Democracy and Voting

  • April 18, 2014

    TPM’s Brendan James notes a recent study from Princeton on the state of American democracy. “The central point that emerges from our research,” the study’s authors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page write, “is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

    The U.S. Department of Justice is requesting that Texas legislators provide documents that "may shed light on the state’s motivation for enacting the 2011 congressional redistricting plans.” Writing for Legal Times, Todd Ruger discusses Perez v. Perry, an on-going case that has the DOJ addressing the “gutted key provision of the voting rights law” in Texas.

    Mississippi recently passed religious freedom legislation that allows businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples. Now, more than 500 businesses are joining together to make it clear that their doors are open to everyone. Adam Serwer at MSNBC reports on the “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling Campaign.”

    At SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston breaks down SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories and its implications on the “constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage.”

  • April 15, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel-Washington Office, The Brennan Center for Justice

    The right to vote is at the heart of our American Democracy. Political participation by citizens is the great equalizer – it is the one thing that allows all Americans, no matter how powerful or weak, to make decisions about who will lead and who will help to advance their interests and protect their families. On April 10, Congress took an important step towards ensuring that this crucial right becomes available to even more Americans. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the bi-cameral Democracy Restoration Act (DRA). This important legislation would restore the right to vote in federal elections to the previously incarcerated immediately after their incarceration period is complete. Doing so would enable these individuals to resume the right and responsibility inherent in our role as Americans – asserting our voice through the ballot box.

    The DRA was first introduced in 2009 by former Sen. Russell Feingold. Previously, the bill received strong support, but never quite enough to become a reality. This time, however, is different. There is an enthusiastic and bi-partisan movement underway to reform those parts of our criminal justice system that do not work.  We can see this at the national as well as the state level:  Congress is considering reforming the federal sentencing structure to make sentences fairer in an effort to help eliminate mass incarceration; the Department of Justice has instituted a "Smart on Crime" initiative that would result in better decision-making by prosecutors; and several states, most notably Kentucky, are considering legislation that would restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated in its state prisons. Other states have also made significant changes to their laws to open up the franchise to the formerly incarcerated, most notably in Delaware, and Virginia – a state that had previously been cited as having one of the most draconian felon disfranchisement laws on the books. So the moment to finally restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, who have paid their debts for their crimes, is now.

    Unlike other attempts to restore voting rights, the DRA is the most comprehensive effort. Under the legislation, once an individual has completed his or her incarceration period, their right to vote in federal elections will be automatically restored.  Individuals will not be limited because of any ancillary issues related to their incarceration such as outstanding fees and fines or the fact that they have been released from prison but remain on probation. This is a significant feature of the DRA.

  • April 15, 2014
    At The Daily BeastGeoffrey R. Stone—former ACS Board Chair and current Co-Chair of the Board of Advisors for the ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter as well as Co-Faculty Advisor for the University of Chicago Law School ACS Student Chapterexplains why “the press isn’t free if it has fear of prosecution for leaks” and why “it’s time to give reporters the same type of privilege attorneys and doctors have.”
     
    A growing trend of private probation companies is influencing our court and prison systems. Implemented now in ten states, these companies provide an inexpensive means for courts to ensure that fines are paid. However, in what is referred to as the “debtor’s prison,” many of today’s poor are being jailed because they can’t afford to pay their fines. PBS NewsHour reports on this controversial phenomenon which is proving how “without funds to pay fines, minor incidents can mean jail time.” 
     
    Calls for an investigation into the leak of a classified Senate report on torture to McClatchy newspapers continue. The leak came after Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) accused the Central Intelligence Agency of illegally searching her committee’s computers. Adam Serwer at MSNBC  has the story.
     
    Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic explains why President Obama is right to speak out on voter suppression, “but he needs to preach to someone other than the converted.”
     
    At Roll Call’s Hawkings Here, David Hawking discusses Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus and whether lying in political campaigns is unconstitutional. 
  • April 4, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Georgina Yeomans, 2L, Columbia Law School
     
    I am very concerned about the Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, though perhaps not for the reasons you’d think. I will leave it to others to be concerned that the Court is moving toward a system in which the richest among us have significantly louder political speech than the rest of the country; I won’t even lament the irony of the Chief Justice’s opening line acknowledging that “[t]here is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” when juxtaposed with the Shelby County opinion from last term. I won’t comment, as Ari Berman eloquently has in The Nation, on the Court’s disturbing trend toward “More Money, Less Voting.” My concern right now is more selfish—I’m concerned because I’m a second year law student, exams are a few weeks away, and the Chief Justice has fundamentally confounded my understanding of stare decisis.
     
    In McCutcheon, the Court struck down aggregate spending limits imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). This is a conclusion that would seem to require overruling the Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo upholding that very same provision. And yet the Court did not go through the “prudential and pragmatic considerations” announced in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, when deciding whether to overrule precedent. In Casey, in which the Court refused to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Court stressed the importance of precedent in our Constitutional system: “Indeed, the very concept of the rule of law under our own Constitution requires such continuity over time that a respect for precedent is, by definition, indispensable.” And yet we see none of this respect for continuity or the rule of law in the Chief Justice’s decision to override the aggregate limit holding in Buckley.
     
    Instead, the Court notes that Buckley’s holding on the issue was only three sentences long, was not “‘separately addressed at length by the parties,’” and thus “does not control here.” The Chief Justice points to two other cases in which the Court has not felt bound by what the Chief basically characterizes as sloppy decision-making: Toucey v. New York Life Ins. Co and Hohn v. United States. Yet both of those cases dealt with procedural issues that the Court stressed did not alter primary conduct—a situation thought by some to carry less precedential weight. McCutcheon’s invalidation of aggregate political contribution limits will undoubtedly alter primary conduct and thus deserves more precedential respect.
     
  • April 4, 2014
    Guest Post
     
    Goldfish have a reputation for short memories. Once around the bowl and the goldfish forgets where he has been. The Supreme Court is behaving like goldfish when it comes to campaign finance law. Not only are they forgetting precedent from decades ago, they can’t even recall cases from the beginning of the Roberts Court—a mere eight years ago.
     
    On Wednesday, April 2, the Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. FEC ruled 5-4 (natch, since all big campaign finance cases of late are 5-4) that federal aggregate contribution limits are unconstitutional. This trashes the current limit of $123,200 and replaces it with a figure north of $3 million every two years for the very well-heeled, who can afford such extravagant sums.
     
    To get this result in McCutcheon, the Supreme Court overruled part of the seminal Buckley v. Valeo case from 1976 for the first time. Buckley has been at issue in many cases including one from first term of the Roberts Court called Randall v. Sorrell. You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of this particular case. Randall was a big deal for campaign finance nerds, but it was met with a yawn by the general public as it essentially reaffirmed Buckley from thirty years before.
     
    Randall was a conscious progressive test case of Buckley’s basic structure, which has generated a cottage industry of criticism ever since it was originally decided per curiam in the mid-1970s. Buckley ruled that campaign expenditures could not be limited, but campaign contributions could. This left federal candidates with a bottomless demand for campaign cash and a limited supply. Hence, this case is blamed for the endless treadmill of dialing for dollars for candidates for Congress and the Presidency.