Yesterday, People For the American Way members participated in a telebriefing to discuss the Supreme Court’s upcoming term and to preview some of the important cases the Court will be hearing this year. The call was kicked off by PFAW President Michael Keegan and moderated by PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney. PFAW’s Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon reviewed highlights of his recent report previewing the Supreme Court’s upcoming term and answered questions from members. Also on the call and answering questions were Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg and Executive Vice President Marge Baker.
Among the cases Gordon previewed were Young v. UPS, Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, Mach Mining v. EEOC, Holt v. Hobbs, and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama / Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama. The issues addressed in these cases range from employment discrimination and workers’ rights, to religious liberty and voting rights.
He also discussed potential cases that the Court could still add for this term, which included cases on marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, and contraception coverage by religious nonprofits—the “sequels to Hobby Lobby.”
Members’ questions focused on how the country can move forward to change some of the more damaging decisions like Citizens United, and what each person could do to effect change and impact the courts. Emphasizing what is at stake this election, both PFAW President Michael Keegan and Gordon called on people to vote in November because “when you vote … for the Senate, you are voting for the next Supreme Court justice.”
Listen to the full audio of the telebriefing for more information.
This is a good day for Americans who care about our federal courts. According to press reports, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has said that Georgia federal district court nominee Mike Boggs lacks majority support on the committee and that he should withdraw. The New York Times calls the nomination "dead."
Federal judicial nominees routinely - and appropriately - assure senators that their personal feelings and political positions will play no role in their judicial decisions. But this particular nominee did exactly the opposite when running for election as a state judge in 2004. That's when then-Rep. Boggs told voters at a judicial candidates' forum, "I am proud of my record. You don't have to guess where I stand - I oppose same-sex marriages. I supported and authored the Child Protection Act to protect children from predators. I have a record that tells you exactly what I stand for."
This connection - that Boggs himself made - between how he would approach judging cases to his views as a legislator on the legal issues that would be before him as a judge, compelled the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine Boggs' legislative record.
And what a disturbing record that was: He sought to amend the state constitution to forever lock gays and lesbians out of the promise of equality and to prohibit the Georgia legislature from ever extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians. He supported anti-choice legislation and even voted for a bill amendment that would have put abortion providers' lives at risk. He voted in support of having the Confederate battle symbol incorporated into the state flag. He sought to use the power of government to promote religion, church-state separation notwithstanding.
Given his 2004 assurance that his legislative record showed how he would rule as a judge, senators could certainly presume that Boggs has a severely cramped view of constitutional Equal Protection, reproductive rights, and church-state separation. LGBT people, religious minorities, African Americans, and women could not be assured that their basic rights would be recognized and fully protected in his courtroom.
To make things worse, his efforts to explain away his record to the Judiciary Committee raised questions about his candor.
For instance, at his hearing, he assured both Senators Mazie Hirono and Chris Coons that statements he made in 2004 while expressing his opposition to marriage equality about "the dangers that we face with respect to activist judges" were views he held as a legislator, not as a judge. Yet he sounded quite different as recently as November 2011, having been a judge for nearly seven years. At that time, Boggs was promoting himself to a different audience, the Judicial Nominating Commission of Georgia, which was considering recommending to the governor his appointment as a state appeals court judge. When asked then how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal system, Boggs cited as the problem "judges who abrogated their constitutionally created authority" and "judicial decisions that have ignored and violated the basic tenets of the judiciary."
At his Senate confirmation hearings just a few years later, Sen. Coons asked Boggs to name three or four examples of cases that he'd had in mind when he expressed those concerns in 2011. Boggs admitted that as a legislator in 2004, he considered cases recognizing marriage equality as a state constitutional right as fitting this category, but didn't say what cases he'd had in mind in 2011. In her written follow-up questions, Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Boggs if he could name any decisions that he believed abrogated the judiciary's constitutionally created authority (using his words). He responded that he could not recall any cases that he had been thinking of at the time.
Yeah, right. Based on what Boggs told the state Commission, he viewed this as extremely serious, going to the very legitimacy of the courts. Yet just a few years later, even after being given additional time to think about it, he could not recall even one case that he'd had in mind. One could be forgiven for believing instead that he actually had in mind the same cases he'd referred to in 2004, and that he was telling the commissioners - and ultimately, Georgia's governor - what he thought they wanted to hear.
His efforts to explain away his votes endangering abortion providers and supporting the Confederate battle symbol were equally not believable, and apparently they were not believed by a majority of committee members. Good for them.
Boggs' disturbing record showed he was unqualified for the federal bench. Today's news shows that a majority of the Judiciary Committee agrees.
Judicial vacancies slow down courts’ work, drive up litigation costs, cause evidence to go stale, make it harder to settle civil cases, and even pressure defendants into pleading guilty, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center. The report cites example after example of how not having enough judges erodes our nation’s system of justice. Everyone counts on having their day in court, a fundamentally American principle that is threatened by persistent vacancies. The report quotes Chief Judge William Skretny of New York’s Western District:
We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.
Heavier caseloads and backlog created by vacancies also take a toll on judges, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on each case.
Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis in the Eastern District of Texas described the situation in his district as “simple math.” With more cases “you have less time to give to [an individual] case,” he explained. “It affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quantity of work you can complete,” he added.
[Judge Davis] also highlighted the impact of the Sherman vacancy on the timing of sentencing. “It’s a hardship for the litigants,” he explained. “Due to the backlog and [the] vacancy [in Sherman], we have a very high population of criminal defendants, about 200, sitting in county jails, having pled guilty and waiting for sentences. They can’t get their cases processed.” He noted that inmates are typically housed in a county jail because there are no federal facilities available, which is more costly for the government and leaves inmates with fewer work and educational opportunities. “That’s not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities,” he said.
As the report makes clear, vacancies have real impacts for all citizens. This is why PFAW supports the speedy confirmation of qualified judicial nominees to federal courts. Filling judicial vacancies with quality judges will reduce backlogs and costs while allowing the judicial system to better serve all Americans. Maintaining the third branch is one of the most important constitutional functions that the Senate performs.
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In its recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the conservative 5-4 majority -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy -- did something that may appear very unusual. In divided cases, these five justices have the reputation for interpreting very narrowly laws passed by Congress to protect civil rights. So why did they interpret so broadly the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law passed by Congress to protect the important civil right of religious freedom? The answer, unfortunately, is all too clear. Comparing Hobby Lobby with the two rulings in civil rights law cases issued by the Court over the last year, the key factor that explains how the conservative majority ruled is not precedent, the language of the statute, or congressional intent, but who wins and who loses.
Let's start with last year's rulings, both of which concerned Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bans employment discrimination. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the majority ruled very narrowly in interpreting Title VII, deciding that the only way that employees can prevail on a claim that they have been fired in retaliation for raising job bias claims is to prove that they would not have been discharged "but for" the retaliatory motive. This was despite the fact that in order to strengthen Title VII, Congress added language to the law in 1991 to make clear that plaintiffs should prevail if they show that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in a job decision. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissecting Justice Alito's attempt for the majority to draw a distinction between retaliation and other claims under Title VII, the net effect of the majority's ruling was to make it harder to prove a Title VII retaliation claim than before the 1991 law and with respect to other civil rights statutes that don't explicitly mention retaliation. The 5-4 majority had "seized on a provision adopted by Congress as part of an endeavor to strengthen Title VII," she concluded, "and turned it into a measure reducing the force of the ban on retaliation."
In Nassar, in ruling against a doctor of Middle Eastern descent in a case also involving egregious ethnic and national origin discrimination, Alito disregarded clear legislative history and language showing Congress' broad intent, as well as the interpretation of the law by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Interestingly, towards the end of his opinion, Alito appeared to reveal a key consideration behind the majority's decision. The ruling was important, he explained, to "the fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation systems." After all, he pointed out, retaliation claims "are being made with ever-increasing frequency," although he did not even consider how many have been proven meritorious. Agreeing with the EEOC and the plaintiff on the "motivating factor" standard, he wrote instead, "could also contribute to the filing of frivolous claims." As Justice Ginsburg put it, the majority "appears driven by zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims against employers."
The other 2013 Title VII ruling also reflected an extremely narrow reading of the law. Vance v. Ball State University concerned a complaint by an African-American woman that she had been subjected to racial harassment and a racially hostile work environment. Under prior Title VII Court rulings agreed to by both conservative and moderate justices, the employer itself is often liable for such harassment claims when the harassment is committed by an employee's supervisor. But in Vance, in an opinion by Justice Alito, the familiar 5-4 Court majority significantly narrowed Title VII. It ruled that such vicarious employer liability applies only when the harassment is committed by a manager who can fire or reduce the pay or grade of the victim, not when it is committed by a manager who does not have that power but does control the day-to-day schedules, assignments, and working environment of the victim.
As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, the majority's holding again contradicted guidance issued by the EEOC as well as Congress' broad purpose to eliminate workplace discrimination. In fact, she pointed out, not even the university defendant in Vance itself "has advanced the restrictive definition the Court adopts." But again, Alito's opinion betrayed part of the majority's true motives. Its narrow interpretation would be "workable" and "readily applied," Alito explained. And it would promote "the limitation of employer liability in certain circumstances."
Something very different happened in the next Supreme Court case interpreting a Congressional civil rights statute: 2014's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
In that case, the same 5-4 majority that narrowly interpreted Title VII in Vance and Nassar adopted a very broad interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). All nine justices agreed that RFRA was enacted by Congress in response to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which restricted the protection of religious liberty by the Court under the First Amendment. But the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby ruled that RFRA provides "very broad protection for religious liberty" - "even broader protection than was available" under the First Amendment in pre-Smith decisions. As Justice Ginsburg put it in dissent, the majority interpreted RFRA "as a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence." She explained further that this broad interpretation contradicted the language of the statute, its legislative history, and a statement by the Court in a unanimous ruling in 2006 that in RFRA, Congress "adopt[ed] a statutory rule comparable to the constitutional rule rejected in Smith."
This difference in statutory interpretation was critical to the majority's ruling in Hobby Lobby -- that for-profit corporations whose owners had religious objections to contraceptives could invoke RFRA to refuse to obey the Affordable Care Act's mandate that they provide their employees with health plans under which contraceptives are available to female employees. As Justice Ginsburg explained, no previous Court decision under RFRA or the First Amendment had ever "recognized a for-profit corporation's qualification for a religious exemption" and such a ruling "surely is not grounded in the pre-Smith precedent Congress sought to preserve." The 5-4 majority's broad interpretation that RFRA applies to for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby was obviously crucial to its holding.
In addition, however, the 5-4 majority went beyond pre-Smith case law in another crucial respect. Before a person can claim an exemption from a generally applicable law under RFRA, he or she must prove that the law "substantially burden[s] a person's exercise of religion." According to the majority, the corporations in Hobby Lobby met that standard by demonstrating that the use of certain contraceptives that could be purchased by their employees under their health plans would seriously offend the deeply held religious beliefs of their owners. As Justice Ginsburg explained, however, that ruling conflicted with pre-Smith case law on what must be shown to prove a "substantial burden." In several pre-Smith cases, the Court had ruled that there was no "substantial burden" created by, for example, the government's use of a social security number to administer benefit programs or its requirement that social security taxes be paid, despite the genuine and sincere offense that these actions caused to some religious beliefs. As Justice Ginsburg stated, such religious "beliefs, however deeply held, do not suffice to sustain a RFRA claim," except under the extremely broad interpretation of RFRA by the 5-4 Court majority.
As in the Title VII cases, Justice Alito's opinion for the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby was revealing about some of the majority's underlying concerns. In explaining the majority's decision to interpret RFRA as applying to for-profit corporations, Justice Alito noted that "[w]hen rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people" - in this case "the humans who own and control those companies" in the Hobby Lobby case. As Justice Ginsburg observed, the 5-4 majority paid little attention to the Court's pronouncement in a pre-Smith case that permitting a religious exemption to a general law for a corporation would "operate[e] to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" of the corporation.
Even though the Supreme Court's 2013-14 rulings that interpreted civil rights laws passed by Congress may seem different, a common theme animates them all. Whether the 5-4 majority interpreted the statutes broadly or narrowly, the losers in all of them were women, minorities, and working people, and the winners were employers and corporations. In the majority's own words, the result is the "limitation of employer liability" under laws like Title VII designed to protect workers and the "protecting" of the "humans who own and control" corporations under RFRA.
Since all these rulings interpret Congressional statutes, not the Constitution, Congress clearly has the authority to reverse them. In fact, Congress has done exactly that with respect to other 5-4 rulings by the Court that misinterpreted civil rights statutes to harm women and minority workers and benefit their corporate employers. As recently as 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reversed a flawed 5-4 ruling that severely restricted workers' ability to file equal pay claims under Title VII. Congress is already considering legislation to reverse many of the effects of Hobby Lobby, a corrective effort that Senate Republicans have blocked by a filibuster to prevent the full Senate from even considering it. In our currently divided Congress, immediate prospects for the passage of such remedial legislation may not appear promising. But it is important to recognize the current 5-4 majority's pattern of favoring corporations and harming workers in its decisions interpreting federal civil rights laws, and to recognize and act on the ability to reverse these harmful rulings.
In an op-ed printed in the Portland Press Herald this weekend, retired congressman Barney Frank offers a sharp critique of the far right Supreme Court under John Roberts. Explicitly noting the importance of the Court in defining law that affects all citizens, Frank makes clear not only that courts matter, but everyday citizens have a hand in how these courts are shaped.
Reviewing the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions — from overturning “more than 100 years of federal and state efforts to regulate the role of money in campaigns” to declaring that corporations have the right to religious freedom under RFRA—Frank states that “the court has ended this term with a barrage against laws it does not like” (emphasis added).
…The Supreme Court is now strongly inclined to impose conservative ideology via Constitutional interpretation on a broad range of public policy. It is true that Kennedy and to some extent Roberts occasionally deviate from this, but Justice Samuel Alito has surpassed even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in his ideological purity.
The relevance of this to the next two elections is very clear. Four of the sitting justices are in their late 70s or older. This means that there is a strong possibility that President Obama will have a chance to appoint another justice before his term expires, but his ability to do so will be determined not simply by the health of the justices in question, but by the composition of the U.S. Senate. The increasing partisanship in the Senate, the continued virulent influence of the tea party and recent history strongly suggest that even if a vacancy occurs, Obama will be prevented from filling it (emphasis added).
Frank refers to the unceasing Republican obstructionism and argues courts are critical for defining laws that affect Americans on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of this year’s midterm elections. As he concludes in this piece,
This makes it highly likely that among the issues that will be determined in the next senatorial and presidential election will be the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Voters should act accordingly.