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“Hey, Liberals; SCOTUS Ain’t Your Friend”: Conservatives Literally Want To Roll Back The Judicial Clock To 1905

It would be understandable if liberals were feeling kind of relaxed, kind of “Supreme Court, what’s so bad?” over the weekend. John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy delivered for our team on Obamacare, and then Kennedy came through again on same-sex marriage. If this is a conservative court, is getting a liberal one—which will be one of the trump-card arguments for voting for Hillary Clinton next fall—really a matter of such pressing urgency?

Well, yes. As we saw yesterday with the court’s death-penalty and EPA rulings, it’s still a long way from being a liberal court. But there’s more to it than that. People should remember that if a Republican is elected president next year and has the chance to replace Kennedy and/or Ruth Bader Ginsburg with another Samuel Alito, the Obamacare and same-sex marriage standings could easily be reversed. And don’t think there aren’t conservatives out there thinking about it, because there most certainly are, and they literally want to roll back the judicial clock to 1905.

An interesting and important debate opened up over the weekend in conservative legal circles that you should take time to educate yourself about. Many conservatives, of course, are furious with Roberts and Kennedy and are wondering, with conservatives like this, who needs liberals?

The ins and outs of the debate were deftly summarized yesterday by Ian Millhiser of Think Progress. I’m not going to take you as deep into the jurisprudential weeds as Millhiser does, but here’s the basic story. Since the 1980s, “judicial restraint” has been the guiding principle of conservative jurisprudence—the idea that judges shouldn’t make law from the bench but should rule more narrowly and modestly, deferring to the other branches. Roberts was invoking judicial restraint during his confirmation hearings with that famous line about judges just calling “balls and strikes.”

Judicial restraint was appealing to conservatives at the time because to a large extent, majorities of the public shared their views on pressing issues of the day. It was liberals back then who were trying to gain through the courts what they could not accomplish through legislatures and the political process.

But now that reality is to a considerable extent reversed. Public opinion is firmly against conservatives on same-sex marriage, and even on Obamacare, though the law (or the name of the law) remains unpopular, polling before last week’s decision showed that majorities didn’t want the Court to take away people’s health-care subsidies. And besides, Obamacare is after all a law, duly passed by the people’s representatives in Washington.

So now it’s the right trying to achieve through the courts outcomes that it could not through the political process. This is what Roberts in essence said in his majority opinion upholding the health-care law. “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” Roberts wrote. “If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”

All of this takes us back to Lochner v. New York, a 1905 decision that I’m not going to get into here (Millhiser does) but that in essence used the Fourteenth Amendment to extend rights not to individuals but to employers. The decision led to a series of decisions up through the New Deal that invalidated several key pieces of progressive legislation protecting workers and more. The Lochner majority relied on a view of the Fourteenth Amendment that is now discredited—except on the far right.

Which brings us to this past weekend. Conservative Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett wrote a column lambasting judicial restraint, arguing that “selecting judges with the judicial mindset of ‘judicial restraint’ and ‘deference’ to the majoritarian branches leads to the results we witnessed in NFIB [the first upholding of Obamacare back in 2012] and King.” He wants judges who embrace Lochner and who understand the “duty of judges to invalidate unconstitutional law without restraint or deference.”

Barnett specifically cited Clarence Thomas as an example of a judge who has this depth of understanding. And conservative law professor Jonathan Adler, one of the two, ah, creative minds who brought us the bogus King v. Burwell lawsuit in the first place, tweeted over the weekend that if a Republican wins the election next year, he ought to put Utah Senator Mike Lee on the court. As Millhiser notes, Lee is huge Lochner-ian, to the point that he thinks that Social Security, Medicare, and child labor laws are all unconstitutional.

Barnett wrote in his column that there would heretofore be a new standard that conservative legal scholars will demand of Republican presidential nominees. Now, dimwit candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio who yammer on about “judicial restraint” and “deference to the other branches” will be exposed as the traitors in waiting that they are, capable of upholding abominable notions like letting people who love each other get married or giving working-class and poor people a little financial help so they can take their kids to the doctor. Judicial restraint, apparently, breeds certain counter-revolutionary tendencies.

And this, finally, circles us back to the 2016 election and health care and marriage equality. Several legal challenges to Obamacare are still pending. Other inventive approaches no doubt await us. For example, a group of legislators in some red state could sue claiming that as the elected representatives of the people, they were denied by the court their proper deliberative role in the process of deciding how to bring health care to their state. If we get a Republican president and he puts a Barnett/Adler-approved justice on the court, poof, sayonara subsidies.

Same-sex marriage’s majority is even more precarious. For example: A gay plaintiff or plaintiffs could bring some kind of discrimination lawsuit (despite the marriage win, there still are other kinds of discrimination lawsuits on the books). A Lochner-loving majority of five could use that suit as the occasion to say, actually, discrimination here is legal, and while we’re at it, this marriage business…

And mind you, from a legal point of view, this would be legitimate. After all, think of it this way: If Kennedy had retired shortly after Citizens United and Barack Obama had put a liberal on the bench, liberals would have advanced at least one legal vehicle to try to get campaign-spending issues before the Court again hoping for reversal. All’s fair in campaign-finance, health care, love, and bigotry.

Imagine how that would feel—same-sex marriage overturned. Right now it’s hypothetical, but it is a long, long way from impossible. And if the Republican wins in 2016, and if Barnett’s arguments carry the day, we could end up with two or three more Alitos on the bench.

Still feeling relaxed?


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, June 30, 2015

July 1, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, Liberals, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Revival Of 20th Century Lochner”: The Roberts Court Thinks Corporations Have More Rights Than You Do

The Supreme Court of the mid-twentieth century led a First Amendment revolution, turning a rarely enforced constitutional provision into the crown jewel of our Bill of Rights. While these rulings protected the speech of all Americans, they most frequently came in cases involving disfavored or even despised litigants, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Nazi sympathizers. The Roberts Court is leading a free speech revolution of its own, but this time for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy.

This revolution is unfolding across a wide range of First Amendment provisions and doctrines, from Citizens United v. FEC, which protects political speech by corporations to Sorrell v. IMS, which makes it easier for corporations to challenge laws that regulate commercial speech. Today’s bitterly divided rulings in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn continue this trend by turning the First Amendment’s protection for the free exercise of religion and freedom of association into a sword to free corporations and other powerful interests from government regulation. More than the Court’s earlier First Amendment revolution, this series of deeply divided rulings resembles the aggressive, divisive, and now overturned rulings of the Lochner era, named after the infamous 1905 case Lochner v. New York, one of a number of cases in which the Supreme Court of the early twentieth century that struck down laws designed to prevent the exploitation of workers. During this era, the Supreme Court repeatedly expanded the constitutional rights of corporations and other businesses while dismissively treating the government’s interest in economic regulation. Today, we are seeing a revival of Lochner in the name of protecting free speech and free exercise of religion.

This story, of course, begins in earnest with the 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, the case that, perhaps more than any other, defines the Roberts Court. There the Court’s five conservatives united to hold that the Constitution gives corporations the right to spend unlimited sums of money on elections. Corporations cannot vote in elections, run for office, or serve as elected officials, but the Court nevertheless ruled that they can overwhelm the political process by using money generated by special privileges that corporations alone possess. In 2011, the Court continued this corporate-friendly trend in Sorrell v. IMS, holding that forms of market research, such as data mining, are “speech” protected by the First Amendment.

This term, Chief Justice Roberts has opened new fronts in his First Amendment revolution. Prior to 2014, the Supreme Court had never held that a secular, for-profit corporation is entitled to protections for the free exercise of religion and had never struck down a federal law limiting campaign contributions. This year, the conservative Justices did both. In both cases, the Court’s conservative majority built off of Citizens United. In Hobby Lobby, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court held that closely-held, secular, for-profit corporations were entitled to the guarantee of the free exercise of religion, treating corporations simply as the artificial embodiment of its owner or shareholders. Dismissing the fact that corporations cannot pray and have never, in more than two centuries, been conferred with rights of conscience and human dignity, the Court’s conservative bloc concluded that secular for-profit corporations are entitled to a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-sponsored health insurance plans cover the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives. The Court’s opinionthe first in history to require a religious exemption from generally-applicable regulation be given to a commercial enterpriseexalts the rights of corporations over those of individuals, giving corporations the right to impose their owners’ religious beliefs and extinguish the rights of their employees. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg detailed in a powerful dissenting opinion, the majority abandoned constitutional principles and precedent and empowered commercial enterprises to “deny legions of women who do not hold their employees’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.”

While framed as a narrow minimalist ruling, Justice Alito’s opinion in Hobby Lobby is anything but. First, its central holding strongly suggests that all corporationsnot merely those like Hobby Lobby that are closely-heldare entitled to demand religious exemptions from generally-applicable business regulation. Second, its reasoning invites an avalanche of new claims by corporations and others for religious exemptions, making it very difficult for the government to defeat claims for religious exemptions, even when those exemptions extinguish the rights of employees. The Court’s opinion, as Justice Ginsburg explained, opens the floodgates for a number of “me too” religious objections by other companies on matters ranging from anti-discrimination law to other medical procedures such as blood transfusions or vaccinations.

Earlier this term, in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court’s conservatives continued their assault on the nation’s campaign finance laws, striking down the federal aggregate limit that permitted individuals to contribute up to $123,000 to candidates per election cycle and opening the floodgates to the wealthiest Americans to contribute millions of dollars at a time to elect candidates to do their bidding. As in Citizens United, the conservative majority turned a blind eye both to constitutional principle and reality, treating the $123,000 contribution limit as an especially severe burden on freedom of speech and artificially limiting the government interest in ensuring electoral integrity to cases of bribery. To the Founders, preventing corruption of the government was at the core of the Constitution, necessary to ensure, as Madison put it, that government was “dependent on the people alone” and that our system of representative democracy remained “not [for] the rich more than the poor.” Rather than grappling with the government’s authority to ensure electoral integrityan interest deeply rooted in the Constitution’s text and historyChief Justice Roberts caricatured it. While campaign contribution limits still remain, it seems only a matter of time before those too are invalidated by the Roberts’ conservative majority.

Harris, too, represented a fundamental reinterpretation of the First Amendment, striking down an Illinois law that allowed public-sector unions for home health care workers to collect fees from non-union workers to cover the costs of a union’s bargaining activities. In doing so, Justice Alito dismissed a long line of precedents going back nearly 40 years that had upheld precisely these kinds of arrangements, dealing a serious blow to organized labor. In past cases, the Roberts Court has upheld government regulation of employee speech, giving the government broad leeway in choosing how to run a workplace. But, in a stark about face, Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion ratcheted up the First Amendment rights of anti-union employees, powerfully illustrating Adam Liptak’s observation that in the Roberts Court, “[f]ree speech often means speech I agree with.” In a blistering dissent, Justice Elena Kagan argued that the Court’s conservative majority was perverting established First Amendment law, effectively creating a special set of First Amendment principles only for union fee cases.

Justice Alito’s opinion in Harris invites anti-union activists to file a host of new lawsuits aimed at state laws that allow public-sector unions to collect the costs of collective bargaining from union and non-union member alike. Indeed, much of the Harris opinion is devoted to showing why the past precedent in this area is wrong and ought to be overruled. These precedents survive, if at all, by a thread.

Chief Justice John Roberts is known for playing the long game, issuing decisions that, quietly but decisively, move the law to the right. His greatest successes in this area have come in campaign finance cases, where in just a decade, the Court’s opinions have decimated campaign finance law. Today’s decisions in Hobby Lobby and Harris open new avenues for corporate interests looking to attack regulation, and in years to come we are certain to see a host of new challenges to business regulation, all in the name of free speech or free exercise. In the Roberts Court, the First Amendment is a powerful weapon, not for the street corner speaker, but for corporations and wealthy seeking to squelch regulation.


By: David H. Gans, Director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Citizenship Program at Constitutional Accountability Center; The New Republic, July 1, 2014

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, John Roberts, SCOTUS | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Constitutional Excuse For Subverting Democracy”: Just Another Conservative Heads-We-Win-Tails-You-Lose Proposition

To anyone puzzled or confused about the preferred Tea Party self-identification buzzword “constitutional conservative,” George Will has done a fine job in his latest column spelling it all out, by way of touting a new book by Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation. Progressives believe the Constitution provides a process that facilitates democracy. Conservatives understand that it’s a safeguard against the limitation of “natural” rights by democratic majorities.

This sounds reasonable if you accept the rather cartoonish idea that progressives do not acknowledge any limitations on popular majorities, or that the two sides mean roughly the same thing when they talk about individual rights. Here Will is not as forthcoming as he might have been, but his extensive discussion of the alleged incorporation of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution–an invariable touchstone for Constitutional Conservatives–alludes to the common conservative belief that via the Declaration certain divinely granted or naturally endowed “rights”–particularly the untrammeled enjoyment of private property and the “right to life” of zygotes–trump the founding document itself.

You can think of it as a vastly more sweeping conservative version of the “penumbra” theory whereby Justice Douglas identified an implicit “right to privacy” in the Bill of Rights. And indeed, critics of Douglas’ opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut (itself a precedent for Roe v. Wade) have sometimes compared it to the “substantive due process” concept of the Lochner v. New York decision under which progressive social and economic legislation was routinely struck down as violating immutable private property rights until Lochner was overturned in 1937. It’s no accident that Will’s hero Sandefur is a latter-day defender of Lochner.

I’m no constitutional lawyer, and so won’t go into the argument over Lochner (or for that matter, Griswold) in detail, but it’s worth noting the practical effect this idea of supra-constitutional limitations on democratic majorities has on conservative political argumentation. When they aren’t describing America as a “center-right nation” or predicting perpetual Republican electoral landslides, or indulging in a “populist” appeals whereby “real Americans” are told they are being illegitimately outgunned by voter fraud or voter bribery, conservatives are prone to retreat into this impregnable fortress of constitutionalist theory which prohibits as a matter of fundamental law most progressive legislation. This redoubt makes it psychologically very easy to rationalize restrictions on voting, or mendacious campaign ads, or unlimited campaign spending by wealthy individuals, or abuse of the filibuster or other anti-democratic mechanisms. After all, conservatives are simply defending themselves against laws and policies that really ought to be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional–you know, like the Lochner-era courts routinely did with progressive legislation up through the early New Deal.

It’s at bottom just another heads-we-win-tails-you-lose proposition whereby American conservatives tend to support the constitutional arguments that in any given circumstance happen to support their policy goals.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 17, 2014

April 20, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, Democracy | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Discriminator-In-Chief”: CPAC Presidential Straw Poll Picks Guy Who Thinks Whites-Only Lunch Counters Should Be Legal

With 31 percent of the vote, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) won the closely watched Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll this weekend, dwarfing second place finisher Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) 11 percent of the vote.

The son of libertarian icon and former Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), Rand Paul has emerged as the nation’s leading spokesperson for an anti-government philosophy that would undo nearly all the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Civil Rights Era. As a Senate candidate in 2010, Paul came out against the Civil Rights Act of 1964′s bans on private discrimination — including the bans on employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters — claiming that the right of “private ownership” should trump African Americans’ and other minorities’ right to be free from invidious discrimination. Permitting private discrimination, according to Paul, is “the hard part about believing in freedom.”

Nor are Paul’s libertarian views limited to his skepticism towards civil rights protections. In 2013, Paul endorsed a long-ago overruled Supreme Court decision called Lochner v. New York. The Court’s Lochner opinion relied on a fabricated “right to contract” that it and subsequent cases used to strike down various laws protecting workers from exploitative employers — on the idea that if a worker signs a contract that forces them to work 16 hours a day for barely subsistence wages then it would somehow violate the worker’s rights to pay them more money for fewer hours work.

Lochner was overruled in 1937, after the Great Depression discredited the largely libertarian economic policy that had been imposed upon the country by the Supreme Court. And it was, until very recently, viewed as a disastrous opinion even among leading conservatives. Robert Bork, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected by a Senate that deemed him too conservative, labeled Lochner as “the quintessence of judicial usurpation of power.”

Yet, if Rand Paul were elected president, he would have the power to nominate potential Supreme Court justices who would restore Lochner and who would potentially strike down the federal ban on whites-only lunch counters to boot. And this is the man that one of the nation’s top conservative gatherings selected as their first choice to be the next President of the United States.


By: Ian Millhiser, Think Progress, March 8, 2014

March 10, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Rand Paul | , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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