Sen. Al Franken

  • March 7, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Department of Justice’s handing of foreclosure abuses, which disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos, came under intense, if not overblown, scrutiny during a Senate hearing today.

    As The Blog of Legal Times reports, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) “led a wave of criticism of the Justice Department’s response to home loan discrimination and foreclosure abuses,” during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

    Grassley groused about the DOJ’s settlement with Countrywide Financial Corporation, which the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez (pictured) described in written testimony before the committee as “the largest lending discrimination case ever brought by the U.S. Department of Justice ….”

    In a prepared statement, Grassley said the Countrywide settlement was inadequate. “Although the complaint asked for the victims to be put in the same position they would have been absent the discrimination, for civil penalties, and for consequential damages, the consent decree provides only $1700 per victim,” he said.

    During the hearing, and his testimony, Grassley claimed that Countrywide and other financial institutions involved in the discriminatory lending practices should have faced investigations for criminal wrongdoing. “We do not know what individuals took the unlawful actions. They face no punishment. And they can keep their jobs. Countrywide admits nothing. The government has proven nothing in court.”

    Democratic Sens. Al Franken (Minn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) joined Grassley in criticizing the DOJ for alledgedly not taking stronger action against the financial institutions. As Todd Ruger reported The Blog of Legal Times, toward the end of the hearing, Perez conceded, albeit not before defending his Division’s work, that more could be done to address the financial industry’s practices.

    Several of the senators and witnesses sharply focused on the fact that banks and other financial institutions discriminated against African Americans and Latinos during the mortgage crisis. (As James H. Carr noted in this ACSblog post, research has revealed “that in 2004 African Americans were more likely to receive subprime loans than white borrowers, even when risk factors such as credit scores were taken into consideration. Not only did that excessive peddling of reckless mortgage products to blacks result in their having experience foreclosures at a disproportionately higher rate than white borrowers, but also, blacks are over-represented in the ranks of the long-term unemployed which has also grown as a result of the financial crisis.”)

  • December 8, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Republican senators, in brazen fashion, stepped up their obstructionism of the administration’s nominees this week. First, Republicans successfully blocked an up-or-down vote on one of the president’s judicial nominees, and now they’ve scuttled his selection to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

    The Senate voted 53-45 to invoke cloture, falling short of the 60 votes needed to force an up-or-down vote on the nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray (pictured) to head the agency, created to crack down on corporate malfeasance, and as The New York Times reports, “one of the administration’s main responses to the financial crisis.”

    Republicans have attacked the Bureau, whose creation was advocated by Harvard University professor and now Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, since its inception, demanding significant changes to the agency, which would effectively hobble its oversight authority.

    Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), The Huffington Post reports, blasted Republicans for their ongoing efforts to protect Wall Street power. Brown said his Republican colleagues are “almost always flacking for Wall Street. It never ceases to amaze me.”

    In comments at the White House, President Obama slammed Republican-led obstructionism, and suggested he may use a recess appointment to put Cordray to work, The Washington Post reports.

    Obama said, "We are not giving up on this. We will not allow politics as usual on Capitol Hill to stand in the way of American consumers being protected from unscrupulous operators."

    The president also knocked senators for denying "well-qualified" judicial nominees up-or-down votes.

    Taking to the Senate floor to push for Cordray's nomination, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) lauded Cordray for “looking out for the middle class. He’s looking out for homeowners who have been scammed by mortgage servicers. He’s looking out for pensioners who’ve lost their pensions at the hands of Wall Street recklessness.”

    TPM reports that Democrats are making a “public issue out of the GOP’s vow to hamstring the agency,” noting that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has “hinted at a recess appointment. Obama, Schumer said, should do ‘everything within his power to get Cordray on board.’”

    On Tuesday, Republicans successfully blocked the president’s nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. Circuit. ACS President Caroline Fredrickson blasted that action as “ushering in an unfortunate era of unprecedented obstructionism.”

  • December 21, 2010

    The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 today to pass new net neutrality rules intended to block broadband companies from interfering with their customers' Internet access, The Associated Press reports.

    The new rules - a compromise measure following years of debate - "require broadband providers to let subscribers access all legal online content, applications and services over their wired networks" but give broadband providers the flexibility to manage data as long as they publicly disclose their practices, according to AP.

    "The measure pleased few, and raised howls of outrage from those who say the measure will stifle broadband investment and those who say the measure doesn't do enough to keep online innovation thriving," Wired reports.

    Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative, told Wired, "Despite promising to fulfill President Obama's campaign promise of enacting network neutrality rules to protect an open Internet, the FCC has instead prioritized the profits of corporations like AT&T over those of the general public, Internet entrepreneurs, and local businesses across the country."

    And The Blog of Legal Times reports that even members of the FCC predict "legal challenges are all but certain."

    Sen. Al Franken called net neutrality "the most important free speech issue of our time," in a column in The Huffington Post yesterday anticipating today's FCC vote.

    "If they approve it as is, I'll be outraged. And you should be, too," he writes. He continues:

    Mobile networks like AT&T and Verizon Wireless would be able to shut off your access to content or applications for any reason. For instance, Verizon could prevent you from accessing Google Maps on your phone, forcing you to use their own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it costs money to use and isn't nearly as good. Or a mobile provider with a political agenda could prevent you from downloading an app that connects you with the Obama campaign (or, for that matter, a Tea Party group in your area).

    It gets worse. The FCC has never before explicitly allowed discrimination on the Internet -- but the draft Order takes a step backwards, merely stating that so-called "paid prioritization" (the creation of a "fast lane" for big corporations who can afford to pay for it) is cause for concern.

    It sure is -- but that's exactly why the FCC should ban it. Instead, the draft Order would have the effect of actually relaxing restrictions on this kind of discrimination.

    The Yale Law and Policy Review's online companion Inter Alia, has released a symposium on net neutrality rules, which includes a piece by George Washington University law professor Dawn Nunziato on First Amendment considerations and Harvard Law and computer science professor Jonathan Zittrain on rethinking net neutrality in diplomacy terms. Click here to read the collection of articles.

  • November 16, 2010

    More than a year in office and Sen. Al Franken, a former entertainer and author of best-selling books, such as Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, has "self-consciously" strived to be "the institutionalist who can achieve bipartisan consensus but also successfully champion liberal legislation," writes Jeffrey Rosen for The New Republic.

    Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, and TNR's Legal Affairs Editor, talked extensively with Sen. Franken and discovered a senator serious about his work, and already garnering impressive achievements. 

    Rosen writes of Franken's work ethic:

    In recent years, congressional hearings have become little more than televised sideshows in which most senators rely on questions scripted by their staff and seem unable to ask tough or even relevant follow-ups. Franken clearly aspires to an older tradition, when lawmakers could think on their feet and were capable of grilling witnesses without aides handing them notes or whispering furtively in their ears. He studies issues exhaustively, which allows him to negotiate directly with senators and their aides rather than intermediaries. His staffers say that he encourages them to challenge him during the murder boards he assembles to prepare for hearings and sometimes insists on staying past midnight.

    On some of the senator's congressional accomplishments, Rosen writes:

    Franked has accomplished more in his first year than many Senate freshman, sponsoring several amendments that became law. One requires health insurance companies to spend 85 percent of premiums on actual medical care, not administrative costs or other expenses.

    Another measure bans the federal government from awarding contracts to employers who require employees to give up their right to sue for sexual harassment or rape at work. (The law was inspired by the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, who accused her co-workers at Halliburton in Baghdad of gang raping her and was forced by Halliburton into secret arbitration.)

    One of Franken's greatest frustrations during his first year has centered on the struggles to extend unemployment insurance. On numerous occasions, Republican lawmakers in the Senate blocked or obstructed efforts to extend such benefits. Franken told Rosen of meeting constituents who have told him they wouldn't have shelter without the benefits.

    "I'll go to a union hall," Franken told Rosen, "and see people whose whole identity is their job - these guys have worked since they were ten years old ... and they haven't had a job in six months, and you see that they're literally depressed. I've had guys say to me, ‘If it weren't for unemployment insurance ... I wouldn't be in my house,' and then I hear how unemployment insurance incentivizes people not to get jobs. You hear that, and you think how out of touch that is, and how insensitive it is."

    During this year's ACS national convention, Franken gave a keynote address focusing on the struggles to protect individual rights. In particular, Franken scored the Supreme Court's conservative majority for siding with corporate interests over those of individual Americans.

    "If you have a credit card, if you watch TV, if you file insurance claims, if you work - in other words, if you participate in American daily life at all - then you interact with corporations that are more powerful than you are," Franken said. "The degree to which those corporations' rights are protected over yours, well that's extremely relevant in your life. And in case after case, the Roberts Court has put not just a thumb, but a fist, on the scale in favor of those corporations."

    He continued, "It's important to recognize that, for some conservative legal activists, this is the whole point. Do they want to undercut abortion and immigration and Miranda rights? Sure. But those are just cherries on the sundae. What conservative legal activists are really interested in is this question: What individual rights are so basic and so important that they should be protected above a corporation's right to profit? And their preferred answer is: None of them. Zero."

    Watch Franken's entire speech below.

  • July 26, 2010

    A front-page analysis of the Supreme Court's ideological direction in Sunday's New York Times calls the court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. "the most conservative one in living memory."

    Citing the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Justice Samuel Alito as one of the primary causes for the change, the article predicts:

    If the Roberts court continues on the course suggested by its first five years, it is likely to allow a greater role for religion in public life, to permit more participation by unions and corporations in elections and to elaborate further on the scope of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. Abortion rights are likely to be curtailed, as are affirmative action and protections for people accused of crimes.
    Decisions favoring criminal defendants, unions, people claiming discrimination or violation of their civil rights are considered liberal, the article explains. Decisions striking down economic regulations and favoring prosecutors, employers and the government are said to be conservative.

    According to data collected by political scientists, "four of the six most conservative justices of the 44 who have sat on the court since 1937 are serving now: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Antonin Scalia and, most conservative of all, Clarence Thomas."

    Retired Justice John Paul Stevens also noted in an interview in April that "every one of the 11 justices who had joined the court since 1975, including himself, was more conservative than his or her predecessor, with the possible exceptions of Justices Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg."

    During the 2010 ACS National Convention, Sen. Al Franken discussed the impact that the conservative wing of the court has had on the case law.

    "I don't think you need to be a lawyer to recognize that the Roberts Court has, consistently and intentionally, protected and promoted the interests of the powerful over those of individual Americans," Franken said. "And you certainly don't need to be a lawyer to understand what that means for the working people who are losing their rights, one 5-4 decision at a time."

    For more analysis of the high court's recent term, see video of the ACS Supreme Court term review.