During a week when many groups and individuals are celebrating the signing of the U.S. Constitution -- September 17 is Constitution Day -- it is appropriate to take note of how far we have fallen short of fulfilling certain fundamental rights promised in our governing document.
As Dean Erwin Chemerinsky noted in this ACSblog post, we are not just celebrating the signing of a parchment, we are actually taking note of how the Constitution has "been interpreted and implemented over the course of American history."
There are examples of where the judiciary has misinterpreted the broad language of the Constitution or where states have faltered or failed in implementation of constitutional mandates, but let's take one example that provides a stark picture of a nation failing to live up to a promise of genuine equality before the law. Let's look at the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel.
Fifty years ago this year, in a landmark opinion, Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel means that people in danger of losing liberty have a right to counsel, even if they cannot afford it. In his majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black observed, "The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him."
In an impassioned speech before a gathering on Constitution Day earlier this week retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson tackled the ongoing effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC opinion and Justice Antonin Scalia’s defense of originalsim.
Nelson’s speech, a must-read for all interested in constitutional debate, started with a look at the Roberts Court’s 2010 opinion in Citizens United giving corporations greater ability to spend on elections, including judicial elections. Citing a recent study sponsored by ACS, Justice at Risk, Nelson (pictured) noted how quickly Citizens United has impacted state Supreme Court judicial elections. (Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions provides new data showing, among other things, a significant relationship between group contributions to state Supreme Court justices and the voting of those justices in cases involving business matters.)
Nelson said, in part:
Importantly for Montana judicial elections, the data show expenditures influenced judges’ decisions in both partisan and non-partisan elections systems. The report reveals the influx of expenditures generated by Citizens United and subsequent cases is having significant impact on judicial impartiality. The data demonstrate there is stronger correlation between business contributions and judges voting in the period from 2010 – 2012, compared to 1995 – 1998. And, unfortunately, Justice at Risk concludes that there is no sign that politicization of Supreme Court elections is lessening. Indeed, powerful interest groups’ influence on judicial outcomes will only intensify.
Nelson dove into the ongoing debate over constitutional interpretation, tying it to the outcome in Citizens United. Last month at a Federal Society gathering in Bozeman, Justice Scalia provided yet another defense of originalism as a serious method of constitutional interpretation.
In post for ACSblog’s 2013 Constitution Day symposium, Erwin Chemerinsky remarked that it is rather obvious why originalism is a wobbly way to attempt to interpret and apply constitutional principles and values. It makes little sense, Chemerinsky wrote, “to be governed in the 21st century by the intent of those in 1787 (or 1791 when the Bill of Rights was adopted or 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified).”
At the University of Montana School of Law event, hosted by the ACS Montana Chapter, Nelson had similar observations, saying “originalism is grounded more in opportunistic hypocrisy than in fact and substance.”
Every high school history student learns that since Marbury v. Madison, the courts “say what the law is.” However, when we vote we choose those who choose our judges, which means We the People play a role in saying what the law is. Americans recognize that judges and justices approach the law from different perspectives and that their approaches affect the outcomes of cases we care about. Presidential candidates make promises about what kinds of judges they will appoint for a reason: because it matters. But what do the American people expect from our judiciary?
We’re often told Americans want a “conservative” Court and that they are sympathetic to originalism. A poll taken after Justice Stevens announced his retirement indicated that more Americans (42 percent) wanted a new justice who would make the Court more conservative than those who wanted to see the Court become more liberal (27 percent). Some surveys hint that Americans’ views on constitutional interpretation are sharply divided: a Pew Survey found that half of Americans (50 percent) say the Court’s rulings should be based on its understanding of what the U.S. Constitution means in current times, while about as many (45 percent) say rulings should be based on its understanding of what the Constitution meant as originally written. Yet although voters might find the term “conservative” and the idea of “as originally written” appealing in principle, they don’t agree with what the conservative justices do in practice.
Americans overwhelmingly support upholding Roe v. Wade, which has become conservative shorthand for a liberal, activist Court. Even Roe’s supporters don’t tend to call it conservative or claim it exemplifies originalist constitutional interpretation, yet only 29 percent of Americans believe that Roe should be overturned, which is fewer than the 43 percent who believe abortion is “morally wrong.”
Most Americans also agree with the Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down the section of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act that denied same-sex couples federal benefits. This places them at odds with the Court’s conservative bloc. By contrast, 33 percent approve of the Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, compared with 51 percent who disapprove.
Along a party-line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee today approved the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The nomination must still be considered by the entire Senate.
Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) voted against the nomination, again noting his wobbly claim that the 11-member D.C. Circuit, one of the most powerful appellate courts in the land, does not need the vacancies filled. Grassley has been pushing a bill that aims to cut seats from the D.C. Circuit, effectively leaving its right-wing tilt in place.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) lauded today’s vote, saying “Pillard’s character and qualifications are unassailable.” A press release from Leahy’s office also noted that Pillard, a professor of law at Georgetown University, has argued “nine cases before the Supreme Court as well as drafted the government’s successful argument in the landmark Supreme Court case, United States v. Virginia, which opened the doors to the Virginia Military Institute for female cadets.”
Despite efforts by some right-wing pundits to distort Pillard’s legal work and career, she has received support of Republicans, former law enforcement and military officials, conservatives, and many leading members of the Supreme Court bar from both parties.
Several public interest groups lauded today’s Senate Committee action and called for a swift floor-vote of Pillard’s nomination.
National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) Co-President Marcia Greenberger, noted that Pillard’s “impressive legal career includes two tours in the U.S. Department of Justice and 15 years teaching at the Georgetown University Law Center. In addition, she currently brings her legal acumen and expertise to her role as Co-Director of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute, which prepares lawyers for oral argument before the Supreme Court on a pro bono basis. She is a legal superstar who would bring extraordinary skills to the Court, including her deep background on legal protections for women.”
There are more than 90 vacancies on the federal bench and for most of President Obama’s time in office vacancies have hovered near 80. Today the president announced 8 more judicial nominations, including Diane J. Humetawa to the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. If confirmed, Humetawa would become the first Native American female judge in the nation’s history.
“Constitution and Citizenship Day,” as it is formerly called, was once known only as Citizenship Day in commemoration of the countless immigrants who have chosen to uphold the U.S. constitution and claim the nationality of this country. One of the most important badges of citizenship, however, is not enshrined in the constitution -- the right to vote.
African Americans, women, and persons as young as 18 years of age were all granted voting rights through constitutional amendments. Those amendments established the conditions upon which the right to vote could not be denied but did not grant a universal, affirmation, and equal right to vote for all citizens. Indeed, the need for serial amendments to create the diverse electorate we see today is evidence of this constitutional void.
The current assault on voter participation is also proof of this void. If there were an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution, it would be harder for Republican-led state legislatures to enact voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise the poor, minorities, students, and the elderly, more difficult for states like Florida to carelessly purge eligible voters from registration rolls, and a greater obstacle for election officials to limit participation by curtailing early voting and over-regulating registration procedures.
Why then should the right to vote remain absent from one of the most revered constitutions in the world? It doesn’t have to. Earlier this year, Congressmen Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced a bill to amend the Constitution to include an affirmative right to vote. This idea has long been supported by organizations like Fair Vote which backs the current bill through its Promote the Vote campaign -- and its time has come.
As I’ve written for Reuters here, “at no time in recent history has the need for a right-to-vote amendment been more pronounced. The [Supreme] court’s ruling earlier this year in Shelby County v. Holder, disabling a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, calls for dramatic congressional action to both rehabilitate that landmark act and recommit to our constitutional ideals.” We would be remiss if we did not use this moment to reflect on the greatness of our Constitution and also flag its weaknesses. Indeed, there is no better time to kick-start a national discussion on the proposed right-to-vote amendment than during this celebration of both our Constitution and our citizenship, as neither is truly complete without an explicit right to vote.