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“Courting Business”: Scalia Worked Hard To Deny Ordinary Citizens Their Day In Court

In Antonin Scalia’s thirty years on the Supreme Court, his name became a byword for social conservatism. And when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate would refuse to consider any replacement President Obama nominates it was natural that opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion were relieved. Yet Scalia’s death will have only a limited impact on the culture wars, because regarding many social issues he was already in the minority on the Court. But there is one area where the question of his replacement has huge consequences: business. As a member of the Court’s conservative majority, Scalia played a key role in moving American law in a more corporate-friendly direction. Now that majority is gone, and a huge amount rides on what happens next.

Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court has not gone as far in limiting government power over the marketplace as many conservatives would have liked. But the Roberts Court has been the most pro-business of any since the Second World War, according to a paper by the law professors Lee Epstein and William Landes and Judge Richard Posner that looked at decisions from 1946 to 2011. Its five sitting conservatives, including Scalia, ranked among the ten most business-friendly Justices of that period. The Roberts Court hasn’t just made a lot of pro-business rulings. It has taken a higher percentage of cases brought by businesses than previous courts, and it has handed down far-reaching decisions that have remade corporate regulation and law. In Citizens United, it famously ruled that corporations had free-speech rights and that many restrictions on corporate spending in elections were therefore unconstitutional. It has overturned long-standing antitrust restrictions. It has limited liability for corporate fraud and made it harder for workers to successfully sue for age and gender discrimination. It has made suing businesses and governments more difficult, especially in class-action suits.

This is no accident. Since the Reagan Administration, Republican Presidents have filled the Court with Justices steeped in the ideology of the conservative legal movement. As Brian Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt who once clerked for Scalia, told me, “Conservative Justices start from a world view that says we have too much litigation in general and it’s a sap on the economy.” Conservative nominees to the Court have been far more worried about government overreach than about corporate misbehavior. They have been skeptical of the use of class-action suits to achieve social goals or enforce regulations. And, once corporations recognized that the Court was predisposed to favor their interests, they began pursuing those interests more aggressively. As the legendary N.Y.U. law professor Arthur R. Miller told me, “The business community smelled blood and went after it.” Most notably, the Chamber of Commerce has become assiduous in pushing corporate cases to the Court.

A few of these cases have received a lot of attention, but the most consequential work of the Roberts Court in protecting corporate rights has been in cases that have gone mostly unnoticed, including a pair (A.T. & T. v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors) in which Scalia wrote the majority opinion. In these cases, both of which turned on an interpretation of a once obscure 1925 law, the Court ruled that companies could require customers to give up their right to sue in open court, with disputes to be settled by a private arbitrator instead. “These cases don’t get people’s attention the way things like abortion and same-sex marriage do,” Miller said. But, if the decisions stand, Fitzpatrick argues, “they have the potential to literally wipe out the class-action lawsuit.”

That might not sound like a bad thing—we’re always hearing that Americans are too litigious—but, in an era when regulators are routinely falling down on the job, lawsuits play a crucial role in deterring corporate misbehavior. Miller calls them a “private enforcement of public policies.” And when it comes to big corporations class-action suits are often the only kind that make any economic sense. If every individual defrauded by a company loses fifty dollars, the collective harm can be immense, but it’s not worthwhile for any single victim or lawyer to bother. Fitzpatrick says that obstacles to filing class-action lawsuits make it more likely that “companies will not be held accountable for hurting people, for cheating people, for defrauding people, for discriminating against people.” In that sense, the battle over access to the courtroom is, as Miller puts it, “a kind of class conflict between ordinary individuals and corporate power.” And in that conflict there’s no question which side Scalia was on.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that his death will change things. But many of the Roberts Court’s most important business cases were decided by a 5–4 margin, with the five conservative Justices voting as a bloc. And, as Fitzpatrick points out, “Scalia has done more than any other justice in making it difficult for consumers and employees to bring class-action suits. So his absence alone may make a difference.” There have already been signs of this: just last week, Dow Chemical settled a major class-action suit, saying that Scalia’s death increased the chances of “unfavorable outcomes for business.” It’s unlikely that Scalia will be replaced anytime soon. But let’s hope that, when a successor is finally appointed, it is someone willing to give ordinary citizens the day in court that Scalia worked so hard to deny them.

 

By: James Surowiecki, Financial Page, The New Yorker, March 7, 2016 Issue; Posted March 1, 2016

March 1, 2016 Posted by | Antonin Scalia, Businesses, Citizens United, Corporations | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Real Mainstay Of The Future Roberts Court”: Samuel Alito, More Than Just A Face In The Conservative Crowd

In an important piece today that’s worth reading and remembering, the New York Times‘ Linda Greenhouse profiles Samuel Alito–beginning his tenth year on the Supreme Court–as the true conservative titan of the U.S. Supreme Court, more so than the unreliable Roberts and Kennedy, the erratic Scalia or the eccentric Thomas.

[T]o the political right, and to a degree that has escaped general attention, Sam Alito is much more than just a face in the conservative crowd. He’s something special. He is a rock star — and not only for his headline appearances at gatherings of the conservative Federalist Society. He is the redemption of the promise that failed a quarter-century ago, when John H. Sununu, chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, assured worried conservatives that the president had selected a hole-in-one Supreme Court nominee: David H. Souter.

Greenhouse does well to remind us of the Souter nomination, a grievous “stab in the back” to conservatives for which the Bush family has been doing penance ever since.

In the November issue of the religious journal First Things, Prof. Michael Stokes Paulsen, describing Justice Alito as the “man of the hour,” accurately labeled him “the most consistent, solid, successful conservative on the court,” adding: “There are louder talkers, flashier stylists, wittier wits, more-poisonous pens, but no one with a more level and solid swing than Justice Samuel Alito….”

He delivers: not only in the big cases, like Hobby Lobby last June, in which he wrote the majority opinion upholding the right of a corporation’s religious owners to an exemption from the federal mandate to include contraception coverage in their employee health plan, but also in less visible moves that don’t get much public attention but that speak powerfully to the base.

It sounds discordant to suggest that a Supreme Court justice has a base, but Sam Alito has one. One of several recent hagiographic articles in the right-wing press was one in the American Spectator back in May, describing Samuel Alito as “one of the noblest men in American public life today.”

Greenhouse goes on at some length to document Alito’s ideological consistency, and also his strategic savvy, particularly in signaling which kind of cases might offer the conservative bloc on the Court to undo some key progressive precedents. Indeed, the more you read about Alito, the more you can see him becoming the fulcrum of a future Roberts Court that’s been supplemented by another conservative appointment or two from a Republican president. He’s only 64, a relative youngster in the SCOTUS context. So he’s biding his time until the Court has been turned crucially in his direction. It’s all a bit chilling.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, January 9, 2015

January 12, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, Samuel Alito, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“From The Roberts Fab Five”: With No Accountability Or Liability, Generic Drug Companies Get Even More Immunity

Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling immunizing drug companies from lawsuit for egregious injuries wasn’t terribly surprising for those who have been following along. Two years ago, in a case called PLIVA v. Mensing, the U.S. Supreme Court held that generic drug companies were largely immune from lawsuits alleging their failure to warn of harmful consequences. On Monday, in a 5-4 ruling along ideological lines, the court extended this holding to apply to other types of claims against generic drug manufacturers, and held that a federal statute precluded suit by a woman who incurred burns on 60 percent of her body and was rendered legally blind by an alleged drug defect.

This ruling was a predictable addition to the line of cases immunizing big business from liability, but it was not an inevitable follow-up to PLIVA. In conjunction with two other rulings Monday that stomped on workplace protections for minorities and women, this decision brings the top corporate lobby’s win rate before the U.S. Supreme Court term to 13-3. With one case remaining in which the Chamber of Commerce weighed in, it is clear that however that final case is decided, big business won very big at the expense of the little guy.

As has been a frequent practice by the Roberts Court, the five-justice majority found that federal law trumped state law protecting patients, over protestations from the four dissenting justices that both federal and state law could co-exist. Interpreting a federal law requirement that generic drug companies simply follow the warnings and design of the brand name drug, the court held that generic companies cannot be held liable for its flaws. This means that a generic company that distributes a dangerous product has no obligation to simply stop selling that drug, and can go on dispensing the potentially dangerous substance with immunity. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent, the court justified its holding through “an implicit and undefended assumption that federal law gives pharmaceutical companies a right to sell a federally approved drug free from common-law liability.”

The majority holding in this case overturned a $21 million verdict — upheld by the appeals court — for the plaintiff’s alleged injuries. Now, the company owes nothing. With 80 percent of U.S. prescriptions filled by generics, this ruling not only wipes away generic manufacturers’ responsibility to halt the sale of dangerous products; it also impacts safety for the great majority of consumers.

According to a Public Citizen report released Monday, much of the safety information about a drug emerges after FDA approval, once the drug enters the market. And it is often not the case that the FDA revisits approval. As Justice Stephen Breyer explains in his dissent, it is “far more common for a manufacturer to stop selling its product voluntarily after the FDA advises the manufacturer that the drug is unsafe and that its risk-benefit profile cannot be adequately addressed through labeling changes or other measures” than for the FDA to formally withdraw approval based on new information.

In the wake of the PLIVA decision, members of Congress had asked FDA to revise its regulations in ways that will now be doubly essential to consumer safety. In the absence of clarity from Congress or the FDA, today’s decision paves the way for a whole lot of malfeasance.

 

By: Nicole Flatow, Think Progress, June 24, 2013

June 26, 2013 Posted by | Big Pharma, SCOTUS | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Inactivity Room”: The Fruitless Search For The Supreme Court’s Rationale

Yesterday, Ben Smith quoted a conservative lawyer offering a way the Supreme Court’s conservative majority may think about striking down the Affordable Care Act. Essentially, this lawyer said, they think that the last 70 years of the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution’s commerce clause, which underlies much of what the modern American government does, is a giant fraud perpetrated by liberals. Even though they know they can’t toss out that last 70 years all at once, they have no problem finding some ridiculous justification for striking down the ACA, no matter whether they really believe it or not. “You have built a fantasy mansion on the Commerce Clause,” the lawyer tells Smith. “You can hardly blame us if, in one wing of this mansion, down a dusty corridor, we build a fantasy room called ‘inactivity,’ lock the door, and don’t let you in.” None of us have any way of knowing if this is what the justices are actually thinking, persuasive as it sounds. But there’s something going on among liberal commentators, both those who think the Court will strike down the ACA and those who think they might uphold it, to try to look through the oral arguments in the case and in recent decisions to determine, not necessarily the outcome of the decision, but the reasoning that might accompany it. This, I fear, is fruitless.

I’ll get to why in a second, but here are a couple of good examples just from yesterday. At TPM, Sahil Kapur looks at Justice Roberts’ concurrence in a recent case to suggest that he may be particularly sensitive to preserving the Court’s integrity and reputation, which could lead him to be reluctant to take such a partisan action as overturning the signature legislation of a president from the other party. Jonathan Bernstein, in a post not far from the position I’m taking, says, “The core problem here is that those who want a pre-New Deal reading of the Commerce Clause and the rest of the Constitution want to impose something that, in practical terms, would be highly unpopular, affecting laws such as the minimum wage. There’s really no easy way to do what conservative judicial activists want to do. And that leaves them with options that are going to look, to most people, very arbitrary.” But I really don’t think they care.

If the Court’s conservatives do strike down the ACA, the reasoning they’ll use to do so is irrelevant. That’s the whole point of having a Court like this one: it’s all about the outcome. Let’s recall the most revealing line in the Bush v. Gore decision: “Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.” In other words, don’t even think about ever trying to use this case as precedent for anything, because we don’t even believe what we’re saying. And the Roberts Court is even more conservative and partisan than the Court that decided Bush v. Gore was. William Rehnquist was replaced by Roberts (not much difference there), and the centrist Sandra Day O’Connor was replaced by the hard-right Samuel Alito. They would be more than happy to hang their invalidation of the ACA on the novel “inactivity” justification, then never consider the rationale again. Imagine there was some future piece of conservative legislation passed by a Republican president and Congress that regulated “inactivity” in some similar way, and liberals sued to overturn it. Is there anyone of any ideology who actually believes the conservatives on this Court would say, “Well, we’ll have to be consistent about this”? Of course they wouldn’t. The outcome is the only thing that matters.

So it isn’t that they’ll build a room called “inactivity” down that dusty corridor and lock the door. It would be more accurate to say that they’ll grab the nearest unlabeled closet and cram the ACA inside, leaving no room for anything else before they shove the door closed and break off the key in the lock. Then they’ll never look at the closet again, unless it serves the purpose of striking down more progressive legislation.

 

By: Paul Waldman, The American Prospect, April 9, 2012

April 10, 2012 Posted by | Health Reform, Supreme Court | , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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