judicial philosophy

Julian Bond: In the Kagan Hearings, Echoes of the Past

Last month, Republican senators turned to a surprising strategy in their questioning of Supreme Court nominee (and now Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan. They attempted to smear Kagan by connecting her with a figure who most of us don’t see as a liability—the revered civil rights leader Justice Thurgood Marshall. The attacks Senators Charles Grassley, Jon Kyl, and Jeff Sessions levied at Marshall rang a bell for former NAACP member and People For board member Julian Bond. Bond writes in today’s Des Moines Register:

These attacks didn't surprise me because they're completely consistent with a party locked in the past, echoing the anti-civil rights message of those who opposed Justice Marshall's own confirmation in 1967.

Grassley, Sessions and their fellow Republicans roasted Solicitor General Kagan with the same attacks used against Marshall four decades earlier. Then, the late Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina complained about the likelihood that Marshall would be "a judicial activist," which he defined as someone "unable to exercise the self-restraint which is inherent in the judicial process when it is properly understood and applied, and who is willing to add to the Constitution things that are not in it and to subtract from the Constitution things which are in it."

When Ervin spoke of adding rights to the Constitution, there was no doubt that he was referring to the court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which he had fervently opposed. Ervin went on to join with 10 other southern Senators in voting against Marshall's confirmation.

Faced with the inevitable backlash for their attacks, today’s senators have tried to equivocate by saying they have no problem with Justice Marshall, just with his “judicial philosophy.” As Bond makes clear, that’s not a new—or convincing--argument.

For a refresher, take a look at the compilation of Marshall attacks Talking Points Memo put together after the first day of the Kagan hearings:
 

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Hatch: Defense of Thurgood Marshall is “Offensive”

Watching the Senate debate on Elena Kagan’s nomination yesterday afternoon, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly when Sen. Orrin Hatch called the backlash against the GOP’s anti-Thurgood Marshall campaign “offensive.” I heard correctly. Here’s the transcript:

While Ms. Kagan has not herself been a judge, she has singled out for particular praise judges who share this activist judicial philosophy. In a tribute she wrote for her mentor, Justice Thurgood Marshall, for example, she described his belief that the Supreme Court today has a mission to “safeguard the interests of people who had no other champion.” Ms. Kagan did more than simply describe Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy but wrote: “And however much some recent Justices have sniped at that vision, it remains a thing of glory.”

Justice Marshall was a pioneering leader in the civil rights movement. He blazed trails, he empowered generations, he led crusades. But he was also an activist Supreme Court Justice. He proudly took the activist side in the judicial philosophy debate. Some on the other side have suggested that honestly identifying Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy for what it is somehow disparages Justice Marshall himself. I assume that this ridiculous and offensive notion is their way of changing the subject because they cannot defend an activist, politicized role for judges.

Among the members of the GOP who continue to cling to this line of attack, variations of the “I’m not disparaging Justice Marshall, I just don’t like his judicial philosophy” argument are a mainstay. The problem is, Justice Marshall’s work as a Supreme Court Justice—or his “judicial philosophy”—is a key part of his legacy. He’s a hero for his years of work rooting out segregation as a lawyer for the NAACP; he’s also a hero for his adherence, as a Supreme Court justice, to the Constitution’s promise of “protecting individual freedoms and human rights.”

When Hatch attacks Marshall’s work as a justice, he attacks his entire legacy. I won’t call that “offensive”—but I can’t say it’s wise, either.
 

PFAW

“A Judicial Philosophy that Keeps Faith with the Constitution”: Our Endorsement of Kagan

Here at PFAW, we were all eager to hear what Elena Kagan had to say in this week’s hearings, and have spent the past two days in the Senate hearing room or glued to CSPAN 3  listening to her testimony. We were all extraordinarily impressed, and PFAW this afternoon endorsed Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. PFAW president Michael Keegan’s statement:

“The departure of Justice Stevens leaves a hole in the Supreme Court that will be difficult to fill. Throughout his career, Justice Stevens stood up for his belief that all people, no matter their situation, deserve a fair hearing in the courts. Judging by her record of service, her writing, and her testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Elena Kagan is the right person to fill that vacancy.

“Solicitor General Kagan gave the American people a sound and thoughtful lesson about the Constitution as a timeless document, brilliantly conceived by its framers to be interpreted over time in light of new situations and new factual contexts. Her testimony gave voice to a view of the Constitution and the role of judges in sharp contrast to Chief Justice Roberts’ misleading analogy to an umpire calling balls and strikes. And she refused to buy into the cramped and distorted view of the role of the judiciary in interpreting the Constitution that was pushed by some Republican Senators.

“Elena Kagan’s testimony made clear that she has the intellect and the command of the law to stand firm for a judicial philosophy that keeps faith with our Constitution--its amendments, its history, and its core values like justice and equality under the law.

“Instead of engaging in a serious debate however, some Republican Senators chose to lob dishonest attacks at General Kagan's support for our armed forces and, inexplicably, at her mentor Justice Thurgood Marshall. Justice Marshall was a passionate advocate for our Constitution, and it's thanks to him that all Americans have access to its protections. For Senators to repeatedly attack the man who helped our nation move past our shameful history of segregation would be foolish if it weren't just plain offensive.

“After carefully evaluating her record and her statements, People For the American Way is proud to support Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court.”
 

PFAW

Kagan Defends Marshall

As we and others have noted, many Republican Senators have adopted the perplexing tactic of attacking Kagan’s strong ties to civil rights giant and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Today, Kagan masterfully defended Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy against Senator Kyl’s accusations of judicial activism.

Senator Kyl accused Justice Marshall of favoring the disadvantaged over the powerful – a critique that may reveal more about Senator Kyl than Justice Marshall. But as Kagan put it, Justice Marshall’s philosophy wasn’t about unfairly advantaging one group over another – it was about the “Court taking seriously claims that were not taken seriously anywhere else.” I think all of us, with the possible exception of Senator Kyl, can be glad that the Court gave Marshall and his colleagues a fair hearing in Brown v Board.

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Sessions: Citizens United was just like Brown v. Board!

You do have to feel for the big corporations who were being discriminated against before the Supreme Court decided they could spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, right? Jeff Sessions, for one, is standing up for corporate underdogs who have fallen victim to moral injustice. Talking Points Memo reports:

Last night, elaborating on his criticisms of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sessions made the unusual comparison of Citizens United v. FEC to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

"[Marshall] was right on Brown v. Board of Education. It's akin in my view to the Citizen's United case. The court sat down and we went back to first principles--What does the Constitution say? Everybody should be equal protection of the laws," Sessions told me after a Senate vote last night.

"Is it treating people equally to say you can go to this school because of the color of your skin and you can't?" Sessions asked rhetorically. "We've now honestly concluded and fairly concluded that it violates the equal protection clause."

Come again?

Let’s break this down into a few points that I guess we shouldn’t assume are obvious:

  1. Brown v. Board of Education ended the systematic segregation of the American school system. Citizens United v. FEC struck down a law that didn’t let corporations spend as much as they wanted to on electioneering communications.
  2. The GOP has spent a large part of the past two days attacking Justice Marshall for what they call his “activist” judicial philosophy. They define that philosophy as an insufficient reverence for the Constitution as originally written and intended.
  3. Brown v. Board of Ed (which Marshall argued) is a classic example of a case in which the Supreme Court interpreted part of the Constitution—the 14th Amendment—in a way at odds with the original intent of its writers, but in line with evolving social mores and values. Elena Kagan made that very point herself this morning, as did former Justice David Souter a few weeks ago.
  4. Sessions says that the same philosophy led to Brown v. Board and Citizens United, but continues to slam Thurgood Marshall, the architect of the Brown argument, while praising the results of Citizens United.

The confusing logic aside, the main point here is that Sessions just compared limits on corporate spending in elections with systematic racial segregation. This is the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And abstract arguments about judicial philosophy aside, that’s just appalling.
 

PFAW

Republicans Against Thurgood Marshall?

Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee tried to smear Elana Kagan all day by attacking her mentor and hero, Thurgood Marshall, as a “liberal activist judge.” Senator Jon Kyl in particular complained that Marshall’s judicial philosophy was “not what [he] would consider mainstream.” Really? Let’s not forget: this was the man who won the breakthrough victory for civil rights in Brown v Board of Education. Justice Marshall spent his quarter century tenure on the Supreme Court protecting the rights of privacy, equal opportunity, and a fair trial. According to Senate Republicans, that record makes Marshall a radical judicial activist.

Can the Republican Senators really be opposed to the legacy of Thurgood Marshall? If so, what in the world could they be for?

PFAW

The Confirmation Hearings Are Coming!

At last, the wait is over: it's time for the Senate Confirmation Hearings for Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan.

Here at People For the American Way Headquarters, we're hoping for (and expecting to get) a conversation that addresses the clear pro-corporate tilt of the Roberts Court and its willingness to bend the law to favor powerful interests. We're also hoping that we'll hear some of our 20 Questions for Solicitor General Kagan asked and answered.

While we'd like to believe that the hearings will be all about the law and Solicitor General Kagan's judicial philosophy, we also expect to see a fair amount of preening from conservative Senators trying to score points with their far-right base.

We'll be blogging throughout the hearings, and we hope that you'll stop by from time to time and have a read.  To help beef-up our commentary on the right-wing craziness that's sure to go on around the hearings, Kyle from RightWingWatch.org will be cross posting relevant posts here on the People For Blog.

Finally, you can follow our Twitter feed, @PeopleFor.

Opening statements start today at 12:30, so pull up a chair, turn on C-Span 3, and watch with us for a while.

PFAW

A New Ally For Kagan Opponents

As Republican leadership refuses to rule out filibustering Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination, it’s important to keep in mind the ideological company her opponents keep. One new critic is none other than failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, who plans to elaborate on his complaints against Kagan at a Wednesday news conference hosted by the anti-choice group Americans United for Life.

As we pointed out recently, Bork agrees with Republican Senate nominee and Tea Party darling Rand Paul that certain key parts of the Civil Rights Act should never have been passed. And lest his opposition to Kagan surprise anyone, he also opposed President Obama’s last nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. For more on Bork’s judicial philosophy, see the ad we made in 1987 to oppose Bork’s nomination:


 


It’s good to know that today Robert Bork is just another ultra-conservative lawyer and not a US Supreme Court Justice.

PFAW

Keeping the Courts Corporate

Corporate courts don’t happen by accident.

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.
 

PFAW

Judging, Judges and Prop 8

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, in a piece titled, “Don’t ask, don’t judge?” gave a rhetorical green light to Religious Right activists who have responded to news that federal judge Vaughn Walker is gay by attacking his ability to rule fairly on the constitutional challenge to Prop. 8, the California ballot initiative that stripped same-sex couples of the right to get married.

Although Marcus concludes in the end that Walker, who was randomly assigned to hear the case, was right not to recuse himself simply because he is gay, she does so after a lot of “squirming” like this:

So when Walker considers claims that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law, it's hard to imagine that his sexuality, if he is gay, does not influence his decision-making -- just as the experience of having gay friends or relatives would affect a straight judge.

In the end, Marcus writes,

In this case, I hope the plaintiffs win and that Walker rules that the same-sex marriage ban violates their constitutional rights. At the same time, I've got to acknowledge: If I were on the side supporting the ban and found it struck down by a supposedly gay judge, I'd have some questions about whether the judicial deck had been stacked from the start.

But why wouldn’t the deck be considered “stacked” against gay people if a straight judge were deciding the case? By concluding her column that way, Marcus gives credence to the offensive notion that is already being promoted by right-wing leaders that a gay judge cannot be expected to rule fairly in a case involving the legal rights of gay Americans.

Here’s Matt Barber, director of cultural affairs with Liberty Counsel, responding to news that Judge Walker is, in Barber’s words, “an active practitioner of the homosexual lifestyle.”

“At worst, Judge Walker’s continued involvement with this case presents a textbook conflict of interest. At best, it objectively illustrates the unseemly appearance of a conflict.

"If Judge Walker somehow divines from thin air that the framers of the U.S. Constitution actually intended that Patrick Henry had a ‘constitutional right’ to marry Henry Patrick, then who among us will be surprised?

“Any decision favoring plaintiffs in this case will be permanently marred and universally viewed as stemming from Judge Walker’s personal biases and alleged lifestyle choices.

"For these reasons, and in the interest of justice, Judge Walker should do the honorable thing and immediately recuse himself.”

Barber tries to make a case that he is taking a principled stand by saying, “This is no different than having an avid gun collector preside over a Second Amendment case,” continued Barber, “or a frequent user of medical marijuana deciding the legality of medical marijuana.”

Really, Matt? You expect us to believe that you would advocate that judges who collect guns should recuse themselves from cases involving the Second Amendment? What about avid hunters, like Justice Antonin Scalia? Should anyone who owns a gun be assumed not to be able to rule fairly on legal issues involving guns?

The Post’s Marcus concluded that asking Judge Walker to recuse himself would “invite too many challenges to judicial fairness -- Jewish judges hearing cases about Christmas displays, or judges who once represented unions or management presiding over labor disputes.”

What about Christian judges presiding over Christmas displays? Can you imagine the outrage from Matt Barber and his Religious Right colleagues if someone were to suggest that Christian judges should be barred from hearing cases involving legal and constitutional questions about separation of church and state?

In a diverse and pluralistic nation, it’s important that the federal bench reflect that diversity. But what’s far more important than an individual judge’s race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is his or her judicial philosophy and understanding of the Constitution’s text, history, and role in protecting the rights and opportunities of all Americans.

The unspoken offensive presumption at work here is that people who come to the law with a life experience that is considered “normal” – say, straight white male Christian – are inherently unbiased, or that their life experience somehow gives them a singularly correct way of viewing the law. Others are suspect.

This notion was on ugly display during the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, when her recognition that she would bring her life experience as a Latina to the bench was used to pillory her as a white-male-hating racist. What about all those white male senators, and the white male Supreme Court Justices they had voted to confirm? Samuel Alito’s ethnic pride and empathy were considered valid, while Sotomayor’s was radical and threatening.

Ruth Marcus is no Matt Barber. She is in some ways simply acknowledging the reality that there is still a level of emotional prejudice against gay people that will keep some Americans from believing that a gay judge can be fair. But she is far too sympathetic to the purveyors of that prejudice. Her column validates their bigotry and will encourage more of the kind of divisive rhetoric we see from the likes of Barber.

PFAW

Justice Alito: Words v. Actions [VIDEO]

The media spent much of last week obsessing over Justice Samuel Alito's injudicious show of disapproval during the State of the Union. They went a bit overboard to be sure, but were it not for that, millions of Americans may have missed the Citizens United ruling entirely.

Citizens United, as you probably know, opened up elections to unlimited corporate spending. The 5-4 decision overturned a century of precedent and was made possible by Justice Alito -- President Bush's nominee to replace moderate Sandra Day O'Connor.

Sorely absent from last week's coverage was how far Alito's actions on the bench have departed from his words as a nominee. With that in mind I've pulled some relevant clips from the confirmation hearing.

Alito praised the principle of stare decisis (respect for precedent) throughout his hearing but hasn't let it prevent him back brashly overruling longstanding decisions. Here, in conversaton with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), he argued that the court should take limited actions and use its ability to overrule precedent sparingly:

HATCH: Does that mean that the Supreme Court should perhaps be even more cautious, even more self-restrained, since there is no appeal from any errors that they might make?

ALITO: I think that's a solemn responsibility that they have. When you know that you are the court of last resort, you have to make sure that you get it right. It is not true, in my judgment, that the Supreme Court is free to do anything that it wants. It has to follow the Constitution and it has to follow the laws. Stare decisis, which I was talking about earlier, is an important limitation on what the Supreme Court does. And although the Supreme Court has the power to overrule a prior precedent, it uses that power sparingly, and rightfully so. It should be limited in what it does.

Alito frequently said that his judicial philosophy discourages him from reaching overly broad decisions when a narrower ruling is possible. Yet he and the other conservatives went far out of their way in order to strike down as many restrictions on corporate influence in elections as possible. Here, still speaking to Senator Hatch, Alito praised narrow rulings and noted that court rulings on consitutional grounds often cannot be undone by Congress (indeed, we are coming up against that limitation now with Citizens United):

ALITO: Because a constitutional decision of the Supreme Court has a permanency that a decision on an issue of statutory interpretation doesn't have. So if a case is decided on statutory grounds, there's a possibility of Congress amending the statute to correct the decision if it's perceived that the decision is incorrect or it's producing undesirable results. I think that my philosophy of the way I approached issues is to try to make sure that I get right what I decide. And that counsels in favor of not trying to do too much, not trying to decide questions that are too broad, not trying to decide questions that don't have to be decided, and not going to broader grounds for a decision when a narrower ground is available.

Alito also made a good show of deference to the elected branches of government, arguing that the role of a judge is to interpret the law, not make public policy. He clearly disregarded these remarks to Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) when he joined with four other judges to strike down decades of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the President:

SESSIONS: But we really want the court to be more modest and to draw back from some of its intervention and policy issues that are causing much angst around the country. You want to comment on that? Otherwise, Mr. Chairman, I would yield my time.

ALITO: Well, Senator, I think your policy views are much more legitimate than the policy views of the judiciary because members of Congress are elected for the purpose of formulating and implementing public policy and members of the judiciary are appointed for the purpose of interpreting and applying the law.

PFAW

It’s More than Balls and Strikes

The Supreme Court is about to hear argument in a case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that should put an end to the myth advanced by Chief Justice Roberts at his confirmation hearing that he, as a Justice, is simply serving as an umpire, calling balls and strikes about what the law provides without any intention of influencing the direction of the law.  

After hearing oral argument last term, the Court postponed a decision in Citizens United, which involves the FEC’s attempt to treat an anti-Hillary Clinton movie as an impermissible “electioneering communication,” and ordered the parties to submit briefs that address the question of whether regulating corporate expenditures in candidate elections is constitutional. So instead of deciding the case in front of them, those who had been on the losing side in the past have reached out to redecide an issue that had been settled. 

Regardless of where you are on the merits of regulating express candidate advocacy by corporations – the issues of campaign finance regulation and the question currently being addressed by the Court are extraordinarily complex and weighty – it seems likely that those formerly in the minority, including Justice Roberts, seeing a change in the make-up of the Court (with Justice Alito replacing Justice O'Connor, who originally helped decide the quesiton), have seized a potential opportunity to re-make the law.  

So let’s be clear. Chief Justice Roberts isn't just calling balls and strikes: he's actually determining which pitches get thrown. 

Judges bring their own legal ideology to the table when they decide cases. It makes a difference whether the next nominee to the Supreme Court understands that the law and the Constitution mandate protections for average Americans against the interests of the more powerful. It makes a difference whether the next nominee to the Supreme Court understands that the law and the Constitution protect important privacy rights. It makes a difference that the next nominee appreciates that the law and the Constitution affect the realities of Americans’ everyday lives. It’s not just balls and strikes. Judicial philosophy matters.

PFAW