Simon Lazarus

  • February 15, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Alabama officials will take to the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27 to try to gut the Voting Rights Act’s integral enforcement provision, Section 5. And their argument, what the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Simon Lazarus calls the “goofy gripe,” rests largely on the claims that racial discrimination in voting happens everywhere and so why pick on certain states.

    Lazarus notes, however, that just last year the Voting Rights prime enforcement provision was employed by the Justice Department to scuttle “vote suppression techniques familiar to all who followed the 2012 campaign: stringent voter ID laws, curtailed early voting opportunities, and discriminatorily rigged redistricting plans.”

    But the Alabama officials’ arguments are more than goofy, they’re ludicrous. There’s a reason why Section 5 remains relevant, because tawdry, bigoted attempts to deny minorities the right to vote remain the most intense in specific states and localities.

    First let’s start with some basics. The Constitution’s Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments bar the states from depriving citizens of liberty and from denying the right to vote to minorities. Moreover, both amendments include sections granting Congress, not the courts, the power to craft appropriate legislation to enforce the promise of both Amendments.

    When Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act it determined that some states and localities, mostly in the South, had much deeper and more intense histories of oppressing African Americans, including keeping them away from the polls. So Congress included a rather strong enforcement mechanism, Section 5, which would require those covered jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” for any changes to their voting procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. In 2006 Congress in bipartisan fashion overwhelmingly reauthorized Section 5 for another 25 years, after amassing a voluminous record showing that the covered jurisdictions by far remained the most fertile ground for racial discrimination in voting. The evidence was that although progress had been made in the South, there remained a stubborn bigotry resulting in ongoing efforts to suppress the minority vote.

    During an ACS panel discussion this week on the case challenging Section 5, Shelby County v. Holder, several panelists noted stories from Texas, Alabama and other covered jurisdictions of “serial” efforts to suppress or dilute the vote of minorities. For example in 2008 Alabama officials, as NAACP LDF’s Ryan P. Haygood recounted, sought to implement a discriminatory redistricting plan to drastically reduce the sole majority black district in the state by creating hundreds of annexations, without obtaining preclearance. When the Justice Department did review the redistricting plan, it was rejected as discriminatory. Nonetheless the officials held the election with the discriminatory redistricting scheme and the DOJ lodged a Section 5 enforcement action undoing the election and requiring another election to be held. (LDF is representing voters in Alabama in the Shelby County case; for more on Section 5 and Shelby County see ACS’s Voting Rights Resources page.) Video of panel discussion is below or here.

     

  • February 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel who appear to have produced a lengthy justification for targeted killings that skewers the English language to wend its around constitutional principles such as due process before the government can deprive a person of liberty, President Obama has nonetheless taken solid action to counter the right’s take on the Constitution as a document that limits government’s ability to take collective action to protect and advance the nation’s welfare.

    In a piece for The New Republic, Simon Lazarus, senior counsel to the Constitutional Accountability Center, says it’s about time – likely long overdue -- that progressives provide a compelling alternative to the right’s simplistic, but effective rhetoric of a Constitution that is all about individual rights and a weak central government.

    Quickly after the president provided some staunchly liberal rhetoric in his Second Inaugural address, Republican lawmakers, such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) brayed that the president was ushering in or attempting to an age of radical liberalism. Grassley, as noted here, also groused that the president had turned the Second Amendment on its head by arguing that new measures aimed at curbing gun violence were no threat to the individual right to bear arms.

    The president’s rhetoric on the Constitution, Lazarus writes, “echoes that of the Reconstruction Congresses which enacted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In line with then-existing Supreme Court precedent, they believed Congress empowered to prevent interference with the exercise of individual rights created by constitutional prohibitions on government. Specifically, they held the federal government responsible for preventing private violence and intimidation designed to deter former slaves from voting and enjoying other constitutionally prescribed liberties. And they wrote into the amendments express authority for Congress to ‘enforce’ that responsibility.”  

     

  • October 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Too many progressives have faltered in highlighting the impact nine justices on the nation’s highest court can have on the lives of millions of Americans. The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Simon Lazarus lays the case out over at CAC’s Text and History Blog, noting that during the second presidential debate an opportunity was missed to show how the conservative justices of the Roberts Court increasingly advance corporate interests, while making life tougher on individuals.

    As Lazarus notes, a question from the town hall audience prompted the candidates try and address the ongoing lack of pay equity – women still earn significantly less than their male counterparts. President Obama responded by highlighting his signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The law was named after the Alabama women who struggled to hold Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company accountable for paying her far less than men at the company doing the same work. After Ledbetter (pictured) sued the company, a jury found in her favor and awarded her hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. But the company appealed and the case eventually reached the high court in 2007. The rightwing bloc of the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire reversed course and found that Ledbetter could not move forward with her lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seeking equal pay for equal work. The rightwing justices essentially said that Ledbetter had waited too long to bring the action, even though she did not discover the discrimination until her retirement from the Goodyear Tire plant.

    During this year’s ACS National Convention, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who lodged a dissent in Ledbetter, said the decision was “entirely out of touch with the real world of work.”

    The Ledbetter Act trumps the high court’s out-of-touch majority opinion by allowing for a realistic timeframe for workers to bring employment discrimination cases.

    But Lazarus says progressives, including the president, have failed to “take a cue from Senator [Patrick] Leahy, who has held numerous hearings over the past four years to ‘shine a light on how the Supreme Court’s decisions affect Americans’ everyday lives.’”

  • June 18, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    We likely shouldn’t be surprised by Justice Antonin Scalia’s “flip-flop,” as TPM puts it, on precedent supporting modern understanding of the Constitution’s commerce clause.

    TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports that in his forthcoming book, Scalia says the Supreme Court’s 1942 opinion in Wickard v. Filburn wrongly construed the scope of the commerce clause. As Kapur and many others have noted, including the Obama administration, Scalia cited Wickard in a 2005 opinion concluding that a law barring personal cultivation of marijuana for medical use was not beyond the scope of the commerce clause.

    In that case, Gonzales v. Raich, Scalia lodged a concurring opinion, citing precedent in holding, “where Congress has the authority to enact a regulation of interstate commerce, ‘it possesses every power needed to make that regulation effective.’”

    In an e-mail to TPM, constitutional law expert Adam Winkler wrote, “This is typical Scalia.”

    Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, continued:

    He respects precedents when they fit his conservative ideology and disregards them when they don’t. He claims that history should guide judges. But nothing about the history of the commerce clause has changed. What’s changed is the political implications of the commerce clause. When it’s being invoked for law and order conservatives, he favors Wickard. When invoked by liberals to support healthcare reform, he thinks Wickard is bad law.

    Once again, we see that Scalia’s orginalism is a charade.

    There is also the spectacle of oral argument, where Scalia not only revealed a wobbly understanding of the health care insurance system but affinity for the simplistic, but radically libertarian arguments lobbed against the Affordable Care Act’s minimum coverage provision. The minimum coverage provision is integral to the health care reform law, requiring those who can afford to do so to obtain a minimum amount of the health care coverage starting in 2014.

  • June 6, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The libertarian argument wielded against the Obama administration’s health care reform law was propelled quickly and effectively by a right-wing “infrastructure” that has its sights set on longstanding, but weakened social safety net laws.

    Media Matters’ David Lyle says those concerned about the nation’s social safety net and the Constitution’s progressive values, “should remember how aggressively and efficiently the right was able to deploy its view of the Constitution as a weapon, and meet future attempts to do so head on.”

    Lyle cites a recent Salon piece by Northwestern University law and political science professor Andrew Koppelman, which provides a detailed examination of the evolution of the wildly libertarian argument used against the Affordable Care Act’s minimum coverage provision. That provision of the law requires Americans who can afford it, to purchase a minimum amount of health care insurance starting in 2014.

    Lyle writes:

    Koppelman's research shows that within a few months in mid-2009 the constitutional argument against health care reform went from nonexistent to a subject of mainstream discussion. Koppelman was unable to find any published claim that the individual mandate would be unconstitutional prior to a July 2009 Federalist Society issue brief written by two former Bush administration officials. In August 2009, conservative lawyers David Rivkin and Lee Casey, who regularly write on issues the right-wing legal infrastructure wishes to move into the mainstream, published a Washington Post op-ed attacking the mandate on constitutional grounds. On September 18, law professor Randy Barnett, who would play a leading role in the subsequent litigation against the act, first weighed in on the issue with a post on Politico. Koppelman notes that days later CBS News reported that "[i]n the last few days, a new argument has emerged in the debate over Democratic healthcare proposals," and that CBS mentioned that the constitutionality issue had emerged on The O'Reilly Factor and Fox News.

    The Right’s ability, Lyle continues, to define the constitutional debate “is all the more potent because it so effectively complements a highly ideological, bordering on politically partisan, conservative pro-corporate wing of the federal judiciary.”

    He notes, among other instances, a recent concurring opinion by D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown in Hettinga v. United States. Brown, appointed to the federal appeals court bench by George W. Bush, used her opinion to launch a screed against the federal government’s efforts to battle poverty and provide a sturdy social safety net.