Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, announced today that he would return to private practice. Adegbile’s confirmation was blocked earlier this year despite his extensive qualifications and his record of commitment to civil rights. People For the American Way Vice President Marge Baker issued the following statement:
“Debo Adegbile’s decision to return to private practice is a great loss for the Department of Justice and for the country. Adegbile is extraordinarily well qualified to lead the Civil Rights Division and exactly the kind of person that the President and the Senate should want in a key DOJ post. Instead, he was attacked by his opponents for taking on important issues in our justice system. In particular, Adegbile should be commended for his commitment to the principle that every criminal defendant deserves robust, competent representation. The willingness of his opponents to abandon that principle will be a shameful mark on the Senate’s history.
“While Adegbile’s decision to move on with his career is understandable, it’s still a deeply disappointing conclusion. His absence at the DOJ will be felt for years to come.”
To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People For the American Way
Date: September 15, 2014
Subject: Senate Needs to Confirm Pending Judicial Nominees
There is probably little more than a week before the Senate goes out on recess until after the election. One of the most important – and undoubtedly quickest and easiest – things it can do before then is confirm 16 judicial nominees, most of whom have overwhelming bipartisan support.
One of the most important responsibilities of the United States Senate is to maintain a functioning federal court system. District courts are the backbone of the American judicial system. They are where people turn when they feel their rights have been violated. “Having your day in court” is an essential part of the American ideal. But that ideal cannot be met if we don’t have enough judges to make it happen. Even if every vacancy in the country were filled tomorrow, it wouldn’t be enough: The Judicial Conference of the United States – the entity responsible for assessing the federal courts’ ability to effectively manage their caseloads – has urged Congress to create an additional 85 district court judgeships. So when an existing vacancy can be filled with a qualified nominee, it ought to be done with dispatch.
Right now, nominees for 16 such vacancies can be confirmed within the next few days. Seven of these were fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee and have been waiting for a floor vote since June or July. Of these seven, all but one of them advanced without any opposition. Four alone are from Georgia: nominees who have the unanimous support of the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic and Republican senators. There are no more questions to ask of these nominees, except when they will be allowed to take up their judicial responsibilities and fill empty courtrooms in Georgia, New York, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.
The remaining nine were scheduled for a committee vote last week, having had their confirmation hearings back in July. They have been nominated for judgeships in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Four of them – nearly half – would serve in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a state with so many vacancies that it alone accounts for 15% of the nation’s total, but Chairman Leahy was forced by the GOP to delay the vote. Republicans gave no reason for the delay, but they rarely do: Since President Obama took office, Republicans have exercised the right of the minority party to have a committee vote “held over” (delayed) by at least a week without cause for nearly all of his judicial nominees, part of their overall mechanism of obstruction. Fortunately, they are expected to get their overdue committee approval later this week.
There remains plenty of time to confirm all 16 nominees before the Senate goes out for its pre-election recess next week.
The fact that we are heading into an election is no reason not to hold these confirmation votes. In fact, in September of 2008, a presidential election year – and the twilight of George W. Bush’s presidency, no less – Democrats rushed several of his nominees through to make sure they got confirmed before recess (and before his presidency ended). Ten of Bush’s district court nominees were confirmed just one day after being approved by the Judiciary Committee. All ten had had their committee hearings earlier that same month – in some cases, during that same week. The confirmation votes took hardly any time at all, since all ten were considered and confirmed as a bloc by unanimous consent.
Interestingly, three of those 2008 nominees were from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where four of the current 16 nominees could be serving by next week, if given the chance.
Republicans still have a chance to demonstrate that they can prioritize the functioning of the U.S. court system over their own partisan interests. But it seems unlikely. Since last year, the GOP has insisted that no judicial nominee, despite their bipartisan support, advance on the Senate floor without time-consuming cloture votes and roll-call confirmation votes. And it isn’t just the roll-call votes that take time (although each one can take nearly an hour). Without unanimous consent to waive the chamber’s time requirements, cloture votes cannot be held until two days after cloture petitions are filed, and each confirmation vote requires at least an hour of needless “post-cloture debate” even after the filibuster is broken.
If Republicans successfully prevent votes this month, the earliest the courtrooms will see some relief will be in a potential lame duck session. That means another two month wait until clearly qualified nominees are able to take their seats in courtrooms around the country. There is simply no good reason for such delay.
Last month, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that he would no longer defend the state’s marriage equality ban because "there are really no arguments left to be made."
This did not sit well with Mark Creech, executive director of the North Carolina Action League. In a Christian Post column yesterday, Creech attacked Cooper for “wimpishly” capitulating to “tyranny” and yielding to the “despotism” of “judicial totalitarians.”
By refusing to resist with every legal means possible, Cooper capitulates to a form of tyranny in our day. He abandons his post on the field of battle, throws up the white flag, stands in the very place of the state (a state that voted by 61% for the marriage amendment) and wimpishly replies to the 4th Circuit that North Carolina accepts their judgment and surrenders. Furthermore, he calls on the judges who will preside over the cases currently challenging the state's marriage amendment to stand down and yield to the despotism of two judicial totalitarians.
Two current Religious Right fixations — the “persecution” of American Christians and the need for conservatives to do more to influence the pop culture — have come together in movies like “Persecuted” and “We the People—Under Attack.” The latest entry, “One Generation Away: The Erosion of Religious Liberty,” was screened by Rick Santorum at the Heritage Foundation on Monday night.
Santorum said the movie will be released in September. His EchoLight Cinemas is trying to create an alternative to Hollywood distribution channels by building a network of thousands of tech-equipped churches who will sell tickets for "One Generation Away" and other movies. He says the long-term strategy is to bring more people into churches and put the church back at the center of the culture.
"One Generation Away" is described as a documentary, but it’s really a preaching-to-the-choir call to arms for conservative Christians and pastors to get more involved in culture war battles while they still have the freedom to do so. Among the film’s producers are Donald and Tim Wildmon from the American Family Association, which Santorum said is packaging a shorter version of the movie into more of an activist tool.
The title comes from Ronald Reagan – specifically from a speech to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce in 1961, a time in which Reagan was working with conservatives to rally opposition to Medicare – “socialized medicine”:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
The thrust of "One Generation Away" is that religious freedom in the United States is disappearing fast, and if the church doesn’t fight for it now, it will soon be gone forever. Before running the film on Monday, Santorum quoted Cardinal Francis George, who said during the debate about insurance coverage of contraception, “I expect to die in my bed. I expect my successor to die in prison. I expect his successor to be a martyr.” That’s just the kind of hyperbolic “religious persecution” rhetoric we have come to expect from Religious Right leaders and their allies in the Catholic hierarchy.
At one point toward the end of the movie, it seems as if the filmmakers might be striking a more reasonable tone, with a couple of speakers saying that Christians should stand up for the rights of people of different faiths — even though the AFA’s chief spokesman opposes First Amendment protections for non-Christians— and others actually acknowledging that it is problematic for American Christians to be complaining of “religious persecution” over policy disputes when Christians and others are facing horrific, deadly persecution in many other parts of the world.
But that caution is quickly abandoned as the movie makes a direct comparison of the status of the Christian church in America with the church in Germany as the Nazis came to power. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who tried to mobilize German Christians to resist Nazi tyranny and was executed by the regime, is held up as the model that American Christians need to be willing to follow.
Eric Metaxas, a Bonhoeffer biographer who became a Religious Right folk hero when he questioned President Obama’s faith at a National Prayer Breakfast attended by the president, warned that if the church doesn’t link arms to fight, all will be lost. “The good news,” he said, “is that the American church is slightly more attuned to the rumbling heard in the distance than the German church was in the 30s. The bad news is, only slightly, right?”
The movie cuts to Mike Huckabee saying that Bonhoeffer could have saved his life if he had been willing to soften his faith, but that instead he resisted and rebuked the Nazi regime. And then we’re back to Metaxas to complete the Nazi analogy:
“The parallel today is simply that. You have a government, a state, which is getting larger and larger and more and more powerful, and is beginning to push against the church. There’s a window of opportunity where we can fight. If we don’t wake up and fight before then, we won’t be able to fight. That’s just what happened in Germany. And that’s the urgency we have in America now. And people that’s incendiary, or I’m being hyperbolic. I’m sorry, I wish, I wish, I wish I were. I’m not.”
Filmmakers said at the screening that they had conducted 75 interviews for the movie, and it sure feels like it. It includes names that will be well-known to RWW readers, like Mike Huckabee, Tony Perkins, Harry Jackson, Tim Wildmon, Alveda King, Robert George, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, Eric Teetsel of the Manhattan Declaration, and Ryan Anderson and Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation.
Also appearing are Rep. Doug Collins; Rick Perry backer Robert Jeffress; Matthew Franck of the Witherspoon Institute, which sponsored the infamous and discredited Regnerus “family structures” study; Stephen McDowell of the dominionist Providence Foundation; Gregory Thornbury of Kings College; lawyers from the Alliance Defense Fund, the Beckett Fund, the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund; and a number of pastors.
The film also includes interviews with some opponents of the Religious Right, including Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Princeton’s Peter Singer, and Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Santorum told the audience at Heritage that he wishes he had even more of his opponents included in the film because “they scare the hell out of me” and would help motivate the right-wing base.
In order to keep the movie from being one brutally long succession of talking heads, the filmmakers resort to a tactic of constantly shifting scenes, a couple of seconds at a time, in a way that feels like they got a volume discount on stock images of Americana: boats on the water, kids playing softball, families walking together. There are also odd random fillers, like close-ups of the pattern on a couch in the room in which a speaker is sitting. The endless, repetitive succession of images actually makes the film feel even longer than it actually is. (Zack Ford at ThinkProgress had a similar reaction to this technique.)
The meat of the film, or the “red meat,” mixes the personal stories of people being victimized by intolerant secularists and/or gay activists with miniature David Bartonesque lectures on the Christian roots of America’s founding; the fact that the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in the U.S. Constitution; the notion that the American government is trying to replace “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship” and require any expression of faith to take place behind church walls; and the disgracefulness of making any analogies between the civil rights movement and the LGBT equality movement. The 1947 Supreme Court decision in which Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” phrase was invoked by the Court and “changed everything” is portrayed as nothing more than a reflection of Justice Hugo Black’s hatred of Catholics.
Featured “persecution” stories include:
In spite of the parade of horrors, the movie tries to end on an upbeat note, saying that the early Christian church expanded while it was being suppressed, and that it will only take “one spark of revival” to change the nation. A familiar theme at Religious Right conferences is that blame for America’s decline rests with churches that don’t speak up and pastors who don’t preach or lead aggressively enough. One Generation Away ends on this point, telling Christian pastors it is their responsibility to wake up and challenge their congregants to live their faith “uncompromisingly.”
During the Q&A after the screening, Santorum said the fact that Hobby Lobby was a 5-4 decision demonstrated the importance of the 2016 election. “Part of me almost wishes we’d lost,” says Santorum, because that would have made the threat clearer to conservative activists. “We are one judge away,” he said, adding that “if we get a Democratic president, our five, or four-and-a-half, justices are not going to hold out forever.”
“I just worry,” he said to the young people in the audience, “that the longer we delay, and America sleeps, and your generation is indoctrinated the way it is, the harder it will be to come back.”
The Senate voted today to approve the nomination of Pamela Harris to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 50 to 43.
Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way issued the following statement:
“Pamela Harris is exactly the kind of judge we need in our courts. She is a brilliant litigator and public servant committed to improving the quality of justice for all. There’s no question she’ll make an excellent federal judge.
“We applaud the Senate for moving forward in confirming quality nominees to the federal bench. For years, Republicans have blocked, delayed, and obstructed the confirmation of judges, doing everything in their power to slow down the process. We applaud Senator Reid and Senator Leahy for pushing through the obstruction so the Senate can hold timely confirmation votes rather than let our nation’s courtrooms sit empty.
“Americans depend on federal judges to apply the Constitution’s guarantees of fairness and equality for all people. It’s critical that the Senate continue to confirm President Obama’s qualified, fair-minded nominees without delay.”
Judicial vacancies slow down courts’ work, drive up litigation costs, cause evidence to go stale, make it harder to settle civil cases, and even pressure defendants into pleading guilty, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center. The report cites example after example of how not having enough judges erodes our nation’s system of justice. Everyone counts on having their day in court, a fundamentally American principle that is threatened by persistent vacancies. The report quotes Chief Judge William Skretny of New York’s Western District:
We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.
Heavier caseloads and backlog created by vacancies also take a toll on judges, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on each case.
Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis in the Eastern District of Texas described the situation in his district as “simple math.” With more cases “you have less time to give to [an individual] case,” he explained. “It affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quantity of work you can complete,” he added.
[Judge Davis] also highlighted the impact of the Sherman vacancy on the timing of sentencing. “It’s a hardship for the litigants,” he explained. “Due to the backlog and [the] vacancy [in Sherman], we have a very high population of criminal defendants, about 200, sitting in county jails, having pled guilty and waiting for sentences. They can’t get their cases processed.” He noted that inmates are typically housed in a county jail because there are no federal facilities available, which is more costly for the government and leaves inmates with fewer work and educational opportunities. “That’s not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities,” he said.
As the report makes clear, vacancies have real impacts for all citizens. This is why PFAW supports the speedy confirmation of qualified judicial nominees to federal courts. Filling judicial vacancies with quality judges will reduce backlogs and costs while allowing the judicial system to better serve all Americans. Maintaining the third branch is one of the most important constitutional functions that the Senate performs.
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In its recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the conservative 5-4 majority -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy -- did something that may appear very unusual. In divided cases, these five justices have the reputation for interpreting very narrowly laws passed by Congress to protect civil rights. So why did they interpret so broadly the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law passed by Congress to protect the important civil right of religious freedom? The answer, unfortunately, is all too clear. Comparing Hobby Lobby with the two rulings in civil rights law cases issued by the Court over the last year, the key factor that explains how the conservative majority ruled is not precedent, the language of the statute, or congressional intent, but who wins and who loses.
Let's start with last year's rulings, both of which concerned Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bans employment discrimination. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the majority ruled very narrowly in interpreting Title VII, deciding that the only way that employees can prevail on a claim that they have been fired in retaliation for raising job bias claims is to prove that they would not have been discharged "but for" the retaliatory motive. This was despite the fact that in order to strengthen Title VII, Congress added language to the law in 1991 to make clear that plaintiffs should prevail if they show that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in a job decision. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissecting Justice Alito's attempt for the majority to draw a distinction between retaliation and other claims under Title VII, the net effect of the majority's ruling was to make it harder to prove a Title VII retaliation claim than before the 1991 law and with respect to other civil rights statutes that don't explicitly mention retaliation. The 5-4 majority had "seized on a provision adopted by Congress as part of an endeavor to strengthen Title VII," she concluded, "and turned it into a measure reducing the force of the ban on retaliation."
In Nassar, in ruling against a doctor of Middle Eastern descent in a case also involving egregious ethnic and national origin discrimination, Alito disregarded clear legislative history and language showing Congress' broad intent, as well as the interpretation of the law by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Interestingly, towards the end of his opinion, Alito appeared to reveal a key consideration behind the majority's decision. The ruling was important, he explained, to "the fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation systems." After all, he pointed out, retaliation claims "are being made with ever-increasing frequency," although he did not even consider how many have been proven meritorious. Agreeing with the EEOC and the plaintiff on the "motivating factor" standard, he wrote instead, "could also contribute to the filing of frivolous claims." As Justice Ginsburg put it, the majority "appears driven by zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims against employers."
The other 2013 Title VII ruling also reflected an extremely narrow reading of the law. Vance v. Ball State University concerned a complaint by an African-American woman that she had been subjected to racial harassment and a racially hostile work environment. Under prior Title VII Court rulings agreed to by both conservative and moderate justices, the employer itself is often liable for such harassment claims when the harassment is committed by an employee's supervisor. But in Vance, in an opinion by Justice Alito, the familiar 5-4 Court majority significantly narrowed Title VII. It ruled that such vicarious employer liability applies only when the harassment is committed by a manager who can fire or reduce the pay or grade of the victim, not when it is committed by a manager who does not have that power but does control the day-to-day schedules, assignments, and working environment of the victim.
As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, the majority's holding again contradicted guidance issued by the EEOC as well as Congress' broad purpose to eliminate workplace discrimination. In fact, she pointed out, not even the university defendant in Vance itself "has advanced the restrictive definition the Court adopts." But again, Alito's opinion betrayed part of the majority's true motives. Its narrow interpretation would be "workable" and "readily applied," Alito explained. And it would promote "the limitation of employer liability in certain circumstances."
Something very different happened in the next Supreme Court case interpreting a Congressional civil rights statute: 2014's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
In that case, the same 5-4 majority that narrowly interpreted Title VII in Vance and Nassar adopted a very broad interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). All nine justices agreed that RFRA was enacted by Congress in response to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which restricted the protection of religious liberty by the Court under the First Amendment. But the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby ruled that RFRA provides "very broad protection for religious liberty" - "even broader protection than was available" under the First Amendment in pre-Smith decisions. As Justice Ginsburg put it in dissent, the majority interpreted RFRA "as a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence." She explained further that this broad interpretation contradicted the language of the statute, its legislative history, and a statement by the Court in a unanimous ruling in 2006 that in RFRA, Congress "adopt[ed] a statutory rule comparable to the constitutional rule rejected in Smith."
This difference in statutory interpretation was critical to the majority's ruling in Hobby Lobby -- that for-profit corporations whose owners had religious objections to contraceptives could invoke RFRA to refuse to obey the Affordable Care Act's mandate that they provide their employees with health plans under which contraceptives are available to female employees. As Justice Ginsburg explained, no previous Court decision under RFRA or the First Amendment had ever "recognized a for-profit corporation's qualification for a religious exemption" and such a ruling "surely is not grounded in the pre-Smith precedent Congress sought to preserve." The 5-4 majority's broad interpretation that RFRA applies to for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby was obviously crucial to its holding.
In addition, however, the 5-4 majority went beyond pre-Smith case law in another crucial respect. Before a person can claim an exemption from a generally applicable law under RFRA, he or she must prove that the law "substantially burden[s] a person's exercise of religion." According to the majority, the corporations in Hobby Lobby met that standard by demonstrating that the use of certain contraceptives that could be purchased by their employees under their health plans would seriously offend the deeply held religious beliefs of their owners. As Justice Ginsburg explained, however, that ruling conflicted with pre-Smith case law on what must be shown to prove a "substantial burden." In several pre-Smith cases, the Court had ruled that there was no "substantial burden" created by, for example, the government's use of a social security number to administer benefit programs or its requirement that social security taxes be paid, despite the genuine and sincere offense that these actions caused to some religious beliefs. As Justice Ginsburg stated, such religious "beliefs, however deeply held, do not suffice to sustain a RFRA claim," except under the extremely broad interpretation of RFRA by the 5-4 Court majority.
As in the Title VII cases, Justice Alito's opinion for the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby was revealing about some of the majority's underlying concerns. In explaining the majority's decision to interpret RFRA as applying to for-profit corporations, Justice Alito noted that "[w]hen rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people" - in this case "the humans who own and control those companies" in the Hobby Lobby case. As Justice Ginsburg observed, the 5-4 majority paid little attention to the Court's pronouncement in a pre-Smith case that permitting a religious exemption to a general law for a corporation would "operate[e] to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" of the corporation.
Even though the Supreme Court's 2013-14 rulings that interpreted civil rights laws passed by Congress may seem different, a common theme animates them all. Whether the 5-4 majority interpreted the statutes broadly or narrowly, the losers in all of them were women, minorities, and working people, and the winners were employers and corporations. In the majority's own words, the result is the "limitation of employer liability" under laws like Title VII designed to protect workers and the "protecting" of the "humans who own and control" corporations under RFRA.
Since all these rulings interpret Congressional statutes, not the Constitution, Congress clearly has the authority to reverse them. In fact, Congress has done exactly that with respect to other 5-4 rulings by the Court that misinterpreted civil rights statutes to harm women and minority workers and benefit their corporate employers. As recently as 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reversed a flawed 5-4 ruling that severely restricted workers' ability to file equal pay claims under Title VII. Congress is already considering legislation to reverse many of the effects of Hobby Lobby, a corrective effort that Senate Republicans have blocked by a filibuster to prevent the full Senate from even considering it. In our currently divided Congress, immediate prospects for the passage of such remedial legislation may not appear promising. But it is important to recognize the current 5-4 majority's pattern of favoring corporations and harming workers in its decisions interpreting federal civil rights laws, and to recognize and act on the ability to reverse these harmful rulings.
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.
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.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case that the Court’s conservative majority had “ventured into a minefield” with its decision. Many of those mines have already been placed by right-wing leaders who claim a religious grounding not only for anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-contraception positions, but also for opposition to collective bargaining, minimum wage laws, progressive taxation and government involvement in the alleviation of poverty.
In Hobby Lobby, the Court found for the first time that for-profit corporations have religious rights just like real people and can therefore make claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that they should be exempt from laws that burden their corporate “exercise” of religion. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was deeply skeptical of Justice Samuel Alito’s assertion that the decision was limited only to the contraception mandate and only for closely held corporations.
“Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay for substantially similar work?” she asked. How would the Court justify applying its logic only to religious views about contraception? “Indeed, approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be ‘perceived as favoring one religion over another,’ the very ‘risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.’”
Ginsburg’s questions are not merely rhetorical. Conservative Catholic and evangelical leaders who have signed the Manhattan Declaration, including some U.S. bishops, declare themselves willing to engage in civil disobedience – maybe even martyrdom – in order to avoid any participation in abortion or any “anti-life act.” Nor, they declare, “will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”
Alito’s majority opinion says Hobby Lobby does not extend the right to religion-based discrimination on account of a person’s race, but is conspicuously silent on other kinds of discrimination. That silence raises concerns that business owners could use the Hobby Lobby decision to opt out of a future federal LGBT civil rights law, or the Obama administration’s executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors.
Indeed, especially in light of Alito’s mention in Hobby Lobby that RFRA applies to the District of Columbia as a federal enclave, such a claim could be brought today to seek an exemption from D.C.’s Human Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. What happens if and when a local bishop instructs Catholic business owners that it would be sinful to treat legally married gay employees the same as other married couples, or an evangelical businessman declares he will not “bend” to DC’s Human Rights Act?
Business owners now have a new basis for trying to evade anti-discrimination laws and their responsibilities to their employees. Religious liberty is already the rallying cry for conservatives looking for a legal way to discriminate against LGBT Americans; other business owners have tried to use religion to justify opposition to minimum-wage laws and Social Security taxes. Faith groups are already trying to capitalize on the Hobby Lobby decision out of court; on Wednesday, a group of religious leaders asked the Obama administration for an exemption from a forthcoming federal order barring federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
To be clear, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was used as the basis for the Hobby Lobby decision applies only to federal and District of Columbia laws and regulations, including presidential executive orders, not to state laws.
The stories of business owners being told they cannot exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws have mostly involved questions about state-level civil rights and religious freedom statutes. Earlier this year the US Supreme Court declined to review a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a wedding photography business had violated anti-discrimination law when it refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.
Although Hobby Lobby does not apply directly to state laws, it could influence state courts weighing religious claims by business owners in states with their own versions of RFRA.
The clash between religious conservatives and advocates for LGBT equality has been well publicized. But the minefield Ginsburg refers to extends well beyond traditional “social issues.” Religious Right leaders have been working hard to convince conservative evangelicals that the Tea Party’s anti-government, anti-union, anti-welfare agenda is grounded in the Bible – an effort that started well before the Tea Party arrived on the scene.
David Barton is an influential Republican activist and “historian” who helped write the GOP’s national platform in 2012. Barton’s “Christian nation” approach to history has been denounced by historians and scholars, including some who are themselves evangelical Christians, but it is embraced by conservative politicians who extol a divinely inspired American exceptionalism. Barton teaches that Jesus and the Bible are opposed to progressive taxation, minimum wage laws, collective bargaining, and “socialist union kind of stuff.”
In addition, “mainstream” Religious Right leaders and conservative politicians are increasingly allied with a group of Pentecostal leaders who promote a “dominionist” theology that says God requires the right kind of Christians to take dominion over every aspect of society, including the business world. Many of them were sponsors of, and participants in, the prayer rally that Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to launch his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign.
Thanks to previous Supreme Court decisions, alluded to and affirmed by Alito’s majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, the Court has for now seemingly closed the door to companies making a religious challenge to paying Social Security and federal income taxes based on their objection to a particular government program funded with those taxes. But the same might not be true for more targeted taxes and fees, or for laws regulating company behavior or the relationships between companies and their employees.
Opposition to unions has deep roots in Christian Reconstructionism, which has influenced the Religious Right’s ideology and political agenda. An early Christian Coalition Leadership manual, co-authored by Republican operative Ralph Reed in 1990, is a stunning example. A section titled “God’s Delegated Authority in the World” argues that “God established His pattern for work as well as in the family and in the church.” It cites four Bible passages instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters, including this one:
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.
The conclusion to be drawn from these slaves-obey-your-masters passages?
Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man.
More recently, Religious Right leaders have cheered on corporate-funded attacks on unions in Wisconsin and Michigan. Does the Hobby Lobby ruling open another front in the right-wing war on workers? It is not uncommon for companies to refuse to cooperate with union organizers or negotiate with a properly organized union. Imagine that a business owner objects to a National Labor Relations Board finding that they have violated the National Labor Relations Act by arguing in federal court that their company’s religious beliefs prohibit them from dealing with unions?
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Since long before the Hobby Lobby case created an open invitation to business owners to raise religious objections to bargaining with unions, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has encouraged workers to raise religious objections to requirements that they join or financially support a union. Here’s an excerpt from their pamphlet, “Union Dues and Religious Do Nots.”
To determine whether your beliefs are religious instead of political or philosophical, ask yourself whether your beliefs are based upon your obligations to God. Do you simply dislike unions or hate this particular union’s politics? Or, does your desire to stand apart from the union arise from your relationship to God? If your beliefs arise from your decision to obey God, they are religious.
It is possible that conservative courts may not give the same weight to religious claims about anti-gay discrimination or the Bible’s opposition to unions or minimum wage laws as they did to Hobby Lobby’s anti-contraception claims. Those claims were based on the owners’ belief – one that runs counter to medical scientific consensus – that some of the most effective forms of birth control work by causing abortions, and are therefore the moral equivalent of murder.
But as Justice Ginsburg pointed out, it is not clear how courts will differentiate between different types of claims. And it will be easier for claims to meet the new, lower threshold created by the Court in effectively altering the “substantial burden” test.
As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, rather than having to show that a person’s, or corporation’s, practice of religion has been burdened, they simply need to show that a law is “incompatible with” the person’s religious beliefs. Additionally, it seems that a wide array of regulations, conceivably including minimum wage laws, could be threatened by Alito’s reliance on the idea that having the government pay for the cost of implementing a regulation is less restrictive than having the company bear the cost of a regulation it objects to.
It is also not clear that the decision will remain “limited” to the 90 percent of American companies that qualify as closely held, which employ more than half of the nation’s workforce. The Court explicitly acknowledged the possibility that publicly traded corporations could raise such claims, but argued that it would be “unlikely.” But in this new world in which corporate religious claims can be made against government regulation, what is to prevent the CEO or board of a publicly traded organization from finding religion with regard to, say, greenhouse gas emissions?
The Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, promoted by the anti-environmentalist Cornwall Alliance, declares as a matter of faith that earth’s ecosystem is not fragile and that efforts to reduce global warming, like regulating the emission of carbon dioxide, are not only “fruitless” and “harmful” but would discourage economic growth and therefore violate Biblical requirements to protect the poor from harm.
Justice Alito’s opinion rejects Justice Ginsburg’s characterization of the ruling’s “startling breadth.” But it is undeniable that the Court majority has opened the door to owners of for-profit corporations making an array of claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Justice Ginsburg writes in her dissent, “Little doubt that RFRA claims will proliferate, for the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood—combined with its other errors in construing RFRA—invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.” For today’s right-wing leaders, who claim religious grounding for just about every aspect of their political ideology, there aren’t many forms of regulation that would be off-limits.