Supreme Court

Justice Department Files a Brief Confirming that Islam is a Religion

To the litany of public safety threats resulting from anti-Muslim fear-mongering, add the fact that Justice Department officials have had to spend time writing a brief explaining that Islam is, in fact, a religion. TPM reports on the DOJ’s amicus brief supporting the expansion efforts of the Islamic Center of Mufreesboro, TN. Opponents have claimed that the Islamic Center can’t get a religious permit to build a new mosque because, they say, Islam isn’t really a religion. The Justice Department did a little research:

"To suggest that Islam is not a religion is quite simply ridiculous. Each branch of the federal government has independently recognized Islam as one of the major religions of the world," Martin said in the press release.

The brief painstakingly cites proof, from the Oxford English Dictionary, Supreme Court rulings, presidential proclamations by Clinton and George W. Bush and the writings of Thomas Jefferson, that Islam has long been recognized as a major world religion.

It also notes the definition of religion set forth by other federal courts, including that a belief system must address "fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters" in order to be considered a religion.

In the brief, the DOJ argues that the lawsuit implicates two federal civil rights statutes, the Religious Land Use Act and the Church Arson Prevention Act, which fall under the DOJ's purview. The county, the brief argues, would be in danger of violating the land use act were it to deny building permits for the mosque.

A concerted right-wing misinformation campaign has succeeded in making denial of the scientific consensus about climate change a politically acceptable position. Will denying the existence of one of the world’s largest and diverse religions be next?
 

PFAW

Supreme Court to Hear Ashcroft Appeal

The Supreme Court today agreed to decide if former Attorney General John Ashcroft can be personally sued for alleged abuse of his authority in the days after 9/11 attacks. According to Bloomberg News:

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider reinforcing the legal immunity of top government officials, agreeing to decide whether a man can sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft after being detained without charge for 16 days.

The justices will review a ruling that allowed a suit filed by Abdullah al-Kidd, a Muslim U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2003 and held as a material witness in a terrorism probe. Al- Kidd says the government classified him as a material witness because it lacked enough evidence to hold him as a suspect.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit held that Ashcroft was not immune from being sued personally for the illegal abuse of authority that was the subject of al-Kidd’s claim. Ashcroft, with the support of the Obama Administration, asked the Supreme Court to reverse this decision and not allow the lawsuit to go forward. In his brief urging the Supreme Court not to hear Ashcroft’s appeal, al-Kidd claims that:

The impetus for arresting [him and other] individuals was not to secure their testimony for a criminal proceeding. Rather, these were individuals whom the government viewed as suspects and wished to detain and investigate. But because the government lacked probable cause to arrest these individuals on criminal charges, it had them arrested as material witnesses, thereby circumventing the Fourth Amendment’s traditional probable cause standard and distorting the basic purpose of the material witness statute.

The Court will likely hear arguments in the case next year and issue an opinion by summer. Justice Kagan has recused herself.

This case is a reminder that in the weeks and months after 9/11, innocent people were being rounded up by the federal government with little to no evidence against them. With Bush’s popularity at its height and few willing to oppose him and his administration publicly, People For the American Way Foundation led the nation in exposing and condemning the Ashcroft Justice Department’s multifaceted threats to liberty.

It will be interesting to see if all of those Tea Partiers who claim to oppose big government encroaching on individual liberties will take a stand against the excesses of the Bush years - and explain why they were silent at the time.

PFAW

Americans Still Oppose Court’s Citizens United Decision

Nearly ten months since the Supreme Court drastically expanded the ability of corporations to influence the political process, the public is still greatly troubled by the Court’s ruling in Citizens United. The majority Americans do not buy the absurd arguments of Congressional Republicans that Citizens United was as significant a step forward as the Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as most people believe that corporations should not be allowed to spend unlimited sums from their general treasuries to fund political efforts. A Hart Research poll conducted on behalf of People For the American Way found that 77% of Americans want Citizens United to be overturned, and that corporations already have too much political power.

A recent “Constitutional Attitudes Survey” by Harvard and Columbia University professors found that while self-described liberals and conservatives all found Court decisions they agree with, Citizens United stands out as the most unpopular among all respondents:

One notable decision that stuck in respondents' respective craw, however, was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the January 2010 opinion that struck down a federal law prohibiting corporations from airing advertisements endorsing a political candidate.

Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents disagreed with the statement, "Corporations ought to be able to spend their profits on TV advertisements urging voters to vote for or against candidates." Only 40 percent agreed with the statement.

Additionally, an overwhelming 85 percent of respondents answered yes to the question, "Should corporations be required to get approval from their shareholders for expenditures related to political campaigns?" Indeed, Persily told the Spokane, Washington-based Spokesman Review that the Citizens United opinion is "very out of step with public opinion."

The survey's results are consistent with those of a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in February, shortly after the case was decided. A full 80 percent of respondents in that poll disagreed with the court's holding, and 65 percent labeled themselves "strongly" opposed. Surprisingly, that poll found that views of the decision did not split along party lines -- fully 76 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of independents, along with 85 percent of Democrats, disagreed with the decision.
PFAW

Alaska’s New Super PAC: Brought to you by Federal Government Contractors

After extremist Republican Joe Miller upset incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary, many Alaskans panicked over the prospect of having a Senator that wants to greatly diminish the federal government’s role in Alaska. After Senator Murkowski announced a write-in bid to take on Miller and the Democratic nominee, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, a new organization emerged to back the incumbent: Alaskans Standing Together.

Alaskans Standing Together is a “Super PAC” which can raise unlimited amounts of funds from individuals and corporations, and must disclose its donors to the FEC. The group is solely dedicated towards supporting Senator Murkowski’s reelection campaign and criticizing both of her opponents. So far, Alaskans Standing Together has reported having nine donors: Native American Corporations that have contributed over $800,000 to the group. But these Native American Corporations are also federal contractors, and many of them openly claim that they receive much of their federal money as a result of the legislative efforts of Lisa Murkowski. The corporations say that such money is needed since outside organizations like the California-based Tea Party Express are running hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ads promoting Joe Miller.

But as the Miller and Murkowski squabble over the non-party groups backing their campaigns, only Scott McAdams directly pointed to an important reason for the massive downpour in campaign cash:

The Democrat in the race, Scott McAdams, took a different approach, blaming the U.S. Supreme Court for opening up politics to unlimited corporate donations. If he's elected, McAdams said, he'd move to pass a campaign finance law backed by Democratic leaders in the Senate and President Barack Obama. He also seized on a claim the White House has been hammering in recent weeks: that unlimited corporate money has the potential to give foreign-owned corporations a say in U.S. elections.

"As a small state, Alaska can't afford to allow its elections to be overtaken by corporate spending," McAdams said. "Unfortunately, Sen. Murkowski has voted to allow corporations, including foreign corporate money, to continue to influence elections."

Outside independent expenditure groups are playing a major role in the Alaska Senate race -- and those across the country. In previous elections, such contributions wouldn't have been legal, but the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision allows corporate and union donors to inject unlimited amounts of money into politics.

PFAW

Americans Care About Secret Corporate Election Funding. A Lot.

Greg Sargent reports the results of a new MoveOn poll that shows that yes, Americans really do care that secretive corporate money is funding elections. A lot:

The poll finds that two thirds of registered voters, or 66 percent, are aware that outside groups are behind some of the ads they're seeing. This makes sense, since the issue has dominated the media amid the battle over the huge ad onslaught against Dems funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's groups.

What's more, an overwhelming 84 percent say they have a "right to know" who's bankrolling the ads. And crucially, the poll also found that the issue is resonant when linked to the economy. A majority, 53 percent, are less likely to think a candidate who is backed by "anonymous groups" can be trusted to "improve economic conditions" for them or their families. People don't believe these groups are looking out for their interests.

These numbers send a pretty clear message. But this is nothing new—for months, poll after poll has shown that large majorities of Americans are fed up with the control corporate money has over politics, want political spending to be disclosed, and are more likely to vote for candidates who will work toward passing a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
 

PFAW

Survey Shows Obstacles to Justice in U.S. Courts

Dan Froomkin is reporting on a depressing new report that paints a frightening picture of just how difficult it is for ordinary Americans to receive justice in our courts. He discusses:

the finding[s] of a world-wide survey unveiled Thursday morning that ranks the United States lowest among 11 developed nations when it comes to providing access to justice to its citizens -- and lower than some third-world nations in some categories.

The results are from the World Justice Project's new "Rule of Law Index", which assesses how laws are implemented and enforced in practice around the globe. Countries are rated on such factors as whether government officials are accountable, whether legal institutions protect fundamental rights, and how ordinary people fare in the system. ...

But the most striking findings related to access to justice for ordinary people. ...

[The study] found a significant gap between the rich and the poor in terms of their use and satisfaction with the civil courts system.

Froomkin quotes from a World Justice Project news release:

[O]nly 40% of low-income respondents who used the court system in the past three years reported that the process was fair, compared to 71% of wealthy respondents. This 31% gap between poor and rich litigants in the USA is the widest among all developed countries sampled. In France this gap is only 5%, in South Korea it is 4% and in Spain it is nonexistent.

Unfortunately, it is no surprise that the wealthy and powerful are happier with our court system than are the rest of the American people. This is consistent with the analysis contained in a People For the American Way Foundation report released earlier this year. Citing Citizens United and numerous other cases, The Rise of the Corporate Court: How the Supreme Court is Putting Business First exposed the undue deference the Supreme Court has too often paid to corporations at the expense of the legal rights of individuals.

Making it even harder for average Americans victimized by powerful corporations to seek justice, one in eight seats on the federal bench is vacant. In fact, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared judicial emergencies in numerous circuits and districts where the vacancies have reached the crisis point. Yet Senate Republicans refuse to allow floor votes on qualified and unopposed judicial nominees to help relieve the overburdened federal judiciary.

The integrity of the entire judicial branch of the United States government is at risk.

PFAW

American Future Fund’s Ethanol Industry Ties

In PFAW’s report “After Citizens United: A Look into the Pro-Corporate Players in American Politics,” we looked into the Iowa-based American Future Fund which is spending millions of dollars attacking Democrats across the country. The AFF was founded by former GOP staffer Nick Ryan, whose lobbyist firm has ties to Big Agriculture, especially Iowa’s large ethanol industry. The group’s director, Katherine Polking, also works for Ryan’s lobby firm, the Concordia Group, and the AFF paid Ryan’s firm $300,000 for consulting fees.

Now, the New York Times reports that while Ryan’s Concordia Group lobbies on behalf of the ethanol industry, Ryan’s American Future Fund received its seed money from Bruce Rastetter, the “chief executive of one of the nation’s larger ethanol companies, Hawkeye Energy Holdings.” As a 501c4 organization, the AFF does not have to disclose the sources of its funding, and in this case Rastetter’s lawyer confirmed his connections to the group. Now Ryan, a “lobbyist for four Rastetter businesses,” receives money to attack Democrats with ties to agriculture policy: “Of the 14 ‘liberal’ politicians singled out in a list [the AFF] released last month, nearly every incumbent sits on a panel with a say over energy or agriculture policy. Five sit on the Agriculture Committee; four others are on related committees with say. One candidate was a staff member on a related panel.”

When Bruce Braley, a Congressman in the crosshairs of AFF attacks, tried to visit the AFF, he “found only a rented mailbox.” The proliferation of shadowy, pro-corporate groups like the American Future Fund is a result of the substantial weakening of campaign finance laws:

The American Future Fund, organized under a tax code provision that lets donors remain anonymous, is one of dozens of groups awash in money from hidden sources and spending it at an unprecedented rate, largely on behalf of Republicans. The breadth and impact of these privately financed groups have made them, and the mystery of their backers, a campaign issue in their own right.

Through interviews with top Republican contributors and strategists, as well as a review of public records, some contours of this financing effort — including how donors are lured with the promise of anonymity — are starting to come into view.



The surge of anonymous money is the latest development in corporate America’s efforts to influence the agenda in Washington, following rules enacted several years ago banning large, unregulated gifts to political parties. Democrats first established so-called third-party groups that could legally accept unlimited money from business and unions, though most had to disclose donors. Now, as new laws and a major Supreme Court decision have removed barriers to corporate giving, Republican operatives have embraced the use of nonprofit issue groups that can keep donors’ identities secret.
PFAW

At the Court: Immunity for Child Vaccine Manufacturers

The Supreme Court will hear arguments today in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, a case that will determine the extent to which pharmaceutical corporations are protected from lawsuits from those who are injured by their products.

Back in the 1980s, Congress passed the national Childhood Vaccine Injury Act to shield child vaccine manufacturers from certain types of state lawsuits. The law preempts certain design defect claims against the manufacturers if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings." At issue is the term "unavoidable."

Hannah Bruesewitz's parents sued Wyeth when she suffered significant medical complications after receiving a vaccine manufactured by the drug manufacturer. Among other things, they argue that their lawsuit isn't preempted because the side effects were not unavoidable: A safer, alternative vaccine was available.

Wyeth argues that the federal law preempts all state design-defect claims, even if the manufacturer could have avoided the side effects by designing a different vaccine. They claim that the family's interpretation of the Vaccine Act undoes the statutory preemption intended by Congress, forcing vaccine manufacturers into state tort trials to determine if the side effects could have been avoided with a safer vaccine. In other words, you'd have a lawsuit to determine if the case should have been immune from lawsuit in the first place. Wyeth asserts that such an interpretation goes against Congressional intent to shield vaccine manufacturers from being forced to defend their vaccines in state courts on a case-by-case basis.

The Bruesewitz family cites Supreme Court precedent that, under constitutional principles of federalism, congressional intent to preempt traditional state powers must be "clear and manifest." In this case, they say, it isn't. Specifically, had Congress wanted to preempt all design defect claims, it would have simply written the statute without the "unavoidable" language: claims would be preempted "if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings. " The family also argues that giving vaccine manufacturers an incentive to design better vaccines to avoid such lawsuits serves Congress's purpose of promoting vaccine safety.

Numerous organizations and individuals have submitted amicus briefs in favor of one party or the other. Not surprisingly, Wyeth is supported by pharmaceutical companies Glaxosmithkline, Merck, and Sanofi Pasteur. The American Association for Justice, Public Justice, and Public Citizen have submitted an amicus brief for the Bruesewitz family.

One of the amicus briefs is particularly interesting by virtue of the unusual pair of jurists who teamed up to submit it: progressive Erwin Chemerinsky and conservative Kenneth Starr, who argue in support of Hannah Bruesewitz and her parents.

PFAW

Big Pharma and the Next Congress

In addition to the obvious legal questions involved in the pharmaceutical immunity case of Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, this case also has a political component that ties it to the midterm elections. If the Supreme Court interprets the Vaccine Act in a way that benefits injured parties, we can expect the giant pharmaceutical companies to push the next Congress to change the law. That would connect this case politically, if not legally, to Citizens United and the DISCLOSE Act.

As detailed in a recent People For report, powerful corporations, unleashed by the Roberts Court, are taking aim at our democracy and spending millions of dollars under cover of anonymity in order to purchase a pliant Republican congressional majority. Republican members of Congress will surely know who they can thank for their offices, but without the transparency rules included in the DISCLOSE Act, blocked by Republicans in Congress, ordinary Americans will have no way of knowing if the pharmaceutical companies are among the corporate sponsors of the newly elected Republican caucus.

That is one of the many reasons we must pass the DISCLOSE Act.

PFAW

Rep. Edwards: Support for Constitutional Amendment growing in “chaotic political climate”

Rep. Donna Edwards, the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, reacted today to the letter in support of such an amendment, signed by 50 prominent attorneys and law professors, that People For and Free Speech for People sent to congressional leaders this week:

“Corporate interests have already spent double the money spent in the 2006 midterms to influence our elections and undermine the voice of the American people,” said Congresswoman Edwards. “That is why I introduced an amendment with Chairman John Conyers to the U.S. Constitution immediately after the Roberts’ Court declared that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as citizens. I am pleased that during this chaotic political climate support for my Constitutional Amendment is growing across the country with academics, elected officials, and working families. Now is the time to remove corporate influence from our policies and our politics. We cannot allow corporations to dominate our elections as they have done this year, to do so would be both undemocratic and unfair to ordinary citizens.”

You can read more about the letter here.

And watch Rep. Edwards explain the need for a constitutional amendment at the panel we hosted at Netroots Nation this summer. “We back up and back up against a wall of corporations, of corporate money, that isn’t just trying to influence the process, it’s trying to own the process”:
 

PFAW

Stevens: Campaign money is “simply not speech”

In a wide-ranging interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg this week, former Justice John Paul Stevens touched on his strong opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, to which he wrote an adamant dissenting opinion.

As for the court's recent ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on candidate elections, Stevens thinks it was dead wrong — and, indeed, still doesn't think that money is the same thing as speech. "Can you hear it talk? Can you read it? [Money is] simply not speech," he says. "And I have to confess that my own views are that there is an interest in trying to have any debate conducted according to fair rules that treat both sides with an adequate opportunity to express their view. We certainly wouldn't, in our arguments in this court, give one side a little more time because they could pay higher fees to hire their lawyers, or something like that."

Stevens is hardly alone among legal luminaries in thinking that the decision in Citizens United was flat-out wrong. On Monday, People For and the fair elections group Free Speech For People sent a letter signed by over 50 prominent lawyers and law professors urging Congress to consider amending the Constitution to undo Citizens United.

Corporate political expenditure regulations do not infringe any speech rights of the American people whatsoever. Rather, such regulations reflect the power of the American people to regulate corporations and the rules that govern such entities as the people and our representatives see fit. Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent rightly calls the majority opinion a “radical departure from what has been settled First Amendment law.”


You can read the full letter here.
 

PFAW

Kudlow to Corporate-Backed Groups: Disclose Your Funding

Yesterday, Think Progress dropped a campaign finance bombshell when it reported that the US Chamber of Commerce, which is spending tens of millions of dollars this year to run ads supporting GOP candidates in federal elections, is collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign owned businesses, including companies owned by foreign governments.

Reliable clean elections proponents, like Minnesota senator Al Franken, spoke out immediately for the FEC to investigate the Chamber’s finances. But the voices in support of campaign finance disclosure haven’t been coming only from the left.

CNBC host Larry Kudlow, a columnist for the conservative National Review, said today that groups like the Chamber and Karl Rove’s shadowy group Crossroads GPS should put their funding and spending records out in the open. According to fact sheet from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, Kudlow said:

“Why not have the media posting of the contribution information on the Internet? That's all. And let everybody decide… Who, what, when, how, where, who got it? Put it up on the net and let free speech and free politics take its work… American Crossroads and Karl Rove and all them should post also.” [10/6/10]

We reported last week on several groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS, that are spending buckets of money to back pro-corporate candidates in this year’s elections, while under no obligation to disclose where their money is coming from. This spending is no small change—the Associated Press reported last week that right-wing, pro-corporate groups have outspent progressive groups 6-1 on television ads this year.

Kudlow’s call for disclosure from these big-spending groups should come as no surprise. Disclosure of campaign spending is a principle embraced by many prominent conservatives, including Justice Antonin Scalia. And when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled in Citizens United v. FEC to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, they did so with an important side note: they were in favor of “prompt disclosure” of the campaign spending.

Up against the reality of corporate-backed groups that will spend enormous amounts of money for their electoral benefit, however, congressional Republicans have been significantly less eager to embrace the idea of full disclosure than that of free spending.

The Chamber of Commerce, for one, seems to be solidly in the congressional Republican camp on the disclosure issue. Asked by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent about Think Progress’s allegations, a spokeswoman for the Chamber responded with a tirade against the blog, denying that the Chamber spends foreign money on electioneering—but refusing to answer any questions on just how that money is kept separate.


 

PFAW

Chamber’s Foreign Funding Demonstrates the Need to Revisit Citizens United

Coming on the heels of a report by ThinkProgress on how the US Chamber of Commerce uses membership dues from foreign corporations to pay for political advertisements in American elections, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United is facing new scrutiny for opening up the floodgates of corporate spending. People For the American Way has spoken out against the Chamber’s practices of collecting “hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign owned businesses, including companies owned by foreign governments,” and the editorial board of the New York Times is also sounding the alarm. The Times editors write that the election system is broken as a result of Citizens United and actions by Republicans in Congress and the FEC to weaken the remaining regulations of campaign finances:

Because the United States Chamber is organized as a 501(c)(6) business league under the federal tax code, it does not have to disclose its donors, so the full extent of foreign influence on its political agenda is unknown. But Tuesday’s report sheds light on how it raises money abroad. Its affiliate in Abu Dhabi, for example, the American Chamber of Commerce, says it has more than 450 corporate and individual members in the United Arab Emirates who pay as much as $8,500 a year to join.

Because of a series of court decisions that culminated in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling earlier this year, these and similar 501(c) nonprofits have become huge players in the year’s election, using unlimited money from donors who have no fear of disclosure. (Not surprisingly, the chamber has been a leading opponent of legislation to require disclosure.) One such group, American Crossroads, organized by Karl Rove, announced on Tuesday a $4.2 million ad buy to support Republican candidates, bringing the group’s total spending to about $18 million so far.

The possible commingling of secret foreign money into these groups raises fresh questions about whether they are violating both the letter and spirit of the campaign finance laws. The Federal Election Commission, which has been rendered toothless by its Republican members, should be investigating possible outright violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act by foreign companies and the chamber.

Now, Minnesota Senator Al Franken is calling on the FEC to look into the Chamber’s finances, the Star Tribune reports:

Franken’s letter says that the Chamber’s mixing of funds under current FEC rules “is not per se illegal.” But he wrote that the company had to demonstrate that its foreign funds were not used for political purposes, and pushed the FEC to launch an investigation.

In addition, Franken’s letter asked the FEC to change its regulations allowing foreign companies to spend on elections — which is legal so long as the company is incorporated in the U.S. and creates a special election committee staffed by Americans.

 

PFAW

Chamber of Commerce uses Foreign Funding for Political Ads

In January President Obama in his Statue of the Union address warned Americans of the deleterious impact the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United would have on our political process:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.

While Justice Alito and others criticized Obama’s assertion that “foreign corporations” will be allowed to spend money in elections, ThinkProgress looked into how the Chamber utilizes its foreign branches to raise money for the $75 million it plans to spend on the 2010 election:

A ThinkProgress investigation has found that the Chamber funds its political attack campaign out of its general account, which solicits foreign funding. And while the chamber will likely assert it has internal controls, foreign money is fungible, permitting the Chamber to run its unprecedented attack campign. According to legal experts consulted by ThinkProgress, the Chamber is likely skirting longstanding campaign finance law that bans the involvement of foreign corporations in American elections.


In recent years, the Chamber has become very aggressive with its fundraising, opening offices abroad and helping to found foreign chapters (known as Business Councils or “AmChams”). While many of these foreign operations include American businesses with interests overseas, the Chamber has also spearheaded an effort to raise money from foreign corporations, including ones controlled by foreign governments. These foreign members of the Chamber send money either directly to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or the foreign members fund their local Chamber, which in turn, transfers dues payments back to the Chamber’s H Street office in Washington DC. These funds are commingled to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) account which is the vehicle for the attack ads.
PFAW

Santorum Slamming JFK, Secularism

Fifty years ago, the man who would become America’s first Catholic president delivered a historic speech that helped reduce anti-Catholic prejudice in our public life. Five decades later, a man who would like to be the nation’s second Catholic president celebrated the occasion by slamming Kennedy. It’s a remarkable reversal. 

Former Senator Rick Santorum has been using the anniversary of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s famous address on church-state separation to decry the destructive forces of secularism that he says Kennedy unleashed. (People For the American Way is among Santorum’s targets.)
 
Santorum’s attack deserves attention, especially at a time when religious and political leaders, Santorum among them, are eagerly fanning the flames of religious intolerance. Much of Santorum’s recent speech – delivered in Houston on September 9 and reprised since then at events like Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference – is given over to repeated claims that Kennedy emboldened secularists who want a public square “cleansed of all religious wisdom and the voice of religious people of all faiths.” He says Kennedy’s speech launched a movement that is “repressing or banishing people of faith from having a say in government.”
 
These inflammatory claims are regularly advanced by Religious Right leaders who portray supporters of church-state separation as hostile to faith and religious liberty. But how can they be taken seriously?
 
Choose any topic that is being debated in the public square, and you’ll find people of faith advancing their values, probably on both sides of the issue – and not just on abortion and gay rights.  Religious Right activists spouted Tea Party arguments about the evils of government while progressive religious leaders worked hard to promote health care reform. The Catholic hierarchy is among the religious organizations working to deny gay couples legal recognition while other religious groups like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are working for full marriage equality.  At the same time, the two groups are both lobbying for humane immigration reform.
 
It’s a complicated scene, and it’s a noisy one. Who has been silenced? Not Ralph Reed, who is bragging that he’s planning to mobilize conservative evangelical voters to turn Election Day into a historic rout for Democrats.  And certainly not conservative Catholics like Santorum.  At Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference, a panel included leaders of two groups organized to promote conservative Catholic values in the public arena – Catholic Advocate and Faithful Catholic Citizens.
 
There are situations that bring constitutional values into tension. America, via the Supreme Court and civil rights legislation, has decided (Rand Paul notwithstanding) that a business owner’s desire to discriminate against racial minorities does not trump other individuals’ right to equal access to public accommodations, even if the desire to discriminate was based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  Courts and legislatures are wrangling with similar situations that consider religious beliefs about homosexuality, abortion, and contraception alongside LGBT Americans’ right to legal equality, and all Americans’ access to medical care.
 
But the fact that some court cases have gone against those seeking a religious exemption to a generally applied law is no grounds for claiming that religious people have been silenced, or no longer have the right to make their case in the public square. What Santorum seems to want is a kind of double standard: religious conservatives can take part in public debate but should be shielded from criticism. They can engage in legal and political advocacy, but if they lose they can claim the process has been stacked against them by sinister anti-religious forces.
 
Santorum argues that the secularist forces unleashed by Kennedy threaten peaceful coexistence and even put American civilization at risk. He says the founders believed that “if they fostered religion and the Judeo-Christian moral code we would achieve something that was never before seen in a country with so many competing faiths - a truly tolerant, democratic and harmonious public square.”
 
But Santorum himself is actively undermining the possibility for a “tolerant, democratic and harmonious” public square. He seeks political gain by branding his opponents as enemies of religious liberty. And he has played a significant role in inflaming an ugly anti-Islamic wave of public opinion that has resulted in fatal violence and could leave communities damaged and divided for years.
 
Santorum portrays himself as heroic, telling audiences, “I have been criticized in the media for daring to speak out on these sensitive moral issues.”  That’s not true.  Santorum is criticized not for “daring to speak out” but for saying things many people disagree with. Santorum has every right to denigrate the loving relationships of same-sex couples by comparing them to man-on-dog sex. But just as surely others have the right to criticize and even ridicule him for those statements.  
 
The First Amendment is a two-way street. But that seems to be one truth that Santorum and his allies refuse to acknowledge.
PFAW

First Monday in October

Today, as the Supreme Court opens its new term, the major news concerns a decision from last term: the solid rebuke of Citizens United by a bipartisan group of more than 50 legal scholars and public officials. The impact of that decision is poisoning election campaigns around the country and, through the Congress that will be elected as a result, will doubtless impact the lives of every American.

This term, the Court will be deciding at least one new corporate personhood case, as well as other cases affecting our most important rights, including freedom of speech, church-state separation, and due process. Some of the ones we'll be looking at:

Corporate Personhood & Privacy: AT&T v. FCC. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) generally requires federal agencies to disclose records to the public upon request. There are numerous exceptions, such as records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes whose disclosure could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of "personal privacy." The Supreme Court will decide if "personal privacy" applies to corporations, as well as to people.

Free Speech: Snyder v. Phelps. Fred Phelps and his fellow fanatics from the Westboro Baptist Church are infamous for picketing the funerals of military personnel with messages such as "God Hates Fags." According to Phelps, the deaths of U.S. servicemembers are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The Supreme Court will determine whether Phelps' funeral-picketing activities are protected by the First Amendment. The case will be argued Wednesday.

Free Speech: Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association. The Supreme Court will address whether a California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors violates the free speech protections of the First Amendment. California argues that states can restrict minors' access to violent material just as they can with sexual material. During oral arguments in November, we may get a sense as to whether the Supreme Court agrees.

Church-State Separation: Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn. Arizona has a program that gives parents tax credits for tuition at private schools. Most parents use these credits toward tuition at religious schools. A group of taxpayers sued, arguing that this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Before the Supreme Court can decide that issue, it must first determine if the plaintiffs have standing to sue. In 2007, the Roberts Court limited the circumstances in which taxpayers can challenge government expenditures that violate the Establishment Clause, and they may do so again in this case.

State Secrets Privilege: General Dynamics v. U.S. and Boeing v. U.S. These cases are actually not about the most infamous uses of the states secret privilege, which notoriously has been used to shut down lawsuits against the government alleging U.S. complicity in torture and other illegal activities. This time, it's the federal government that has initiated the lawsuit, which raises interesting Due Process issues. These consolidated cases address whether the United States can sue two defense contractors for failing to fulfill their contractual obligations, while at the same time using the state secrets privilege to prevent the companies from presenting a defense.

Employment of Immigrants: Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Whiting. In 2007, Arizona passed a law targeting employers who hire undocumented immigrants by revoking their licenses to operate in the state. The state law also requires employers to participate in a federal electronic employment verification system that federal law specifically makes voluntary. The Supreme Court will decide whether federal immigration legislation preempts Arizona's laws.

Preemption - Right to Sue Drug Manufacturers: Bruesewitz v. Wyeth. The federal Vaccine Act preempts certain design defect lawsuits in state court against child vaccine manufacturers "if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings." The Bruesewitz family argues that their lawsuit isn't preempted because the side effects were not unavoidable: A safer, alternative vaccine was available. The Supreme Court will decide if the Vaccine Act preempts the family's suit.

Preemption - Right to Sue Car Manufacturers: Williamson v. Mazda. An accident victim sued Mazda in state court for negligently choosing to install a lap-only seatbelt in the back center seat instead of a safer lap/shoulder belt. However, federal car safety regulations at the time specifically allowed lap-only seatbelts. The Supreme Court will decide if Congress intended the federal safety regulations to preempt such state lawsuits.

PFAW

Pro-GOP Outside Groups Eclipse Parties in Spending

Traditionally, political parties and their campaign arms spend the most amount of money promoting their congressional and senatorial candidates across the country. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, however, a flurry of outside groups has materialized with gigantic war chests. As profiled in After Citizens United: A Look into the Pro-Corporate Players in American Politics, the Court’s decision allowed for new groups to surface and older organizations to increase their fundraising capacities. In the midterm elections, Kristin Jensen and Jonathan D. Salant of Bloomberg report that political committees supporting Republicans and attacking Democratic officials have so-far outspent both the Republican and Democratic parties’ campaign arms in 2010:

Republican-leaning groups outspent the two political parties combined during September’s first four weeks in a bid to sway the U.S. congressional elections, Federal Election Commission reports show.

The groups -- including Crossroads GPS, advised by Republican strategist Karl Rove, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- spent more than $33 million, mainly on advertising. That compares with just under $20 million spent by the Republican and Democratic committees charged with electing their party’s candidates.

Outside organizations are focusing most of their fire on Senate races, particularly in California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada and Pennsylvania, their reports to the FEC show. Many of the groups are registered as nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their donors, drawing protest from Democrats including President Barack Obama and Montana Senator Max Baucus.

“Republican operatives in the shadows are clearly winning the hidden money game,” said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Obama has used two of his recent weekly addresses to blast Republicans for blocking legislation that would make groups engaged in political activity report their contributions. Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, today asked Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman to investigate the organizations.

While political parties and their campaign arms must disclose their donors and have caps on contribution amounts, many outside groups accept unlimited amounts of money from individuals and corporations and do not have to disclose the sources of their funding. Thanks to such organizational advantages, such outside groups are now overshadowing political parties as regulations concerning transparency and spending fall by the wayside.

PFAW

Americans For Prosperity Sends Us an Email

Yesterday, PFAW released “After Citizens United,” documenting the torrents of money that have poured into the political system since the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision allowing corporations the same rights as people to influence elections.

Imagine my glee when I found an e-mail from Americans For Prosperity, one of the organizations profiled in the report, in my Inbox this morning:

People for the American Way,

You recently released a report where you parroted a false attack that has repeatedly been levied against Americans for Prosperity. Neither our operations nor our donors were affected in any way by Citizens United. Please see our release below in response to the President’s repeated misrepresentation of this important Supreme Court decision.

I await your clarification.

James Valvo

Director of Government Affairs

Americans for Prosperity

James helpfully included this press release by way of support.

We’re always happy to hear feedback on our reports, even unsubstantiated criticism, so I figured AFP might appreciate some feedback on some of the work it's been doing.

James –

Thanks so much for your note regarding our report.

We’d be more than happy to address your claims just as soon as you address a few concerns that we have.

As our report notes, AFP spent $750,000 on an ad claiming that “government-run health care” would harm cancer patients, especially women with breast cancer. PolitiFact gave the ad its “Pants on Fire” rating for distorting both new recommendations on mammograms and the Health Care Reform bill, which has a provision to “ensure that mammograms for women aged 40 to 50 would be covered,” and FactCheck called it “very misleading.” AFP should retract these ads.

AFP has also run ads concentrated on the Stimulus Plan, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, and Health Care Reform. AFP’s ads push the fictitious claim that Health Care Reform creates “Government Healthcare.” PolitiFact points out that “Obama’s plan leaves in place the private health care system, but seeks to expand it to the uninsured.” AFP should certainly retract these ads.

In addition, your group also misleads viewers by interpreting savings from waste and overpayment in the Medicare program as cuts affecting seniors. Americans for Prosperity also employs false attacks against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, and groundlessly blames the Stimulus Plan for increased unemployment, even though studies show that the Stimulus stopped the prolongation of the massive job losses which began under the Bush Administration. These claims should be clarified or retracted.

Also, while I have your attention, I’d be curious to get your take on the unethical and possibly illegal voter caging in Wisconsin in which AFP has been implicated. As you know, federal law prohibits racially targeted caging operations as well as the process of challenging voters based solely on returned mail. It seems appropriate for AFP to make public statements affirming the right of all American citizens to cast a vote and to dissociate itself from any attempts at voter suppression.

Once you’ve taken care of those issues, I’d be happy to arrange a time for our lawyers to go over our report with you.

With best wishes,

Drew

Drew Courtney

Director of Communications

People For the American Way

We’ll see if they write back.

In the mean time, read more about Americans For Prosperity, Club For Growth, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other organizations trying to buy the 2010 elections in “After Citizens United.”

PFAW

New Term for the Supreme Court, New Opportunities for Corporations

As detailed in PFAW Foundation’s report Rise of the Corporate Court, the Roberts Court has been routinely and consistently bending the law and the Constitution to elevate the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals. To borrow a metaphor from Chief Justice Roberts, when corporate power over employees, consumers, and the American population at large is at risk, the umpire is biased. Corporations win, people lose.

In January, this judicial tilting of the scales of justice to favor corporate America reached a new height with Citizens United.

So what’s in store for the Supreme Court term that begins next Monday? While we will not know for sure until the opinions are issued, we are beginning to see some of the cases that may become important. For instance, the Court earlier today added a number of new cases to its docket, including three focusing on the rights of corporations in what the New York Times characterizes as “unusual settings.”

In two of the cases, the justices will consider how the state secrets privilege, which can allow the government to shut down litigation by invoking national security, applies in a contract dispute between the Navy and military contractors hired to create a stealth aircraft.

In the third case, the justices agreed to decide whether corporations have privacy rights for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act. ...

The privacy case [FCC v. AT&T] will consider whether a provision of the Freedom of Information Act concerning "personal privacy" applies to corporations. ...

AT&T seeks to block the release of documents it provided to the FCC, which conducted an investigation into claims of overcharges by the company in a program to provide equipment and services to schools. The documents were sought under the freedom of information law by a trade association representing some of AT&T's competitors.

AT&T relied on an exemption to the law for law enforcement records that could "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." ...

The federal government, represented by Solicitor General Kagan, urged the Supreme Court to reject the argument that the exemption "protects the so-called 'privacy' of inanimate corporate entities."

This case will turn on the language and legislative history of the FOIA statute, as well as prior Court rulings. Court watchers will be looking out for any efforts by the Roberts Court to use this case, as it did in Citizens United, to aggrandize corporate power far beyond anything contemplated by the law or even the parties themselves.

PFAW

Conservative Groups Saturating the Airways

The Associated Press and the Washington Post described today what many predicated after the Supreme Court in Citizens United knocked down most restrictions on corporate spending in elections: political groups with a pro-corporate agenda and little transparency have flooded the airways.  Jim Kuhnhenn and Liz Sidoti of the AP write that “groups allied with the Republican Party and financed in part by corporations and millionaires have amassed a crushing 6-1 advantage in television spending, and now are dominating the airwaves in closely contested districts and states across the country.”   Many of these organizations, like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Job Security, can take unlimited amounts of money from both individual and corporate donors without having to disclose the sources of their funding.

In the Washington Post, Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam describe the rapid growth of so-called “super PACs.”  Such super PACs have “spent $4 million in the last week alone and are registering at the rate of nearly one per day.” The foremost super PAC today is the right-wing group American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS’ sister organization.  Although such committees must disclose their donors, “unlike regular political action committees, there are no limits on how much money can be raised or spent.  And unlike some other types of committees, super PACs can explicitly urge voters to oppose or support a candidate in an election.”

American Crossroads, which was founded by Repulican patriarchs Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, has received huge contributions from a handful of wealthy individuals and corporations.   Although they cannot coordinate with campaigns, “In two days last week, American Crossroads' super PAC reported spending $2.8 million on ads attacking Democratic candidates, including Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.), Jack Conway (Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).”   With more and more money poured into politics as a result of the Citizens United ruling, the burst in television advertising in the 2010 midterm election is just the beginning, as many of these outside groups prepare for the presidential election in 2012.

PFAW