Access to Justice

  • May 2, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has fared increasingly well before the nation’s top court, a trend that does not appear to be dissipating. In fall 2010, the Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) reported that as the Supreme Court became more conservative, the nation’s lobby for corporate interests began to win more and more of its cases.

    In a new report, CAC reveals the Supreme Court continues to hear more cases involving business interests and “that the Chamber continues to win the vast majority of its cases pending before the Roberts Court. Although many of the Chamber’s cases this Term are still pending, it’s already off to a strong start, wining six cases so far and losing only one – a record that’s consistent with (and somewhat stronger than) the Chamber’s overall tally before the Roberts Court to date. Indeed, since John Roberts took over as Chief Justice and Justice Samuel Alito succeeded Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Chamber has prevailed in 69 percent of its cases overall (66 of 95 cases from 2006 – 2013).” [Footnote 2 of the report provides more information about the cases already decided this Term].

    As its initial report showed the Chamber has found more success protecting its interests as the high court has drifted rightward. The business lobby’s win-rate improved during the Rehnquist Court and has climbed since.

    CAC’s report notes the business cases before the high court have been overshadowed by high-profile cases involving equality and voting rights. But as Zachary Roth reports for MSNBC, CAC’s work reveals that an aggressive strategy launched by the Chamber in the ‘70s is paying handsomely.

    Roth notes the Powell memo – written by Lewis Powell Jr. before he was nominated to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon. Powell wrote to the head of the Chamber and warned that an “assault on the enterprise system is broadly based on and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.” His memo went on to blast leftists, students on college campuses and Ralph Nader for advancing the alleged attack on free enterprise and softly chastised business leaders for not responding. Powell then encouraged the Chamber to help organize business interests to fight back.

    CAC highlights this term’s Comcast Corp. v. Behrend opinion, in which the high court’s right-wing justices claimed the class action suit against Comcast was “improperly certified.”

    It’s not the first time the high court’s right-wing bloc has turned to a technicality to dismiss class actions against larger corporations. The opinions in Wal-Mart v. Dukes and AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion were also ones that have helped create a troubling dynamic of a Supreme Court that caters to corporate interests to the great detriment of individuals. Read CAC’s, “Not So Risky Business: The Chamber of Commerce’s Quiet Success Before the Roberts Court – An Early Report for 2012 – 2013.”

  • April 30, 2013
    by Jeremy Leaming
     
    Recent reports about the Guantánamo Bay military prison have documented and confirmed the torture of detainees, and offered new insight into the wobbly legality of military commissions.

    Scores of prisoners remain there and according to a Seton Hall report an elaborate system has been installed to eavesdrop on attorneys meeting with the prisoners, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the military tribunals. The Constitution Project also released an exhaustive report confirming what has been known for years – that torture of prisoners did occur at Guantánamo. Many of the prisoners are on hunger strikes, they see no escape from a place where they are being indefinitely held. “The situation is desperate now,” prisoner Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel wrote in a recent column for The New York Times.
     
    Today, President Obama, during a White House news briefing, said he still would like to see Gitmo shuttered. Obama promised to close the prison during his first term, but failed. Some reporting said the administration did not have much of a strategy in place for closing the prison.
     
    Obama said, “I continue to believe that we need to close Guantánamo. I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep us safe. It is expensive, it is inefficient, it hurts us in terms of our international standing, it lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts, it is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed,” The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly reports.
     
    He continued, “The notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity – even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al Qaeda, we’ve kept pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we’ve transferred detention authority to Afghanistan – the idea that we would still maintain, forever, a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, it’s contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”
     
    The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has long represented some of the prisoners, lauded Obama’s comments, but noted the president should not place the entire onus on Congress to close the prison.
     
    For instance, CCR said that Obama “still has the power to transfer the men right now. He should use the certification/waiver process created by Congress to transfer detainees with the 86 men who have been cleared for release, including our client Djamel Ameziane.”
  • April 29, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A federal judge in Los Angeles took a step recently to bolster the nation’s indigent defense system for some undocumented immigrants. It was an all-too-rare legal action to help the most vulnerable among us, and unlikely to be celebrated by opponents of immigration reform.

    But poverty in this country is not exclusive to documented Americans, neither are basic human rights. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, as Bloomberg reports, moved to address the glaring inequality when she recently ruled that three states must pay for legal counsel for mentally disabled immigrants who are detained for potential deportation.

    Gee said that mentally disabled plaintiffs do not have meaningful access to the legal proceedings against them without counsel. “Plaintiffs’ ability to exercise these rights is hindered by their mental incompetency, and the provision of competent representation able to navigate the proceedings is the only means by which they may invoke these rights,” the judge ruled in José Antonio Franco-González v. Holder.

    As Bloomberg noted, federal agencies took action to ensure the measure would apply nationwide.

    In an April 22 statement, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced “a new nationwide policy for underrepresented immigration detainees with serious mental disorders or conditions that may render them mentally incompetent to represent themselves in immigration proceedings.”  

    In its landmark Gideon v. Wainwright opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a constitutional right, secured by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, to legal representation even if they cannot afford it. During a recent symposium sponsored by the Harvard Law & Policy Review and ACS, UNC Law School Professor Gene Nichol argued that one of the legal system’s greatest failures, which mirror the nation’s overall treatment of the poor, is its ongoing inability to provide the most vulnerable among us competent legal help even in civil matters.

  • April 26, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Plenty of media attention has been justifiably focused on constitutional rights, such as due process and the individual right to bear arms. The Second Amendment has been discussed in the context of debate over compromise gun safety measures in the U.S. Senate and due process concerns were raised by some human rights groups over the federal government’s questioning of the Boston Marathon bombings suspect.

    But one needs to do some digging to find some discussion of the Seventh Amendment, which guarantees the right to jury trials in civil cases. And while it may not appear all that important, and some have even argued that juries needlessly increase the time and cost of taking cases to court, the Seventh Amendment actually ensures some democratic accountability in our courts by ensuring that citizens have a say in administering justice. So, over time, what started as a way to ensure that judges appointed by the King were not overly partial to the Crown, became a way for citizens to hold corporations accountable for wanton wrongdoing.

    So, it was heartening that U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) recently brought some much-needed attention to the Amendment in a speech at the William & Mary Law School, because over the last quarter-century the Supreme Court and Congress have been working together to slowly chip away at our right to a jury trial in civil cases to the point where it’s almost meaningless through a mix of well-intentioned legislation and blatantly pro-business rulings.

  • April 17, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In another victory for corporate interests, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the scope of a 224-year-old law used by human rights groups and lawyers to sue corporations over human rights violations committed overseas.

    The case involved a lawsuit leveled against Royal Dutch Petroleum, which owns Shell Oil, alleging that the company was complicit in the murder and torture of Nigerians opposed to the company’s exploration of the Niger Delta and thereby in violation of the law of nations. The Nigerian government executed many of the activists -- and their families, represented by human rights lawyers, lodged a lawsuit in federal court pursuant to the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). The 1789 federal law states that federal courts can hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

    In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. asked the parties to address, “Whether and under what circumstances the [ATS] allows courts to recognize a cause of action for violations of the law of nations occurring within the territory of a sovereign other than the United States.”

    The question is not, Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “whether petitioners have stated a proper claim under the ATS, but whether a claim may reach conduct occurring in the territory of a foreign sovereign.”

    Roberts, joined by the high court’s other conservatives, maintained that the ATS “covers actions by aliens for violations of the law of nations, but that does not imply extraterritorial reach – such violations affecting aliens can occur either within or outside the United States.”

    The Court’s conservatives concluded the ATS does not reach extraterritoriality claims, in this case.

    “On these facts, all the relevant conduct took place outside the United States,” Roberts wrote. “And even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application. Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices. If Congress were to determine otherwise, a statute more specific than the ATS would be required.”

    The high court’s left-of-center justices “believed that the statute could still be used in some cases,” Robert Barnes reported for The Washington Post.

    Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Barnes highlighted, wrote that the ATS should reach conduct by corporations overseas that “substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest, and that includes a distinct interest in preventing the United States from becoming a safe harbor (free of civil as well as criminal liability) for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind.”