money out voters in

PFAW: Scandal Surrounding Senate President is More Evidence of Big Money Assault on Wisconsin

MADISON – Wisconsin Senate President State Senator Mike Ellis’ announcement Friday that he will not seek re-election, which arrived after Ellis was caught on camera claiming he might set up his own political action committee to attack his Democratic opponent, is evidence of the big money assault on the Wisconsin Legislature, said People For the American Way Regional Political Coordinator Scott Foval.

“Mike Ellis apparently felt he had no choice but to raise big cash just to compete, and allegedly was willing to compromise his ethics in the process,” Foval said. “The fact that the Senate President got caught planning to form a super PAC to attack Penny Bernard Schaber is just evidence of a larger problem – too much political money driving who gets elected in Wisconsin.”

People For the American Way and its allies have repeatedly highlighted how Wisconsin Republicans have enacted policies that benefit the wealthy and powerful corporate interests. Since 2010, Wisconsin’s GOP legislators have enacted restrictions on women’s health, restrictions on voting rights, and restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees, as well as a budget that favors wealthy tax payers rather than the middle class. PFAW’s Foval called on citizens to fight back against big money in politics and strike back at the voting booth.

“The time has come for Wisconsin’s voters to take back our state by registering to vote, hitting the streets to knock doors, and voting for progressive candidates who represent the people instead of big money donors,” Foval said.  “This isn’t cause for celebration. It’s a call to put our heads down, and get to work to elect new leadership to the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor’s office.”

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Applying McCutcheon's Logic to Voter ID Laws

If only the courts were as solicitous of the right to vote in elections as they are of the right to purchase them.
PFAW Foundation

Postcard from Arizona to John Roberts: Money Corrupts

In a week in which the Supreme Court turned a blind eye to the reality of money corrupting politics, a story out of Arizona provides a clear example of the insidious influence of the private prison industry and its campaign contributions. 

Arizona has been at the forefront of bad prison policy and big profits for private prison companies. People For the American Way’s 2012 report, “Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy,” explored how Arizona officials’ political and ideological commitment to prison privatization overrode good policy and common sense. Unbelievably, faced with evidence that privately run prisons were costing taxpayers more, not less, than state-run prisons, some legislators moved to stop the state from collecting the data.

This February, we wrote about Politico’s coverage of the private prison racket. “Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records,” author Matt Stroud asked, “So why do we keep giving them our business?” One answer is that the industry spends a fortune on lobbying and campaign contributions.

This week’s story shows how those investments can pay off. According to the Arizona Republic, House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanaugh tried to slip a last-minute $900,000 earmark for private prison giant GEO Group into the state budget. The company is already expected to get $45 million this year under contracts with the state that guarantee the company at least a 95 percent occupancy rate, “virtually ensuring the company a profit for operating its prisons in Arizona.” The state Department of Corrections said the extra money isn’t needed, but Kavanaugh heard otherwise from the company’s lobbyists. GEO executives gave Kavanaugh more than $2,500 in 2012.

The good news is that the Senate Appropriations Committee dropped the extra funding “following an uproar of criticism from Arizonans.”

PFAW

In McCutcheon Decision, Talk of Constituents Seems Out of Place

Chief Justice Roberts waxes eloquent about responsiveness to constituents in an opinion about responsiveness to non-constituents.
PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court's McCutcheon Decision is Great News for Billionaires

The American people should have the power to prevent government of, by, and for the wealthy.
PFAW Foundation

How Money in Politics Undermines Diversity in Elected Office

During a speech to a packed audience at the University of Washington on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was asked by a student what problems need to be fixed in order to see more women and people of color in government. 

Sotomayor’s answer, as reported by The Seattle Times, was simple: “Money.”

“Money,” Sotomayor said to laughter. “No, seriously. Look at what’s happening in politics. What’s talking the loudest is money.” For more minorities and women to gain more of a foothold in government decisions, “we’re going to have to work the political system at the highest level,” she said.

Justice Sotomayor is right. Today our country is represented by leaders who, as a whole, look little like the electorate they are supposed to represent and serve. Women are a majority of the population, and yet only make up 20% of the Senate and 18% of the House, putting us 83rd in the world for women’s political representation. We have only one openly LGBTQ person and only a handful of people of color in the US Senate – in 2012 there were no African Americans. This picture is not only problematic in itself, but it also has broad implications for policy outcomes.

It’s true that we have also seen some promising developments in political representation in recent years. The 113th Congress is the most diverse in history, with a record number of women and minorities elected, as well as a number of firsts. As the policy director for the Young Elected Officials Network, I am heartened by the changing faces of leadership at all levels of government, and what this means for our country both symbolically and substantively. But, like Justice Sotomayor, I’m also concerned that our country’s money in politics problem is standing in the way of further progress.

Much has been said lately about the impact of money in politics on political representation. At The Atlantic’s Shriver Report summit on women and poverty in January, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted,

If you reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of civility in debate, more women will run for office… We say to women, we want you to go raise 12 million dollars, and by the way, subject yourself to 10 million dollars in negative publicity.

The influence of money in politics not only fuels corruption and the elevation of special and powerful interests, but it exacerbates the imbalance of power as a whole in our country by creating barriers to political representation for communities who are already marginalized. It perpetuates a system where the country is led by people who don’t understand the daily lived and embodied experiences of their constituents.

On Capitol Hill, we see the effects of this imbalance play out each day. From thwarted gun violence prevention efforts to legislation attacking women’s reproductive health voted on by committees and panels made up entirely of men, we continue to have elected leaders who side against the demonstrated wishes of its voters and with the moneyed interests.

We must pursue reforms that transform our electoral processes, even the playing field for all candidates, and restore the power to the people by reducing the outsized influence of big money and protecting the rights of voters. All indications show that we get better results for everyone when there’s diversity in governing bodies.

It’s both common sense, and a matter of basic human rights.

PFAW Foundation

Money Buys Political Access, New Study Confirms

We can file this under news that should shock no one: a new study has found that members of Congress and their top staffers are significantly more likely to meet with political donors than with other constituents. 

The study – carried out by researchers at Yale and UC Berkeley in partnership with CREDO Action – sought to answer the question, just how much do donations buy access to elected officials in our political system?

Matea Gold at the Washington Post explains the experiment:

Last summer, a group of CREDO fellows e-mailed congressional offices seeking meetings to discuss the measure, sending one of two different form letters.

The first e-mail had the subject line: “Meeting with local campaign donors about cosponsoring bill.” The body of the e-mail said that about a dozen CREDO members “who are active political donors” were interested in meeting with the member of Congress in his or her home district to discuss the legislation.

The second e-mail stripped out the donor references and instead said “local constituents” were looking to meet the member of Congress.

…The e-mails went out to 191 members of Congress – all members of the same political party – who had not already co-sponsored the bill….The results: Only 2.4 percent of the offices made the member of Congress or chief of staff available when they believed those attending were just constituents, but 12.5 percent did when they were told the attendees were political donors. [emphasis added]

Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel notes that the study could have implications for court cases like the infamous Citizens United v. FEC, which paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. In the majority Citizens United opinion, Justice Kennedy argued that “independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate.”

Terkel points out that the new study may debunk the claim that there isn’t evidence that “independent expenditures,” such as those made to a super PAC rather than directly to a candidate, can curry favor with elected officials:

In this experiment, the lawmakers knew nothing about the donors, such as whether they had donated to their campaign in particular, or how much they gave and when. In fact, they could simply have been a donor to a super PAC.

Even so, the Supreme Court’s too-narrow understanding of “corruption” as tit-for-tat exchanges (for example, political bribes) may limit the study’s implications for Citizens United and cases like it.  But it does throw into stark relief how problematic the Court’s frame for understanding political corruption continues to be. When money can buy access to elected officials, we have a serious democracy problem.
 

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Calls On Wisconsin Legislature to Give Voters a Choice On Big Money in Politics

MADISON – Yesterday Wisconsin State Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) introduced SJR 68, a resolution that would place an advisory referendum on the November 2014 ballot calling for a federal constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision. It is a companion resolution to AJR 50, introduced last year by State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) in the Wisconsin Assembly. People For the American Way regional political coordinator Scott Foval released the following statement:

“The people of Wisconsin deserve a chance to weigh in on the corrupting influence of corporate spending in our democracy. Wisconsinites have made it clear that money in politics is an issue they care deeply about. To date, 27 local resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United have passed in counties and municipalities across Wisconsin. Thirteen more will be on local referendums in April. Just as Representative Taylor has led on this issue in the Assembly, Senator Hansen recognizes that the unbridled spending the Citizens United decision unleashed is harmful to our democracy.

“While the Republican Assembly leadership continues to block progress on AJR 50, we hope the Republican State Senate leadership will put the people first and pass SJR 68 – allowing voters to decide whether a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is the best way to push back on corporate control of our political process. PFAW continues to stand on the side of the people and will work with our allies in Wisconsin to push for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics.”

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Presidential Commission Issues Report on Election Administration

The PCEA recommendations are indeed a welcome addition to the voting rights debate, helping us move closer to the day when every eligible voter can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts. We must keep in mind, though, that the PCEA isn't the last word on American electoral reform. Nor does the PCEA replace what the Voting Rights Act lost after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
PFAW

On Fourth Anniversary of Citizens United, PFAW Celebrates Growing Movement for Amendment

WASHINGTON – On the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, People For the American Way president Michael Keegan issued the following statement:

“The deeply misguided Citizens United ruling four years ago brought immeasurable harm to our democracy, but it also inspired a re-energized national movement to get big money out of politics. In the four years since, sixteen states and 500 cities and towns have officially gone on record calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases and to take back our democracy from the outsized influence of wealthy special interests.

“Poll after poll shows that the American people are deeply disturbed by the big money in our political system. They want a real voice in our democracy, not one that is overwhelmed by billions of dollars in corporate and special interest spending. We’ll keep up the pressure for commonsense regulations on political spending and a democracy that is truly of, by, and for the people.”

PFAW and ally organizations hosted a Get Money Out of Elections advocacy training in Arlington on Monday afternoon to educate activists about reforms to restore the power in our democracy to the voters. For more information on PFAW’s money in politics advocacy work, please visit: http://www.pfaw.org/GovernmentByThePeople

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Amending the Constitution for Government Of, By, and For The People

The American public and a growing number of public officials are calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases to redefine the role of corporate power in the political sphere and place the election process where it belongs – in the hands of the people.

PFAW and Allies Rally for Democracy at the Supreme Court

As the Supreme Court heard arguments today in McCutcheon v. FEC – a campaign finance case in which the Court will decide whether to strike down overall limits on direct political contributions – a great crowd of PFAW and allies rallied outside the Court in support of getting big money out of politics.  From students and small business owners to members of Congress – including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Ted Deutch, Jim McGovern, and John Sarbanes – people from all backgrounds came together in support of protecting the integrity of our democracy.

PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker kicked off the speeches by painting a picture of the “people versus money” nature of the case:

Inside the court – right now – one wealthy man is asking for permission to pour even more money directly into political campaigns. But we’re here, too, and we have a different ask.  We’re asking the justices to protect the integrity of our democracy. We’re asking them to protect the voices and the votes of ‘We the People’….We’re here today saying loud and clear: our democracy is not for sale.

Also speaking at today’s rally was Montgomery County Council Vice President Craig L. Rice, Maryland State Director of affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.  Rice spoke about the effect of campaign finance laws on young political candidates:

As a young minority elected official, let me tell you: this [case] is extremely troubling….Young minority candidates throughout this country are routinely outspent and therefore denied the ability to serve in elected roles….Money should not determine who serves in office.

Howard University student Brendien Mitchell, a fellow in affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young People For program, talked about the importance of being able to hear the political voices of young people in the midst of voter suppression efforts and massive spending by the wealthy in our democracy:

What about the freedom of young Americans who cannot donate grandiose sums of money to political candidates?....We gather to say that this is our country.  And that in a case of money versus people, the answer should be apparent: the people.

One of the highlights of the day was hearing from Moral Monday demonstration leader Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a member of PFAW’s African American Ministers in Action.  Rev. Barber highlighted the millions of dollars Art Pope has poured into conservative projects and campaigns in his home state of North Carolina:

We [in North Carolina] know firsthand that when you undermine laws that guard against voter suppression, and you undo regulations on the ability for corporations and individuals to spend unchecked amounts of money to influence and infiltrate and literally infect the democratic process, it has extreme impacts.

Extreme impacts – and not only on the electoral process itself, but also on a whole host of issues shaping the lives of everyday Americans.  Whether you care most about protecting voting rights, preserving our environment, or workers getting paid a livable wage, a political system where the super-rich can make six-digit direct political contributions harms us all.

And that’s why organizations and activists with focuses ranging from civil rights to environmental protection to good government issues came together today with a common message: our democracy is not for sale.

PFAW

McCutcheon v. FEC

On October 8, 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC -- an important money-in-politics case many are calling "the next Citizens United." Find out more on our McCutcheon information & resource page.

PFAW Foundation Memo: Key Cases In The Supreme Court's New Term

To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way Foundation
Date: October 3, 2013

Re: Key Cases in the Supreme Court's New Term

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has not shied away from taking on cases with enormous impact on American laws and American lives, and the term that starts on Monday will be no exception.

In just the last term, the Court’s conservative majority dismantled a key portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act, removed important anti-discrimination protections for workers, and made it harder for consumers to sue corporations that have hurt them. One exception to the Court’s sweeping conservative activism justifiably attracted plenty of attention – the decision in which conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the Court’s four more moderate Justices to strike down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. But that remarkable victory for individual freedom, which was powered by the Court’s moderates, should not obscure the Roberts Court’s larger, well-documented goal of shifting American law to benefit corporations over individuals and the privileged over the struggling.

The cases on the Supreme Court’s docket for the coming term are no less consequential. The Court will consider whether to continue its project of dismantling campaign finance regulations; it will take on yet more cases on the rights of individuals to hold corporations accountable for their actions; it will weigh laws protecting workers against abusive and discriminatory employers; it will decide whether to uphold the far-right DC Circuit’s decision striking down clean air protections; and it may limit or reverse precedents protecting women's reproductive choice.

Below is a preview of some of the most wide-reaching cases the Supreme Court will consider this year, and how the Roberts Court may choose to approach them.

MONEY OUT / VOTERS IN

McCutcheon v. FEC: The Court is being asked to eliminate aggregate federal campaign contribution limits.

You’ll be hearing a lot about this case in the coming weeks, months, and perhaps years. While Citizens United involved independent expenditures to affect elections, this case involves the aggregate caps on contributions made to candidates, political parties, and PACs. Currently, a donor’s individual contributions to a party’s candidates and affiliated committees during the 2013-2014 election cycle, are capped at $123,200 (on an inflation-adjusted basis). Without the cap, that number would skyrocket to $3.6 million, vastly increasing the influence of wealthy donors on our democracy and correspondingly limiting the influence of the people, who are supposed to be sovereign in our democracy. That is the goal of high-pocketed donor Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee, who are asking the Court to strike down the aggregate caps as violating their First Amendment free speech rights.

Beginning in the 1970’s and in a number of cases since, the Court has upheld the constitutionality of regulating campaign contributions, recognizing how important such regulations are in preventing both real and perceived corruption. That Court has also recognized the value of aggregate caps on contributions as a means of preventing wealthy donors from indirectly bypassing the individual limits. That’s why the decision was a no-brainer for the lower court judges – even the far-right Janice Rogers Brown. The fact that the Supreme Court even took the case is disturbing, suggesting that the conservative Justices’ hunger for enhancing the power of the powerful and shutting the rest of us out of our own electoral democracy has not yet been sated.

RECESS APPOINTMENTS

NLRB v. Noel Canning: The Court is being asked to severely limit the president’s power to make recess appointments.

This case challenges President Obama’s recess appointments of National Labor Relations Board members in January of 2012 on the day after the 112th Congress’s second session officially began. He acted because Republicans had been blocking the Senate from voting on his nominees, leaving the NLRB without enough members to constitute a quorum. The president bypassed this cynical GOP effort to sabotage an agency dedicated to the rights of workers by making recess appointments. The NLRB was therefore able to act, including in a case involving Noel Canning, which disputes the legitimacy of the recess appointments.

The appointments occurred at a time when the Senate was meeting for pro forma sessions for a few minutes, once every few days, to maintain the fiction that it wasn’t on recess (i.e., to prevent recess appointments). Most debate in the public and on Capitol Hill centered on the narrow question of whether the holding of the pro forma sessions meant the Senate was not in recess. Indeed, the fact that congressional Republicans insisted on the pro forma sessions indicated their recognition of the president’s broad authority to make recess appointments when the Senate is on break. Noel Canning itself noted that the DC Circuit could decide the case based on the narrow question of the relevance of the pro forma sessions, thereby bypassing even larger constitutional questions. But the DC Circuit issued a sweeping opinion overturning the understanding of presidents and senators from the country’s earliest years: The court ruled not only that recess appointments can only be made during the annual break between sessions of Congress, but also that they can only be made during the recess in which the vacancy first occurred. These restrictions would invalidate recess appointments going back to the time of President George Washington. Affirming the DC Circuit would empower Senate minorities to prevent the president from filling vital executive branch positions. Some agencies that require certain Senate-confirmed officials to be present in order to exercise their full powers (like the NLRB or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) would be crippled.

ACCESS TO ABORTION

McCullen v. Coakley: The Court may overrule a 2000 precedent upholding buffer zones around reproductive health clinics.

This involves a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics (with exceptions for employees, patients, and others with business there). Within this area, only those with business at the clinic (essentially, clients and employees) could stand within a certain radius of the clinic. Anti-choice advocates claim this violates their freedom of speech because it restricts only people with a particular viewpoint. The lower courts disagreed, citing the 2000 case of Hill v. Colorado, where the Supreme Court upheld a buffer zone making it illegal to approach people at clinics for the purpose of counseling, education, or protesting. That 6-3 decision analyzed the law as a content-neutral regulation of speech that was reasonable in light of the importance of protecting unwilling people’s right to avoid unwanted conversations and their right to pass without obstruction. However, two of the conservatives Justices in the 6-3 majority have been replaced by far more conservative Bush nominees:  Rehnquist (by Roberts) and O’Connor (by Alito). Since Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas dissented in the 2000 case, there are five likely votes to strike down the Massachusetts buffer zone and possibly overrule Hill completely.

Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice: The Court may uphold a state “drug safety” law that restricts women’s access to medical abortions and perhaps overrule the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision protecting a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.

An Oklahoma law pushed by anti-choice groups requires misoprostol and methotrexate, medications used to terminate early pregnancies, to be prescribed only as directed by the FDA; any variation from that (called “off label” use) is made illegal. But in the years since these drugs were approved by the FDA, doctors through experience have determined that such “off label” uses are more effective, safe, and convenient for women. Such “off label” uses also allow for abortion later in a pregnancy than FDA-approved use does.

The general right of a state to regulate off-label uses of FDA-approved drugs is not being contested in this case. Oklahoma’s stated goal is to protect women from unsafe and unapproved use of medications, but this is clearly a pretense for limiting women’s access to medical abortions. Under the 1992 Casey decision, states cannot place an undue burden on a woman’s right to abortion, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck the law down as obviously unconstitutional. Ominously, the Supreme Court accepted the appeal.

Because of a procedural hurdle, it is possible the case might not be heard. The Supreme Court has asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to clarify exactly which medications and under what circumstances the statute applies. Only after the Oklahoma Supreme Court responds will the Supreme Court decide whether to schedule oral arguments. If it proceeds, the case provides a dangerous opportunity for the Roberts Court to overrule Casey or, as in the more recent “partial birth abortion” case (2007’s Gonzales v. Carhart), to simply ignore Casey and open the floodgates to more restrictive legislation.

LIMITING CONGRESSIONAL AUTHORITY

Bond v. United States: The Court is being asked to overrule a 1920 precedent recognizing Congress’ broad authority to enact legislation implementing a treaty, and to sharply restrict congressional authority under the “Necessary and Proper” Clause.

The case involves a woman who repeatedly tried to poison her husband’s mistress and was convicted of violating a federal criminal law prohibiting the possession and use of chemical weapons, a law passed to implement a treaty on chemical weapons. Carol Bond argues that the administration of criminal justice is a purely state responsibility except for where Congress, exercising one of the powers enumerated by the Constitution (like the Commerce Clause), creates an offense against the United States. Therefore, she says, the law violates the Tenth Amendment and constitutional principles of federalism.

But a 1920 precedent says exactly the opposite. Missouri v. Holland recognized that if you have a properly signed and ratified treaty, the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes Congress to pass laws implementing the treaty. The enactment does not have to also be based on one of the specific powers enumerated in Article I Section 8.

If the Supreme Court rules for Bond, it might do so narrowly, holding that her use of chemicals was not part of the purpose of the chemical weapons treaty. But the Roberts Court may also see this as an opportunity to issue a broad ruling that overrules the 1920 precedent and limits longstanding congressional authority under the “Necessary and Proper” Clause.

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION AND FAIRNESS

Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action: The Court is being asked to significantly weaken federal laws prohibiting housing discrimination.

In this case, a town government wants to redevelop a housing development occupied primarily by low- and moderate-income minority families and replace it with more expensive housing. Residents sued under the Fair Housing Act, alleging that the plan had a disproportionate impact on minorities.

For 40 years, the Fair Housing Act has been a key tool to address unfair mortgage lending practices, insurance redlining, discriminatory zoning ordinances, and other obstacles to equal housing. Under the FHA, a practice that has a discriminatory effect – even if it does not have a discriminatory purpose – can be judged to violate the law. This is called “disparate impact.”  All 11 circuits to have considered the question have agreed that disparate impact cases are covered under the Fair Housing Act. These cases go back to the 1970s and 1980s, and Congress has never amended the law to say otherwise. Although different circuits vary in the details, most follow a process in which, once a plaintiff shows that an action will have a racially disparate impact, the burden shifts to the defendant to show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. In some cases, the defendant must also show that it can’t accomplish the same thing with less discriminatory results. The “burden shifting” disparate approach makes it much easier to fulfill the FHA’s goal of protecting Americans from housing discrimination. HUD regulations also interpret the FHA to include claims of disparate impact. A contrary interpretation by the Roberts Court could lead to the reversal of decades of progress in eliminating housing discrimination, the goal of the Fair Housing Act.

Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action: The Court will decide if states can adopt constitutional amendments prohibiting Affirmative Action in public colleges and universities.

The constitutionality of Affirmative Action is not an issue in this case. Instead, the question is whether the Constitution allows states to amend their own constitutions to prohibit Affirmative Action.

In 2006, Ward Connerly succeeded in getting an anti-Affirmative Action measure on the ballot in Michigan, and it was passed by the voters. It prohibits the consideration of race, sex, ethnicity, and national origin in individualized admissions decisions by public colleges and universities. The Sixth Circuit struck down the measure, noting that no other factors (like legacy, geographic diversity, or athletic skill) were similarly made unconstitutional. As a result, an applicant who wants her alumni connections to be considered can ask the university to adopt a legacy-conscious admission program, but an African American applicant who wants a race-conscious admissions policy must persuade the entire electorate to adopt a constitutional amendment. The circuit court characterized this as a structural burden that violates the Equal Protection Clause.

Justice Kagan is recused from this case, which may affect how the Court rules.

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Town of Greece v. Galloway: Legislative Prayer – The Court will decide if a town’s consistent use of sectarian prayer at town meetings violates the Establishment Clause, even if it shows that the town endorses a particular religion.

Over the course of many years, the town of Greece, NY, officially opened monthly public Town Board meetings with prayers. For years, the local members of the clergy who delivered the prayer were always specifically invited by the town supervisor to do so. Only Christian clergy were invited and mostly sectarian prayers were delivered. When two citizens complained that it appeared the town was officially aligning itself with Christianity, officials told them that anyone who wanted to could ask to deliver the prayer and do so regardless of content. Yet the town never publicized this alleged policy, and only four times subsequently did non-Christians deliver the prayer.

The Supreme Court held in 1983’s Marsh v. Chambers that legislative prayers do not automatically violate the Establishment Clause, but that they should not be exploited to proselytize or advance any one religion, faith or belief, or to disparage any such belief. And in other contexts (like public crèche displays), the Court has ruled that under the Establishment Clause, the government may not appear to endorse any one specific faith.

With Justice O’Connor having been replaced by Justice Alito, the Court’s Establishment Clause cases may take a sharp turn to the right. There may now be a majority that would vastly expand government’s ability to endorse not only religion in general but also specific sectarian beliefs.

WORKERS’ RIGHTS

Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. and Wal-Mart Stores: The Court is being asked to rule that the statute of limitations to challenge an employer’s denial of disability benefits begins to run before the claim has finally been resolved.

Julie Heimeshoff had been working for Wal-Mart for nearly 20 years when she developed pain and fatigue due to fibromyalgia and other conditions. Within a few months, she was unable to work and she filed for long-term disability benefits, which Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Company administers for Wal-Mart. Heimeshoff’s disability claim was denied.

Courts interpreting the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) have ruled that under the law, you cannot challenge the denial of benefits until you exhaust your remedies under your company’s benefits plan. Wal-Mart and Hartford’s plan sets a three-year statute of limitations for those who are denied benefits to sue, beginning as soon as Hartford requires the employee to provide proof of their disability. So the clock was ticking while the mandatory internal resolution process continued. In 2007, Heimeshoff was informed that Hartford was still denying her claim, and that this was its final decision. She sued in 2010, within three years of this final determination but more than three years after she was first required to prove the extent of her disability.

The Court will decide if a benefits plan can require the clock to start ticking before the plan has resolved the claims, or whether the clock can start ticking only when the worker has exhausted her plan remedies and can actually sue. In other words, does ERISA let employers and insurers impose a plan that makes it harder for employees to vindicate their ERISA rights in the courts?

Unite Here Local 355 v. Mulhall: The Court is being asked to limit the ability of workers and management to make agreements that facilitate the formation of unions.

In this case, a company and union agreed that management would remain neutral on efforts to organize workers to form a union, let the union have limited access to non-work areas to talk to employees, and give the union the employees’ names and home addresses for the same purpose. In return, the union promised that it would not picket, boycott, or act to economically harm the business. Such recognition-process agreements are fair and orderly ways to facilitate union organizing that benefit both workers and employers.

The question is whether this violates Section 302 of the Taft-Hartley Act, which makes it a criminal act for an employer to “pay, lend, or deliver … any money or other thing of value” to a labor union seeking to represent employees. The law was adopted in the 1940s to prevent corruption from distorting the process of forming a labor union. The employer and the union assert that their agreement is legal, because the employer’s agreement is not a “thing of value” as contemplated by Taft-Hartley. To the contrary, they claim that it furthers the statute’s goal of encouraging peaceful and honest labor organizing. But Mulhall claims the agreement falls within Taft-Hartley’s criminal provisions.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

EPA v. EME Homer City Generation and American Lung Association v. EME Homer City Generation: The Court is being asked to strike down EPA rules on cross-state air pollution.

The Clean Air Act requires states to adopt plans that not only bring their own states into compliance with federal safety standards, but also prevent pollution that “contributes significantly” to air pollution in downwind states. Under the law, states that fail to implement a sufficient (or any) plan must then implement a plan designed by the EPA.

In this case, the EPA designed such plans, which reflected the extreme technical complexity of the issue. Based on the administrative record and its expertise on environmental health, the agency concluded that the new rules would prevent 13,000-34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks, and 400,000 cases of asthma. They would also save $280 billion a year in healthcare costs.

Utility companies appealed, and a divided D.C. Circuit panel struck down the rule. The dissent accused the court’s majority of “disregard[ing] limits Congress placed on its jurisdiction, the plain text of the Clean Air Act (‘CAA’), and this court’s settled precedent interpreting the same statutory provisions at issue today.”  The majority’s decision has been cited by some as an example of judges imposing their own ideologies over the technical expertise of a federal agency.

HOLDING CORPORATE WRONGDOERS ACCOUNTABLE

Daimler Chrysler v. Bauman: The Court may make it harder to sue foreign corporations doing business in a state over events that happened elsewhere.

DaimlerChrysler is a German corporation being sued in a federal court in California for human rights violations by a wholly-owned subsidiary in Argentina. The subsidiary (Mercedes-Benz Argentina) allegedly identified “subversives” at the plant for the country’s military dictators, knowing that they would then be kidnapped, detained, tortured, or murdered as a result. Former plant employees or their surviving family members sued the parent company in California.

Under the Due Process Clause, a state cannot bring a defendant into its courts unless that party has sufficient “minimum contacts” with the state. That is called “personal jurisdiction.”  In this case, DaimlerChrysler has a wholly-owned subsidiary that regularly does business in California: Mercedes-Benz USA. The 9th Circuit said the court had personal jurisdiction over the parent company because it had engaged in substantial and continuous corporate activity in the state for years via the subsidiary.

The Supreme Court is being asked to reverse that ruling. In a world where people’s lives are affected by the actions of enormous multinational corporations operating around the world through a seemingly endless number of subsidiaries, many will be interested in how the Court decides this case.

Lawson v. FMR:  The Court may limit which whistleblowers are protected from retaliation under a post-Enron reform law.

The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a securities reform law passed by Congress after the Enron collapse, protects “employees” of publicly traded companies who expose fraud by publicly traded companies. The term “employees” is at issue in this case.

At issue in this case is whether individuals working as contractors to publicly traded companies are considered employees for the purpose of protecting them from retaliation as whistleblowers. In this case, individuals who exposed alleged fraud involving Fidelity mutual funds were retaliated against. The mutual funds are owned by their shareholders and registered with the SEC. However, the whistleblowers were not employees of Fidelity’s funds, because those funds have no employees of their own. Instead, all the funds’ day-to-day work is done by privately owned “investment advisers” with names like Fidelity Management and Research Co. and Fidelity Brokerage Services. This is not an uncommon setup for mutual funds. So the whistleblowers were employees of Fidelity’s contractors, not of Fidelity itself, and those contractors are not publicly traded.

The district court ruled that interpreting “employees” so narrowly as to exclude contractors like the ones in this case would defeat the purpose of the law. However, the First Circuit reversed that decision. Now, the Supreme Court will decide.

On Argument of McCutcheon v. FEC, Democracy Groups Call for Constitutional Amendment

Supreme Court hearing case shows need for an amendment to protect integrity of our democracy, eight groups argue

WASHINGTON – As the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, eight pro-democracy groups are speaking out on the urgent need for amending the Constitution to protect the integrity of our democracy. 

Three years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the door to a torrent of corporate and special interest spending to influence our elections, the high court is now considering a case that could bring further harm to our political system.  In McCutcheon, the Court is being asked to strike down aggregate contribution limits and allow multi-million-dollar campaign contributions to flood our electoral process. 

The case is a continuation of the attack on our democracy by wealthy interests.  Plaintiffs challenging aggregate limits should clearly lose this case under current Supreme Court precedent, but the fact that the Court has agreed to hear their arguments at all underscores the need for amending the Constitution to restore the American people’s ability to limit corporate and special interest influence on elections and to promote a democracy of, by and for the people.  To date, sixteen states and more than 500 cities and towns have gone on record in support of amending the constitution.  Fourteen federal amendments have been proposed in the 113th Congress.

The organizational statements are below.

“After the most expensive election cycle in our country’s history, the ultra-conservative bloc of the Supreme Court continues to threaten our democracy,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “Our constitution’s authors did not envision a government of corporations and the wealthy – they envisioned a government of the people. This case threatens the very foundations of that system. A democracy where the voices of everyday Americans are overpowered by the amplified voices of the rich and powerful is not the kind of democracy Americans want or expect. That’s why it’s so important that we help nurture the growing movement to take back our democracy and pass a constitutional amendment putting the power of our political system back where it belongs – in the hands of the people.”

“The Supreme Court may be poised in the McCutcheon case to follow its disastrous Citizens United decision and issue a new ruling which further allows big money interests to dominate our political process and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens,” said John Bonifaz, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Free Speech For People. “If it does that, it will only provide added proof that we the people must overrule the Court with a constitutional amendment to reclaim our democracy.”

“For nearly forty years, the Supreme Court has been driving us down a road that continues to take us further from our democratic values,” said Emma Boorboor, Democracy Associate for U.S. PIRG. “Americans believe that in a democracy the size of your wallet should not determine the volume of your voice. McCutcheon v. FEC could give a megaphone to small set of ultra wealthy donors, drowning out the voices of average Americans. Those challenging limits should clearly lose this case under current law. But, ultimately, we can only turn this car around by amending the U.S. Constitution to clarify to the Supreme Court that the first amendment was never meant as a tool for special interests to co-opt our democratic process.”

“The Supreme Court should not repeat the grave mistakes of its disastrous Citizens United ruling in the McCutcheon case by giving the richest few even more disproportionate influence over our democracy,” said Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy. “The notion that anyone’s ‘speech’ rights are burdened because he can’t give more than $123,200 in campaign contributions is an absolute perversion of the First Amendment, and the fact that the high court would even consider such a claim demonstrates that we need to amend our Constitution to stop the distortions of big money in our elections and restore the primacy of the people in our democracy.”

“In McCutcheon, the Supreme Court will decide whether to double down on Citizens United to transform further our democracy – rule by the people – into a wealthocracy,” said Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen. “We can only hope that this is one step too far for the Supreme Court. But we shouldn’t have to hope, and we shouldn’t have to live with a campaign finance system already corroded by Citizens United and other harmful court decisions. That McCutcheon is even being considered by the Court highlights the imperative of a constitutional amendment to protect our democracy.”

“McCutcheon is not about free speech, it’s about the buying and selling of political power,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, Senior Vice President for Strategy and Programs at Common Cause.  “The case invites the court to give wealthy Americans permission to purchase political favors and influence like they purchase stocks or real estate. With apologies to Mark Twain, it would give us the best government money can buy.”

“Many in this country already question the Legitimacy of our supposedly ‘democratic’ republic and the Supreme Court itself,” said Bill Moyer, Executive Director of the Backbone Campaign. “Even the pretext of representation of the citizenry has be replaced with a blatant and shameless auction. Corporations and the aristocratic super-rich who hide behind their corporate shelters of liability are ‘coming out.’ McCutcheon v. FEC represents a shameless flaunting of oligarchic power and reflects disdain for even the illusion of a system that strives toward egalitarian system of, by and for the People.”
 
“The issue in the McCutcheon case is one of political bribery, which is outlawed in the US Criminal code.  Yet, in the wake of Citizens United, we fear that the court’s attack on democracy in favor of corporate rule will continue when it rules in this case involving aggregate limits on individual contributions to candidates,” said David Delk, Co-Chair of the Alliance for Democracy.  “Will it even limit itself to just that question? To end this series of court decisions favoring the corporatocracy, we must amend the US Constitution to make clear that corporations are not people and therefore have no constitutional rights, and that money is not speech.”

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Edit Memo: Blockbuster Case Kicks Off New Supreme Court Term: The McCutcheon Steamroller

In the wake of landmark rulings in the Supreme Court’s last term, this coming Court term is shaping up to be at least as consequential.

Support for Amending the Constitution to Overturn Citizens United is Now One-Third of the Way There

Support Growing in U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and State Legislatures

WASHINGTON – Advocates are celebrating a significant milestone in the campaign for a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United that opened the floodgates of money from corporations and the ultra wealthy into our political system. Support for the campaign now stands at one-third of what is needed for victory.

The Constitution can be amended by votes of a supermajority of each chamber of Congress, followed by ratification by three-quarters of the states. Support for an amendment now stands at one third of each of those thresholds:

Share required Number needed Number today %
2/3 Senators 67 27 sponsors and co-sponsors 40%
2/3 Representatives 290 99 sponsors and co-sponsors 34%
3/4 States 38 16 official resolutions, ballot measures or official calls for an amendment 42%

“This milestone represents important progress toward a goal that’s critical to preserving the integrity of our democracy,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way. “Amending our country’s constitution should be difficult.  But this isn’t the first time Americans have encountered a serious problem that needs a serious solution. Citizens United and other cases that paved the way for big money to flood our elections have given us one of those moments. As more states and elected officials go on record in support of an amendment, the clearer it becomes that the American people will not stand to have their voices overpowered by wealthy special interests.”

“In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America,” said John Bonifaz, co-founder and executive director of Free Speech For People.  “Americans across the political spectrum are standing up to defend that fundamental promise of government of, by, and for the people.”

“Sixteen states representing tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of cities and towns, from Los Angeles to Boston, have passed resolutions and ballot measures in support of a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United," said Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president for strategy and programs at Common Cause. “Voters and legislators are justifiably outraged at the way Citizens United has created a system of legalized bribery around our elections, and are building the momentum we need to make a change.”

“Fast gaining momentum, the movement for a constitutional amendment aims to reassert popular sovereignty and return America to the founding constitutional principle embodied in the phrase, We, the People,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “We, the People of the United States are fast on our way to winning a constitutional amendment to ensure our government works for us, not JP Morgan, Pfizer and Walmart.”

Citizens United set a dangerous precedent by opening the floodgates for special interest money in our elections,” said Emma Boorboor, Democracy Associate, U.S. PIRG. “Yet, as a nation we overwhelmingly value the idea that the size of your wallet should not determine the volume of your voice in our democracy. The fact that we are already a third of the way to passing a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics clearly demonstrates the building momentum and the desire of Americans to stand up for our democratic values.”

Sixteen states have formally called for an amendment by ballot measure, resolutions passed by the legislature, or official letters signed by a majority of state legislators:

California
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware
Hawaii
Illinois
Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Montana
New Jersey
New Mexico
Oregon
Rhode Island
Vermont
West Virginia

In addition, nearly 500 cities, towns, and counties, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia have called for an amendment, and more than 2,000 elected officials nationwide are on record supporting one.

A 2010 Peter Hart poll found that 82% of Americans support congressional action to limit corporate spending on elections (which Citizens United unleashed), and that 79% support a constitutional amendment to accomplish this. This past September, an Associated Press poll found that 83% of Americans favor limits on the amount of money corporations, unions, and other organizations can spend on our elections.

Public support is also bipartisan. The 2010 Peter Hart poll revealed that 68% of Republicans, 82% of independents, and 87% of Democrats support an amendment.  The 2012 AP poll showed that 81% of Republicans, 78% of independents, and 85% of Democrats want to limit corporate, union, and other outside spending.

Free Speech For People works to challenge the misuse of corporate power and restore republican democracy to the people. The group advances the movement to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn Citizens United v. FEC, an earlier case called Buckley v. Valeo, and the fabricated doctrine of corporate constitutional rights. For more on Free Speech For People, visit: www.FreeSpeechForPeople.org.

Common Cause is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest, and accountable government that works for the public interest, and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard.

People For the American Way engages in lobbying and activist mobilization to support local, state and federal initiatives to ameliorate the impact of, and eventually overturn via constitutional amendment, the effects of Citizens United and other court cases that have opened the floodgates of unlimited corporate and special interest spending to influence elections.  PFAW activates its membership, its youth leadership networks (the Young Elected Officials Action and Young People For Action programs) and its African American Ministers in Action network for money-in-politics work. PFAW co-leads coalition efforts to confirm judges and justices who respect the progressive ethic of the Constitution and has a dynamic political arm engaged in electoral strategies to hold money-in-politics obstructionists accountable.

Public Citizen is national non-profit membership organization. Since 1971, we have fought for corporate and government accountability to guarantee the individual’s right to safe products, a healthy environment and workplace, fair trade, and clean and safe energy sources. Public Citizen is deeply invested in limiting the damaging effect of money in politics and passing an amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling and related cases. www.DemocracyIsForPeople.org

U.S. PIRG is a citizen's group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society. For decades, we’ve stood up for consumers, countering the influence of big banks, insurers, chemical manufacturers and other powerful special interests. www.uspirg.org

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