In his opening remarks in Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy put the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC at the front and center of the debate.
It is essential that judicial nominees understand that, as judges, they are not members of an administration. The courts are not subsidiaries of any political party or interest group, and our judges should not be partisans. That is why the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 2000 presidential election in Bush v. Gore was so jarring and wrong. That is why the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United, in which five conservative Justices rejected the Court’s own precedent, the bipartisan law enacted by Congress, and 100 years of legal developments in order to open the door for massive corporate spending on elections, was such a jolt to the system.
We hope to hear a lot more about Citizens United in the next few days—a ruling that a recent PFAW poll showed that 77% of Americans want to amend the Constitution to undo.
“The one thing you don’t want people saying at your funeral is, ‘She went to her grave with her options open.’” That’s Dawn Johnsen, in a recent speech at the American Constitution Society, proudly declaring that she has no regrets for standing on her principles throughout her legal career, even those principles were used by the GOP to attack and eventually defeat her nomination to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Today, NPR’s Morning Edition produced a great segment on Johnsen (including some commentary from People For’s Marge Baker).
Johnsen withdrew her nomination in April after spending well over a year in nomination limbo, attacked from the right over her history of supporting a woman’s right to choose and opposing Bush Administration torture policies. She was, to say the least, highly qualified. It’s a testament to her integrity that she has refused to back down from any of her statements or principles—even those that didn’t prove to be politically expedient.
Last weekend, Senator Claire McCaskill put pressure on obstructionist Republicans, announcing that she had enough votes to end the Senate practice of placing anonymous holds on executive nominees. As McCaskill explained in her recent Huffington Post piece, “someone, it seems, secretly has a problem with these nominations but they don't want to be open and transparent about it.”
Apparently, the pressure worked: on Tuesday, 60 backlogged Obama choices were finally cleared by the Senate after months of Republican stonewalling. The confirmations represented a small victory over Senate Republicans’ unprecedented obstructionism, which has plagued the last year and a half of crucial legislative work. The GOP has not only placed an absurd number of anonymous holds on executive nominees; they’ve also set an all-time record on misusing the filibuster to waste the Senate’s time and slow down important government business. Even after Tuesdays slew of confirmations, dozens of nominees remain unconfirmed – as compared to only thirteen at this time in George W. Bush’s presidency.
It’s clear that the Republicans in question don’t have substantive problems with the President’s nominees. Instead, they’re abusing Senate procedure to intentionally disrupt government functions. It’s time for a change in the way the Senate operates, and thanks to Senator McCaskill and her colleagues, we may soon have one.
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.
This afternoon, we have another illustration that when the pull of profits goes up against protecting public safety, the personal leanings of our federal judges really do matter. The Associated Press reports:
A federal judge struck down the Obama administration's six-month ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, saying the government rashly concluded that because one rig failed, the others are in immediate danger, too.
The White House promised an immediate appeal. The Interior Department had halted approval of any new permits for deepwater drilling and suspended drilling of 33 exploratory wells in the Gulf.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama believes strongly that drilling at such depths does not make sense and puts the safety of workers "at a danger that the president does not believe we can afford."
Judge Martin Feldman, a Reagan appointee, said, “What seems clear is that the federal government has been pressed by what happened on the Deepwater Horizon into an otherwise sweeping confirmation that all Gulf deepwater drilling activities put us all in a universal threat of irreparable harm."
To be clear, in reaction to the worst oil spill ever in US waters—one that was caused by reckless decisions made by a company that had to answer to very little government regulation—the president is halting similar drilling projects until investigators can ensure that they are safe. That doesn’t exactly seem overly rash.
Yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said that he’d be sure that Elena Kagan is asked a lot about the role of the courts in cases involving the accountability of oil companies in her upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Today’s decision is a reminder of why that’s so important.
Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he’s going to make sure the subject of oil and the courts comes up in Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which begin next week. The Hill reported Saturday:
The chairman, who will guide the confirmation hearing, pointed to controversial cases slashing a damages award in the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill incident, an environmental disaster that's now been dwarfed by the Gulf spill.
"Turning back the award in the Exxon-Valdez, I wonder if the Supreme Court would do that today as they watch what's happening in the Gulf," Leahy said on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program, to air this weekend.
"It wasn't the liberals who said that Exxon shouldn't have to pay the amount that a jury gave the people of Alaska for their oil spill," the Vermont senator added later, critiquing conservative judges' decisions in some cases.
We, too, wonder if the current Supreme Court’s allegiance to corporate interests would lead it to give the same sort of gift to BP as it did to Exxon in 2008, if damage claims from BP’s devastating spill make their way to the high court. In fact, the pro-corporate reflexes that led to the Court to halve a jury’s award to the Exxon spill’s victims are exactly what we’d like Kagan to address in the upcoming hearings.
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.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Chamber of Commerce’s campaign to prevent the confirmation of attorney John McConnell to be a Rhode Island district court judge, because of his work as a personal injury lawyer to hold corporations accountable for damage caused by their products.
Well, they haven’t succeeded yet, but it looks like they’ve certainly made their presence known. The Senate Judiciary Committee today approved McConnell’s nomination almost entirely along party lines—all but one of the seven Republicans on the committee voted against it.
Today’s Providence Journal reports that the Chamber sent the Judiciary Committee’s members a letter yesterday that made it very clear where they stood:
The Chamber’s letter escalates what was already an extraordinary campaign against the seating of a nominee to the federal trial bench. It is not common for nominations to these courts — dozens of which can be routinely cleared in a given year — to generate controversy. The Chamber says it is unprecedented for it to mount the kind of organized opposition it has launched against this particular U.S. District Court nominee
The Chamber, which tends to support Republicans through its campaign spending arm, has lobbied actively for changes in the system that permits large numbers of plaintiffs to seek large damage awards from companies.
“The Chamber urges you to oppose this nomination,” Josten told the Judiciary Committee in Tuesday’s letter. “Should the committee report Mr. McConnell’s nomination to the full Senate, the Chamber would consider votes on, or in relation to, this nomination in our annual How They Voted Scorecard.”
The Chamber is the biggest lobbying spender on Capitol Hill and its annual scorecard is no joke for lawmakers running for reelection. We’ll be sure to keep following the organization’s crusade as McConnell’s nomination moves to the Senate floor.
On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by Maher Arar, a Canadian national who was sent to Syria and tortured after arriving in New York from a vacation.
The court did not comment Monday in ending Syrian-born Maher Arar's quest to sue top U.S. officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Arar says he was mistaken for a terrorist when he was changing planes in New York on his way home to Canada, a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He was instead sent to Syria, where he claims he was tortured.
Lower courts dismissed Arar's lawsuit, which asserts the U.S. purposely sent him to Syria to be tortured. Syria has denied he was tortured.
The Canadian government agreed to pay Arar $10 million and apologized to him for its role in the case.
Yesterday’s New York Times reported that Yahya Wehelie, a US citizen who was on his way home from Yemen, is in custody in Cairo after F.B.I. agents discovered that he was on a no-fly list.
For six weeks, Mr. Wehelie has been in limbo in the Egyptian capital. He and his parents say he has no radical views, despises Al Qaeda and merely wants to get home to complete his education and get a job.
But after many hours of questioning by F.B.I. agents, he remains on the no-fly list. When he offered to fly home handcuffed and flanked by air marshals, Mr. Wehelie said, F.B.I. agents turned him down.
“The lady told me that Columbus sailed the ocean blue a long time ago when there were no planes,” Mr. Wehelie said in a telephone interview from Cairo. “I’m an innocent American in exile, and I have no way to get home.”
The common thread uniting these two situations is silence. By refusing to hear Mr. Arar’s case, the Supreme Court tacitly acknowledges the government’s argument (a carryover from the Bush administration) that any matter which could jeopardize national security does not belong in court. In Mr. Wehelie’s case, the FBI invoked a policy that precludes it from discussing persons on watch lists or no fly lists.
By continuing his predecessor’s policies, President Obama is responding to the pressure placed upon him by recent terrorist threats. But at what cost? Do fundamental rights to due process stop applying as soon as the government decides you aren’t worthy of them?
Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who the US detained in 2002 and sent to Syria to be imprisoned and tortured for a year—without ever being charged with a crime.
In an article for the New York Review of Books, David Cole, one of Arar’s lawyers, outlines the unconscionable treatment of Arar and the very different responses of the Canadian and US governments when it came to light:
Canada responded to Arar’s case as a nation who has wronged a human being should. It established a blue-ribbon commission to investigate his case, which wrote a 1,100-page report fully exonerating Arar, and faulting Canadian officials for erroneously telling US officials that Arar was the target of an investigation into possible al-Qaeda links. In fact, Arar was merely listed as one of many persons “of interest” to the investigation, because he was thought to know one of the individuals who was targeted. The commission found, however, that Canadian officials did not know that the United States was planning to send Arar to Syria. That decision was made by US officials with the Syrians and not shared with the Canadians.
Canada, in other words, played a relatively small part in Arar’s injuries, as compared to the United States. Yet Canada’s Parliament issued a unanimous apology, and the government paid Arar $10 million (Canadian) for its role in the wrong done to him.
Here in the United States, the response could not have been more different. US officials have never apologized to Arar. They persist in leaving him on a “no-fly” list, despite the fact that Canada has cleared him of any suspicion, much less wrongdoing. And when we filed suit in 2004 to seek damages from the US officials directly responsible for the decision to send Arar to his torturers, lawyers for the Bush administration argued that even assuming that federal officials had intentionally delivered Arar to Syria to be tortured, and blocked him from seeking court protection while he was in their custody, they could not be held liable for his injuries on the grounds that the case implicated secret communications and national security concerns not appropriate for court resolution.
Because the Supreme Court won’t hear Arar’s case, he doesn’t have any more hope of recourse from the courts. As Cole points out, the duty to make amends to Arar lie in the hands of the President and Congress. And, perhaps more importantly, it is their responsibility to make sure what happened to Arar never happens again.
Waxman and Stupak also said BP apparently rejected advice of a subcontractor, Halliburton Inc., in preparing for a cementing job to close up the well. BP rejected Halliburton's recommendation to use 21 "centralizers" to make sure the casing ran down the center of the well bore, they said. Instead, BP used six centralizers.
In an e-mail on April 16, a BP official involved in the decision explained: "It will take 10 hours to install them. I do not like this." Later that day, another official recognized the risks of proceeding with insufficient centralizers but commented: "who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine."
In spite of the well's difficulties, "BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure," Waxman and Stupak said.
Last week at the America’s Future Now! Conference, People For’s Marge Baker participated in a panel called "Changing Citizens United and Fixing the Supreme Court." The panelists explained the negative impact of the Roberts Court’s corporate bias, the Citizens United decision, and the influence of big businesses on our elections. But don’t worry, they also outlined all the things we can do about it: legislate change, fix the courts, and, most importantly, work towards amending the Constitution.
Dawn Johnsen, the law professor who was forced in April to withdraw her nomination to head the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, has written a forceful op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Johnsen, an exceedingly qualified candidate who was the victim of a fifteen month Republican obstruction effort, writes that the President and Senate need to quickly install a new OLC head—and to pick someone who will lead the office in an honest and nonpartisan way:
In 2004, the leak of a controversial memo on the use of torture catapulted the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel into the spotlight. Fallout and debate continue, including in the context of my nomination -- withdrawn this spring -- to head this office. While attention understandably is focused on confirming the president's Supreme Court nominee, the OLC remains, after six years, without a confirmed leader.
It is long past time to halt the damage caused by the "torture memo" by settling on a bipartisan understanding of the proper role of this critical office and confirming an assistant attorney general committed to that understanding.
There is no simple answer to why my nomination failed. But I have no doubt that the OLC torture memo -- and my profoundly negative reaction to it -- was a critical factor behind the substantial Republican opposition that sustained a filibuster threat. Paradoxically, prominent Republicans earlier had offered criticisms strikingly similar to my own. A bipartisan acceptance of those criticisms is key to moving forward. The Senate should not confirm anyone who defends that memo as acceptable legal advice.
Johnsen is right that the OLC should be led by a fierce advocate of the rule of law—someone like Johnsen herself. We hope that the debate over the next OLC nominee will, unlike the last debate, reflect the importance of this qualification.
Two California ballot measures funded by corporations are still too close to call after Tuesday’s elections. A utility company spent $46 million on a measure to make it harder for municipalities to set up their own utility companies; a car insurance company spent $16 million on a measure making it easier to hike fees on some drivers.
Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watch, said he was heartened that those propositions were so close despite tens of millions spent by companies that would benefit.
"I think it says the electorate isn't as stupid as the corporations think it is," Court said.
Yes, it’s encouraging that these measures might not pass, but the fact that they’re this close shows that millions of dollars in corporate spending is no joke. We’ll post an update when the results are in.
In a new piece for the Huffington Post, People For’s Michael B. Keegan argues that the confirmation process for Elena Kagan provides progressives with the perfect opportunity to take back a debate that the Right has dominated for far too long:
As Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has pointed out, the Republican message machine has managed to convince America at large that only two kinds of Justices exist: rigorous conservatives who scrupulously apply the original intent of the Constitution, and carefree liberals who flaunt the law to rule for whichever party their big, soft hearts prefer. It's a myth, but it didn't spring up from nowhere. It's the direct result of a concerted effort pushed by conservative ideologues like Ed Meese and supported by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and eventually the entire GOP machine.
For decades, this campaign has paid enormous dividends to the Right, with ultra conservative judges frustrating progressive goals and allowing elected conservatives to trample our Constitution. But over the last few years, a series of decisions by the Roberts Court have exposed its flaws and given progressives an opening to take back the conversation.
In his commencement address at Harvard last week, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter offered up an eloquent and thorough debunking of the popular conservative delusion of constitutional “originalism.”
At issue is "originalism," an approach to reading the Constitution whose seeming precision has given conservatives a polemical advantage over the liberals' "Living Constitution" idea that appears to let judges say our founding document means whatever they want it to mean.
Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's leading orginalist, summarized his opponents' attitude toward the Constitution with four words: "You know, it morphs."
Now, thanks to Souter's commencement address at Harvard last week, Scalia's critics have fighting words of their own. Souter, who did not mention Scalia by name, underscored "how egregiously it misses the point to think of judges in constitutional cases as just sitting there reading constitutional phrases fairly and looking at reported facts objectively to produce their judgments."
The problem is not only that "constitutions have a lot of general language in them in order to be useful as constitutions," but also that the U.S. Constitution "contains values that may very well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony."
This means that "hard cases are hard because the Constitution gives no simple rule of decision for the cases in which one of the values is truly at odds with another."
Souter focused on the example of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. "For those whose exclusive norm of constitutional judging is merely fair reading of language applied to facts objectively viewed,” he said, “Brown must either be flat-out wrong or a very mystifying decision.”
Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, has written an account of the efforts of the business lobby and Republican Senators to keep Rhode Island environmental lawyer John McConnell off the federal bench.
McConnell’s offense? Representing the State of Rhode Island in a lawsuit to get a lead paint manufacturer to clean up the damage caused by its toxic product. (A jury awarded the state $2.4 billion in cleanup costs; the Rhode Island Supreme Court threw out the verdict).
Whatever you think of the verdict, McConnell was a lawyer representing a client, the State of Rhode Island. He argued on behalf of his client, which is what lawyers are supposed to do. Litigators are not supposed to behave like judges (until and unless they actually become one).
That distinction was lost on Senators Kyl and Sessions. Sessions actually argued:
"Being passionate and zealous is a good quality for a litigator. But I do think those qualities are somewhat different in the cloistered halls of a courtroom, where you're reading briefs and trying to be objective. Those emotions might again start running, and you might say that 'There's a wrong there that I need to right.'"
The two Republican senators were echoing the arguments of the Chamber of Commerce, which had warned Congress against McConnell:
"His apparent bias against the business community and questionable judicial philosophy raise serious reservations about his fitness to serve a lifetime appointment to the federal bench," said Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform. "McConnell's elevation to the federal judiciary could create a 'magnet' jurisdiction that would encourage additional meritless, plaintiffs' lawyer-driven lawsuits."
The U.S. Chamber spends more on lobbying Congress than any other organization. It is not a coincidence that it has made itself a powerful—if not always logical— voice in the shaping of federal courts.
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).
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.
Today, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against three detainees held by the U.S. on a military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, holding that the federal courts do not have jurisdiction to review their habeas petitions. People For the American Way Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the detainees’ position that the federal courts do have such jurisdiction.
In apparent concern about opening the door to habeas cases from detainees held on U.S. military bases all over the world, the three-judge panel distinguished the United States’ control and sovereignty over the Bagram military base from the de facto sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay - a determinative factor in the Supreme Court’s decision in Rasul v. Bush (2004) which held that Guantanamo detainees could seek habeas relief in U.S. courts. The panel pointed out that the U.S. has exercised its leasehold interest in Guantanamo Bay for over 100 years, while its leasehold interest in Bagram is only a few years old.
More interestingly, the court also accepted the government’s “practical obstacles” arguments on appeal that allowing these cases to proceed in our federal courts would overly burden a military that is engaged in active hostilities in Afghanistan. PFAW Foundation wrote about this very issue, urging the court to take notice of the orderly and unobtrusive manner in which the Guantanamo habeas cases have been disposed since the Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene in 2008. Those cases are particularly instructive given that 30 of the 38 detainees whose cases were brought before the D.C. district courts by the time of filing were found to have insufficient evidence to support their detentions, belying the notion that those detained as enemy combatants are the worst of the worst. In fact, many are not and worse still, some may even be innocent.