the cornerstone of the Constitutional system.

He then moved on to an issue that, while he admitted was not directly on topic, was very important, the separation of powers. Marbury solidified the independence of the judiciary as a separate branch of government with its own powers. Stevens strongly believes in this and voiced concern that the wall between the executive and the judiciary is weakening. He recalled that when he was sworn in as a justice, his ceremony was performed in the Supreme Court which he viewed to be strongly symbolic of the separation between the political appointment process and his judicial post. Since that time, however, the practice changed and is now performed in the White House. He has boycotted the past four swearing in ceremonies, as he believes that the judiciary should be strongly separated from the political branches, beginning with the swearing in. Stressing the symbolism of the place and manner of the oath, he voiced hope for a change in this process with the next appointee.

Again focusing on the importance of separating the judicial branch from the political process, Stevens questioned the authors about the impeachment of Justice Chase from the Supreme Court shortly after Marbury was decided. Essentially, the opposition party in the House of Representatives sought to impeach Chase because they did not agree with his decisions politically, and used the impeachment as a retaliation against the Court. Chase was eventually acquitted, establishing the doctrine that judges may not be removed due to a dispute over their political preferences or political disagreement with their decisions.

Those looking to for a discussion focused on Stevens's thoughts on the issue might have been disappointed.  Through out the event Stevens was largely content to listen to the panelists. When he spoke he showed his vast knowledge on the subject area, but remained in the role of moderator and gave much of the spot light to the panelists.

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Beyond the Sigh of Relief...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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