Conservative legal advocates from throughout the country have been quietly pouring money into a Montana state supreme court race, hoping to topple a court majority that has bucked the U.S. Supreme Court on campaign finance issues and could soon have a voice in cases with national implications involving abortion rights and LGBT equality.
The Right’s chosen candidate is Lawrence VanDyke, a former state solicitor general with a perfect pedigree for pro-corporate and Religious Right donors. Not only has VanDyke indicated his support for the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of campaign finance laws and lamented that the current Montana high court is insufficiently “pro-business,” but, in his position as solicitor general, steered the state government toward taking positions against abortion rights, marriage equality and gun restrictions in other states.
What's more, in his writings as a law student, VanDyke was unguarded in his social conservative views, fretting about same-sex marriage, endorsing discredited “ex-gay” therapy and defending the teaching of anti-scientific “Intelligent Design” in public schools.
The Right Sees An Opportunity In Montana
At last month’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, the Family Research Council’s political action committee hosted a private $100-a-head reception featuring conservative luminaries including Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, GOP congressmen Steve King, Vicky Hartzler and Mark Meadows, and congressional candidate Dave Brat of Virginia, who unseated former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in an upset primary election this year.
A flyer for the event announced that along with those national Republican politicians, FRC would be “showcasing a very important State Supreme Court candidate, Lawrence VanDyke of Montana, who we hope can flip the court in that state.”
VanDyke’s presence on the fundraiser’s roster was telling. As FRC’s flyer made clear, a VanDyke victory would change the ideological balance on a court that has been a thorn in the side of opponents of campaign finance reform and could soon be facing nationally watched cases on abortion rights and marriage equality.
VanDyke has not yet submitted a campaign finance report showing how much money, if any, FRC was able to bundle for him at the fundraiser, and his campaign did not respond to our inquiry about whether he was personally present at the Values Voter event. But a review of VanDyke’s campaign finance reports shows that his candidacy has attracted keen interest from out-of-state donors, including some of the country’s leading conservative legal activists.
[UPDATE: VanDyke's Oct. 20 fundraising report revealed some of the contributions from FRC and its allies.]
Since filing for the race to unseat sitting Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat in March, VanDyke has raised about $78,000, more than one-third of which — roughly $29,000 — has come from 114 individual out-of-state donors. By contrast, Wheat has raised just under $85,000 for his reelection bid, only $1,100 of which came from just five out-of-state donors.
Among those who have contributed to VanDyke’s campaign are recognizable names in conservative legal circles. Kelly Shackelford, president of the right-wing legal group Liberty Institute (a major sponsor of the Values Voter Summit) contributed $100, while another top Liberty Institute official, Hiram Sasser, gave $320, the maximum gift allowable as of VanDyke's last fundraising report. Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network and a Harvard Law School classmate of VanDyke’s, and her husband Roger also each maxed out with $320 contributions. Thomas Spence, an official at the conservative Regnery publishing house also sent the maximum contribution to VanDyke’s campaign. Two employees of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom have together contributed $370. Christopher Murray, a lawyer who served on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, also contributed $320.
Nearly $7,000 of VanDyke’s contributions have come from employees of the law firm Gibson Dunn, where Vandyke worked before entering public service. That includes $320 each from Theodore Olson, the conservative attorney argued the Citizens United case (but who has become better known as a marriage equality advocate), and controversial Bush appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada. VanDyke’s campaign also received $320 each from Eugene Scalia — the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a Wall Street reform-buster in his own right — and his wife.
Montana’s Cowgirl Blog notes that prominent Montana social conservatives Greg and Susan Gianforte — who fund creationist efforts and support anti-gay policies — have also each contributed the maximum amount to VanDyke’s campaign. He has also received the maximum contribution from the Montana Gas & Oil PAC and — in the form of an in-kind gift of catering — from the PAC’s treasurer, Dave Galt.
Cowgirl Blog also notes that VanDyke got a major assist last month from a newly created group called Montanans for a Fair Judiciary, which sent a statewide mailer in favor of his candidacy. The group, which was registered last month, is staffed by a former Montana GOP official and a corporate lobbyist for oil and gas clients, among others.
And just last week, a Washington, D.C.-based group called the Republican State Leadership Committee Judicial Fairness Montana PAC — an offshoot a national group funded by big business interests including the Reynolds tobacco company and Koch Industries — bought $110,000 worth of television ads supporting VanDyke and slamming Wheat as soft on crime. The group has also been mailing out leaflets accusing Wheat of siding with “environmental extremists.”
All of this attention from national activists and corporate backers has caught the attention of a group of six retired Montana Supreme Court justices, who signed a letter last week calling VanDyke an “unqualified corporate lawyer,” adding, "Given [his] background, Mr. VanDyke is an excellent corporate pick although that is obviously not good news for Montanans.”
The letter from the judges notes that VanDyke has received the maximum allowable campaign contributions from numerous out-of-state lawyers who represent major corporations, including more than 20 at the Gibson firm - including at least one who represented Citizens United.
"Corporations are buying judicial races because they want judges who will not hold them accountable," the draft letter from the retired justices says. "If the disinformation they are spreading successfully manipulates Montanans into electing an unqualified corporate lawyer, we will lose our fair and impartial court."
‘Changing The Face of the Montana Supreme Court’
While VanDyke’s personal connections seem to behind quite a bit of his financial support from out-of-state conservative leaders, his featured spot at the Values Voter Summit hints that the conservative legal movement and the Religious Right see an opportunity in his candidacy.
Montana conservatives have made no secret of their desire to pack the state Supreme Court with justices in their ideological mold. Last year, the Great Falls Tribune published leaked emails between conservative Republicans in the state senate discussing a “long term strategy” for displacing more moderate Republicans in the state legislature and “changing the face of the Montana Supreme Court.”
One lawmaker wrote of the need to “purge” the party of moderates, after which “a new phoenix will rise from the ashes.”
In 2012, Montana conservatives were able to elect the likeminded Laurie McKinnon to the state Supreme Court thanks in part to a dark money group called the “Montana Growth Network” run by a Republican state senator that spent at least $42,000 on her campaign — more than the candidate spent herself. The “Montanans for a Fair Judiciary” group that has been campaigning for VanDyke is linked to the firm that was employed by the “Montana Growth Network” to boost McKinnon.
National conservative groups have good reason to take an interest in the race as well.
Montana’s Supreme Court gained national attention in 2011 when it bucked the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of campaign finance regulation, ruling that the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United did not invalidate Montana’s century-old ban on corporate spending in elections. The 5-2 decision, in which Justice Wheat joined the majority, openly defied the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling. One of the two dissenting justices wrote that the state court must follow the high court’s precedent but used the opportunity to excoriate the Supreme Court for its Citizens United logic. On appeal, the Supreme Court summarily reversed Montana’s opinion, ending the state’s corporate spending ban.
Montana’s Supreme Court may soon also be in the center of the legal debates on same-sex marriage and abortion rights. State anti-choice groups have indicated that they might challenge Montana’s abortion clinic buffer-zone bill in the wake of the Supreme Court’s striking down of a similar bill in Massachusetts. In addition, marriage equality cases are working their way through both state and federal courts in Montana.
A Movement Candidate
Although Montana’s judicial elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, VanDyke’s resume makes him seemingly a perfect candidate for conservative activists hoping to drag the state's high court to the right. At Harvard Law School, VanDyke was active in the conservative Federalist Society and wrote an article for the school’s law review favorably reviewing a book arguing for allowing public schools to teach anti-scientific Intelligent Design.
In an article for another school publication, VanDyke lamented that courts in Canada had been “forcing same-sex marriage on the populace” and warned of a “trend of intolerance towards religion as homosexual ‘rights’ become legally entrenched.” In the same article, he cited a study supporting debunked “ex-gay” therapy to support the “view that homosexuals can leave the homosexual lifestyle.” (The author of that study has since recanted.)
After graduating from law school, VanDyke clerked for D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, perhaps the most stridently conservative of that court’s activist pro-corporate wing, known for her extreme opposition to government regulation and her writing of a prequel to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. After a stint at Gibson Dunn, VanDyke became an assistant solicitor general in Texas and was named solicitor general of Montana early last year.
In public statements, VanDyke has indicated that he would have sided with the U.S. Supreme Court on Citizens United, defending the decision in a debate last month. And although his race is officially nonpartisan, VanDyke has made it very clear which side of the aisle he falls on, accusing his opponent of judging “like a liberal Democrat” and being “results-oriented” in his rulings — a loaded accusation favored by conservative activists.
VanDyke has also hinted that he would be more favorable to business interests on the court, touting an endorsement from the Montana Chamber of Commerce and saying, “I don’t think anybody who follows our court thinks it’s a pro-business court.” On his website, he backs efforts to “produce and preserve” natural resources, which he contrasts with his opponent's siding with preservationists in a dispute over drilling gas wells. In September, he spoke at a “Coal Appreciation Day” sponsored by a coal industry group.
VanDyke’s website also touts his support for the death penalty and an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, noting his work as state solicitor general defending a bill that would have invalidated federal firearms regulations on weapons manufactured and kept in Montana. (The law was ultimately struck down in federal court). In that position, VanDyke also pushed for Montana signing on to Alabama briefs in favor of overturning semiautomatic weapon bans in New York and Connecticut. At the time, he bantered over email with Alabama’s solicitor general, Andrew Brasher, about shooting elk with semi-automatic firearms, attaching a picture of himself hunting with “the same gun used by the Navy Seals.”
VanDyke recently announced that he had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
In his role as solicitor general, VanDyke also worked on efforts to oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights, including signing on to amicus briefs filed in other states.
VanDyke, meanwhile, is running on the message that he will follow “the law, not politics” and accusing Justice Wheat of being overly partisan. In the same interview in which he lamented that the current state supreme court was unfavorable to business interests, he said, “I have not promised anybody that I’m going to be a pro-business judge or that I’m going to be a conservative judge...I’m going to be a fair and balanced judge.”
Judicial Elections Draw More And More Big Money
Last year, Justice at Stake reported on the fast increase of spending in judicial elections, leading to judicial races seeming “alarmingly indistinguishable from ordinary political campaigns” and blurring “the boundaries that keep money and political pressure from interfering with the rule of law.”
Part of this increase was attributable to the 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed outside groups to spend unlimited amounts supporting and opposing candidates. In the case of judicial elections, those candidates could be the ones deciding on the future of that very campaign spending.
It’s no wonder that the corporate right and the Religious Right have joined forces to back VanDyke’s candidacy. A little-noticed nonpartisan race in Montana could prove to be an effective long-term investment for a movement that’s trying to solidify a pro-corporate grip on the courts and win back lost legal ground abortion rights and LGBT equality.
This post has been updated to clarify the status of marriage equality cases in Montana.
In an interview with Iowa-based conservative talk show host Steve Deace on Monday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee repeated his recommendation that governors simply ignore the Supreme Court’s decision to let stand lower court rulings legalizing marriage equality in several new states, adding that state governments should have also ignored Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court rulings banning school-sponsored prayer.
When Deace pressed him on the “maelstrom” that would be set off if state governments simply ignored court rulings on marriage, Huckabee responded that it was in fact the courts that have set off a “constitutional crisis” by ruling in favor of marriage equality.
“I look back to 1973,” he said, referring to the year in which Roe v. Wade was decided, “and I’m wondering what would have happened if the two branches of government, the executive and the legislative, simply said, ‘We appreciate your opinion, court, but now if states wish to empower that, I guess they can do so, but until that happens we’re not automatically going to go killing 55 million babies over the next 40 years.’”
In cases such as Roe and rulings in favor of marriage equality and church-state separation, Huckabee said, elected officials should have said, “Well, the courts have spoken and it’s an important voice, but it’s not the voice of God and the Supreme Court isn’t God” and simply ignored the courts’ rulings.
Earlier in the interview, Deace insisted that a drop in support for LGBT rights reported in a recent Pew poll happened because “people are seeing this really isn’t about consensual love…this is really about in the end using the coercive force of government to get you to abandon your own moral conscience.”
Huckabee agreed, adding, “It’s never been an honest situation where those who were advocating the most extreme levels of changing our culture were sincere and straightforward and I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it.”
He added his hope that in reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, “somewhere there will be a governor who will simply say, ‘No, I’m not going to enforce that’” and order county clerks not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Sen. Ted Cruz has spent the past several months railing against a proposed constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and related campaign-finance cases, which would restore to Congress and the states the ability to “set reasonable limits” on election spending.
Cruz has gone into full hyperbole mode over the amendment, claiming that the campaign to narrowly roll back what many legal experts believe is an erroneous interpretation of the First Amendment is in fact an effort to “repeal the First Amendment,” silence pastors and imprison old ladies.
So, of course, it was no surprise at all yesterday to see Cruz himself proposing to amend the Constitution to reverse what he sees as an erroneous interpretation by the courts, this time on the issue of marriage. Roll Call reported on Cruz’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s "tragic" decision yesterday to decline hearing any marriage equality appeals, thus letting same-sex couples in several states get married:
While most Republicans shied away from commenting Monday on the Supreme Court’s historic decision to let stand a slew of lower court rulings legalizing gay marriage, Sen. Ted Cruz torched the court’s decision.
The Texas Republican called the decision “tragic and indefensible” and said he would introduce a constitutional amendment that would ensure states can ban gay marriage.
“By refusing to rule if the States can define marriage, the Supreme Court is abdicating its duty to uphold the Constitution. The fact that the Supreme Court Justices, without providing any explanation whatsoever, have permitted lower courts to strike down so many state marriage laws is astonishing,” he said in a statement.
“It is beyond dispute that when the 14th Amendment was adopted 146 years ago, as a necessary post-Civil War era reform, it was not imagined to also mandate same-sex marriage, but that is what the Supreme Court is implying today. The Court is making the preposterous assumption that the People of the United States somehow silently redefined marriage in 1868 when they ratified the 14th Amendment,” he said.
“Nothing in the text, logic, structure, or original understanding of the 14th Amendment or any other constitutional provision authorizes judges to redefine marriage for the Nation. It is for the elected representatives of the People to make the laws of marriage, acting on the basis of their own constitutional authority, and protecting it, if necessary, from usurpation by the courts.”
For the record, here is the section of the 14th Amendment that courts have been relying on to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Yesterday, People For the American Way members participated in a telebriefing to discuss the Supreme Court’s upcoming term and to preview some of the important cases the Court will be hearing this year. The call was kicked off by PFAW President Michael Keegan and moderated by PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney. PFAW’s Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon reviewed highlights of his recent report previewing the Supreme Court’s upcoming term and answered questions from members. Also on the call and answering questions were Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg and Executive Vice President Marge Baker.
Among the cases Gordon previewed were Young v. UPS, Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, Mach Mining v. EEOC, Holt v. Hobbs, and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama / Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama. The issues addressed in these cases range from employment discrimination and workers’ rights, to religious liberty and voting rights.
He also discussed potential cases that the Court could still add for this term, which included cases on marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, and contraception coverage by religious nonprofits—the “sequels to Hobby Lobby.”
Members’ questions focused on how the country can move forward to change some of the more damaging decisions like Citizens United, and what each person could do to effect change and impact the courts. Emphasizing what is at stake this election, both PFAW President Michael Keegan and Gordon called on people to vote in November because “when you vote … for the Senate, you are voting for the next Supreme Court justice.”
Listen to the full audio of the telebriefing for more information.
A few weeks ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was speaking to students at the University of Minnesota Law School when she made the rather straightforward observation that if 6th Circuit Court of Appeals follows other recent court decisions and strikes down gay marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, then the prospects of the Supreme Court taking up the issue of marriage equality would be less likely in the near term.
The reasoning behind this statement is that if appellate courts consistently strike down such bans, then the Supreme Court will not need to get involved right away whereas, if the 6th Circuit were to uphold such bans, that would create a conflict among recent appellate rulings and so, as Ginsburg said, "there will be some urgency" for the Supreme Court to take up with issue in order to address those conflicting rulings.
There is nothing controversial or improper about this obvious observation, but anti-gay Religious Right groups have seized upon it to launch a campaign demanding that Ginsburg recuse herself from any Supreme Court case involving the issue of marriage equality on the grounds that she has violated the Judicial Code of Conduct by "making public comment on the merits of a pending or impending action."
As Liberty Counsel, which first launched this effort, declared:
“In casting a vote publicly before the case is even heard, Justice Ginsburg has violated the Judicial Code of Conduct,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “It is now her duty to recuse herself from cases involving same-sex marriage.”
According to Canon 2 of the Judicial Code of Conduct, “A judicial employee should not lend the prestige of the office to advance or to appear to advance the private interests of others.”
Canon 3(D) declares, “A judicial employee should avoid making public comment on the merits of a pending or impending action.”
“Justice Ginsburg’s comments implied that the merits of the state constitutional amendments defining marriage as one man and one woman were such that the Supreme Court would have to overturn them with haste, if upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals,” said Staver. “This is an inappropriate comment for any judicial employee, much less a Supreme Court Justice!”
The call has since been echoed by the Foundation for Moral Law, Faith 2 Action, and the American Family Association, where Bryan Fischer and former Liberty Counsel attorney Steve Crampton recently discussed the need for right-wing activists to "beat on our pots" in order to create so much political pressure on Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan that they have no choice but to recuse themselves from any such cases.
In fact, just yesterday, Fischer wrote a column arguing that Ginsburg and Kagan would be "committing a federal crime" if they did not recuse themselves:
The Supreme Court will, perhaps even in this session, take up the issue of sodomy-based marriage. If it does, justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan will have an obligation to step off the bench for those cases on the grounds that their impartiality has been severely compromised.
Both have performed sodomy-based “wedding” ceremonies. Kagan performed her first one on September 22 of this year, and Ginsburg has done the deed multiple times, including at least one in the Supreme Court building itself. Thus they have clearly tipped their hand by their actions as well as their words. They have publicly demonstrated that their minds are already made up on the issue. It is inconceivable that either of them now would vote against the “marriages” they themselves have solemnized. They would stand self-condemned.
[T]he necessity for Kagan and Ginsburg to recuse is not just a matter of fairness or rightness. It’s also a matter of law. They have a statutory obligation to recuse. If they refuse to step off the bench when and if marriage cases come before them, they would be breaking federal law. They would be, from a strictly legal standpoint, committing a federal crime. Their sacred responsibility is to uphold the law, not break it.
So it was with great interest that we read this article in The Washington Times yesterday reporting on remarks made by Justice Antonin Scalia at Colorado Christian University in which he stated that the separation of church and state is "utterly absurd" and the idea that the government must remain neutral on the issue of religion is "just a lie":
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said Wednesday that secularists are wrong when they argue the Constitution requires religious references to be banished from the public square.
Justice Scalia, part of the court’s conservative wing, was preaching to the choir when he told the audience at Colorado Christian University that a battle is underway over whether to allow religion in public life, from referencing God in the Pledge of Allegiance to holding prayers before city hall meetings.
“I think the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over nonreligion,” Justice Scalia said.
“That’s a possible way to run a political system. The Europeans run it that way,” Justice Scalia said. “And if the American people want to do it, I suppose they can enact that by statute. But to say that’s what the Constitution requires is utterly absurd.”
“We do him [God] honor in our pledge of allegiance, in all our public ceremonies,” Justice Scalia said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It is in the best of American traditions, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I think we have to fight that tendency of the secularists to impose it on all of us through the Constitution.”
The biggest danger lies with judges who interpret the Constitution as a malleable document that changes with the times, he said.
“Our [the court‘s] latest take on the subject, which is quite different from previous takes, is that the state must be neutral, not only between religions, but between religion and nonreligion,” Justice Scalia said. “That’s just a lie. Where do you get the notion that this is all unconstitutional? You can only believe that if you believe in a morphing Constitution.”
Given that Scalia was very clearly "making public comment" in a way that directly relates to a whole host of church-state separation questions that could potentially come before the Supreme Court at any time, we trust that these Religious Right groups will now demand that he recuse himself from any such cases as well, right?
To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People For the American Way
Date: September 25, 2014
Subject: PFAW Foundation’s Supreme Court 2014-2015 Term Preview
The beginning of a new Supreme Court term has become a time to worry, “What’s next?” In the past two terms alone, often in 5-4 decisions, the Roberts Court has severely undermined the Voting Rights Act, continued its assault on the American people’s efforts to limit money in politics, strengthened the hand of employers who discriminate, significantly eroded church-state separation, discovered religious rights for for-profit corporations seeking to deny female employees needed contraception coverage, undercut unions, and found ways to help large corporations bypass laws designed to limit their power over small businesses and ordinary people.
As bad as the Roberts Court has been, there have also been some good decisions in the most recent terms. For instance, the Court struck down the odious Defense of Marriage Act, upheld the EPA's general authority to issue regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and unanimously recognized our Fourth Amendment right to privacy concerning our smart phones.
The 2014-2015 Term is set to begin on October 6, the traditional First Monday in October, and the Court will be hearing a number of important cases. At the same time, perhaps half the cases it will hear this term have not been determined or announced, and there is substantial speculation on whether it will hear cases on several high-profile issues, marriage equality most prominent among them. Below is a summary of some of the major cases the Court may hear this term, along with cases already scheduled that we will be following.
CASES THAT THE COURT MIGHT HEAR
If the Court accepts a marriage equality case, it will obviously become the blockbuster case of the term (and perhaps the decade). The Court has already been asked to hear appeals of pro-equality rulings by three circuit courts: From the Tenth Circuit are Herbert v. Kitchen (Utah) and Smith v. Bishop (Oklahoma). From the Fourth Circuit are Rainey v. Bostic, Schaefer v. Bostic, and McQuigg v. Bostic (all Virginia). From the Seventh Circuit are Bogan v. Baskin (Indiana) and Walker v. Wolf (Wisconsin). While states and government officials who lost in the lower courts are filing the appeals, the couples who won the cases are also urging the Court to hear the appeals, so there can finally be a national resolution to the issue.
Should one of the remaining circuit courts uphold a state marriage ban, the resulting split among circuits on such a major constitutional issue would almost guarantee review by the Supreme Court. But if every circuit continues to rule the same way, the Justices might decide to let the issue be resolved there.
Conservatives like Scalia and Thomas, who have in case after case shown their hostility to LGBT equality but may be unsure of how Kennedy would vote, might not be willing to risk a Supreme Court precedent that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. From their perspective, if they can’t change the outcome around the country, why make it worse by adding a jurisprudential nightmare from the nation’s highest court that would taint American law for decades to come?
For Justices likely to recognize the constitutional right to marriage equality, the calculation might be different. They, too, not knowing Kennedy’s position, might not want to risk a 5-4 ruling in the “wrong” direction on a major constitutional and societal issue. But even if they could be certain of being in the majority, they might find advantages to having the Court stay out. Justice Ginsburg, for instance, has suggested publicly that Roe v. Wade went “too far, too fast,” provoking a backlash that could otherwise have been avoided. If the legal question of marriage equality is being decided rightly in all the circuit courts, some Justices might rather leave well enough alone. In fact, Justice Ginsburg told a group of law students in mid-September that without a circuit split, she saw “no urgency” for the Court to take up the issue now, although she added that she expects the Court to take it up “sooner or later.”
Should the Court grant cert on one or more of the appeals, it could answer a number of critically important questions in addition to whether states can prohibit same-sex couples from marrying.
Exactly which constitutional right do the bans violate? While numerous courts have ruled in favor of same-sex couples, they have been anything but unanimous in their reasoning: Some have suggested that the bans violate the Due Process Clause, because the longstanding, fundamental right to marry includes the right to marry someone of the same sex. Other judges indicate that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they deny the right to marry based on the sex of the people seeking to get married. Still others suggest that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they discriminate against gays and lesbians. While the different legal rationales would all have the same immediate result (marriage equality), they could create very different legal precedents and have very different impacts down the line as lower courts consider other types of discrimination, whether aimed at gays and lesbians, at transgender people, or at others.
A Supreme Court ruling might decide what level of scrutiny the Equal Protection Clause requires for laws that discriminate against gay people, an issue not squarely faced in previous cases. Most government classifications are subject to – and easily pass – “rational basis” scrutiny by the courts: The law is constitutional as long as it’s rationally related to some legitimate government interest. (The Court has said that animus against gays and lesbians is not a legitimate purpose, which in the past has let it bypass the question as to whether anti-gay laws warrant more scrutiny from the courts.)
But a few types of laws trigger heightened Equal Protection scrutiny. Sex-based classifications are subject to intermediate scrutiny: They must be substantially related to an important government interest. Race-based classifications are generally subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level: They must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. If the Court rules that laws discriminating against lesbians and gays warrant some level of heightened scrutiny, that would have an enormous impact nationwide on all kinds of laws that discriminate against lesbians and gays, not just marriage bans.
The Court’s discussion of this issue could also shed light on whether eliminating private discrimination against LGBT people is (in the Court’s eyes) a compelling government interest. This could have an enormous impact as courts consider right wing challenges to anti-discrimination laws on the basis of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act or state-law analogs.
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act strategically launched lawsuits in four different circuits challenging federal subsidies for millions of Americans buying health insurance on federally-run exchanges. The circuits were apparently selected to maximize the possibility of a circuit split, which in turn would maximize the likelihood of getting the case heard by the Roberts Court, which (they hope) would deliver a crippling blow to Obamacare. Decisions have been reached in two of the circuits, although one has since been vacated.
Section 1311 of the ACA says states should set up insurance exchanges, while Section 1321 of the Act says the federal government can set one up if a state doesn't. Subsidies are available for less well-off people getting health insurance through an exchange, based on the amount the person pays for the insurance s/he is enrolled in through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. The law’s opponents hope to have the Supreme Court rule that Congress intended for subsidies to be unavailable to Americans purchasing insurance through the federally-established exchanges that the law calls for in cases where the state does not step in. In other words, the argument is that Congress intended to undercut the financial viability of the law and thwart its central purpose.
A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit rejected this wild claim in King v. Burwell. However, two far right judges on the D.C. Circuit formed a majority in a three-judge panel ruling actually agreeing with the Obama care opponents in Halbig v. Burwell. Dissenting Judge Harry Edwards recognized the lawsuit as a “not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” noting that “[i]t is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to crumble.” The full D.C. Circuit subsequently vacated the ruling and will consider the issue en banc, and most observers expect a ruling more like the Fourth Circuit’s.
But even if that happens, there are still lawsuits percolating in Indiana (Seventh Circuit) and Oklahoma (Tenth Circuit), so the hoped-for circuit split may yet occur. If it does, the Roberts Court is almost certain to consider the issue. While the case is transparently political and legally weak, that did not stop the conservative Justices when it came to the Commerce Clause challenge to the individual mandate.
The Roberts Court may hear one or more cases involving religious nonprofits that oppose the ACA’s contraception coverage requirement, in a sequel to Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. In that case, the Roberts Court gave certain for-profit corporations religious liberty rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), then completely rewrote the law to give the chain store the right to “exercise” its religion by refusing to comply with the ACA’s contraception coverage requirement.
Under RFRA, a federal law cannot impose a substantial burden on a person’s religious exercise unless it is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and it is the least restrictive means of doing so. In Hobby Lobby, the Roberts Court concluded that the corporation and its owners suffered a “substantial” burden” on their religious exercise because the owners were offended by the contraception coverage requirement, even though it did not restrict or burden what they may believe or do. The majority also concluded that the law was not the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s interest in women’s health, because the Administration offers religious nonprofits an accommodation: They are exempt if they simply sign a form certifying that they are a religious nonprofit that objects to the provision of contraceptive services, and provide a copy of that form to their insurance issuer or third-party administrator, which then has the responsibility to pay for and provide the coverage. (Churches, in contrast, are wholly exempt.) The Roberts Court concluded that the federal government can make this accommodation available to for-profit corporations, meaning the coverage requirement is not the least restrictive means of achieving the ACA’s goal.
But three days later, the Court issued a temporary injunction against enforcing even this accommodation against Wheaton College, a non-profit religious institution that argued that the accommodation substantially burdens its religious freedom. This prompted a furious dissent from the three women Justices. Although the merits of the case are still being argued before a lower federal court, this was an ominous sign of how the Roberts Court will address the legal question when it inevitably reaches the high court.
Another high-profile case (or one similar to it) that may reach the Court involves Little Sisters of the Poor. This religious nonprofit organization, too, has a religious objection to the accommodation that was designed to meet its religious objections, arguing that the form is like a permission slip that would trigger contraception coverage, making the nuns complicit in sin. However, the Little Sisters’ insurer is classified as a “church plan,” which is actually exempt from the ACA requirement. So regardless of whether the Little Sisters signed the form, their employees would still not have the contraception coverage. Nevertheless, last January, while its RFRA suit against the contraception coverage provision was before the Tenth Circuit (where it is still pending), the Supreme Court enjoined the federal government from enforcing the law until a final resolution on the merits.
It seems likely that there will be a request that this issue be considered by the Supreme Court at some point this term, either through one of these cases or one similar to them.
CASES CURRENTLY BEFORE THE COURT
EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION AND WORKERS’ RIGHTS
The Supreme Court is to decide to what extent employers can treat pregnant workers temporarily unable to work differently from other workers temporarily unable to work.
This case involves Peggy Young, a pregnant employee of UPS with temporary medical restrictions on how much she could safely lift. UPS did not make any accommodations for her, such as temporary alternative work. As a result, she spent several months on unpaid leave, during which she lost her medical coverage.
In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that discriminating against employees who are pregnant was not sex discrimination under Title VII. Congress corrected that interpretation of the law in 1978 with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), which has two relevant provisions. First, it specifies that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
The second provision explains how to apply that general principle: It says that women affected by pregnancy “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.” This establishes a basis of comparison. So while a typical sex discrimination case looks at how a female plaintiff is treated in comparison to similarly situated men, a PDA case looks at how she is treated in comparison to non-pregnant workers with similar ability (or inability) to work.
UPS’s collective bargaining contract calls for UPS to accommodate temporarily disabled employees if the disability is due to an on-the-job injury, or if they have lost their DOT certification to drive. UPS also accommodates employees who have a permanent impairment under the Americans With Disabilities Act. UPS says its policy is “pregnancy-blind:” They claim they are treating Young the same way they’d treat a non-pregnant employee whose injury doesn’t fit any of the above conditions.
But Young argues that isn’t the proper analysis under the PDA. She points out that UPS would have made an accommodation for someone “similar in their ability or inability to work” to her if they were in one of those three categories. So, she concludes, the plain text of the PDA requires UPS to accommodate her, as well.
The Supreme Court is to decide if employers can deny overtime pay to employees at “customer fulfillment” distribution centers for the time they spend waiting for mandatory security screenings.
This is a class-action lawsuit brought by Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro, two former employees of Integrity Staffing Solutions, which provides workers to work in the warehouses of companies like Amazon.com. At the end of the shift, the company requires every employee to go through a security check before they leave the facility to make sure they aren’t stealing the merchandise. The employees wait as long as 25 minutes to be searched. Busk and Castro claim that they should have been paid overtime for this time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as should all current employees, as well.
FLSA requires overtime pay when a covered employee works more than 40 hours in a workweek. In 1947, Congress helped define what counts as “work” by passing the Portal-to-Portal Act (PPA), which says that FLSA’s overtime requirement doesn’t apply to activities that are “preliminary” or “postliminary” to an employee’s primary job responsibilities. In a 1956 case called Steiner v. Mitchell, the Supreme Court interpreted the PPA as requiring overtime only for tasks that are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities for which covered workman are employed.”
Busk and Castro say that any activity required by and beneﬁtting the employer (such as the security searches) are part of the actual job, not “postliminary” to it, so they count as time at work under FLSA and should generate overtime pay. They get support from an amicus brief submitted by the National Employment Lawyers Association, which details how loss-prevention activities have become integrated into the modern retail work routine, making searches like those at issue here part of an employee’s principal activities.
The workers won at the Ninth Circuit, but the court used different reasoning: that the searches are “postliminary” (so the Portal-to-Portal Act applies), but that they are an “integral and indispensable part” of the workers’ principal activities and therefore subject to overtime pay. Integrity (supported by an amicus brief from the Obama Administration) asserts that the searches are “postliminary” to work, are not an “integral and indispensable part” of the employees’ principal activities and, therefore, don’t trigger the overtime requirement.
Part of the company’s argument seems to be a results-based pitch to a corporate-friendly Court: In its certiorari petition urging the Justices to hear its appeal, Integrity Staffing wrote that since the Ninth Circuit ruling, “plaintiffs’ lawyers have brought nationwide class actions against a number of major employers—including Apple, Amazon.com, and CVS—seeking back pay (plus overtime and penalties) for time spent in security screenings.” Notice that it isn’t employees who are suing, but “plaintiffs’ lawyers,” a framing that is red meat for right-wing ideologues. This argument also seems to have less to do with discerning congressional intent and more to do with protecting large corporations.
The Supreme Court is to decide if employers can escape liability for illegal discrimination by arguing that the EEOC failed to make a sufficiently good-faith attempt to reach a settlement with the employer.
Mach Mining has never hired a woman for a mining position. A woman who had been turned down several times for a coal mining job filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a step that Title VII requires before filing a lawsuit. EEOC looked into the allegation, found it had merit, and – again, as required by Title VII – sought to negotiate an end to the alleged sex discrimination “by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion” before suing. After several months without success, the EEOC notified the company that it felt further efforts would be futile and initiated a lawsuit. Mach Mining says the case should be dismissed on the grounds that the EEOC didn’t make a good-faith conciliation effort. In response, the EEOC says Title VII doesn’t allow such a defense.
While several other circuits have ruled otherwise, the Seventh Circuit in this case concluded that Title VII cannot be interpreted to allow courts to inquire into the adequacy of the EEOC’s conciliation efforts. For one thing, Title VII has no express provision for an affirmative defense based on a defect in the EEOC’s conciliation’s efforts. It also calls for the EEOC to “endeavor” to end the discrimination through “informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion.” If it can’t reach a result “acceptable to the Commission,” it can sue. The Seventh Circuit interpreted this as giving the EEOC great deference.
The court also noted that Title VII makes the process confidential, with penalties for making the information public without the consent of everyone concerned. That could prevent the EEOC from showing the court the evidence that it had sought to conciliate in good faith. It seems unlikely that Congress wrote Title VII to require the EEOC to defend its conciliation efforts in court but made its ability to do so dependent on the permission of the employer being sued. The court also concluded that there would be no meaningful standard of review. For instance, just how hard should the agency pursue an agreement?
A Supreme Court ruling for the employer could give employers a significant tool to stymie legitimate lawsuits against unlawful employment discrimination. As the Seventh Circuit wrote:
Simply put, the conciliation defense tempts employers to turn what was meant to be an informal negotiation into the subject of endless disputes over whether the EEOC did enough before going to court. Such disputes impose significant costs on both sides, as well as on the court, and to what end?
All the employer should legitimately hope to gain is some unspecified quantum of additional efforts at conciliation by the EEOC. The result of such a defense, as we have said in a closely related context, is to “protract and complicate Title VII litigation, and with little or no offsetting benefit.”
The Supreme Court is to address whether a state prison’s prohibiting a Muslim prisoner from growing a half-inch beard violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
This case originated with a handwritten request to the Supreme Court from Gregory Holt (aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad), a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas, to hear his case. He states that his religious beliefs require him to have a beard, and he seeks to grow a half-inch beard. The state Department of Corrections prohibits beards generally, but allows quarter-inch beards grown for medical reasons. Muhammad sees his request as a compromise (since his religious beliefs really would have him grow it much longer) that has been accepted in prisons elsewhere.
Since he is in a state prison, Muhammad’s case is governed by a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. Passed unanimously by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA requires prisons accepting federal funds to give greater religious liberty protections to inmates than is required by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. Similar to the better-known Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was at issue in Hobby Lobby, RLUIPA is triggered when the government imposes a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of a person confined to an institution. When that happens, the action can be upheld only if the government can demonstrate that the burden: “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
The state argues that the no-beard policy furthers the compelling government interests in prison safety and security, and that the proposed half-inch accommodation would not be as effective as the no-beard rule in achieving those purposes. For instance, they provide the opinions of penal experts that prisoners could use the beards to hide contraband, and that escaped prisoners could too easily and quickly change their appearance simply by shaving. Muhammad (now represented by counsel) argues that the lower courts, which ruled against him, did not provide the strict scrutiny of the state’s arguments that is required by RLUIPA.
In Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court significantly rewrote RFRA, watering down the “substantial burden” requirement and applying the religious liberty law to for-profit corporations. Neither factor is relevant to this case, meaning the Court could rule in favor of Muhammad without rewriting the law. But the Roberts Court is known for playing the “long game.” Even if the Court rules unanimously for Muhammad, they may not all agree on the reasoning: The conservatives could write an opinion designed to be cited in future RFRA litigation strengthening the hands of those on the right who would reshape RFRA from a shield against government oppression into a sword.
The Supreme Court is to address whether Alabama engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering when it drew new state House and Senate district lines that channeled large numbers of African Americans into districts that were already majority-minority.
The GOP-controlled Alabama state legislature enacted a redistricting plan that transferred a significant portion of the black population that had previously been in majority-white districts into districts that were already majority-black. In so doing, the legislature was seeking to achieve certain percentages of black voters in the majority-black districts. At issue is whether legislators engaged in an unconstitutional effort to separate voters by race, or whether they followed traditional redistricting criteria in a way that was necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
Due to population shifts, majority-black districts established after the 2000 Census lost population and had to be redrawn after the 2010 Census to bring in new people. In some cases, the population loss was disproportionately white, meaning that a significantly higher percentage of the remaining population was African American than before. In redrawing the lines while keeping the same number of majority-black districts, the legislature made two decisions that led to what some call “bleaching” – drawing lines so that large numbers of African Americans in majority-white districts would be redistricted into supermajority-black districts, and diminishing African Americans’ political influence in much of the state.
First, they chose to reduce the permissible population difference between districts from 10% (the 2000 standard) to 2%. To achieve district populations that close to each other, many more people would have to be drawn into the modified black-majority districts than would otherwise have been necessary. That huge numbers of those people would be blacks removed from majority-white districts was determined by the second decision: Ostensibly to comply with the requirement under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (this was before Shelby County) that new lines not lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise, the African American percentages in the redrawn majority-minority districts should be at least whatever they had become in 2010.
This reapportionment was upheld by a divided three-judge federal district court. The majority concluded that race was not the predominant factor in drawing the redistricting boundaries, so that they need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny as in the 1993 Shaw v. Reno case. The majority also concluded that even if strict scrutiny applied, the legislative boundaries were narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling purpose of compliance with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which applied at the time. The plaintiffs in this case – the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and state Democrats – challenge those conclusions, arguing that legislators had misinterpreted Section 5, that race was impermissibly the overriding criterion used by legislators in drawing lines, and that the redistricting plan violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
FREE SPEECH AND SIGN REGULATIONS
The Supreme Court will hear a church’s Free Speech challenge to city rules regulating the size and placement of various types of signs, which affect the signs it puts up to direct people to its church services.
This case was brought by a small church (25-30 adult members) in Arizona that places signs up to invite people to its weekly services and inform them where they are being held. Good News Church and its pastor Clyde Reed are urging the Court to strike down the town of Gilbert’s sign ordinance, which treats some signs (such as directional signs for events, like a fair or, in this case, a church service) differently from others (like political, real estate, or ideological signs). The different types of signs have different rules on how large they can be, and where and when they can be posted. Good News Church argues the law is an unconstitutional content-based infringement of its First Amendment rights. The lower court had upheld it as content-neutral.
Gilbert regulations generally require a permit before posting a sign, with a number of exceptions that can be posted without a permit. These exceptions (each with specific size, number, and placement rules) include construction signs, open house signs, parking signs, building identification signs, garage sale signs, street address signs, and restaurant menu signs. The church devotes much of its focus to three of the exceptions:
The church has signs in the first category to tell people about their weekly church services in the space they rent. The maximum size is smaller than political and ideological signs, fewer can be posted, and they cannot stay up nearly as long. Represented by the far-right Alliance Defending Freedom, Good News Church argues that the city is violating its First Amendment rights by applying different rules to different types of noncommercial signs based on their content. According to the church, any classification based on what a sign says is content-based and therefore subject to the highest level of scrutiny. And if the law’s purpose is, say, to promote traffic safety or aesthetics, then what difference should it make if the sign is for a church service, political candidate, or particular ideology?
A divided panel of the Ninth Amendment disagreed, ruling against the church. It said the distinctions among different types of signs are content-neutral (and thus subject to a somewhat lower level of scrutiny) because Gilbert’s interests in regulating temporary signs are unrelated to the specific content or message of the sign. Each exemption is based on objective criteria related not to the sign’s message, but to the reason for the exemption (such as need for communication about elections, or the need to let event sponsors inform people how to get to the event).
HOLDING FRAUDULENT CORPORATIONS ACCOUNTABLE
The Court is to decide whether the clock stops on a deadline to sue for securities fraud when someone files a class action suit.
This case relates to a key 1974 precedent called American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, where the Supreme Court ruled that the filing of a class action lawsuit stops the clock (“tolls” in legal parlance) on the statute of limitations on filing federal antitrust claims for all potential members of the class, including those who are not actively involved with or even aware of the class action lawsuit. So if a court then doesn’t certify the class for some reason or dismisses its claims, but makes that decision after the statute of limitations has passed, those who would have been included in the class have not lost their opportunity to have their day in court just because they hadn’t made an individual filing in the case.
The current case relates to the financial meltdown of the 2000s and involves federal laws in the Securities Act of 1933 prohibiting sellers of securities from misleading investors. The law has two key time limits: (1) You generally have one year to file a lawsuit, and that can be a year after the untrue or misleading statement is made or discovered. (2) But there is an additional limit, one that restricts just how long after the fact you have to discover the wrongdoing: “In no event shall any such action be brought … more than three years after the security was bona fide offered to the public [or, depending on which section of the law is involved] more than three years after the sale.” The Second Circuit concluded that the American Pipe rule did not apply to this statute.
One of the great benefits of class action litigation is that it protects the rights of people who cannot afford to themselves engage in litigation and may not even realize they have been wronged. It also vastly enhances our society’s ability to hold large corporations responsible when they violate people’s rights. The rule from American Pipe has served that purpose well. But in other contexts, the Roberts Court has significantly undercut the ability of Americans to utilize class actions to protect their rights. If the Court rules that American Pipe doesn’t apply in the securities fraud context, it will be important to see if its reasoning also undercuts American Pipe as a precedent in other contexts.
The Court is to address what investors need to prove to hold companies accountable for material misstatements in investment material.
When responding to a public offering of company shares, investors may rely on a company’s registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, investors can sue if that statement “contained an untrue statement of a material fact or omitted to state a material fact [that was] necessary to make the statements therein not misleading.” This case asks what investors need to prove if the purportedly “untrue statement” was the company’s opinion that it wasn’t breaking the law.
Omnicare is the nation’s largest provider of pharmaceutical care for the elderly and other residents of long-term care facilities. In Omnicare’s registration statement, it said that “we believe” that its financial relationships with pharmaceutical manufacturers were legal. The investors here claim that some of those deals constituted unlawful kickbacks. The question is whether that allegation is enough to trigger Section 11.
According to Omnicare, for the investors to have a claim under Section 11, they have to allege that Omnicare didn’t believe the statement when it was made. Otherwise, companies could be held liable for statements of opinion that turn out later not to be true. Two circuit courts have taken that view.
But in this case, the Sixth Circuit took a different approach, one that makes it easier for investors to file a Section 11 claim. That court reasoned that Section 11 is a “strict liability” statute where the state of mind of company officials isn’t relevant, so it’s sufficient to allege that the opinion was false, regardless of whether the company knew at the time it was false. That’s the ruling the investors in this case are asking the Supreme Court to uphold.
In an amicus brief, the Obama Administration takes a middle ground, in which the company isn’t held liable only because it expressed an opinion that turned out not to be true. The Administration argues that a statement of opinion is actionable under Section 11 if: (1) the company didn’t believe it at the time (which both parties in this case agree on), or (2) there was no reasonable basis for the opinion at the time, even if it was sincerely held (which Omnicare disagrees with).
Any ruling by the Roberts Court should keep in mind that Congress enacted Section 11 to encourage maximum disclosure by companies making a public offering. After all, people associated with the company know far more about the business than potential investors could ever know, and Section 11 was intended to dissuade corporations from tricking investors.
Just as the Lochner case defined the Supreme Court a century ago as it turned conservative economic policies into constitutional dogma, America finds itself living through the Citizens United era, where the Court again routinely rules in favor of corporate and other powerful interests. By the end of June, we will know if the current term will have been as damaging to Americans’ fundamental rights as recent terms have been.
This is a good day for Americans who care about our federal courts. According to press reports, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has said that Georgia federal district court nominee Mike Boggs lacks majority support on the committee and that he should withdraw. The New York Times calls the nomination "dead."
Federal judicial nominees routinely - and appropriately - assure senators that their personal feelings and political positions will play no role in their judicial decisions. But this particular nominee did exactly the opposite when running for election as a state judge in 2004. That's when then-Rep. Boggs told voters at a judicial candidates' forum, "I am proud of my record. You don't have to guess where I stand - I oppose same-sex marriages. I supported and authored the Child Protection Act to protect children from predators. I have a record that tells you exactly what I stand for."
This connection - that Boggs himself made - between how he would approach judging cases to his views as a legislator on the legal issues that would be before him as a judge, compelled the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine Boggs' legislative record.
And what a disturbing record that was: He sought to amend the state constitution to forever lock gays and lesbians out of the promise of equality and to prohibit the Georgia legislature from ever extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians. He supported anti-choice legislation and even voted for a bill amendment that would have put abortion providers' lives at risk. He voted in support of having the Confederate battle symbol incorporated into the state flag. He sought to use the power of government to promote religion, church-state separation notwithstanding.
Given his 2004 assurance that his legislative record showed how he would rule as a judge, senators could certainly presume that Boggs has a severely cramped view of constitutional Equal Protection, reproductive rights, and church-state separation. LGBT people, religious minorities, African Americans, and women could not be assured that their basic rights would be recognized and fully protected in his courtroom.
To make things worse, his efforts to explain away his record to the Judiciary Committee raised questions about his candor.
For instance, at his hearing, he assured both Senators Mazie Hirono and Chris Coons that statements he made in 2004 while expressing his opposition to marriage equality about "the dangers that we face with respect to activist judges" were views he held as a legislator, not as a judge. Yet he sounded quite different as recently as November 2011, having been a judge for nearly seven years. At that time, Boggs was promoting himself to a different audience, the Judicial Nominating Commission of Georgia, which was considering recommending to the governor his appointment as a state appeals court judge. When asked then how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the legal system, Boggs cited as the problem "judges who abrogated their constitutionally created authority" and "judicial decisions that have ignored and violated the basic tenets of the judiciary."
At his Senate confirmation hearings just a few years later, Sen. Coons asked Boggs to name three or four examples of cases that he'd had in mind when he expressed those concerns in 2011. Boggs admitted that as a legislator in 2004, he considered cases recognizing marriage equality as a state constitutional right as fitting this category, but didn't say what cases he'd had in mind in 2011. In her written follow-up questions, Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Boggs if he could name any decisions that he believed abrogated the judiciary's constitutionally created authority (using his words). He responded that he could not recall any cases that he had been thinking of at the time.
Yeah, right. Based on what Boggs told the state Commission, he viewed this as extremely serious, going to the very legitimacy of the courts. Yet just a few years later, even after being given additional time to think about it, he could not recall even one case that he'd had in mind. One could be forgiven for believing instead that he actually had in mind the same cases he'd referred to in 2004, and that he was telling the commissioners - and ultimately, Georgia's governor - what he thought they wanted to hear.
His efforts to explain away his votes endangering abortion providers and supporting the Confederate battle symbol were equally not believable, and apparently they were not believed by a majority of committee members. Good for them.
Boggs' disturbing record showed he was unqualified for the federal bench. Today's news shows that a majority of the Judiciary Committee agrees.
To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel
Re: Striking Progress on Judicial Nominations
Date: September 22, 2014
So far, 2014 has been a banner year for effectively pushing back against the Republican obstruction of judicial nominees that we have seen since the moment Barack Obama took office. The past few months have shown just how much progress America can make in ending the deliberate sabotage of the third branch of government so that our nation’s federal court system can do what the Founders intended it to do: Protect every person’s rights and ensure that everyone can have their day in court.
Since the day that George W. Bush left office, Republicans have sought to leave as many judgeships as possible vacant for as long as possible, apparently in the hopes of maximizing the next (Republican) president’s opportunities to nominate his or her own judges and impose a right-wing ideology on America’s federal courts. With that goal they have simply blocked confirmation votes, regardless of the nominee. The result has been long backlogs in courts across the country and serious delay in providing justice for many Americans.
Under Senate rules, unanimous consent is needed to schedule a confirmation vote for a judicial nominee – something that used to be regularly granted to nominees with strong bipartisan support, as most lower court judges have had. But for the first time, Republicans under President Obama have routinely refused to allow timely votes on nearly every nominee – even the vast majority who have little or no Republican opposition – effectively but invisibly filibustering just about every one of them. Only after months of delay would Republicans finally consent to a vote. In all other cases, the only way to break the logjam has been for Democrats to file a cloture motion to end the filibuster, a burdensome and time-consuming practice, and (until recently) one requiring a supermajority of 60 votes. So for the first five years of the Obama presidency, confirmations were regularly delayed for no reason, usually out of public view, for months longer than necessary. For instance, Richard Taranto was confirmed to the Federal Circuit unanimously, but the Senate was not allowed to hold a vote until 347 days after his committee approval; Republicans never publicly explained why they would not allow him a vote earlier.
Overcoming Obstruction in 2014
This year, things have changed. By late 2013, five years of unprecedented obstruction had climaxed in a declaration by GOP senators that they would filibuster any nominee for the critically important and understaffed District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, no matter who the nominee might be, Senate Democrats concluded that the Senate and the nation would be significantly damaged if this were allowed to continue. The chamber responded to the exceptional obstruction by reforming its procedural rules. Going forward, cloture votes to end filibusters of executive and judicial nominees (with the exception of those to the Supreme Court) would require a majority of senators voting, rather than 60 votes.
Now, when Republicans refuse to consent to a vote, Majority Leader Reid files a cloture petition and sets a vote. Taking advantage of the change in Senate rules, Democrats have been able to defeat the GOP filibusters with a simple majority vote. While Republicans have not consented to even one judicial confirmation vote in 2014, they also have not been able to stop the Senate from voting on any of them. And despite the significant time that Republicans force the Senate to spend on each confirmation – drawn-out roll-call cloture votes, post-cloture time for debate of 30 hours for circuit court nominees and two hours for district court nominees (a debate that usually does not occur despite the time set aside for it), then time-consuming roll-call confirmation votes – Reid and the Democrats have persevered. Rather than wait for months longer than needed after committee approval before having a floor vote, the Senate has been able to act in a more timely – and appropriate – manner.
One of the basic and most important responsibilities of the U.S. Senate under the Constitution is to vote whether to confirm judges and keep the federal judiciary functioning. As of 2014, the Senate has no longer been blocked from doing that.
The figure below shows the dramatic drop in how long the average nominee has had to wait for a confirmation vote after approval by the Judiciary Committee as a result of the rules change:
With the Senate freed to do its job, the number of confirmation votes has grown significantly.
This has ameliorated the intentionally generated vacancy crisis that has hobbled our courts since President Obama took office. There were 54 vacancies when Obama was inaugurated in 2009. With the Senate blocked from holding timely confirmation votes, that number went to historic highs, skyrocketing to 100 by the end of the year. When the 111th Congress ended in December of 2010, Republicans blocked confirmation votes for 19 qualified nominees who had been approved by the Judiciary Committee, the overwhelming majority of whom had been approved unanimously or with almost unanimous support. As a result, 2011 opened with 95 vacancies – and with a needless bottleneck of nominations that delayed confirmation votes for all nominees down the line. With Republicans preventing the Senate from confirming even consensus nominees, it counted as a major accomplishment if the number of vacancies dipped into the low 80s, or even the 70s, as it sometimes did.
As a result, at the beginning of this year, our federal court system was suffering from 92 vacancies. And now? As of September 21, we’re down to 57 circuit and district court vacancies, just a few more than when Obama took office. This is a dramatic and long overdue drop.
Supreme Court and Circuit Courts:
Undoing the Damage of the Bush Years
Our Constitution and our laws protect our right to vote, to have a workplace free of discrimination, to get married, to make our own reproductive decisions, to hold corporations accountable when they unlawfully injure or cheat us, and to have a voice in our democracy. But those rights don’t mean anything if we don’t have effective courts – and judges – to vindicate them when they are impinged.
Knowing the important role federal courts play in shaping our laws and guaranteeing – or frustrating – our basic rights, President Bush and his supporters set out to put as many far right ideologues on the federal appellate courts as possible. The most controversial of his court nominees are busy re-making law across the land.
Most notoriously, John Roberts and Samuel Alito have joined with Reagan and Bush-41 nominees Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy to give hard-right ideologues a frequent 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. They have regularly bent the law and confounded logic in order to rule in favor of the powerful in case after the case, rewriting our Constitution and federal laws. Citizens United, Shelby County, and Hobby Lobby are just a few of the growing number of cases where they have used the federal bench as a platform to transform the country to fit their personal political ideologies, notwithstanding what the Constitution and our laws actually say.
While the Supreme Court is extremely important and well known, it only hears around 75 cases a year. Most Americans in federal courts have their cases decided at the district or circuit level. Circuit court rulings have an enormous impact on the law, and only a tiny portion of them are reconsidered at the Supreme Court. That is why George W. Bush and his partisans spent so much effort to confirm ideologues like Janice Rogers Brown, who now holds a lifetime position on the D.C. Circuit. She wrote a 2012 opinion holding that graphic warnings on cigarette packages violate the tobacco companies’ free speech rights. She joined a 2013 opinion striking down a National Labor Relations Board rule requiring employers to post workers’ legal rights, framing it as “compelled speech” indistinguishable from forcing schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance or requiring drivers to display a political message (Live Free or Die) on their license plates. She even defended the ideology of the discredited Lochner era in a 2012 concurrence, writing that courts’ deference to everyday economic and business regulations “means property is at the mercy of the pillagers.”
In contrast to ideologues like Brown, President Obama has named judges characterized by their fidelity to the Constitution and our laws, and the impact on ordinary Americans has been enormous. For instance, the full D.C. Circuit, which now has four Obama nominees among its eleven active judges, this month vacated a widely criticized panel ruling by two conservative judges striking down a key subsidies provision of the Affordable Care Act. The legal argument against the subsidies has been widely recognized as weak, with a transparently political motive. On the same day of the DC Circuit’s panel ruling, a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit had upheld the law. Obama nominee Andre Davis accurately described what the far right plaintiffs are seeking judicial allies to do:
[They want] our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.
As that one example illustrates, the D.C. Circuit is hardly the only one of our nation’s 13 federal circuit courts that looks very different today from when Bush left office. Where there was then only one circuit with a majority of its active judges nominated by Democratic presidents, today there are nine.
Especially this year, supported by the Senate rules change, progress has been remarkable. The 113th Congress has confirmed 23 circuit court judges. One would have to go back to the 99th Congress in 1985-1986 to see that many circuit court judges confirmed during a single Congress.
The past year has seen the confirmation of nominees like Michelle Friedland (9th Circuit), Pam Harris (4th Circuit), and Nina Pillard (D.C. Circuit), jurists who understand the impact of the law on everyday Americans, who cherish our constitutional principles of equality and liberty, and who don’t see the federal courts as just another part of government that can be used to enhance corporate power.
If the past few months have shown us anything, it is this: Standing up to bullies works. The White House has made judicial nominations that it can be proud of, and Senate Democrats have overcome years of Republican obstruction to get these nominees confirmed. Despite the GOP’s herculean efforts to prevent President Obama from exercising the powers he was elected – and re-elected – to use, he is successfully restoring balance to the nation’s courts. For the first time, the number of courtroom vacancies is close to where it was when Obama took office, and highly qualified jurists are taking their places on our federal circuit and district courts.
And the progress isn’t over. An additional 16 judicial nominees have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee and are currently eligible for a floor vote – a floor vote that could have been held before the Senate left town for the elections. Several more have had hearings and should be ready for consideration by the Committee and the full Senate during the lame duck session that is scheduled to begin on November 12. And the White House just sent additional nominees to the Senate that could easily have hearings and a Committee vote during the lame duck session as well. There is absolutely no excuse for not holding confirmation votes on any of these committee-approved nominees by the end of this Congress.
During the last two years of the Obama Administration and the years that follow, we can be sure of certain things: The courts will remain critically important, and progressives will have to fight hard to protect those courts and keep them functioning effectively, with judges who won’t seek to use their positions to short-circuit our most important rights.
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.