stare decisis

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.”

PFAW

Justice Alito: Words v. Actions [VIDEO]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

Republican Senators Make Threats on Judges, Try to Force "Bipartisanship" at Gunpoint

From Poltico:

President Barack Obama should fill vacant spots on the federal bench with former President Bush's judicial nominees to help avoid another huge fight over the judiciary, all 41 Senate Republicans said Monday.

...

"Regretfully, if we are not consulted on, and approve of, a nominee from our states, the Republican Conference will be unable to support moving forward on that nominee," the letter warns. "And we will act to preserve this principle and the rights of our colleagues if it is not."

In other words, Republicans are threatening a filibuster of judges if they're not happy.

The letter talks about "bipartisanship" and, separate from the letter, several Republicans have been warning the president for some time against nominating "far left judges." But for all this talk about "bipartisanship" and throwing terms around like "far-left judges," what do they really mean?

Does bipartisanship mean nominating half right-wing judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and don't believe in the Constitution's promise of equal rights under the law; half who agree that the Constitution makes certain guarantees in terms of people's rights and liberties and that it gives the government the authority and the responsibility to protect those rights, not undermine them?

Or does it mean that all of the president's judicial nominees must be "moderates," and if so, what is their definition of "moderate?" Is a moderate someone who is respectful of fundamental constitutional rights and principles like privacy, equality, the right to choose and checks and balances… as long as they are pro-corporate? We already have a Supreme Court that is overwhelmingly pro-business, much more so than many precious Courts, including the four supposedly "liberal" Justices.

Of course that's probably not the case (not that the president should feel compelled to nominate judges with a corporate-friendly bent anyway, especially now that we are in the middle of the havoc wreaked by corporate greed and excess, but I digress).

When it comes to this issue, what they really care about is pleasing their base. And when it comes to their base, the ONLY judges who are acceptable are extreme right-wing ideologues. So any actual "moderate," mainstream judges of course will be rejected -- and they will be cast as "far-left."

The Right sees the Judicial Branch in very black and white terms. They have accused the Democrats of having a litmus test on judges when it comes to Roe v. Wade. But that was obviously proven wrong by the fact that both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were confirmed even though they both, according to many experts, would vote to overturn Roe. No, it's the Right that has strict litmus tests on everything from Roe v. Wade and gay rights to free speech, the separation of church and state and, yes, how "business-friendly" a judge may be. Their base demands it! And Republican Senators -- even the so-called moderates like Snowe, Collins and Specter -- are unified on this one.

The judicial philosophies of the jurists respected by the Right are defined by extremism -- plain and simple. It's one thing for a judge to find legal exception with the way a certain case was decided (even if that decision protects a fundamental right, like Roe v. Wade), but quite another to subscribe to theories and views that fly in the face of mainstream judicial thought like:

  • "Constitution in Exile," which takes an extreme and limited view of the Commerce Clause and basically states that the regulatory policies of the New Deal were unconstitutional... and a huge number of policies and Supreme Court decisions going back nearly a hundred years, including civil rights protections, are unconstitutional as well. (Opinions expressed by Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia support "restoring the lost constitution.")
     
  • "Unitary Executive Theory," which has been used to justify insanely expansive views of executive power that defy the most commonsense understanding of our founding principles relating to checks and balances and a limited executive (remember, our founders were breaking from a monarchy - they obviously didn't want to create another one). The Bush administration exploited this theory over and over again its now infamous abuses of executive power.; and
     
  • a blatant disregard for the bedrock judicial principle of stare decisis (which Justice Clarence Thomas is said, even by Justice Scalia, to show).  

This is par for the course for right-wing judges. While those of us on the progressive side are not devoid of ideology, and are proud to have our own ideology when it comes to the Constitution and the law, the Right is by far more ideological and Republicans need to be called out for doing the Far Right's bidding once again.
 
President Obama and the Senate Democrats should challenge these Republican Senators to define their terms more specifically -- to tell them and the country EXACTLY what they mean by "bipartisanship" in this case and what they would consider acceptable or "moderate" nominees.  And the president should reject the GOP's attempt to force bipartisanship at gunpoint, by making threats and trying to use coercion to get him to appease their base on judges.

PFAW