Add this to the good news/bad news mix from the Supreme Court's healthcare decision: Because of the good news (Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act), we get the bad news that his standing among the nation's Democrats has significantly increased. This collective amnesia about who John Roberts is and what he has done is disturbing, especially since the direction of the Court is one of the most important issues upon which Democrats should be voting in November.
A new Gallup Poll shows wild fluctuations in Democrats and Republicans' assessment of Chief Justice John Roberts since their last poll in 2005, a change Gallup attributes to his role in upholding the Affordable Care Act. Roberts' approval rating among Republicans has plummeted 40 percentage points from 2005, falling from 67% to 27%. In contrast, his favorability among Democrats has risen from 35% to 54%. That the healthcare decision is a catalyst of this change is supported by a PEW Research Center poll last week showing that between April and July, approval of the Supreme Court dropped 18 points among Republicans and rose 12% among Democrats.
Yes, John Roberts upheld the ACA, but only as a tax. At the same time, he agreed with his four far right compatriots that it fell outside the authority granted Congress by the Commerce Clause, leaving many observers concerned that he has set traps designed to let the Court later strike down congressional legislation that should in no way be considered constitutionally suspect. He also joined the majority that restricted Congress's constitutional authority under the Spending Clause to define the contours of state programs financed with federal funds.
Just as importantly, Roberts's upholding the ACA does not erase the past seven years, during which he has repeatedly been part of thin conservative majority decisions bending the law beyond recognition in order to achieve a right wing political result. John Roberts cast the deciding vote in a number of disastrous decisions, including those that:
Oh, and then there's that little 5-4 Citizens United opinion that has upended our nation's electoral system and put our government up to sale to the highest bidder.
With a rap sheet like that – and this is hardly a complete a list – no one should be under the illusion that John Roberts is anything but a right-wing ideologue using the Supreme Court to cement his favorite right-wing policies into law.
Next term, Roberts is expected to lead the judicial front of the Republican Party's war against affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Whether he succeeds may depend on whether it is Mitt Romney or Barack Obama who fills the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Saturday was the 70th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination by defense contractors. Last week, Congressman Bobby Scott hosted a press conference and briefing in honor of the anniversary of this event, which marked the first time a U.S. president had acted to combat discrimination by private employers who were using federal taxpayer money. Future presidents expanded on President Roosevelt’s action and added to its protections.
However, this was more than just a celebratory event of an important civil rights milestone: it was a call to action to correct an erosion of equal employment opportunity law that has been in effect since 2002. That’s when President Bush signed an Executive Order that made discrimination on the basis of religion by faith-based organizations using federal taxpayer money legal. In so doing, he reversed our nation’s continuous expansion of the promise of equal protection and opened a gaping hole in our nation’s civil rights protections. Religious entities had always been able to discriminate based on religion using their own money, but never to use taxpayer money to do so.
All the panelists were united in asking President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise of restoring the law. On the panel were: Congressman Bobby Scott (convener of the event); Congressman Jerrold Nadler; Professor Eric Arnesen (professor of history at George Washington University and biographer of civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, whose activism prompted FDR’s executive order); Rabbi David Saperstein (Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and also a board member of our affiliated People For the American Way Foundation); Barbara Arnwine (Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law); Hilary Shelton (Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau); and Rev. Dr. Paul L. Brown, Sr. (Pastor of Miles Memorial CME Church and member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action).
Among other things, speakers discussed how employment discrimination harms the victims and society as a whole; warned that religion can easily be used as a proxy for race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; condemned discrimination paid for by the tax dollars of its victims; asked why the religion of someone ladling out soup for the hungry should matter; and warned of the dangerous consequences to churches that want to retain federal funding they have become dependent on. As the last speaker, Rev. Dr. Brown opened a window into his daily work helping the hungry and the homeless, the “least and the lost,” and strongly condemned federally funded discrimination.
When he was running for President, then-Senator Obama promised to reverse President Bush’s policy, but he has yet to do so. What better time than the anniversary of the issuance of Executive Order 8802 for President Obama to put our nation back on the right road and restore through executive order the prohibition against federally funded discrimination? Yesterday, People For the American Way and African American Ministers In Action joined more than 50 other civil rights and religious organizations asking him to do just that.
One of the daunting realities of modern life is that we as individuals are confronted by far more powerful corporations. When we want to buy a product, get a job, or seek to hold a large corporation accountable for its misdeeds, our negotiating power is limited by the fact that we are individuals. In contrast, due to its eternal life, its being composed of thousands or even millions of people, and its many state-granted benefits such as limited liability, corporations have consolidated vast resources that would be impossible for any living person attain.
So when that corporation does wrong against individuals – when it engages in a pattern of illegal discrimination, sells defective products, or cheats its customers – the victims often are powerless to hold the corporation accountable unless they, too, can consolidate their resources.
That’s why class actions are so important – and why Big Business keeps asking the Roberts Court to sabotage people’s ability to band together in class actions. Earlier this term, the Corporate Court undercut class actions against consumer fraud in AT&T v. Concepcion. And Monday, it struck out against women employees seeing to hold Wal-Mart accountable for illegal employment discrimination.
Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest private employer. Several women sued the corporate giant on behalf of themselves and similarly situated women around the country - anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million employees. To sue as a class, they would have to show that they have claims typical of the whole group.
So that’s what they did. As Justice Ginsburg’s dissent pointed out, the district court that had certified them as a class had identified systems for promoting in-store employees that were sufficiently similar across regions and stores to conclude that the manner in which these systems affect the class raises issues that are common to all class members. The women showed that Wal-Mart has a national corporate climate infused with invidious bias against women. Wal-Mart’s policy is to have personnel decisions made by local managers, all of whom are products of that toxic corporate climate.
But the conservative majority’s 5-4 opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, went out of its way to overlook that obvious commonality, focusing instead on the differences that will inevitably be present when a corporate giant targets so many people. The Roberts Court accepted Wal-Mart's assertion that the women cannot be designated a class because the representative plaintiffs do not have claims typical of the whole group.
What this 5-4 opinion states is that Wal-Mart is so large – and the discrimination it has allegedly engaged in is so great – that its victims cannot unify as one class to hold the company accountable. Individuals or small groups are much less likely to have the resources to seek justice.
Large corporations may be licking their chops at the opportunities the Roberts Court has opened to them to violate the law. They realize that a rule without a remedy is no rule at all.
Question: When does a law saying "do not discriminate" really mean "discrimination is allowed"? Answer: Now, since Attorney General Holder yesterday refused to repudiate the Bush Administration’s seemingly deliberate misreading of federal law in the context of grants to faith-based organizations.
One of the gravest flaws of the Faith-Based Initiative that President Obama inherited and has since made his own is that it permits federally funded employment discrimination on the basis of religion. Numerous federal statutes creating grant programs specifically prohibit those receiving funds from engaging in employment discrimination. However, the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) adopted a policy memo turning those provisions on their head.
According to the memo, requiring compliance with anti-discrimination laws as a condition of receiving federal funds can impose a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of faith-based grant recipients. Therefore, it reasoned, such a requirement may be impermissible under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening religious exercise unless that burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. According to this harshly criticized legal memorandum, RFRA can be interpreted to let religious grantees ignore very specific nondiscrimination provisions within a federal grant program.
At a hearing before the House Oversight Committee yesterday, upon questioning by Rep. Bobby Scott, Attorney General Holder testified that the OLC memo is not being reconsidered. Even worse, when asked the Obama Administration has adopted that interpretation as its policy, Holder gave a meaningless and evasive answer. According to Congressional Quarterly (subscription required):
SCOTT: So if you're running a Head Start Program, they're running the Head Start Program they can discriminate, even though there's a statutory provision prohibiting discrimination? They can discriminate anyway?
HOLDER: What I'm saying is that in terms of -- with regard to that specific OLC opinion, we are not in the process of reconsidering it. That is not something that, as I understand ...
SCOTT: Well I'm not talking about the memo. I'm talking about the policy. Can they discriminate notwithstanding a specific statutory prohibition against discrimination; they can discriminate anyway based on that interpretation?
HOLDER: Obviously discrimination cannot occur, that is, that contravenes federal law.
Since whether an act of employment discrimination violates federal law is the focus of the debate, Holder’s response is not enlightening.
It is hard to believe that less than three years ago, candidate Barack Obama told an audience in Zanesville, Ohio that "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion."
Yesterday at the Supreme Court, the five conservative Justices on the Corporate Court handed corporate interests even greater control than before over Americans' daily lives. In AT&T v. Concepcion, a narrow 5-4 majority used a federal arbitration law in a way wholly alien to its intent: to undermine state consumer protection laws across the country. Even worse, under yesterday’s precedent, employers may now be able to easily cut off anti-discrimination enforcement through class action lawsuits – often the only way to address employment discrimination – by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration clauses that contain a ban on class action.
This case started when AT&T allegedly scammed thousands of customers by offering a "free" second phone, then charging them for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the phone. One of its victims brought a class action suit against the company. However, AT&T had a service contract where consumers had to agree to resolve any future claims against the cell phone company through arbitration, rather than the courts. In addition, customers had to agree not to participate in any class action against the telecommunications giant. So AT&T asked the court to enforce the agreement it had imposed upon the Concepcions by throwing out the class action suit and forcing them into arbitration, one lone family against AT&T suing for a few dollars without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.
Under California law, the contractual prohibition against class action is so outrageous as to be illegal. California recognizes that such provisions effectively protect companies from being held liable for their transgressions and that they are able to force them upon consumers only because of the corporations’ vastly superior bargaining position.
But the Roberts Court said this state protection of consumers is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.
Many of us have gotten incomprehensible bills from giant telecom companies with relatively small charges for services never ordered, or mysterious taxes or fees that the company should not be charging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are cheated in these situations don't even realize it. Moreover, because the amounts at issue are relatively small, there is little incentive for consumers to undertake the significant expenses of recovering their loss. Even when the company pays out to the tiny percentage of defrauded customers who go to the trouble to engage in lone arbitration against the company, the overall scheme remains profitable.
That is why class actions are so important. They allow the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible the deterrent effect of a potentially significant financial loss to the deceptive corporation. In ruling for AT&T, the Roberts Court has devastated state-level consumer protections like California’s and essentially given corporations an instruction manual on how to commit rampant fraud against consumers. Beyond that, using the same interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act, employers may be able to evade class-action discrimination lawsuits as well, putting all workers at risk.
Fortunately, unlike Citizens United, this Corporate Court gift to Big Business rests on an interpretation of a statute, not the Constitution. In other words, Congress can fix this problem with a simple bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has already called on Congress to do just that.
The Supreme Court issued its decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital today, addressing whether an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but who did not make, the ultimate employment decision.
Although the case involved the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), that statute's similarity to Title VII means the outcome of this case could affect people's ability to fight against a variety of different types of employment discrimination. Both statutes state that unlawful discrimination has occurred if bias was a "motivating factor" behind an employment decision, even if other, legitimate reasons existed.
The Supreme Court ruled today for the fired employee. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.
The Court held that if a worker's supervisor is motivated by bias and intentionally takes steps to cause the worker to be penalized in some way, which then results in the worker being penalized, then the employer is liable, even if someone else who is free of bias actually carries out the penalty.
The hospital was supported by Big Business interests in an amicus brief filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They had argued that as long as the person who made the actual firing decision was not biased and had made an independent investigation of the facts, then the company could not be held liable for the discriminatory actions leading up to that point. This interpretation, if accepted, could potentially have opened a loophole in anti-discrimination statutes, one where corporations could maneuver their internal processes to shield themselves from liability for unlawful employment decisions.
However, as SCOTUSBlog reports:
[T]he Court majority rejected the hospital's argument that, since the supervisor who made the final decision actually did her own investigation before acting, that should neutralize the effect of the other supervisors' bias and get the hospital off the hook. If the biased supervisors' intent fit into the scenario laid out by the Scalia opinion, the Court said, an investigation by the final decision-maker would not remove liability.
This defeat for the Chamber of Commerce is a victory for workers across the country.
Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the Department of Justice will no longer defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in court because it is unconstitutional. This is the provision prohibiting federal recognition of the marriages of gay or lesbian couples. As if that wasn't big enough news by itself, DoJ has concluded that legal classifications based on sexual orientation, like those based on race, sex, national origin, and religion, should be subject to a higher level of judicial scrutiny.
While the Department has previously defended DOMA against legal challenges involving legally married same-sex couples, recent lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of DOMA Section 3 have caused the President and the Department to conduct a new examination of the defense of this provision. In particular, in November 2010, plaintiffs filed two new lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA in jurisdictions without precedent on whether sexual-orientation classifications are subject to rational basis review or whether they must satisfy some form of heightened scrutiny. Windsor v. United States, No. 1:10-cv-8435 (S.D.N.Y.); Pedersen v. OPM, No. 3:10-cv-1750 (D. Conn.). Previously, the Administration has defended Section 3 in jurisdictions where circuit courts have already held that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject to rational basis review, and it has advanced arguments to defend DOMA Section 3 under the binding standard that has applied in those cases.
These new lawsuits, by contrast, will require the Department to take an affirmative position on the level of scrutiny that should be applied to DOMA Section 3 in a circuit without binding precedent on the issue. As described more fully below, the President and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny and that, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under state law, Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.
This is the first recognition by the United States government that gays and lesbians have suffered a long history of discrimination so bad that it makes suspect any laws that treat people differently based on sexual orientation. Moreover, that discrimination continues today and limits their political influence.
[T]he adoption of laws like those at issue in Romer v. Evans [prohibiting the state from passing civil rights protections for gay people] and Lawrence [laws making their private sexual conduct a crime], the longstanding ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and the absence of federal protection for employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation show the group to have limited political power and "ability to attract the [favorable] attention of the lawmakers." Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 445. And while the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act and pending repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell indicate that the political process is not closed entirely to gay and lesbian people, that is not the standard by which the Court has judged "political powerlessness." Indeed, when the Court ruled that gender-based classifications were subject to heightened scrutiny, women already had won major political victories such as the Nineteenth Amendment (right to vote) and protection under Title VII (employment discrimination).
The Attorney General's announcement notes that it will continue to enforce DOMA until it is repealed by Congress or struck down definitively by the courts. In addition, it will work to ensure that Congress, should it wish, has the opportunity to defend the law in court since the Administration cannot in good conscience do so. (This would presumably avoid a situation like the one in California, where the state refused to pursue an appeal of the district court ruling against Proposition 8, leaving in doubt whether anyone has standing to do so.)
Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Thompson v. North American Stainless, an employment retaliation case that threatens to keep illegally fired employees from holding accountable the companies that fire them.
In 2003, North American Stainless fired Eric Thompson in retaliation against his fiancée, who also worked for the company and had just filed a sex discrimination complaint against it. Such retaliation against an employee seeking to vindicate her rights under Title VII is illegal. So Thompson sued.
Two separate provisions of Title VII are relevant here:
The firing was designed to retaliate against an employee seeking to vindicate her rights and was therefore clearly an unlawful employment action. Thompson, who lost his job, was undoubtedly aggrieved by this unlawful employment action. There shouldn't be any question that Congress gave him the right to sue.
Yet the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, dominated by nominees of George W. Bush, held otherwise. Ten judges (nine of whom were nominated by Republican presidents, a full seven by George W. Bush) held that Thompson cannot sue because he wasn't the person who was being retaliated against. North American Stainless is asking the Supreme Court to uphold that holding.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has filed an amicus brief that is even more extreme: There was no unlawful retaliation in the first place, because the company never altered the working conditions of the woman who filed the initial complaint. In the frightening world the Chamber wants us to live in, firing a complaining employee's fiancé, spouse, daughter, etc. is not at all considered unlawful retaliation.
As the Obama Administration points out in its amicus brief supporting the fired employee, the Sixth Circuit opinion ignores the plain language of Title VII. In addition, if upheld, it will have a devastating real-world impact. Most lay people unassisted by lawyers would naturally assume that the person who was fired - not the one who is still employed - should be the one to sue. If the Supreme Court bars suits by the most obvious plaintiffs, the ones who have suffered the most, then many injured parties will in the real world be left without a remedy.
Earlier today, the Supreme Court accepted a high-profile case that will likely have a substantial impact on employees all over the country. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, is being sued for unlawfully discriminating against its women employees. It is a class-action suit on behalf of the corporate giant's 1.5 million women employees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the case could proceed as a class action.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear Wal-Mart's appeal. As the Washington Post reports:
[The Court] will be looking at the question of whether a single suit is proper when alleging charges of pay discrimination and lack of promotions spread across thousands of stores in every region of the country. ...
Business groups say certification of a class action puts enormous pressure on a company to settle regardless of whether the charges can be proved, because of the cost of the litigation and the potential award at stake. In the case of Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, the amount could be billions of dollars.
But civil rights groups say class-actions are the most effective way of making sure a business ends discriminatory practices and pays a price for its actions.
Large corporations, with resources dwarfing those available to the average individual, clearly benefit when their victims are unable to pool resources through a class action. Indeed, this is not the only case this term where the Supreme Court is being asked to dismantle this vital tool, one that has proved time and again to be the only way to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable.
We will learn this spring whether the Roberts Court will continue its trend of twisting the law in order to benefit powerful corporations over the rights of individuals.
The Senate is scheduled to take its first votes of the lame duck session this Wednesday. Number 2 on the list – the Paycheck Fairness Act! They’ll consider what’s called a “motion to proceed.” Overcoming this procedural hurdle would allow the bill itself to come to the floor.
In addition to our recent fact sheet, PFAW has just sent its letter to the Senate urging the bill’s passage.
November 15, 2010
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
President Obama’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act formed a strong foundation for pay equity in this country. Now that fair access to the courts has been restored, it is time to build on that foundation. On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of members of People For the American Way, we urge you to support the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 3772) as a clean bill with no amendments.
The Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision was a clear step backward for ending employment discrimination in the workplace, when the Supreme Court held that employees could not challenge ongoing compensation discrimination if the employer’s original discriminatory decision occurred more than 180 days before filing of the claim. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was meant to correct this misinterpretation of the nation’s civil rights laws. It reiterates Congress’ intent to hold employers accountable for discrimination and allows employees a fair chance to fight back.
But they still need the tools to do so. S. 3772 strengthens the remedy, enforcement, and exception provisions of the existing Equal Pay Act. It engages the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Labor in a number areas including technical assistance, data collection and review of existing data, and the provision of wage discrimination training to government employees and individuals seeking their assistance. It supports negotiation skills training for women and girls and general public awareness regarding the means available to eliminate pay discrimination.
S. 3772 sends a clear message: The wage gap is real. No employer should benefit from discriminating against employees like Lilly Ledbetter. Retaliating against employees who fight for equal pay is unacceptable. Pay equity should be the rule, not the exception. What S. 3772 does not do is also clear: It does not eviscerate employers’ legal rights. It does not take away their right to set their own business practices or constrain them in terms of job applicants. It does not create unfair comparisons between jobs performed or where they’re performed. It does not hurt small businesses, and it certainly does not negatively impact women.
In fact, S. 3772 is good for families who are facing daily struggles in this unsteady economy. The last thing they should be worrying about is whether the women who work so hard to support them are being treated fairly in the workplace. Americans know this to be true. According to a June 2010 National Partnership for Women and Families/Lake Research Partners poll(1) regarding the Paycheck Fairness Act, 84% said they supported “a new law that would provide women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace.” 72% expressed strong support. This message resonated with men (81% support/69% strong) and women (87% support/74% strong) and among Democrats (91% support/83% strong), Republicans (77% support/61% strong), and Independents (87% support/70% strong). It also holds up among racial and ethnic groups and across geographic regions.
For these reasons and more, we strongly urge you to support the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 3772) as a clean bill with no amendments.
Michael B. Keegan
Executive Vice President for Policy and Program
(1) A press release announcing the poll results is available at http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=24776&security=2141&news_iv_ctrl=1741. Visit http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/DocServer/5-2010_Poll_Data_One_Pager.pdf?docID=6681 for additional information.
We’ll continue urging the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, but your Senators also need to hear from you. Save a few minutes on the national call-in day to dial 877-667-6650. That’s tomorrow – the day before the vote.
It was way back in January 2009 that the House passed the Paycheck Fairness Act. Please join American Association of University Women, American Civil Liberties Union, the National Committee on Pay Equity, National Women’s Law Center, and hundreds of other organizations nationwide in calling on the Senate to do the same and send this important legislation to the President’s desk.
Elections will not be the only thing happening on Election Day. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in an important employment discrimination case where the official who fired the plaintiff was free of bias, but her decision was influenced by the bias of others.
Although Staub v. Proctor Hospital involves a rather narrow federal anti-discrimination statute - the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which generally prohibits discrimination in civilian employment on the basis of military service - the reasoning of the decision could apply to the larger universe of federal anti-discrimination statutes. Therefore, this case might affect millions of American workers both in and out of the military who have the right to be treated fairly.
Vincent Staub sued his employer after he was dismissed from his job as a hospital technician. The hospital official who fired him had no unlawful motives. However, according to Staub, she relied on false information provided to her by his supervisor, who did act out of bias against Staub’s military service. Moreover, according to Staub, the decision-maker failed to vet that information in any meaningful way. At trial, the jury returned a verdict in Staub’s favor, but the hospital won a reversal on appeal.
At issue before the Supreme Court is whether an employer can be held liable for employment discrimination based on the unlawful intent of officials who influenced - but who did not themselves make - an adverse employment decision. If the employer can be held liable, then under what circumstances? How much influence must the biased official’s actions have had before that bias can be attributed to the employer? What if the biased action is not the sole cause for the employment decision? How easy or difficult should it be for an employer to evade liability in these circumstances?
As the Supreme Court determines how to answer these questions, it should keep in mind Congress’s repeated efforts to ensure that discrimination has no place in the modern American workplace.
On Wednesday night, the Senate left for recess without confirming a single one of the 23 judicial nominees who had been waiting for a vote, most of them for several months. The GOP blocked the majority of these nominees not because of ideology—19 were approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee—but just for the sake of obstruction. President Obama responded yesterday with this letter to Senate leaders:
Dear Senator Reid, Senator McConnell, Senator Leahy, and Senator Sessions:
I write to express my concern with the pace of judicial confirmations in the United States Senate. Yesterday, the Senate recessed without confirming a single one of the 23 Federal judicial nominations pending on the Executive Calendar. The Federal judiciary and the American people it serves suffer the most from this unprecedented obstruction. One in eight seats on the Federal bench sits empty, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared that many of those vacancies constitute judicial emergencies. Despite the urgent and pressing need to fill these important posts, a minority of Senators has systematically and irresponsibly used procedural maneuvers to block or delay confirmation votes on judicial nominees – including nominees that have strong bipartisan support and the most distinguished records. The minority has even been blocking non-controversial nominees – a dramatic shift from past practice that could cause a crisis in the judiciary.
The Judiciary Committee has promptly considered my judicial nominees. Nonetheless, judicial confirmation rates in this Congress have reached an all-time low. At this point in the prior Administration (107th Congress), the Senate had confirmed 61% of the President’s judicial nominations. By contrast, the Senate has confirmed less than half of the judicial nominees it has received in my Administration. Nominees in the 107th Congress waited less than a month on the floor of the Senate before a vote on their confirmation. The men and women whom I have nominated who have been confirmed to the Courts of Appeals waited five times longer and those confirmed to the District Courts waited three times longer for final votes.
Right now, 23 judicial nominees await simple up-or-down votes. All of these nominees have the strongest backing from their home-state Senators – a fact that usually counsels in favor of swift confirmation, rather than delay. Sixteen of those men and women received unanimous support in the Judiciary Committee. Nearly half of the nominees on the floor were selected for seats that have gone without judges for anywhere between 200 and 1,600 days. But despite these compelling circumstances, and the distinguished careers led by these candidates, these nominations have been blocked.
Judge Albert Diaz, the well-respected state court judge I nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, has waited 245 days for an up-or-down vote – more than 8 months. Before becoming a judge, Diaz served for over 10 years in the United States Marine Corps as an attorney and military judge. If confirmed, he would be the first Hispanic to sit on the Fourth Circuit. The seat to which he was nominated has been declared a judicial emergency. Judge Diaz has the strong support of both of North Carolina’s Senators. Senator Burr has publicly advocated for Judge Diaz to get a final vote by the Senate. And just before the August recess, Senator Hagan went to the floor of the Senate to ask for an up-or-down vote for Judge Diaz. Her request was denied.
We are seeing in this case what we have seen in all too many others: resistance to highly qualified candidates who, if put to a vote, would be unanimously confirmed, or confirmed with virtually no opposition. For example, Judge Beverly Martin waited 132 days for a floor vote – despite being strongly backed by both of Georgia’s Republican Senators. When the Senate finally held a vote, she was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit unanimously. Jane Stranch was recently confirmed by an overwhelming majority of the Senate, after waiting almost 300 days for a final vote. Even District Court nominees have waited 3 or more months for confirmation votes – only to be confirmed unanimously.
Proceeding this way will put our judiciary on a dangerous course, as the Department of Justice projects that fully half of the Federal judiciary will be vacant by 2020 if we continue on the current pace of judicial confirmations. The real harm of this political game-playing falls on the American people, who turn to the courts for justice. By denying these nominees a simple up-or- down vote, the Republican leadership is undermining the ability of our courts to deliver justice to those in need. All Americans depend on having well-qualified men and women on the bench to resolve important legal matters – from working mothers seeking timely compensation for their employment discrimination claims to communities hoping for swift punishment for perpetrators of crimes to small business owners seeking protection from unfair and anticompetitive practices.
As a former Senator, I have the greatest respect for the Senate’s role in providing advice and consent on judicial nominations. If there is a genuine concern about the qualifications of judicial nominees, that is a debate I welcome. But the consistent refusal to move promptly to have that debate, or to confirm even those nominees with broad, bipartisan support, does a disservice to the greatest traditions of this body and the American people it serves. In the 107th Congress, the Judiciary Committee reported 100 judicial nominees, and all of them were confirmed by the Senate before the end of that Congress. I urge the Senate to similarly consider and confirm my judicial nominees.
Back in June, President Obama made a similar plea in a meeting with Senate GOP leaders, but apparently bipartisan cooperation on something as straight-forward as filling seats in the judiciary wasn’t on their list of priorities.
(I also want to point out that while the GOP is holding up most of the 23 stalled nominees for absolutely no reason, there are a handful of nominees who certain GOP senators actively oppose. We’ve explored some of the reasons for this opposition here and here and here.)
A recent PFAW poll revealed that the vast majority of Americans are intensely concerned about the growing corporate influence in our country and disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Judging from numerous remarks made during last week’s Senate hearings on Elena Kagan’s confirmation to the Court, it seems that many of our elected representatives feel the same way. Though Republicans attempted to vilify Kagan (and Thurgood Marshall!) with accusations of judicial activism, Democrats fired back, pointing out that in fact it is the conservative Court majority that has employed such activism in going out of its way to side with corporate America. Senators used the floor debate to decry the Roberts Court’s record of favoring corporations over individuals and its disregard for Congressional intent and legal precedent:
The American people are reaping the bitter harvest from new laws that have been made and old precedents that have been overturned. Put simply, in decision after decision, this conservative, activist Court has bent the law to suit an ideology. At the top of the list, of course, is the Citizens United case where an activist majority of the Court overturned a century of well-understood law that regulated the amount of money special interests could spend to elect their own candidates to public office.
Narrow 5-to-4 decisions by a conservative majority have become the hallmark of the Roberts Court. These decisions have often been overreaching in scope and have repeatedly ignored settled law and congressional intent. For example, in the Citizens United case, the Court not only disregarded the extensive record compiled by Congress but abandoned established precedent.
[A]bove the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court are four words, and four words only: ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ When the Roberts Court chooses between corporate America and working Americans, it goes with corporate America almost every time, even when the citizens of this country, sitting in a duly appointed jury, have decided it the other way. That is not right. It is not equal justice under the law.
It is essential that judicial nominees understand that, as judges, they are not members of any administration . . . Courts are not subsidiaries of any political party or interest group, and our judges should not be partisans. That is why . . . the recent decision by five conservative activist Justices in Citizens United to throw out 100 years of legal developments in order to invite massive corporate spending on elections for the first time in 100 years was such a jolt to the system.
On the Roberts Court, one pattern is striking, the clear pattern of corporate victories at the Roberts Court. It reaches across many fields—across arbitration, antitrust, employment discrimination, campaign finance, legal pleading standards, and many others. Over and over on this current Supreme Court, the Roberts bloc guiding it has consistently, repeatedly rewritten our law in the favor of corporations versus ordinary Americans.”
Well, this Supreme Court, too many times, by 5-to-4 decisions by the so-called conservative Justices, has been the most activist Court on ruling on the side of corporate America over ordinary Americans.
What I have seen recently and certainly in the case of Citizens United—and I believe it is the case in Ledbetter v. Goodyear—the Supreme Court too often these days divides into teams. By the way, the team that seems to be winning is the team on the side of the powerful, the team on the side of the big interests, the team on the side of the corporate interests. That ought not be the way the Supreme Court operates.
Some conservatives are still trying to argue that the Supreme Court is in danger of being overrun by “liberal activists.” But an article in Sunday’s New York Times, entitled “Court Under Roberts Is Most Conservative In Decades,” presented data from political scientists that pretty conclusively showed a conservative, not a liberal, ideology entrenched in the highest court.
One piece of data really stood out to me:
Four of the six most conservative justices of the 44 who have sat on the court since 1937 are serving now: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Antonin Scalia and, most conservative of all, Clarence Thomas. (The other two were Chief Justices Burger and Rehnquist.) Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the swing justice on the current court, is in the top 10.
That’s right: the current “swing” justice is considered one of the ten most conservative judges of the past 70 years. Centrist justices are in some ways even more important than the Court’s ideologues or even chief justices. As the Times article notes, the court’s most extreme shift to the right occurred when Justice O’Connor was replaced with the much more conservative Justice Alito:
By the end of her almost quarter-century on the court, Justice O’Connor was without question the justice who controlled the result in ideologically divided cases. “
On virtually all conceptual and empirical definitions, O’Connor is the court’s center — the median, the key, the critical and the swing justice,” Andrew D. Martin and two colleagues wrote in a study published in 2005 in The North Carolina Law Review shortly before Justice O’Connor’s retirement.
With Justice Alito joining the court’s more conservative wing, Justice Kennedy has now unambiguously taken on the role of the justice at the center of the court, and the ideological daylight between him and Justice O’Connor is a measure of the Roberts court’s shift to the right.
The statistics back up a right wing trend on the Supreme Court that has been hard to ignore. Since Alito joined the Court, it has made startling decision after startling decision, including overturning democratically enacted restrictions on corporate spending in Citizens United v FEC, and defending discrimination against women in the workplace in Ledbetter v Goodyear.
Just one justice can make the difference between democratically enacted campaign finance laws and unlimited corporate spending in elections; between employment discrimination laws that work for employees and those that work for employers; between our democracy holding corporations accountable and corporations owning our democracy.
All of which is why, when we talk about presidents and senators, we have to talk about the Court.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is publicly supporting two proposed ordinances in Salt Lake City protecting gay and lesbian residents from housing and employment discrimination.
According to Michael Otterson, the managing director of the LDS Church’s public affairs office, “the church supports this ordinance because it is fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage.”
We applaud the church for their stance on this ordinance, but we remember all too well their unfair and unreasonable support of Prop 8 in California:
Last year at the urging of church leaders, Mormons donated tens of millions of dollars to the "Yes on 8" campaign and were among the most vigorous volunteers. The institutional church gave nearly $190,000 to the campaign — contributions now being investigated by California's Fair Political Practices Commission.
Today marks an historic step forward in the fight for equality. With the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, President Obama sent loud and clear the message that freedom from violence is a right all Americans should enjoy.
As I watched the President put pen to paper, I couldn't help but reflect on my own memories of the tragedies that befell Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. in 1998. How gripped the country was by each man's story. How years later I saw a stage production of Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project. I'll never forget the emotion that overcame one of my friends in the audience. He was struck by the fact that Laramie wasn't so different from his hometown. What happened to Matthew could have happened in his backyard. It could happen just about anywhere without people and a government willing to stand up to fear and hate. Today we stood up.
Enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is all the more remarkable for affirming a positive protection for gender identity - a first in federal law. In showing how far we've come, this action also shows how far we have yet to go. Just two years ago, a battle was fought over whether to include gender identity protections in employment discrimination legislation. ENDA's enactment with gender identity intact will hopefully be the next great achievement for the LGBT community, and for us all.
As the late Senator Kennedy so famously said, "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
Click here for today's statement from Reverend Timothy McDonald of African American Ministers in Action and Michael B. Keegan of People For the American Way.