Celebrating Nonsense

Charles Pierce on today’s Supreme Court rulings and the larger American zeitgeist:

We live in the unreality of the moment now. We have tolerated — nay, celebrated — nonsense in our public life for so many years that we are now both its victims and its accomplices. We have detached ourselves from the duties of self-government to the point where the government itself has detached itself from our lives, partly because of the deliberate acts of venal and corrupt men, and partly because we listened to those venal and corrupt men and threw it away ourselves. We think ourselves free when, actually, we have bound ourselves in shackles of apathy and cynicism and childish fantasy. We have accepted fiction as fact because it sells. We are accessorial to the murder of truth.

Blocking the Judiciary

It seems pretty obvious to me that if you are upset or outraged with the ruling this week that the individual mandate in the healthcare bill is unconstitutional – a ruling made by a 20 year GOP activist now sitting for life on the federal bench – then you should care a hell of a lot about the fact that President Obama has about 40 judicial nominees who are awaiting confirmation votes by the Senate. These are not controversial figures. Every single one was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, most unanimously or with only token dissent.

What incentive does Minority Leader McConnell have to let these nominations proceed? Well, none, other than the federal bench is rife with vacancies that are now slowing the wheels of justice around the country. Of course, this will quickly be solved once a Republican again sits in the Oval Office.

Here’s my prediction: while some of these nominees will end up getting a vote, many will not. And the ones that do will tend to be gray-haired judges who don’t have much chance of ever getting a Supreme Court nomination. The Senate Republicans are functionally (and strategically) cutting off the ability of Democrats to grow a liberal bench of judges who can be considered for future Supreme Court vacancies. While I don’t think it’s crucial that nominees to the Supreme Court be members of the federal bench, recent precedent has been dominated by judges. And while there were objections to Harriet Miers for many reasons, I’d expect the hue and cry from the right if a Democrat nominated someone who was not currently a judge to be deafening.

Democrats can’t let Republicans to continue to own a full branch of government. The GOP has spent decades cultivating activist judges, training them, employing them, nominating them, and confirming them. Roberts and Alito are prime examples of how the fruits of their labor have paid off: two corporatist, political, activist justices who will sit on the Supreme Court for another thirty to forty years. It’s time for Democrats to do the same thing: cultivate young attorneys, provide them training and academic opportunity, get them onto the federal bench at a young age and let them grow into future Supreme Court justices. Failure to do so means that we can expect every law of progressive bent signed by President Obama to one day be overturned by the Roberts court.  That’s the game the Republicans are playing and if we don’t start playing it too, America will wind up back in the 1800s.

Packing the Courts

Josh Marshall writes:

A year ago, no one took seriously the idea that a federal health care mandate was unconstitutional. And the idea that buying health care coverage does not amount to “economic activity” seems preposterous on its face. But the decision that just came down from the federal judgment in Virginia — that the federal health care mandate is unconstitutional — is an example that decades of Republicans packing the federal judiciary with activist judges has finally paid off.

While I would find it hard to agree that only just now are Republican efforts to put conservative activists on the bench paying off, Marshall’s point stands. More importantly, it’s obvious that a political faction can pack the courts with activist judges of a particular ideology over a prolonged period of time. This has been a conservative priority for decades and it’s paid off today. It’s a sad statement that the Democratic coalition has ever prioritized the judiciary as much as conservatives have made it a key part of their theory of change in America.

Not Bad, II

Elena Kagan was confirmed to the Supreme Court. That’s two women justices nominated and confirmed by President Obama. Kagan is clearly a mystery as far as how she will actually behave on the bench, so hopefully she turns out to be super liberal and forces everyone to marry a gay man, or something.

Fixed Terms for SCOTUS

Jack Balkin and Matt Yglesias are both talking about the merits of having a fixed term for a Supreme Court justice. Balkin suggests 18 years, Yglesias 9-12 years. I can see this making sense, as it would remove some of the political pressure of justices to, you know, wait until a like-minded President is in office to step aside. It’s a fairly arbitrary way of running a court system and having regular changes would ensure that there isn’t as much of a pressure to outlast any electoral deadlines, only serve your single term on the bench. And as Yglesias points out, it also would allow for the most qualified person, not the most qualified person under 50, to be considered. So much emphasis is now placed on finding a judge who can serve three or even four decades on the bench. It’s that way because of the requirements of the system as it stands now, but it doesn’t really make things any better.

I don’t expect there to be any changes to how the Supreme Court works, but it certainly is interesting to think about better systems than the life-time appointments we currently have.

Three Yards and A Cloud of Dust

Cenky Uygur has a must-read diary up on Daily Kos in which he lays out a very detailed critique of how the Kagan pick is a sign of the failures of the Obama presidency from a progressive perspective. Uygur makes a case that Obama simply isn’t doing enough to counteract the massive strides Bush and Cheney made to make America a more regressive country. He does so using a football analogy, similar to one I’ve been using for the last five  years:

Cheney and Bush moved the ball 80 yards down-field, whether that was on executive power, warrantless wiretapping, pre-emptive wars or just about any other issue you can think of. And Obama’s bold and brilliant response is to move the ball 10 yards in the opposite direction. Not good enough. Not remotely good enough.

The key here is that while the Republicans have made huge strides to unwind a century of government policy, the actions we are seeing from Obama are only small nibbles in the right direction. If this plays out at pace for the duration of the Obama administration, however long that is, then the Republicans will be poised to complete the job with another reactionary president who isn’t afraid to govern from his beliefs. And the consequences of that are terrifying.

Elena Kagan

I’m not a lawyer nor a legal scholar, but I can’t say that I’m excited about Elena Kagan’s pick to replace John Paul Stevens on the US Supreme Court. My biggest concern is that she is being given a lifetime seat – which for someone who is only fifty, could mean thirty years on the bench or more – but there is no clear indication that she is going to be a liberal justice. The composition of the Court is important, as the Bush administration moved the Court far to the right with the appointments of Roberts and Alito. The Obama administration should have attempted to fortify the left flank of the Court and there is not only no indication that Kagan will do that, but that the Obama administration even considers shoring up the liberal side of the Court a goal they seek to achieve with their nominee.

Glenn Greenwald, who has made very persuasive arguments against Kagan’s pick over the last number of months, writes about the failure of Obama to advance a liberal composition on the Court:

The Right appoints people like John Roberts and Sam Alito, with long and clear records of what they believe because they’re eager to publicly defend their judicial philosophy and have the Court reflect their values. Beltway Democrats do the opposite: the last thing they want is to defend what progressives have always claimed is their worldview, either because they fear the debate or because they don’t really believe those things, so the path that enables them to avoid confrontation of ideas is always the most attractive, even if it risks moving the Court to the Right.

Why would the American public possibly embrace a set of beliefs when even its leading advocates are unwilling to publicly defend them and instead seek to avoid that debate at every turn?

As Glenn suggests, this is symptomatic with the larger Beltway Democrat modus operandi of not fighting for things they claim to believe in. Beyond the specific merits of Kagan versus other candidates on the short list, it is incredibly discouraging that the President does not want to have a large national debate about the importance of liberal interpretations of the Constitution and US law.

I expect many Democrats will be strongly behind Kagan because she is the President’s pick. It is a cynical play by Obama, made on the safe bet of Democratic tribalism. Of course, the alternative between tribal positions on the left and those of the right is the establishment of pessimism and ultimately sitting out the fights picked by Beltway Democrats to achieve weak positions or support ciphers in positions of prominence.

Obama & The Judiciary

James Oliphant of the LA Times has a disturbing piece highlighting the slow pace the Obama administration has gone about filling vacancies in the federal judiciary. Republican obstructionism has further slowed the pace of administration nominees reaching the bench. Combined, President Obama has had only minimal impact on the shape of the federal bench and time is running out for that to change, as midterm elections look only likely to decrease the President’s ability to put liberal judges on the courts.

The judiciary is an area where we absolutely needed our 44th President to make a huge stride forward. The Bush administration had tremendous success adding young, ultra-conservative jurists to the federal bench. Only strong efforts by this administration to appoint young, liberal judges can counteract Bush’s move to change the makeup of the federal courts, which according to the LA Times is now made of 60% Republican appointments (seven of the nine the Supreme Court  justices are Republican appointees). A failure for the Obama administration to aggressively try to balance out the makeup of the judiciary will have impact on what America looks like over the next thirty to forty years.

We need President Obama to dramatically move the ball down the field. The lack of progress is truly disheartening, as this is an area where I’d assumed a constitutional law professor would easily see the importance of aggressive action. Instead we see the same lack of willingness to fight – to spend political capital – on ensuring his picks are confirmed as we see elsewhere on labor reform, the rule of law, and key pieces of health care reform.

Justice Stevens

The New York Times has a profile piece of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. It’s worth a read, as Stevens will likely go down as one of the great jurists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The article closes with a line from Stevens’ dissent in Citizens United. The last line, in fact. I went back and looked at the full Stevens’ dissent closing and thought the Times’ reporter actually shortchanged Stevens’ brilliance by taking only the closing line. Here’s a thicker cut:

At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the com­mon sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self­ government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

Citizens United

Well, democracy, such as it is in the US, was nice while it lasted.

The Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court says money is speech and corporations are entitled to free speech under the Constitution. I must have missed that part of the Bill of Rights.

The only real question is why the Court is addressing this particular previously-denied right for corporations. If corporations are people entitled to constitutional rights, how long before corporations are finally granted suffrage rights?

Politics was already corrupted by corporate money before today. The corruption will now be more direct, less opaque, and more omnipresent. Heaven help any elected official who tries to pass legislation that ticks off Exxon, Philip Morris or Blue Cross.