As Mitt Romney rightly pointed out in December, one of the most important issues riding on the upcoming presidential election will be the future of the federal courts.
Yet, if 2012 is like other election years, the courts will be discussed relatively little by the candidates. That would be a big mistake. Romney has already signaled to the Republican base that he will move the federal courts even farther right than they already are. He named Robert Bork, the judge whose legal views were so extreme his Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate, to lead his “Justice Advisory Committee,” and has said he would seek to nominate judges like those who have made the current Supreme Court the most conservative in decades.
In an editorial this weekend, the New York Times explained how politics has reshaped the courts and the law under the past three Republican administrations. Courts picked by Mitt Romney and Robert Bork would be no exception:
Each party has its program and works to turn it into law. The great example of political change through legal change was the long, methodical effort to whittle away at segregation from within the legal mainstream that culminated in the court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The conservatives’ legal-political strategy draws from Brown, but it is also vastly different in nature and design.
The struggle for school desegregation was waged by and on behalf of oppressed minority groups seeking to make good on the Constitution’s promise of equal rights. They faced strong opposition from the most powerful people in our society, in courts that were not necessarily sympathetic or overtly hostile to their cause. And they fought a long, incremental campaign.
When Lewis Powell Jr. energized conservatives by writing in 1971 that “the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change,” he was himself an incrementalist and expected others to be.
But the conservative legal battles of our modern times are being waged by the most powerful, often against the weak and oppressed. They began with a carefully planned and successful effort to reshape the courts to be sympathetic to conservative causes. They are largely aimed at narrowing rights, not expanding them — except where property and guns are concerned. And beginning with the Reagan administration, conservatives became impatient with the pace of change brought about from within the mainstream. They sought to remake law into a weapon of aggressive action.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 opinion in CompuCredit v. Greenwood, written by Justice Scalia, that will bring cheer to powerful corporations that break the law and leave everyday consumers feeling shell-shocked. It turns out that a congressional requirement that companies tell consumers that they have the "right to sue" really doesn't mean much.
CompuCredit is a "credit-repair company" that marketed a subprime credit card to vulnerable consumers with bad credit. It told them that no deposit was required and that they would get $300 in credit upon issuance of the card. However, in small print separate from the "no deposit" promise, it disclosed that it would charge $185 in fees immediately and $257 in fees over the first year. The customers filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of others who were taken in, saying that CompuCredit violated the federal Credit Repair Organization Act (CROA).
However, CompuCredit had required its customers, as a condition of getting the credit card, to sign away their right to sue in a court of law or to engage in any type of class action, forcing them to agree to one-on-one binding arbitration instead. So the company demanded that the class action suit be thrown out of court, citing an obscure but devastatingly important federal law called the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally requires courts to enforce contracts requiring arbitration agreements unless a specific federal statute says otherwise.
The question was whether CompuCredit had the right to make its customers sign a contract agreeing to arbitration. CROA requires credit providers to specifically tell customers in writing that "you have a right to sue," a requirement that CompuCredit had met. In addition, CROA specifically prohibits any contractual provisions that waive a customer's rights under the statute. So the customers argue that their agreement to forego their right to sue in court is void.
In order to rule for the large company that cheated its vulnerable customers, the six-Justice majority opinion had to turn logic on its head. The five conservatives, joined by Justice Breyer, explained with a straight face that:
[The phrase "right to sue"] is a colloquial method of communicating to consumers that they have the legal right, enforceable in court, to recover damages from credit repair organizations that violate the CROA. We think most consumers would understand it this way, without regard to whether the suit in court has to be preceded by an arbitration proceeding.
Yes, it turns out that everyday people interpret the "right to sue" as including private arbitration. If this bizarre supposition didn't hurt so many innocent people, it would be laughable. At least Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, in their concurrence, recognized that the people the statute was designed to protect might interpret "right to sue" to mean "right to sue in court." Unfortunately, even they felt it was a close call as to whether that's what Congress intended.
Only Justice Ginsburg got this one right. As she wrote in her dissent:
The "right to sue," the [majority] explains, merely connotes the vindication of legal rights, whether in court or before an arbitrator. That reading may be comprehensible to one trained to "think like a lawyer." But Congress enacted the CROA with vulnerable consumers in mind—consumers likely to read the words "right to sue" to mean the right to litigate in court, not the obligation to submit disputes to binding arbitration.
Congress wrote this law for the 99%. Yesterday, the Corporate Court rewrote it for the 1%.
Newt Gingrich put in a remarkable appearance on Face the Nation this weekend. In an interview with Bob Schieffer, the candidate extrapolated on his plan to scrap the constitutional separation of powers in favor of a state where federal judges are routinely intimidated and ignored by Congress and the president.
To summarize, Gingrich’s plan is to allow Congress to order U.S. Marshals to drag judges whose opinions they disagree with before them, and to allow the president to simply ignore court rulings he disagrees with. Here’s a key exchange:
Schieffer: Alright here's another one, this is now. Next year the Supreme Court is going to take up Obama's healthcare proposal. What if they throw it out? Can President Obama then say I'm sorry boys, I'm just going to go ahead and implement it. Could he do that?
Gingrich: The key question is, what would the congress then do? Because there are three branches...
Schieffer: But could he do that?
Gingrich: He could try to do that. And the congress would then cut him off. Here's the key -- it's always two out of three. If the president and the congress say the court is wrong, in the end the court would lose. If the congress and the court say the president is wrong, in the end the president would lose. And if the president and the court agreed, the congress loses. The founding fathers designed the constitution very specifically in a Montesquieu spirit of the laws to have a balance of power not to have a dictatorship by any one of the three branches.
Of course, Republican attorneys general took the Affordable Care Act to the courts precisely because Congress and the president had agreed on it, and the courts were their last resort in the effort to stop the law from taking full effect. That’s how the system is supposed to work. But instead, what Gingrich is advocating is what Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic calls the “Rock, Paper, Scissors Constitution” – where, instead of the careful checks and balances envisioned by the founders, you have a system where two branches of government can always team up to crush the third. The courts have always been an important check on the power of the majority. Gingrich, it seems, couldn’t care less.
People For the American Way senior fellow Jamie Raskin has a new piece in the Huffington post discussing Gingrich’s deeply troubling plans for the judicial branch, and why Mitt Romney may not be much better for the courts. You can read it here.
The choice of a Supreme Court nominee is one of a president's most important roles, one that has an impact on every American for decades. When Americans vote for president, they are also voting for what the Supreme Court will look like. While that has always been the case, several high-profile cases are making unlikely that anyone will overlook the importance of the Court when they cast their vote in 2012. In recent days, the Court announced that it would hear cases on:
As a result, a number of press outlets are out with stories on the Court and the election. The Washington Post's The Fix blog has a headline proclaiming "Supreme Court inserts itself into 2012 election in a major way." Politico reports:
Together, the cases will help shape the national political debate as well as the direction of policy on one of the most contentious issues of the election: the power of the federal government. On immigration, the justices will decide whether the federal government has the right to block state efforts to enforce immigration laws. On health care, the high court will wrestle with the question of whether the national government can require individuals to purchase health insurance.
While the political impact of the high court's entrance into these pivotal cases won't be clear until the justices rule, some analysts believe Obama would benefit from a decision on his health care law, regardless of the outcome.
"If the court does the unlikely and strikes the law down, he could try to run against the court. And if they uphold it, it takes some of the other side's rhetoric away" by undercutting arguments that the law is unconstitutional, said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. "Immigration is harder to figure," he added.
Politico also quotes a number of legal and political experts and activists discussing the importance of the Court in 2012:
Thomas J. Whalen, Professor of Social Science, Boston University: [The Supreme Court] is one of President Obama's best political trump cards heading into his reelection campaign. He can reasonably argue to independents that although they're not crazy about how he's handled the economy, they'd be even more upset with a staunchly conservative Supreme Court intent on overturning almost a century of social and political reform dating back to the New Deal. ...
Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way: The current Supreme Court, the most conservative in decades, has repeatedly gone out of its way to rule against individual Americans and in favor of powerful corporations, and yet is still little discussed in presidential politics. I hope that the legal battles over Arizona's immigration law and health care reform will focus wider attention on the true importance of the Court in all of our lives.
As Newt Gingrich concocts radical plans to undermine judicial independence and Mitt Romney hires extremist Robert Bork as his legal adviser, the importance of Supreme Court nominations is a conversation that all Americans need to have.
SCOTUSBlog has a good round-up of coverage:
"Yesterday the Court (with Justice Kagan recused) granted cert. in Arizona v. United States, in which the state has asked it to overturn the lower courts' decisions blocking enforcement of four provisions of its controversial immigration law, S.B. 1070 . . . several journalists – including Adam Liptak of the New York Times, Warren Richey of the Christian Science Monitor, Robert Barnes of the Washington Post, and Nina Totenberg of NPR — focused on the case's potential effect on the upcoming presidential election, particularly when combined with the Court's expected rulings on the health care and Texas redistricting cases."
It is hardly news that the Supreme Court is one of the most important issues in any presidential election. George Bush's nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito have led to a number of 5-4 decision finding novel ways to prevent individual Americans from exercising their legal rights when they have been wronged by powerful corporations. People's ability to pursue the legal remedies written against employment discrimination, consumer scams, and misleadingly labeled prescription drugs have all been severely undermined by an arch-conservative Supreme Court.
There's no doubt that the Supreme Court is a critical presidential campaign issue.
Researchers at People For’s Right Wing Watch were watching Mike Huckabee’s presidential candidate forum on Saturday, and picked out this interesting exchange:
First, Perry presents his plan to impose term limits on Supreme Court justices – which he correctly points out would require a constitutional amendment. Then he explains why he wants to do this: because the Supreme Court (which happens to be the most conservative in decades) keeps on making decisions he finds “offensive.”
Perry’s advice to the Justices who keep on offending him: “Don’t use any of these different clauses, whether it’s the Commerce Clause or any of the other clauses to try to try to change what our founding fathers were telling us.”
The Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to tackle economic issues that affect the entire country, is at the center of the legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. It has also played a major role in the formation of the country: according to a report by PFAW Foundation, the clause has been "the most important constitutional instrument for social progress in our history.”
Of course, there can be many different interpretations of the Constitution – that’s what makes so-called “originalism” more opinion than science – but Perry’s doing more than offering a differening interpretation. He’s outright telling us that he wants to ignore the parts of the Constitution that he doesn’t like. In other words, he doesn’t want judges to use the Constitution to interpret the Constitution.
Perry’s latest Constitutional law lecture places him solidly in the company of fellow GOP candidate Newt Gingrich, who has said he’ll urge Congress to subpoena judges who make decisions he doesn’t like and encourage his administration to flatly ignore unpalatable court rulings.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Monday in First American Financial Corporation v. Edwards, a case that threatens to undermine a number of federal statutory protections Americans have fought to have enacted over the years. This case involves standing: Under the Constitution, in order to have their case heard in a federal court, a plaintiff must demonstrate that they have suffered an injury of some sort. The specific question in this case is whether an individual can sue over illegal real estate settlement kickbacks, notwithstanding the fact that those kickbacks did not result in poorer service or increased costs to the individual, if the lawsuit is brought pursuant to a statute giving private parties the ability to hold companies accountable for harm caused by their illegal practices.
When Denise Edwards bought her home, the company she used as her settlement agent was paid to refer her to First American for title insurance, a kickback she says violated the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA). Congress adopted RESPA to protect consumers from the national industry problem of kickbacks and referral fees that unnecessarily increase real estate settlement costs. If the statute is violated, the consumer is entitled to collect three times the amount of any settlement charge paid. Edwards filed a class action suit on behalf of similarly situated consumers.
The standing issue is based on the fact that Edwards was not overcharged and did not receive lower quality service. The corporation is using that to argue that Edwards suffered no injury and, therefore, does not have the constitutionally-required standing to file her claim in a federal court.
The Ninth Circuit disagreed, ruling that she did have an injury that gives her standing: the violation of her right under RESPA and the judicial relief the law entitles her to.
RESPA is one of many statutes where Congress has addressed a national problem by prohibiting certain specific harmful practices and giving the right to sue and collect damages to those who are most likely to be injured by those practices, regardless of whether the feared harm actually occurred in that particular case. Other examples include when:
In these and other cases, Congress has created legal rights whose violation – and not some proven loss in that specific case – creates the required standing and the right of private parties to collect damages. Those damages are a key incentive for companies to comply with the law. First American Financial Corporation's dangerously cramped definition of standing would cripple Congress's ability to protect consumers, employees, and others from practices that on the whole harm people and the nation, even if they don't cause harm in every circumstance.
This morning, the Supreme Court granted review to three cases involving challenges to the Affordable Care Act. As a result, the political conversation on the American people's ability to address national issues via congressional legislation will be paralleled by a legal conversation at the nation's highest court.
The Court will address several specific legal issues:
SCOTUSBlog notes the significant amount of time the Court will be devoting to this issue:
The allotment of 5 1/2 hours for oral argument appeared to be a modern record; the most recent lengthy hearing came in a major constitutional dispute over campaign finance law in 2003, but that was only for 4 hours. The length of time specified for the health care review was an indication both of the complexity of the issues involved, and the importance they hold for the constitutional division of power between national and state governments. (In its earlier years, the Court customarily held days of oral argument on important cases; the modern Court, however, ordinarily limits oral argument to one hour per case.)
It is worth remembering that the individual mandate was a Republican idea. Their opposition to it today has nothing to do with constitutional principle, and everything to do with damaging President Obama politically and sabotaging the American people’s ability to effectively address national problems through national solutions.
This letter to the editor from PFAW's Marge Baker was published in today's New York Times:
Re “G.O.P. Field Stoking Anger at U.S. Courts” (front page, Oct. 24):
Extreme anti-judiciary measures like those proposed by Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, as well as Mitt Romney’s choice of the ultra-conservative failed Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork to head his legal team, are chilling reminders of the stakes of the 2012 presidential election.
But these are not far-off threats. The G.O.P. has already found a simple and immediate way to wage war on the federal judiciary: by obstructing the confirmation of new judges.
There are about 100 vacancies in federal courts throughout the country, a third of which are in districts so hard pressed that they have been designated “judicial emergencies.”
In spite of this, Senate Republicans have been confirming nominees at a record sluggish pace. The Senate is currently sitting on 23 nominees, virtually all of whom have strong bipartisan support. It simply defies reason that nominees who have received absolutely no opposition from either party are sometimes forced to wait months for a simple up-or-down confirmation vote.
A functioning independent judiciary is at the foundation of our democracy. But the religious right has often been wary of the judiciary’s power to act as a bulwark against efforts to crumble the wall of separation between church and state and to deny rights to women, gay people, religious minorities, workers and consumers. Unable to pass extreme measures like the ones being proposed by presidential candidates, the right has settled instead for quietly kneecapping the courts.
Exec. V.P. for Policy and Program
People for the American Way
Washington, Oct. 24, 2011
In a bit of good news, the Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of two Establishment Clause cases from Utah striking down as unconstitutional state-approved memorial crosses on public highways. But in dissenting from this decision not to take the case, Clarence Thomas has done us the favor of reminding Americans just how out of the mainstream he is.
While Thomas's dissent is an expansive critique of the Court's Establishment Clause jurisprudence, he does briefly remind readers just how far from the mainstream his views are.
Even if the Court does not share my view that the Establishment Clause restrains only the Federal Government, and that, even if incorporated [by the 14th Amendment to apply to the states], the Clause only prohibits "actual legal coercion," the Court should be deeply troubled by what its Establishment Clause jurisprudence has wrought. [emphasis added and internal citation removed]
Mitt Romney has made clear that he sees Clarence Thomas as the kind of jurist he would nominate to the Supreme Court. This is no surprise coming from someone who asked rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork to lead his campaign's legal advisory team.
Thomas's dangerously narrow vision of the Establishment Clause is a good reminder of how much is at stake when Americans vote for president in 2012.
Timothy K. Lewis, a George H.W. Bush nominee who served on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals from 1992 through 1999, offers some perspective on how judicial confirmations were handled before they became mired in hyper-partisan gridlock:
Nineteen years ago, in the fall of 1992, I was nominated by President George H. W. Bush for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. My confirmation hearing lasted one hour. In fact, I had no time to prepare for it. As a federal district judge, I was in the courtroom, charging a jury, when my secretary burst in with the news that my Senate hearing was to be the very next day. That is how much notice I had. When the vote was called only a few days later, I was unanimously confirmed.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to celebrate me. It is to reflect on a better time for our politics and ask how things went so wrong. Among the 192 Article III judges confirmed during the elder Bush’s presidency, only David Souter and Clarence Thomas faced confirmation battles (with Thomas undergoing a very difficult confirmation battle). But, of course, they were under consideration for the Supreme Court.
Compare that now with the Obama administration. The president has had only 96 Article III nominations confirmed and 55 others remain in limbo, awaiting Senate action. They are stuck in a process that should by all constitutional standards remain rigorous, but shouldn’t it also be productive? In the same period of time, George W. Bush had 322 confirmed nominees and Bill Clinton had 372 confirmed.
The Obama administration was slow out of the gate on this one – nominations trickled forth in the early days of the administration when the President’s team should have been well-prepared with the names of nominees. But a considerable amount of the fault for this also has to be laid at the feet of Republicans who have made it a badge of honor to frustrate this President, himself a man of the law, from shaping the federal courts he inherited from George W. Bush. If you doubt this conclusion, reflect for a moment on the Senate minority leader’s comment shortly before the 2010 mid-term election when he said that the top – top — political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office. Really, Senator? So where on the priority list do we put conducting the Senate’s constitutional business?
The gridlock in judicial nominations has been one of the less-noticed bits of collateral damage from the congressional GOP’s scorched-earth policy. But it has caused very real harm to Americans seeking justice in courts around the country -- there are currently 37 judicial emergencies in the federal courts in areas where the sitting judges are too overworked to provide prompt access to justice. Last week, Senate Republicans made an exception to their gridlock rule to fill the most publicized of those emergencies: the seat of Arizona Judge John Roll, who was murdered in the Phoenix shooting that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Roll had stopped by the Giffords event to tell the congresswoman about the urgent need to fill vacancies on the court.
Senate Republicans’ commitment to delay was made particularly clear when they refused to allow a floor vote on 20 pending nominees, most of whom had advanced with no opposition. The Senate GOP’s foot-dragging on judicial nominees is clearly meant to hobble the president’s attempts at basic governance and preserve the dominance of conservative George W. Bush-appointed judges. But it also amounts to the shirking of a basic duty of the Senate: to fill the judiciary with capable, non-politically-motivated judges.
In a badly-needed boost to the rule of law and the nation's much-abused new health reform, a three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit today rejected two attacks on "Obamacare." In one case, Virginia v. Sebelius, the appeals court found that the Commonwealth of Virginia lacked standing to challenge the individual mandate provision and in the other, Liberty University v. Geithner, it ruled that a challenge to the plan's financial penalty for not purchasing individual health insurance coverage was not ready to be heard since the penalty constitutes a tax and taxes may not be challenged until after they have gone into effect and been paid. Both decisions by Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz are a breath of fresh air in a legal and political environment now polluted by partisan and ideological attacks on the health plan.
The decision in the Virginia case, brought by the state's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, was an emphatic victory for basic rules of federalism and judicial restraint. Judge Motz found that the court could not hear the case because Virginia lacked standing under long-established jurisdictional principles. As a state, Virginia suffered no "injury in fact" because of the individual insurance mandate it was challenging; the state itself is not "burdened" by it, state officials are not "commandeered" by it, and state sovereignty is not impaired in any way by it. Virginia asserted that it had standing because of a conflict between the new law and a state statute, the "Virginia Health Care Freedom Act," a statute which was transparently cooked up by the legislature for the sole purpose of creating a conflict with the federal health reform law. This state law simply declared that no resident of Virginia "shall be required to obtain or maintain a policy of individual insurance coverage." It had no enforcement mechanism and existed solely for purposes of organizing litigation against the national government. Judge Motz correctly found that, if this kind of metaphysical declaration were enough to create standing, a state could concoct jurisdiction to challenge any federal law just by writing a "not-X" statute. I recall that opponents of the health reform introduced the same meaningless legislation in Maryland and I took great pleasure in pointing out that it had no content. At any rate, Judge Andre Davis dissented from the decision, arguing that the standing problem was no big deal; he would have simply ruled that the individual mandate provision did not exceed Congressional power under the Constitution—and, on this point, he is clearly right.
The other decision, in the Liberty University case, was based on the significant new ruling that the individual insurance mandate is actually a form of federal taxation and the federal Anti-Injunction Act prevents the court from entertaining challenges to taxes until they actually go into effect and have been paid by the litigants. "A taxpayer can always pay an assessment, seek a refund directly from the IRS, and then bring a refund action in federal court," Judge Motz wrote, but the Anti-Injunction Act bars pre-enforcement actions. It is definitely of note that Judge Motz found that, under the Act, financial penalties and exactions are to be treated like a "tax." Both supporters and critics of the decision are noting that this may mark an effort to define and defend the individual insurance mandate as a legitimate exercise of the congressional Taxing power, but this may be over-reading into the court's interpretation of the Anti-Injunction Act, which does have its own body of rules and precedents.
It's not clear yet whether the disappointed litigants will try to take the case en banc to the full right-leaning Fourth Circuit or petition for appeal directly to the Supreme Court. All roads lead to the Supremes in this case since there is currently a split between the Sixth Circuit, which upheld the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and the Eleventh Circuit, which struck it down. In addition, the DC Circuit will be hearing oral arguments in a healthcare challenge in two weeks, so it, too, may add its voice to the discussion by the end of the year. At some point next year, the justices will have to grab the bull by the horns and decide whether they want to fully revive the class-driven judicial activism of the Lochner period by knocking down laws promoting public health and welfare.
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.
Tonight, eight GOP presidential candidates will alight on sacred ground to some: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. As the candidates pay the required perpetual homage to the 40th president, the rest of us might take some time to reflect on just how far off the Reagan Ranch the Republican Party has gone.
Since the advent of the Tea Party, the Republican establishment has adopted a philosophy that you could call "Xtreme Reagan" -- tax cuts for the wealthy without compromise, deregulation without common sense, social conservatism without an ounce of respect -- that makes even a liberal like me almost miss the political pragmatism of the Gipper. It's terrifying that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a hard-line economic and social conservative, whose regressive economic policies as governor were to the right of Reagan, is now widely considered to be too far to the left to even be a contender.
Don't get me wrong -- I never was a fan of Ronald Reagan and his policies. But I miss the days when believing in science and being able to do basic budget math didn't make you a radical Socialist.
Reagan, a savvy politician, rode to power on the money of corporate America and the passion of an increasingly politicized Religious Right -- and, for the most part, gave both groups enough of what they wanted once he was in office to keep them both happy. But he also bucked those interests at some important points. Contrary to current Reagan hagiography, he raised taxes 11 times during his eight years in office -- including the largest corporate tax hike in American history -- when it became clear that pure trickle-down economics would be disastrous for the economy. And in 1981, over the objections of anti-choice groups, he nominated the highly qualified and politically moderate Sandra Day O'Connor to serve on the Supreme Court.
Today's Tea Party candidates, as they love to remind us, are beholden to the same interests. But they have taken the Reagan strategy a step further, turning the values of the Reagan coalition into a new, unyieldingly rigid conservative orthodoxy.
In the Tea Party orthodoxy, environmentalism isn't just bad for business, it's unbiblical. Tax cuts aren't just what the rich want, they're what Jesus wants . The Democratic president isn't just a liberal, he's a foreigner trying to destroy America from within. Conspiracy theories become hard-and-fast facts before you can change the channel away from Fox News. There's no compromise when you live in an air-tight world of unquestioned beliefs that become created facts.
Let's take a look at how the eight GOP candidates debating tonight have taken Xtreme Reaganism and made it their own:
This is the field that the Party of Reagan has produced to appeal to a right-moving and increasingly isolated base -- where the architect of health care reform has to run against himself, where the most libertarian still isn't willing to cross the Religious Right, and where the highest-polling has floated the idea of his state seceding from the union.
Listen tonight as you hear the homage to Ronald Reagan and consider how radical this party has actually become.
Cross posted on Huffington Post
When Mitt Romney announced last month that his campaign’s legal team would be led by rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, we were somewhat aghast. Bork’s legal record was so extreme – he opposed the Civil Rights Act and the right to birth control, for instance – that his 1987 Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate. And his views have hardly tempered since then – a 2002 PFAW report checked back in on Bork’s crusades against pop culture, freedom of expression and gay rights.
But Robert Bork isn’t the only blast from the past who Romney has brought in to help develop his policies. Today, the former Massachusetts governor announced his economic team – which unsurprisingly includes two prominent economic advisors to George W. Bush, including one of the primary architects of the disastrous 2003 Bush tax cuts.
Two of the four members of Romney’s econ team are former Bush advisers – R. Glenn Hubbard, who was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 2001 to 2003, and N. Gregory Mankiw, who took over from 2003 to 2005. Hubbard helped devise the tax cuts for the wealthy that were the largest contributor to the ballooning budget deficit under Bush, and which Republicans in Congress still refuse to roll back. Mankiw helped Bush with his plan to privatize Social Security and praised the benefits of outsourcing labor.
Mitt Romney is getting something of a free pass in the current GOP field, but his choice of advisors shows just how extreme he really is. The last thing we need is more economic policies like Bush’s or judges like Bork, but under Romney it seems that’s exactly what we’d get.
Goodwin Liu, the much-admired law professor whose nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was run into the ground by the Senate GOP this year, is now a judge. Liu was confirmed last night to sit on the California Supreme Court, where one of his first cases will determine whether those defending Proposition 8 will have standing to appeal their trial court loss.
When Liu withdrew his appeals court nomination in May, after being the subject of two years of partisan bickering, PFAW’s Marge Baker said in a statement that he “would have made a superb jurist” but “unfortunately, Mitch McConnell and the Senate GOP decided to use Goodwin Liu to make a political point – they smeared the reputation of this respected legal mind while ignoring many of their own vows to never filibuster a judicial nominee.”
California is lucky to have Liu on its Supreme Court. But it’s a shame that the Senate GOP put him through two years of partisan smears before he found a place on the bench.
At a speech yesterday at Southern Methodist University, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg touched upon the depressing state of our nation's judicial nominations process. As reported by the Associated Press:
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday that the confirmation process has become much more partisan and that she probably never would have made it to the high court under the current climate.
"I wish we could wave a magic wand and go back to the days when the process was bipartisan," Ginsburg told the crowd of about 2,000 as she spoke as part of a lecture series for Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.
While most of us cannot wave such a magic wand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can. With one word he could stop many of the GOP obstruction tactics against President Obama's judicial nominees. It was just such obstruction that prevented the Senate from voting to confirm twenty pending nominees before it left town several weeks ago, 17 of whom got through committee with no recorded opposition.
As ThinkProgress reported, Justice Ginsburg also noted the hostility felt by some senators toward the ACLU: "Today, my ACLU connection would probably disqualify me."
Unfortunately, she may be right. Late last year, Senator Jeff Sessions – then the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee – railed against judicial nominees who had worked with or been a member of the ACLU, specifically targeting William Martinez, Edward Chen, Goodwin Liu, Jack McConnell, Amy Totenberg, Robert Wilkins, and Michael Simon. He concluded his tirade with the following warning to President Obama:
I do believe the administration needs to understand that this is going to be a more contentious matter if we keep seeing the ACLU chromosome as part of this process.
Republican hostility to the ACLU – and to the constitutional rights it regularly protects – is extremely disturbing. At the same time, the blocking of even unopposed nominees suggests that the GOP's main problems with President Obama's nominees is that they are President Obama's nominees.
If you watched TV in the 1980s, you surely remember this:
The TV show Diff’rent Strokes – which featured the iconic tagline “What you talkin’ bout, Willis”? – was produced by PFAW’s founder Norman Lear.
And when Norman heard that Mitt Romney – whose first name is actually Willard – was running for president, it rang a bell.
In a piece in Variety this week, Norman asks Willard Mitt Romney exactly what he is talking about:
"What You Talkin' Bout, Willard?"
By Norman Lear
I don't have to explain that line to Americans who grew up watching one of our production company's sitcoms, "Diff'rent Strokes", which ran for eight seasons between 1978 and 1986 and for years after in syndication. Any one who knows the show will recall this signature phrase repeated by the young Gary Coleman to his older brother when stupefied and maddened by something his brother just said, "What you talkin' bout, Willis?"
I know some people think Willard Mitt Romney is the only responsible adult i n that implausible field of presidential hopefuls, but often he will say something so surprising and disingenuous in this seemingly endless campaign, I find myself thinking, 'What you talkin' bout, Willard?
Absent a profanity, I don't know a better reaction to Romney's declaration that "corporations are people." Of course he'd be correct if the people he's referring to are the billionaire Koch brothers. Or if they are the people who are setting up phony corporations for the purpose of supporting Willard Mitt Romney's candidacy with million dollar gifts, and they could of course include the Kochs.
"What you talkin' bout, Willard?" leaps to mind at the thought of the natty Harvard-educated Wall Street executive and former Massachusetts governor railing against "eastern elites" at the last Republican National Convention. And it aches to be shouted out when I am reminded that Willard Mitt Romney, seeking someone to head his legal team, chose a man whose reactionary views about the U.S. Constitution led to a bi-partisan Senate vote to keep him off the Supreme Court, Robert Bork.
Willard's embrace of Bork, despite his angry rants since then, such as those calling for active government censorship of popular culture, is clearly meant to signal far-right activists that they can count on more Supreme Court Justices in the mold of Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, who are all energetically working to make Romney's assertion that "corporations are people" a legal reality.
What are you talkin' bout, Willard?
As we like to remind anyone who will listen, the current GOP senate has been shameless in its enthusiasm for obstructing judicial nominees just for the sake of obstruction. For instance, a PFAW memo on August 2 reported that of 24 nominees then waiting for confirmation votes, 21 had been voted through the Senate Judiciary Committee with no recorded opposition. Instead of sending through at least the unopposed nominees in a voice vote and moving on with its business, the Senate decided to keep these potential jurists off the bench for as long as possible – despite the pressing problem of unfilled judicial seats leading to slowed down justice. Ultimately, 4 of those nominees were confirmed by the Senate before it left for its August recess, and 20 remain waiting. (The Washington Post this morning lamented that such “gamesmanship is not only frustrating but also destructive”)
This sort of thing is a clear example of obstruction for obstruction’s sake. But what about the nominees who do face some GOP opposition? Last week, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen took an in-depth look at some of President Obama’s nominees who were ultimately confirmed by the Senate, but who received more than 25 “no” votes. The reason? Most were opposed because of a record fighting for civil liberties or against big corporations. Here are a few of Cohen’s examples:
7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hamilton (Votes 59-39). Even though his local Federalist Society endorsed this nephew of former Congressional leader Lee Hamilton, Senate Republicans mostly didn't because, as a trial judge, Hamilton had issued this 2005 ruling which had infuriated the religious right. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Judge Hamilton had ruled that Indiana's legislative prayer before each session could no longer be "sectarian" and regularly invoke the name of Jesus Christ.
Northern District of Ohio Judge Benita Y. Pearson (Votes 56-39). The first black female federal jurist in Ohio almost didn't get the gig. The precise reasons why are unclear. The People for the American Way suggested that she was a member of an animal rights group and thus earned the wrath of those in the cattle industries -- although 39 "no" votes is quite a lot of beef to have against a pioneering jurist.
District of Colorado Judge William J. Martinez (Votes 58-37). By contrast, it is not hard to understand why this Mexico-born nominee roused so much Republican opposition on the floor of the Senate. Before he was nominated, Martinez advised the Americans with Civil Liberties Union and was a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (just like Clarence Thomas before him, only Justice Thomas' EEOC experience evidently was a boon for his nomination). Of nominee Martinez, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said: "It seems that if you've got the ACLU DNA you've got a pretty good leg up to being nominated by this president."
District of Rhode Island Judge John J. McConnell (Votes 50-44). It's also fairly clear why Judge McConnell almost didn't make it onto the bench. Senate Republicans didn't like him because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn't like him because, as a lawyer, McConnell had successfully sued Big Tobacco and fought for those harmed by lead paint. Evidently that's five Republican votes more serious in the Senate than ticking off Big Beef.
Northern District of California Judge Edward M. Chen (Votes 56-42). Like Judge Martinez, Edward Chen evidently was touched with the "ACLU gene," which rendered him objectionable to Senate Republicans. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose state's Asian population is nearly three times lower than the American average, voted against Chen because he thought the well-respected former magistrate judge employed the "empathy standard" of judging.
District of Oregon Judge Michael H. Simon (Votes 64-35). Harvard educated? Check. Prior government experience with the Justice Department? Check. So why 35 "no" votes? Because Simon had worked for the ACLU. The seat he took on the federal bench, reported the Oregonian, had been vacant for 664 days, two months short of two years. How would you like to have been a litigant in Oregon during that time?
All of these nominees were ultimately confirmed – but not after plenty of stalling and debate over the value of “ACLU DNA” or of holding big corporations accountable for their actions. When we talk about the many nominees who are unopposed yet unaccountably stalled, it’s important to remember that the few nominees who do face GOP opposition don’t always face that opposition for the most convincing of reasons.