This post originally appeared on Huffington Post Politics.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ended this Supreme Court session with a bang, writing the majority opinion in two cases that gave for-profit corporations the right to make religious liberty claims to evade government regulation and set the stage for the fulfillment of a central goal of the right-wing political movement: the destruction of public employee unions.
Neither of the decisions were particularly surprising. Samuel Alito is the single most pro-corporate Justice on the most pro-business Court since the New Deal. Still, Alito’s one-two punch was another extraordinary milestone for the strategists who have been working for the past 40 years to put business firmly in the driver’s seat of American politics.
Many would suggest that the modern right-wing movement began with the failed presidential bid of Barry Goldwater. But there’s a strong case to be made that it begins in earnest with a 1971 memo by Lewis Powell, who argued that American businesses were losing public support and called for a massive, continuing campaign to wage war on leftist academics, progressive nonprofit groups, and politicians. The memo by Powell, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court via a nomination by Richard Nixon, inspired a few very wealth men like Adolph Coors, John M. Olin, and Richard Mellon Scaife, who set about creating and funding a massive infrastructure of think tanks, endowed academic chairs, law schools and right-wing legal groups, including the Federalist Society, which has nurtured Alito’s career.
Chief among the right-wing movement’s tactics has been building sufficient political power to achieve ideological dominance over the federal judiciary. As activists like Richard Viguerie recruited foot soldiers to help win elections for the GOP, the Federalist Society built the intellectual foundations for an extreme conservative legal movement that would gain traction when its members won confirmation to the federal bench. That process began in earnest during the Reagan administration and reached new heights during the George W. Bush administration with the ascendance to the Supreme Court of John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Samuel Alito was, is, and always has been a man of the movement, an ideological warrior with a clear set of goals. His commitment to achieving those goals by any means available to him is reflected in his record in the Reagan Justice Department, the White House Office of Legal Counsel, as an appeals court judge, and now as a Supreme Court justice, where he is helping to wage a legal counterrevolution aimed at reversing hard-won advances protecting workers, the environment, and the rights of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people.
He remains an active part of the political and legal movement that shepherded his rise to power. The Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo steered Alito’s Supreme Court nomination through the White House and Senate. Alito has returned the favor, participating in numerous events for the Federalist Society even after he became a member of the Supreme Court. He has shown no concern about positioning himself as part of the movement, telling listeners at a Federalist Society dinner in 2012 that the Obama administration is promoting a vision of society “in which the federal government towers over people.” He has also helped raise funds at events for the right-wing American Spectator Magazine (where he mocked VP-elect Joe Biden), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Manhattan Institute.
Alito’s class at Princeton was the last all-male class at the university, and when Alito was angling for a promotion within the Reagan-Meese Justice Department in 1985, he bragged that he was a “proud member” of Conservative Alumni of Princeton, a group that aggressively fought the university’s efforts to diversify its student body by accepting more women and people of color. (He developed a surprisingly thorough amnesia on the topic between his Justice Department days and his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.)
At the Justice Department, Alito was part of a team that pushed to limit civil rights protections and advance a right-wing legal ideology. Even in that hothouse of right-wing activism, he was an outlier, unsuccessfully trying to push Ronald Reagan to veto an uncontroversial bill against odometer fraud on the grounds of federalism. Alito argued that it is not the job of the federal government to protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of Americans. He continued to push that kind of federalism argument as a judge, dissenting from a ruling that upheld a federal law restricting the sale of machine guns. On the Third Circuit Court of Appeals he was often the lone dissenter staking out far-right interpretations of the law that consistently sacrificed the rights and interests of individuals to powerful corporate or other institutions.
Among the right-wing movement’s key long-term goals — from the Nixon era up until today — has been to rig the system to prevent progressives from being able to win elections and exercise political influence. They have sought to “defund the left” by starving government agencies and progressive nonprofits of funds and by weakening or destroying organized labor, which is a crucial source of funding and organizing efforts for progressive causes and candidates. For example, the DeVos family pushed anti-union “right to work” legislation in their home state of Michigan, and the Koch brothers and their political networks have poured massive resources into the political arm of the movement, exemplified by politicians who, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are hell-bent on the destruction of public employee unions.
Alito’s recent decision in the Harris v. Quinn case was just the latest step towards that goal. In that case, Alito and his conservative colleagues invented a new employee classification in order to declare that one class of workers paid by the state are not subject to the same labor laws as other public employees. The decision was prefigured in a 2012 case, Knox v. SEIU, in which Alito led an attack on unions by deciding to answer a question that had not even come before them in the case. In essence, he and the other conservative justices argued that a system that allows workers to opt out of assessments for unions’ political work was suddenly unconstitutional, and required an opt-in. Justice Sotomayor slammed the Alito decision for ruling on an issue which the SEIU had not even been given an opportunity to address. That kind of right-wing activism moved People For the American Way Foundation’s Paul Gordon to write that the Court’s conservative judges “might as well have taken off their judicial robes and donned Scott Walker T-shirts in their zeal to make it harder for unions to protect workers.”
In his Harris decision, Alito went out of his way to invite right-wing legal groups to bring a more far-reaching case, one that would finally give him and his pro-business colleagues an opportunity to take a sledgehammer to public employee unions by eliminating, in the name of the First Amendment, the requirement (specifically upheld by the Supreme Court over 30 years ago) that workers benefitting from a collective bargaining agreement help pay for the costs of negotiating that kind of agreement. That would devastate union financing, sharply limiting their ability to protect their members and potentially setting up a death spiral as fewer employees would see the benefits of joining (and paying dues to) the unions. Not coincidentally, this would also severely weaken the progressive political organizations and parties that unions have long supported. Movement conservatives have long looked forward to checking that off their “to do” list.
Alito’s determination to re-write federal law in ways that strengthen corporate power and undermine workers’ rights was also on display a few years earlier, when he wrote an indefensible opinion — joined by his conservative colleagues — in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Alito ignored judicial precedent, common sense, and the clear purpose of the law in order to create an unreasonable deadline for making a pay discrimination claim, one that would be insurmountable for someone who was not immediately aware that they were being discriminated against. Lilly Ledbetter, a loyal Goodyear employee who learned she had been paid less than male colleagues for years, was, in the words of law professor and PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin, “judicial roadkill along the highway in the majority’s campaign to restrict, rewrite, and squash anti-discrimination law.” Alito also wrote the 5-4 majority opinion in last year’s Vance v. Ball State decision, which made it easier for companies to avoid liability in discrimination cases by declaring that someone who directs an employee’s day-to-day activities doesn’t count as a “supervisor” unless they have power to take “tangible employment actions” against them like firing them. As in the Ledbetter case, Alito ignored how workplaces really work in order to reach his result.
In Hobby Lobby, the other blockbuster case this week, Alito wrote a decision declaring, for the first time ever, that for-profit corporations have “religious exercise” rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In order to do so, Alito had to ignore common sense (for-profit corporations don’t have religion), to say nothing of the clear historical record and explicit statutory language that RFRA was intended to return the state of the law to the era before the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith (which many believed undermined protection for religious minorities). In the face of all evidence, Alito argued, in Ginsburg’s words, that RFRA was “a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence.”
In an effort reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s “applies only in this case” approach to Bush v. Gore, Alito argued that his ruling was “concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate” and applied solely to closely held corporations.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn’t let him get away with it, calling Alito’s ruling “a decision of startling breadth.” Having created an entirely new legal avenue by which closely held for-profit companies (which includes about 90 percent of American businesses, hiring more than half of the nation’s workforce) can try to evade regulation, Alito has undoubtedly generated excited activity in right-wing legal organizations who are likely to use the ruling to try to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws for business owners that oppose homosexuality or gender equality, or perhaps for evangelical business owners who believe the Bible opposes minimum wage laws and collective bargaining. And he gave no limiting principle on extending RFRA to for-profit corporations, leaving open the question as to whether an enormous publicly-traded corporation like IBM or GE would also count as a “person” with religious liberty rights under RFRA.
Alito’s insistence that the Court must accept the plaintiff’s claim of “substantial burden” on religious free exercise based on their belief that some forms of contraception cause abortion — in spite of the consensus of the medical and scientific establishment to the contrary and Justice Ginsburg’s explanation of why that belief does not translate into a “substantial burden” — was prefigured by an argument he made when working in the Office of Legal Counsel, where he helped write a memo arguing that, in spite of anti-discrimination provisions, employers in federally funded program could exclude people with AIDS regardless of whether or not their “fear of contagion” was reasonable.
Given that the Hobby Lobby case has been trumpeted by the right as a victory for “religious liberty,” it is worth noting that, in this year’s 5-4 Town of Greece decision, Alito joined his conservative colleagues in a decision that showed little regard for the religious beliefs of citizens of minority faiths whose public town board meetings were consistently begun with sectarian prayers. During consideration of his nomination to the Supreme Court, the editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution had written that Alito would be “likely to further erode the protections that have kept the majority from imposing their religious views on the minority.”
Alito also joined the Court’s 5-4 majority in last year’s decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, another long-pursued goal of the right-wing movement. That decision, in Shelby County v Holder, is another example of the step-by-step shift in the law being pursued by the conservative justices. Shelby was built in part on a 2009 Voting Rights Act decision in which the Court declined to vote on the constitutionality of the provisions they threw out in Shelby, but in which Chief Justice John Roberts included language about “constitutional concerns” that he would later cite in Shelby. Earlier in his career, Alito made clear that he disagreed with Court decisions that established the crucial “one man, one vote” principle that undergirds many voting rights protections.
As a Supreme Court justice, Samuel Alito has demonstrated the traits of the right-wing movement from which he emerged: he denounces judicial activism while aggressively pursuing it; he is willing to twist laws, precedents, and established processes in order to advance his political goals; and he has often demonstrated contempt for those who disagree with him, as when he rolled his eyes and shook his head while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent in the Shelby County case.
Much of the initial news coverage of the Hobby Lobby and Harris cases focused on the description of them by their author as being “limited” rather than “sweeping” in scope. That ignores the clear evidence from those cases, and from the record of the Roberts court, that Roberts and Alito are playing a long game. They have decades in which to relentlessly push the agenda that has been fostered by right-wing legal and political groups for the past four decades. Their one-step-after-another dismantling of campaign finance law, from Citizens United to McCutcheon, makes it clear that Roberts and Alito see the value of patience and of presenting a public image of restraint while carrying out a revolution. But a revolution they are pursuing, one in which the First Amendment’s protections for religious freedom and free speech are manipulated in the service of undermining religious liberty, the rights of workers, and the ability of the government to regulate corporate behavior.
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There is about a month remaining before the end of the Supreme Court’s current term, which is expected to be at the end of June. The Roberts Court has already done great damage in the cases it has decided so far. The far-right’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC drove another dagger into the heart of our democracy by empowering the wealthiest and most powerful among us to exercise even more control over our election. Town of Greece v. Galloway continued the arch-conservatives’ goal to undermine the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
But there are many important cases remaining to be decided over the next several weeks. Depending on how the Court rules, the entrenched power imbalance already harming our democracy could be significantly worsened.
Recess appointments and sabotage of the executive branch: NLRB v. Noel Canning.
This case has the potential of completely remaking the president’s recess appointment authority from how it has been understood and exercised since the 1800s. The recess appointment power has long been used by presidents of both parties during all kinds of recesses, not just those occurring annually between sessions of Congress. And it has always been used to fill vacancies regardless of when those vacancies first became open. But that may soon change.
It’s important to note that this case arose out of far-right conservatives’ efforts to nullify laws they don’t agree with. In this case, the laws in their crosshairs were those protecting workers, which they sought to undermine by preventing the National Labor Relations Board from having enough members to conduct business. Specifically, Republicans blocked the Senate from holding confirmation votes on President Obama’s nominees to the NLRB, finally provoking him to make recess appointments in January of 2012. This was during a vacation period when the Senate was meeting for pro forma sessions for a few minutes every few days, a practice that came about for the specific purpose of preventing recess appointments.
The Supreme Court has been asked to answer several questions: (1) Can a recess appointment be made only during the recess between two sessions of Congress (which occurs once a year and can last only a split second), or can it be made during any recess? (2) Can the Senate use pro forma sessions to turn what would otherwise be a recess into a non-recess, thereby preventing recess appointments? (3) Is a recess appointment limited to those vacancies that first became open during the same recess during which the appointment is made?
Attacks on public sector unions: Harris v. Quinn.
This case is about home care personal assistants (PAs) in Illinois, who provide in-home care under two of its Medicaid programs to people with disabilities and other health needs. But it has the potential, should the Roberts Court wish, to deliver a crippling blow to public sector unions nationwide.
Illinois PAs are classified as state employees for the purposes of collective bargaining and work under a common “agency shop” agreement: If the employees in a particular group choose to have a union represent them, the government employer recognizes that union as their exclusive representative. When the union carries out its collective bargaining functions, it does so on behalf of all the employees, regardless of whether they actually join the union. Members pay dues to support this activity on their behalf. To prevent “free riding,” the law requires non-union members to pay their fair share to support the basic collective bargaining activities being done on their behalf, but not to support non-collective bargaining activities such as political campaigning with which they might disagree.
The Supreme Court has long recognized that such arrangements for public employees are consistent with the First Amendment, dating back to a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. But that precedent is threatened in this case as petitioners – backed by the anti-worker National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation – call for the Roberts Court to overrule Abood. According to the PAs who brought this case, the arrangement violates their First Amendment freedom to choose with whom to associate. They also claim that exclusive representation violates their right to petition the government on matters of public policy, since the subject of their negotiations is the functioning and budgets of state Medicaid programs.
As Justice Kagan noted during oral arguments, this “would radically restructure the way workplaces across this country are run,” imposing so-called “right to work” regimes on all public employment throughout the United States. In so doing, it would substantially drain the coffers of public sector unions, which has been a longtime political goal of conservative extremists.
Unfortunately, the far-right Justices on the Roberts Court have already demonstrated their eagerness to join in the political attack on workers. Two years ago, in Knox v. SEIU (another case involving public sector unions), they severely undercut another longtime precedent that had enabled public sector unions to protect workers’ rights by deciding an issue that wasn’t before them, ruling against the union on an issue that it had not even had a chance to argue. As Justice Sotomayor pointed out in her dissent, the majority was acting in violation of the Court’s own rules to achieve this result. Whether they will show a similar eagerness to undercut public sector unions remains to be seen.
Corporate religious liberty rights: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.
These cases have the potential to give religious liberty rights to for-profit corporations, and to empower their owners and managers to ignore laws on health insurance coverage, employment discrimination, and other areas based on their religious beliefs.
Under the Affordable Care Act and HHS guidelines, employers generally have to provide certain preventive health services, including FDA-approved contraception, to women employees. The cases challenging this requirement involve several companies and their owners. Conestoga Wood is a for-profit corporation with 950 employees, owned by members of the Hahn family. Hobby Lobby is an arts and crafts chain store with over 500 stores and about 13,000 full-time employees, owned by members of the Green family. The Greens also own a corporation called Mardel, a chain of 35 for-profit Christian bookstores with about 400 employees.
The Greens and the Hahns have religious-based opposition to the use of some of the contraceptives covered by the law. They claim that the law violates not only their own religious freedom, but also the religious freedom of the large for-profit corporations they run. The primary law at issue in the cases is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), enacted in 1993. Under RFRA, a federal law cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it advances a compelling government interest in the least restrictive manner.
A key question for the Justices is whether a for-profit corporation is a “person” covered by RFRA. Unsurprisingly, before this litigation, no court had ever found that for-profit corporations have religious liberty interests either under RFRA or under the First Amendment. Yet a divided Tenth Circuit ruled for Hobby Lobby: They concluded that since corporations have First Amendment political speech rights under Citizens United, it follows that they also have First Amendment religious rights, and that RFRA should be interpreted to include them as “persons.” As PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin has written, “the outlandish claims of the company involved would not have a prayer except for Citizens United, the miracle gift of 2010 that just keeps giving.”
The next question is whether the coverage requirement is a substantial burden on the families’ (and possibly corporations’) exercise of religion, even though they are not forced to use or administer the contraception, or to affirm that they have no religious objection to it. Since the ones providing the health insurance are the corporations and not the individual owners, a ruling in favor of the owners would have implications for a concept basic to American law: that a corporation is a legally separate entity from its owners.
If the Justices find a substantial burden on the corporations or their owners, then they will determine if the government interest (furthering women’s health and equality) is a compelling one, and if the coverage provision advances that interest in the least restrictive manner.
While a victory for either the corporations or their owners would directly harm women’s health, it could also open the door to employers being able to exempt themselves from other laws that they have religious objections to, such as anti-discrimination protections.
Women’s Access to Reproductive Health Clinics: McCullen v. Coakley.
The Court is being asked to overrule a 2000 precedent upholding buffer zones around reproductive health clinics. The current case involves a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around such clinics (with exceptions for employees, patients and others with business there, and people passing through on their way somewhere else). Anti-choice advocates claim this violates their freedom of speech because it restricts only people with a particular viewpoint.
The lower courts disagreed, citing the 2000 case of Hill v. Colorado, where the Supreme Court upheld a buffer zone making it illegal to approach within eight feet of people at clinics for the purpose of counseling, education, or protesting. (This applied anywhere within 100 feet of the clinic.) That 6-3 decision analyzed the law as a content-neutral regulation of speech that was reasonable in light of the importance of protecting unwilling people’s right to avoid unwanted conversations and their right to pass without obstruction. However, two of the conservative Justices in the 6-3 majority have been replaced by far more conservative Bush nominees: Rehnquist (by Roberts) and O’Connor (by Alito). Since Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas dissented in the 2000 case, there may very well be five votes to not only strike down the Massachusetts buffer zone but also to overrule Hill completely.
As noted in an amicus brief that PFAW Foundation joined, the Massachusetts law applies to people regardless of the content of their speech and is a content-neutral way to ensure that women can enter the clinics to exercise their constitutional rights. The law does not prevent abortion opponents from approaching women who are more than 35 feet from the clinic entrance (as opposed to the Colorado law, which prohibited unwanted close contact anywhere within 100 feet of the clinic). And the record in this case shows that anti-choice advocates have consistently been able to distribute literature to individuals approaching clinics, as well as to have quiet conversations with them.
Nevertheless, many felt after oral arguments that five conservative justices were likely to strike down the Massachusetts law. If they do, we will see if they also overrule the 2000 precedent, opening the floodgates to another era of efforts to block women from exercising a deeply personal constitutional right.
Regulating greenhouse gases: Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (and several companion cases).
In these cases, industrial interests and their allies are attacking the EPA’s ability to effectively regulate their greenhouse gas emissions.
In Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles, since they easily fit within the CAA’s broad definition of “air pollutant.” This ruling, resisted by the Bush Administration, allowed the Obama Administration to adopt regulations on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks in 2010.
Under the EPA’s longstanding interpretation of the Clean Air Act, once EPA regulation of a pollutant from mobile sources (like cars and trucks) goes into effect, that pollutant is automatically subject to regulation under EPA rules for stationary sources (like factories and power plants). Those regulations involve permitting requirements for facilities emitting pollutants over statutory thresholds. But greenhouse gases are emitted in far greater volumes than other pollutants, and millions of industrial, commercial, and even residential sources exceed the statutory threshold. The EPA recognized that immediately adding these millions of stationary sources to its permitting programs would impose tremendous costs to both industry and to state permitting authorities. So in what is called the “Tailoring Rule,” the agency chose to move gradually, initially subjecting only the largest sources of emissions to mandatory greenhouse gas permitting, and planning a gradual phase-in for others, with planned rulemakings on how best to accomplish that phase-in.
Industrial interests, the Chamber of Commerce, and their conservative allies in state government have challenged the EPA rules. They argue that since the addition of greenhouse gases to the stationary sources permitting programs would cause what they characterize as results not desired by Congress (such as bringing huge numbers of buildings, including churches, schools, bakeries, and large private homes into the programs), it means that greenhouse gases are not the type of pollutant to which these permitting programs apply. And that lets the major industrial contributors to greenhouse gas pollution off the hook. They also claim that the Tailoring Rule is a rewrite of the Clean Air Act, which only Congress can do. So we end up with hyperbolic right-wing talking points in Supreme Court briefs, like this from Southeastern Legal Foundation:
This case involves perhaps the most audacious seizure of pure legislative power over domestic economic matters attempted by the Executive Branch since Youngstown Sheet & Tube [the 1952 case striking down President Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean War].
As the Constitutional Accountability Center noted in their amicus brief supporting the EPA, the agency’s gradual approach satisfies rather than subverts the central purpose of the Clean Air Act:
This is not a suspension of the relevant statutory provisions nor a failure to enforce the CAA as written. To the contrary, EPA is setting priorities based on both practical realities and its limited resources, biting off no more than it or, as important, the regulated entities themselves, can chew at any given time. This phase-in of the CAA’s requirements is not a rewrite of the statute, and it is fully consistent with the executive authority vested in the President by Article II of our enduring Constitution and the separation of powers evidenced in the Framers’ design.