At an AFL-CIO convention this weekend, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called out the increasingly pro-corporate lean of the U.S. Supreme Court. Politico reports:
On the opening day of the AFL-CIO’s convention, Warren — the highest-profile national Democrat to address the gathering here — warned attendees of a “corporate capture of the federal courts.”
In a speech that voiced a range of widely held frustrations on the left, Warren assailed the court as an instrument of the wealthy that regularly sides with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She cited an academic study that called the current Supreme Court’s five conservative-leaning justices among the “top 10 most pro-corporate justices in half a century.”
“You follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Business,” Warren said, drawing murmurs from the crowd.
The study that Warren was referring to is a Minnesota Law Review study that found that the five conservative justices currently on the Supreme Court have sided with corporate interests at a greater rate than most justices since World War II. All five were among the ten most corporate-friendly justices in over 50 years. Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts were the top two.
The Supreme Court majority’s consistent twisting of the law to put the interests of corporations over those of individuals is one of the main characteristics of the Roberts Court, but it is not the only extremely influential court with such a pro-corporate bent. In fact, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to which President Obama has nominated three highly qualified candidates, has been following the same trend, also because of the influence of judges named by George W. Bush. This is the court whose ultra-conservative justices declared that cigarette label warning requirements violate the free speech rights of tobacco companies and that requiring that employers inform employees of their right to unionize violates the free speech rights of the corporations.
While there is not currently a vacancy at the Supreme Court that could affect its balance, there are three at the DC Circuit. That is why Senate Republicans are working so hard to keep them empty.
In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court rulings on critical civil rights issues, a new poll finds increasing support for marriage equality and falling support for the high court itself.
A national Princeton Survey Research Associates poll found that 55 percent of Americans think that marriages of same-sex couples should be legally recognized – the highest level of support ever. A similar percentage (53 percent) believe that affirmative action programs are needed, and more Americans oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act (49 percent) than support it (40 percent). In other words, the American people are not on board with the Supreme Court turning back the clock on our civil rights.
So it is not surprising that Supreme Court approval ratings are falling. The Princeton poll found the lowest level of approval (43 percent) in eight years, with slightly more Americans disapproving of the way the court is doing its job (44 percent). Similarly, a Rasmussen poll released yesterday found that the percentage of likely voters who think the Supreme Court is doing a poor job is rising.
What is more surprising is that both polls show that a greater percentage of Americans still believe that the high court is “too liberal” than believe it is “too conservative.” As PFAW President Michael Keegan pointed out in May, this is no accident:
“In recent decades, right-wing leaders have worked in popular culture to attack the courts as a liberal peril while successfully organizing to dominate and control legal institutions to create courts that no longer look out for the rights of all Americans. They have set up law schools and legal societies to promote corporate and right-wing commitments, have promoted the appointment of reactionary judges and Justices, blocked the appointment of even moderate jurists, and defined a legal agenda that subordinates individual rights to government power and public regulation to corporate power. Right-wing success in remaking the judiciary in the image of the Republican Party has not led conservatives to curb their bitter attack on ‘liberal judicial activism,’ a fantasy that is several decades out of date but indispensable to this smoke-and-mirrors operation.”
While conservatives continue to crow about “liberal judicial activism,” the American people are realizing that the Supreme Court’s conservative rulings on issues like voting rights and the rights of workers and consumers do not reflect their beliefs or the nation’s core constitutional values.
It's been a week of mixed emotions for those of us who care about civil rights. There was the elation today when the Supreme Court overturned the so-called Defense of Marriage Act -- the discriminatory law that has hurt so many Americans in its nearly 17 years of existence -- and let marriage equality return to California. There was the anger when the Court twisted the law to make it harder for workers and consumers to take on big corporations. And there was the disbelief and outrage when the Court declared that a key part of the Voting Rights Act that was so important and had worked so well was now somehow no longer constitutional.
But throughout the week, I have been reminded of one thing: how grateful I am that Mitt Romney will not be picking the next Supreme Court justice.
It remains true that this Supreme Court is one of the most right-leaning in American history. The majority's head-in-the-sand decision on the Voting Rights Act -- declaring that the VRA isn't needed anymore because it's working so well -- was a stark reminder of why we need to elect presidents who will nominate Supreme Court justices who understand both the text and history of the Constitution and the way it affects real people's lives.
We were reminded of this again today when all the conservative justices except for Anthony Kennedy stood behind the clearly unconstitutional DOMA. Justice Antonin Scalia -- no stranger to anti-gay rhetoric -- wrote an apoplectic rant of a dissent denying the Court's clear role in preserving equal protection. If there had been one more far-right justice on the court, Scalia's dissent could have been the majority opinion.
Just think of how different this week would have been if Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were not on the court and if John McCain had picked two justices instead. We almost certainly wouldn't have a strong affirmation of LGBT equality. Efforts to strip people of color of their voting rights would likely have stood with fewer justices in dissent. And the rights of workers and consumers could be in even greater peril.
As the Republican party moves further and further to the right, it is trying to take the courts with it. This week, we saw what that means in practice. As we move forward to urge Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act and reinforce protections for workers and consumers, and work to make sure that marriage equality is recognized in all states, we must always remember the courts. Elections have real consequences. These Supreme Court decisions had less to do with evolving legal theory than with who appointed the justices. Whether historically good or disastrous, all these decisions were decided by just one vote. In 2016, let's not forget what happened this week.
The Supreme Court today ruled that the core section of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. DOMA’s Section 3, which the Court vacated, prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states, thereby hitting legally married gay and lesbian couples with extra taxes and depriving them of a slew of federal protections.
People For the American Way Foundation president Michael Keegan said of the Supreme Court’s ruling: “Today’s DOMA ruling is a profound step forward for loving, committed same-sex couples across the country. The decision is premised on the plain fact that there is no good reason for the government to recognize some legally married couples while discriminating against others.”
PFAW launched a campaign to “Dump DOMA” in 2008. Since then, our petition calling on Congress to repeal the discriminatory law has gathered 230,000 signatures.
But the effort to overturn DOMA is not over. While Section 3 was the law’s most damaging provision, DOMA’s Section 2, which says that states don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, still stands. We will continue to work to overturn the remainder of DOMA and ensure that all gay and lesbian Americans have the right to marriage, no matter which state they make their home.
While our work continues, today’s decision represents a historic turning point for equality. DOMA will no longer tear apart binational couples. It will no longer impose a “gay tax” on legally married same-sex couples. It will no longer deny benefits to same-sex spouses of federal employees. It will no longer deny gay and lesbian veterans benefits for their spouses.
The story of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff who brought DOMA to the Supreme Court, and Thea Spyer, her late wife and partner of 40 years, illustrates what this decision will mean to so many Americans:
The Supreme Court issued 7-2 ruling in favor of voting rights today, finding that a restrictive Arizona law requiring that voters show proof of citizenship when registering by mail is preempted by federal law. The court upheld Arizonans’ right to register to vote by mail using a federal form created by the 1993 “Motor Voter” law, which allows voters to certify under oath that they are citizens. Arizonans will not have to submit information that the federal form does not require.
PFAW Foundation joined in an amicus brief in the case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, on behalf of its Young People For program.
The Arizona law, which would have required voters to present one of a narrow set of documents proving citizenship in order to register to vote, would have impeded the voting rights of countless Arizonans. As Demos put it:
Many eligible citizens do not possess these narrow forms of documentation required by the law and, of those who do, many do not carry them while conducting their daily affairs. Community-based registration efforts overwhelmingly rely on approaching individuals who did not plan in advance to register at that time or location and who are thus unlikely to be carrying a birth certificate, passport, or other documentation.
Even when a potential registrant does happen to be carrying one of the required documents, logistical hurdles—ranging from an inability to copy documents on the spot to an unwillingness to hand over sensitive identification documents to registration drive volunteers—greatly hinder the ability of community-based organizations to register people in Arizona.
The Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision in the other major voting rights case on its docket this term, the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Few Americans would argue that they want to see more big money flowing into our political system.
Yet yesterday the Republican National Committee asked the Supreme Court to strike down limits on the total amount an individual donor can contribute to campaigns in a single election cycle, filing an opening brief in what is sure to be a high-profile Supreme Court case. If the RNC and the Republican donor who together filed the case in Shaun McCutcheon, et al. v. Federal Election Commission are successful, the limit on aggregate individual contributions per cycle could jump from $117,000 to $3 million.
As PFAW noted in February, this case threatens to be the next stage in the ongoing attack on our country’s democracy. By calling for a gutting of our country’s campaign finance reform regulations, Republicans are ignoring the majority of Americans who believe there is already far too much big money being poured into our elections.
We write frequently about the extraordinarily pro-corporate leanings of the current Supreme Court, where the Justices bend the law and twist logic in order to rule in favor of large corporate interests and against the rights of individuals harmed by those interests. In the past week, two new studies have provided powerful numbers to back up the trend.
In a report released on Thursday, the Constitutional Accountability Center found that the corporate lobbying group U.S. Chamber of Commerce has won a stunning two-thirds of the cases that it has been involved with before the Roberts Court. And this weekend, The New York Times reported on a new study from the Minnesota Law Review that found that the current Supreme Court’s five conservative justices have sided with corporate interests at a greater rate than most justices since World War II. In fact, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both George W. Bush nominees, are the two most pro-corporate Supreme Court justices to sit in the past 65 years:
The Times writes:
But the business docket reflects something truly distinctive about the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. While the current court’s decisions, over all, are only slightly more conservative than those from the courts led by Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and William H. Rehnquist, according to political scientists who study the court, its business rulings are another matter. They have been, a new study finds, far friendlier to business than those of any court since at least World War II.
In the eight years since Chief Justice Roberts joined the court, it has allowed corporations to spend freely in elections in the Citizens United case, has shielded them from class actions and human rights suits, and has made arbitration the favored way to resolve many disputes. Business groups say the Roberts court’s decisions have helped combat frivolous lawsuits, while plaintiffs’ lawyers say the rulings have destroyed legitimate claims for harm from faulty products, discriminatory practices and fraud.
Published last month in The Minnesota Law Review, the study ranked the 36 justices who served on the court over those 65 years by the proportion of their pro-business votes; all five of the current court’s more conservative members were in the top 10. But the study’s most striking finding was that the two justices most likely to vote in favor of business interests since 1946 are the most recent conservative additions to the court, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both appointed by President George W. Bush.
The current Supreme Court’s pro-corporate leanings have resulted in a huge spike in rulings favoring corporations over individual Americans, according to a new report from the Constitutional Accountability Center. MSNBC’s Zachary Roth goes through the report’s findings, including that under Chief Justice Roberts, the behemoth corporate lobbying group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has won a full two-thirds of the Supreme Court cases in which it has been involved:
The major result of the Chamber’s success, legal scholars say, has been a string of rulings that threaten to block the courthouse door to ordinary Americans looking to hold corporations accountable. And with court-watchers’ attention focused on higher-profile gay marriage and voting rights cases this term, it’s a development that’s flown largely under the radar.
The Roberts Court’s pro-business outlook has been apparent for several years. But the CAC report suggests it may be accelerating. Both the Chamber’s participation rate and its success rate have risen significantly in recent years. This term, the Chamber filed amicus briefs in 24% of cases, up from 10% during the latter part of the Rehnquist Court, from 1994 to 2005, a period of stability when there were no changes to court personnel. And since John Roberts became Chief Justice, the Chamber has won 69% of the cases in which it’s gotten involved (see chart below). That’s up from 56% during the latter part of the Rehnquist Court, and just 43% during the last five years of the Burger Court, from 1981 to 1986.
Jamie Raskin, Senior Fellow of People For the American Way Foundation, chronicled the “Rise of the Corporate Court” in a 2010 report. He wrote:
Americans across the spectrum have been startled and appalled by the Citizens United decision, which will "open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limit in our elections," as President Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address. According to a Washington Post nationwide poll, more than 80% of the American people reject the Court's conclusion that a business corporation is a member of the political community entitled to the same free speech rights as citizens.
Yet, the Court's watershed ruling is the logical expression of an activist pro-corporatist jurisprudence that has been bubbling up for many decades on the Court but has gained tremendous momentum over the last generation. Since the Rehnquist Court, there have been at least five justices—and sometimes more—who tilt hard to the right when it comes to a direct showdown between corporate power and the public interest. During the Roberts Court, this trend has continued and intensified. Although there is still some fluidity among the players, it is reasonable to think of a reliable "corporate bloc" as having emerged on the Court.
What is striking today, however, is how often the Roberts Court, like its predecessor the Rehnquist Court, hands down counter-intuitive 5-4 victories to corporations by ignoring clear precedents, twisting statutory language and distorting legislative intent. From labor and workplace law to environmental law, from consumer regulation to tort law and the all-important election law, the conservative-tilting Court has reached out to enshrine and elevate the power of business corporations --what some people have begun to call "corporate Americans"--over the rights of the old-fashioned human beings called citizens.
With Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy in the driver's seat today, the "least dangerous" branch of government now routinely runs over our laws and our politics to clear the road for corporate interests. When it comes to political democracy and social progress, the Supreme Court today is the most dangerous branch. The road back to strong democracy requires sustained attention to how the Court is thwarting justice and the rule of law in service of corporate litigants.
A poll commissioned by People For the American Way and fellow progressive groups late last year found that the Corporate Court was a concern for a majority of voters.
Back in September, PFAW senior fellow Jamie Raskin wrote a preview of the major cases coming before the Supreme Court this term, one of which, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, deals with the ability of foreign nationals to sue corporations for human rights abuses in American courts. The Supreme Court today issued a sweeping ruling siding with the multinational corporations accused of abuse. Main Justice sums up the facts of the case:
The plaintiffs accuse Royal Dutch, the Shell Transport and Trading Company and their joint Nigerian subsidy of allowing, indeed encouraging, atrocities by the Nigerian military against people who were protesting environmental damage caused by drilling in the Niger Delta in the 1990s. The companies were complicit in beatings, rapes and mass arrests by paying the soldiers, feeding them and allowing them to use oil company property as staging areas for their attacks, the plaintiffs maintain.
At issue was the application of the Alien Tort Statute, enacted in 1789, that gives United States courts jurisdiction over civil actions brought by aliens alleging torts committed in violation of United States treaties or international law. The seldom-used ATS was enacted partly in response to piracy on the high seas. The Nigerian plaintiffs, now legal residents of the United States, tried to use it in a present-day context.
As Jamie Raskin wrote in his Supreme Court preview, the Second Circuit radically twisted legal precedent in this case to rule that individuals could not sue corporations under the Alien Tort Statute:
Jurisdiction to hear the suit was clear. In 2004, the Supreme Court held, in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, that the Alien Tort Statute gave federal courts jurisdiction to hear claims about torts committed against aliens that violate well-established international norms like the human rights norms implicated in this case. Yet a bitterly divided Second Circuit panel in Kiobel held for the first time that the statute does not allow courts to hear suits against corporations as opposed to individuals. The Kiobel majority’s ruling on this issue was amazing since the issue was never raised, never briefed, never argued and never decided in any of the proceedings below that took place over the course of nearly a decade. (This rings a bell for close observers of the Citizens United majority, which also pulled a rabbit out of a hat to ask and answer a question never raised below.)
Today, the Roberts Court agreed. The Court unanimously ruled against the Nigerians in Kiobel, but disagreed about how far the ruling should go. Justice Roberts, writing for the conservative majority, wrote a broad ruling in favor of the corporations accused of human rights abuses. The four moderate justices concurred with the majority’s ruling on this particular case, but left the door open for similar cases to be tried in U.S. Courts. Main Justice explains:
Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the defendants’ “minimal and indirect presence in the United States was not enough to give American courts jurisdiction over the case.” But he stopped short of declaring that similar cases should never end up in American courts if the abuse at issue “adversely affects an important American national interest.” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed with him.
Nicole Flatow at ThinkProgress explains the possible implications of the majority’s ruling:
This decision not only means that Nigerians cannot sue foreign corporations for their conduct abroad. On this particular point, the four-justice Breyer concurrence agreed that this case did not pass muster. Roberts’ sweeping pronouncement against extraterritoriality may also mean that foreign nationals subject to abuse, for example, at the hands of a U.S. corporation that houses its factories in places whose laws shield it from liability, or an American citizen who commits human rights violations abroad against foreigners, also could not be subject to suit in the United States.
The scope of the opinion will not become clear until it is interpreted by courts. Extraterritoriality is a legal concept that asks not just whether conduct took place abroad, but also whether the claims “touch and concern the territory of the United States” such that a plaintiff can overcome the presumption against them. The only hint the court gives is that lawsuits against corporations will face a particularly heavy burden, noting, “Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices.”
What is clear is that the presumption is exceedingly difficult to overcome, and that both individuals and corporations have a high chance of skirting liability simply by doing their dirty work elsewhere.