Today, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Goodwin Liu to serve on the California Supreme Court. Liu, a professor at UC Berkeley with extensive experience in public service, is an exceptionally well-qualified legal scholar.
“He is a nationally recognized expert on constitutional law and has experience in private practice, government service and in the academic community,” Brown said in his announcement. “I know that he will be an outstanding addition to our state supreme court.”
Liu’s appointment to the California high court comes after President Obama had unsuccessfully nominated him to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Although his sterling credentials were not in doubt and he had strong bipartisan support outside the Senate, unprecedented obstruction by Senate Republicans eventually prevented Liu’s confirmation. After years of claiming that judicial filibusters were unconstitutional when George W. Bush was president, Republican Senators did an about-face that would have done Mitt Romney proud once Obama took office, and they shamefully prevented the Senate from voting on Liu’s nomination.
Governor Brown’s decision is a testament to Professor Liu’s outstanding judicial temperament and readiness to serve. Liu says he is “deeply honored” by the nomination – and this honor is well-earned. Californians will be fortunate to have someone of Goodwin Liu’s caliber on their state supreme court.
On Wednesday night, Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu wrote to President Obama asking that the his nomination to sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals be withdrawn. Liu’s exit was the culmination of two years of smears, scapegoating and filibustering, in which the nominee never even got an up or down vote from the Senate.
The main gist of Republican opposition to Liu was the claim that he would be an “activist judge” in favor of making up constitutional rights willy-nilly (a claim that Republicans in the Senate have lobbed at any number of highly qualified judicial nominees, including current Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, but interestingly not at Republican nominees who have shown strong streaks of creative legal interpretation).
In an op-ed earlier this week, the New York Times singled out Sen. John Cornyn for his false claim that Liu holds the “ridiculous view that our Constitution somehow guarantees a European-style welfare state.” Yesterday, in a letter to the editor, Cornyn fought back, providing this quote from a 2006 law review article by Liu to back up his claim:
On my account of the Constitution’s citizenship guarantee, federal responsibility logically extends to areas beyond education. ... Beyond a minimal safety net, the legislative agenda of equal citizenship should extend to systems of support and opportunity that, like education, provide a foundation for political and economic autonomy and participation. The main pillars of the agenda would include basic employment supports such as expanded health insurance, child care, transportation subsidies, job training and a robust earned income tax credit.
What is interesting about this quote is that it doesn’t say what Cornyn says it says. At all. Nowhere in the quote -- which Cornyn points to as decisive evidence that Liu wants the courts to turn us into Denmark -- does Liu say that the courts should enforce a social safety net. In fact, Liu is careful to specify that he is discussing the duty of Congress to create a “legislative agenda” that fulfills the highest ideals of the Constitution, rather than a judicial responsibility to enforce that agenda.
Elsewhere in the article [pdf], Liu makes it perfectly clear that he sees it as the duty of Congress, not the courts, to guarantee basic living standards for citizens. He even explicitly states that he intentionally doesn’t use the term “rights” because that would imply “judicial enforceability” of the values that he’s discussing:
In this Article, I do not address whether the Supreme Court or any court should hold that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees an adequate education. Although that question remains open in the case law, my thesis is chiefly directed at Congress, reflecting the historic character of the social citizenship tradition as “a majoritarian tradition, addressing its arguments to lawmakers and citizens, not to courts.” Whatever the scope of judicial enforcement, the Constitution—in particular, the Fourteenth Amendment—speaks directly to Congress and independently binds Congress to its commands. Thus the approach to constitutional meaning I take here is that of a “conscientious legislator” who seeks in good faith to effectuate the core values of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the guarantee of national citizenship.
From this perspective, the language of rights, with its deep undertone of judicial enforceability, seems inapt to probe the full scope of a legislator’s constitutional obligations. As Professor Sager has observed, “[T]he notion that to be legally obligated means to be vulnerable to external enforcement can have only a superficial appeal.” It is more illuminating to ask what positive duties, apart from corresponding rights, the Fourteenth Amendment entails for legislators charged with enforcing its substantive guarantees. Framed this way, the inquiry proceeds from the standpoint that Congress, unlike a court, is neither tasked with doing legal justice in individual cases nor constrained by institutional concerns about political accountability. Instead, “Congress can draw on its distinctive capacity democratically to elicit and articulate the nation’s evolving constitutional aspirations when it enforces the Fourteenth Amendment.” By mediating conflict and marshaling consensus on national priorities, including the imperatives of distributive justice, Congress can give effect to the Constitution in ways the judicial process cannot.
Thus the legislated Constitution, in contrast to the adjudicated Constitution, is not “narrowly legal” but rather dynamic, aspirational, and infused with “national values and commitments.” …
(emphasis is mine)
Cornyn and his pals in the Senate know what was in the article they attacked. Liu even explained it to them in detail in response to written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee [pdf]. But it was easier to willfully misinterpret Liu's writing and paint him as irresponsible than to engage in a substantive debate on his qualifications.
The Senate is currently debating the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu is a phenomenally well qualified legal scholar who has support across the political spectrum, as well as among a majority of U.S. Senators. However, because Senate Republican leaders are putting politics over all else, they are set on stymieing the majority and filibustering the nomination. A cloture vote to end this stalling tactic may occur as soon as tomorrow morning.
People For the American Way supports the nomination. We sent a letter this morning that says much of what we have been saying in person on the Hill for over a year. Among other things, the letter states:
Perhaps the most powerful testament to Professor Liu's superb qualifications is the extensive support his nomination has garnered from across the ideological spectrum. It is not only progressive and moderate legal thinkers who admire his work: He has received endorsements from conservatives such as Ken Starr, Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan; Richard Painter, the chief ethics counsel for President George W. Bush; and Clint Bolick, Director of the conservative Goldwater Institute.
When a judicial nominee attracts such strong support independent of political ideology, you can be confident that he is exactly the kind of mainstream, talented, and fair jurist we need on the federal bench.
Although Liu has the support of a majority of senators, his opponents are working to block his nomination from receiving an up or down vote. Their claim is that Liu's nomination constitutes one of those rare "extraordinary circumstances" warranting a filibuster, under the benchmark developed by the Gang of 14 during the George W. Bush Administration.
By no measure can this nomination be considered to even approach "extraordinary circumstances." Even a cursory look at President Bush's nominees who were approved using that test – those whose nominations were not considered to constitute "extraordinary circumstances" – makes clear that Liu's nomination must be permitted to go forward.
- Pricilla Owen's dissenting positions on the Texas Supreme Court were so extreme that even her fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court in different cases described them with phrases like "an unconscionable act of judicial activism," "disregard of the procedural elements the Legislature established," "def[ying] the Legislature's clear and express limits on our jurisdiction," and "inflammatory rhetoric." Her nomination was not considered extraordinary, and the Senate afforded her an up-or-down vote for a seat on the Fifth Circuit, where she is now serving.
- Thomas Griffith pushed to severely curtail laws ending discrimination against women and girls' participation in school athletic programs, declaring "illegal" a test upheld by all eight of the nation's Circuit Courts of Appeals that had considered the issue. He was also suspended from the DC Bar for failure to pay mandatory Bar dues yet continued to practice law in the District during that time. Published reports and an examination of Utah law indicated that he had been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Utah for the four years prior to his nomination. Nevertheless, the Senate did not consider Griffith's nomination extraordinary, and he received an up-or-down vote confirming him to a seat on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
- Janice Rogers Brown criticized opposition to the Lochner decision, which began the period when the Supreme Court issued its most pro-corporate rulings—rulings that struck down laws requiring minimum wages, regulating working hours and conditions, and banning improper business practices. In addition, despite several Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, she explicitly suggested that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional. Despite this record, her nomination was not considered an "extraordinary circumstance," and the Senate was allowed to cast an up-or-down vote, confirming her to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
- William Pryor called Roe v. Wade "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history" and urged Congress to consider repealing or amending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the significant opposition that these and other extreme positions garnered, his nomination was not filibustered, and he was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Each of these nominees attracted substantial controversy and was opposed by numerous civil rights and civil liberties groups, but not one was found to constitute "extraordinary circumstances."
The claim that Goodwin Liu is out of the mainstream as compared to any of these nominees simply does not bear scrutiny. In fact, a fair reading of his work makes clear that Liu is well within the judicial mainstream.
By any standard articulated by either party, Goodwin Liu's nomination deserves a vote on the Senate floor, and he should be confirmed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Tomorrow, we will learn which Republican senators are willing to toss logic, consistency, principles, and the good of the nation's court system out the window in order to score political points against a Democratic president.
Proponents of California's Proposition 8 are making another assault against the trial court decision they lost and have appealed. This time, instead of addressing the merits of the case, they are attacking the judge who wrote the opinion. As reported in SCOTUSBlog:
Arguing that the judge who struck down California's ban on same-sex marriage was not impartial, because of his failure to disclose his own long-term gay relationship, the sponsors of Proposition 8 asked a federal judge in San Francisco on Monday to throw out all parts of the ruling and any earlier orders in the famous case. The motion to vacate the ruling by now-retired U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker can be read here.
Since Walker retired, the case has been taken over for any further action in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by the chief judge there, James Ware. The new filing by the Proposition 8 backers said they would seek permission from the Ninth Circuit Court — where Walker's ruling is now under review — for Judge Ware to rule on their new challenge. With the case pending in the Circuit Court, that judge may not have the authority to act without permission. ...
The motion asserted that the opponents were "not suggesting that a gay or lesbian judge could not sit on his case." Rather, they argued that Judge Walker had a personal interest in the outcome of the case, because he may wish to marry his partner if Proposition 8 no longer exists. At a minimum, the motion argued, he should have disclosed that relationship and whether he has any interest in marriage so that the parties in the case could evaluate whether to formally demand that he step aside under federal laws governing such disqualifications.
Right Wing Watch reported last week on The National Review’s Ed Whalen making this same argument.
The claim that Judge Walker had a personal stake in the case that warrants throwing his decision out adds yet another illogical inconsistency to the far right’s arguments against marriage equality. Under this reasoning, since traditional marriage is designed to show societal favor toward monogamous opposite-sex couples, any judge in an opposite-sex relationship has a personal stake in the case that warrants disqualification.
And if same-sex marriage genuinely threatens opposite-sex marriage as the far right claims, then married heterosexual judges (or ones in long-term relationships who might want to marry someday) have a personal stake in the Prop 8 case that could disqualify them from hearing the case.
If anti-equality advocates actually believe the legal principles they espouse, they should apply them across the board, not only when it suits their political agenda. Otherwise, one might be forgiven for thinking that their real goal is to hurt gay people, rather than to protect the integrity of the law.
For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has learned that its extremism can sometimes be too much for even one member of the notoriously pro-corporate Roberts Court to swallow.
Yesterday, a unanimous Supreme Court released its opinion in Matrixx Initiatives v. Siracusano. At issue was whether a publicly traded company can be held accountable when it withholds from investors the fact that its main product has been linked to significant, negative health consequences, but not so often as to be statistically significant. (The Chamber submitted an amicus brief supporting the company.)
Matrixx is a pharmaceutical company that makes a product called Zicam Cold Remedy. It submitted a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission that omitted certain negative information about Zicam. Matrixx had been told independently by three medical researchers and physicians that some users of Zicam had lost their sense of smell. The company was also being sued by two people claiming to have lost their sense of smell due to Zicam. Matrixx's SEC filing did not mention any of these facts.
When the facts about Zicam became known, a pension fund initiated a class-action suit against Matrixx on behalf of investors.
Federal securities laws prohibit companies from making "material" omissions - omissions that an average shareholder would consider important - in connection with the buying and selling of shares. In 2004, when Good Morning America aired a story about a possible link between Zicam and the loss of the sense of smell, the company's share price dropped by 23.8% in just one day, suggesting that this just might have possibly been material information for investors.
Nevertheless, the district court dismissed the case because the number of reports was not statistically significant. The Ninth Circuit reversed that decision and, in a refreshing display of common sense, has now been upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court in an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor: Just because the number of negative incidents isn't statistically significant doesn't mean you automatically can hide it from investors.
Congress enacted the securities laws during the New Deal, in response to widespread abuses in the securities industry - a scenario all too familiar to Americans today. The intent was to replace a system of caveat emptor with an honest market. Congressional intent was clear: If the average shareholder would consider something important, then it must be disclosed.
Big Business was paying attention to this case: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief urging the Court to rule for Matrixx - which would have made it harder to hold publicly traded corporations accountable when they choose to omit important information affecting Americans' investments. The Chamber was hoping the conservative Justices would once again throw common sense and legal precedent out the window in order to achieve a corporate-friendly result.
But this time, the Chamber's extremism was too much for even one Justice on the Supreme Court to swallow.
Justices Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, issued an interesting dissent yesterday to the Supreme Court's decision not to hear a challenge to a federal law making it a federal crime for a convicted felon to buy, own, or possess body armor (such as a bullet-proof vest) that had ever been sold in interstate or international commerce, even if the felon himself did not obtain it through interstate or international commerce. Congress passed the law as an exercise of the power granted it by the Constitution's Commerce Clause.
The rejected challenge in Alderman v. U.S. asserted that Congress had gone beyond the power granted to it by the Commerce Clause - the same argument that opponents of the landmark healthcare reform legislation have made. Since the constitutionality of the healthcare law under the Commerce Clause will likely be decided by the Supreme Court, Thomas and Scalia's dissent in this case may be a window into how they will rule in that case.
The Los Angeles Times gives one interpretation of the Court's decision:
The Supreme Court may not be so anxious to rein in Congress' broad power to pass regulatory laws under the Constitution's commerce clause, the key point of dispute in the pending court battles over President Obama's health insurance law. ...
The majority's decision, rendered without comment, could make it more difficult for those challenging health insurance reform to win court orders overturning parts of the new law. ...
Thomas referred to a pair of decisions, beginning in 1995, in which the court's conservatives, led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, sought to put clearer limits on Congress' power. ...
But since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. arrived in 2005, the court has not moved to restrain federal power.
A Justice can have any number of reasons for not wanting to hear a case — perhaps the Justice agrees with the lower court, or the issue is not important enough, or the facts of the case make it an inconvenient vehicle to discuss the legal issue, or there has not yet been enough debate among the circuit courts. As in this case, the public rarely knows why the Court voted not to grant cert.
For any of the Justices to voice their disagreement when cert is denied is unusual, and it suggests that they feel strongly about the issue at stake. In the body armor case, Justices Thomas and Scalia wrote:
Today the Court tacitly accepts the nullification of our recent Commerce Clause jurisprudence. Joining other Circuits, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [uses reasoning that] threatens the proper limits on Congress' commerce power and may allow Congress to exercise police powers that our Constitution reserves to the States. ...
[The lower courts’ interpretation of the Commerce Clause] seems to permit Congress to regulate or ban possession of any item that has ever been offered for sale or crossed state lines. Congress arguably could outlaw the theft of a Hershey kiss from a corner store in Youngstown, Ohio, by a neighborhood juvenile on the basis that the candy once traveled to the store from Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Such an expansion of federal authority would trespass on traditional state police powers. We always have rejected readings of the Commerce Clause and the scope of federal power that would permit Congress to exercise a police power.
While the dissent addresses this case alone, the fact that they issued it may reflect a strong desire to limit the scope of the Commerce Clause across the board. That would likely have an impact on the healthcare case when it reaches the Supreme Court. It may also signal their willingness to strike down acts of Congress that would unquestionably have been found constitutional in the past.
Historically, the Commerce Clause has been one of the most powerful tools that the American people have to impose reasonable regulations on giant corporations — and to hold them accountable when they do wrong. Justices Thomas and Scalia have been reliable supporters of Big Business on the Corporate Court. Any narrowing of the scope of the Commerce Clause needs to be viewed with caution.
Earlier today, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in the Proposition 8 case, unanimously concluding that they do not have enough information to decide if the Proposition 8 proponents have standing to pursue the appeal. Only if they have standing can the Ninth Circuit even consider the merits of the case.
The answer depends on what California state law is, so they have asked the California Supreme Court for guidance. We will have to wait for that court to respond before we learn if the Ninth Circuit will even get to the merits of the case.
If the Ninth Circuit should eventually overturn Proposition 8, we will doubtless hear accusations from the right that the judges pursued a political agenda to get the desired result at the expense of the law. Today’s decision undercuts any such argument. All three judges deferred making a decision until they could address the basic legal question of standing. This is hardly the move of judges with a political agenda and contempt for law.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday that pushing through stalled judicial nominations would be one of the president’s priorities in the last days of the lame duck session of Congress.
People For released a memo last week detailing why it’s important for the Senate to confirm all 38 stalled nominees immediately:
As the end of the 111th Congress approaches, 38 judicial nominees approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee are waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. Many of the nominees have been waiting for months, while a few have been waiting for almost a year.
Of these nominees:
- 21 (55%) have been nominated to fill emergency slots.
- 29(76%) are women or people of color.
- 29 (76%) came out of committee without opposition and an additional 3 came out of committee with significant bipartisan support.
There’s no question that a majority of senators will vote to confirm every one of these nominees, and it’s unlikely that any of them would fail to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles that the GOP has deployed on virtually every function the Senate has performed since President Obama took office. (This is doubly true considering that many members of the GOP have publicly asserted that filibusters of judicial nominees aren’t just wrong, but actually unconstitutional.)
Now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems to be offering Democrats a devil’s bargain: confirm a number of the nominees that don’t have any opposition at all, but send the rest back to the White House at the end of the Congress. The group being sent back to the White House will almost certainly include four of the eminently qualified – and mainstream -- nominees who have had the misfortune of being tagged as “controversial” by Republicans:
- Rhode Island nominee John McConnell, who has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce for his willingness to represent victims of lead paint poisoning.
- Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to prevent his reelection.
- U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen, who has been attacked for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.
- And then, of course, Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page has pointed out, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.
Senator Reid and his colleagues should call Senator McConnell’s bluff and start holding cloture votes on these nominees. The process will take time, but adding time to the calendar is entirely within the Democratic leadership’s purview. By confirming McConnell, Butler, Chen, and Liu, Senators can make clear that they will fight the unprecedented and enormously damaging obstruction of highly qualified judicial nominees. Walking away from these nominees delivers the confirmation process to the GOP: they’ll effectively block confirmable jurists without even having to go on record with their obstruction.
President Bush worked hard to pack the courts with far-right, Federalist Society judges. Confirming Obama’s picks will not only fill vacancies causing judicial emergencies and add much-needed diversity to the federal bench, it will prevent the federal bench from continuing to be dominated by Bush’s far-right appointments.
Earlier today, the Supreme Court accepted a high-profile case that will likely have a substantial impact on employees all over the country. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, is being sued for unlawfully discriminating against its women employees. It is a class-action suit on behalf of the corporate giant's 1.5 million women employees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the case could proceed as a class action.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear Wal-Mart's appeal. As the Washington Post reports:
[The Court] will be looking at the question of whether a single suit is proper when alleging charges of pay discrimination and lack of promotions spread across thousands of stores in every region of the country. ...
Business groups say certification of a class action puts enormous pressure on a company to settle regardless of whether the charges can be proved, because of the cost of the litigation and the potential award at stake. In the case of Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, the amount could be billions of dollars.
But civil rights groups say class-actions are the most effective way of making sure a business ends discriminatory practices and pays a price for its actions.
Large corporations, with resources dwarfing those available to the average individual, clearly benefit when their victims are unable to pool resources through a class action. Indeed, this is not the only case this term where the Supreme Court is being asked to dismantle this vital tool, one that has proved time and again to be the only way to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable.
We will learn this spring whether the Roberts Court will continue its trend of twisting the law in order to benefit powerful corporations over the rights of individuals.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has just begun hearing an appeal of the decision that struck down California’s gay marriage ban. The court will be considering the legal arguments laid out by Judge Vaughn Walker in his decision to strike down Prop 8 in August. As it does so, the Court will rely on the substantial factual record that Judge Walker gathered in the original trial—much of which demolishes the “facts” presented by anti-gay activists.
You can watch the proceedings live here:
...and follow the Constitutional Accountability Center’s live blog at the Huffington Post.
Whatever the Ninth Circuit decides, the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court. Back in August, People For’s Michael Keegan wrote about the stakes involved for the Right:
For years, the Right has watched its anti-gay agenda lose credibility as public acceptance of gays and lesbians has steadily grown and intolerance has declined. And that trend is going strong, as young people of all political stripes are more likely to know gay people and more willing to grant them equal rights and opportunities, including the right to marriage. A CNN poll this month found that a majority of Americans think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry--the first time gay marriage dissenters had slipped solidly into the minority in a national poll. Even in California, where Proposition 8 passed on the ballot in 2008, a poll earlier this year found a majority now support same sex marriage rights. Indeed, this change is even visible on the Right, where the fight against equality is being waged by an increasingly marginalized movement. Who would have ever thought that Ann Coulter would be booted from a right-wing conference for being "too gay friendly"?
Of course, basic human rights should never be decided by majority vote--they are guaranteed by the Constitution. But, on the issue of gay rights, the Right Wing now finds itself up against both the Constitution and the will of a steadily increasing majority.
Add another set of voices to the growing chorus of Americans fed up with Republican leaders' unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominations: Federal judges nominated by Republican presidents. According to ThinkProgress:
[Last] week, seven Republican-appointed federal judges co-signed a letter warning of the consequences of the GOP's systematic obstruction of President Obama's judges. The letter [is] from the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit, which includes Republican appointees Alex Kozinski, Ralph Beistline, Vaughn Walker, Irma Gonzales, Frances Marie Tydingco-Gatewood, Richard Frank Cebull, [and] Lonny Ray Suko[.]
The letter states:
In order to do our work, and serve the public as Congress expects us to serve it, we need the resources to carry out our mission. While there are many areas of serious need, we write today to emphasize our desperate need for judges. Our need in that regard has been amply documented ... Courts cannot do their work if authorized judicial positions remain vacant.
While we could certainly use more judges, and hope that Congress will soon approve the additional judgeships requested by the Judicial Conference, we would be greatly assisted if our judicial vacancies - some of which have been open for several years and declared "judicial emergencies" - were to be filled promptly. We respectfully request that the Senate act on judicial nominees without delay.
Americans want a government that works. Why don't Senate Republican leaders agree?
The Blog of the Legal Times is reporting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning to call Senate Republicans on their obstruction of judicial nominees and break the gridlock that has kept four of these nominees pending, in some cases for over a year. Reid will attempt to stop the Republican filibuster of Ninth Circuit nominees Goodwin Liu and Edward Chen, Rhode Island District Court nominee John McConnell, and Wisconsin District nominee Louis Butler.
This is a critical moment for these nominees, who despite support from their home-state senators and endorsements across the ideological spectrum, have for various reasons been branded as “too extreme” by obstructionist Republicans in the Senate. McConnell has been up against an expensive lobbying campaign from the Chamber of Commerce, which objects to his work as a public interest lawyer representing victims of lead paint poisoning. Butler has been up against business interests who don’t think he was friendly enough to them when he was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chen was accused by Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee of having an apparently disqualifying “ACLU chromosome.”
Liu’s nomination has been the subject of the most partisan squabbling. Liu’s main obstacle, it seems, has been his own brilliance: some on the Right worry that if he makes it on to the bench, he could eventually become a Supreme Court nominee. But Liu’s nomination is backed by legal luminaries from across the ideological spectrum, including former Bush White House lawyer Richard Painter, who today wrote another plea for the Senate GOP to break the judicial gridlock and at least take a vote on Liu’s nomination:
In any event, nominees who should not be controversial, including Goodwin Liu (I have made previous posts here on his nomination), are described as radical activists, the same tactic that advocacy groups deployed to mischaracterize many of President Bush’s nominees.
Public opinion of Members of Congress (both parties) these days is lower, far lower, than it was in the days when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge used just the right term to describe what he saw going on when Senators filibustered legislation. Those of us who care about the future of the judiciary should make it clear that the delay must stop.
This does not mean the Senators should vote "yes". They can vote "no". But they should vote.
Specific nominations aside, the federal judicial system in general has taken a drubbing under the Senate GOP’s refusal to confirm nominees. A new report from the Alliance for Justice has found that the number of vacancies in the federal judiciary has nearly doubled since President Obama took office, and that the number of open seats designated as “judicial emergencies” has risen from 20 to 50, affecting 30 states.
Confirmation votes will become much more difficult next year, with Democrats hanging on to a much slimmer majority in the Senate. Now’s the time to push through the nominees whom the GOP has been the most eager to obstruct.
The Supreme Court today declined to reverse a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that let the military continue to discriminate against gay and lesbian servicemembers while the legal battle against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell continues. The ban on openly gay Americans serving in the military was stopped temporarily after a federal judge in California ruled the policy unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit demanded that enforcement continue while the case makes its way through the court system.
The high court’s decision makes it even more urgent for Congress to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell during this years's lame duck session. With a strong Republican majority in the House next year—including many new members who are not at all open to LGBT equality—there will be little hope for legislative repeal.
In the meantime, the vast majority of Americans, across party lines, continue to oppose Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. One of these Americans is Cindy McCain, whose husband John McCain is the leading the Senate effort to keep the discriminatory policy in place. Watch the video Cindy McCain made for the anti-bullying group NO H8, in which she slams Dont Ask Dont Tell: "Our government treats the LGBT community like second class citizens, why shouldn't [bullies]?"
Corporate interests already exercise an inordinate level of control over Americans' daily lives. This morning, in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that threatens to give yet another advantage to powerful corporations over individual Americans. AT&T is essentially asking the Court to take a wrecking ball to state consumer protection laws.
At issue is whether states have the right to protect consumers from contracts that are so unfair as to be unconscionable - where one party has so much bargaining power over the other that the weaker one has little choice but to agree to highly disadvantageous terms.
This case started when AT&T offered phone purchasers a "free" second phone, then charged the consumers for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the "free" phone. AT&T allegedly pulled this scam on thousands of its customers. One of its victims, the Concepcions, brought a class action suit against AT&T. However, AT&T had a service contract where consumers had to agree to resolve any future claims against the cell phone company through arbitration, rather than the courts. In addition, customers had to agree not to participate in any class action against AT&T. So AT&T asked the court to enforce the agreement it had imposed upon the Concepcions by throwing out the class action suit and forcing them into arbitration, one lone family against AT&T without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.
However, the court denied AT&T's motion, determining that the "no class action" contractual provision was unconscionable under California law and, therefore, not enforceable. Moreover, the court rejected AT&T's claim that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts state law in this case, making the contract fully enforceable against the Concepcions. (The Federal Arbitration Act generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.) The Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court decision. However, hoping to get a different result from the corporate-friendly Roberts Court, AT&T appealed.
As countless Americans can attest, it is not at all uncommon for a giant telecommunications service provider to provide extremely complex monthly bills that are nearly impossible for the average person to understand. It is certainly not unheard of for such bills to hide relatively small charges for services never ordered, or mysterious taxes or fees that the company should not be charging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are cheated in these situations don't even realize it. Moreover, because the amounts at issue are relatively little, there is little incentive for consumers to undertake the significant expenses of recovering their loss. Even when the company pays out to the tiny percentage of defrauded customers who go to the trouble to engage in lone arbitration against the company, the overall scheme remains profitable.
Class actions are a tool that allows the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible a potentially significant financial loss to the company that sets out to defraud its customers. If the Supreme Court rules for AT&T, it will devastate state-level consumer protections and essentially grant a permission slip for rampant corporate fraud against consumers.
As the Alliance For Justice points out in its excellent analysis of this case, it is not only consumer protections that are at risk should AT&T win this case. Class action suits have often been the only way for employees experiencing illegal discrimination to contest it without spending vast amounts of money and risking retaliation. Depending on how the Roberts Court rules, it may enable employers to easily cut off this avenue of anti-discrimination enforcement by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration, with a ban on class action.
As described in People For the American Way Foundation’s Rise of the Corporate Court report, the Roberts Court has not been shy in twisting the law in order to rule in favor of corporations and against average Americans. AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion may turn out to be another gift of power to the already-powerful.
The Supreme Court today agreed to decide if former Attorney General John Ashcroft can be personally sued for alleged abuse of his authority in the days after 9/11 attacks. According to Bloomberg News:
The U.S. Supreme Court will consider reinforcing the legal immunity of top government officials, agreeing to decide whether a man can sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft after being detained without charge for 16 days.
The justices will review a ruling that allowed a suit filed by Abdullah al-Kidd, a Muslim U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2003 and held as a material witness in a terrorism probe. Al- Kidd says the government classified him as a material witness because it lacked enough evidence to hold him as a suspect.
A panel of the Ninth Circuit held that Ashcroft was not immune from being sued personally for the illegal abuse of authority that was the subject of al-Kidd’s claim. Ashcroft, with the support of the Obama Administration, asked the Supreme Court to reverse this decision and not allow the lawsuit to go forward. In his brief urging the Supreme Court not to hear Ashcroft’s appeal, al-Kidd claims that:
The impetus for arresting [him and other] individuals was not to secure their testimony for a criminal proceeding. Rather, these were individuals whom the government viewed as suspects and wished to detain and investigate. But because the government lacked probable cause to arrest these individuals on criminal charges, it had them arrested as material witnesses, thereby circumventing the Fourth Amendment’s traditional probable cause standard and distorting the basic purpose of the material witness statute.
The Court will likely hear arguments in the case next year and issue an opinion by summer. Justice Kagan has recused herself.
This case is a reminder that in the weeks and months after 9/11, innocent people were being rounded up by the federal government with little to no evidence against them. With Bush’s popularity at its height and few willing to oppose him and his administration publicly, People For the American Way Foundation led the nation in exposing and condemning the Ashcroft Justice Department’s multifaceted threats to liberty.
It will be interesting to see if all of those Tea Partiers who claim to oppose big government encroaching on individual liberties will take a stand against the excesses of the Bush years - and explain why they were silent at the time.
The Senate Judiciary Committee this morning voted to approve seven federal judicial nominees. Four of these nominees are Judiciary Committee pros by now—they’ve already been approved by the committee, but were blocked by Senate Republicans, and had to start the nomination process all over again. Two are going through the process for the third time.
So what high ground is the GOP standing on in their months long blocking of these four nominees and insistence on holding the same debate multiple times?
Not to mention the record of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to stop his reelection.
Then there’s the outrage against U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.
And then, of course, there’s the all-out battle against Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page points out today, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.
And these are just the nominees to which the GOP has been able to articulate some sort of objection. There are now 23 nominees waiting for votes on the Senate floor--17 of them made it through the Judiciary Committee without the objection of a single Republican.
Witness the trademark efficiency of the Party of No.
As the Senate prepares to vote this week on the Supreme Court confirmation of Elena Kagan, there is also reportedly a deal in the works to finally confirm dozens of the executive branch and judicial nominees who have been waiting—many of them for months—for votes on the Senate floor.
After seeing only two nominees confirmed during July, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are discussing terms for advancing at least some of the 84 nominations awaiting floor votes, aides said Monday. “We have a number of nominations that we’re looking at,” said Reid.
But some of the more controversial nominees are unlikely to be confirmed before the Senate returns in mid-September, if then. That may tempt Obama to use recess appointments to fill those vacancies at least temporarily — unless the White House agrees to pass up the opportunity to make recess appointments in exchange for Senate action on some nominees this week.
It’s about time that the Senate gets around to clearing the nominations backlog. But voting on nominees that were reported months ago without any opposition is no great concession by the Republican minority. It’s time to end the charade and the gamesmanship.
Take for example North Carolina judge Albert Wynn, whose nomination to fill a long-vacant seat on the Fourt Circuit Court of Appeals was approved by the Judiciary Committee in an 18-1 vote six months ago, and has been held up by GOP leadership ever since. David Savage at the Los Angeles Times describes the holdup of Wynn’s nomination as part of a political battle similar to “an old family feud”:
The GOP leader had no objection to Wynn. Instead, he said, he was getting back at Democrats who had blocked President George W. Bush's nominees to the same court. "My perspective on the 4th Circuit covers a little longer period of time," McConnell said.
The Senate's dispute over judicial nominees resembles a family feud that stretches over several generations. Judges are being opposed not because of their records, but because of what happened several years earlier to other nominees. Use of the filibuster rule, which the GOP had insisted was unconstitutional several years ago, has become a routine stalling tactic.
If confirmed, Wynn would fill a North Carolina seat on the 4th Circuit that has been vacant since 1994.
Let’s have a vote on James Wynn. Or let’s have a vote on Jane Stranch of Tennessee, nominated to fill a seat on the Sixth Circuit, who has the support of both of her home state Republican Senators. And let’s have a vote on Goodwin Liu, nominated for a seat on the Ninth Circuit, who has endorsements from across the ideological spectrum, including Clint Bolick and Ken Starr.
The debate over judicial nominations has become not about qualifications or the law, or about the urgent needs of the justice system, but about political game-playing. It’s great that the GOP has finally agreed to confirm some nominees who they never objected to in the first place. Maybe now they can move on to having a substantive debate on those, like Wynn, Stranch, and Liu, against whom they continue to use every passive-aggressive rule of Senate procedure.
On Monday, People For the American Way Foundation signed on to an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision to enforce a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that imposes a greater residency requirement for unmarried citizen fathers to transfer citizenship to their children born abroad than on unmarried citizen mothers.
The statute permits unmarried citizen fathers to transmit citizenship only if they have lived in the U.S. prior to the child’s birth for ten years, five of them after the age of 14. Mothers, on the other hand, are only required to have lived in the U.S. for just one year prior to the child’s birth. The petitioner’s father was 16 when his son was born, making it impossible for him to meet the requirement of five years of residency after age 14. Mr. Flores-Villar filed suit on the grounds that the law violates the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause.
PFAWF’s brief, authored by the National Womens’ Law Center, argues that such gender-based discrimination perpetuates the old stereotype that unwed fathers have less meaningful relationships with their children than do unwed mothers, and the Supreme Court has rejected the use of such stereotypes in justifying gender-based classifications. The classifications also do nothing to further the government’s stated objective of encouraging parent-child relationships, and in countries where citizenship is derived from the father, would render stateless the children of fathers who cannot meet the requirements.
If the Supreme Court were to uphold the Ninth Circuit’s decision, it would be ignoring over 30 years of Equal Protection jurisprudence to enforce a discriminatory law that perpetuates outdated stereotypes and is harmful to family relationships.
In yet another decision highlighting the Roberts Court's tendency to favor corporations over individual citizens, the Supreme Court on Monday made it more difficult for employees and consumers challenging their contracts to seek justice in court.
In Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, Antonio Jackson filed suit in a Nevada federal district court against his employer, Rent-A-Center, claiming that he had suffered racial discrimination and retaliation. Rent-A-Center tried to dismiss the lawsuit and force Jackson to move the dispute to arbitration, as was required by Jackson’s employment contract. The district court agreed with the company, but the Ninth Circuit court reversed, holding that when a person opposing arbitration claims that he or she could not have meaningfully consented to the agreement, the question of whether the original contract was fair must be decided by a court.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit's ruling, saying that Mr. Jackson failed to specifically challenge the arbitration provision in the agreement that requires challenges to the validity of the entire agreement to also be decided by an arbitrator. Previously, if an employee challenged certain aspects of a contract that included a binding arbitration clause but not necessarily the arbitration clause itself, the dispute would go to the arbitrators. However, the Court's decision expanded upon that to hold that even if an employee argues that the entire contract – including the arbitration clause – was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable, that person is still denied access to the courts unless he specifically and separately challenged the arbitration clause. In other words, arguing that the entire contract is illegitimate is not enough.
Treated as contracts, arbitration clauses waive one’s rights to go to court, meaning that any disputes must instead be settled through private arbitration. Often built into the fine print of a contract, these clauses are very common in the consumer context and usually there is little choice but to sign or not sign the contract. Most people at some point or another will become bound to an agreement with an arbitration clause, perhaps as part of a cell phone contract, a health insurance plan, or an employment contract. Although they are ostensibly for the benefit of both parties, they are primarily drafted to protect companies from litigation, as it is often too expensive for a claimant to even initiate the arbitration proceedings, much less pay the arbitrator’s hourly fees. In a telling signal of what a majority of the Court today thinks about these practical obstacles for ordinary Americans, Justice Scalia, in oral arguments, dismissed people who sign arbitration agreements as “stupid.”
Forced arbitration is an increasing problem as these clauses become standard parts of everyday contracts, but they are particularly troubling in civil rights cases such as this one. Mr. Jackson’s claim that his employer discriminated against him based on his race was brought under section 1981 of the Civil Rights Acts – legislation that was passed specifically to ensure that victims of such discrimination would have access to the federal courts. Instead, because Mr. Jackson signed an employment agreement - an agreement that he had little choice but to sign if he wanted the job - he is now precluded from asserting a violation of those rights and seeking justice in court.
As confirmed in Justice Stevens’ dissent, neither party even asked the Court for such a heightened standard of pleading, showing how once again, the Roberts Court is going out of its way to protect corporations and prevent real citizens - workers and consumers - from being able to access the federal courts.