union rights

Roberts Court Leaves Workers and Employers Hanging

A case dismissal leaves intact a damaging lower court opinion whose questionable validity prompted the dismissal.
PFAW Foundation

Don’t Forget Who John Roberts Is

Add this to the good news/bad news mix from the Supreme Court's healthcare decision: Because of the good news (Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act), we get the bad news that his standing among the nation's Democrats has significantly increased. This collective amnesia about who John Roberts is and what he has done is disturbing, especially since the direction of the Court is one of the most important issues upon which Democrats should be voting in November.

A new Gallup Poll shows wild fluctuations in Democrats and Republicans' assessment of Chief Justice John Roberts since their last poll in 2005, a change Gallup attributes to his role in upholding the Affordable Care Act. Roberts' approval rating among Republicans has plummeted 40 percentage points from 2005, falling from 67% to 27%. In contrast, his favorability among Democrats has risen from 35% to 54%. That the healthcare decision is a catalyst of this change is supported by a PEW Research Center poll last week showing that between April and July, approval of the Supreme Court dropped 18 points among Republicans and rose 12% among Democrats.

Yes, John Roberts upheld the ACA, but only as a tax. At the same time, he agreed with his four far right compatriots that it fell outside the authority granted Congress by the Commerce Clause, leaving many observers concerned that he has set traps designed to let the Court later strike down congressional legislation that should in no way be considered constitutionally suspect. He also joined the majority that restricted Congress's constitutional authority under the Spending Clause to define the contours of state programs financed with federal funds.

Just as importantly, Roberts's upholding the ACA does not erase the past seven years, during which he has repeatedly been part of thin conservative majority decisions bending the law beyond recognition in order to achieve a right wing political result. John Roberts cast the deciding vote in a number of disastrous decisions, including those that:

Oh, and then there's that little 5-4 Citizens United opinion that has upended our nation's electoral system and put our government up to sale to the highest bidder.

With a rap sheet like that – and this is hardly a complete a list – no one should be under the illusion that John Roberts is anything but a right-wing ideologue using the Supreme Court to cement his favorite right-wing policies into law.

Next term, Roberts is expected to lead the judicial front of the Republican Party's war against affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Whether he succeeds may depend on whether it is Mitt Romney or Barack Obama who fills the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.

PFAW

Split Decisions Impact Immigration and Unions

Here’s a quick recap of the Supreme Court’s decisions during the past week: Unions are now further disadvantaged and despite some important changes to the state’s immigration law, racial profiling remains a viable option for Arizona law enforcement.

On June 21, the Supreme Court issued its decision on Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000. The case dealt with a labor policy several states have, known as agency shops, in which employees are not required to become members of the union representing their place of employment, but must pay dues since they benefit from the work the union does. At the point in which all employees working at an establishment that has a union presence are receiving higher wages, more vacation days, and overall better working conditions, it is only fair that all employees pay union dues and not free-ride off of just the union members who pay.

However, in the case of public sector unions, the Supreme Court held a generation ago that non-members have the right to opt out of having their dues used for political activity by the union, effectively weakening the union’s ability to operate on its members’ behalf. In Knox, the Court criticized the balance struck in 1986 and ruled that when the union has a mid-year special assessment or dues increase, it cannot collect any money at all from non-union members unless they affirmatively opt-in (rather than opt-out). This ruling addressed an issue that wasn’t raised by the parties and that the union never had a chance to address, furthering the Right Wing’s goal to hamper a union’s ability to collect dues and make it harder for unions to have a voice in a post-Citizens United political environment. To add insult to injury, Justice Alito let his ideological leanings shine through when he essentially claimed right-to-work laws are good policy.

After the Knox v. SEIU decision, the court released its ruling on the highly contentious 2010 Arizona anti-immigration law, known as S.B. 1070. In a 5-3 decision, the court struck down the majority of the southwestern state’s draconian immigration policy. The court ruled that much of the state’s law unconstitutionally affected areas of law preempted by the federal government, acknowledging the impracticality of each state having its own immigration policy. Oppressive anti-immigrant provisions were struck down, such as one criminalizing the failure to carry proof of citizenship at all times, and a provision making it illegal under state law for an undocumented immigrant to apply for or hold a job. The decision also recognized that merely being eligible for removal is not in itself criminal, and thus the suspicion of being eligible for removal is not sufficient cause for arrest.

Although the majority of S.B. 1070 was overturned by the Supreme Court this week, one component remains, at least for the moment. Officers can still check the immigration status of anyone stopped or arrested if they had “reasonable suspicion” that the individual may be undocumented. This keeps the door wide open for racial profiling. Arresting an individual is not the same as being convicted for a crime. Latinos and other minority groups can be stopped for a crime as simple as jaywalking and “appear” suspicious enough to warrant an immigration background check. By leaving this portion of the law, the US Supreme Court has, for the time being, allowed the potential profiling of thousands of Arizona residents, regardless of whether they are immigrants or US citizens, but has left open the ability to challenge the manner in which this provision is put into practice.

PFAW

Resurrecting Lochner

Right-wing columnist George Will has a column this morning filled with deception and misdirection on the Supreme Court's infamous Lochner decision. Lochner was the decision in which arch-conservative Supreme Court Justices struck down New York's law setting a maximum work week for bakers (six days a week, ten hours a day).

Because of their much greater economic power, employers in New York had been able to compel employees to agree to terrible working conditions. The Lochner Court, seeking a way to impose its own economic and social policies, decided that the law violated the individual baker's constitutional right to freely contract his labor. As manipulated by these Justices, the Constitution enshrined the "right" of the powerless individual to remain powerless in the face of oppression.

Lochner has come to represent the far-right Court's use of the Constitution to impose its own preferred economic and policy goals. The Lochner era saw the Court strike down laws limiting child labor, setting a minimum wage and protecting union rights, all in the name of the Constitution.

Such wild judicial activism has been thoroughly discredited since the 1930s. But as the Roberts Court increasingly chooses to legislate from the bench to protect Big Business, forces of the Right are going so far as to seek to resurrect Lochner. Will writes that

Since the New Deal, courts have stopped defending liberty of contract and other unenumerated rights grounded in America's natural rights tradition. These are referred to by the Ninth Amendment, which explicitly protects unenumerated rights "retained by the people," and by the "privileges or immunities" and "liberty" cited in the 14th Amendment.

Reading that, you would never know that it is conservatives and not liberals who for decades have tossed the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments in the trash heap by claiming that if a right is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, then it does not exist. Conservatives have heaped scorn on the idea that the Constitution protects the right to privacy. How many times have they said that the word "abortion" doesn't appear in the Constitution, as if that was at all relevant?

And the idea that the Supreme Court has "stopped defending the liberty of contract" is absurd. What it has done is stop misusing the liberty of contract to strike down consumer and employee protections.

During the First Gilded Age of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, American society had evolved significantly from our nation's founding. With the unprecedented consolidation of wealth, large corporations and their owners and managers dwarfed individuals in power in a way that our nation had never seen before. In addition, we were changing from an agricultural nation of independent farmers and small merchants into an industrial nation where millions of people began to rely on wage labor with vastly more powerful employers for survival.

Fortunately, the Constitution protects individuals from enthrallment to the powerful, whether it is a government or a private actor holding the whip. In the latter case, it empowers Americans to consolidate our power – through government – to accomplish that which individuals cannot do, including countering the otherwise unbridled power that economic forces have granted to some.

The corporate-funded Tea Party movement is perhaps the most visible effort to discredit the idea that Americans have the constitutional right to prevent giant corporations from oppressing workers, destroying the environment, and endangering consumers at will. The Constitution is not a tool to be wielded against Americans in the service of a developing and growing plutocracy; it's a shield to ensure all Americans have equal rights and protections under the law.

PFAW