roberts court

Resurrecting Lochner

Right-wing columnist George Will has a column this morning filled with deception and misdirection on the Supreme Court's infamous Lochner decision. Lochner was the decision in which arch-conservative Supreme Court Justices struck down New York's law setting a maximum work week for bakers (six days a week, ten hours a day).

Because of their much greater economic power, employers in New York had been able to compel employees to agree to terrible working conditions. The Lochner Court, seeking a way to impose its own economic and social policies, decided that the law violated the individual baker's constitutional right to freely contract his labor. As manipulated by these Justices, the Constitution enshrined the "right" of the powerless individual to remain powerless in the face of oppression.

Lochner has come to represent the far-right Court's use of the Constitution to impose its own preferred economic and policy goals. The Lochner era saw the Court strike down laws limiting child labor, setting a minimum wage and protecting union rights, all in the name of the Constitution.

Such wild judicial activism has been thoroughly discredited since the 1930s. But as the Roberts Court increasingly chooses to legislate from the bench to protect Big Business, forces of the Right are going so far as to seek to resurrect Lochner. Will writes that

Since the New Deal, courts have stopped defending liberty of contract and other unenumerated rights grounded in America's natural rights tradition. These are referred to by the Ninth Amendment, which explicitly protects unenumerated rights "retained by the people," and by the "privileges or immunities" and "liberty" cited in the 14th Amendment.

Reading that, you would never know that it is conservatives and not liberals who for decades have tossed the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments in the trash heap by claiming that if a right is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, then it does not exist. Conservatives have heaped scorn on the idea that the Constitution protects the right to privacy. How many times have they said that the word "abortion" doesn't appear in the Constitution, as if that was at all relevant?

And the idea that the Supreme Court has "stopped defending the liberty of contract" is absurd. What it has done is stop misusing the liberty of contract to strike down consumer and employee protections.

During the First Gilded Age of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American society had evolved significantly from our nation's founding. With the unprecedented consolidation of wealth, large corporations and their owners and managers dwarfed individuals in power in a way that our nation had never seen before. In addition, we were changing from an agricultural nation of independent farmers and small merchants into an industrial nation where millions of people began to rely on wage labor with vastly more powerful employers for survival.

Fortunately, the Constitution protects individuals from enthrallment to the powerful, whether it is a government or a private actor holding the whip. In the latter case, it empowers Americans to consolidate our power – through government – to accomplish that which individuals cannot do, including countering the otherwise unbridled power that economic forces have granted to some.

The corporate-funded Tea Party movement is perhaps the most visible effort to discredit the idea that Americans have the constitutional right to prevent giant corporations from oppressing workers, destroying the environment, and endangering consumers at will. The Constitution is not a tool to be wielded against Americans in the service of a developing and growing plutocracy; it's a shield to ensure all Americans have equal rights and protections under the law.

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Today's Supreme Court: Not Since the Gilded Age

There was once a Monty Python sketch about Dennis Moore, a confused Robin Hood wannabe who steals from the poor and gives to the rich. Minus the laugh track, that more and more seems to be the mission of the Corporate Court. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne has a terrific column on this: "The Supreme Court's Continuing Defense of the Powerful."

The United States Supreme Court now sees its central task as comforting the already comfortable and afflicting those already afflicted.

If you are a large corporation or a political candidate backed by lots of private money, be assured that the court's conservative majority will be there for you, solicitous of your needs and ready to swat away those pesky little people who dare to contest your power.

After discussing some of the outrages of the arch-conservative majority, Dionne writes:

[P]ay heed to how this conservative court majority bristles at nearly every effort to give the less wealthy and less powerful an opportunity to prevail, whether at the ballot box or in the courtroom. Not since the Gilded Age has a Supreme Court been so determined to strengthen the hand of corporations and the wealthy.

People For the American Way Foundation recently submitted testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee analyzing the ominous pro-corporate tilt of the Roberts Court in the term that just ended.

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Chamber's Influence on Corporate Court Examined

In the term that ended Monday, the Roberts Court continued its disturbing trend of removing the legal protections that are often the only way that individuals can avoid becoming victimized by giant corporations that dwarf them in size, wealth, and power. The Chamber of Commerce not only has been working to make this development happen, it has taken credit for it. As reported in Roll Call:

The liberal Constitutional Accountability Center released a report Tuesday pointing out the increasing philosophical alignment between the chamber and the Supreme Court.

The current court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has sided with the chamber's position on business cases 65 percent of the time, more than it did under any previous chief justice.

"The chamber is having a great deal of success in helping to shape the docket of cases that the Supreme Court hears and then having a lot of success in winning the cases," said Doug Kendall, a lead author of the report.

...

[T]he chamber has encouraged the notion that it is somehow influencing justices.

On the [Chamber's] litigation center's website, the group highlights a quote from Carter G. Phillips, a partner at Sidley Austin who often represents the chamber in the Supreme Court.

"Except for the solicitor general representing the United States, no single entity has more influence on what cases the Supreme Court decides and how it decides them than the National Chamber Litigation Center," he said.

You can read more about the Constitutional Accountability Center's report here.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Exposes the Corporate Court

The Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing this morning looking into the disturbing trend of the Roberts Court to shut down people’s access to justice when they go to court to vindicate their rights against large corporations.

The hearing was on Barriers to Justice and Accountability: How the Supreme Court's Recent Rulings Will Affect Corporate Behavior. Chairman Leahy opened the hearing discussing how recent Supreme Court cases are making it harder for working Americans to get their day in court. He expressed particular concern about three cases:

  • Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which will make it harder to hold big companies accountable when they violate civil rights laws;
  • Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, which shielded from accountability those who knowingly committed securities fraud; and
  • AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which prevents victims of consumer fraud from the protections of jury trials and class actions.

The committee invited four distinguished people to address the issue: Betty Dukes (plaintiff in the sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart) was the one panelist who was also a party to one of the cases being discussed. She spoke poignantly about her experience at Wal-Mart and the fear that so many women have of going against their employer, especially one as powerful as Wal-Mart. She promised to continue her fight, but knows that without a national class action, many women will be intimidated into not litigating.

Andrew J. Pincus (a Washington lawyer who has argued many cases before the Court) and Robert Alt (from the Heritage Foundation) denied that the Court was tilting unfairly to favor corporations, argued that the cases were decided rightly, and stated that the Court was simply upholding existing law. In contrast, Melissa Hart (law professor at the University of Colorado) and James Cox (law professor at Duke) took the position that the Court is wrongly shielding wrongdoers from accountability.

Professor Hart correctly characterized as a policy decision the Roberts Court's tendency to interpret procedural law so restrictively, despite congressional intent otherwise, so that Americans become unable to present their case to an impartial court.

Senator Whitehouse discussed the critical role juries play in American government. He noted that juries are mentioned three times in the Constitution, and that they remain a government institution that Big Business cannot corrupt. For years, the far right has been denigrating "trial lawyers" and "runaway juries" in an effort to keep Americans from being able to hold the powerful accountable. Whitehouse argued that the Roberts Court is acting consistently with that pattern.

People For the American Way Foundation submitted testimony to the committee on how the Roberts Court has removed substantive and procedural protections that are the only way that individuals can avoid becoming victimized by giant corporations that dwarf them in size, wealth, and power. These decisions often provide road maps to corporate interests in how to avoid accountability for harm that they do. The constitutional design empowering individuals to consolidate their power against corporations is slowly being eroded by a fiercely ideological Court. Today's hearing is part of an effort to expose the harm that is being done.

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Don’t Speak: The Supreme Court’s New Theory of Free Speech in Elections

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they want to influence elections. Yesterday, the Court ruled that wealthy candidates and campaign donors have the First Amendment right not to have their spending matched by their opponents.

Welcome to the new logic of free speech in elections.

In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that a crucial provision of Arizona’s landmark clean elections law, which provides matching funds to publicly financed candidates who are up against particularly well-financed opponents, to be unconstitutional. Why? Because the provision to put publicly financed candidates on even footing with their privately financed opponents “chills” the speech of wealthy individuals and groups who want to pour money into elections.

Yes, if you’re a wealthy person or interest group looking to buy an impact in an election, you might be put off by knowing that, because of matching funds, you would never be able to overwhelm a publicly funded opponent into comparative silence. But, looking at it from the other side, if you’re a candidate who wants to spend your campaign talking to voters rather than donors, you might hesitate to take public financing if you knew you would never be able to even come close the funds of your opponent – without matching funds, the public financing system is all but useless. By taking away the mechanism by which a greater number of candidates can make their voices heard, the Court has stifled speech, rather than protected it.

Justice Elena Kagan, in a zinger-laden dissent, took on the majority’s “more speech is less speech” argument:

The First Amendment's core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate. Nothing in Arizona's anticorruption statute, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, violates this constitutional protection. To the contrary, the Act promotes the values underlying both the First Amendment and our entire Constitution by enhancing the "opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people."

People For’s Marge Baker had this to say:

The Roberts Court has once again twisted the Constitution to benefit the wealthy and powerful while leaving ordinary Americans with a diminished voice. Like in Citizens United v. FEC, which prohibited legislatures from limiting corporate spending to influence elections, the Court’s majority has strayed from the text and history of the Constitution in order to prevent citizens from maintaining control over our democracy. The Roberts Court would do well to remember that the Constitution was written to protect democracy for all people, not just the rich and powerful. Today it has ruled not only that the wealthy have a right to spend more but that they have a right that everyone else spend less.


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Roberts Court Strikes Down Medical Privacy Law in Gift to Pharmaceutical Companies

A divided Supreme Court issued two business-friendly decisions today that demonstrate why, under Chief Justice Roberts, it is frequently called the Corporate Court.

In the first of these, Sorrell v. IMS Health, a 6-3 Court (the five usual suspects joined by Justice Sotomayor) struck down a common-sense medical privacy law passed by Vermont. As part of its comprehensive regulation of pharmaceuticals, the state requires pharmacies to retain certain information about prescriptions and the doctors that order them. Knowing that the drug companies would love to take advantage of this information in order to target doctors to sell more of their product, Vermont protected medical privacy by prohibiting the sale to or use of this data by drug companies without the prescribing doctor's authorization.

According to the Roberts Court, the law allows anyone else to use the data for any other purpose and therefore cannot be defended as protecting medical privacy. It therefore characterizes the law as targeting speech based on the identity of the speaker and the content of the message, thereby triggering heightened First Amendment scrutiny (which – surprise, surprise – the privacy protection law fails to meet).

Justice Breyer's dissent recognizes the Vermont law as the standard, commonplace regulation of a commercial enterprise. It doesn't prohibit or require anyone to say anything, to engage in any form of symbolic speech, or to endorse any particular point of view. It simply addresses a problematic abuse of the prescription data. As the dissenters point out, the federal and state governments routinely limit the use of information that is collected in areas subject to their regulation, as pharmaceuticals have been for over 100 years. Surely heightened First Amendment scrutiny should not be triggered by a law that, for instance, prohibits a car dealer from using credit scores it gets for one purpose (to determine if customer is credit-worthy) for another (to search for new customers).

The dissent states that the Court has never before subjected standard, everyday regulation of this sort to heightened First Amendment scrutiny. Yet this is not the first time that arch-conservative ideologues have taken everyday economic regulation and struck it down on the basis of freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights. In fact, the dissenters specifically warn of a return to

the bygone era of Lochner v. New York, in which it was common practice for this Court to strike down economic regulations adopted by a State based on the Court's own notions of the most appropriate means for the State to implement its considered policies.

With Lochner, ideologues routinely struck down consumer and worker protection laws as violating the Due Process Clause so they could impose their own policy preferences. Simply replacing Due Process with Free Speech does not suddenly make this radicalism valid.

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Wal-Mart, Class Action, and Rules Without Remedies

One of the daunting realities of modern life is that we as individuals are confronted by far more powerful corporations. When we want to buy a product, get a job, or seek to hold a large corporation accountable for its misdeeds, our negotiating power is limited by the fact that we are individuals. In contrast, due to its eternal life, its being composed of thousands or even millions of people, and its many state-granted benefits such as limited liability, corporations have consolidated vast resources that would be impossible for any living person attain.

So when that corporation does wrong against individuals – when it engages in a pattern of illegal discrimination, sells defective products, or cheats its customers – the victims often are powerless to hold the corporation accountable unless they, too, can consolidate their resources.

That’s why class actions are so important – and why Big Business keeps asking the Roberts Court to sabotage people’s ability to band together in class actions. Earlier this term, the Corporate Court undercut class actions against consumer fraud in AT&T v. Concepcion. And Monday, it struck out against women employees seeing to hold Wal-Mart accountable for illegal employment discrimination.

Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest private employer. Several women sued the corporate giant on behalf of themselves and similarly situated women around the country - anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million employees. To sue as a class, they would have to show that they have claims typical of the whole group.

So that’s what they did. As Justice Ginsburg’s dissent pointed out, the district court that had certified them as a class had identified systems for promoting in-store employees that were sufficiently similar across regions and stores to conclude that the manner in which these systems affect the class raises issues that are common to all class members. The women showed that Wal-Mart has a national corporate climate infused with invidious bias against women. Wal-Mart’s policy is to have personnel decisions made by local managers, all of whom are products of that toxic corporate climate.

But the conservative majority’s 5-4 opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, went out of its way to overlook that obvious commonality, focusing instead on the differences that will inevitably be present when a corporate giant targets so many people. The Roberts Court accepted Wal-Mart's assertion that the women cannot be designated a class because the representative plaintiffs do not have claims typical of the whole group.

What this 5-4 opinion states is that Wal-Mart is so large – and the discrimination it has allegedly engaged in is so great – that its victims cannot unify as one class to hold the company accountable. Individuals or small groups are much less likely to have the resources to seek justice.

Large corporations may be licking their chops at the opportunities the Roberts Court has opened to them to violate the law. They realize that a rule without a remedy is no rule at all.

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This Time, the Roberts Court Keeps the Courthouse Doors Open

The Roberts Court is notorious for too often seeking excuses to close the courthouse door and keep individuals from vindicating their rights. So yesterday’s unanimous opinions in Bond v. US and Smith v. Bayer were refreshing.

In Bond, the Court ruled that an individual has standing to challenge a federal criminal conviction that she claims violates the Tenth Amendment. That Amendment states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Cited by many Tea Partiers as part of their efforts to diminish federal authority, it goes to the federal structure of our country and the rights of states; it does not directly address the rights of individuals. However, that does not bar individuals from standing to argue that they have been harmed by a congressional act that violates the Tenth Amendment.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision completely and correctly bypassed the substantive issue and remanded it to the lower courts. But regardless of the merits of Bond’s argument, she has the right to make it as someone whose freedom or imprisonment rests on whether the law she is challenging is constitutional.

Smith v. Bayer was similarly a breath of fresh air. The case asked if a federal court that has denied class certification can prohibit a separate West Virginia state court lawsuit seeking class certification in a case that is brought by people who had not been part of the federal lawsuit, but who would have belonged to the federal class had it gone through. A federal law called the Anti-Injunction Act authorizes a federal court to shut down state litigation of a claim or issue that was already presented to and decided by the federal court.

In an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court unanimously pointed out that the federal rules on when you can validly form a class are not necessarily the same as West Virginia’s rules. So the state court was addressing a new legal question, not the one that the federal court had already addressed. In addition, eight of the Justices (all but Justice Thomas) agreed that because the federal class status was denied, Smith was by definition not a party to the federal claim and cannot be bound by it.

While the Supreme Court kept the courthouse doors open in these two cases, there are still cases pending like Wal-Mart where the Corporate Court can do significant damage to people’s ability to hold corporations accountable.

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Roberts Court Upholds Arizona's "Death Penalty" for Companies Hiring Undocumented Immigrants

With Chief Justice Roberts writing an opinion for the conservative majority (or, in parts of the decision, a plurality), the Supreme Court yesterday upheld an Arizona law imposing draconian penalties on employers for hiring undocumented aliens, evading a federal law preempting such state laws.

Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting involves a 2007 Arizona law that punishes employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens by suspending or revoking most of their state licenses. The Chamber of Commerce argued that the law is preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). IRCA prohibits the hiring of undocumented aliens and sets forth procedures employers must follow before hiring someone and the sanctions they will incur for violating the law.

Most importantly, IRCA expressly preempts local and state laws creating sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws).

It is the "licensing and similar laws" clause in the federal law that is crucial in this case, because the draconian punishment set forth in the Arizona law is the suspension and revocation of "licenses," a term defined so broadly in the Arizona statute that it even includes a company's articles of incorporation. Some have called this the "business death sentence."

The Court noted that in dictionary definitions and other statutes, the term "license" can have a very wide definition that includes articles of incorporation. The Court concluded that nothing in the federal law prohibits Arizona from broadly defining the term licenses, so it upholds the state law. However, Justices Breyer and Sotomayor's dissents pointed out that the opinion overlooks how context narrows the definition of a word. As Justice Breyer wrote:

But neither dictionary definitions nor the use of the word "license" in an unrelated statute can demonstrate what scope Congress intended the word "licensing" to have as it used that word in this federal statute. Instead, statutory context must ultimately determine the word's coverage.

Justice Breyer pointed out that IRCA is carefully calibrated to balance multiple competing goals. Arizona's "death penalty" for businesses and lax procedural safeguards throw IRCA's carefully calibrated balance into disarray. Justice Sotomayor explained that the uniform federal plan becomes wildly internally inconsistent if interpreted to allow state-by-state decisions as to whether an employer has hired an undocumented worker.

The Court also upheld Arizona's requiring employers to use the federal E-Verify database to confirm that a person is legally authorized to work. Federal law makes its use voluntary, but the Roberts Court held that means only that no federal agency can make its use mandatory. States are free to require it if they so choose. The fact that it is a pilot program and that Congress actually had reasons not to make its use mandatory seems not to matter.

Federal law mandates a unified federal approach to immigration issues, and comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue. But right-wing efforts in Arizona to attack immigrants on a state-by-state basis today got a green light from the Roberts Court. This may signal that the state's infamous "your papers please" anti-immigrant law may get a welcome reception from the conservative Justices.

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Scalia and Thomas Urge Results-Based Decision

This week, the two most famous arch-conservative Supreme Court Justices openly praised results-based jurisprudence and the legitimacy of bending the law in order to reach the desired result. Coming from Justices who have derided others for allegedly shaping their legal decisions to reach a preferred outcome, this was a jarring example of hypocrisy.

The case of Brown v. Plata involves California's prisons, which are so overcrowded as to violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. A lower court had ordered California to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates in order to remedy the constitutional violation. In a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Kennedy and joined in by the four more progressive Justices, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court order.

The opinion frankly acknowledged that the release of prisoners in large numbers "is a matter of undoubted, grave concern." Nevertheless, after a careful analysis of the law, as well as the state's long history of failing to cure the constitutional violation, the majority concluded that there is simply no other realistic way for California to come into compliance with the United States Constitution.

In their dissent Justices Scalia and Thomas quite frankly acknowledged a fondness for results-based jurisprudence:

There comes before us, now and then, a case whose proper outcome is so clearly indicated by tradition and common sense, that its decision ought to shape the law, rather than vice versa. One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result.

The law does not exist in a vacuum, and there are circumstances in which common sense and fairness dictate how the law should be interpreted. For instance, in the Ledbetter sex discrimination case, the dissenters correctly looked at the consequences of the majority’s cramped interpretation of the law and saw that it was not in line with the law’s purpose of eliminating sex discrimination in the workplace. Justices Scalia and Thomas joined the flawed majority opinion that ignored the real world impact and thereby violated legislative intent.

The jurisprudence of Justices Scalia and Thomas is littered with, to use their term, "outrageous results" – women who can’t sue for ongoing illegal sex discrimination (Ledbetter), parties whose rights are forever lost because they followed a judge’s incorrect instructions (Bowles v. Russell), or a disabled man who had to crawl up two flights of courthouse stairs who they said could not sue to enforce his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Lane v. Tennessee). It sometimes seems that they actually take pride in not caring about the harsh consequences of so many of their decisions. And now Justice Scalia – who once told law students that "[i]f you're going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you're not always going to like the conclusions you reach" – is writing that judges' interpretation of the law should be shaped by the result they want? They should bend the law to reach a foreordained conclusion? The hypocrisy is stunning.

Scalia and Thomas and their arch-conservative colleagues are generally more circumspect when they engage in results-based jurisprudence. For instance, with their votes, the Roberts Court has become notorious for regularly bending the law in order to rule in favor of large corporations, as we saw in Citizens United. But it is nevertheless jarring to see these two Supreme Court Justices openly support blatant results-based jurisprudence.

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The Corporate Court Strikes Again: By 5-4, Supreme Court Undermines Class Action Consumer Protection Suits

Yesterday at the Supreme Court, the five conservative Justices on the Corporate Court handed corporate interests even greater control than before over Americans' daily lives. In AT&T v. Concepcion, a narrow 5-4 majority used a federal arbitration law in a way wholly alien to its intent: to undermine state consumer protection laws across the country. Even worse, under yesterday’s precedent, employers may now be able to easily cut off anti-discrimination enforcement through class action lawsuits – often the only way to address employment discrimination – by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration clauses that contain a ban on class action.

This case started when AT&T allegedly scammed thousands of customers by offering a "free" second phone, then charging them for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the phone. One of its victims brought a class action suit against the company. However, AT&T had a service contract where consumers had to agree to resolve any future claims against the cell phone company through arbitration, rather than the courts. In addition, customers had to agree not to participate in any class action against the telecommunications giant. So AT&T asked the court to enforce the agreement it had imposed upon the Concepcions by throwing out the class action suit and forcing them into arbitration, one lone family against AT&T suing for a few dollars without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.

Under California law, the contractual prohibition against class action is so outrageous as to be illegal. California recognizes that such provisions effectively protect companies from being held liable for their transgressions and that they are able to force them upon consumers only because of the corporations’ vastly superior bargaining position.

But the Roberts Court said this state protection of consumers is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.

Many of us have gotten incomprehensible bills from giant telecom companies with relatively small charges for services never ordered, or mysterious taxes or fees that the company should not be charging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are cheated in these situations don't even realize it. Moreover, because the amounts at issue are relatively small, there is little incentive for consumers to undertake the significant expenses of recovering their loss. Even when the company pays out to the tiny percentage of defrauded customers who go to the trouble to engage in lone arbitration against the company, the overall scheme remains profitable.

That is why class actions are so important. They allow the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible the deterrent effect of a potentially significant financial loss to the deceptive corporation. In ruling for AT&T, the Roberts Court has devastated state-level consumer protections like California’s and essentially given corporations an instruction manual on how to commit rampant fraud against consumers. Beyond that, using the same interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act, employers may be able to evade class-action discrimination lawsuits as well, putting all workers at risk.

Fortunately, unlike Citizens United, this Corporate Court gift to Big Business rests on an interpretation of a statute, not the Constitution. In other words, Congress can fix this problem with a simple bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has already called on Congress to do just that.

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Roberts Court Leaves State’s Church/State Money Laundering Scheme Intact

A closely divided Supreme Court issued a seriously flawed decision today in Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn, using constitutional sleight of hand to get around the Establishment Clause's prohibition against the use of public funds for religious purposes and to frustrate Americans' ability to go to court when the constitutional guarantee of church-state separation is violated.

Here's the background to the case, which involves the state of Arizona's program to support religious schools.

States are constitutionally prohibited from directly supporting religious education. So Arizona figured out a way to try to get around that inconvenient First Amendment by setting up a system where that money goes to the religious organization before it gets to the treasury.

Arizona has a program where taxpayers get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for money they give to "school tuition organizations" (STOs), nonprofit organizations that award private school scholarships to children. Many of the STO awards actually require parents to send their children to religious schools as a condition of receipt.

So an Arizonan can take a certain amount of money that he owes in taxes and instead give it to a religious STO to pay for someone's religious education. As Justice Kagan said during oral arguments, Arizona established the program so STOs, acting as state intermediaries, could "make distinctions that the state itself cannot make."

Essentially, the state has set up a money laundering scheme to get around the Establishment Clause.

However, before the Court could address the program's constitutionality, it first had to determine if the taxpayer plaintiffs have standing to sue. The Constitution prohibits federal courts from hearing a case unless the plaintiff has a personal stake in the outcome. Simply being a taxpayer generally does not give you such a personal stake. However, in the Flast v. Cohen decision of 1968, the Supreme Court recognized that federal taxpayers do have such a stake when they challenge Congressional spending.

The Roberts Court today ignored common sense and the reasoning of Flast and concluded that Arizona state taxpayers don't have standing to bring this case to federal court. As they did in the 2007 Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation case, the five conservatives acted to prevent courts from enforcing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

According to the Roberts Court, there is no government spending here to contest. Instead, it is simply a series of independent spending decisions made by private citizens who are spending their own money, not the government's.

This is constitutional sleight of hand at its worst, which Justice Kagan pointed out in dissent. As she noted, the majority is making an arbitrary distinction between cash grants and targeted tax breaks for the purposes of standing: Either way, the government has financed religious activity, so either way, taxpayers should be able to challenge the subsidy.

Since there are times when no one other than taxpayers has suffered the injury necessary to challenge government sponsorship of religion, the majority opinion "will diminish the Establishment Clause's force and meaning." The dissent continued:

"The Court opinion thus offers a roadmap – more truly, just a one-step instruction – to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge. Structure the funding as a tax expenditure, and Flast will not stand in the way. No taxpayer will have standing to object. However blatantly the government may violate the Establishment Clause, taxpayers cannot gain access to the federal courts."

It is a good day for the religious right, and a bad one for the United States Constitution and the rule of law.

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The Further Marginalization of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

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.

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Will the Supreme Court Close the Door to Civil Rights Lawsuits?

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing hear oral arguments in Fox v. Vice, a case that threatens to choke off future civil rights litigation. People For the American Way Foundation has joined an amicus brief protecting the right of people to sue to protect their basic rights.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit, where the government or a government official is being sued, a trial court can sometimes order the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal fees. The law allows this if (1) the defendant is the prevailing party and (2) the plaintiff's case was frivolous. In Fox v. Vice, the Supreme Court is being asked to interpret this law. The potential exposure to paying a defendant's legal fees serves as an obvious deterrent to bringing suit, and it's important, therefore that it be narrowly construed in order not to violate Congress's intent to empower people to vindicate their rights in the courts.

In this case, Ricky Fox sued the local chief of police, Billy Ray Vice, based on two incidents that took place after both men had announced their competing candidacies for the police chief job. Fox claimed that Vice, the incumbent, sent him an "anonymous" letter attempting to blackmail him into not running for office. The next month, Vice allegedly encouraged someone to file a false police report about Fox.

Fox claimed that these acts violated both federal civil rights laws and state tort laws. The case was before a federal court, and Fox eventually acknowledged that he had no valid federal claim. So the trial court judge dismissed the federal claims and remanded the state civil claims to state court for future adjudication. The judge also ruled that the federal claims had been frivolous, and he ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal fees related to the frivolous claims.

However, because the frivolous and non-frivolous claims were all based on the same set of facts, it was nearly impossible to disentangle legal fees for one from legal fees for the other. So the district court judge classified them all as being for the frivolous federal claims and ordered the plaintiff to pay the entire legal bill. Fox ended up paying the legal fees that will be used by the defendant to oppose Fox's own non-frivolous state court claims still to be litigated. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

If the Supreme Court affirms this decision, it could severely chill civil rights lawsuits. It sets up a standard where plaintiffs risk having to pay all of the defendant's legal fees even if only one of their claims is judged frivolous. To make matters worse, it is very hard to predict what a judge will consider frivolous. Even judges hearing the same case at the same time may differ wildly as to whether it is frivolous. The standard adopted by the lower court would discourage civil rights plaintiffs from pursuing novel legal theories and create a powerful disincentive against filing valid civil rights suits in the first place.

In considering the case, the Supreme Court should be consistent with Congress's intent to encourage meritorious suits and discourage frivolous ones. It should rule that legal fees should not be awarded in federal civil rights cases when a plaintiff's "frivolous" claim is factually intertwined with non-frivolous claims.

The Roberts Court has devised numerous ways to close the courthouse door to innocent people seeking to vindicate their rights. By the end of the Court's term, we will learn whether Fox v. Vice will join cases like Ledbetter v. Goodyear in the Roberts Court's Hall of Shame.

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Bruesewitz v. Wyeth: As Sotomayor Comes Out Strong Against Pro-Corporate Judicial Activism, Scalia May Have Met His Match

There is something wearily predictable about Justice Scalia’s straitjacket reinterpretation of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 (NCVIA) to eliminate the possibility of injured families suing manufacturers for design defects in vaccines. Justice Scalia brings his trademark sleight-of-hand to the task of explaining why the law does not provide for citizens what it obviously does provide and offers his well-developed rhetorical polish and high-minded sarcasm as a way to assure everyone that there is no reasonable alternative to his vigorous rewrite of the law in the interest of corporate immunity. Ah, another federal law, another judicial gloss for the corporations: business-as-usual on the Roberts Court.

What is startling and refreshing about this decision is that Justice Scalia has finally met his match in Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who comes out swinging hard in her powerful dissenting opinion against this aggressive pro-corporate judicial activism and impressionistic rewrite of the statute at hand. It seems that Justice Sotomayor is finding her voice defending popular legislation and democratic rights against the finger-painting and cut-and-paste rewrites of legislation that have become the specialty of free-wheeling conservative Justices.

Consider the numerous hard and effective punches Justice Sotomayor’s throws back at Justice Scalia here, quoting Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the “plain text and structure” of the statute, and the essential canons of statutory construction, to show who the real “judicial activists” are:

She starts off by blowing the whistle on Justice Scalia’s substitution of his political views for those of Congress: “In holding that the . . . Act pre-empts all design defect claims for injuries stemming from vaccines covered under the Act, the Court imposes its bare policy preference over the considered judgment of Congress.”

After a masterful explanation of the Act and why it permits causes of action related to design defects, Justice Sotomayor writes: “In contrast to the interpretation . . . set forth above, the majority’s interpretation does considerable violence to the statutory text, misconstrues the legislative history, and draws the wrong conclusions from the structure of the Vaccine Act . . .”

And, to leave no doubt about what has just taken place to rob the Bruesewitz family--whose daughter suffered more than 100 seizures after being vaccinated with the DTP vaccine made by Lederle Laboratories--of its fair day in court, she concludes that “whatever the merits of the majority’s policy preference, the decision to bar all design defect claims against vaccine manufacturers is one that Congress must make, not this Court.”

It’s good to know that Justice Sotomayor at least has woken up to the fact that we are headed at a high speed right back into a Lochner-era jurisprudence where conservative Justices work overtime to undo progressive legislation and substitute their own authoritarian judgments for democratic decision-making. The combination of this judicial assault on popularly enacted statutes with the decision in the Citizens United case to arm private corporations with political campaign spending rights under the First Amendment makes for a pretty scary polity and economy. We need more judges and Justices like Justice Sotomayor to stand up for democracy and the rule of law.

Jamie Raskin is a Maryland state senator, constitutional law professor at American University's Washington College of Law, and Senior Fellow at People For the American Way.

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Cue the Violins: Inanimate Corporations Have Feelings, Too

On Wednesday, in a case involving the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the nation's corporate giants are asking the Supreme Court to rule that they have a right to "personal privacy" just as people do. If the Corporate Court ignores the ordinary meaning of the term "personal privacy" and grants corporations their wish to have the same rights as people, as in Citizens United, corporations will be able to block the news media and government watchdogs from accessing important government records that corporations would prefer remain hidden.

The case started several years ago, when the FCC investigated alleged overcharges by AT&T. After the investigation, AT&T's competitors filed a FOIA request to get the FCC to release documents on what they had found. The FCC said it would not disclose confidential commercial information about AT&T, pursuant to a specific exemption in the FOIA statute. However, the company argued that certain additional material would cause the company embarrassment and therefore fell into a separate statutory FOIA exemption - Exemption 7(C) - allowing government agencies not to disclose material compiled for law enforcement purposes that would "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

The FCC ruled that Exemption 7(C) does not cover a corporation's "privacy interest," noting that a corporation's interests are of necessity business interests, not privacy ones.

However, the agency was overruled by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that FOIA's statutory language "unambiguously" indicates that a corporation may have a personal privacy interest within the meaning of this FOIA exemption. The court said that:

  • FOIA defines "person" to include a corporation; and
  • the term "personal" is derived from the word "person" and is simply the adjectival form of the word.

Therefore, the court reasoned, corporations have personal privacy under the FOIA exemption. And because this interpretation was unambiguous, the court said statutory purpose, legislative history, and contrary case law from other circuits were not relevant.

Nevertheless, it did devote a footnote apiece to these three factors and claimed they were not inconsistent with its interpretation. For instance:

Finally, the [DC Circuit Court of Appeals] in Washington Post noted that Exemption 7(C) concerns only "intimate" details, including "marital status, legitimacy of children, identity of fathers of children, medical condition, welfare payments, alcoholic consumption, family fights, and reputation." But a corporation, too, has a strong interest in protecting its reputation.

Cue the violins: Inanimate corporations have feelings, too.

Numerous corporate interests, including the Chamber of Commerce, have filed amicus briefs in support of AT&T, arguing that inanimate corporations have "personal privacy."

If the Roberts Court - with Justice Kagan recused - rules in favor of AT&T, it will significantly weaken the ability of news organizations and government watchdogs to examine government records containing vital information about corporate behavior affecting public health and safety – records that would otherwise remain hidden from the American people. In addition, the Court may seize the opportunity to lay the legal groundwork for treating inanimate corporations like people in other respects.

At least before Pinocchio became human, he had to prove himself truthful and unselfish. Here, in contrast, we have profit-seeking entities asking for humanity so they can hide their embarrassing conduct.

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Arlen Specter Denounces Roberts Court, Republican Obstructionism

In his farewell speech, US Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called on Congress to move quickly to counter the burgeoning right-wing extremism of the Roberts Court and the Republican caucus. Specter, who was first elected to the US Senate in 1980 as a Republican, spoke about how the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has shown little respect for their own precedents or congressional fact-finding while pursuing a hard line pro-corporate bent. The increasingly conservative Court has consistently ruled in favor of corporations over the rights of workers and consumers, and the concerns of environmental protection and fair elections. Specter specifically pointed to the Roberts Court’s decision in Citizens United, which gave corporations the right to spend unlimited and undisclosed funds from their general treasuries in elections and overturned decades of Court precedents and congressional measures limiting corporate influence in politics. Specter said:

This Congress should try to stop the Supreme Court from further eroding the constitutional mandate of Separation of Powers. The Supreme Court has been eating Congress’s lunch by invalidating legislation with judicial activism after nominees commit under oath in confirmation proceedings to respect congressional fact finding and precedents, that is stare decisis.

The recent decision in Citizens United is illustrative: ignoring a massive congressional record and reversing recent decisions, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito repudiated their confirmation testimony, given under oath, and provided the key votes to permit corporations and unions to secretly pay for political advertising, thus effectively undermining the basic democratic principle of the power of one person, one vote.

Chief Roberts promised to just “call balls and strikes,” and then he moved the bases.

Specter also blasted Republican obstructionism in the Senate. He said that even though 59 Senators backed ending debate on the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required groups to publicly disclose their donors, the important bill never received an up-or-down vote due to Republican procedural moves:

Repeatedly, senior Republican Senators have recently abandoned long held positions out of fear of losing their seats over a single vote or because of party discipline. With 59 votes for cloture on this side of the aisle, not a single Republican would provide the sixtieth vote for many important legislative initiatives, such as identifying campaign contributors to stop secret contributions.

The Pennsylvanian later criticized the GOP for preventing judicial nominees from also having up-or-down votes:

Important positions are left open for months, but the Senate agenda today is filled with un-acted upon judicial and executive nominees. And many of those judicial nominees are in areas where there is an emergency backlog.

When discussing how Senate Republican leaders, such as Jim DeMint (R-SC), supported ultraconservative candidates against Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Bob Bennett (R-UT), and Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), Specter condemned the GOP’s embrace of “right-wing extremists,” adding: “Eating or defeating your own is a form of sophisticated cannibalism.”

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NY Times Analyzes the Corporate Court

As the latest example of the evolving media narrative of the Roberts Court, Sunday's New York Times had an extensive article accurately titled "Justices Offer Receptive Ear to Business Interests." The Times article discusses the successful long-term efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to get the Court to focus on the rights of Big Business, which come at the cost of the rights of consumers, workers, governments elected by the people, and anyone else who tries to hold corporate giants accountable.

Almost 40 years ago, a Virginia lawyer named Lewis F. Powell Jr. warned that the nation's free enterprise system was under attack. He urged the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to assemble "a highly competent staff of lawyers" and retain outside counsel "of national standing and reputation" to appear before the Supreme Court and advance the interests of American business.

"Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court," he wrote, "the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change."

Mr. Powell ... got his wish - and never more so than with the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The Roberts Court's favoritism toward Big Business has become so blatant as to prompt the Times to commission an in-depth study analyzing Supreme Court cases going back more than half a century. The article finds that:

The Roberts court, which has completed five terms, ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and 42 percent by all courts since 1953. ...

In the first five terms of the Roberts court, the corresponding bloc of five more conservative justices voted for the [U.S. Chamber of Commerce's] position 74 percent of the time, and the four more liberal justices 43 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, the "social, economic, and political change" the U.S. Chamber is so actively working for involves snuffing out the rights of everyday Americans. As made clear from the amicus briefs it has filed this term, the Chamber's values include letting businesses fire family members of any employee who dares assert their rights, devastating state-level consumer protections against fraud, and severely restricting states' ability to take action against corporations' dangerous pollutants. Last term, the Chamber supported the activist Citizens United decision, which has had devastating consequences for American democracy and generated unusual criticism from former Justices O'Connor and Stevens.

When activist pro-business Justices regularly give a sympathetic ear to a national Chamber of Commerce that is hostile to basic American values, the resulting tilt in favor of Big Business is not good for our country.

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The Conservative Assault on the Constitution

Last week, SCOTUSBlog had a podcast interview with legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, discussing his new book The Conservative Assault on the Constitution. The blog has asked Chemerinsky some follow-up questions, and his responses are worth reading.

For instance, he discusses the concept of a living Constitution and the hypocrisy behind the Right's claims of a consistent approach to judging cases.

Q. Within the context of the "conservative assault" you discuss in the book, can you please define the terms "living constitution" and "strict constructionist"?

- Everyone is a strict constructionist in that everyone believes that the text of the Constitution should be followed where it is clear. But the phrase "strict constructionist" was coined by Richard Nixon to refer to something more ideological: Justices who followed the conservative approach to interpreting constitutional provisions. Interestingly, conservatives are not strict constructionists in interpreting the Second Amendment. There conservatives read the Second Amendment as if it simply said "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." They ignore the first half of the Amendment which speaks of the right existing for the purpose of having a well-regulated militia.

A belief in a "living Constitution" rejects the notion that the meaning of a constitutional provision is the same in 2011 as when it was adopted. A living Constitution says that in interpreting the Constitution, Justices and judges should consider history, tradition, precedent, and modern needs. There always has been a living Constitution and hopefully always will be. The opposite of a living Constitution is a dead Constitution and no society can be governed under that.

He also discusses how self-professed conservative "originalists" are selective in when they pay attention to original intent.

Q. You write in your book that "it is clear that conservatives often abandon the original-meaning approach when it does not serve their ideological purposes." Can you please elaborate - perhaps by providing an example or two?

- Affirmative action. I am skeptical that we can ever really know the original intent or meaning for a constitutional provision. But if ever it is clear, it is that the drafters of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to allow race-conscious programs of the sort that today we call affirmative action. The Congress that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment adopted many such programs. Yet originalist Justices, like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, pay no attention to this history in condemning affirmative action. Another example is campaign finance. There is absolutely no indication that the drafters of the First Amendment intended to protect the speech of corporations (that did not occur for the first time until 1978) or spending in election campaigns. But conservative Justices nonetheless find a First Amendment right for corporations to engage in unlimited expenditures in campaigns.

Of course, that is a reference to Citizens United, where the aggressively activist Roberts Court handed our elections over to powerful corporate interests. There is a direct line from that case to the new corporate-friendly gang that will be running the House of Representatives for the next two years.

Who sits on the Court has consequences for us all.

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Evolving Media Narrative of the Roberts Court

More and more Americans have noticed the Roberts Court's habit of twisting the law in order to benefit powerful corporations over the rights of individuals. As recently as a year ago, the national dialogue on the Court rarely touched on this issue. But last January's Citizens United decision was so outrageous that it made people see both the Court's previous decisions and its current work through a new lens. Evolving press coverage reflects the changing paradigm in how Americans view the Supreme Court.

For instance, earlier this week, the Supreme Court announced that it had agreed to hear a case of sex discrimination against Wal-Mart and a separate case involving global climate change. Press coverage recognized the common factor in the Court's decisions to hear these very different and unrelated cases.

The Los Angeles Times wrote:

The Supreme Court announced Monday it will hear two major appeals from corporate America that seek to block mass lawsuits, one involving a huge sex bias claim against Walmart and the other a massive environmental suit that seeks to hold coal-fired power plants liable for causing global warming.

In both cases, the justices agreed to consider stopping these suits before they can move toward a trial.

Monday's move is only the latest sign that the Roberts Court is inclined to rein in big-money lawsuits against business. The conservative justices have been particularly skeptical of sprawling suits that could run on for years and lead to enormous verdicts.

Under a headline reading "Two Supreme Court Cases to Test Corporate Interests," the Washington Post reported:

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear two major challenges brought by corporate interests, ...

In both cases, corporations are challenging decisions by federal appeals courts that the suits can go forward. They come before a court that traditionally has been sympathetic to business interests, but is sensitive about recent criticism from the left that it favors corporations over consumer and environmental groups.

Time wrote:

Two federal courts have ruled that their suit can proceed as a class action on behalf of between 500,000 and 1.5 million women, but on Monday the Supreme Court announced it would review that decision. It looks suspiciously like another case in which the court's conservative majority will twist a procedural rule to prevent victims of discrimination from getting a fair chance at justice

As Jeffrey Toobin observed in the New Yorker this week:

This is the rule in the current Supreme Court. If there is a human being on one side of the "v." and a corporation on the other, the corporation wins.

The Roberts Court is learning that if you look like a duck, walk like a duck, and quack like a duck for long enough, people will eventually realize that you are, indeed, a duck.

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