corporations

Barney Frank: This Year’s Midterm Elections Define Our Courts

In an op-ed printed in the Portland Press Herald this weekend, retired congressman Barney Frank offers a sharp critique of the far right Supreme Court under John Roberts. Explicitly noting the importance of the Court in defining law that affects all citizens, Frank makes clear not only that courts matter, but everyday citizens have a hand in how these courts are shaped.

Reviewing the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions — from overturning “more than 100 years of federal and state efforts to regulate the role of money in campaigns” to declaring that corporations have the right to religious freedom under RFRA—Frank states that “the court has ended this term with a barrage against laws it does not like” (emphasis added).

He continues,

…The Supreme Court is now strongly inclined to impose conservative ideology via Constitutional interpretation on a broad range of public policy. It is true that Kennedy and to some extent Roberts occasionally deviate from this, but Justice Samuel Alito has surpassed even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in his ideological purity.

The relevance of this to the next two elections is very clear. Four of the sitting justices are in their late 70s or older. This means that there is a strong possibility that President Obama will have a chance to appoint another justice before his term expires, but his ability to do so will be determined not simply by the health of the justices in question, but by the composition of the U.S. Senate. The increasing partisanship in the Senate, the continued virulent influence of the tea party and recent history strongly suggest that even if a vacancy occurs, Obama will be prevented from filling it (emphasis added).

Frank refers to the unceasing Republican obstructionism and argues courts are critical for defining laws that affect Americans on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of this year’s midterm elections. As he concludes in this piece,

This makes it highly likely that among the issues that will be determined in the next senatorial and presidential election will be the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Voters should act accordingly.

PFAW

Corporate Court Rewrites Credit Law to Favor the 1%

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 opinion in CompuCredit v. Greenwood, written by Justice Scalia, that will bring cheer to powerful corporations that break the law and leave everyday consumers feeling shell-shocked. It turns out that a congressional requirement that companies tell consumers that they have the "right to sue" really doesn't mean much.

CompuCredit is a "credit-repair company" that marketed a subprime credit card to vulnerable consumers with bad credit. It told them that no deposit was required and that they would get $300 in credit upon issuance of the card. However, in small print separate from the "no deposit" promise, it disclosed that it would charge $185 in fees immediately and $257 in fees over the first year. The customers filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of others who were taken in, saying that CompuCredit violated the federal Credit Repair Organization Act (CROA).

However, CompuCredit had required its customers, as a condition of getting the credit card, to sign away their right to sue in a court of law or to engage in any type of class action, forcing them to agree to one-on-one binding arbitration instead. So the company demanded that the class action suit be thrown out of court, citing an obscure but devastatingly important federal law called the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally requires courts to enforce contracts requiring arbitration agreements unless a specific federal statute says otherwise.

The question was whether CompuCredit had the right to make its customers sign a contract agreeing to arbitration. CROA requires credit providers to specifically tell customers in writing that "you have a right to sue," a requirement that CompuCredit had met. In addition, CROA specifically prohibits any contractual provisions that waive a customer's rights under the statute. So the customers argue that their agreement to forego their right to sue in court is void.

In order to rule for the large company that cheated its vulnerable customers, the six-Justice majority opinion had to turn logic on its head. The five conservatives, joined by Justice Breyer, explained with a straight face that:

[The phrase "right to sue"] is a colloquial method of communicating to consumers that they have the legal right, enforceable in court, to recover damages from credit repair organizations that violate the CROA. We think most consumers would understand it this way, without regard to whether the suit in court has to be preceded by an arbitration proceeding.

Yes, it turns out that everyday people interpret the "right to sue" as including private arbitration. If this bizarre supposition didn't hurt so many innocent people, it would be laughable. At least Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, in their concurrence, recognized that the people the statute was designed to protect might interpret "right to sue" to mean "right to sue in court." Unfortunately, even they felt it was a close call as to whether that's what Congress intended.

Only Justice Ginsburg got this one right. As she wrote in her dissent:

The "right to sue," the [majority] explains, merely connotes the vindication of legal rights, whether in court or before an arbitrator. That reading may be comprehensible to one trained to "think like a lawyer." But Congress enacted the CROA with vulnerable consumers in mind—consumers likely to read the words "right to sue" to mean the right to litigate in court, not the obligation to submit disputes to binding arbitration.

Congress wrote this law for the 99%. Yesterday, the Corporate Court rewrote it for the 1%.

PFAW

In Montana, a Chip in the Armor of Citizens United

Late Friday, the Montana Supreme Court ended 2011 with a 5-2 opinion upholding the state's prohibition on corporate spending on independent expenditures to support or defeat a candidate. Although Citizens United struck down the federal law in that area, the Montana Supreme Court found that the state, by presenting a strong evidentiary record, had demonstrated that its law survives the strict scrutiny mandated by Citizens United.

As notable as this decision is, what is particularly striking is the dissent's scathing criticism of the Roberts Court's most notorious ruling to date. Judge James Nelson disagreed with the majority that Montana's law could be distinguished from Citizens United. However, he took the opportunity to discuss the severe flaws of the Citizens United decision and the damage it is doing to our country. Below are a couple of choice excerpts (with internal citations removed):

While, as a member of this Court, I am bound to follow Citizens United, I do not have to agree with the Supreme Court's decision. And, to be absolutely clear, I do not agree with it. For starters, the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans. The truth is that corporations wield inordinate power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins; the transition is seamless and overlapping. In my view, Citizens United has turned the First Amendment's "open marketplace" of ideas into an auction house for [Milton] Friedmanian corporatists.

and

I am compelled to say something about corporate "personhood. " While I recognize that this doctrine is firmly entrenched in the law, I find the entire concept offensive. Corporations are artificial creatures of law. As such, they should enjoy only those powers—not constitutional rights, but legislatively-conferred powers—that are concomitant with their legitimate function, that being limited-liability investment vehicles for business. Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creations of government. Worse still, while corporations and human beings share many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency, and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.

That even the judges who enforce the Roberts Court’s dirty work are compelled to speak out against it shows how deeply unpopular and wrong Citizens United is.

PFAW

More Exposure of ALEC, This Time in Virginia

The exposure of ALEC continues, this time in Virginia. ProgressVA has released a new report exposing the many ties between its conservative, corporate-friendly elected officials and the secretive corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). As reported in the Washington Post:

In recent years, Virginia legislators have proposed bills that would legalize the use of deadly force in defending your home, call for companies that hire illegal immigrants to be shut down and give businesses tax credits to fund private school tuition for needy students.

All of those bills — and more than 50 others — have been pushed by a conservative group that ghostwrites bills for legislators across the nation, according to a study set to be released in the coming days.

In many instances, the bills are identical to model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-business, free-market group whose members include legislators as well as private companies, which pay thousands of dollars to have a seat at the table.

...

"The American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive organization funded by big corporations, has been writing bills that Virginia legislators are passing off as their own work on everything from education to health care to voting rights," said Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA.

As People For the American Way Foundation demonstrated in a detailed report earlier this year, ALEC is the voice of corporate special interests in state legislatures. Last month, PFAW Foundation and Common Cause released an exposé detailing how Arizona lawmakers are working hand-in-hand with corporate leaders who make up ALEC's membership to deregulate specific industries, privatize education and dismantle unions.

With today's new release from ProgressVA, Americans get a sobering look at how powerful corporate interests, working through ALEC, pull the strings in yet another state to turn their agenda laws that harm the 99%.

PFAW