Analysis Law and Policy

A Mitt Romney Presidency Could Mean a Hostile Takeover Of The Federal Courts

Jessica Mason Pieklo

With a federal judicary already in crisis, a Mitt Romney presidency could spell the end of the federal judiciary as we know it.

As it stands the state of the federal judiciary is one of crisis. More than 160 million Americans live in a community with a federal court vacancy. Additional funding cuts threaten to shut down courts or suspend trials in some areas which means individual seeking justice for claims must wait longer, if they have access to the courts at all. Judicial vacancies not only stress the functioning of the federal judiciary, they threaten the ideological stability as well. A significant reason the federal judiciary is chronically understaffed is because Congressional Republicans refuse to act on nominees out of partisan and ideological spite. The result is a federal bench significantly lacking in any diversity rendering judgments over an increasingly diverse population. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? It is, and if Mitt Romney wins the presidency, it will only get worse.

Early in his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, Romney developed a reputation as a man with an eye toward good governance and transparency. His early judicial appointments reflected a wide array of ideologies and experiences and Romney even undertook more substantive structural reforms to combat the practice and perception of political cronyism in judicial nominations.

But it quickly became clear that in order to advance his political career Romney would have to embrace a harder-line conservatism in both ideology and approach to the courts. Chronicles of Romney’s political evolution from moderate to hard-right plutocrat are not difficult to come by, but it is his approach to the courts, their independence and their function that deserves much closer scrutiny. And that scrutiny shouldn’t be limited to simply the kind of judges a President Romney would appoint to the federal bench, but how his administration would help or hinder the function of the courts in its entirety.

If Romney’s early judicial selections as governor of Massachusetts illustrate a belief in the necessity of an independent and ideologically diverse judicial system, his later selections show an embrace of rigid conservatism and the benefits of political payback. In Massachusetts Romney went from nominating openly gay judges to beneficiaries of Bain capital and from embracing oversight of the judicial nomination process to openly working against it.

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Fast forward to Romney’s current presidential run. Under any other political climate than the current one, having failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork as a judicial advisor would be considered a political liability at best and the end of any serious presidential wish at worst. After all, Bork’s political and legal career first drew attention back in 1973 when as solicitor general and under direct order from then-President Nixon, he fired Archibald Cox as special prosecutor in the Watergate cover-up. Bork’s views on civil rights, including the idea that because women make up a majority of the population gender discrimination is an impossibility, and his belief that integrating public accommodations under the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an “unsurpassed ugliness,” would eventually go on to shape a belief that the judiciary must bend its will to that of the people unless expressly prohibited by the Constitution.

If that sounds a bit obtuse let’s ground it in the current debate on women’s reproductive rights. At least one sitting U.S. Senator is calling on conservatives to simply ignore the mandates of Roe v. Wade and establish fetal personhood via the 14th Amendment. That call to ignoring the rule of law because it is an affront to the will of the “people” is directly out of the Robert Bork playbook.

Combine Bork’s ultraconservative orthodoxy when it comes to the federal courts, his shared religious conservatism with Romney and add Romney’s deep ties to the private equity world and we could expect most judicial nominations would fit the mold of Samuel Alito – social conservatives with deep and loyal ties to the monied world.

Declaring that a President Romney would appoint staunch conservative judges and practitioners to the federal bench is admittedly not much of a declaration. Place those ultra-conservative justices in a system already structurally strained and stressed from a decade of political attacks and suddenly the federal courts start to look an awful lot like those businesses Romney the private equity baron would take over and kill off.

The obvious problem with that scenario is that we’re talking about the federal courts and not a private company on the verge of bankruptcy and prime for a hostile take-over.

Romney may have started his political career in Massachusetts as an advocate of judicial reform, but he did not end it as one. And with the state of our federal judiciary already in crisis the last thing this country can afford is an administration that drives the law further right while dismantling the courts from within.

Commentary Politics

Is Clinton a Progressive? Not If She Chooses Tim Kaine

Jodi Jacobson

The selection of Tim Kaine as vice president would be the first signal that Hillary Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton has frequently claimed to be a progressive, though she often adds the unnecessary and bewildering caveat that she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” I’ve never been sure what that is supposed to mean, except as a possible prelude to or excuse for giving up progressive values to seal some unknown deal in the future; as a way of excusing herself from fighting for major changes after she is elected; or as a way of saying progressives are only important to her campaign until after they leave the voting booth.

One of the first signals of whether Clinton actually believes in a progressive agenda will be her choice of running mate. Reports are that Sen. Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, is the top choice. The selection of Kaine would be the first signal that Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

We’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed to be a progressive. By virtue of having a vision for and promise of real change in government and society, and by espousing transparency and responsibility, he won by a landslide. In fact, Obama even called on his supporters, including the millions activated by the campaign’s Organizing for Action (OFA), to keep him accountable throughout his term. Immediately after the election, however, “progressives” were out and the right wing of the Democratic party was “in.”

Obama’s cabinet members in both foreign policy and the economy, for example, were drawn from the center and center-right of the party, leaving many progressives, as Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied.” Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, a man with a reputation from the days of Bill Clinton’s White House for a reluctance to move bold policies—lest they upset Wall Street or conservative Democrats—and a deep disdain for progressives. With Emanuel as gatekeeper of policies and Valerie Jarrett consumed with the “Obama Brand” (whatever that is), the White House suddenly saw “progressives” as the problem.

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It became clear that instead of “the change we were hoping for,” Obama had started on an impossible quest to “cooperate” and “compromise” on bad policies with the very party that set out to destroy him before he was even sworn in. Obama and Emanuel preempted efforts to push for a public option for health-care reform, despite very high public support at the time. Likewise, the White House failed to push for other progressive policies that would have been a slam dunk, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a major goal of the labor movement that would have made it easier to enroll workers in unions. With a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, this progressive legislation could easily have passed. Instead, the White House worked to support conservative Democrat then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s efforts to kill it, and even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Arkansas to campaign for her in her run for re-election. She lost anyway.

They also allowed conservatives to shelve plans for an aggressive stimulus package in favor of a much weaker one, for the sole sake of “bipartisanship,” a move that many economists have since criticized for not doing enough.  As I wrote years ago, these decisions were not only deeply disappointing on a fundamental level to those of us who’d put heart and soul into the Obama campaign, but also, I personally believe, one of the main reasons Obama later lost the midterms and had a hard time governing.  He was not elected to implement GOP lite, and there was no “there, there” for the change that was promised. Many people deeply devoted to making this country better for working people became fed up.

Standing up for progressive principles is not so hard, if you actually believe in them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) is a progressive who actually puts her principles into action, like the creation against all odds in 2011 of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, perhaps the single most important progressive achievement of the past 20 years. Among other things, the CFPB  shields consumers from the excesses of mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies that have caused so much economic chaos in the past decade. So unless you are more interested in protecting the status quo than addressing the root causes of the many problems we now face, a progressive politician would want a strong progressive running mate.

By choosing Tim Kaine as her vice president, Clinton will signal that she values progressives in name and vote only.

As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, Kaine is “setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.” Kaine is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement largely negotiated in secret and by corporate lobbyists. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose voters Clinton needs to win over, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren oppose the TPP because, in Warren’s words, it “would tilt the playing field even more in favor of … big multinational corporations and against working families.”

The progressive agenda includes strong emphasis on effective systems of governance and oversight of banks and financial institutions—the actors responsible, as a result of deregulation, for the major financial crises of the past 16 years, costing the United States trillions of dollars and gutting the financial security of many middle-class and low-income people.

As Warren has stated:

Washington turned a blind eye as risks were packaged and re-packaged, magnified, and then sold to unsuspecting pension funds, municipal governments, and many others who believed the markets were honest. Not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy—a crash that the Dallas Fed estimates has cost a collective $14 trillion. The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work. That’s worth repeating: Without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact—clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008. The point is worth repeating because, for too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong. Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.

If Hillary Clinton were actually a progressive, this would be key to her agenda. If so, Tim Kaine would be a curious choice as VP, and a middle finger of sorts to those who support financial regulations. In the past several weeks, Kaine has been publicly advocating for greater deregulation of banks. As Carter reported yesterday, “Kaine signed two letters on Monday urging federal regulators to go easy on banks―one to help big banks dodge risk management rules, and another to help small banks avoid consumer protection standards.”

Kaine is also trying to portray himself as “anti-choice lite.” For example, he recently signed onto the Women’s Health Protection Act. But as we’ve reported, as governor of Virginia, Kaine supported restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which, he claimed in 2008, gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, like many others who let ideology rather than public health guide their policy decisions, Kaine put in place policies that are not supported by the evidence and that make it more difficult for women to gain access to abortion, steps he has not denounced. This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.

While there are many other reasons a Kaine pick would signal a less-than-secure and values-driven Clinton presidency, the fact also stands that he is a white male insider at a time when the rising electorate is decidedly not white and quite clearly looking for strong leadership and meaningful change. Kaine is not the change we seek.

The conventional wisdom these days is that platforms are merely for show and vice presidential picks don’t much matter. I call foul; that’s an absolutely cynical lens through which to view policies. What you say and with whom you affiliate yourself do indeed matter. And if Clinton chooses Kaine, we know from the outset that progressives have a fight on their hands, not only to avoid the election of an unapologetic fascist, but to ensure that the only person claiming the progressive mantle actually means what she says.

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.