THE RADICALS ON THE SUPREME COURT STRIKE AGAIN

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The current “conservative” majority on the Supreme Court is actually a group of ideologically-driven, radical, judicial activists who have no intention of honoring precedents, despite their promises during confirmation hearings to do so. Although some of their radical precedent-breaking decisions get covered by the mainstream media, such as the recent voting rights case and the upcoming decision on pregnancy termination, many of them do not.

A recent Supreme Court case, known as Cedar Point Nursery vs. Hassid, involves the ability of union organizers to visit farms to talk to farm workers (as allowed under a 1975 California regulation). It’s a very significant decision that got very little attention in the mainstream media. A 1975 California regulation has required corporate farmers like Cedar Point (a 300-acre strawberry farm) to allow union organizers on its property to talk to workers for up to three one-hour periods on up to 120 days out of a year (one hour each before work, at lunch time, and after work to avoid interrupting work). Cedar Point sued claiming this was a government seizure of their property without compensation and was a violation of the Fifth Amendment (which states that “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”). Cedar Point claimed that this was a “taking” of its property because it is deprived of the “right to exclude” trespassers from its property, which, it claimed, is fundamental to true property ownership rights.

A lower court had ruled against Cedar Point, but it appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 in favor of Cedar Point, finding that the regulation was a “taking” of private property and therefore Cedar Point was entitled to compensation. The six radical “conservative” justices were the majority.

This ruling overturns important elements of a 1978 Supreme Court precedent. That ruling established a framework for evaluating whether a governmental restriction on personal property rises to the level of a “taking”. The framework’s criteria include the economic impact of the law or regulation and the extent of its interference with a business. The requirements of the California regulation specifically minimized these impacts and had been in place and operating since 1975.

This ruling has potentially far-reaching implications. For example, a property owner’s “right to exclude” is the argument segregationists used to defend their exclusion of Blacks from places of business and other private venues. By giving new life to this argument (which the Supreme Court rejected in 1964), Roberts and his six-justice majority are opening the door to a whole range of lawsuits against anti-discrimination laws. Sooner or later the argument will probably be made that preventing a business, a private club, or an employer from excluding men or women, pregnant women, people of color (POC), or LGBTQ+ people is a “taking” of property rights. Also, it may well be argued that fair housing laws are a “taking” because they limit landlords’ “right to exclude” people, such as POC, LGBTQ+ people, families with children, or renters with a low-income governmental housing subsidy. [1]

Furthermore, worker safety inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), food safety inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, and pollution inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency could be banned from companies’ property unless the companies are compensated. Although some language in the decision written by Chief Justice Roberts would appear to allow these inspections without compensation, challenges to them are likely. The possibility of challenging endangered species laws that require landowners to protect a species’ habitat has already been raised and a challenge to anti-pollution regulations would seem to be possible as well under the Supreme Court’s redefinition of what constitutes a “taking”.

In the Cedar Point decision, the six radical “conservative” justices on the Supreme Court have again shown their willingness to toss aside well-established precedents and to prioritize the rights of property owners over the civil rights of individuals. This decision may well lead to a variety of challenges from property owners – including landowners, landlords, employers, and businesses – to laws and regulations that protect civil rights, the safety of workers and consumers, and the environment, including initiatives to counter global warming and climate change.

[1]      Mystal, E., 6/24/21, “Yesterday’s union-busting Supreme Court decision was a segregationist throwback,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/cedar-point-court/)

TODAY’S VOTER SUPPRESSION IS HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The efforts of states to suppress voting of Blacks (and other targeted groups that tend to vote for Democrats) are an historical repeat of what happened after the Civil War. These and other efforts that assert states’ power to restrict individuals’ rights are confronting the 14th Amendments’ provisions (from 1868) that give the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights in the face of state efforts to deny them. Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s daily blog puts these current events in the perspective of our history, which is a very valuable insight to have.

The Declaration of Independence, when it stated “that all men are created equal,” meant white men. Nonetheless, this was a radical concept at the time – that no man’s birthright made him better than any other man. The Civil War was fought, in effect, to maintain a system that elevated America’s white men above African Americans, Native Americans, other men of color, and even Irishmen. As in the mid-1800s, we are now facing efforts that reject the principle of the equality of all human beings and seek to recast America as a country where certain people are better than others. These efforts are being led by white men for the most part, and are empowered by a relatively small group of wealthy white men (and a few women). [1]

In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery in an important step toward equality. However, this did not stop white men in the South from working to establish systems that continued to make African Americans unequal and subservient to whites. These white men worked to deny African Americans the right to vote, to testify in court, and to sit on a jury. The infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision furthered this effort by denying citizenship to African Americans. The contorted opinion for the 7 to 2 decision was poorly reasoned and written by Chief Justice Roger Taney. These steps to institutionalize inequality occurred despite the fact that the 1870 Census would count African Americans as whole persons for the first time. Ironically, this would give the southern states more representation and power in Congress and in the Electoral College. [2]

To counter efforts to keep African Americans subservient, in July 1868, the 14th Amendment was passed, declaring that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It guaranteed all citizens due process and equal protection under the law. To counter white southern men’s and the Dred Scott case’s assertion of states’ rights to write laws that determined who could vote, among other things, the 14th Amendment gave the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights when state legislatures passed laws that were discriminatory and infringed on those rights.

Nonetheless, two months later in September 1868, the Georgia legislature voted to expel the 33 newly elected African American state legislators. In 1870, with African American voting reduced by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans were not elected. Similar events took place in other southern states. [3]

In response, the federal Department of Justice was created in 1870 with a primary mission of stopping the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its suppression of the rights and voting of African Americans. The KKK was a domestic terrorist group then as it is today.

In February 2021, Black legislators in Georgia opposed proposed voting restrictions noting that they reminded them of the 1870s when Jim Crow laws and lynching were used to deter African Americans from voting. Nonetheless, Georgia legislators passed the voting restrictions. Although the means have changed, they are still presented as supposedly race-blind restrictions. However, the fact that white men (for the most part) are rewriting the rules of our democracy to protect white power is unchanged. Similar actions are taking place in other states, not all of which are in the South.

There are striking similarities between the voting suppression efforts of the late 1800s and what’s happening today. For example, in 1890, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill empowering the federal government to oversee voter registration, voting, and ballot counting in the South. Then, Senate Democrats blocked its passage by staging the first of many southern-led filibusters that killed civil rights legislation.

The civil rights laws and court decisions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are based on the 14th Amendment giving the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights. For example, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed public school segregation and separate but supposedly equal treatment of Blacks, and the Loving vs. Virginia decision legalizing inter-racial marriage, were possible because of the 14th Amendment.

Opponents of civil rights laws and decisions revived the post-Civil War states’ rights arguments in the 1960s and 1970s. They began advocating for “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution when making court decisions. “Originalism” asserts that the Constitution should be interpreted as its writers envisioned it at the time they wrote it and that this would mean much stronger state governments and a weaker federal government, including in the establishment and enforcement of individuals’ rights.

In 1987, President Reagan nominated an “originalist,” Robert Bork, to become a Supreme Court Justice. He was rejected on a bipartisan basis. Bork had advocated for a rollback of Supreme Court civil rights decisions and of federal protections of individuals’ rights under the 14th Amendment. As Senator Ted Kennedy pointed out, rolling back such protections would not only raise the specter of re-segregation, but also the reduction of women’s rights to reproductive health services, citizens’ protections from rogue police officers, the teaching of evolution in schools, protection from censorship, and other individual rights.

Nonetheless, today’s Supreme Court is dominated by “originalists” and the individual rights protections of the 14th Amendment for voting, women’s and LGBTQ people’s health services, and the teaching of factual material, for example, are again being challenged by state governments, led mostly by white men.

On July 1, 2021, by a 6 to 3 vote, the Supreme Court decided that the state of Arizona did not violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act or the 14th or 15th Amendments with voting restrictions that disproportionately affect non-white racial or ethnic groups. President Biden stated that this “decision by the Supreme Court undercuts voting rights in this country and makes it all the more crucial to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore and expand voting protections. … Our democracy depends on it.” [4] However, to pass these bills, which have already passed in the House, the Senate will have to either eliminate or limit the use of the filibuster to block them. The Republicans have made it clear that they have no intention of providing any support for these bills.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Senators and ask them to support the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and to support eliminating or limiting the filibuster as the only way to pass these bills. The protections for voting rights in these bills are critically important to our democracy. You can find contact information for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and ask him to support eliminating or limiting the filibuster as the only way to pass these bills that he’s said our democracy depends on. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/3/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-3-2020-bad)

[2]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/9/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-9-2021)

[3]      Berman, A., 6/2/21, “Jim Crow killed voting rights for generations. Now the GOP is repeating history,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/06/jim-crow-killed-voting-rights-for-generations-now-the-gop-is-repeating-history/)

[4]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/1/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-1-2021)

OUR FEDERAL COURTS HAVE BEEN PACKED WITH RIGHT-WING JUDGES

Republicans are rushing confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, which is emblematic of their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges. [1] (See my previous post for more details.) Rushing through the confirmation of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court – and to some extent the whole federal judiciary – by making it clear that the federal court system is not an  impartial arbiter of the law, but a fully politicized institution.

Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office (including over 100 that were carried over from the Obama administration due to Republican blocking of confirmations) and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [2] Right-wing Republicans have used a Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [3]

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing jurists, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer because their right-wing judicial philosophy favors corporations and the wealthy over workers, consumers, and the middle and lower classes.

These right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed judges typically claim to support “originalism,” a legal philosophy that claims the original intent and meaning of the Constitution, written in 1787, should determine judicial decisions. “Originalists” claim that government cannot constitutionally do anything that is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution. This legal philosophy has been very effective in driving right-wing legal politics, although the appropriateness of applying the meaning of the words of the Constitution to today’s technology strains credulity; its writers couldn’t have dreamed of our current medical and health care capabilities, our transportation and communications systems, our financial instruments and guns, or our huge, multi-national corporations.

An alternative legal interpretation of the Constitution, as a living document that requires interpretation in the context of current times, was prevalent from the late 1930s into the 1980s. In the late 1930s, during the recovery from the Depression, judges interpreted the law and the Constitution to allow American democracy to live up to its principles. Right-wing politicians and legal theorists labeled this “judicial activism” or “legislating from the bench.”

The “originalist” legal philosophy was developed by right-wing scholars in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to laws and judicial support for economic and civil rights. The New Deal worked to level the economic playing field, to regulate business, to provide voice and a balance of power for workers through unions, and to provide a social safety net. After World War II, these efforts continued with more of a focus on leveling the social playing field and treating all people as equals before law, by ending segregation and discrimination, protecting the rights of prisoners and those accused of breaking the law, and providing access to contraception and abortion. The judicial-established principle of one person, one vote and the Voting Rights Act worked to level the political playing field. Judicial decisions supporting economic and civil rights, many of them made by the Supreme Court under Republican Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger between 1953 and 1986, were, at the time, largely viewed as non-partisan. They reflected a belief that the Bill of Rights applies to state laws and governments, as well as at the federal level. [4] This dramatically expanded civil rights and overturned the “states’ rights” doctrine that had allowed states to, among other things, engage in discrimination, particularly against Black Americans.

“Originalist” judges have ignored and will continue to ignore precedents and are reversing 80 years of legislation and legal decisions on individual and civil rights, as the hearings on the latest Supreme Court nominees and recent Supreme Court decisions have made clear. While the attention of these hearings has been focused on social and religious issues, from abortion to affirmative action and discrimination to LGBTQ rights, the often-overlooked issues about our economy and capitalism, such as the balance of power between employers and workers, the ability to earn a living wage, and the availability of an economic safety net, are critically important as well.

Under “originalist” legal theory, the federal government has little power and much of what it currently does should be left to state governments. Under “originalism,” the federal government does not have the power to regulate corporations or the wealthy, including restricting their use of their money in our elections, as the spending of money is viewed as exercising free speech. Decisions by the federal judiciary at all levels make it clear that “originalist” theory favors private interests over public interests, corporations and employers over consumers and workers, law enforcement over defendants’ rights, and gun rights over voting rights. Such decisions deprive employees and other vulnerable populations of their civil rights. [5] [6]

Moreover, the “originalist” judges assert that the rights of the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, are rights that belong to corporations as well as to natural human beings. I find it hard to believe that this was the intent of the writers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They clearly were focused on the rights of individual human beings. Furthermore, corporations, in anything approaching their current form, were unknown in those times.

Americans for Prosperity and other pro-business groups, many of them backed by billionaire, fossil-fuel businessman Charles Koch (and his deceased brother), have spent tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to pressure Senators to back controversial, right-wing judicial nominations, often using “dark money” (whose donors are hidden from the public).

The weak federal government response to the coronavirus pandemic is emblematic of “originalist” thinking. Some in the Trump administration simply didn’t believe it was the role of the federal government or within the legitimate powers of the federal government to respond, and, therefore, the response should be left to the states and the private sector.

President Trump and the Republicans in the Senate have packed the federal court system from top to bottom with hundreds of right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed, “originalist” judges who are on the fringe of what was previously considered appropriate for a federal judge. If our Founding Fathers had intended an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, I have to believe they would have realized frequent amendments would be required and they would have made it much easier to amend it. I believe that “originalism” is a rationalization for public relations purposes developed by wealthy corporations and individuals as a way to “justify” laws and court decisions that work to their benefit. This is just like their claim of non-existent voter fraud as the public relations rationale for voter suppression tactics.

Our federal court system is currently unbalanced and biased in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Right-wing judges will skew court decisions and harm the well-being of everyday Americans for the next 20 to 30 years unless Democrats are elected and actively work to rebalance the federal courts toward mainstream legal philosophy and historical precedent. This will not be easy given how skewed the system currently is.

Dramatic steps will need to be taken, including expanding the number of judges in the federal court system, possibly including the number of justices on the Supreme Court, given that removing judges is basically impossible. This is the only way to return to laws and government programs that protect and support a fair and just society with civil, political, and economic rights for all, women able to make decisions about their reproductive health, workers able to support their families and have safe working conditions, consumers able to use products and services safely, and a safety net that protects people when they hit hard times.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[3]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

[4]      Richardson, H. C., 10/23/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-23-2020)

[5]      Richardson, H. C., 10/14/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-14-2020)

[6]      Dayen, D., 10/13/20, “Judge Barrett’s record: Siding with businesses over workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/judge-barretts-record-siding-with-businesses-over-workers/)

WHO’S FOR PACKING OUR FEDERAL COURTS?

As Republicans are ramming through a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, they are also attacking Democratic presidential nominee Senator Biden for not saying whether he will “pack the court.”  The irony of this seems to be lost on them, many in the media, and most of the public.

Republicans are claiming that increasing the size of the Supreme Court (aka “packing the court”) would be “the absolute biggest power grab in the history of our country,” when in fact their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges for the last four years and beyond is a far bigger power grab. [1]

Rushing through the nomination of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court, making it clear it is not an impartial arbitrator of the law, but a fully politicized institution. Senator McConnell and his Republican colleagues in the Senate blocked the appointment of a centrist judge nominated by President Obama, Merrick Garland, for ten months, solely for political purposes. Now, they are ramming through an extreme, right-wing nominee in a matter of weeks, solely for political purposes. And closer to an election than has ever been done before.

If Barrett is confirmed, 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court appointments will have been made by Republican Presidents. Furthermore, five of the nine justices will have been appointed by Presidents who lost the popular vote and they will also have been confirmed by the votes of Senators who represent less than half of the American population. [2]

The Supreme Court has had nine justices since 1869, but its size is not specified in the Constitution. Republicans changed the size of the Court three times between 1863 and 1869 to give appointments to their Presidents and deny them to the opposition. [3] Furthermore, Republicans announced in 2016 that they would not fill any Supreme Court seats with nominees of Hillary Clinton (if she were elected), thereby effectively shrinking the size of the Court. Moreover, in 2013, Republicans proposed shrinking the number of justices on the D.C. Appellate Court, the second most important appellate court in the country, from 11 to 8 to lock in a conservative majority and prevent President Obama from appointing judges to the court. [4]

The packing-the-court issue is far bigger than just the Supreme Court. Senator McConnell and the Senate Republicans blocked dozens of Obama’s nominees to other courts, so that there were over 100 vacancies for federal judges when Trump took office. Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [5] (More on this is my next post.) Right-wing Republicans have used Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [6] Republicans have also intentionally been installing young judges so their lifetime tenures and influence will last as long as possible.

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing justices, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer. The only remedy for this political corruption, the only way to keep its perpetrators from realizing on-going benefits, is to increase the size of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court. New judges, appointed by Democrats, will rebalance the courts to reflect the interests and well-being of the American public. Furthermore, the federal district and appellate courts have not been enlarged since the late 1970s, despite a 40% growth in population.

It is important for the Democrats to stand up and make it clear that Republicans can’t steal two Supreme Court seats (and dozens of seats on other federal courts) and get away with it. They should couple an increase in the size of the Supreme Court with a proposal for a Constitutional Amendment to set term limits and/or a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.

By rebalancing the federal courts, Democrats would demonstrate a needed commitment to America’s democratic principles and promises, as well as to economic and social justice.

My next post will discuss the right-wing judicial philosophy called “originalism” to which these Republican judges typically adhere and its implications for economic and social justice.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      Richardson, H, C., 10/11/20, see above

[3]      Starr, P., 9/23/20, “How to rebalance the Supreme Court,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/how-to-rebalance-the-supreme-court/)

[4]      Kuttner, R., 10/13/20, “Biden needs to give a major speech on court expansion,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/biden-speech-supreme-court-expansion-court-packing/)

[5]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[6]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

FUTURE SUPREME COURT CASES WILL TELL A TALE

The following upcoming Supreme Court cases should be watched to see if the “conservative” majority continues to make partisan or ideologically-driven decisions that reflect judicial activism (i.e., they disregard precedents and established law): (See my previous post on why the “conservative” justices are really radical, right-wing activists.)

  • Department of Commerce vs. New York State, where the Court will decide whether to prohibit the addition to the 2020 Census of a question on citizenship status. The Constitution mandates a census to count all people living in the U.S. The Census Bureau itself (which is part of the Department of Commerce) estimates that adding a citizenship question would mean that 5.8% of households with a non-citizen would not respond to the Census, resulting in 6.5 million people not being counted.

    An acknowledged undercount (due to a citizenship question or anything else) would violate the intent of the Constitution. Furthermore, the undercounting of households with a non-citizen, who disproportionately live in states and districts represented by Democrats, will result in billions of dollars of reduced federal financial assistance to those areas due to funding allocations based on population. It might also result in Democratic leaning states losing seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the loss of Democratic leaning seats in state legislatures.

    A citizenship question has been added to the Census 1) in violation of the law for modifying the Census, 2) over the objections of experienced Census Bureau employees and six former directors of the Bureau under both Democratic and Republican presidents, and 3) based on a rationale that has been lied about by Commerce Secretary Ross and other Trump Administration officials. [1]

    A recently uncovered 2015 report by a Republican redistricting strategist, Thomas Hofeller, concluded that a citizenship question would provide data to facilitate drawing political districts that would benefit Republicans. Hofeller also suggested using the rationale for the question that the Trump Administration has put forward: that the question would help protect minority voters under the Voting Right Act. The Justice Department letter to the Commerce Department requesting the addition of a citizenship question, uses, word-for-word, a paragraph from Hofeller, despite denials from the Justice and the Commerce Departments that they were aware of Hofeller’s work. [2]

    Therefore, if the Court rules that a citizenship question can be included on the Census, the decision will reek of partisanship.

  • Rucho vs. Common Cause and Benisek vs. Lamone are cases where the Court will rule on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts to benefit Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland. [3] Although these two cases reflect gerrymandering by each party, the bulk of and the most extreme partisan gerrymandering that is in place today has been done to benefit Republicans. (See my previous posts on gerrymandering here and here.)

    If the Court refuses to ban extreme partisan gerrymandering, the decision will clearly benefit Republicans and, therefore, appear to be partisan.

  • The Court has decided to rule on three cases involving employment discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) individuals. Courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled since the 1980s that the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition on discrimination based on sex protected LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces non-discrimination in the workplace, has interpreted the Civil Rights Act to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity. Protection for LGBT people in federal law is important because 30 states do not have laws protecting them from discrimination. Many in the LGBT community are concerned that the Supreme Court will overturn these precedents in its rulings on these cases. It is even possible that its rulings in these cases could undermine protections for women. [4]

    If the Supreme Court’s rulings in these cases overturn protections for LGBT individuals, the Court’s decisions will be viewed by many as radical, right-wing ideological and partisan decisions by activist justices.

  • Although no case is expected to reach the Supreme Court for a while, anti-abortion activists in Alabama and a number of other states clearly intend to engender a Supreme Court case that will give the Court an opportunity to reverse the Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing women the right to terminate a pregnancy. Anti-abortion activists are pushing these laws now because they believe the current “conservative” Supreme Court justices will overturn the settled law and precedent that Roe vs. Wade represents and that has been in place for over 45 years.

    A Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade will be viewed by many as a radical, right-wing ideological and partisan decision of judicial activism.

If the Court makes radical, right-wing, partisan, activist decisions in some or all of these cases, Congressional action to reverse them is possible, with the possible exception of the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Even there, Congress could ameliorate the effects of the inclusion of the question. (See my previous post on reversing the effects of Supreme Court decisions.)

These Supreme Court cases will be closely watched. A series of radical, right-wing, partisan, activist decisions will, unfortunately, continue to undermine the faith of the public that the Supreme Court – and our court system in general – is impartial and non-partisan. They would also undermine a foundational element of our democracy: its system of supposedly independent checks and balances.

[1]      Liptak, A., 4/15/19, “The Supreme Court will soon consider whether the Census will include a citizenship question,” The New York Times

[2]      Wang, H. L., 5/30/19, “GOP redistricting strategist played role in push for Census citizenship question,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2019/05/30/728232221/gop-redistricting-strategist-played-role-in-push-for-census-citizenship-question)

[3]      Stohr, G., & Robinson, K., 3/26/19, “Supreme Court Justices question suits over partisan gerrymandering,” Bloomberg Law (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-26/top-court-justices-question-suits-over-partisan-gerrymandering)

[4]      Arana, G., 5/22/19, “Does the Civil Rights Act protect gay employees? The Court will decide,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/does-civil-rights-act-protect-gay-employees-court-will-decide)

REVERSING SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

Congress could reverse the effects of many of the Supreme Court’s decisions by changing relevant laws. Many of the Court’s 5 to 4 rulings by the “conservative” justices (who I argue in a previous post would be more accurately described as radical, right-wing, activists justices) are politically or ideologically driven. Congressional action to reverse them is possible and in many cases would restore long-standing precedents and established law that the “conservative” justices have chosen to ignore or overturn.

One prominent example of a Supreme Court ruling that congressional action could reverse is the Court’s decision that gutted the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. (See my previous post on this case here.) By updating the criteria for determining which local jurisdictions are subject to federal oversight, Congress could reinstitute federal review of states’ election practices. The proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act in Congress would accomplish this. [1]

As another example, Congress could reverse recent Supreme Court decisions that allow businesses to force harmed consumers and workers to settle their claims in a privatized arbitration system that overwhelmingly favors business interests. These Court decisions selectively interpret legal language or fabricate legal reasoning to allow a business to require consumers and workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that prohibit them from suing the business if they are injured or harmed. For example, the Court has read into the Federal Arbitration Act, which says nothing about class action lawsuits, that a corporation can require a consumer to sign away his or her right to join a class action lawsuit. [2] Congress could pass a law that establishes a right for consumers and workers to sue a business if they are harmed.

Additional examples of legislatively correctible Supreme Court decisions where established law and/or precedent have been ignored or overturned include:

  • Congress could pass a law reinstituting long-standing anti-trust laws that the Court has overturned. The Court’s decisions have changed anti-trust laws to:
    • 1) allow price fixing between manufacturers and distributors, and
    • 2) define a theoretical promise of short-term consumer price reduction as the sole criterion for deciding whether to permit corporate mergers and aggregations of marketplace power.
  • Congress could reverse the Court’s overturning of executive branch agency regulations, which the “conservative” justices did by developing a rationale for ignoring a 35-year-old precedent that had been repeatedly cited as established law. The Court has rejected agency regulations based on its own re-interpretation of underlying laws, rather than deferring to agencies’ expertise and interpretation of the law as had been the precedent. This effectively shifts regulatory power from executive branch agencies with long-standing experience and expertise to the five right-wing, male justices of the Supreme Court. Congress could pass a law prohibiting the courts from overturning a regulation if it is based on a permissible interpretation of the underlying law (which was the old precedent).
  • Congress could reverse the Supreme Court’s dramatic weakening of protections from discrimination based on race, age, religion, sexual orientation, and gender-identity. In race and age discrimination cases, the Court has ruled, contrary to precedent, that discrimination must be proven to be the sole cause of negative treatment. It has defined the term “supervisor” so narrowly that almost no one can be found guilty of sexually or racially harassing a subordinate. It has ruled that an employer or business owner can, based on his or her personal religious beliefs, eliminate coverage for birth control from an employer-sponsored health insurance plan. [3] Congress could pass laws defining the term “supervisor” and the standard for a finding of discrimination. It could also pass a law requiring all employer health insurance to meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care), which would mean including coverage for contraception.

Congressional action to overturn these and other Supreme Court decisions is not only possible, and would not only reverse bad legal precedents and harmful effects, but would send a message that power resides with Congress, not with five, unelected “conservative” men. Even if legislation to reverse these decisions can only be passed by the House, doing so would be beneficial. It would highlight the harm and lack of impartiality behind these politically or ideologically driven decisions, as well as the “conservative” justices’ ignoring of precedents and established law. House passage of such laws might temper future decisions by the Court and highlight important issues for future hearings on the confirmation of Supreme Court justices.

My next post will identify some upcoming Supreme Court decisions that should be closely watched to see if the trend of politically or ideologically driven decisions continues.

[1]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, “Not so Supreme? Congress actually has a lot of power, mostly unused, to rein in the Roberts Court by clarifying the intent of the law,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/not-so-supreme)

[2]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, see above

[3]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, see above

THE NOT CONSERVATIVE AND NOT IMPARTIAL SUPREME COURT

“Conservative” is not the right term to use to describe the Supreme Court Justices who have been the “conservative” majority in many 5 to 4 decisions going back to at least 2000. This applies in particular to the current five “conservative” justices who will be the deciding majority in many future decisions.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Thomas are probably better described as “radical, right-wing” justices. They could also be described as Republicans, small government ideologues, corporatists (supporters of large corporations and businesses), and/or plutocrats (supporters of the wealthy elites). Predecessors Rehnquist and Scalia also fit this mold; Kennedy, Souter, and O’Connor were a little harder to categorize.

These “conservative” justices are frequently making decisions that are not impartial decisions based on the law – despite their claims at confirmation hearings that they are just umpires calling balls and strikes based on the law (or some variation on this theme). One expert commentator states that “many of the Roberts Court’s decisions are so poorly reasoned that they appear to be straight-up dishonest.” (p. 52) [1] Despite nominees’ statements at confirmation hearings they respect precedents and established law (or something to that effect), their decisions frequently do not do so.

The “conservative” justices are also not strict constitutionalists – committed to following the original intent of those who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – despite their claims to be. Trying to apply laws and principles written back in the late 1700s to today’s world without interpretation and adjustment is ridiculous on the face of it, even if they did consistently try to do this (which they don’t). For example, corporations barely existed in the 1700s and they were nothing like the huge, multi-national corporations we have today. Also, the guns that existed then took many seconds, if not a minute or so to reload, while today we have guns that fire multiple bullets per second. Not to mention transportation and electronic communications that today happen at speeds that couldn’t have even been imagined in the 1700s, let alone the ability to store and have ready access to information on the scale we do today. Even if the relevant intent of those constitutional authors could be determined, there is no reason, over 200 years later, to give such deified status to their pronouncements.

And the “conservative” justices have sometimes made decisions that simply contradict reality, as in their decision to effectively overturn the Voting Rights Act. (See my previous post on that decision here.)

The Supreme Court, in the years since the Bush vs. Gore decision in 2000, has frequently ruled in ways that serve Republican partisan purposes, without apparent concern about overturning settled law or precedents, or violating their own stated principles. [2] In Bush vs. Gore, the Supreme Court ordered Florida to stop recounting ballots in the presidential election, when the recount might have shifted the victory from Republican George W. Bush to Democrat Al Gore. It overruled Florida’s Supreme Court and election officials despite the “conservative” justices’ frequently stated belief in “states’ rights,” which means that the states have the power to conduct their business, such as elections, without interference from federal authorities.

Other Supreme Court decisions that have clearly benefited Republican partisan interests and that were 5 to 4 decisions include: [3]

  • Janus in 2018, which ruled that workers in a unionized workplace do not have to pay union dues even though the union is still required to represent and advocate for them in collective bargaining and in grievances. This is expected to result in a drop in union membership and in the financial resources available to unions. The Justices were well aware that unions register and mobilize more voters, particularly minorities, than any other organizations and that these voters tend to support Democratic candidates.
  • Shelby County in 2013, which effectively overturned the Voting Rights Act and allowed Republican state governments and election officials to make it difficult for minorities, low-income citizens, and other Democratic-leaning voters to register and vote. (See my previous post on this decision here.) Without this decision and the voter suppression it allowed, Democrat Stacey Abrams and not Republican Brian Kemp would almost certainly have been elected Governor of Georgia in 2018, for example.
  • Citizens United in 2010, which, along with other rulings, allows corporations and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums of money in our elections. This money clearly works to the benefit of Republicans and, in general, those who support the power and political influence of corporations and wealthy individuals in our political system and policy making.
  • Vieth vs. Jubelirer in 2004, which ruled that gerrymandering of electoral districts to favor one party over the other is not unconstitutional. The great majority of such gerrymandering, and by far the most extreme partisan gerrymandering, has been done to favor Republicans. Absent partisan gerrymandering, Democrats would likely have 15 to 20 more seats in the U.S. House. (See my previous posts on gerrymandering here and here.)

Congress could act in all these cases (as well as others) to reverse the effects of the Supreme Court’s decisions by clarifying the legislative intent and goals of underlying laws. One clear example is the Court’s decision that gutted the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. This decision is considered by some to be one of the mostly egregiously reasoned cases of the Roberts court. (See my previous post on this case here.) Congress could reinstitute the Voting Rights Act’s control over states’ election practices by updating the criteria for identifying jurisdictions that would be subject to federal oversight. The proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act in Congress would do this. [4]

Congressional action to reverse these politically or ideologically driven decisions is not only possible, and would not only reverse harmful effects and overturn bad legal precedents, but would also send a message that power resides with the people and Congress, not with five, unelected “conservative” men. Even if legislation to reverse these decisions or their effects can only be passed by the House, it could potentially temper future Supreme Court decisions. At the least, it would highlight the harm and lack of impartiality behind these decisions.

A subsequent post will identify other Supreme Court decisions where congressional action could negate the effects of the Court’s rulings. Another future post will identify future Supreme Court decisions that should be closely watched to see if the partisan, rather than impartial, decision making continues.

[1]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, “Not so Supreme? Congress actually has a lot of power, mostly unused, to rein in the Roberts Court by clarifying the intent of the law,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/not-so-supreme)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 5/15/19, “Over to you, John Roberts,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap)

[3]      Meyerson, H., 4/23/19, “The GOP Justices: Republicans first, white guys second, Constitutionalists third,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap?page=1)

[4]      Millhiser, A., 2/13/19, see above

RACISM ON THE SUPREME COURT?

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 5 to 4 decision, that key provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) were unconstitutional. The case was formally known as Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority (which included Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito) that “Our country has changed” and claimed that it had done so so dramatically since the initial passage of the VRA in 1965 that the VRA was now not only unneeded but unconstitutional.

This decision was shocking to many, in part because the Act had been reauthorized in 2006 by overwhelming majorities in Congress and signed into law without controversy by President George W. Bush. The Congressional vote, with Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, was 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate in favor of reauthorizing, i.e., extending, the Voting Rights Act.

The over 15,000 pages of evidence compiled by Congress in its review of the VRA in 2006 indicated that it was still badly needed. The Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a conservative, noted that evidence had been “assembled to show the need for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act” and that it documented “the extensive record of continued abuse” of voting rights. [1]

This extensive evidence clearly established that the country hadn’t changed much since the VRA’s enactment in 1965 with respect to efforts to impede voting by Blacks in some areas, particularly the South. It documented relentless efforts in some states to counter the effects of the VRA. The on-going nature of these efforts was confirmed by actions taken almost immediately after the Court’s ruling overturning the VRA. (See some specifics below.)

The Supreme Court in effect ruled that Congress had acted irrationally in 2006 in reauthorizing the VRA. Chief Justice Roberts’ and his colleagues’ decision was based on their version of reality, which was in contradiction to the evidence amassed by Congress. Roberts probably wouldn’t have been persuaded by any evidence, given that he had worked zealously in 1981, when he was at the Justice Department, to roll back the protections of the VRA.

At best, the Court’s decision was a failure of empathy or a triumph of ideology, but more likely it reflected racism.

Justice Scalia, in the oral arguments leading to the decision, described the VRA as being a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” and stated that he didn’t believe any legislator would vote to end such an entitlement once society had adopted it. Therefore, it was up to the Court to declare it unconstitutional, because this was the only way to end this racial entitlement. [2] Why the right to vote, which is a core principle of our democracy, would be considered a “racial entitlement” is hard to understand except from the perspective of racism.

The irony here, of course, is that the racial entitlement that exists in U.S. society is the entitlement of Whites. For most of the two hundred years of its existence, there were all White elected officials, police forces, corporate executives, judges and juries, as well as schools, colleges, and teachers, to list a few examples. And while our country has begun to change in this regard, there still is a long way to go to achieve anything close to equity.

What occurred after the elimination of the protections of the VRA has made it clear how virulent efforts to suppress voting, particularly of Blacks, are today. Within two hours after the Supreme Court issued its decision on the VRA, Texas took steps to reinstitute its strict photo ID law, which had previously been struck down by a federal court. The day after the decision, North Carolina amended a pending bill to make its voter ID law stricter and added other provisions eliminating or restricting opportunities to vote that targeted minority voters. Changes in voting procedures in other states, which had previously been blocked by the federal government under the VRA, were quickly implemented.

After years of litigation, federal courts have forced the reversal of the actions of Texas and North Carolina because their changes in voting laws were found to be intentionally racially discriminatory. However, in the intervening years, the discriminatory provisions were in effect. Overall, federal courts have now ruled that at least 10 of the new, state restrictions on voting were illegal.

In the five years since the Supreme Court’s overturning of the VRA, nearly 1,000 polling places have been closed, many of them in predominantly Black areas. Access to early voting has been cut, voters have been purged from the lists of eligible voters, and requirements to show a voter ID or provide proof of citizenship have been implemented. [3] Nine states had been subject on a statewide basis to VRA oversight of changes in voting procedures (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia). In every one of them at least one of the above five impediments to voting has been implemented (the average was 2.3 impediments). Eight of the 9 moved or eliminated polling places and 8 of 9 implemented new voter ID requirements. Four of these impediments to voting were implemented in each of two other states, where only parts of the states had been subject to the VRA (Florida and North Carolina).

Clearly, the Supreme Court majority was in error when they concluded that the country had changed and the protections of the VRA were not only no longer needed, but had risen to the level of being unconstitutional oversight of states’ elections by the federal government. Given that the Court is extremely unlikely to reverse itself, it is up to Congress to pass a new VRA that will fill the gaps in the protection of voting rights created by the Court’s decision.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to support a new Voting Rights Act. Our democracy should be encouraging and supporting voting by all eligible voters, and not allowing states or local jurisdictions to implement impediments to voting – especially when those impediments have disproportionate effects on Black Americans.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Fountain, B., 2018, Beautiful Country Burn Again, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY. Quotations from page 406.

[2]      Fountain, B., 2018, see above. Quotation from page 409.

[3]      U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2018, “An assessment of minority voting rights access in the U.S.: 2018 statutory report.” (https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2018/Minority_Voting_Access_2018.pdf)

THE UNDERMINING OF THE INDEPENDENCE OF OUR JUDICIARY

There is widespread acknowledgement that fair and impartial courts and judges are essential to public trust in our court system and our democracy. A key role of the judiciary is to ensure that the legislative and executive branches of government do not overstep their authority or violate individuals’ rights. This is one of the key checks and balances that is part of the Constitution. Members of the legislative and executive branches should respect judges’ independence even when they disagree with their decisions.

In recent years, the judicial appointment process at the federal and state levels, elections of judges in some states, and court decisions themselves have gotten increasingly politicized. This is not a positive trend for our democracy and the politicization of the judiciary only seems to be accelerating.

President Trump on multiple occasions has criticized judicial decisions and demeaned individual judges. This is unprecedented and unhealthy for our courts and our democracy.

The President’s attacks on the judiciary seem to have emboldened others in their efforts to politicize our judicial system. In 2018, at least 14 states are considering at least 42 legislative proposals that would reduce the independence of judges and court systems. These proposals include giving legislators more control over the selection of judges, putting political or financial pressure on judges to rule the “right” way, and giving legislatures the power to override court decisions, including deciding the constitutionality of laws they themselves wrote. [1]

The attacks on judicial independence are coming from right-wing, wealthy interests in efforts to:

  • Have unlimited ability to sell guns and ammunition, as well as to carry guns, (Note: This is not really about Second Amendment rights; it’s about the ability of gun manufacturers to sell guns and ammunition to make big profits.)
  • Limit women’s ability to make decisions about their reproductive health,
  • Limit the rights of LGBTQ individuals,
  • Block every citizen’s right to an equal voice in our democracy through 1) restrictions on voting rights, 2) gerrymandered voting districts, and 3) unlimited campaign funding by wealthy special interests,
  • Expand the use of the death penalty and maintain an inequitable criminal justice system,
  • Block funding for public schools that ensures that every child receives a free and appropriate education as required by state constitutions,
  • Block fair taxes and fair employment and business practices necessary to stop spiraling economic inequality, and
  • Promote policies based on religious beliefs rather than the interests of the public.

For example, in Pennsylvania, legislators unhappy with a state Supreme Court ruling that a Republican gerrymandering of congressional districts was illegal, at first refused to comply with the court’s order and then threatened to remove the judges who had ruled against them. [2]

In Washington state, where judges are elected, legislators have proposed requiring analysis of how much each state Supreme Court decision will cost taxpayers. In decisions about individuals’ rights, cost should not be a factor and using the cost of a judge’s decisions should not be a factor in an election campaign. In North Carolina, legislators have proposed giving themselves more power in the selection of judges and in gerrymandering judicial districts. They have also proposed making judges run for election every two years. In Iowa, legislators unhappy with a judge’s decision to ban guns from courthouses have threatened to cut judges’ salaries and to require the courts to pay rent, using their control of the purse strings to try to affect judges’ rulings.

The impartiality and integrity of our state courts is critical because they handle the vast majority of criminal and civil cases in the U.S. For example, 94% of felony convictions occur in state courts, including 99% of rape cases and 98% of murder cases. In criminal cases, there is compelling evidence that the pressures of election campaigns and negative campaign ads affect judicial decision-making. (See this previous post for more detail.)

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice free from partisan pressure. Not only are partisan elected officials trying to put their thumbs on the scales of justice, but in addition the rapid increase in spending on judicial campaigns has exacerbated the challenges to judicial fairness and integrity. (See this previous post for more detail.) We need to oppose efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary whenever and wherever they arise.

We need to support policies and practices that protect the independence of the judiciary. Two key policies related to the selection of judges are for states to use an effective, non-partisan appointment process or to have effective regulation of judicial elections and spending on them. Partial public financing systems, which match individuals’ small contributions with public money, can legally limit spending and the size of contributions. These are important steps in controlling the influence of campaign money on judicial decisions. (See this previous post for more detail.)

Eroding the checks and balances between our branches of government, and in particular the courts’ independence in making decisions fundamental to our democratic principles, is unpatriotic and antithetical to the Constitution. Increasing politicization of the courts is likely to further increase divisive partisanship. Reduced independence and power in the courts could be extremely difficult to reverse after the fact; this may well be a snowball that will roll uncontrollably downhill. Politicizing the judiciary would make its decisions subject to the whims of the current political environment rather than based on long-term constitutional, legal, and democratic principles.

[1]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/6/18, “Legislative assaults on courts – 2018,” New York University Law School, (https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/legislative-assaults-state-courts-2018)

[2]      Keith, D., 2/21/18, “Democracy unchecked: Trump spurs state lawmakers to curb judges’ powers,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/democracy-unchecked-trump-spurs-state-lawmakers-curb-judges%E2%80%99-powers)

UNLIMITED, UNACCOUNTABLE CAMPAIGN SPENDING EXPLODES

Traditionally, campaign spending has been done by a committee set up and overseen by a candidate running for election. A candidate’s campaign committee is governed by state or federal laws depending on the office for which the candidate is running. These committees are required to publicly report donors and the size of contributions is limited. Currently, at the federal level, contributions to candidates’ committees are capped at $2,700 per person per election.

This all began to change 25 years ago when groups and sometimes individuals other than a candidate’s campaign committee started spending money to influence the outcomes of elections. This spending is referred to as “outside spending” or “soft” money because it occurs outside of the candidate’s official campaign committee. It is supposed to be independent of the candidate’s committee and its efforts are not supposed to be coordinated with those of the candidate’s campaign. However, this independence is very questionable in many, if not most, cases. The regulations defining the standard for independence and the enforcement of them have been weak at best. The Federal Election Commission (FEC), the primary regulator of campaign spending, is hamstrung by the intense partisanship in Washington.

The lack of accountability for outside spending has been a major contributor to the growth of negative campaigning. Outside spending is typically used to attack an opponent rather than to support a candidate. The attacks can be nasty and stretch the truth or worse. Because outside spending is technically independent of the candidate, he or she can plausibly claim that it is out of his or her control. Therefore, no one can be effectively held accountable for the content of ads or other material.

Outside spending had been growing relatively modestly until the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that ruled that wealthy individuals, corporations, and other organizations could engage in unlimited outside spending. The five Supreme Court justices who supported this ruling felt that such spending was part of free speech. They believed that the independence of the spending and the disclosure of its sources would prevent the corruption of elected officials who benefited from it. However, there is now significant evidence of collaboration between outside spenders and candidates, as well as evidence of corruption. (See my previous posts on illegal coordination and the corrupting effects of unlimited spending.)

Outside spending has already hit $1 billion in the 2016 federal elections – up from $225 million at this point in the pre-Citizens United 2010 elections. There’s been $621 million in outside money spent on the presidential race, $426 million spent on Senate races, and $187 million spent on House races. [1]

Outside spending now exceeds the spending by candidates’ committees in many of the high profile, tightly contested Congressional races. [2] Outside spending is spreading to state-level elections, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

Super political action committees (super PACs) are the primary vehicle for outside spending. Super PACs have spent $847 million to-date in the 2016 federal elections and they will spend hundreds of millions more by Election Day. There are no limits on the size of contributions they can receive, but they are required to disclose their contributors.

In addition to super PACs, two types of non-profit organizations are used for outside spending because they are not required to disclose their donors. (I’ll discuss donor secrecy in my next post.) One type is business associations like the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. These groups are referred to as 501(c)(6) organizations because that is the section of the IRS rules that governs them. They may engage in political activities, as long as these activities are not their primary purpose. However, the IRS has not defined “political activity” nor “primary” so some of these organizations easily skirt this limitation. [3]

So far in the 2016 elections, 6 of these business associations have reported $26 million in political spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), including almost $25 million spent by the US Chamber of Commerce. The FEC reporting does not represent all the political spending by these groups because only certain kinds of activity are required to be reported, most notably activity, usually ads, that explicitly encourages the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

The second type of non-profit organization that is widely used for political purposes is commonly referred to as a social welfare organization. Examples include the National Rifle Association (NRA), Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club. These groups are referred to as 501(c)(4) organizations because that is the section of the IRS rules that governs them. Their primary purpose is supposed to be promoting the social welfare of our society. However, as with business associations, they may engage in political activities, as long as these activities are not their primary purpose. Again, because of the lack of clear regulations, some of these organizations easily skirt this limitation.

So far in the 2016 elections, 95 of these groups have reported $93 million in political spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), including $25 million spent by the NRA, the biggest spender among them by far. As with business associations, the FEC reporting does not represent all the political spending by these groups because only certain kinds of activity are required to be reported.

In addition to the significant potential for corruption, outside money is problematic because the unlimited spending it allows gives a megaphone to wealthy corporations and individuals that can drown out other voices that provide important information for voters. For our democracy to function as the founders envisioned it, citizens must vote and be well-informed. Unlimited election spending by a tiny slice of our society means that voters will receive skewed information and may be discouraged from voting because they feel their voices and votes are meaningless.

As a result, a democracy built on the principle of one person, one vote, is fundamentally undermined. All voices should be heard in a relatively balanced manner during election campaigns. Given the constraints of the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions, the value and impact of small campaign contributions must be enhanced by matching them with public funds. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions must be overturned and limits established on contributions and spending in our elections.

[1]       OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “2016 outside spending, by race,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/summ.php?disp=R)

[2]       OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “Races in which outside spending exceeds candidate spending,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/outvscand.php?cycle=2016)

[3]       OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 10/22/16, “Dark money basics,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/dark-money/basics)

IS JUSTICE FOR SALE IN STATE COURTS?

There is widespread recognition that a fair and impartial judiciary is essential to the maintenance of public trust and confidence in our court system and our democracy. In 39 states, at least some judges are elected; in aggregate, 87% of state judges nationwide run in elections. (In some states and for the federal judiciary, judges are appointed and not elected.)

The impartiality and integrity of our state courts is critical because they handle the vast majority of criminal and civil cases in the U.S. For example, 94% of felony convictions occur in state courts, including 99% of rape cases and 98% of murder cases.

The rapidly growing spending on judicial campaigns brings with it the potential for money to influence (or appear to influence) judges’ decisions and to create conflicts of interest. Elected judges are routinely raising campaign funds from and benefiting from spending by those who will appear before them in court as lawyers or parties in a case.

Between 2000 and 2009, over $200 million was spent on elections for state supreme court justices in 22 states. This was more than double the $83 million spent in the previous decade. This growth in spending appears to be accelerating and has been exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions, which allow unlimited contributions to and spending by supposedly independent groups, including corporations.

As with other elected offices, spending by outside, supposedly independent groups is growing in judicial races. Furthermore, the frequency of very large contributions and high levels of spending by a small number of wealthy individuals and organizations is increasing. For example, in the 29 most expensive judicial elections in the decade from 2000 to 2009, the top five spenders averaged $473,000 while all others averaged $850. [1] As with other races, much of the outside spending is on negative advertising. Negative advertising tends to undermine trust in elected officials and to reduce voter turnout. Outside spending also fuels an arms race with special interests spending more and more to out-spend competing interests.

As a result, there is the appearance, if not the actuality, that campaign money is influencing elected judges’ actions. As retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “In too many states, judicial elections are becoming political prize fights where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the Constitution.” [2] For example, in Alabama, the primary sources of campaign funds for supreme court candidates have been businesses and trial lawyers as they battle each other over tort reform. In 2006, candidates for the chief justice position raised $8.2 million. (Tort reform refers to changes in the laws governing the ability of victims to get court-ordered compensation for damages or personal injury.)

My previous post highlighted a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court where a 4 to 2 decision found that Governor Walker and his campaign had not engaged in illegal coordination with two supposedly independent business groups that spent millions of dollars supporting his campaign. Two justices, who participated and voted with the majority, had been asked to recuse themselves because the two groups whose support of Walker was at issue had also spent millions of dollars on their campaigns. They refused to recuse themselves and this case is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

West Virginia is another state where business interests are spending millions of dollars on judges’ elections and where a state supreme court justice refused to recuse himself in a case where he had a conflict of interest. The case is Caperton vs. Massey where a jury verdict that had ordered Massey Energy Co. to pay $50 million was being appealed. Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship, knowing the case was going to the court, spent $3 million supporting the election of Justice Brent Benjamin in 2004. This was over 60% of the total spending on Benjamin’s campaign. After he won the election, he was one of the majority votes in a 3 to 2 decision that overturned the $50 million award against Massey. He refused to recuse himself. This was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and it ruled in June, 2009, that Justice Benjamin had to recuse himself because of the “serious risk of actual bias.” [3]

In May 2016, Justice Benjamin was up for re-election. Outside groups spent $3 million in the election. The biggest spender, at $2 million, was the Washington, D.C., based Republican State Leadership Committee, despite the fact that the election was supposedly non-partisan. It spent its money in support of the eventual winner, Beth Walker, who won with 39.5% of the vote in a five-person election. In addition, various outside business groups spent almost $500,000 supporting her. This $2.5 million in outside spending was many times the $200,000 she raised for her campaign and still many times what she may have spent including $500,000 in loans from her husband. [4]

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice that is free from the influence of special interests and partisan pressures. A major driver of the threat to judicial integrity is growing campaign spending, including the rapid increase in unlimited spending by outside groups and individuals.

My next post will take a look at the effects of judicial elections on criminal cases. After that, I will present some policy solutions to the problem of elections and campaign financing that can undermine a fair and impartial judiciary.

[1]       Sample, J., Skaggs, A., Blitzer, J., & Casey, L., 2010, “The new politics of judicial elections 2000-2009,” Justice at Stake (http://www.justiceatstake.org/media/cms/JASNPJEDecadeONLINE_8E7FD3FEB83E3.pdf)

[2]       Justice at Stake, 2016, “Money & Elections,” Justice at Stake (http://www.justiceatstake.org/issues/state_court_issues/money-and-elections/)

[3]       Brennan Center for Justice, 6/8/09, “Supreme Court reverses decision in Caperton vs. Massey,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/legal-work/caperton-v-massey)

[4]       Brennan Center for Justice, 5/6/16, “Outside spending in West Virginia Supreme Court race nears $3 million,” Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/press-release/outside-spending-west-virginia-supreme-court-race-nears-3-million)

ILLEGAL COORDINATION BETWEEN CANDIDATES AND “INDEPENDENT” CAMPAIGN SPENDING

As I described in my last post, one of the Supreme Court’s justifications for its decisions allowing unlimited spending by outside groups in our elections was that their spending would be independent of any candidate’s campaign. Therefore, as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the Citizens United decision, such expenditures “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” [1]

However, in reality, many outside groups spending large sums of money on our elections are not independent but coordinate their activities with candidates and their campaigns. One of the most blatant and well-documented examples of coordination between a candidate and outside groups is that of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and two non-profit, “social welfare,” 501(c)(4) groups: the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group. [2]

In 2012, when Governor Walker was facing a recall election, he worked closely with these two organizations to raise millions of dollars that were spent supporting his re-election and attacking his opponent. He and his staff advised donors that contributions to these groups would not be disclosed and that corporate contributions were welcome. This bypassed Wisconsin’s laws requiring disclosure of campaign donors and prohibiting corporate donations.

Walker knew where financial support for his re-election was coming from but the public did not. So he rewarded his secret supporters. For example, his top legislative priority after he won the election was passing a mining bill drafted by an out-of-state mining corporation, Gogebic Taconite. It had secretly contributed $700,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Also after the election, Menard Hardware got a $1.8 million tax credit from an economic development agency that Governor Walker chaired. Its CEO had secretly given $1.5 million to the Wisconsin Club for Growth at Walker’s behest.

These donations came to light two years later in an investigation into allegations of coordination between Walker’s campaign and these two, supposedly independent, outside groups. The investigation was led by both Republican and Democratic prosecutors, as well as Wisconsin’s non-partisan elections board.

Eventually, Walker and his campaign challenged the investigation in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. It ruled 4 – 2 in their favor, stopping the investigation. Overturning years of precedent, it ruled that the coordination between Walker’s campaign and the two outside groups was constitutionally protected as long as the outside groups didn’t explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate.

However, that’s not the end of the story, but rather the beginning of a related one. The four justices who voted to declare the coordination legal, had themselves received a combined $10 million of support in their elections from none other than the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group. In most cases, these two groups had spent more on the judges’ elections than the candidates themselves. For example, in 2011, the two groups spent nearly $3.7 million supporting Justice David Prosser’s election. This was five times as much as the candidate’s campaign spent and he ended up winning by just 7,000 votes (out of 1.5 million cast or less than 0.5%: 50.17% to 49.70%). In 2008, the two groups spent $2.75 million in support of Justice Michael Gableman, over six times what the candidate’s campaign spent. He won by just 20,000 votes (out of 740,000 votes cast or less than 3%: 51.2% to 48.5%). The spending by these two outside groups very likely had a decisive effect on these elections.

When the special prosecutor defending the investigation into the two groups’ coordination with the Walker campaign asked Justices Gableman and Prosser to recuse themselves because of their conflict of interest, they refused to do so. As a result, these justices not only legalized what Governor Walker had done, but also legalized the actions of these deep-pocketed supporters of their elections and coordination with these groups in their own campaigns. [3]

Their decision is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will take this opportunity to reconsider their Citizens United decision in light of what has happened in its aftermath. The evidence clearly contradicts their rationale for allowing unlimited contributions and spending by outside groups: that it would be independent of candidates’ campaigns and would not give rise to even the appearance of corruption. There has been coordination among outside groups and candidates’ campaigns, followed by blatant corruption of public decision-making. Will the U.S. Supreme Court, therefore, clarify what is required for outside groups to operate truly independently of any candidate’s campaign? Will it recognize the clear potential for corruption and allow limits on contributions and spending? Hopefully, it will acknowledge the realities of our election campaigns and take corrective action.

[1]       Carney, E.N., 12/10/15, “Super PAC debate spotlights illegal coordination,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/super-pac-debate-spotlights-illegal-coordination)

[2]       Fischer, B., 5/19/16, “Will SCOTUS confront the results of Citizens United,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/confronting-citizens-united/)

[3]       Fischer, B., 5/19/16, see above

UNLIMITED DONATIONS AND SPENDING ARE CORRUPTING OUR ELECTIONS

The unlimited donations to and spending by Super PACs and non-profit “social welfare” groups [aka 501(c)(4)s] allowed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United and other decisions have changed the whole pattern of funding for our presidential campaigns.

These supposedly independent, “outside” entities are the dominant players in this election. Every one of the major presidential candidates except Bernie Sanders has one or more of these unconstrained groups advocating for his or her election. One study found that more than 80% of the advertising in the Republican presidential primary race was paid for by outside entities – not by the candidates’ own campaign committees. [1] Campaign funding from Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s is rapidly trickling down to US Senate and House races, to state-level elections, and even to Mayoral elections.

As of February, $607 million has been given to Super PACs. Of that huge sum, $248 million (41%) has come from just 50 mega-donors, their families, and their privately held companies. This is more money than the $161 million donated by the 1 million contributors to Hillary Clinton’s campaign committee. While donations to Super PACs and 501(c)(4) non-profit groups are unlimited in amount and source, donations to candidates’ campaign committees are limited to $2,700 per election and corporate money is prohibited. [2]

The Supreme Court justified its Citizens United decision by asserting that the unlimited spending of these outside groups would be independent of candidates’ campaigns and that donors and spending would be disclosed so that voters would know who was trying to affect their votes. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in Citizens United: “By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not in coordination with a candidate.” Because the expenditures are independent, Kennedy concluded, they “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” [3]

These justifications for allowing unlimited spending have now been shown by reality to be wrong. Meaningful disclosure is not occurring. Super PACs’ disclosures of donors are infrequent and often not timely in terms of when an election is occurring. Furthermore, large donors have engaged in money laundering to hide the true source of their donations. They donate via a corporation or other entity that does not disclose its sources of funding and sometimes is set up for the express purpose of funneling political contributions and then disbanded once the election is over. The non-profit 501(c)(4) organizations do not have to disclose donors and hence are referred to as “dark money” groups. Money is often shuffled among these groups to hide its true source.

It is becoming increasingly well documented – although it has been suspected from the beginning – that many Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups do NOT operate independently of the candidates and their campaign committees. Over 100 of the Super PACs, including many of the biggest ones, are single candidate Super PACs. This means they are raising and spending money on behalf of one and only one candidate. Roughly 80% of the money raised by Super PACs in this election cycle has gone to single candidate Super PACs. These Super PACs are effectively shadow campaigns. They run ads, stage events, sell candidate-branded merchandise, and even handle press inquiries. They are often run by close aides (or former aides) of the candidate.

In many cases, the candidate attends the fundraisers for the Super PAC and in some cases, the candidate launches the Super PAC and directly helps it raise money before officially becoming a candidate. Jeb Bush, former Governor of FL and Republican presidential candidate in 2016, did this with his Right to Rise Super PAC. It raised more than $100 million that was used to support his presidential campaign once he became an official candidate. [4]

One of the most blatant and well-documented cases of coordination between a candidate and outside groups is that of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and two non-profit, 501(c)(4) groups: the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group. [5] I’ll describe this example of coordination in my next post.

[1]       Carney, E.N., 12/17/15, “Democracy prospect: Omnibus battles spotlight political money fault lines,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/democracy-prospect-omnibus-battles-spotlight-political-money-fault-lines)

[2]       Gold, M., & Narayanswamy, A., 4/17/16, “41% of Super PAC money coming from 50 donors,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Carney, E.N., 12/10/15, “Super PAC debate spotlights illegal coordination,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/super-pac-debate-spotlights-illegal-coordination)

[4]       Carney, E.N., 12/10/15, see above

[5]       Fischer, B., 5/19/16, “Will SCOTUS confront the results of Citizens United,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/confronting-citizens-united/)

$200,000+ CHECKS ARE BEING GIVEN DIRECTLY TO CANDIDATES

In 2014, the Supreme Court, in a decision known as McCutcheon, ruled that it is unconstitutional to limit how much an individual can give in aggregate to all candidates’ campaigns and political parties during an election cycle. This ruling affects contributions that go directly to candidates, whereas the better known Citizens United decision allows unlimited campaign spending that is (supposedly) independent of any candidate’s or party’s campaign. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, Congress exacerbated the situation by slipping a provision into a must-pass budget bill that raised substantially the amount a contributor can give to a party committee and allowed them to give that amount to each of multiple party committees.

Contributors are still limited by laws capping the amount one can give to any individual candidate ($5,400 for federal candidates), but the aggregate limit, which was $123,200 per two-year election cycle, was ruled a violation of free speech. Furthermore, candidates and the parties have developed strategies that allow joint fundraising where contributors can write one check that will be split among multiple candidates and/or a variety of national and state party committees.

As a result contributors are now giving checks of well over $200,000 directly to candidates. Republican Representative Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the US House, has received at least 22 checks of $244,200 each. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has received at least eight checks of $353,400 each. For the Hillary Victory Fund, the maximum donation is actually $356,100, based on maximum donations of $2,700 to Hillary for America for the primary election, $33,400 to the Democratic National Committee, and $10,000 to the federal accounts of each of 32 state Democratic parties. [1]

These are only the most dramatic examples of the dozens of checks over the previous limit that Ryan, Clinton, and other politicians are receiving. Several husband and wife pairs have given close to half a million dollars per couple. And some wealthy contributors have given super-sized checks to more than one of these joint fundraising efforts. [2]

While the bulk of the money from these huge checks goes to party committees, these party committees often make large donations to the candidate who sponsored the fundraiser. Basically, this is money laundering that circumvents the limit on what a contributor can give to any individual candidate.

The McCutcheon ruling is one of a series of Supreme Court decisions, almost all by 5 to 4 votes, that have undermined campaign finance laws and allowed huge sums of money to flow to candidates’ own campaigns, to party committees, and to supposedly independent expenditures meant to influence voters. These Supreme Court decisions appear to ignore the realities of campaign financing and the potential of large campaign contributions and expenditures to influence elected officials. They also appear to ignore the potential for outright corruption and bribery.

Although most of the media’s attention is focused on the fundraising of the presidential campaigns, big contributors tend to have even greater influence on congressional candidates and their campaigns. Furthermore, their influence on state level campaigns can be even more dramatic.

The bottom line is that these Supreme Court decisions, somewhat exacerbated by increases in contribution limits initiated by Congress, have increased the ability of a very small number of the very richest Americans to provide ever increasing amounts and portions of campaign funding. This shifts our political system away from democracy and toward a plutocracy, where the rich elites effectively rule our country.

[1]       Vogel, K.P., & Arnsdorf, I., 5/2/16, “Clinton fundraising leaves little for state parties,” Politico (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/04/clinton-fundraising-leaves-little-for-state-parties-222670)

[2]         Vandewalker, I., 4/25/16, “Two years later, McCutcheon fuels huge checks to politicians,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/two-years-later-mccutcheon-fuels-huge-checks-to-politicians/)

CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE AND MONEY IS NOT SPEECH

ABSTRACT: Many millions of dollars are being spent by special interest groups on our political campaigns. This level of spending makes it clear that wealthy special interests – individuals, corporations, unions, and non-profit organizations – are taking over our elections.

The only way to stop this undemocratic spending is through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution – because of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and other cases. Overturning the 2010 Citizens United decision has broad support across all demographic and political groups, including 85% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 81% of independents. And two-thirds of small business owners view the Citizens United decision as bad for small businesses.

Move to Amend, Wolf PAC, and other organizations are working to enact a corrective Constitutional amendment by introducing bills in state legislatures that call on Congress to enact such an amendment or, if Congress fails to act, calling for a Constitutional Convention to propose such an amendment. This legislation has passed in California, Vermont, and Illinois, and is pending in 13 other states.

If you’d like to participate in the effort to overturn Citizens United, contact Move to Amend or Wolf PAC via their websites. Both have local and national activities in which you can participate.

FULL POST: Many millions of dollars are being spent by special interest groups on our political campaigns, both for candidates’ elections and on ballot questions. Nationally, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in 2014 by outside groups (i.e., not a candidate’s own campaign). (See previous post on 11/17/14 for details.) However, this is not just an issue for national elections. For example, here in Massachusetts recent outside spending included:

  • Governor’s race in 2014:                over $17 million
  • Two ballot questions in 2014:       over $23 million
  • Boston Mayor’s race in 2013:        over $  4 million

This level of spending makes it clear that wealthy special interests – individuals, corporations, unions, and non-profit organizations – are taking over our elections. The basic democratic principle of one person, one vote, is being overwhelmed by money. This money serves as a megaphone so that the voices and wishes of these wealthy special interests drown out the voices of average voters and citizens.

Making this situation even worse is that a growing portion of these huge sums is given by anonymous donors. (See previous post on 11/17/14.) This money is called “dark money” because its source is unknown. Anonymous donors means there is no accountability for the messages delivered. Furthermore, voters can’t effectively evaluate the credibility of the message because they don’t know who is paying for it.

The only way to stop this undemocratic spending in our elections is through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution – because of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and other cases. (These rulings said that corporations and other organizations are people and have all the same rights as actual human beings under the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. The rulings also said that spending money in elections [and elsewhere] is speech and is protected by freedom of speech rights.)

The American public broadly supports overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which was the key to the avalanche of political spending by outside groups. Polling finds that 80% of the American people oppose the Citizens United decision with remarkably strong agreement across all demographic and political groups, including 85% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 81% of independents. Similarly, 88% of small business owners view the current role of money in politics negatively and two-thirds view the Citizens United decision as bad for small businesses.

To address this situation, Move to Amend (https://movetoamend.org/), Wolf PAC (http://www.wolf-pac.com/), and other organizations are working to enact a corrective Constitutional amendment. They are introducing bills in state legislatures that take a two-step approach to advancing the Constitutional amendment necessary to reverse these rulings.

  • First, these bills call on Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment stating two things:
    • The rights protected by the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution are the rights of human beings only and not of corporations or other organizations.
    • Congress and the states may place limits on political contributions and spending to ensure that our elections are fair and that all citizens can participate and have their voices heard in a reasonably equitable manner.
  • Second, if Congress fails to act within six months, the bills call for a Constitutional Convention to propose this amendment.

Such legislation has passed in California, Vermont, and Illinois, and is pending in 13 other states. You can check at the Move to Amend and Wolf PAC websites to see if there is an initiative in your state. A call for a Convention to amend the Constitution needs to be part of the legislation because our current Congress is so indebted to and dependent on wealthy campaign contributors that it is unlikely to pass an amendment staunching the flow of campaign money on its own.

Four of the last 11 amendments to the Constitution began this way – with state resolutions pressuring Congress to act. Notably, the 17th amendment, which established direct election of US Senators in 1913, was passed by Congress only after many states had passed a call for a Constitutional Convention. Although such a Convention has never occurred, if one did occur, any amendment it proposed would have to be ratified by ¾ of the states in order to go into effect.

If you’d like to participate in the effort to overturn Citizens United, first, go to the Move to Amend website and sign their petition (if you haven’t already). Second, I encourage you to contact Move to Amend or Wolf PAC via their websites. Both have local and national activities in which you can participate.

SUPREME COURT UPDATES

ABSTRACT: Here are three quick updates related to the US Supreme Court. First, issues with the conduct and ethics of a couple of the Justices have arisen in part because Supreme Court Justices are not covered by the Code of Conduct that applies to all other US judges. A Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2013 is being proposed in Congress that would require the Court to adopt a code of conduct similar to the one for other judges.

Second, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg recently articulated what many legal scholars have been saying: that the current Court is “one of the most activist courts in history” based on its “readiness to overturn legislation” and judicial precedents.

Third, the Supreme Court will be considering cases in the upcoming year that will produce major decisions. These will give further indications of how the Court is balancing precedent and deference to legislative intent with ideology and activism. On the campaign financing front, the Court will consider a case that challenges the total, or aggregate, contribution limit of $123,200 on what an individual can give directly to all candidates for federal offices combined over the 2 year election cycle.

FULL POST: First, issues with the conduct and ethics of a couple of the Supreme Court Justices have arisen. The Supreme Court Justices are not covered by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. A number of situations have occurred with Supreme Court Justices that under the Code would have been prohibited or would have required Justices to refrain from participating in certain cases due to apparent conflicts of interest. For example, Justice Thomas’s wife is a highly paid lobbyist who works on issues (health care for example) that have come before the Supreme Court. Justices Thomas and Scalia have attended and spoken at fundraisers and events for groups that are politically active on issues that have come before the Court. Neither has refrained from participating in any cases despite these apparent conflicts of interest.

Therefore, a Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2013 is being proposed in Congress that would require the Court to adopt a code of conduct similar to the one for other judges. The Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, are, of course, opposed to the proposed legislation, asserting that they are capable of policing themselves. [1]

Second, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg recently articulated what many legal scholars have been saying: that the current Court is “one of the most activist courts in history.” Her comment was based on the Court’s “readiness to overturn legislation”. Others have also noted its readiness to overturn judicial precedents, including ones of previous Supreme Court rulings. As examples of activism, Ginsburg highlighted the overturning of the Voting Rights Act and the ruling that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) was not a constitutionally allowed use of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. [2] Other examples of activism cited by other legal scholars include the Citizens United decision (and others) on campaign financing, decisions on affirmative action, and the decision stopping the recounting of ballots in Florida for the 2000 presidential election. The reasoning given with these decisions is, in many cases, so convoluted that it is hard to view them as anything but ideological activism.

Third, the Supreme Court will be considering cases in the upcoming year that will produce major decisions. These will give further indications of how the Court is balancing precedent and deference to legislative intent with ideology and activism. Front and center among these cases will be ones on campaign financing and affirmative action.

On the campaign financing front, the Court will consider a case known as McCutcheon versus the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that challenges the total, or aggregate, contribution limit of $123,200 on what an individual can give directly to all candidates for federal offices combined over the 2 year election cycle. This amount is well over twice the income of the average American family. (Anyone can give unlimited amounts to Political Action Committees that are, at least theoretically, independent of the candidates themselves.) [3]

If this aggregate limit is thrown out, our campaign financing and our elections will be even further skewed toward wealthy individuals. The Supreme Court has previously upheld these aggregate contribution limits because they address both the reality and appearance that our elected officials are corrupted by the influence of money. In our democracy, every citizens’ vote and voice is supposed to be equally heard and represented. [4][5]


[1]       Mencimer, S., 7/31/13, “Democrats to introduce Supreme Court ethics bill,” Mother Jones

[2]       Liptak, A., 8/25/13, “Ginsburg calls court one of most activist,” The New York Times

[3]       Jones, J., 9/11/13, “Supreme Court Preview: McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission,” League of Women Voters (http://www.lwv.org/blog/supreme-court-preview-mccutcheon-v-federal-election-commission)

[4]       Kennedy, L., 9/10/13, “Stop the Next Citizens United,” Demos (http://www.demos.org/publication/stop-next-citizens-united)

[5]       Lioz, A., 7/26/13, “Is McCutcheon v. FEC the Next Citizens United?” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/mccutcheon-v-fec-next-citizens-united)

CAMPAIGN FUNDRAISING: THE PERFECT STORM

ABSTRACT: The unprecedented spending and the unprecedented secrecy in the current election campaigns are creating the perfect storm and it’s battering our democracy. They are the result of three factors: 1) great concentration of wealth, 2) unlimited campaign contributions, and 3) secrecy through weakly regulated non-profit organizations. Non-profit organizations don’t have to report contributors and are spending tens of millions of dollars on political activity. These non-profit organizations have accounted for two-thirds of the outside spending to-date – close to $100 million. The Internal Revenue Service has, so far, failed to exercise its oversight responsibilities. Corporations, in particular, like the secrecy.

The DISCLOSE Act in Congress would require disclosure of contributors of over $10,000 by all organizations. Senate Republicans have filibustered it (including a watered down version) multiple times. We need to demand that our elected officials require disclosure of campaign contributors. And we need a Constitutional Amendment that will reverse the Citizens United decision and allow limitations on contributions to political campaigns. Otherwise, the voices of we the people are drowned out by the purchased – not free but purchased – speech of wealthy individuals and corporations.

FULL POST: The unprecedented spending in the current election campaigns and the unprecedented secrecy about who’s contributing to the campaigns are creating the perfect storm and it’s battering our democracy. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “we can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a comparatively few, but we cannot have both.” This perfect storm is the result of three factors:

  • The greatest concentration of wealth in more than a century,
  • Unlimited campaign contributions (thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows unlimited spending by corporations, unions, and other groups), and
  • Secrecy for many of the contributors, especially corporations, through weakly regulated non-profit organizations. [1]

In addition to the Super PACs, which have to disclose contributors, there arenon-profit trade associations (such as the US Chamber of Commerce) and non-profit “social welfare” organizations [501(c)(4)s] that don’t have to report contributors. Politics is not supposed to be the primary purpose of these organizations. However, the US Chamber of Commerce is spending tens of millions of dollars on political activity, while refusing to disclose its contributors. Republican strategist Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, for example, is a 501(c)(4) that is raising and spending tens of millions of dollars on political activity in close alliance with his Super PAC, while refusing to disclose its contributors. [2]

So far in the 2012 election, these non-profit organizations have accounted for two-thirds of the outside spending – close to $100 million spent primarily on advertising. Back in 2010, they spent $130 million, outspending Super PACs 3-to-2. The Internal Revenue Service has, so far, failed to exercise its oversight responsibilities for these non-profit entities. It has no clear test for what constitutes excessive political activity and these tax-exempt groups are permitted to raise and spend money before being officially reviewed and approved. The tax exempt status of Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is still pending more than two years after being created and after having spent tens of millions back in the 2010 elections. [3]

Corporations, in particular, like the secrecy these non-profit groups provide. For example, insurance giant Aetna secretly gave $3 million to a non-profit running ads attacking Obama’s health care plan, while publicly supporting the President. Not a single Fortune 500 company has been reported as contributing to a Super PAC, but they are giving millions to non-profit organizations where their contributions can be kept secret. [4]

At the time of the Citizens United decision, eight of the nine justices made it clear that transparency on contributions for political activity was important and that it was Congress’s responsibility to require appropriate disclosure. The DISCLOSE Act in Congress would require disclosure of contributors of over $10,000 by all organizations, Super PACs, trade associations, unions, and 501(c)(4)s. However, Senate Republicans have filibustered it (including a watered down version) multiple times. Many of the Republicans filibustering the DISCLOSE Act previously supported disclosure, including Senator McCain and Senate Minority Leader McConnell, and 14 Republicans who supported it just a couple of years ago. [5]  “[T]he essence of free speech, and democracy, is openness and accountability. … but Republican leaders remain adamantly opposed, and for an obvious reason. Republicans raise far more secret money than the Democrats and have far more to hide.” [6]

We the people are going to have to weather this perfect storm as best we can in this election. And then we will need to demand that our elected officials require disclosure of campaign contributors so we know who is trying to influence our elections. Ultimately, we need a Constitutional Amendment that will reverse the Citizens United decision and allow limitations on contributions to political campaigns. Otherwise, the voices of we the people are drowned out by the purchased – not free but purchased – speech of wealthy individuals and corporations who have amounts of money that far exceed that of everyone else.


[1]       Reich, R., 7/13/12, “The selling of American democracy: The perfect Storm,” RobertReich.org

[2]       Roberts, C., & Roberts, S.V., 7/18/12, “Shine a light on political donations,” Daily Times Chronicle

[3]       McIntire, M., & Confessore, N., 7/7/12, “Corporate money funneled to nonprofits with an agenda,” The New York Times

[4]       Moyers, B., & Winship, M., 7/17/12, “Presto! The DISCLOSE Act disappears,” Moyers & Company

[5]       Moyers & Winship, 7/17/12, see above

[6]       Roberts & Roberts, 7/18/12, see above

THE CORPORATE SUPREME COURT

Here’s issue #18 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 2/5/12. Recent issues have looked at the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that gives corporations freedom of speech rights to spend unlimited amounts of money in our elections. This issue takes a look at some other Supreme Court decisions that also favor corporations.

In addition to Citizens United, the Supreme Court has made a number of decisions that appear to indicate a strong slant in favor of corporations. Typically, these rulings have been decided by a 5 – 4 vote with the “conservative” bloc prevailing. It’s interesting to note, that while the “conservative” bloc describes itself as strictly interpreting the Constitution and adhering to its intent, corporations are not mentioned in the Constitution and, at the time, were entities chartered by state governments, generally for specific and limited purposes, and subject to state laws. [1]

Here are other examples of the Court’s pro-corporate decisions: [2]

  • After 20 years of litigation on the Exxon Valdez oil spill inAlaska, the Supreme Court reduced the punitive damages awarded by the trial court from $5 billion to $507.5 million. This is a slap on the wrist (less than 1.5% of annual profits) for a company that has averaged $36 billion a year in profits over the last 7 years.
  • In Sorrell vs. IMS Health, Inc. in 2011, the Court declared Vermont’s Prescription Confidentiality Law unconstitutional because it required a physician’s consent before his or her history of prescribing drugs could be sold by pharmacies and health insurers to pharmaceutical companies. The Court ruled that the state’s attempt to protect this information illegally discriminated against the pharmaceutical companies’ free speech rights – namely their ability to use this information in marketing and advertising “speech”. The supposedly conservative, states’ rights Court, ruled that federal law and Courts supersede state law and a physician’s individual right to privacy. [3]

Disallowing class action lawsuits against corporations on behalf of consumers and workers has been a recurring theme in this Supreme Court. [4]

  • In AT&T Mobility LLC vs.Concepcionin 2011, the Supreme Court overruled federal courts inCaliforniaand a number of state Supreme Courts. The lower courts had ruled that a consumer contract that prohibited class action lawsuits and required arbitration was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable. The US Supreme Court ruled that federal law preempted state law and that the contracts were valid and enforceable.
  • In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. vs. Dukes in 2011, the Supreme Court invalidated the class action suit of 1.5 million women who contended that they had suffered sexual discrimination in pay and promotions at Wal-Mart. The Court concluded they were not a “class” eligible to file a class action lawsuit because they did not all have the same supervisor and that a class action lawsuit cannot be brought against a corporate policy or practice, but only against an individual supervisor.

In other cases, the Court has ignored precedents in ruling against injured workers, whistleblowers, and shareholders. In Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in 2007, the Court ruled that employers cannot be sued for race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made by the employer more than 180 days ago. In this case, Lilly Ledbetter learned after years of employment that she had been paid less than male workers but was denied her ability to sue because she had not brought the suit within 180 days of when her employer first discriminated against her, obviously without her knowledge. [5]

The dissenting opinions from the other justices on the Supreme Court often clearly underscore the five “conservative” justices’ – Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy – departure from precedents and the contortions of their legal reasoning. In the Citizens United decision, the Court went out of its way to find a way to make its broad ruling on corporate freedom of speech and political spending, rather than focusing on the issues of the much narrower case that was presented to it. Previous conservative Justices Rehnquist and Byron White have made statements that quite clearly indicate they would have disagreed with the Court’s decision in Citizens United. White, for example, wrote in an earlier case that corporations are “in a position to control vast amounts of economic power which may, if not regulated, dominate not only the economy but also the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process.” [6]

The decisions highlighted here, among others, reveal the dramatic judicial activism of these five justices. Rather than being driven by the merits of each case, precedents, and the intent of lawmakers, their decisions involving corporations appear ideological and results-oriented, with a clear intent to benefit corporations, while being hostile to government laws, rules, and regulations on corporate behavior.


[1]       Raskin, J., 2010, “The Citizens United Era: How the Supreme Court continues to put business first,” People for the American Way Foundation

[2]       Nader, R., 7/18/11, “The corporate Supreme Court,” CommonDreams.org

[3]       Raskin, see above.

[4]       Raskin, see above.

[5]       Wikipedia, retrieved 2/1/12, “Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ledbetter_v._Goodyear_Tire_%26_Rubber_Co.

[6]       Nader, see above.