Conservatives Define Debate on Supreme Court Pick

Aaron Wiener

So far, conservatives have defined the terms of the debate over the next Supreme Court nominee, while liberals have been left to defend against charges of coded language and hidden agendas.

WASHINGTON — With President Obama’s announcement of his first Supreme Court nominee likely to come as early as this week,
liberals and conservatives jockeying for position in the confirmation
battle have begun to find their roles. So far, it is conservatives who
have generally succeeded in defining the terms of the debate, while
liberals have been left to defend against charges of coded language and
hidden agendas.

After Justice David Souter announced his retirement on May 1, Obama
laid out a broad spectrum of qualities he will seek in his nominee at a press briefing.
Among these were “a sharp and independent mind,” “a record of
excellence and integrity,” “respect for constitutional values” and
“empathy.”

Given this range of terms to work with, conservatives quickly
settled on “empathy” as the one around which to draw the battle lines,
and the others faded from the debate.  (See Sarah Seltzer’s piece on this issue on Rewire.)  Obama did not utter the word
“empathy” without forethought; he had used the term two years earlier as
a senator in discussing Supreme Court nominations. But since his May 1
statement, he has had little control over which of the many criteria he
put forth receive attention and which get shunted aside. Conservatives
saw a potential political advantage in attacking “empathy,” and
liberals have been unable to reframe the debate around other terms that
may be more to their benefit.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) led the charge against “empathy.” “[Obama]
said that a judge has to be a person of empathy,” Hatch said on ABC’s This Week two days after Obama’s statement. “What does that mean? Usually that’s a code word for an activist judge.”

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Since then, Republicans have continued to hammer Obama for his
“empathy” criterion. Former George W. Bush senior adviser Karl Rove called it code
for a “liberal, activist Supreme Court justice,” and John Yoo, Bush’s
head of the Office of Legal Counsel who has since come under scrutiny
for his role in authorizing extreme interrogation techniques, cautioned that
by nominating “a Great Empathizer,” Obama would “give Senate
Republicans yet another opportunity to rally around a unifying issue.”
Yet as conservatives set the rhetorical stage for the confirmation
battle, liberals active in the judicial process are trying, with little
success, to move the debate past “empathy.”

Conservative judicial experts believe the empathy argument is a
political winner for Republicans, and they have shaped their talking
points accordingly. Gary Marx, executive director of the Judicial
Confirmation Network, a conservative organization that promotes “the
confirmation of highly qualified individuals to the Supreme Court of
the United States,” believes that judicial empathy and adherence to the
text of the Constitution are incompatible.

“He said he wants someone who respects the rule of law, and he wants
someone with empathy,” Marx said of Obama. “You can’t have it both
ways, Barack.”

“Conservatives get a little upset when the president uses the word
empathy,” agreed Brian Darling, the director of U.S. Senate relations
at the Heritage Foundation and a former counsel to two Republican
senators. “The word empathy doesn’t show up in the Constitution.”

While progressives involved in the judicial nomination debate
dispute conservatives’ characterization of code words, they appear
reluctant to offer new language to redirect the discussion, instead
reacting with bewilderment and frustration to conservative attacks.

Goodwin Liu, a Berkeley law professor and the chairman of the board
of directors of the American Constitution Society, a liberal legal
organization, expressed surprise at the controversy that “empathy,” a
positive term, has engendered. “I’m a little baffled by that,” he said.
“If it’s a code word, I don’t know what it’s a code word for.”

On another conservative line of attack — judicial activism — liberal experts countered that this label was itself a code.

Bill Yeomans, the legal director of the progressive advocacy group
Alliance for Justice, said that the term judicial activism “is sort of
thrown out unthinkingly” by conservatives who use it as a proxy for a
number of different lines of attack. “It’s a code word,” he said. In
its own right, it “doesn’t really mean anything.”

Liu concurred. “Judicial activism is a result that someone doesn’t like,” he said. “That’s it.”

Yeomans and Liu both argued that if activism is measured by a
departure from precedent, the conservatives on the bench have been more
activist than their liberal counterparts. “By any definition of
judicial activism, I think it’s fair to say that the conservatives have
been the activists over the past ten years or so,” said Liu.

While the liberal experts took issue with the key terms used by
conservatives — or at least their usage of those terms — they shied
away from putting forward new catchwords. “I guess I’d want to get away
from the concept of code words,” said Yeomans. He wants to see the
confirmation hearings focus on intelligence, knowledge of the law, an
open mind and a willingness to follow the facts — a reframing that
would take the game off of the Republicans’ court.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have a number of catch phrases
they want to apply to Supreme Court nominees. “We will continue to be
using the metaphor of the neutral umpire,” said Marx, echoing the
language used by now-Chief Justice John Roberts in his 2005 confirmation hearing. Marx listed two other qualifications a justice should possess: “judicial restraint” and “not legislating from the bench.”

He also pulled out a Biblical reference to make his point. King
Solomon, he said, did not need “empathy” or “compassion” to resolve the
famous baby case. “Was that compassionate?” he asked rhetorically. “No,
it was wisdom.”

Despite their success in determining which terms have come to
dominate the debate, conservatives acknowledge that their purpose may
not be so much to block the confirmation of a justice as to score
political and perhaps fundraising points for future elections.

Marx says that the confirmation debate will have “three huge
implications”: it will educate the American people about the issues,
help them understand Obama’s true political philosophy and set the
stage for the 2010 U.S. Senate campaigns.

According to Darling, the effects of this battle could extend to
2012 as well. “Whoever this nominee’s going to be,” he said, “if the
court moves forward on gay marriage or restricts the Second Amendment
or goes forward with another change that’s unpopular among the American
public… that’s something that will affect the president’s reelection
bid.”

Still, the game is likely to change considerably when Obama
announces his nominee. “To be honest, I think this is all noise,”
Darling conceded. “It will become completely irrelevant when the
nominee is put forth.”

 

For more Supreme Court commentary on Rewire, see:

"Cases the New Supreme Court Justice May Face,"  by Kay Steiger

"As Supreme Court Nomination Speculation Heats Up, Keeping Our Eyes on the Bigger Prize," by Jill Filipovic

"The Empathy Code: Judging, Judgment and the New Supreme Court Justice,"  by Sarah Seltzer

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”

Commentary Law and Policy

Republicans Make History in Obstructing Merrick Garland for Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Merrick Garland is now officially the longest Supreme Court nominee to go without confirmation hearings or a vote in U.S. history.

Merrick Garland, President Obama’s selection to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, now has the dubious distinction of being the longest U.S. Supreme Court nominee ever to go without a vote to confirm or reject his appointment, thanks to Senate Republicans’ refusal to do their jobs.

I can’t say it any differently. This has been an utter, total failure by grown men, and a few women, in the Senate to do the kind of thing they’re supposed to in exchange for getting paid by the rest of us. And after nearly a decade of unprecedented—and I mean unprecedentedobstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees writ large, there’s no flowery language that can capture how our federal courts’ slow burn on the the Republicans’ watch has now caught full fire with the fight over Garland’s nomination.

Instead what we have are dry, hard facts. A century ago, Justice Louis Brandeis was forced to wait 125 days before his confirmation to become the first Jewish justice on the Court. Justice Scalia died on February 13 of this year. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16. Wednesday marked 126 days of zero Senate action on that nomination.

And since Congress is now on recess, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

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It’s not just that the Senate hasn’t held a vote. They have held no hearings. Several senators have refused to meet with Garland. They have taken. No. Action. Not a bit. And here’s the kicker: None of us should be surprised.

President Obama had no sooner walked off the Rose Garden lawn after announcing Garland’s nomination in March than Senate Republicans announced their plan to sit on it until after the presidential election. Eight months away. In November.

Senate Republicans’ objection isn’t to Garland himself. He’s a moderate who has generally received bipartisan praise and support throughout his career and should, on any other day, sail through the confirmation process. As compared with both of President Obama’s other appointments, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Garland is practically a gift to Senate Republicans in all his moderate-aging-white-guy-ness. I mean, who would have thought that of all the nominees Republicans were going to double-down their obstruction efforts on, it would be Justice Dad?

Instead, their objection is to the fact that the democratic process should guarantee they lose control of the Supreme Court. Unless, of course, they can stop that process.

Conservatives have spent decades investing in the federal courts as a partisan tool. They did so by building an infrastructure of sympathetic conservative federal judges through appointments when in executive power, and by blocking liberal attempts to do the same when in the political minority. It’s an investment that has largely paid off. Federal circuit appeals courts like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth issue reliably conservative opinions regularly, thanks to aggressive appointments by conservatives during the Reagan and Bush years.

Meanwhile, thanks to conservative obstruction under Democratic administrations—most egregiously under President Obama—71 district court seats currently sit vacant. Twenty-four of those seats are in jurisdictions considered by the courts themselves to be judicial emergencies: places where the caseload is so great or the seat has remained vacant for so long the court is at risk of no longer functioning.

It’s easy to see why conservatives would want to keep their grip on the federal judiciary given the kinds of issues before it: These are the courts that hear immigration and detention cases, challenges to abortion restrictions, employment discrimination cases, as well as challenges to voting rights restrictions. Just to name a few. But as long as there are no judges, the people being directly affected are left in limbo as their cases drag on and on and on.

Our federal courts of appeals are no better. Nine federal appellate seats sit vacant, five in jurisdictions deemed judicial emergencies.

These vacancies have nominees. Senate Republicans just refuse to confirm them.

And no, the other side doesn’t do this. Federal judgeships have always been political. But never have the Democrats used the judiciary as a blatantly partisan extension of their elected members.

The refusal to vote on Garland’s nomination is the most visible example of the conservatives’ drive to maintain control over the federal courts, but it’s hardly their most blatant display of sheer partisanship. I’m guessing that is yet to come when, should they lose the presidential election, Senate Republicans face the choice of quickly confirming Garland or continuing their stand-off indefinitely. And given what we’ve seen of the election cycle so far, do we really think Senate Republicans are going to suddenly grow up and do their jobs? I hate to say it, folks, but Merrick Garland isn’t getting confirmed anytime soon.