Carrie Severino

Right Quietly Pours Money Into Montana, Hoping To 'Flip' Pivotal State Supreme Court

Conservative legal advocates from throughout the country have been quietly pouring money into a Montana state supreme court race, hoping to topple a court majority that has bucked the U.S. Supreme Court on campaign finance issues and could soon have a voice in cases with national implications involving abortion rights and LGBT equality.

The Right’s chosen candidate is Lawrence VanDyke, a former state solicitor general with a perfect pedigree for pro-corporate and Religious Right donors. Not only has VanDyke indicated his support for the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of campaign finance laws and lamented that the current Montana high court is insufficiently “pro-business,” but, in his position as solicitor general, steered the state government toward taking positions against abortion rights, marriage equality and gun restrictions in other states.

What's more, in his writings as a law student, VanDyke was unguarded in his social conservative views, fretting about same-sex marriage, endorsing discredited “ex-gay” therapy and defending the teaching of anti-scientific “Intelligent Design” in public schools.

The Right Sees An Opportunity In Montana

At last month’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, the Family Research Council’s political action committee hosted a private $100-a-head reception featuring conservative luminaries including Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, GOP congressmen Steve King, Vicky Hartzler and Mark Meadows, and congressional candidate Dave Brat of Virginia, who unseated former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in an upset primary election this year.

A flyer for the event announced that along with those national Republican politicians, FRC would be “showcasing a very important State Supreme Court candidate, Lawrence VanDyke of Montana, who we hope can flip the court in that state.”

VanDyke’s presence on the fundraiser’s roster was telling. As FRC’s flyer made clear, a VanDyke victory would change the ideological balance on a court that has been a thorn in the side of opponents of campaign finance reform and could soon be facing nationally watched cases on abortion rights and marriage equality.

VanDyke has not yet submitted a campaign finance report showing how much money, if any, FRC was able to bundle for him at the fundraiser, and his campaign did not respond to our inquiry about whether he was personally present at the Values Voter event. But a review of VanDyke’s campaign finance reports shows that his candidacy has attracted keen interest from out-of-state donors, including some of the country’s leading conservative legal activists.

[UPDATE: VanDyke's Oct. 20 fundraising report revealed some of the contributions from FRC and its allies.]

Since filing for the race to unseat sitting Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat in March, VanDyke has raised about $78,000, more than one-third of which — roughly $29,000 — has come from 114 individual out-of-state donors. By contrast, Wheat has raised just under $85,000 for his reelection bid, only $1,100 of which came from just five out-of-state donors.

Among those who have contributed to VanDyke’s campaign are recognizable names in conservative legal circles. Kelly Shackelford, president of the right-wing legal group Liberty Institute (a major sponsor of the Values Voter Summit) contributed $100, while another top Liberty Institute official, Hiram Sasser, gave $320, the maximum gift allowable as of VanDyke's last fundraising report. Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network and a Harvard Law School classmate of VanDyke’s, and her husband Roger also each maxed out with $320 contributions. Thomas Spence, an official at the conservative Regnery publishing house also sent the maximum contribution to VanDyke’s campaign. Two employees of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom have together contributed $370. Christopher Murray, a lawyer who served on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, also contributed $320.

Nearly $7,000 of VanDyke’s contributions have come from employees of the law firm Gibson Dunn, where Vandyke worked before entering public service. That includes $320 each from Theodore Olson, the conservative attorney argued the Citizens United case (but who has become better known as a marriage equality advocate), and controversial Bush appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada. VanDyke’s campaign also received $320 each from Eugene Scalia — the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a Wall Street reform-buster in his own right — and his wife.

Montana’s Cowgirl Blog notes that prominent Montana social conservatives Greg and Susan Gianforte — who fund creationist efforts and support anti-gay policies — have also each contributed the maximum amount to VanDyke’s campaign. He has also received the maximum contribution from the Montana Gas & Oil PAC and — in the form of an in-kind gift of catering — from the PAC’s treasurer, Dave Galt.

Cowgirl Blog also notes that VanDyke got a major assist last month from a newly created group called Montanans for a Fair Judiciary, which sent a statewide mailer in favor of his candidacy. The group, which was registered last month, is staffed by a former Montana GOP official and a corporate lobbyist for oil and gas clients, among others.

And just last week, a Washington, D.C.-based group called the Republican State Leadership Committee Judicial Fairness Montana PAC — an offshoot a national group funded by big business interests including the Reynolds tobacco company and Koch Industries — bought $110,000 worth of television ads supporting VanDyke and slamming Wheat as soft on crime. The group has also been mailing out leaflets accusing Wheat of siding with “environmental extremists.”

All of this attention from national activists and corporate backers has caught the attention of a group of six retired Montana Supreme Court justices, who signed a letter last week calling VanDyke an “unqualified corporate lawyer,” adding, "Given [his] background, Mr. VanDyke is an excellent corporate pick although that is obviously not good news for Montanans.”

MTN News reported:

The letter from the judges notes that VanDyke has received the maximum allowable campaign contributions from numerous out-of-state lawyers who represent major corporations, including more than 20 at the Gibson firm - including at least one who represented Citizens United.

"Corporations are buying judicial races because they want judges who will not hold them accountable," the draft letter from the retired justices says. "If the disinformation they are spreading successfully manipulates Montanans into electing an unqualified corporate lawyer, we will lose our fair and impartial court."

‘Changing The Face of the Montana Supreme Court’

While VanDyke’s personal connections seem to behind quite a bit of his financial support from out-of-state conservative leaders, his featured spot at the Values Voter Summit hints that the conservative legal movement and the Religious Right see an opportunity in his candidacy.

Montana conservatives have made no secret of their desire to pack the state Supreme Court with justices in their ideological mold. Last year, the Great Falls Tribune published leaked emails between conservative Republicans in the state senate discussing a “long term strategy” for displacing more moderate Republicans in the state legislature and “changing the face of the Montana Supreme Court.”

One lawmaker wrote of the need to “purge” the party of moderates, after which “a new phoenix will rise from the ashes.”

In 2012, Montana conservatives were able to elect the likeminded Laurie McKinnon to the state Supreme Court thanks in part to a dark money group called the “Montana Growth Network” run by a Republican state senator that spent at least $42,000 on her campaign — more than the candidate spent herself. The “Montanans for a Fair Judiciary” group that has been campaigning for VanDyke is linked to the firm that was employed by the “Montana Growth Network” to boost McKinnon.

National conservative groups have good reason to take an interest in the race as well.

Montana’s Supreme Court gained national attention in 2011 when it bucked the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of campaign finance regulation, ruling that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United did not invalidate Montana’s century-old ban on corporate spending in elections. The 5-2 decision, in which Justice Wheat joined the majority, openly defied the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling. One of the two dissenting justices wrote that the state court must follow the high court’s precedent but used the opportunity to excoriate the Supreme Court for its Citizens United logic. On appeal, the Supreme Court summarily reversed Montana’s opinion, ending the state’s corporate spending ban.

Montana’s Supreme Court may soon also be in the center of the legal debates on same-sex marriage and abortion rights. State anti-choice groups have indicated that they might challenge Montana’s abortion clinic buffer-zone bill in the wake of the Supreme Court’s striking down of a similar bill in Massachusetts. In addition, marriage equality cases are working their way through both state and federal courts in Montana.

A Movement Candidate

Although Montana’s judicial elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, VanDyke’s resume makes him seemingly a perfect candidate for conservative activists hoping to drag the state's high court to the right. At Harvard Law School, VanDyke was active in the conservative Federalist Society and wrote an article for the school’s law review favorably reviewing a book arguing for allowing public schools to teach anti-scientific Intelligent Design.

In an article for another school publication, VanDyke lamented that courts in Canada had been “forcing same-sex marriage on the populace” and warned of a “trend of intolerance towards religion as homosexual ‘rights’ become legally entrenched.” In the same article, he cited a study supporting debunked “ex-gay” therapy to support the “view that homosexuals can leave the homosexual lifestyle.” (The author of that study has since recanted.)

After graduating from law school, VanDyke clerked for D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, perhaps the most stridently conservative of that court’s activist pro-corporate wing, known for her extreme opposition to government regulation and her writing of a prequel to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. After a stint at Gibson Dunn, VanDyke became an assistant solicitor general in Texas and was named solicitor general of Montana early last year.

In public statements, VanDyke has indicated that he would have sided with the U.S. Supreme Court on Citizens United, defending the decision in a debate last month. And although his race is officially nonpartisan, VanDyke has made it very clear which side of the aisle he falls on, accusing his opponent of judging “like a liberal Democrat” and being “results-oriented” in his rulings — a loaded accusation favored by conservative activists.

VanDyke has also hinted that he would be more favorable to business interests on the court, touting an endorsement from the Montana Chamber of Commerce and saying, “I don’t think anybody who follows our court thinks it’s a pro-business court.” On his website, he backs efforts to “produce and preserve” natural resources, which he contrasts with his opponent's siding with preservationists in a dispute over drilling gas wells. In September, he spoke at a “Coal Appreciation Day” sponsored by a coal industry group.

VanDyke’s website also touts his support for the death penalty and an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, noting his work as state solicitor general defending a bill that would have invalidated federal firearms regulations on weapons manufactured and kept in Montana. (The law was ultimately struck down in federal court). In that position, VanDyke also pushed for Montana signing on to Alabama briefs in favor of overturning semiautomatic weapon bans in New York and Connecticut. At the time, he bantered over email with Alabama’s solicitor general, Andrew Brasher, about shooting elk with semi-automatic firearms, attaching a picture of himself hunting with “the same gun used by the Navy Seals.”

Ultimately, Montana signed on to both briefs, and VanDyke evidently made a useful connection as well: This year, Brasher contributed the maximum amount to his Supreme Court campaign.

VanDyke recently announced that he had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

In his role as solicitor general, VanDyke also worked on efforts to oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights, including signing on to amicus briefs filed in other states.

VanDyke, meanwhile, is running on the message that he will follow “the law, not politics” and accusing Justice Wheat of being overly partisan. In the same interview in which he lamented that the current state supreme court was unfavorable to business interests, he said, “I have not promised anybody that I’m going to be a pro-business judge or that I’m going to be a conservative judge...I’m going to be a fair and balanced judge.”

Judicial Elections Draw More And More Big Money

Last year, Justice at Stake reported on the fast increase of spending in judicial elections, leading to judicial races seeming “alarmingly indistinguishable from ordinary political campaigns” and blurring “the boundaries that keep money and political pressure from interfering with the rule of law.”

Part of this increase was attributable to the 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed outside groups to spend unlimited amounts supporting and opposing candidates. In the case of judicial elections, those candidates could be the ones deciding on the future of that very campaign spending.

It’s no wonder that the corporate right and the Religious Right have joined forces to back VanDyke’s candidacy. A little-noticed nonpartisan race in Montana could prove to be an effective long-term investment for a movement that’s trying to solidify a pro-corporate grip on the courts and win back lost legal ground abortion rights and LGBT equality.

This post has been updated to clarify the status of marriage equality cases in Montana.

Right Wing Gets It: Elections Matter Because Courts Matter

For right-wing advocates, big conservative wins in the Supreme Court’s recently completed term have only confirmed the importance of electing a president in 2016 who will give them more justices in the mold of Samuel Alito and John Roberts.  The Roberts and Alito nominations, and the conservative majority created by their confirmations, represent the triumph of a decades-long push by right-wing funders, big business, conservative political strategists, and legal groups to take ideological dominion of all levels of the federal judiciary.

Right-wing groups have long made attacks on the federal judiciary a staple of their rhetoric. Many claim America’s decline began with Supreme Court rulings against required prayer and Bible readings in public schools in the 1960s. Roe v. Wade, and more recently, judicial rulings in favor of marriage equality, have been characterized as “judicial tyranny” and “judicial activism.” Of course right-wing legal groups have been pushing hard for their own form of judicial activism, and have pushed Republican presidents to nominate judges they can count on. 

As Jeffrey Toobin notes in a recent profile of presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz in the New Yorker,

Conservatives like Cruz never stopped denouncing liberals for their efforts to use the courts to promote their ideological agenda, even as they began to do much the same thing themselves. The heart of Cruz’s legal career was a sustained and often successful undertaking to use the courts for conservative ends, like promoting the death penalty, lowering the barriers between church and state, and undermining international institutions and agreements.

Right-wing activists are proud of what they have accomplished, as Richard Land, long-time leader of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told National Journal’s Tiffany Stanley.  As Brian Tashman reports in RWW, Land “waxed nostalgic for the days when President Bush was in office…and especially for Bush’s commitment to nominating ultra-conservative federal judges.”

 “Alito and Roberts are the gifts that keep on giving, and we would have gotten neither one of those without our involvement,” Land said, predicting that Roe v. Wade will soon be “thrown onto the ash heap of history.”

…The Supreme Court’s ruling this year in the Hobby Lobby case shows the Religious Right’s strong focus on the judiciary is paying off.  And Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told Stanley that conservatives will continue to use the courts as part of their strategy to keep “the barbarians at bay.”

But in spite of their wins, and their success in creating the most pro-corporate Court since the New Deal, right-wing activists are nervous that some of their big wins, like Hobby Lobby and Citizens United, were 5-4 decisions. They want to pad their majority and continue their march to remake America via the courts.

The Senate

Since federal judges have to be confirmed by the Senate, right-wing groups are also using the Supreme Court in 2014 Senate campaigns. An anti-choice PAC, Women Speak Out, followed the Hobby Lobby ruling almost immediately with attacks on Mark Pryor and other Democrats for not having supported the confirmation of Samuel Alito.

On the day of the Court’s decisions in Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, tweeted “Today’s SCOTUS rulings were a win for our 1st Amendment freedoms, a loss for Hagan, Obama, & DC bureaucrats.”

Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who represents right-wing groups, told the Washington Post, “These Supreme Court decisions, it’s a reminder to people on our side of the aisle of the importance of the court, and then the importance of recapturing the Senate.”

Religious Liberty ‘Hanging by a Thread’

Right-wing pundits and organizations are already ramping up their rhetoric on judges as a 2016 presidential campaign issue, with many touting the 5-4 decision in Hobby Lobby as evidence that religious liberty is “hanging by a thread.”

Rush Limbaugh went on a tirade against Hillary Clinton after she criticized the Hobby Lobby ruling:

Can I tell you the truth about the Hobby Lobby ruling?  We're in such dangerous territory in terms of losing our freedom that we cheer when five out of nine people uphold the Constitution.  We're not advancing anything, folks.  We are barely hanging on here.  …  And here comes Hillary Clinton thinking this decision is a step toward the kind of anti-women policy seen in extremist undemocratic nations is outrageous. 

The woman is either a blithering idiot or a total in-the-tank statist, maybe a combination of the two.  But this is not a step toward anything.  This is a temporary halt in the onslaught toward totalitarianism.

We're just barely hanging on.  We cheer! We conservatives stand up and cheer when we manage to get five people to see it the right way.  "Oh, my God! Oh, Lord! Thank you so much, Lord. You saved another day."  Five people out of nine, five said the Constitution means what it says.  The troubling thing to me is the four people that didn't!  Liberty and freedom are hanging by a thread here! 

That theme was echoed by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Msgr. Charles Pope:

“OK, We won. But the Hobby Lobby vote should have been 9-0. Wake up, America. Your liberty is on the line!”

It is simply outrageous that four Supreme Court Justices, and many Americans, cannot see the clear and offensive proposition of the Government in this regard…..We won today, but barely. It should have been 9–0. Wake up, America; your religious and other liberties are hanging by the thread of one vote.

Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer of American Values weighed in in similar fashion:

“While we celebrate this victory, the fact remains that four justices on the Supreme Court, including the two appointed by Obama, evidently share his narrow view of America's first freedom and were willing to trample the religious liberty of millions of Americans in order to advance their radical pro-abortion agenda.

This narrow decision, with four liberal justices eager to go the wrong way, is a stark reminder to every man and woman of faith that their religious liberty is hanging by a thread.

The Court as Right-Wing Campaign Issue for 2016

Right-wing pundits and presidential candidates frequently use the federal judiciary as an issue to excite base voters. Back in 2012, one of the most effective things Mitt Romney did to shore up his weak support among conservative activists was to name a judicial advisory team headed by Robert Bork. That year, Terence Jeffrey, who worked on Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns and has written for right-wing publications, wrote:

Three of the nine justices on a U.S. Supreme Court that has decided many significant issues by 5-4 votes over the past decade will turn 80 years of age before the 2016 presidential election.

The three justices are Antonin Scalia, an anchor of the court’s conservative wing, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an anchor of the court’s liberal wing, and Anthony Kennedy, who is often the decisive swing vote in 5-4 opinions….

Bobby Jindal is among the crop of potential 2016 presidential candidates who is making an issue of the courts.  In an interview with a conservative Christian blogger during last month’s Iowa state Republican convention, Jindal suggested if Republicans take control of the Senate this year they would block additional nominees. Asked about federal judges overturning state marriage bans for same-sex couples, Jindal said, ““This shows you the importance of the November elections.  We don’t need this President putting more liberal judges on the bench.”

It is important, whether you are a lawyer or not, to understand what it means for the courts to actually apply the Constitution as opposed for them just to create new laws or to read things and just decide they are going to contradict what the other two branches of government did.  We’ve gotten away from these three separate but equal branches of government and instead we’ve got these activist judges who are overreaching. We have to recognize the problem for what it is,” Jindal added.

He emphasized the importance of elections and their impact on judicial confirmations because sometimes Constitutional amendments will correct the problem, and other times federal judges will just overrule them.

Mike Huckabee has seemingly made attacks on the judiciary a centerpiece of his campaign. In May, he called for the impeachment of an Arkansas judge who ruled in favor of marriage equality. Last year, urging Senate Republicans to block an Obama appeals court nominee, he said, “Judges can linger on for decades after a President leaves office, and a bad one can wreak havoc that echoes down the ages.”

Meanwhile, presidential contender Rick Santorum and the right-wing Judicial Crisis Network are attacking Chris Christie for not sufficiently making right-wing ideology a litmus test for his state judicial appointments.  Santorum told Yahoo News earlier this month, “To see a record as abysmal as Gov. Christie’s record in the state of New Jersey, I guarantee you that will be a red flag for most voters in the state of Iowa, but also most voters in the Republican primary.” (Earlier this month, while in Iowa campaigning for Gov. Terry Branstad, Christie said he supports the Court’s Hobby Lobby decision; he had initially declined to say whether he supported the decision.)  

The Judicial Crisis Network has also slammed Christie, saying his failure to “deliver on judicial activism” may have doomed his 2016 presidential hopes. It has created an entire website devoted to trashing Christie’s judicial record to conservative voters:  www.christiebadonjudges.com. In June, Fox News ran an op ed by JCN’s Carrie Severino using Christie’s alleged failure to appoint right-wing ideologues to the state supreme court as a way to discredit him with conservative activists.

Christie didn’t deliver on judicial activism. Has he doomed his 2016 bid?

If a candidate’s tenure as governor is his road-test for the presidency, Governor Chris Christie just flunked.

As a candidate for governor, Christie talked the talk on judges, vowing to "remake" the New Jersey Supreme Court and to transform the most activist court in the nation into one that operates under the rule of law. 

Despite having the opportunity to appoint four of seven justices on the court since taking office, Christie has repeatedly nominated individuals with no discernible judicial philosophy….

And while elected representatives must stand for re-election every few years, federal judges sit for life. 

Today’s nominee could still be playing the same tricks in 2050 or beyond.  That is why the issue of judges matters so much during presidential primaries and caucuses….

Right-wing advocates have been talking for a while about how important it is to their judicial plans not just to elect a Republican, but to elect a Republican committed to making the kind of Supreme Court nominations they want. In February, right-wing activist Mychal Massie complained that many justices nominated by Republican presidents over the past few decades did not turn out to be ideological warriors (though that is hardly the case with more recent nominees).

But forward-thinking conservatives are keenly aware that we must be concerned about the future as well, and not just because of Obama. Based on age alone, one of the primary areas of concern is that the person elected president in 2016 will potentially have at least four Supreme Court Justices to replace. Two of the potential four are liberals, so a Democrat president would simply be replacing liberals with liberals, ergo, it would be a wash. But of the other two the one is a solid Constructionist, and the other is a swing vote who has, in recent years, ruled based on Constructionism enough times that we should be concerned if a Democrat president replaces him….

As you can see, the potential for the political complexion of the High Court to be changed for decades to come should be of critical concern if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2016. But, it is myopic betise on an epic level to even for an instant believe we need not be concerned if a Republican wins. Especially if it is an establishment Republican….

With Karl Rove and Reince Priebus pulling the strings of the GOP and RNC, the Republican Party resembles a RINO theme park more than it does the Party true conservatives have supported.

With them controlling things from behind the curtain it is not just critical that the next president be “conservative” but he/she must be a legitimate conservative whose conservative bonafides are unimpeachable. It does conservatism no good to elect a Mitt Romney, John McCain, or Jeb Bush type. The 2016 election will place in office a person with the potential to change the face of SCOTUS for many decades to come. And as John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, et al. have showed us — it’s not just Democrats who are betraying us.

Religious Right leaders will certainly be keeping the issue of judicial nominations at the forefront of the 2016 campaigns. This week, George O. Wood, who heads the Assemblies of God denomination, wrote:

Moreover, we should encourage voting because elections have consequences. One of those consequences is that the president nominates judges who serve on district and appellate courts and on the Supreme Court. The U.S. Senate must then approve those nominees. It is a sad fact that no evangelical sits on the Supreme Court—even though evangelicals constitute a very large faith community in America. I suspect that at present no evangelicals could even be nominated or confirmed to a federal bench because they hold views that are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage. People in our Fellowship need to remember that when they cast a ballot, they effectively decide who will sit as a federal judge. Indirectly, they are casting a vote for or against a robust understanding of the free exercise of religion.

Truth In Action Ministries Cites Bogus Jefferson Quote To Refute Separation Of Church And State

Truth in Action Ministries, a purveyor of incendiary “documentaries” that explore our country’s apparent slide into anti-Christian moral turpitude, is back to warn us that Christians are now an increasingly persecuted minority in America.

Watch highlights of the film here:

Hosted by conservative activists Jerry Newcombe and John Rabe, the group’s most recent film, “We the People: Under Attack,” is a field guide to how “activist judges” are restricting religious liberties and the freedom of speech, and includes appearances from right-wing figures such as Herb Titus, Phyllis Schlafly, Carrie Severino and Alan Sears.

The subject of scorn in “We the People” is the federal judiciary, seen as a rogue branch of government with a revisionist interpretation of the Constitution. Newcombe warns that “our country is under attack by activist judges, including some on our nation’s Supreme Court.”

The separation of church and state is framed as both a slap in the face to Christians and a subversion of the will of our Founding Fathers, and Titus laments that the U.S. government doesn’t strictly adhere to the Ten Commandments and the Bible in its public policy. Rabe breathlessly reports that “in recent decades, the federal judiciary has instituted abortion on demand, overturned limits on partial-birth abortion, silenced voluntary prayer in schools and discovered a so-called ‘right to sodomy’ in the constitution.”

Newcombe argues that recent decisions by the Supreme Court defy the Constitution’s purportedly religious themes, and relays this quote by Thomas Jefferson to prove that even he believed in mixing religion with government:

No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man, and I as chief magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example.

One slight caveat, however: this quote appears absolutely nowhere in any of Jefferson’s writings or records of his speeches, and first materialized in 1857, decades after Jefferson died. Looks like Newcombe will have to find more fake quotes from the nation’s founders to prove his point. 

JCN Cries Crocodile Tears For Senate Bipartisanship

After President Obama was elected, the right-wing Judicial Confirmation Network changed its name to the Judicial Crisis Network and altered its mission from “working to ensure a fair appointment process of highly qualified judges and justices” to blocking anyone Obama appoints to the bench.

The group’s name and mission statement aren’t the only things to have changed under a Democratic president. JCN’s chief counsel Carrie Severino appeared last week on Sandy Rios In The Morning to decry the Senate’s recent move to modify the filibuster to allow a simple majority to end debate on most nominees – a rules change that the JCN once said it supported “regardless of what party’s in power.”

“The 60 vote majority is there because we need to have both parties working together,” Severino said. “You don’t want to do things by a bare majority vote all the time, and it is actually a benefit to get something that has a larger consensus. I don’t know if Thomas Jefferson initiated it but I wouldn’t be surprised because those kinds of consensuses things that our founders thought were important.”

But during the Bush era Severino’s predecessor, Wendy Long, now a Republican politician, said in 2006 that finding a “consensus” over judicial nominees is “not the right thing to do”:

Seeking a 'consensus' candidate is not the right thing to do. It is not what the Constitution contemplates, in our system built on the consent of the governed. Majorities didn't elect George W. Bush and 55 Republican Senators to do that. For the President to choose a Justice on this basis would retroactively disenfranchise the voters in these elections. The people elected the President so that he would exercise his own judgment according to the criteria he stated in two elections. By definition, those will never be 'consensus' nominees. Justices Ginsburg and Breyer were not 'consensus' nominees, nor should any Republican nominees be — particularly when Republicans control the Senate, for heaven's sake.

But the real issue with Severino’s claim is that Senate Republicans didn’t block Obama’s three picks for the DC Circuit Court because they weren’t “consensus” candidates. Rather, GOP leaders explicitly said they would oppose any person President Obama nominated to the court — a position that they took before even knowing who the nominees would be.

Plus, Republicans’ unprecedented obstructionism — cheered on by the JCN — makes it hard to believe that they were merely hoping for “both parties to work together” to find a “consensus” as Severino maintains.

Meet the Group Trying To Stop President Obama From Filling Vacancies on Federal Courts

Later this week, the Senate will vote on ending the Republican filibuster of Patricia Millett, the first of President Obama’s three nominees to fill vacancies on the influential US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Republican senators have no beef with Millett personally (she’s a renowned appellate attorney, military spouse and black belt), but they’re still threatening to block all three nominees because, they contend, President Obama is attempting to “pack” the 11-member court by going through the constitutionally mandated process to fill its three vacancies.

Backing up this obstruction effort, one familiar outside group has again stepped up to carry Republicans’ water: the Judicial Crisis Network.

In the 2004, as the battle was heating up over confirming some of President Bush’s most far-right nominees, former Bush-Cheney religious right outreach staffer Gary Marx and former Justice Thomas clerk Wendy Long teamed up to found a group called the Judicial Confirmation Network, housed in the offices of the right-wing American Center for Law and Justice and dedicated to “working to ensure a fair appointment process of highly qualified judges and justices.”

Four years later, the Judicial Confirmation Network found itself in a bind when President Obama was elected to be the one nominating federal judges. All of a sudden, JCN lost interest in working to confirm “highly qualified judges and justices” to the bench. So, in 2010 the group changed its name to the Judicial Crisis Network and announced that its mission would heretofore be “to confront the radical legal and legislative threats facing our country” – that is, trying to prevent President Obama from filling seats on the federal courts with highly qualified judges and justices.

Today, the Judicial Crisis Network has emerged as the primary outside group working to prevent the Senate from confirming President Obama’s three nominees to fill the three vacancies on the influential US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. JCN is running radio ads targeting moderate senators urging them to filibuster the three nominees and has launched a snazzy website with infographics purporting to show that President Obama’s nominating qualified people to existing judicial vacancies amounts to “court packing.”

Our colleague Paul Gordon has done a thorough point-by-point takedown of JCN’s “court packing” infographics, but the bottom line is this: Like Senate Republicans who are now trying to permanently cap the DC Circuit at eight judges, JCN sang an entirely different tune when it was a Republican president was doing the nominating.

In the era when JCN was the Judicial Confirmation Network, President Bush had four nominees confirmed to the DC Circuit, bringing its total number of active judges up to 11. Meanwhile, due to Republican obstruction, President Obama has had just one nominee confirmed to the court, bringing the total number of judges on the court to eight.

JCN and Republican senators contend that the DC Circuit’s caseload is significantly lower now than it was then, meriting a reduction of the number of judges on the court. That’s simply not true [pdf]. For instance, in June 2005, when the Senate confirmed far-right Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas Griffith to the tenth and eleventh seats on the DC Circuit, there were 1,313 cases pending before the court. Today, as the GOP is trying to cap the court at eight judges, it is facing 1,479 pending cases.

In 2005, the Judicial Confirmation Network was reminding senators of their “obligation to bring these nominations to the floor for a fair vote.” Today, the Judicial Crisis Network is urging senators to deny floor votes to nominees in the same position.

Later today, JCN’s chief counsel Carrie Severino will be a witness at a House hearing on the DC Circuit titled “Are More Judges Always the Answer?” We can guess that Severino’s public answer to that question will be “no.” But a more forthright answer would be, “It depends who’s nominating them.”
 

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