Democratic Senators used the opportunity of Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings today focus attention on nine people who were not in the room. The Senators called the Roberts Court out for some of its more outrageous decisions as they began to reframe the debate on the role of the Court and the Constitution. Central to the discussion was the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, in which it overturned a century of settled law to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was one of the chief designers of the campaign finance rules that the Supreme Court knocked down in Citizens United. He said:
[W]hen a decision like the one handed down earlier this year by a 5-4 vote in the Citizens United case uproots longstanding precedent and undermines our democratic system, the public’s confidence in the Court can’t help but be shaken. I was very disappointed in that decision, and in the Court for reaching out to change the landscape of election law in a drastic and wholly unnecessary way. By acting in such an extreme and unjustified manner, the Court badly damaged its own integrity. By elevating the rights of corporations over the rights of people, the Court damaged our democracy.
Only last week, the Rent-A-Center decision concluded that an employee who challenges as unconscionable an arbitration demand must have that challenge decided by the arbitrator. And the Citizens United decision -- yet another 5-4 decision -- created a constitutional right for corporations to spend unlimited money in American elections, opening our democratic system to a massive new threat of corruption and corporate control. There is an unmistakable pattern. For all the talk of umpires and balls and strikes at the Supreme Court, the strike zone for corporations gets better every day.
Ted Kaufman of Delaware told Kagan, “I plan to spend the bulk of my time asking you about the Court’s business cases, based on my concern about its apparent bias.”
The Court’s decision last fall in the Citizens United case, which several of my colleagues have mentioned, is the latest example of the Court’s pro-corporate bent. The majority opinion in that case should put the nail in the coffin of claims that “judicial activism” is a sin committed by judges of only one political ideology.
What makes the Citizens United decision particularly troubling is that it is at odds with what some of the Court’s most recently confirmed members said during their confirmation hearings. We heard a great deal then about their deep respect for existing precedent. Now, however, that respect seems to vanish whenever it interferes with a desired pro-business outcome.
Now, you’ve heard a lot about this decision already today, but I want to come at it from a slightly different angle. There is no doubt: the Roberts Court’s disregard for a century of federal law—and decades of the Supreme Court’s own rulings—is wrong. It’s shocking. And it’s torn a gaping hole in our election laws.
So of course I’m worried about how Citizens United is going to change our elections.
But I am more worried about how this decision is going to affect our communities—and our ability to run those communities without a permission slip from big business.
Citizens United isn’t just about election law. It isn’t just about campaign finance.
It’s about seat belts. It’s about clean air and clean water. It’s about energy policy and the rights of workers and investors. It’s about health care. It’s about our ability to pass laws that protect the American people even if it hurts the corporate bottom line.
As Justice Stevens said, it’s about our “need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government.
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.
As a new arrival in DC (I started interning here two weeks ago), I was thrilled to get a chance to visit the Heritage Foundation for the first time on Wednesday. I know everyone here at People For was flattered to learn that the folks on their “Myth of the Conservative Court” panel had been reading our Rise of the Corporate Court report. A lot.
The panelists – Todd Gaziano, Hans von Spakovsky, and Manuel Miranda -- took umbrage at progressive groups like PFAW using the term “judicial activism” because, well, it belongs to them. And they like the decisions being handed down!
Spakovsky argued that progressives have called the Citizens United decision judicial activism merely because we didn’t like the outcome. He’s certainly right that we don’t like it—and neither do 80% of Americans—but we agree that our dislike doesn’t make it judicial activism. What makes it judicial activism is that the Court based its decision on utterly specious Constitutional grounds, overturning over a hundred years of settled law and its own precedent in the process. John Roberts promised to be a baseball umpire, just calling balls and strikes, but as PFAW President Michael B. Keegan pointed out, “in baseball terms, Citizens United was the equivalent of grabbing the bat and using it to beat the pitcher.”
Much to my shock, Gaziano admitted during the panel that the conservatives on the Court had exhibited pro-corporate judicial activism in one case, Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, deciding in Exxon’s favor for subjective rather than purely Constitutional or statutory reasons. So what makes him think that the Conservative judges weren’t influenced by their corporate bias in the other cases outlined in our Corporate Court report?
What was most remarkable about the panel, though, probably wasn’t the contortions that conservatives are willing to go through in order to deny “judicial activism” by conservatives on the Court—it’s that they’re still clearly trying to use it against progressives. That and the lunch they served afterwards. It was delicious.
The Constitutional Accountability Center has just released a statistical study of the current Supreme Court’s pro-corporate voting patterns. And guess what? The numbers back the trend that’s anecdotally hard to miss.
CAC’s statistical study tests empirically the idea that the conservatives on the Roberts Court tend to side with corporate interests. Our study examined every opinion released by the Roberts Court since Justice Samuel Alito began participating in decisions, and in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was either a party or an amicus curiae — a universe of 53 cases. This study reveals an overall success rate for the Chamber of 64% (34 victories in 53 cases), and a success rate of 71% in cases decided by a narrow (five-Justice) majority. The Court’s conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy) tend to vote together in their support for the Chamber, while the Court’s moderate/liberal bloc (including former Justice David Souter, who was on the Court for most of these rulings) was more centrist, casting only 41% of its votes in favor of the Chamber.
These data strongly support the proposition that there is a strong ideological component to the Justices’ rulings in business cases, with the Court’s conservatives frequently adopting the Chamber’s position. In one particularly startling finding, Justice Alito, since joining the Court, has never cast a vote against the Chamber of Commerce’s position in a closely divided case. This statistical evidence supports the charge by President Obama and Chairman Leahy that the Court’s conservative majority has a disturbing pro-corporate tilt, and this reality should provide an important frame for General Kagan’s upcoming confirmation hearing.
As BP begins a risky attempt to stem its still-leaking oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and oil starts to lap against the shores of the Gulf Coast, lawsuits against the oil giant have begun. The devastating oil spill has already surpassed the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, and the litigation that follows it is sure to be just as contentious and lengthy. Two years ago, 19 years after the Valdez spill, the tens of thousands of victims of the disaster saw their case end up before the Supreme Court…and the Court gave Exxon Mobil a huge handout. While the facts this time are different and the legal issues won’t be exactly the same, if their case ends up before the high court, victims of the BP spill will have a legitimate reason to worry –the Roberts Court has displayed a clear willingness to go out of its way to keep individual citizens from holding big oil accountable.
In 1989, an Exxon oil tanker carrying over a million barrels of crude oil crashed off the coast of Alaska, spilling at least ten million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound. The spill destroyed wildlife habitats and the livelihoods of fishermen up and down the Northwest coast. Those affected by the spill entered into years of litigation to try to recover from Exxon some of what they had lost. In 1994, a jury awarded the 32,677 plaintiffs in the case $5 billion in punitive damages. An appeals court judge halved the amount to $2.5 billion.
[E]ven this pared-down judgment was way too much for Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Souter and Scalia. In 2008, this bloc reduced the punitive damage award from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million. Indeed, the only thing that stopped them from deleting the award altogether was that they were one vote short of being able to find that a corporation is not responsible for the reckless acts of its own managers acting in the scope of their employment.
What the 5-justice majority found, over the objections of dissenting liberal justices who accused them of legislating from the bench, was that it would impose in maritime tort cases a 1-1 ratio between compensatory and punitive damages—a formula found nowhere in the statute and essentially pulled out of a hat made by a big corporation. In dissent, Justice Stevens chastised the majority for interpreting the "congressional choice not to limit the availability of punitive damages under maritime law" as "an invitation to make policy judgments on the basis of evidence in the public domain that Congress is better able to evaluate than is this Court."
But Exxon, which amazingly ended up making money on the spill because of the resulting increase in oil prices, got its way with a corporate-leaning Court and ended up paying punitive damages equal to a day or two of company profits.
Not surprisingly, the lawsuits from those who are losing their livelihoods have begun. As of May 21, more than 130 had been filed.
Lawsuits against BP will no doubt involve millions, and probably billions of dollars in both compensatory and punitive damages. While compensatory damages are essential to helping victims recover from a disaster of this size, punitive damages serve to dissuade the company and others like it from acting recklessly in the future. The Roberts Court’s willingness to invent a rule capping punitive damages against Exxon doesn’t bode well for anyone hoping to hold BP accountable for this disaster and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The Court has a responsibility to ensure that ordinary people get treated fairly, even when pitted against big corporations—but the current Supreme Court has made it clear that we can’t always count on that.
This disaster is a tragic reminder of why we need Justices who won’t favor the interests of the powerful over the rights of ordinary citizens.
Republicans say they’re plotting to use any Supreme Court nomination battle to their advantage in November.
Butpollsshow that the issue cuts strongly the other way—the American public is overwhelmingly concerned about the current Court’s pro-corporate sympathies and its failure to fully appreciate how the law affects individual Americans.
Within hours of President Obama’s announcement that he would nominate Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, Illinois Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias seized on that message in an email to supporters. Here’s a screenshot:
Giannoulias isn’t the first candidate to appeal to the public’s discomfort with the Court’s pro-corporate bent. Last month, now-Rep. Ted Deutch decisively won a special election in Florida, after running on a platform that included a Constitutional Amendment to reverse Citizens United v. FEC.
Citizens United, Ledbetter, and Exxon v. Baker have brought home the impact that the Court’s corporate leanings can have on all Americans. We’re expecting to see a lot more office-seekers raising these issues as November approaches.
When the Supreme Court decided this year to open the electoral process to floods of money from corporate interests, it provoked a vehement public backlash. But Citizens United v. FEC was just the tip of the iceberg of a decade of rulings—some high-profile and some less noticed— made by a Court that has been disturbingly deferential to corporate interests. A new People For the American Way Foundation report outlines the rise of the corporate court under Chief Justice Rehnquist and the new life it has taken on in the Roberts court.
Americans across the spectrum have been startled and appalled by the Citizens United decision, which will "open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections," as President Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address. According to a Washington Post nationwide poll, more than 80% of the American people reject the Court's conclusion that a business corporation is a member of the political community entitled to the same free speech rights as citizens.
Yet, the Court's watershed ruling is the logical expression of an activist pro-corporatist jurisprudence that has been bubbling up for many decades on the Court but has gained tremendous momentum over the last generation. Since the Rehnquist Court, there have been at least five justices—and sometimes more—who tilt hard to the right when it comes to a direct showdown between corporate power and the public interest. During the Roberts Court, this trend has continued and intensified. Although there is still some fluidity among the players, it is reasonable to think of a reliable "corporate bloc" as having emerged on the Court.