ACSBlog

  • January 22, 2015
    BookTalk
    Madison's Music: On Reading the First Amendment
    By: 
    Burt Neuborne

    by Burt Neuborne, Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties, NYU Law, and Founding Legal Director, Brennan Center for Justice

    We honor James Madison as the driving force behind the Bill of Rights.  We recognize him as Thomas Jefferson’s indispensable political lieutenant.  We applaud him as the nation’s fourth president.  But we will never do Madison full justice until we revere him as a great poet.

    Not a literary poet like Wallace Stevens, or a prophet-poet like Abraham Lincoln, or even a peoples’ poet like Ronald Reagan.  Madison’s poetic genius was structural – a mastery of the interplay between democracy and individual liberty.  His poetic voice speaks to us in the harmony of the 462 words, 31 ideas, and 10 amendments – each in its perfectly chosen place and all interacting to form a coherent whole – that is the magnificent poem to democracy and individual freedom called the Bill of Rights.

    Today, we hear only broken fragments of Madison’s music.  Madison’s poetic vision of the interplay between democracy and individual freedom is hiding in plain sight in the brilliantly ordered text and structure of the Bill of Rights, but we have forgotten how to look for it.  Instead of seeking harmony and coherence in the Bill of Rights, the current Supreme Court majority reads the Bill of Rights as a set of self-contained commands, as if each clause – and at times, each word of each clause – existed in splendid isolation from the body of the constitutional text.  Consider the fate of the 45 words in Madison’s remarkable First Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

  • January 22, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Nancy Northup discusses the continued threats to women’s reproductive rights 42 years after the decision in Roe v. Wade at MSNBC.

    ACS Board of Directors Member Linda Greenhouse argues in The New York Times that the debate over same-sex marriage in the Republican party will not end with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the issue.

    David A. Graham at The Atlantic considers how a ruling on same-sex marriage could reintroduce outdated ideas of nullification from Republican leaders.

    Nina Totenberg reports for NPR on the protests at the Supreme Court on the anniversary of the Citizens United ruling.

    At Bloomberg News, Greg Stohr and David McLaughlin write about oral arguments for the Supreme Court case that considers the future of the Fair Housing Act.

  • January 21, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Fred Wertheimer, President, Democracy 21. Democracy 21 is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to strengthen democracy, prevent government corruption and empower citizens in the political process.                                                                    

    On January 21, 2010, five Supreme Court justices rejected decades of the Court’s own precedent and a century of national policy aimed at keeping corporate money out of our elections to issue the Citizens United decision.

    In issuing the decision, Chief Justice Roberts and his four colleagues wreaked havoc on our democracy and our constitutional system of representative government.

    Five years later, these five justices have bequeathed the following to the American people:

    • More than $1 billion in unlimited contributions that have flowed into federal elections through Super PACs – including more than $300 million through single-candidate Super PACS used by federal candidates and their supporters to circumvent and eviscerate candidate contribution limits.
    • More than $500 million in secret, unlimited contributions that have flowed into federal elections through tax-exempt 501(c) organizations.

    Citizens United has returned to federal elections massive amounts of the same kinds of money that played a central role in the Watergate corruption scandals – unlimited contributions and secret money.

    In 1976, the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo upheld the constitutionality of contribution limits that were enacted in response to the Watergate scandals.  The Court found that “corruption” is “inherent” in a system of unlimited contributions.  The Court also upheld disclosure on the grounds that “disclosure requirements deter actual corruption.”

    In 2012, more than thirty-five years later, U.S. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner explained the destructive impact of Citizens United.  Judge Posner, widely considered the most influential conservative judge not on the Supreme Court, said in an NPR interview:

    Our political system is pervasively corrupt due to our Supreme Court taking away campaign- contribution restrictions on the basis of the First Amendment.

    The Citizens United decision, written for the majority by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is based on a series of indefensible, if not astonishing, premises.

  • January 21, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Zachary Roth of MSNBC reports that the Supreme Court could significantly narrow the scope of the Fair Housing Act in their ruling on a case scheduled for oral arguments today.

    At The Economist, Steven Mazie discusses the ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, a religious liberty case in which the Supreme Court ruled that a Muslim inmate has a right to grow a beard.

    Jeff Shesol writes in the New Yorker that the Supreme Court could strike down another campaign-finance law this term.

    At Talking Points Memo, Sahil Kapur looks at the consequences of a Supreme Court decision to overturn Affordable Care Act subsidies.

    Jamelle Bouie of Slate considers President Obama’s State of the Union address, calling it “an assertive vision of Democratic ideals.”

  • January 21, 2015
    Guest Post

    by John Bonifaz, Co-Founder and President of Free Speech For People

    Five years ago this month, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, sweeping away longstanding precedent barring corporate money in our elections and leading to an explosion of outside spending in our political process.  The ruling also sparked a new movement for a constitutional amendment to end the big money dominance of our elections and to reclaim our democracy.  That movement has gained significant momentum, with 16 states and more than 550 cities and towns on record calling for an amendment.  And, last September, the U.S. Senate held an historic vote on the Democracy For All Amendment, which would allow Congress and the states to set overall limits on campaign spending in our elections.  54 Senators supported the proposed amendment, a vote that reflects the power of this growing grassroots movement.

    As this movement continues to gain strength, conventional claims made by opponents deserve renewed scrutiny.  Here are five major myths related to this call for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution.

    Myth #1: The First Amendment protects the right to drown out other people’s speech.

    In its 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court equated money with speech and struck down campaign spending limits passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  The ruling set us on our current course today of unlimited campaign spending where our elections are sold to the highest bidders.  But, as former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has said, “Money is property; it is not speech.”  Money, in fact, amplifies speech, and for the very wealthy in our society, money enables them to be heard at the loudest decibels at the expense of the rest of us.  The campaign spending limits at issue in Buckley were reasonable regulations on the manner of speech, not on speech itself.  By equating money with speech, the Buckley Court sanctioned a system which allows the very wealthy – and now corporations – to distort our political process and the very meaning of the First Amendment.

    No one has a First Amendment right to drown out other people’s speech.  The Supreme Court stated this clearly in its 1949 case in Kovacs v. Cooper.  In Kovacs, a union in the city of Trenton was blaring its message with a sound truck going down every street.  In response, the city passed an ordinance requiring that sound trucks could only go down every third street.  The Supreme Court upheld the ordinance as a reasonable regulation on the manner of speech.  It found that public streets served other public purposes that needed to be protected and, as Justice Jackson wrote in his concurrence, “freedom of speech for Kovacs does not...include freedom to use sound amplifiers to drown out the natural speech of others.”  The DC Circuit Court of Appeals in the Buckley case recognized this very point in finding the campaign spending limits to be constitutional.  “It would be strange indeed,” the appellate court said, “if, by extrapolation outward from the basic rights of individuals, the wealthy few could claim a constitutional guarantee to a stronger political voice than the unwealthy many because they are able to give and spend more money, and because the amounts they give and spend cannot be limited.”  Campaign spending limits ensure that big money interests may not drown out the voices of everyone else in our political process.