Fair and Just Courts

Supreme Court Won't Hear Abortion Rights Challenge

The Court won't review an Oklahoma court's ruling striking down limitations on how women can use medications to terminate early pregnancies.
PFAW Foundation

New DC Circuit Decision Shows Why GOP Wants to Block New Judges

With starkly political language, the DC Circuit rules that the ACA's contraception coverage provision violates business owners' religious liberty.
PFAW

William Rehnquist, Radical Feminist

Right-wing groups determined to paint D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Nina Pillard as a “scary,” “radical” and “militant” feminist have taken to using an unexpected weapon: a landmark women’s rights decision written by the late conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Ten years ago, the state of Nevada had challenged the Family and Medical Leave Act after a male state employee had tried to take his FMLA-sanctioned leave to care for his ailing wife. Pillard joined with the Bush administration to bring the case, Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, to the Supreme Court and successfully argued that the FMLA should be upheld. 

In his majority opinion in the case, the Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that Congress had been justified in passing the FMLA to combat what he called the “significant” problem of women facing employment discrimination because employers assumed they would have to take more time off than men to care for their families. He wrote:

Stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied men similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees. Those perceptions, in turn, Congress reasoned, lead to subtle discrimination that may be difficult to detect on a case-by-case basis.

In 2011, Pillard cited this passage from Justice Rehnquist in a law review article about the need to break long-held stereotypes about women’s and men’s roles in the home and workplace:

Providing men with family leave, the Hibbs court reasoned, would help to change underlying gendered patterns of family care and thereby help to counteract “a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination” – a cycle that “fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s [lack of] commitment to work and their [lesser] value as employees,” as well as “parallel stereotypes” of men’s overriding workplace commitment that routinely obstruct men’s equal access to family benefits that could encourage them to spend more time parenting. The radical implication of Hibbs is that we cannot end sex discrimination outside the home without changing our beliefs about women’s and men’s differential attachments to family care within it, and we cannot change those beliefs without actually shifting the allocation of care work within the family.

Fast forward to today, when Pillard is one of President Obama’s three nominees to fill vacancies on the influential D.C. Circuit. Right-wing groups, upset by Pillard’s success defending women’s rights in the courts -- she also wrote the legal briefs that convinced the Supreme Court to open the Virginia Military Institute to women – are now looking for any reason to keep her off the court, and have seized on Hibbs.

This summer, the Family Research Council sent out an email to its members attacking Pillard for saying that assumptions about women’s roles in the home present “a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination” – words that were, in fact, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist. The FRC later corrected itself, but the quote was so abhorrent to the far right that it stuck.

On his Crosstalk program yesterday, VCY America host Jim Schneider repeatedly cited the quote in an interview with the National Abstinence Education Association’s Valerie Huber, claiming that Pillard had argued “that in celebrating motherhood, society is creating a ‘self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination.’” Huber, in turn, took that as evidence that Pillard is indeed a “radical feminist.” The quote has also turned up in various conservative outlets.

We have no doubt that the FRC’s original misreading and then VCY’s face-value reading of FRC’s old email were honest mistakes. But this is a revealing game of telephone. The fact that a straight-forward statement about sex discrimination written by one of the most conservative justices in recent history engenders such anger on the Right says much more about those attacking Pillard than it does about their target.

PFAW: Shameful Senate Vote on DC Circuit Shows GOP Scorched-Earth Politics At Its Worst

WASHINGTON – The Senate today failed to overcome a GOP filibuster of the nomination of Patricia Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Millett is the first of President Obama’s three nominees to fill vacancies on the court; Professor Nina Pillard and Judge Robert Wilkins have both been approved by the Judiciary Committee and are awaiting floor votes. Every Republican senator except for Senators Collins and Murkowski voted to continue the filibuster of Millett’s nomination, although none presented any objection to her qualifications or character.

Immediately before rejecting cloture on Millett’s nomination, Senate Republicans also blocked the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The following statement can be attributed to Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way:

Today, we saw Republican scorched-earth politics at its worst.

Patricia Millett is an extraordinarily qualified nominee for an extremely important court, yet Senate Republicans are denying her a confirmation vote simply because she was nominated by President Obama.

The GOP’s unprincipled blockade of D.C. Circuit nominees is unprecedented, and it’s shameful. Instead of giving Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins fair hearings and yes-or-no votes, Republicans are blocking all three just to keep President Obama from fulfilling his Constitutional obligation to fill existing vacancies on the critically important federal courts.

This is the kind of reckless tactic that led to this month’s government shutdown. Unable to win national elections, Republicans are instead attempting to legislate through obstruction. First, they put hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work and threatened to disrupt the world economy in a futile attempt to eliminate a duly enacted law. Now, they’re refusing to fill vacancies on the federal courts because they don’t like the president who’s nominating judges.

Americans see these partisan obstruction tactics for what they are. This is the kind of behavior that has sent public approval of the Republican Party into the gutter, and it is not the kind of move that Americans will forget. We will continue to fight for the confirmation of all three of these highly qualified nominees to this important court.

###

GOP Senators Continue to Pretend the Judicial Conference Doesn't Exist

Senate Republicans ignore the Judicial Conference's admonition not to compare D.C. Circuit case filings to other circuits.
PFAW

More Evidence that the 'Court Efficiency Act' Isn't So Efficient

Unable to come up with any legitimate reason to filibuster President Obama’s three nominees to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Senate Republicans have landed on a not-so-convincing excuse: They claim that the court has too many judges as it is and that it would be wasteful to fill its remaining vacancies.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has even gone so far as to introduce a bill that would permanently reduce the number of seats on the influential court from eleven to eight (the number of active judges currently sitting on the court), thereby preventing President Obama from placing any more nominees on the court. (The president has had one nominee confirmed to the DC Circuit, compared to four nominees under President Bush and eight under President Reagan).

Grassley’s bill would reduce the number of slots on the DC Circuit by three and “reallocate” two of those seats  to circuits that he contends need the judges more.

There are a number of gaping flaws in Grassley’s logic, the first of which is that he and his fellow Republicans were eager to fill the very same DC Circuit seats that they are now trying to eliminate back when President Bush was the one making nominations.

Then, there’s the fact that there seems to be absolutely no basis for reallocating the two D.C. Circuit seats to the Eleventh and Second circuits. The official office that evaluates the needs of federal courts and makes recommendations for adding and removing seats doesn’t include the D.C. Circuit in its recommendations because the court’s caseload is uniquely complex and difficult to compare to that of other courts…and it also hasn’t recommended that the Eleventh or Second circuits get new judges.

This was confirmed by a former Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit whose statement  [see p. 34 of this pdf] was submitted into the Senate record last month confirming that his former court indeed does not need new judges:

Since my appointment to the Eleventh Circuit on October 1, 1990, the judges of our court annually have voted whether or not we should ask Congress to authorize more federal judges.  Each time our court considers the topic, an overwhelming majority of our members have voted “no!” 

Even one of the co-sponsors of the court-rigging bill – Sen. Jeff Sessions – has gone on record saying that the Eleventh and Second Circuits actually don’t need new judgeships.

All of which makes one suspect that of all the goals that Sen. Grassley might have in mind with the Court Efficiency Act, the efficiency of the courts is probably not one of them.

PFAW

Judicial Expert Confirms that D.C. Circuit Caseload Has Not Fallen

The chair of the Judicial Conference's Committee on Judicial Resources debunks the GOP line about the D.C. Circuit's caseload.
PFAW

The Republican Argument For Filibustering DC Circuit Nominees Is Bogus. Here Are The Numbers To Prove It

Republicans' stated reason for threatening filibusters of the D.C. Circuit nominees is bogus.
PFAW

Fact Checker Rewrites History of GOP Obstruction of Judicial Nominees

When Democrats have filed cloture on judicial nominations, it has been a response to unprecedented GOP obstruction.
PFAW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberts Court Not Likely to Help Victims of Human Rights Abuses

Victims of Argentina's "dirty war" may be prevented from suing a corporate giant whose subsidiary collaborated in human rights abuses.
PFAW Foundation

Will the Roberts Court Choke Off Greenhouse Gas Regulations?

The Roberts Court will hear a challenge to the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases from factories and power plants.
PFAW Foundation

What Universe Is the Roberts Court Living In?

In campaign finance, what is obviously corruption to most of us is just business as usual to the Roberts Court.
PFAW Foundation

PFAW Statement on Argument of McCutcheon v. FEC: 'Our Democracy is Not for Sale'

WASHINGTON – As the Supreme Court hears oral arguments today in McCutcheon v. FEC, a campaign finance case in which the Court is determining whether to strike down aggregate limits on contributions to political candidates and committees, People For the American Way’s executive vice president Marge Baker released the following statement:

In 2010, we saw the Supreme Court take aim at our democracy with its decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending in elections. With today’s case, things could get even worse. In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court is considering removing another critical safeguard of our democracy – the caps on how much money an individual can contribute directly to candidates and parties, in total, in each two-year campaign cycle. 

This would be devastating. Millions of dollars being passed from billionaires straight to politicians’ coffers is the opposite of what our democracy needs. At the end of the day, this case comes down to ‘people versus money.’ Allowing the wealthiest donors to pour more money into our system would make it even harder to hear the voices of everyday Americans.  That’s not the kind of democracy our constitution’s authors had in mind; it’s certainly not the kind of democracy Americans want today.

That’s why Americans across the country are speaking out in support of reclaiming our democracy. Sixteen states and more than 500 cities and towns have gone on record in support of amending the constitution to put the power of  our political system back where it belongs – in the hands of the people. Their voices are coming through loud and clear: Our democracy is not for sale.

People For the American Way has been heavily involved in the McCutcheon case. Our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation filed an amicus brief in the case earlier this year and last month released an in-depth edit memo outlining the particulars of this case within the context of the Supreme Court’s past rulings on campaign finance. Today, PFAW is co-hosting a rally outside the Supreme Court, working with activists and organizations representing a wide spectrum of constituencies to speak out in support of protecting the integrity of our democracy.

More information on McCutcheon v. FEC and on PFAW’s involvement in the case is available here: http://www.pfaw.org/issues/government-people/mccutcheon-v-fec

People For the American Way executive vice president Marge Baker is available for interviews with the press.  To arrange an interview, please contact Layne Amerikaner or Miranda Blue at media@pfaw.org / 202-467-4999.

###
 

Watch Out, the Roberts Court is Back in Session

The arch-conservative Roberts Court begins a new term that could affect vast areas of American law.
PFAW Foundation

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.”

###
 

Share this page: Facebook Twitter Digg SU Digg Delicious