The tragic death of Trayvon Martin – the 17 year old African American who was slain while walking down the sidewalk of a gated community – has shocked the nation, and has drawn international attention to the role of race relations in America.
The tragedy has also shed light on Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law, which expands the legal justifications for "justifiable homicide" – and which is key to the "self-defense" claims of Trayvon’s alleged shooter, George Zimmerman. This "Stand Your Ground" law, signed into Florida statutes in 2005, became a model for legislation pushed by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and with ALEC’s help has since been replicated in states across the country.
On April 26th, 2005, Florida became the first state in the nation to pass "Stand Your Ground" legislation, which expanded the circumstances under which the use of deadly force for self-defense is considered justifiable. Under the so-called "Castle Doctrine," a person’s right to defend themselves from attack in their own home has traditionally been recognized and typically in such circumstances the burden falls on the individual to prove that the use of force is reasonable. Under the expanded “Stand Your Ground” laws, the permissible use of deadly force for self-defense expands beyond the home, into spaces including personal vehicles and even public places, and the burden of showing that the use of force was unreasonable falls on the prosecution. It is such provisions which are apparently complicating the current investigations in the Martin shooting.
"Stand Your Ground" laws have been popping up around the country in recent years (24 states currently have them on the books) – and that’s no coincidence. Just as we have seen with the proliferation of Voter-ID laws, the force behind the trend is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded front group that has helped advance the most extreme laws adopted by state legislatures, from SB 1070 in Arizona to SB 5 in Ohio.
Again and again, we’ve seen corporations use ALEC to push laws that put profits above the wellbeing of ordinary people. In the case of “Stand Your Ground” legislation, the weapons industry and ALEC have advocated for a law that encourages more people to carry weapons, thereby increasing industry profits.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a prominent member of ALEC, and has used its influence within the organization to push pro-gun policies across the country. In 2008, ALEC employee Michael Hough appeared on NRA News to talk about ALEC’s amicus brief in support of the NRA’s position in District of Columbia v. Heller. Hough described ALEC as a “very pro-Second Amendment organization,” and also stated, “Some of the things we were pushing in states was the Castle Doctrine [the name for ALEC’s model bill], we worked with the NRA with that, that’s one of our model bills that we have states introduce, and another one was the emergency powers legislation which was enacted in a couple states.”
Despite their grassroots image, the NRA is far from being simply a grassroots organization. An extensive report by the Violence Policy Center documents how gun companies bankroll the NRA through their many opportunities to sponsor NRA programs and make direct contributions to the organization:
Since 2005, corporations—gun related and other—have contributed between $19.8 million and $52.6 million to the NRA as detailed in its Ring of Freedom corporate giving program.1 In a promotional brochure for the program, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre promises that the “National Rifle Association’s newly expanded Corporate Partners Program is an opportunity for corporations to partner with the NRA....This program is geared toward your company’s corporate interests.” The vast majority of funds—74 percent—contributed to the NRA from “corporate partners” are members of the firearms industry: companies involved in the manufacture or sale of firearms or shooting-related products. Contributions to the NRA from the firearms industry since 2005 total between $14.7 million and $38.9 million.
That corporate funding helps to explain why the NRA has the means to donate, for example, $25,000 to ALEC in 2011 to achieve "Vice-Chairman" level sponsorship for ALEC’s annual conference. It also explains why NRA lobbying efforts are so important to their mission, since the laws they lobby for enrich the financial funders of the organization.
Unfortunately, until we change it, the ALEC model is working – for the corporations that fund the network. Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" legislation and ALEC’s model bill contain identical language, which has now been introduced in states across the country.
Those who aren’t served by this system are the American people. When politicians enact ALEC legislation that benefits corporations, real people suffer the consequences. The results are tragic:
(Source: Data issued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement)
Proponents of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling have argued that Super PACs help shake up the almost-guaranteed reelection prospects for congressional incumbents, going so far as to cast Super PACS as a way to bring about a new era of good government. But the very nature of the Super PAC – a mechanism that enables wealthy individuals and special interests to secretly funnel money through corporate political donations in support of their favored candidates – practically invites corruption.
From the New York Times:
Incumbents in Congress usually have a huge fund-raising advantage over challengers. Big donors correctly assume they will probably be in office for years, and curry favor with contributions that only wealthy challengers can match. So why not try to neutralize this advantage by spending money on behalf of challengers? …
But the method they are using — a super PAC that can collect and spend unlimited amounts of money — is the opposite of good government, and demonstrates the inherent danger in allowing big money to steer election results. The handful of donors say their motives are pure, but the public has no way of knowing what their long-term goals are, or whether they have personal interests in the races they have chosen.
The electoral advantages incumbents enjoy is indeed a problem, but not one that is caused or solved by Citizens United. Super PAC funds are comprised not by grassroots donations but by large contributions from a few wealthy donors. Using these resources to usher challengers into office perpetuates the fundamentally anti-democratic influence of special interests of money in our elections.
Regardless of whether wealthy special interests seek to reelect reliable incumbents or replace them with sympathetic challengers, the end result is that the most influential voice in our elections is not that of the American people. We need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United in order to level the playing field for everyone – wealthy or otherwise.
Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in one of the most closely-watched cases in its history: the challenge to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. But in the weeks leading up to those arguments, another fight will be taking place in the U.S. Senate on an issue that in many ways parallels the health care debate, and offers an even clearer view of what have become the policy priorities of the Republican Party.
Since Obama became president, Republicans in Congress have made a clear and conscious choice to kill any attempts to cooperate with him to create solutions for the American people. They have chosen instead to devote themselves to be the party of opposing President Obama - on every issue, big and small. In doing so, they have thrown out not only the trust of the people who elected them, but many of their own formerly held principles.
Even ideas that originally came from Republicans, once adopted by the president become grounds for all-out partisan attacks. One such Republican idea was the individual mandate, which is now at the center of the legal and political challenges to the Affordable Care Act.
Ironically, the judicial branch - to which Republicans are turning with hopes that the policy they came up with is declared unconstitutional - is also at the heart of another stunning turnaround. Republicans used to talk about the importance of bipartisan cooperation in ensuring a fair and functioning judiciary. But that changed abruptly in January 2009, when the political party of the president changed.
When it comes to health care reform, Republicans have chosen to ignore their previous positions in an effort to stick it to the president.
When it comes to the functioning of the federal courts, they have so far chosen to do the same.
This week, Republicans in the Senate, after three years of obstructing nominees to the U.S. courts -- contributing to a historic vacancy crisis that affects over 160 million Americans -- will have to make the same choice. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced he will file petitions to end the filibusters of 17 nominees to district courts around the country, most long-stalled and unopposed. These, plus the two Obama nominees who have already been filibustered, represent nearly ten times the number of district court nominees who were filibustered under the last two presidents combined. The cumbersome process to end these filibusters will, if Republicans don't relent, tie up the Senate through early April.
During George W. Bush's presidency, Senate Republicans were near-universal in their condemnation of the filibusters of some of Bush's most extreme judicial nominees. Many went so far as to claim that filibustering judicial nominees was unconstitutional.
Once President Obama moved into the White House, it was remarkable how fast they changed their tune. They went overnight from decrying judicial filibusters, to using them wantonly -- not just to stall nominees to whom they found objections, but to stall all nominees , even those whom they favor. At this point in Bush's presidency, the average district court nominee waited 22 days between approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee and a vote from the full Senate. Under President Obama, the average wait has been more than four times longer - over three months.
This is gridlock for gridlock's sake: once Republicans allow them to come to a vote, the vast majority of the president's nominees have been confirmed with overwhelming bipartisan support, demonstrating that the opposition to these nominees was never about their qualifications.
This is more than an inside the beltway partisan game -- it has helped to create a historic vacancy crisis in the federal courts. Approximately one in ten federal courtrooms today sits empty because of Senate inaction. These vacancies create unmanageable workloads for sitting judges, which in turn cause unacceptable delays for Americans seeking their day in court. The Republican Party has been so intent on obstructing President Obama's agenda that they've been willing to sacrifice the smooth functioning of America's courts
. The health care debate highlights the importance of appointing judges who place their duty to the Constitution over a partisan agenda. But it also crystallizes the agenda of opposition that has caused the Republican Party to go off the deep end. When a party's only principle is to be opposed to the other party's agenda, it's the American people who end up paying the price.
As the 2012 presidential campaign gears up, PFAW Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin has collected an extensive glossary of the Right Wing’s favorite rhetoric about the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Sen. Raskin's Daily Kos piece explains the coded phrases and euphemisms, such as “federalism,” “legislating from the bench” and “original intent,” that the Right Wing uses to project their political agenda onto the Founding Fathers’ vision for America.
Here’s an excerpt :
“Follow the Law, Not Make the Law” – Right -Wing Usage: What Republican judges and justices do and what Republican judicial nominees will do, e.g., “It’s only a matter of time before our five justices who follow the law and don’t make the law strike down the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and step up the campaign to invalidate jury verdicts and punitive damages in the states.” Preferred Usage: Essentially meaningless campaign rhetoric used to describe judges who toe the right-wing corporate line, e.g., “I hope they follow the law, instead of making it, and cut our jury verdict down to a price that won’t cost us so much freedom of speech.”
You can read the whole glossary here.
Over the past few weeks, more progressive elected officials are not just voting against ALEC inspired legislation that would privatize public services and make a few people very rich, they are calling it out by name and raising awareness of how ALEC serves as a vehicle to enact a corporate wish list into law in states across the country.
“Exactly who did the Republicans in the legislature listen to? Well, three of the four bills come right from this manual, Tort Reform Boot Camp, published by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. This is the same group who reportedly provided legislators last week with all-expense paid trips to a posh Florida hotel for what they call an “education policy conference.” It is an extremely conservative group, funded largely by large corporations, big business associations, insurance companies and very wealthy individuals. I’ve found that Minnesotans do not want their laws written by the lobbyists of big corporations.
“Since these Republican bills so closely follow ALEC’s instructions on tort reform, and since ALEC’s opinion on these subjects are evidently more important to Republican legislators than mine, their fellow legislator’s or the Supreme Court’s, perhaps they would share with us all of the other ALEC boot camp manuals, so we can know in advance what to expect from them for the rest of this session. If Republicans want to continue to prove to Minnesotans that they are too extreme to lead, they should continue to throw ALEC’s ideology at us. If they want to begin to govern responsibly, and work collaboratively, pass real jobs legislation – and my three measures have not even been taken up – real jobs legislations that will put Minnesotans back to work, then I’m ready to work with them. And I’m waiting.”
Just last week, Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan (D) decided to take action as well. He joined ALEC to gain access to the bill templates, and then took to the floor to expose the origins of AB110, a bill that would damage the public education system by giving special taxpayer subsidies to private schools for special needs children.
“This is part of dismantling public education in Wisconsin, and Florida, and Ohio, and every single state it’s introduced in,” Pocan explained. “This bill doesn’t come from this body, this bill is an identical bill that’s been introduced brought by special interests by ALEC and introduced state by state by state.”
ALEC’s secret jig is up. The American people don’t want their laws to be written by corporations, and they’ve made their voices heard. Now, our elected representatives – that is, the ones who are actually representing us, not wealthy special interests – are taking a stand too. ALEC’s pro- corporate agenda can only advance if kept secret. Kudos to those elected officials with the courage to shine the spotlight on this undemocratic organization.