Legal

Leahy Brings Citizens United to the Forefront in Kagan Hearings

In his opening remarks in Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy put the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC at the front and center of the debate.

It is essential that judicial nominees understand that, as judges, they are not members of an administration. The courts are not subsidiaries of any political party or interest group, and our judges should not be partisans. That is why the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 2000 presidential election in Bush v. Gore was so jarring and wrong. That is why the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United, in which five conservative Justices rejected the Court’s own precedent, the bipartisan law enacted by Congress, and 100 years of legal developments in order to open the door for massive corporate spending on elections, was such a jolt to the system.

We hope to hear a lot more about Citizens United in the next few days—a ruling that a recent PFAW poll showed that 77% of Americans want to amend the Constitution to undo.
 

PFAW

Jeff Sessions Gets Started

Senator Sessions pledged that Republicans would hold a respectful confirmation.

In the next breath he slammed Kagan’s legal experience, then moved on to attacking her college thesis, complaining about her support of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, misrepresenting her opposition to DADT (and claiming she was anti-military), and distorting her argument in Citizens United. Just for good measure, he smeared Justice Thurgood Marshall for being too activist, and then demanded that the Supreme Court engage in activism to limit “unprecedented government power” (by which he seems to mean stimulus and health care reform.)

You stay classy, GOP.

PFAW

Dawn Johnsen Heads Back to Indiana

“The one thing you don’t want people saying at your funeral is, ‘She went to her grave with her options open.’” That’s Dawn Johnsen, in a recent speech at the American Constitution Society, proudly declaring that she has no regrets for standing on her principles throughout her legal career, even those principles were used by the GOP to attack and eventually defeat her nomination to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Today, NPR’s Morning Edition produced a great segment on Johnsen (including some commentary from People For’s Marge Baker).

You can listen to the whole thing on NPR’s website.

Johnsen withdrew her nomination in April after spending well over a year in nomination limbo, attacked from the right over her history of supporting a woman’s right to choose and opposing Bush Administration torture policies. She was, to say the least, highly qualified. It’s a testament to her integrity that she has refused to back down from any of her statements or principles—even those that didn’t prove to be politically expedient.
 

PFAW

Al Franken Takes On the Corporate Court

I want to flag a speech that Al Franken made on the Senate floor yesterday about the Supreme Court’s decision this week in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson. The legal issues in question were complicated, to say the least, but the impact of the Court’s decision on individual Americans is simple and clear. This excerpt is a little long, but it’s worth going to the Congressional Record and reading the whole thing. Franken explains:

On one side of the courtroom in this case was Rent-A-Center, a corporation that runs over 3,000 furniture and electronics rent-to-own stores across North America, with 21,000 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits. On the other side stood Antonio Jackson, an African-American account manager in Nevada who sought to bring a civil rights claim against his employer. Jackson claims that Rent-A-Center repeatedly passed him over for promotions and promoted non-African-American employees with less experience.

Although Jackson signed an employment contract agreeing to arbitrate all employment claims, he also knew the contract was unfair, so he challenged it in court. But yesterday the Supreme Court sided with Rent-A-Center, ruling that an arbitrator, not a court, should decide whether an arbitration clause is valid. Let me say that again. The arbitrator gets to decide whether an arbitration clause is valid. Let me repeat that. The arbitrator gets to decide whether the arbitration clause is valid. That is just one step away from letting the corporation itself decide whether a contract is fair.

In doing so, the Supreme Court made it even harder for ordinary people to protect their rights at work. Justice Stevens, not surprisingly, wrote the dissent. As he did in Gross, Stevens notes that the Supreme Court, yet again, decided this case along lines ``neither briefed by the parties nor relied upon by the Court of Appeals.'' In other words, the Supreme Court went out of its way to close those bronze doors--and keep them closed. Clearly, this is a ruling that Congress needs to fix, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to do so.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that the Supreme Court matters to average people--to our neighbors and our kids. Some have tried to convince us that Supreme Court rulings only matter if you want to burn a flag or sell pornography or commit some horrendous crime. But as Jamie Leigh Jones and Antonio Jackson show us, the Supreme Court is about much more than that. It is about whether you have a right to a workplace where you won't get raped and whether you can defend those rights in court before a jury afterwards. It is about whether corporations will continue to have inordinate power to control your life with their armies of lawyers and their contracts filled with fine print. It is about whether they can force you to sign away your rights in an unfair employment contract so you never see the inside of a courtroom. It is, quite frankly, about the kind of society we want to live in.

Next week, the Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Those hearings provide a good opportunity for us to examine the legacy of the Roberts Court and talk about what it would mean to have a Court that instead cares about hard-working Americans.

Cases like this one often fly under the radar because the legal issues they deal with are hard to boil down to a soundbite or even a paragraph (I couldn’t make heads or tails of this initial SCOTUSblog summary of the case, much less Scalia’s opinion…which is why it’s great to have a legal staff around). But this is the kind of case that is the bread and butter of the Supreme Court’s work—questions of contracts and business deals and real estate that aren’t as easy to grasp and explosive as abortion and marriage and school prayer, but still make a very real difference in all of our lives. And that’s the kind of case that the Roberts Court has consistently been deciding on the side of powerful interests like Rent-A-Center over people like Antonio Jackson.

We hope Franken’s right that the current Court’s pro-corporate leanings are major topic of discussion at Kagan’s upcoming hearings. We’ve saved up more than a few questions for her on the subject.

 

PFAW

Dawn Johnsen on Caution and Principle

Last night, Dawn Johnsen spoke to the American Constitution Society, her first public appearance after a year and a half long battle over her confirmation to head the Office of Legal Counsel. Johnsen withdrew her nomination in April after an extended right-wing attack on her criticism of Bush administration torture policies and history of fighting for the right to choose.

In speaking about her nomination, she reminded us why she would have made a strong and honest defender of the law as the head of the OLC:

“As to whether I would have changed any of my positions or softened my stances or decided to just sit out a few issues, the message could not be more clear or more simple: I have no regrets,” Johnsen said.

A law professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, she said her biography “should hardly be used as an example of why we should not stand on principle or speak out in public.” Her willingness to speak out, she added, “has not hurt me professionally. Just the opposite.”

Johnsen recounted, for example, the opportunity she had three years out of law school to co-write an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1989 case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, in which the justices upheld abortion rights. At the time, Johnsen was legal director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Republicans last year seized on a footnote from that brief, accusing Johnsen of equating pregnancy with slavery. But she noted Thursday that the brief was quoted in The New York Times at the time of the case and was published in full in two law reviews, and that the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of her side. “Whatever you think about that footnote, it was a damn good brief,” Johnsen said.

“Do you think for one moment that I wish I had sat that fight out, due to caution and calculation? Not a chance, not for a moment, not on your life,” she added. “One should not live one’s life deciding whether and how to write such briefs based on calculated judgments about possible future political payoffs.”

PFAW

After Citizens United: Big Tobacco Aims for More First Amendment Rights

In the wake of the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court may choose to determine whether corporations have additional rights to free speech under the First Amendment. On June 24th, justices will meet to decide whether to hear a group of cases the government has brought against Big Tobacco, and the court will announce its decision the following Monday, the first day of Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings.. At issue are a host of First Amendment issues, namely a corporation’s right to make assertions that may be fraudulent, in the interest of trying to influence public policy. To say the least, the cases are complicated. According to a lawyer representing Big Tobacco,

 “Some law clerk at the Supreme Court is probably pulling his hair out as we speak,” said Jones Day partner Michael Carvin, who represents R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc. before the Supreme Court. “It's like a jigsaw puzzle.”

These cases demonstrate the potentially far reaching effects of the Court’s radical decision in Citizens United, which first recognized a First Amendment right to speech for corporations in the form of independent expenditures on elections. Now, corporations are seeking even more free speech protections.

“Tobacco company briefs cite the Citizens United decision for the proposition that they too deserve First Amendment protection for statements they made about the health effects of tobacco, statements that helped form the basis of the government suit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law. In many of the tobacco company briefs, the First Amendment argument is the leading issue.”

The tobacco companies are responding to the DC Circuit’s finding that Big Tobacco’s advertising that claimed smoking was not harmful violated RICO. In contrast, documents presented to the court confirm that Philip Morris knew cigarettes were harmful, and released the advertisements in spite of this information.

The government presented evidence from the 1950s and continuing through the following decades demonstrating that the Defendant manufacturers were aware—increasingly so as they conducted more research—that smoking causes disease, including lung cancer. Evidence at trial revealed that at the same time Defendants were disseminating advertisements, publications, and public statements denying any adverse health effects of smoking and promoting their “open question” strategy of sowing doubt, they internally acknowledged as fact that smoking causes disease and other health hazards.

An added complication to these cases is that Elena Kagan, if confirmed as a Supreme Court justice will likely have to recuse herself from deliberations, because she was Solicitor General in February, when the United States filed its petition for the Supreme Court to hear one of the cases.

The cases, depending on how many the court chooses to accept, will likely turn on a test of equitable balance between the government’s interest in preventing fraud, and a corporation’s interest in defending itself.

 “This is an enormously powerful tool for the government,” said Carvin. “If you knock out corporations from public debate, that's pretty frightening stuff … The Washington Legal Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States have also filed briefs emphasizing the First Amendment issue among others.  But Crystal asserts that “you don't have a First Amendment right to commit fraud.” Carvin replies that “yes, you can stop someone from saying that his cereal stops cancer,” but the kind of statements at issue in the tobacco cases amount to “classic public policy speech” that deserve First Amendment protection.

Given the likely absence of Kagan on the bench, and the recent pro-business history of the Roberts Court, it’s fair to assume that corporations will find themselves with even more powers under the First Amendment. It is a truly scary notion for the average American, and something that further highlights the damage Citizens United will have on the rights of individuals in our democracy.
 

PFAW

More on the Prop 8 Trial

The frailty of the legal arguments against marriage equality was on full display during yesterday’s closing arguments in the Perry v Schwarzenegger trial. The proponents of upholding California’s Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in the state, insisted during the trial that procreation is central to marriage, and that gay couples should therefore not be allowed to marry. The following exchange between Judge Walker and Charles Cooper, the attorney defending Prop 8, speaks for itself:

MR. COOPER: …Marriage is a license to cohabit and to produce legitimate children.

THE COURT: But the state doesn't withhold the right to marriage to people who are unable to produce children of their own.

MR. COOPER: That's true, your Honor, it does not. It does not insist --

THE COURT: Are you suggesting that the state should, to fulfill the purpose of marriage that you have described?

MR. COOPER: No, sir, your Honor. It is by no means a necessary -- a necessary condition or a necessary requirement to fulfilling the state's interests in naturally potentially procreative sexual relationships.

Dante Atkins on the Daily Kos summarizes the circular argument Cooper tried to make:

Let's recap this thread between Cooper and Walker, because it's just embarrassing. Cooper says that opposite-sex couples who can't procreate get the ancillary benefits of marriage, like stability, loving commitment, etc. Walker asks: well, don't same-sex couples get those same things through marriage? And Cooper responds: "but they can't procreate!" And there we are, back at square one. It's an embarrassingly dreadful performance from a legal point of view, because Cooper has completely avoided the question of why it's constitutional to deny same-sex couples the ancillary benefits of marriage that Judge Walker outlined.

Why did Cooper and his colleagues rely on this weak argument? Because they thought the Court would view it more favorably than the toxic anti-gay rhetoric proponents of Prop 8 used in 2008 to convince California voters that same-sex marriages were a threat to children. Christopher Stroll at Pam’s House Blend writes:

[Plaintiffs’ attorney Ted] Olson hammered home the point that during the election, Prop 8 backers argued that children needed be "protected" from gay people -- but during the trial, the Prop 8 backers did not raise this argument, which echoes themes that anti-gay forces have used for decades to stigmatize and marginalize gay men and lesbians. Instead, the attorneys defending Prop 8 argued that same-sex couples must be excluded from marriage because the purpose of marriage is procreation.

Another baseless argument that backers of Prop 8 made was that gay marriage would “deinstitutionalize” marriage. Olson eloquently debunked that particular right wing myth:

The plaintiffs have no interest in changing marriage or deinstitutionalizing marriage. They desire to marry because they cherish the institution.

PFAW

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.

 

PFAW

Dawn Johnsen Speaks Out on the Office of Legal Counsel

Dawn Johnsen, the law professor who was forced in April to withdraw her nomination to head the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, has written a forceful op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Johnsen, an exceedingly qualified candidate who was the victim of a fifteen month Republican obstruction effort, writes that the President and Senate need to quickly install a new OLC head—and to pick someone who will lead the office in an honest and nonpartisan way:

In 2004, the leak of a controversial memo on the use of torture catapulted the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel into the spotlight. Fallout and debate continue, including in the context of my nomination -- withdrawn this spring -- to head this office. While attention understandably is focused on confirming the president's Supreme Court nominee, the OLC remains, after six years, without a confirmed leader.

It is long past time to halt the damage caused by the "torture memo" by settling on a bipartisan understanding of the proper role of this critical office and confirming an assistant attorney general committed to that understanding.

There is no simple answer to why my nomination failed. But I have no doubt that the OLC torture memo -- and my profoundly negative reaction to it -- was a critical factor behind the substantial Republican opposition that sustained a filibuster threat. Paradoxically, prominent Republicans earlier had offered criticisms strikingly similar to my own. A bipartisan acceptance of those criticisms is key to moving forward. The Senate should not confirm anyone who defends that memo as acceptable legal advice.

Johnsen is right that the OLC should be led by a fierce advocate of the rule of law—someone like Johnsen herself. We hope that the debate over the next OLC nominee will, unlike the last debate, reflect the importance of this qualification.

 

PFAW

Equal Protection Under Attack: Doe v. Vermilion Parish School Board

Last week, People for the American Way Foundation signed on to an amicus brief urging the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court’s decision allowing a Louisiana middle school to segregate classrooms by sex. The amicus brief, led by the National Women’s Law Center, argued that sex-segregated classrooms are harmful to members of both sexes and violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Parents of the Rene A. Rost Middle School were informed in 2009 that classes for the school would be segregated by sex for the coming fall semester. A parent whose children were placed in sex-segregated classes without receiving constitutionally mandated coeducational options objected and was told that because the coed classes had already been filled, the only option left for one of her daughters was a special needs class. Represented by the ACLU, the parent sued and the trial court dismissed the case by wrongly shifting the burden of proof, requiring the victim to prove discrimination by demonstrating an “intent to harm” - a new standard that is almost impossible to meet and not recognized by the Supreme Court.

As the Supreme Court held in its 1996 decision requiring the Virginia Military Institute to admit women, for a state to permissibly classify on the basis of sex, it “must carry the burden of showing an exceedingly persuasive justification for the classification.” Additionally, the state must not “rely on overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females.” Simply put, the Court has found that a state must have a very good reason before it decides to discriminate on the basis of sex.

NWLC’s brief cites evidence that suggests a total lack of adequate justification for the school’s policy, both from a legal and practical perspective, specifically a flawed study performed by Rost Middle School’s principal. Simply put, if the Fifth Circuit were to uphold the District Court’s decision, it would ignore almost 30 years of settled Equal Protection law in order to endorse a discriminatory policy that is harmful to all students regardless of gender.
 

PFAW

New Statement, Old Points from Sessions

Jeff Sessions is at it again. In a statement following the release of tens of thousands of pages of documents related to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on Friday, Sessions concluded:

Kagan’s memos unambiguously express a leftist philosophy and an approach to the law that seems more concerned with achieving a desired social result than fairly following the Constitution. Ms. Kagan has never been a judge, and only briefly practiced law—spending far more time as a liberal advocate than a legal practitioner.

Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate committee that will grill Kagan this summer, has apparently decided to stick to the blanket accusation of “judicial activism”—or, as it is now known, “outcomes-based” judging. The idea that conservative judges read the Constitution while liberal judges pull ideas out of thin air was spectacularly disproved by the Roberts Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, and recently received a thorough takedown from former Justice David Souter. Yet Sessions continues to peddle nonsense about progressive appointees caring more about a “social result” than the Constitution.

And, by the way, when Sessions accuses Kagan of lacking judicial experience, he walks right into a well-documented double standard.
 

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

Oil and the Courts: Will History Repeat Itself?

As BP begins a risky attempt to stem its still-leaking oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and oil starts to lap against the shores of the Gulf Coast, lawsuits against the oil giant have begun. The devastating oil spill has already surpassed the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, and the litigation that follows it is sure to be just as contentious and lengthy. Two years ago, 19 years after the Valdez spill, the tens of thousands of victims of the disaster saw their case end up before the Supreme Court…and the Court gave Exxon Mobil a huge handout. While the facts this time are different and the legal issues won’t be exactly the same, if their case ends up before the high court, victims of the BP spill will have a legitimate reason to worry –the Roberts Court has displayed a clear willingness to go out of its way to keep individual citizens from holding big oil accountable.

In 1989, an Exxon oil tanker carrying over a million barrels of crude oil crashed off the coast of Alaska, spilling at least ten million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound. The spill destroyed wildlife habitats and the livelihoods of fishermen up and down the Northwest coast. Those affected by the spill entered into years of litigation to try to recover from Exxon some of what they had lost. In 1994, a jury awarded the 32,677 plaintiffs in the case $5 billion in punitive damages. An appeals court judge halved the amount to $2.5 billion.

Then, in 2008, the Supreme Court gave Exxon Mobil a $2 billion gift. As our Rise of the Corporate Court report explains:

[E]ven this pared-down judgment was way too much for Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Souter and Scalia. In 2008, this bloc reduced the punitive damage award from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million. Indeed, the only thing that stopped them from deleting the award altogether was that they were one vote short of being able to find that a corporation is not responsible for the reckless acts of its own managers acting in the scope of their employment.

What the 5-justice majority found, over the objections of dissenting liberal justices who accused them of legislating from the bench, was that it would impose in maritime tort cases a 1-1 ratio between compensatory and punitive damages—a formula found nowhere in the statute and essentially pulled out of a hat made by a big corporation. In dissent, Justice Stevens chastised the majority for interpreting the "congressional choice not to limit the availability of punitive damages under maritime law" as "an invitation to make policy judgments on the basis of evidence in the public domain that Congress is better able to evaluate than is this Court."

But Exxon, which amazingly ended up making money on the spill because of the resulting increase in oil prices, got its way with a corporate-leaning Court and ended up paying punitive damages equal to a day or two of company profits.

The Exxon Valdez spill was the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters. Until now, that is.

As oil keeps leaking from a BP oil rig into the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Coast has started to feel the impact of what the White House yesterday declared to be the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

President Obama called the spill a "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster." 11 people died in the rig’s explosion, and the resulting spill has already begun to destroy Gulf Coast ecosystems and has started a devastating ripple effect through the economy.

An early estimate put the economic impact of the spill at $12.5 billion. And the damage could continue for decades.

Not surprisingly, the lawsuits from those who are losing their livelihoods have begun. As of May 21, more than 130 had been filed.

Lawsuits against BP will no doubt involve millions, and probably billions of dollars in both compensatory and punitive damages. While compensatory damages are essential to helping victims recover from a disaster of this size, punitive damages serve to dissuade the company and others like it from acting recklessly in the future. The Roberts Court’s willingness to invent a rule capping punitive damages against Exxon doesn’t bode well for anyone hoping to hold BP accountable for this disaster and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The Court has a responsibility to ensure that ordinary people get treated fairly, even when pitted against big corporations—but the current Supreme Court has made it clear that we can’t always count on that.

This disaster is a tragic reminder of why we need Justices who won’t favor the interests of the powerful over the rights of ordinary citizens.

 UPDATE (May 28, 2:30 PM):

For a sense of the scale of the disaster, take a look at NASA's stunning time-lapse video of the spill unfolding (via Mother Jones):

PFAW

At a Crossroads

This past Sunday as I was waiting to go on Fox News to talk about the importance of the upcoming debate about the kind of Supreme Court Americans wanted, I had an extra few minutes to walk around the Capitol Hill area near the studio. As I was thinking about one of my key points – that we need a Justice who will keep faith with a Constitution that has been amended by generations of Americans to make sure that “We the people” means “all the people” -  across my blackberry, came word that Attorney General Holder had just said on one of the morning news shows that he wanted Congress to consider modifying the Miranda rule to permit the government to interrogate citizens and legal aliens suspected of being involved in terrorism without advising them of their constitutional right to a lawyer and of their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves. 

Now, I understand that these are troubled and scary times and that Americans understandably fear for their own safety as well as that of their loved ones. The attempted bombing in Times Square certainly was a wake up call.  But, my gut told me that this was a bridge too far – that if we surrender the core constitutional values that make us and our democracy unique in the world, we are left with very little. As hard as it is sometimes, we really do need to make sure that “all the people” and not just some are protected by the Constitution.  

And, as I was pondering this critical crossroads that we find ourselves at as a nation – I came upon the most eloquent reminder of how crucial it is to keep faith with these core constitutional values. It was the small park, near the corner of North Capitol Street and Louisiana Ave that houses the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism during World War II. The memorial was created as a tribute to brave Japanese Americans who fought for this country – and for our democracy – during World War II, despite that fact that their families and loved ones had been stripped of their homes and their belongings and were being kept in internment camps because of (what legislation passed by Congress and signed by Ronald Reagan in 1988 called) “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”  The shame of that moment in our history – capped by the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Korematsu v. United States – should serve as a potent reminder to us of how important it is to keep faith with our core values and who we are as Americans. 

My humble advice – let’s step back, take a deep breath, and think long and hard before we take steps that we will regret in the future.

PFAW

Kagan v. Rehnquist

In their uphill battle to paint Solicitor General Elena Kagan as unqualified for the Supreme Court, some Republicans are complaining that she doesn’t have any experience on the federal bench. It’s an attack that doesn’t hold water for several reasons. But nothing illustrates the double standard more than comparing her resume with that of William Rehnquist, who had strong GOP backing but much less experience.

KAGAN:
1986-87: Clerk for Judge Abner Mikva, U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit
1987-88: Clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Supreme Court
1989-91: Associate in Private Practice, Williams & Connolly
1991-97: Assistant Professor and Professor, University of Chicago Law School (1991-94 as assistant professor)
1995-96: Associate White House Counsel
1997-99: Deputy Assistant to the President, Domestic Policy Council
1999-01: Visiting Professor, Harvard Law School
2001-03: Professor, Harvard Law School
2003-09: Dean of Harvard Law School
2009-10: Solicitor General of the United States

REHNQUIST:
1952-1953: Clerk For Justice Robert Jackson
1953-1969: Private Practice in Phoenix, AZ
1969-1971: Assistant USAG, Office of Legal Counsel

PFAW

On Ellis Island, African American Ministers Leadership Council Are First to Sign Immigration Reform Covenant

Members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council and African American Ministers in Action gathered on Ellis Island to sign an immigration reform covenant.

On Wednesday, members of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) and African American Ministers In Action (AAMIA) gathered on Ellis Island to pledge their unified support for a dignified, just, and tolerant approach to reforming the country’s immigration laws. The ministers, from five states and diverse denominations, were the first to sign a multi-faith covenant calling for “immigration dialogue and reform that will inspire hope, unite families, secure borders, ensure dignity and provide a legal avenue for all of God’s children working and desiring to reside in this country to drink from the well of justice and equal protection under the law.”


The covenant, which lays out seven principles for a respectful immigration reform debate, will be circulated among faith leaders of diverse traditions and ethnicities across the United States.

“We believe immigration reform is important for this nation. As faith leaders from various faith traditions, we stand united with one message and that is a message of love,” said Leslie Watson Malachi, director of African American Religious Affairs.

Watson Malachi put together the covenant in response to what she called the “increasingly nasty and divisive political and social tone of the immigration debate.”

Rev. Robert Shine

“For years, we have witnessed rhetoric around immigration reform that is deceptive, harmful, and pits communities against each other,” she said. “What took place in Arizona last month, when the state essentially legalized racial profiling in the name of immigration reform, demonstrated the mean-spirited, inhospitable atmosphere that is moving across state lines. This covenant is a statement that faith leaders will reclaim civility, lead a genuine, compassionate conversation, and not stand for racially divisive tactics that undermine the dignity of human beings.”

Members of the AAMLC were quick to sign on.

“We are concerned about all people, from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all races, all nationalities, ethnic origins, etc.,” said Reverend Melvin Wilson of St. Luke AME Church in New York, one of the original signers, “But the tone of the current discussion of immigration has been so negative, so divisive, we are just not going to sit idly by and let the talking heads speak without providing a counter-voice.”

Rev. Patrick Young signs the covenant as Rev. Dr. E. Gail Anderson Holness looks on.

“To sign this covenant is important for multiple reasons,” said Reverend Byron Williams, of Resurrection Church in Oakland, California, who was among the first leaders to add his name to the document. “First of all, it’s important on the issues of equality, and justice, and fairness and dignity. But it also makes an important statement that we have African American pastors coming together. Our ancestry does not take us by Ellis Island, but the concept of liberty is one that’s as deep in our community as it is for anyone that’s come to these shores looking for a better life. It’s those deeply held values of liberty, justice and fairness that are the bedrock of American principles.”

Watson Malachi plans to continue promoting the messages of unity and dignity through education and awareness efforts that include informative dialogue sessions, roundtable conversations with faith leaders from African, Caribbean, Latino, African American and other communities.

The full text of the covenant can be found here.

People For’s report on divisive and dishonest rhetoric in the debate on immigration reform is here.
 

PFAW

The Return of Soft Money

In the New York Times today, Adam Liptak predicts that in the wake of Citizens United, the Supreme Court will reconsider, maybe as early as this summer, the constitutionality of limits on “soft money”—unlimited contributions to political parties. The lawyer who won the Citizens United case appealed last month a lower court decision upholding the ban on soft money donations.

 Liptak explains the difficulty of keeping the soft money ban in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to give corporations essentially free reign to spend on elections:

Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, election law has relied on what many people think is an artificial distinction. The government may regulate contributions from individuals to politicians, Buckley said, but it cannot stop those same people from spending money independently to help elect those same politicians.

Why not? Contributions directly to politicians can give rise to corruption or its appearance, the court said, but independent spending is free speech. A $2,500 contribution to a politician is illegal; a $25 million independent ad campaign to elect the same politician is not.

Citizens United extended this logic to corporations. Corporate contributions to candidates are still banned, but corporations may now spend freely in candidate elections.

The distinction between contributions and spending has not been popular in the legal academy.

“Buckley is like a rotten tree,” Burt Neuborne, a law professor at New York University, wrote in 1997. “Give it a good, hard push and, like a rotten tree, Buckley will keel over. The only question is in which direction.”

The return of soft money to elections would not be a trivial matter. In the 2000 election cycle, before the McCain-Feingold bill banned the practice, soft money donations to party committees totaled over $500 million—about a sixth of the total amount spent on federal campaigns that year.

It will be interesting to see if the Roberts Court, given its track record on issues involving large bank accounts, is willing to take us back there.

PFAW

DOD puts breaks on DADT repeal, veterans to lobby Congress

Late Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen urged Congress to hold off on repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell until the Pentagon completes its policy review. This was followed by a White House statement (cited by Washington Post and other media outlets) deferring to Secretary Gates.

Alexander Nicholson, a former Army interrogator discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell and current Executive Director of Servicemembers United, believes that the push for repeal is not the real problem.

This letter from Secretary Gates is a significant cause for concern for those who truly respect and support the gay military community.

PFAW agrees that careful thought must be given to a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But like Alexander Nicholson, we believe just as strongly that legislative action does not depend on the actions of the DOD Working Group. The Working Group was commissioned to study how to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – not whether it should be repealed. That’s the point on which Congress wants to act. They could do so as early as this month when work begins on the DOD Authorization bill. Congress should proceed now so that we are ready for implementation by December 1 – the deadline for completion of the Working Group report.

Aubrey Sarvis, Army veteran and Executive Director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, described this “fierce urgency of now” in his response.

As a result of the Commander in Chief's decision to defer to Secretary Gates' wishes and timeline, gay service members will continue to be treated as second class citizens, and any sense of fairness may well have been delayed for yet another year, perhaps for another decade.

Joe Solmonese, President of the Human Rights Campaign, continues.

[F]ailure to act this year will, without a doubt, continue to send the message to the thousands of gay and lesbian Americans serving their country in silence that their views and concerns, and the impact on them and their families, do not matter to the military leadership, including their Commander-in-Chief.

Advocates will not rest in their push for an end to LGBT discrimination and muzzled military service. In fact, we’re just one week away from the National Veterans Lobby Day. Hundreds of veterans will come to Capitol Hill to stand up and speak out for the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

PFAW

LGBT families included in immigration reform framework

Senate Democrats made news this week with the release of their framework for moving forward on immigration reform. It is by no means perfect, and there is much work left to be done. However, these Senators should be commended for the framework’s attention to family unity and its inclusion of LGBT families. Page 22 stands strong on behalf of keeping LGBT families together in the US.

[The proposal] will eliminate discrimination in the immigration laws by permitting permanent partners of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents to obtain lawful permanent resident status.

This language speaks to the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) and lays the foundation for fully incorporating UAFA into whatever legislation results from the framework. Incorporating UAFA would be a meaningful step taken toward providing equality to same-sex couples and keeping their families together. UAFA allows many same-sex partners to begin the immigration process more quickly and efficiently, and with fewer limitations. Gay men and lesbians whose partners are US citizens or legal permanent residents could apply for family-based visas and green cards.

Last month, PFAW urged the Senate to take action on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). We believe this issue is critical to the welfare of our country.

Today, we thank Senators Schumer (NY), Reid (NV), Menendez (NJ), Durbin (IL), Feinstein (CA), and Leahy (VT) for recognizing that addressing immigration fairly and effectively means addressing the needs of ALL people.

For more information, please visit Immigration Equality.

PFAW

Senators Study How to Break the Filibuster Gridlock

Yesterday’s confirmation of Chris Schroeder to head the Office of Legal Policy was a welcome break in the gridlock that GOP senators have created over President Obama’s Executive Branch nominees. (Though, as has become the pattern, they made sure Schroeder’s confirmation was held up for nearly a year before allowing it to easily pass in a 72-24 vote).

The GOP’s recent unprecedented abuse of procedural stalling tactics has Senators and observers scrambling for ways to amend filibuster rules to get the Senate working again.

In the Washington Post this morning, Ruth Marcus details her ideas on reforming the filibuster while maintaining the power of the minority to have a strong voice in the Senate, and Ezra Klein outlines the enormous time-wasting potential of the current rules.

And Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, has launched a (sure to be smash hit) series of hearings on filibuster reform. At this morning’s hearing, there was some especially interesting testimony from the Brookings Institution’s Sarah Binder, who debunked the widely held idea that the Founding Fathers meant the Senate to be deliberative to the point of inaction.

The filibuster clearly has worthy uses (as anyone who’s seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington knows), but it’s clearly wrong to imply that the Senate’s inventors intended the sort of obstruction that we see today.

Stanley Bach, a former legislative specialist at the Congressional Research Service who testified at this morning’s hearing, put it this way: “A useful starting point [to discussions of reform] is to ask whether the usual purpose of filibusters is more balanced legislation or no legislation at all.”

These days, the answer to that seems pretty clear.
 

PFAW