Judiciary

The Freedom to Marry

The American Foundation for Equal Rights has posted a transcript of yesterday's closing arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the trial challenging the constitutionality of California's ban on same-sex marriage. Theodore B. Olson, the attorney for the couples who are challenging the ban, went straight for the definition of marriage and what it means to individuals and to society.

Here are some excerpts from his closing arguments:

I think it's really important to set forth the prism through which this case must be viewed by the judiciary. And that is the perspective on marriage, the same subject that we're talking about, by the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court -- the freedom to marry, the freedom to make the choice to marry. The Supreme Court has said in -- I counted 14 cases going back to 1888, 122 years. And these are the words of all of those Supreme Court decisions about what marriage is.

And I set forth this distinction between what the plaintiffs have called it and what the Supreme Court has called it. The Supreme Court has said that: Marriage is the most important relation in life. Now that's being withheld from the plaintiffs. It is the foundation of society. It is essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness. It's a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights and older than our political parties. One of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause. A right of intimacy to the degree of being sacred. And a liberty right equally available to a person in a homosexual relationship as to heterosexual persons. That's the Lawrence vs. Texas case.

Marriage, the Supreme Court has said again and again, is a component of liberty, privacy, association, spirituality and autonomy. It is a right possessed by persons of different races, by persons in prison, and by individuals who are delinquent in paying child support.

I think it's really important, given what the Supreme Court has said about marriage and what the proponents said about marriage, to hear what the plaintiffs have said about marriage and what it means to them, in their own words.

They have said that marriage means -- and this means not a domestic partnership. This means marriage, the social institution of marriage that is so valuable that the Supreme Court says it's the most important relation in life. The plaintiffs have said that marriage means to them freedom, pride. These are their words. Dignity. Belonging. Respect. Equality. Permanence. Acceptance. Security. Honor. Dedication. And a public commitment to the world.

One of the plaintiffs said, "It's the most important decision you make as an adult." Who could disagree with that?

...

On the one hand, we have the proponents' argument that it's all about procreation and institutionalizing -- deinstitutionalizing marriage, but was not supported by credible evidence. I couldn't find it. That's the one hand.

On the other stands the combined weight of 14 Supreme Court opinions about marriage and the liberty and the privacy of marriage. The testimony of the plaintiffs, about their life and how they are affected by Proposition 8, and the combined expertise of the leading experts in the world, as far as we were able to find. It is no contest.

 

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The New Originalism Debate—An Early Roundup of Good Reads

A few weeks ago, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter delivered a call to arms against the misguided theory of “constitutional originalism” that has dominated recent debates on the Supreme Court. “The Constitution is no simple contract,” Souter said, “Not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language that a contract draftsman would try to avoid, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.”

Souter’s argument has started a robust and refreshing conversation about keeping faith with the Constitution …. and debunking the notion of justices as constitutional umpires who have to simply stand at the plate and call objective balls and strikes.

Constitutional law professor Alain L. Sanders weighed in today with an interesting take on what a literal adherence to the Constitution as originally written —sure to be invoked in the upcoming hearings on Elena Kagan’s nomination— would mean:

The political oratory will be enticing to many, and sound astute, learned and even well-grounded. But much of it will be misleading, wrong-headed, and unsupported by logic, history, or the principles of the Constitution. A simple examination of the Senate confirmation proceedings themselves illuminates the fallacies of the conservative assault.

Sitting on the Senate Judiciary panel will be California's Dianne Feinstein and Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar. To any and all true-blue strict constructionists, the presence of these two women legislators ought immediately to sound the alarm of unconstitutionality and invalidate the entire confirmation process. The Constitution states clearly, directly and consistently throughout its many provisions that federal officials are to be men.

Sanders’ argument brought to mind some other great riffs on Souter’s speech that we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. These articles are all worth a read:

The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Doug Kendall and UVA professor Jim Ryan argued that adherence to the full text and history of the Constitution – including all of its amendments - is something that progressives can and should embrace:

We live in an era thick with conservative nostalgia for the "original" Constitution and the ideas of our founding, even when those ideas have been repudiated or modified by subsequent constitutional amendments. Kagan would be doing the entire nation as well as the Constitution itself a service if she would use the confirmation process to express and explain her commitment to follow the Constitution—all of it. If Kagan does talk about the text and history of the Constitution, as well as the role of the court, it could go a long way toward recalibrating the current national debate on the judiciary and the Constitution.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asked why it’s fashionable to see the Constitution as a simple instructional manual:

So, as we look forward toward Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, the question isn't whether she will use the opportunity of her hearings to defend living constitutionalism or to debunk originalism. That is probably too freighted a discussion, and one that no progressive can possibly win in this day and age. The question I would ask is why it's so fashionable for nominees to suggest that the hard work of judging is simple; that the Constitution is no more complicated than the instructions for assembling an Ikea end table; and that the reason they are perfectly qualified for the job is that, well, they can read. What does it say about the court as an institution that everyone who goes through the interview process must downplay the difficulty of the job?

And Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, responding to Lithwick, calls originalism out as “a great hustle”:

Lithwick notes that the theory of orginalism assumes a "nonexistent universe in which all cases are easy and all the constitutional directives are perfectly clear." But to the originalists, it is always perfectly clear: The answer is whatever they want it to be, all other conclusions are inherently illegitimate. That's what makes originalism such a great hustle -- its arbitraryness is masked by nigh-bulletproof rhetorical argument -- that its adherents are simply "applying the law as written." In order to attack their reasoning, you first have to dismantle the idea that there are no inherent tensions within the Constitution that need to be resolved in order to reach a clear ruling. In a way, originalists are a bit like religious fundamentalists who insist on following their religious texts literally but in practice only select those that fit their prevailing cultural sympathies, dismissing others as heretics and unbelievers.

We’re hoping that the weeks since Souter’s commencement address are just the beginning of a new discussion about the Constitution and the importance of the Supreme Court in all of our lives - a discussion that should be at the center of the debate on Kagan’s confirmation.


 

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A New Brand of Umpire

In a compelling new piece at Slate, Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center and Jim Ryan of the University of Virginia argue that when Elena Kagan faces the Senate Judiciary Committee she shouldn’t ignore or reject strict Constitutionalism—she should wrest its definition back from the Right wing:

…Kagan should take the opportunity provided by this week-long constitutional seminar to chronicle the arc of our constitutional progress and make it clear that she will faithfully adhere to the whole Constitution, including the amendments passed over the last 220 years. The amendments passed since the founding era have been glossed over a lot lately, at the Tea Parties, in the states, and even at the Supreme Court, where the conservative "originalists" seem to view what was originally drafted by the framing generation as better, and more legitimate law, than the changes made since. This view is absurd and should be forcefully rejected by Kagan. Perhaps she could follow Chief Justice Robert's umpire analogy, in which he famously likened judges to umpires calling balls and strikes. No one would claim that modern umpires have the power to enforce the "original" rules of baseball, even if those rules have been changed. The same is true of justices enforcing the Constitution.

As Rand Paul and the RNC have recently learned the hard way, most Americans accept that our Constitution, like our society, has changed over the past 200 years. Kendall and Ryan are right that progressives shouldn’t downplay the written document—they should brandish it.
 

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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.
 

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Party Line Vote on Goodwin Liu in Committee

In a vote that surprised absolutely no one, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously against the confirmation of Goodwin Liu, President Obama’s nominee for a seat on the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals. Nevertheless, he passed out of committee by a vote of 12 to 7.

Since even Liu’s critics concede that he’s brilliant, the GOP decided to attack him as “outside the mainstream” and for lacking judicial experience.

By now it’s well established that the Senate GOP will attack anyone as outside the mainstream, so that attack merits little more than a hearty yawn.

But lacking judicial experience? That’s relatively new for Senate Republicans. They sure didn’t mention it when they were voting for 24 courts of appeals judges nominated by President George W. Bush without any judicial experience, or when they were praising former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist who went to the high court without ever having been a judge. And maybe they didn’t notice that the American Bar Association declared Liu “well qualified,” its highest possible endorsement.

Then again, Senate Republicans have never been shy about applying a double standard when it comes to judicial nominations.
 

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Judiciary Committee Schedules Vote on Goodwin Liu

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote for this Thursday on the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Richard Painter—who, as George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer helped to shepherd through the nominations of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito— brought an interesting perspective to the Liu nomination in this morning’s Los Angeles Times:

A noisy argument has persisted for weeks in the Senate, on blog sites and in newspaper columns over President Obama's nomination of Liu to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. This political spat over a single appellate judge makes no sense if one looks at Liu's academic writings and speeches, which reflect a moderate outlook. Indeed, much of this may have nothing to do with Liu but rather with politicians and interest groups jostling for position in the impending battle over the president's next nominee to the Supreme Court.

Painter is right that Liu’s nomination has served as a flashpoint for partisan squabbles and a testing ground for new conservative talking points. We hope that the Judiciary Committee will be able look past the political expedience of bickering over Liu, and recognize him as the qualified, fair nominee he is.

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Two Must-Read Op-Eds on the Stevens Vacancy and What This Court Fight Should Be About

In his column yesterday, E.J. Dionne laid out exactly the right prescription for liberals and Democrats in the upcoming confirmation battle over the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens.

We don't know who the nominee is yet, but we know the dangers posed by the Roberts Court and what the right-wing ideologues are doing to our country via their agenda-driven interpretations and reinterpretations of the law and the Constitution.

Citizens United is an extreme case of a general tendency: Conservative judges are regularly invoking their alleged fealty to the "original" intentions of the Founders as a battering ram against attempts to limit the power of large corporations. Such entities were not even in the imaginations of those who wrote the Constitution. To claim to know what the Founders would have made of Exxon Mobil or Goldman Sachs or PepsiCo is an exercise in arrogance.

What liberals forgot during the years when their side dominated the judiciary is that for much of our history, the courts have played a conservative role. But today's conservatives have not forgotten this legacy. Their goal is to overturn the last 70 years of judicial understandings and bring us back to a time when courts voided minimum-wage laws and all manner of other economic regulations.

Read the whole thing here >

Several days earlier, Joe Conason wrote a great piece discussing the politics of Supreme Court confirmation battles and why Democrats and progressives should be eager to have a constitutional debate about the role of the Court and how the Right's definition of "constitutional" really means the dangerous upending of the traditional understanding of the Constitution which has served America well.

Conason writes:

What exactly do they mean by "constitutional"? On the increasingly powerful fringes of the Republican right, a category that includes some Tea Party activists, the Constitution is interpreted as prohibiting every social and political advance since before the Civil War. They would outlaw the Federal Reserve System, the progressive income tax, Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, consumer regulation and every other important federal initiative of the past century.

Targets of the "constitutional conservatives" would certainly include civil rights legislation that guarantees equal protection under law to minorities and women...

Click here to read the whole piece >

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Senator Sessions Plays the “Judicial Activism” Card

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, Senator Jeff Sessions said that that Goodwin Liu’s writings represent “liberal judicial activism.” And he doesn’t like it!

But what Sessions apparently does like is conservative judicial activism. Overturn more than a century of settled campaign finance law? Limit women’s ability to recover for being discriminated against on their jobs? Hand billions of dollars to Exxon? Rewrite the Voting Rights Act? That’s a-ok! “Liberal judicial activism,” (by which I assume he means opposing those decisions)? Bad.

Senator Sessions’s ability to keep a straight face while delivering such patently farcical attack is impressive. His stale talking points aren’t.
 

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Democrats Figure out GOP Strategy on Nominations

In an article in Politico today, titled “Dems: Ignore GOP in court choice,” some Senate Democrats show that they’ve got the GOP strategy on the upcoming Supreme Court nomination figured out already.

“I don’t think you can count on any Republican support — no matter who he nominates,” said Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). “Even if he nominates a conservative, it wouldn’t be conservative enough.”

. . .

“I’m afraid we’re going to face that criticism whoever he suggests,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a Judiciary Committee member.

Since the Senate GOP is willing to force cloture votes even on nominees with unanimous, bipartisan support, I think Rockefeller and Durbin are onto something here. They don’t call the GOP the “Party of No” for nothing.

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Sessions revives the empty “judicial activism” argument

Justice Stevens only announced his resignation a few days ago, and already the far right is throwing around the familiar Republican talking point about a potential “activist” Supreme Court nominee:

Several days after Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced his decision to retire, Republican leaders are already making it clear they'll put up a fight if President Obama nominates a left-leaning judicial activist.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said if the president wishes to avoid a filibuster, he should choose someone with "mainstream" judicial views as Steven's successor.

"If it's somebody like that, clearly outside of the mainstream, then I think every power should be utilized to protect the Constitution," Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NBC's Meet the Press.

Sessions elaborated:

It's when an unelected lifetime-appointed judge, or five of them use their power, unaccountable power, to redefine the meaning of the Constitution to effectuate some policy agenda, some empathy, some ideology that they have, that's what threatens the average American.

The “judicial activism” argument, which we’re sure to be hearing repeatedly in the coming weeks, rings hollow in the wake of this conservative-dominated Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. That decision, which overturned over a century of judicial precedent to hand corporations an outsized amount of influence in the electoral process, is exactly the kind of judicial act that, in Sessions’ words, “threatens the average American.”

And it’s worth noting the multiple studies that have shown that the more conservative justices on the Supreme Court are the ones most likely to vote to strike down laws passed by Congress and decisions by federal regulators.

It’s time for conservatives to either retire the “judicial activism” argument, or start applying it to their own nominees.
 

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Supreme Court Gets Chance to Remove Roadblocks Keeping Disabled Veterans from Benefits

This spring, the Supreme Court will get another chance to show whether it values the rights of individuals to receive fair treatment from the American legal system.



The New York Times reports on a case before the Supreme Court that could allow the justices to roll back the most perverse consequences of their 2008 decision in Bowles v. Russell, which held that there is no excuse for missing certain court filing deadlines—even if you’ve been given the wrong information by a judge.


That decision is now being used to withhold benefits from disabled veterans like David L. Henderson, whose disability was the cause of his inability to meet a court deadline to file his notice of appeal. Henderson has been caught up for nearly a decade in what three federal appeals court judges have called a “Kafkaesque adjudicatory process.”



The Supreme Court will soon consider whether to hear an appeal from David L. Henderson, who was discharged from the military in 1952 after receiving a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He sought additional government help for his condition in 2001, and he was turned down in 2004.

Mr. Henderson, who served on the front lines in the Korean War, had 120 days to file an appeal, but it took him 135 days. He had a pretty good excuse.

His psychiatrist has said under oath that he is “incapable of rational thought or deliberate decision-making.” As a consequence, the psychiatrist added, “Mr. Henderson has been incapable of understanding and meeting deadlines.”


Bowles, the case that created the precedent for Henderson’s nightmarish treatment, split the Supreme Court 5-4. The court, if it hears Henderson’s case, has the chance with this case to stop the extreme consequences of its earlier decision and show that it is willing to protect the rights of individual Americans.
 

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GOP Adopts Sophisticated “Take My Toys and Go Home” Strategy

In case you missed it, the GOP is not pleased about the passage of health care reform, and after careful consideration they’ve decided that the best strategy going forward is to stomp their feet harder and scream louder.

In legislative terms, that means that they’ve chosen to invoke an arcane Senate rule that requires unanimous consent for any committee meetings after 2 p.m. That’s right. GOP Senators are so angry that they won’t work after lunch.

In a statement, Senator Leahy explains what that means for the Judiciary Committee.

I have previously accommodated requests from Judiciary Committee Republicans to delay the Committee’s hearing to consider Professor [Goodwin] Liu’s nomination. I had intended to hold this hearing two weeks ago but, at the request of Republicans, delayed it until today. We had agreed, instead, to proceed to a hearing for Judge Robert Chatigny, a nominee to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, on March 10. Republicans then reversed themselves and asked for additional delay in connection with that March 10 hearing. I, again, accommodated them. Earlier this week I sought to move this afternoon’s hearing to the morning, into the two-hour window of time after the Senate convened, that would not be subject to this arcane objection. Republicans asked that we keep it scheduled for this afternoon because it worked better for the schedules of the Republican members of the Committee, and they had planned to participate this afternoon. Now, having objected to holding the hearing this morning, they object to it not being held this afternoon. They pulled the plug on our hearing and put up roadblocks to the Committee’s process for working to fill judicial vacancies.

And, like most Republican obstruction tactics, it quickly moves from being “annoying” to being “harmful for our nation.”

Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill both complained that Republicans kept them from holding their hearings on budget requests for the military's Pacific and strategic and police training contracts in Afghanistan.

That, in a nutshell, is the political strategy of the GOP: prevent any effort to assist our armed forces or allow for a functioning judicial branch out of sheer petulance.

You stay classy, guys.
 

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Former DOJ Official Discusses Impact of GOP Obstruction

On Tuesday, former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden spoke publicly for the first time since leaving the Justice Department.

Among other pressing issues, Ogden addressed the ongoing obstruction of key Obama nominees to the department, including Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel and Chris Schroeder to head the Office of Legal Policy.
 
In Ogden’s words, “it causes problems for the department not to have key” positions filled.
 
Johnsen, whom Ogden called a “brilliant” lawyer, has been waiting for over a year for an up-down vote in the Senate. “It would make a big difference to have her in there,” said Ogden. “It’s just not right that it’s been held up so long.”
 
Johnsen was approved by the Judiciary Committee for a second time on March 4th and could be brought to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.
 
Click here to learn more about Johnsen’s outstanding qualifications and broad base of support. And click here to call on Senators to finally confirm her and let her get to work on the many pressing issues at Justice Department.
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Senator Cardin on a Constitutional Amendment

In a hearing today entitled "We the People? Corporate Spending in American Elections after Citizens United,” the Senate Judiciary Committee discussed the impact of the Citizens United v. FEC and possible steps to repair the damage.  In addition to touching on legislative fixes, the question of a Constitutional Amendment came up, posed by Senator Benjamin Cardin on Maryland. 

Don't forget to sign our petition, calling for a Constitutional Amendment to restore government by the people.

UPDATE: YouTube has been having some problems with embedded videos. If you have trouble playing it, try double clicking the video to open it in YouTube in a new window.

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A Committee Meeting Worth Sitting Through

Today, well over a year after she was originally nominated, the Senate Judiciary Committee once again approved the nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

As with any Judiciary Committee meeting, there was the requisite huffing and puffing by Republican Senators who never met a nominee they didn't want to obstruct.  But anyone willing to sit through their tirades was treated to an energetic showing by Democrats who seem to have had enough of the delay and the baseless attacks.

A personal favorite is the remarks by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who showcased the bipartisan support that Johnsen has received and thoroughly demolished the ridiculous claims that the recent OPR report somehow vindicated the Bush Administration OLC.

 

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GOP Obstructionism Is No Surprise

The good news is that the Senate Judiciary Committee voted this morning to approve - again - Dawn Johnsen's nomination to head the Office of Legal Counsel. The bad news is that this was yet another party-line vote where the Republicans opposed an unquestionably qualified candidate solely because she was nominated by President Obama.

People For the American Way has carefully documented the unprecedented behavior of Congressional Republicans, as they have done everything in their power to stymie President Obama's nominations and administration-supported initiatives even if they have overwhelming support within their own caucus. Just this week, for instance, Republicans filibustered the nomination of Judge Barbara Keenan to the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, after every Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee had voted in support of her nomination. When the filibuster was broken, she was confirmed 99-0. 99-0!

How do you explain a party whose position on more and more issues is determined simply on whether they can hurt President Obama, even when they agree with him?

If you consider today's GOP as a traditional political party in the mold of other political parties throughout American history, their behavior is surprising. But this is the party that impeached President Clinton, shut down the 2000 Florida recount, and launched vast voter disenfranchisement campaigns around the country.

So just what is today's GOP? Just six weeks after President Obama's inauguration, our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation foresaw the next step in the party's devolution in a powerful and prescient Right Wing Watch In Focus report: Dragged along by its most extreme base, today's Republican Party does not see itself as the minority party in a democracy. Instead, they increasingly see themselves as a resistance movement, a mindset appropriate for fighting a dictatorship, but not for working with a democracy's freely elected government.

No one who read that report has been at all surprised by the GOP efforts to sabotage the workings of the federal government. They made it clear over a year ago how they envision themselves in a nation that rejected them at the ballot box. Their behavior since has been consistent.

It's sad that the party of Abraham Lincoln has sunk so low.

And it's outrageous that qualified nominees are being blocked by the GOP's obstructionist tactics. Help put a stop to it here.

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Judiciary Committee Hearing on OPR Report

On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the recently-released report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).  The Office had been tasked with assessing whether lawyers in the Bush Office of Legal Counsel had acted unethically in crafting legal memoranda justifying torture.

Although the OPR report concluded that John Yoo and Jay Bybee had demonstrated “professional misconduct,” their recommendation for sanctions was overruled by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who acknowledged that it was a close question but concluded that the two had exercised “poor judgment.

As we pointed out, regardless of the final recommendation, the detailed reports absolutely affirm that embattled nominee Dawn Johnsen, who has been waiting for more than a year to be confirmed to head OLC under Attorney General Eric Holder, was correct in her criticisms of the “torture memos” issued by the Bush OLC. 

Rather than being pilloried for her legitimate criticisms of the Bush OLC’s failure to respect the rule of law, Johnsen should be celebrated for extraordinarily valuable process she led with 19 former OLC lawyers in fashioning principles to guide OLC’s work going forward.

Those principles, by the way, have garnered support across the political spectrum, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Timothy Elliott Flanigan (nominated by Bush to be Deputy Attorney General), and former OLC head Steven Bradbury.

At the hearings, Senator Leahy noted that Attorney General Holder has been hampered in fully reforming OLC as Johnsen’s confirmation continues to be obstructed by Republicans. She should be confirmed without further delay.

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Leahy Keeps Pushing Forward on Nominations

At a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Dawn Johnsen was set to be sent for a second time to the full Senate—this time on the one year anniversary of her original nomination. True, Washington is almost totally shut down by snow at the moment, but Senator Patrick Leahy (of Vermont, a place used to a few snowstorms) forged ahead and convened the Committee, succeeding in moving four more judicial nominations to the full Senate.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as willing to deal with a little bad weather. Republicans insisted that Johnsen's nomination be held over yet again due to the storm. After all, they wouldn’t want to pass up one more opportunity to try to paint her as “controversial.”

Sure, Johnsen has already served with distinction as acting head of the OLC under President Clinton, received bipartisan support from her home state senators and garnered endorsements from legal experts across the ideological spectrum, but that’s not going to stop the GOP from taking all the pot shots they can.

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A Good Day For Equality in Maryland

The Baltimore Sun is reporting good news on the marriage equality front in Maryland today, where a bill that would have prohibited the state from recognizing out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples was defeated in committee.

The state's Attorney General is currently making a legal determination as to whether Maryland law recognizes such out-of-state marriages. The bill would have short-circuited that determination.

Maryland's long-settled practice is to recognize marriages validly solemnized in other states that could not be solemnized in Maryland. However, the state has in the past made an exception to that rule: Maryland once refused to recognize out-of-state interracial marriages, calling them "repugnant to Maryland's public policy."

Today, legislators were asked to echo that ugly history by treating gays and lesbians' marriages in the same discriminatory way that interracial marriages were treated during the era of Jim Crow. Fortunately, a majority of members of the House Judiciary Committee chose not to go down this path.

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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.

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