Lyle Denniston

  • June 24, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Republican obstructionists in the Senate have strived to hobble or make wholly inoperative the National Labor Relations Board, which is charged with protecting the rights of workers, including the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. That effort got a boost by the rightward leaning U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ruled earlier this year that President Obama’s recess appointments to the five-member board were unconstitutional.

    Today, the U.S. Supreme Court, an increasingly pro-business Court itself, decided to wade into the issue and determine whether the D.C. Circuit got it right in the case, National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning. “The specific issue is the scope of the Constitution’s grant of presidential power to put an official temporarily into office without Senate approval – a power that arises when the Senate is not on hand to review that appointment,” writes SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston. “Answering that question could require the Court to define when the Senate, in a legal sense, goes into recess.”

    The D.C. Circuit’s opinion in January found that the president ran afoul of Article II, Section 2, which grants the executive the “power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” For more than a hundred years presidents have made recess appointments to fill executive branch and judicial vacancies that Congress has refused to provide advice and consent on. But the D.C. Circuit panel, made up of Republican appointees, narrowly defined when Congress was in recess, thereby invalidating Obama's recess appointments.

    The president, however, argued that the Senate was bent on blocking his nominations to the NLRB and that it was long past time to make the agency operational. Not surprisingly a group of Republicans lodged a brief with the high court calling on it to let the D.C. Circuit opinion stand.

    The Constitutional Accountability Center, however, lodged a brief urging the justices to take the case and reverse. The CAC’s brief says the D.C. Circuit opinion greatly weakened the recess appointments power by claiming it can only be used “during recesses that occur between enumerated sessions of Congress, and not during any intra-session break.”

    Denniston notes that while the justices may focus on the constitutional questions raised in the case, “the outcome has real potential for giving either the Senate of the White House real tactical advantages in the ongoing confirmation wars. It could give a resistant Senate a chance to nearly take away the president’s recess appointment authority, or it could give the White House a way to get around filibuster-driven obstruction of nominees.”

    As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted at the 2013 ACS National Convention, the Supreme Court has grown increasingly friendly to big business concerns, with the Chamber of Commerce continuing to rack up wins before the high court. The Chamber and other business interests will surely be pushing for a Supreme Court opinion that would narrow the scope of the president’s recess appointments power, especially since the case involves a Board it views as a hurdle to their interests.

  • May 20, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    For decades Religious Right activists have cultivated a wobbly narrative, championed by pundits like Bill O’Reilly, of a secular America striving to erase Christianity from the public square.

    These activists, such as the Family Research Council and the American Family Association and televangelists like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, often blamed the Supreme Court for leading the way.

    First, they have argued the Supreme Court yanked prayer and Bible readings from the public schools in the cases Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp. But neither of those cases did such things. Instead the Supreme Court in those cases prohibited organized religion in the public schools. In other words public school teachers and administrators had to stop leading students in religious activities. Those cases did not outlaw prayer or religion in the public schools; they just found that such activities must be truly student initiated.

    There’s also the annual farce dubbed the “war on Christmas,” where, supposedly, secularists roam city halls and public squares demanding the removal of all vestiges of religion. There are also Supreme Court cases involving these clashes between government officials and individuals bent on festooning public spaces with religious and non-religious symbols. The cases can seem a bit absurd, but a takeaway -- if public officials open their public buildings and spaces to say a nativity display they’d better be prepared to open them to displays of other holidays celebrated during the winter and some secular symbols too, like giant candy-canes or snowmen. For too many Religious Right activists, however, it’s not enough to decorate churches and private homes with religious symbols of the holiday season, they must also adorn government buildings with them and if government officials don’t comply they’ll point to a “war on Christmas.”

    Then there are government meetings and activities. From coast to coast there are city and town councils and other government bodies that like to open their public meetings with prayer. The use of prayer in government work has a long history. On the federal level, both chambers of Congress open each day with chaplains providing invocations and a marshal opens Supreme Court sessions, with “Oyez, oyez, God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

    As the nation has evolved, however, and become more diverse, unsurprisingly you’ve had more and more people question the use of prayer during government sessions. And here again, you have a ripe opportunity for Religious Right zealots to complain about attempts to force government officials to either forgo prayer altogether at their official functions or mix it up and include invocations from all kinds of religious groups.

    The Supreme Court has touched upon prayer during government sessions, and today the Roberts Court agreed to consider a case – Town of Greece v. Galloway – that allows the high court to revisit precedent on government and prayer. The case arises from Greece, N.Y. where Christian prayer has frequently been used to open town board meetings. As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak reports the town’s prayer policy has been in place since 1999 and town officials have said that people of all faiths, including atheists, can offer invocations.

  • March 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The U.S. Supreme Court may rule soon on the constitutionality of a race-conscious admissions policy employed by the University of Texas at Austin, but as the AP’s Mark Sherman reports that justices are ready to consider another case involving a race-conscious admissions – this time a state ban on the use of such policies.

    The justices have already heard oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, regarding a white woman’s challenge to the university’s admissions policy, which takes an array of factors, including race, into account when building its student body. SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston notes that while the justices in Fisher could potentially produce a broad ruling, they could as easily craft a narrow one that may “not go much beyond that plan.”

    The Michigan case, Schuette v. Michigan Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, however could prove to be a platform for a more sweeping announcement on race-conscious admissions policies. Denniston writes that the Michigan case “involves a move by a state to deny its public colleges and universities any right to use race as a factor in choosing the incoming class of students. It thus has the potential to produce a far more sweeping decision.”

    As Sherman notes, the Michigan movement to pass a law outlawing race-conscious admissions policy “has its roots” in the high court’s 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger. In Grutter, a majority of the Court led by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor upheld the University of Michigan law school’s race-conscious admissions policy. The majority concluded that the school’s use of race it its admission policy supported a compelling educational interest and did not violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

    After the Grutter opinion, opponents of race-conscious admissions policies formed to advocate for a ballot initiative, Proposal 2, banning the state’s universities and colleges from using such policies. After voters approved the initiative, a group of civil liberties groups, including the NAACP LDF, formed to lodge a lawsuit against Proposal 2. Eventually the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against Proposal 2, saying it subverted equal protection rights.

    LDF’s President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill said today that Michigan’s Proposal 2 “unconstitutionally gerrymanders Michigan’s political process and relegates the critical topics of racial diversity and access to educational opportunity to a separate, distant, and far more cumbersome playing field – one that is unplayable for all practicable purposes.”

    LDF notes Proposal 2 has already led to a decline of minority enrollment, citing a University of Michigan study that shows African-American “undergraduate enrollment fell from 6.7 percent in 2006 to 4.5 percent in 2010.”

    The justices heard oral argument in Fisher last fall.

  • February 28, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Obama administration is weighing in on the constitutional challenge to California’s anti-gay initiative Proposition 8. And like it did in a separate case before the Supreme Court challenging the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the administration is advancing a call for equality.

    The case, Hollingsworth v. Perry is from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which last year invalidated Proposition 8, in part, because it “served no purpose and no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians.”

    The Obama administration had no obligation to weigh in, but did so on the last day to lodge briefs with the high court.

    “California law provides to same-sex couples registered as domestic partners all the legal incidents of marriage, but it nonetheless denies them the designation of marriage allowed to their opposite-sex counterparts. Particularly in those circumstances, the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from marriage does not substantially further any important government interest. Proposition 8 thus violates equal protection,” the administration’s brief states.

    SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston says the administration’s brief “could be read to support a right to marriage equality in every state, but it did not endorse that idea explicitly.”

    Denniston continues, “What the brief endorsed is what has been called the ‘eight-state solution’ – that is, if a state already recognizes for same-sex couples all the privileges and benefits that married couples have (as in the eight states that do so through ‘civil unions’) those states must go the final step and allow those couples to get married. The argument is that it violates the Constitution’s guarantee of legal equality when both same-sex and opposite-sex couples are entitled to the same marital benefits, but only the opposite-sex couples can get married.”

    The administration’s brief nonetheless provides what could also be seen as a robust call for equality stretching from coast to coast. For example, the administration argues that laws classifying lesbians and gay men should be subject to “heightened scrutiny.”

    “For certain protected classes, however, heightened scrutiny enables courts to ascertain whether the government has employed the classification for a significant and proper purpose, and provides an enhanced measure of protection in circumstances where there is a greater danger that the classification results from impermissible prejudice or stereotypes. Because sexual orientation is a factor that ‘generally provides no sensible ground for different treatment,’ laws that classify based on sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny,” the brief states.

  • February 19, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    If you thought the U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing justices were finished tackling the scope and reach of campaign finance law with its 2010 Citizens United v. FEC, you were wrong.

    The high court, with its announcement today to review limits on contributions to candidates during two-year election cycles, could be ready to extend even more leeway to the nation’s most powerful to influence elections.

    The justices, as The Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal reports, agreed to review a case called McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which will provide the opportunity to overturn the limits. As Blumenthal notes the limits on contributions were upheld in the Court’s Buckley v. Valeo case, but campaign finance regulations took a major hit with the Court’s Citizens United opinion, which gave corporations greater power to spend freely to influence elections.

    SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston reports that a more pressing concern than tinkering with limits on campaign donations may be lurking in the background. “Since the Supreme Court’s landmark opinion in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, it has always given government more leeway to control contributions to candidates or political organizations than over spending by candidates or by independent political activists.  That differing constitutional treatment potentially is at stake in the new case ….”

    Denniston continues, “What is at stake directly is the constitutionality of the two-year ceilings that federal law sets on what an individual can give during a campaign for the presidency or Congress, in donations to candidates, to political parties, or to other political committees.

    Democracy 21, a nonpartisan group working to “eliminate undue influence of big money in American politics,” said the outcome of the case could have “enormous consequences for the country."

    The group’s president, Fred Wertheimer, in a press statement, said the “aggregate limit on contributions by individuals is necessary to prevent circumvention of the limits on contributions to candidates and political parties and the prohibition on federal officeholders soliciting huge corrupting contributions.”

    Wertheimer and the group's counsel, Don Simon, also exmaine in a new ACS Issue Brief the extensive problems with the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with enforcing the nation's campaign finance laws. The two write that the president has failed to appoint commissioners to the six-member entity and that the FEC is now controlled by members who are "ideologically opposed to the campaign finance laws."

    If the high court were to gut or weaken the limit on contributions it would “open the door to $1 million and $2 million dollar contributions from an individual buying corrupting influence with a powerful officeholder soliciting these contributions, and with the political party and federal candidates benefiting from these seven figure contributions.”