Economic Inequality

  • May 3, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Last month, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.) reintroduced the Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013 to address the problems plaguing the indigent defense system which have left the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright increasingly hollow for the poorest people in our society. The act would require states to use existing federal funds to improve the administration of criminal justice in a comprehensive, strategic way, and to collaborate with the Department of Justice and local authorities to devise a plan for adequately addressing indigent defense needs. If states refuse to comply then the Department of Jusice would have the power to take them to court to make sure that they are meeting their constitutional obligations.

    But Leahy’s bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to address budget-related failings in our criminal justice system. With sequestration at the federal level, and years of budget cutbacks at the state level, we’re now to the point where years of political indifference to funding the judicial branch has affected the basic operation of the courts and the services that we expect them to provide.

    This is a crisis that’s reached such endemic proportions that Chief Justice John Roberts made it a focus of last year’s state of the judiciary report, where he made the case that the federal courts were already being as cost-effective as they could possibly be, and warned that “significant and prolonged shortfall[s] in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve.”

    That scenario is already playing out in state and local courts across the country.

    The effect of over a billion dollars of cuts in the last four years has been nothing short of devastating to the Los Angeles Superior Court system. Court officials plan to shutter a dozen courthouses and make an indeterminate number of staff layoffs. The only thing these courthouses will be used for now is for collecting traffic fines and administrative functions. The actual business of dispensing justice will be triaged at the remaining courthouses in the county, “where certain types of cases are heard at each remaining courthouse.”

  • 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 15, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite the lofty rhetoric to the contrary, the Obama administration has failed to help the scores of Americans thrown out of their homes because of rampant foreclosure fraud. The administration instead chose to try to put a sheen of due diligence on a federal effort to get to the bottom of what David Dayen for Salon calls “the largest consumer fraud in the history of the United States.”

    With the nation’s economy still hobbled by high unemployment and a growing gap between the superwealthy and everyone else, the U.S. Treasury Department recently revealed a pathetic settlement with some of the shady bankers behind the criminal foreclosure schemes that fails to provide little if any help to the millions of victims of the tawdry financial machinations. Part of the problem, as Dayen reports, centers on the fact that the federal government allowed consultants hired by banks to conduct so-called independent reviews of millions of foreclosures. The consultants, Dayen continues, made millions and only completed a tiny portion of “independent reviews” requested by scores of aggrieved homeowners. When the Treasury settled with the bankers it announced the “vast majority" of borrowers  – 3.4 million -- will receive paltry sums, like $300 or less.

    But the Treasury Department’s Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) likely didn’t expect U.S. Senators to dig much into the obviously overblown and flawed review of the millions of foreclosure victims. And they likely were not expecting Elizabeth Warren, one of the nation’s most recognizable and passionate spokespersons on behalf of the middle class, to be holding a U.S. Senate seat and a committee position to zero in on their woefully or intentionally inept handling of the foreclosure crisis. 

    But last week, Sen. Warren (D-Mass.), former Harvard Law School Professor, longtime consumer rights advocate and driving force behind the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau did just that. And it was not the first time the senator has used her platform to highlight the federal government’s bungling of the foreclosure crisis. Last week, as TPM’s Sahil Kapur reported Warren has in just a few months in the Senate “seized opportunities to highlight questionable banking practices an ostensibly lax regulatory response, a chamber frequently criticized for its coziness with Wall Street.”

    During a subcommittee hearing Warren, who as Dayen notes has “a grass-roots army of enthusiastic supporters” and “makes headlines crossing the street,” blasted the OCC regulators for “withholding information they said they possessed about improper foreclosures or other abusive financial practices from victims of those practices seeking recourse in court,” Kapur reported.

    The regulators told Warren they had not made a decision about what information they will make public about criminal foreclosures.

    “So you have made a decision to protect the banks but not a decision to tell the families who were illegally foreclosed against?” Warren asked the regulators.

  • April 9, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Pushing back against Republican-led efforts in Congress to greatly hobble the National Labor Relations Board, President Obama is urging swift confirmation of three individuals to the five-member board.

    Senate Republicans have strived to keep the president from filling vacancies on the NLRB, which is charged with protecting workers’ rights. The NLRB must have three members to take any action and two of the current members were appointed via the recess appointments process, which a federal appeals court earlier this year said was done in an unconstitutional manner. This week the Republican-led House of Representatives is considering a measure that would shutter the NLRB until it has three members it considers legitimate. Republican senators have sought to keep a pro-corporate tilt to the NLRB or make it inoperative.

    In January 2012, Obama appointed Richard Griffin and Sharon Block to the NLRB during a congressional break. But then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the president’s recess appointments violated the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. The ruling in Canning v. NLRB has been widely blasted as running counter to federal court precedent upholding recess appointments and more than a century of recess appointments made by other presidents. The NLRB has said it will appeal the D.C. Circuit’s opinion to the Supreme Court. Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe in a column for The New York Times argued that Obama’s recess appointments passed constitutional muster, saying the Constitution clearly reserves “the authority the president needs to carry out his basic duties ….”

    The president, however, is seeking to keep the NLRB alive during the appeals process. Obama re-nominated NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce, a Democrat, and two Republicans, Harry I. Johnson III and Philip A. Miscimarra, The Associated Press reports. Earlier this year, Obama nominated Democrats Block and Griffin to full terms on the NLRB.

    In announcing today’s nominees, Obama noted that the NLRB “plays a vital role in our efforts to grow the economy and strengthen the middle class. With these nominations there will be five nominees to the NLRB, both Republicans and Democrats, awaiting Senate confirmation. I urge the Senate to confirm them swiftly so that this bipartisan board can continue its important work on behalf of the American people.”  

    AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka lauded the president’s action saying, “For America’s workers, business and the promotion of healthy commerce, putting forward a full, bipartisan package of nominees to the NLRB is the right thing to do.”

    Although the nominees include two who do not share the AFL-CIO’s staunch support of workers’ rights, Trumka said the “labor movement understands that when the NLRB is not at full strength and cannot enforce its orders, America’s economy falls out of balance, as it is today with record inequality and a shrinking middle class.”

  • April 1, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    NPR recently aired a sobering account of the state of Social Security Disability Insurance (Disability) a government program that provides 14 million Americans with a sustenance income,while providing them no real means of addressing their physical or mental affliction or economic poverty. In fact, less than one percent of people ever transition from Disability into the world of work with all of its attendant benefits, like raises, meaningfulness, social contact, etc., meager as those may be with some jobs. Most people simply die while on Disability or lurch onto regular Social Security, the government social insurance program that provides benefits to the elderly.

    In the severely depressed labor market of the Great Recession, which itself greatly favors information-centric skills, many older workers with little education who have been laid off from manufacturing jobs feel that going on to disability is a better choice for making it to retirement than spending their last few years in a menial job where they have to stand all day. But, it’s not just former blue collar workers in the Mississippi valley and Pacific Northwest that are going on disability. In cities across the country, entire families subsist off of the disability check they receive because they have a child with a learning disability.

    It’s a system that is riddled with perverse incentives. If a child on disability starts to succeed in school that actually threatens the family’s livelihood. So, it’s actually in the best interests of the family financially if a child continues to struggle in school. Unlike Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare), if a beneficiary starts to work, they aren’t eased off of the program – they face a real risk of immediately losing all of their benefits.