The Filibuster and the War on Women

The abuse of the filibuster is a hard issue to get people excited about. It’s one of those technical political things that takes too long to explain and is hard to connect to problems voters care about.

This week, making those connections was a little easier. If you care about a woman’s right to decide whether she gets pregnant or has a baby, the connection to the filibuster was all too clear. Here are three of this week’s big stories:

  • Senator John Cornyn threatened to filibuster anyone President Obama nominates to the D. C. federal appeals court. He’s not making objections to the specific judges Obama has picked, he’s arguing that Obama shouldn’t be allowed to make any picks at all. The court’s current 4-4 conservative/liberal balance should be locked in, no matter how many elections Democrats win.
  • That same court issued a temporary injunction to suspend ObamaCare’s contraception mandate for certain firms, in anticipation of a permanent ruling that employers’ religious freedom gives them power over employees’ health decisions. The judge who wrote the majority opinion is a radical conservative that Democrats tried to block when President Bush nominated her, but they had to back down when Republicans threatened the “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster permanently.
  • Another judge from that same batch of Bush appointees lifted a lower-court injunction against a Texas anti-abortion law that (among other restrictions) instantly closes about 1/3 of Texas abortion clinics, leaving large areas of the state without abortion services, again in anticipation of the law’s ultimate approval.

Let’s take those one at a time.

Filibuster abuse and the D. C. court. Wikipedia describes the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia circuit like this:

While it has the smallest geographic jurisdiction of any of the United States courts of appeals, the D.C. Circuit, with eleven active judgeships, is arguably the most important inferior appellate court. The court is given the responsibility of directly reviewing the decisions and rulemaking of many federal independent agencies of the United States government based in the national capital, often without prior hearing by a district court. Aside from the agencies whose statutes explicitly direct review by the D.C. Circuit, the court typically hears cases from other agencies under the more general jurisdiction granted to the Courts of Appeals under the Administrative Procedure Act. Given the broad areas over which federal agencies have power, this often gives the judges of the D.C. Circuit a central role in affecting national U.S. policy and law.

A judgeship on the D.C. Circuit is often thought of as a stepping-stone for appointment to the Supreme Court.

The court has 11 active judgeSHIPs, but only 8 active judges. (It had only 7 — and a 4-3 conservative majority — until Obama finally got his first pick approved in May. It also has six semi-retired senior judges. If you count them, the court has a 9-5 conservative majority.) That’s because there are three vacancies. The Constitution (Article II, Section 2) specifies how those vacancies should be filled:

The President … shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for

The filibuster is a historical accident. The Founders didn’t envision it, and although an 1806 rule change made filibusters possible, the first one didn’t happen until 1837. They were rare until the 1970s, and truly skyrocketed when the Republicans became the Senate minority after the 2006 election.

Filibusters of presidential nominations were rare until the Clinton administration, and then Democrats retaliated during the Bush years. But even then, the justification for a filibuster was always some alleged problem with the individual nominee. (Bush nominee Janice Rogers Brown, for example, was filibustered for a history of inflammatory decisions, having once written of Social Security: “Today’s senior citizens blithely cannibalize their grandchildren because they have the right to get as much ‘free’ stuff as the political system will permit them to extract.”)

What’s new in the Obama years is the use of the filibuster to nullify a federal office by refusing to approve anyone to head it, regardless of character or qualifications. Until Senate Democrats threatened to invoke the so-called nuclear option in July, Republicans were on track to invalidate the entire National Labor Relations Board, essentially nullifying all laws protecting workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively in good faith.

Cornyn proposes an extension of this unprecedented tactic: using the filibuster to nullify the three vacancies on the D. C. court, ostensibly because the court’s case load doesn’t require 11 judges. (He wasn’t bothered by an even lower case load when Bush appointed Rogers.)

If over-staffing of the D.C. court is indeed a problem (and not just a pretext to stave off a liberal majority), the Constitution provides a way to solve it in Article I, Section 8:

The Congress shall have Power … To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court

In other words, Congress could pass a law shrinking the D. C. court, if that were really a problem. But legislation requires a majority vote in both houses and the signature of the President, which Cornyn can’t get because his party can’t win national elections.

This is what the filibuster has become: not just a way to block new laws or objectionable appointments, but a way for a minority to repeal legislation already passed or to achieve its goals without passing laws at all.

Who needs to win elections?

The contraception mandate. Thursday, the previously mentioned Janice Rogers Brown (of Social-Security-is-cannibalism fame) was the deciding vote in a 2-1 decision by the D. C. appeals court to grant an injunction blocking enforcement of ObamaCare’s contraception mandate on a business owned by two Catholic brothers. The ruling isn’t a final decision in the case, but it reads like one, because one key consideration in granting such an injunction is a belief that the injunction-seeking side is likely to prevail.

Fortunately, Rogers stopped short of declaring that corporations are protected by the First Amendment’s free-exercise-of-religion clause, which would have produced true chaos. But the 400-employee company is owned by two brothers who claim to operate according to Catholic principles (i.e., having pro-life bumper stickers on their trucks), so the brothers’ religious freedom is violated by the requirement that they provide contraception coverage to their female employees.

I’ve stated my position on this issue at length before: I believe these claims of “religious freedom” are actually passive aggression, stretching claims of one’s own moral purity to ridiculous lengths in order to control the behavior of others. I was pleased to see many of my own favorite arguments show up in the dissenting opinion of  Senior Judge Harry Edwards (the only Democratic appointee among the senior judges) (I’m not claiming Edwards reads the Sift or that the arguments are original to me):

It has been well understood since the founding of our nation that legislative restrictions may trump religious exercise. Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599, 603 (1961). Were it otherwise, “professed doctrines of religious belief [would be] superior to the law of the land, and in effect permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

and illustrates the point with an example Sift readers will recognize:

A Christian Scientist, whose religion has historically opposed conventional medical treatment, might claim that his corporation is entitled to a religious exemption from covering all medical care except healers who treat medical ailments with prayer.

Edwards sees the conflict between the owners’ religious beliefs and the mandate, but does not find that it meets the legal standard of a “substantial burden”, using another analogy I’ve used here.

The Supreme Court has never applied the Free Exercise Clause to find a substantial burden on a plaintiff’s religious exercise where the plaintiff is not himself required to take or forgo action that violates his religious beliefs, but is merely required to take action that might enable other people to do things that are at odds with the plaintiff’s religious beliefs.

… The Gilardis do not contend that their religious exercise is violated when Freshway pays wages that employees might use to purchase contraception, and the Mandate does not require the Gilardis to facilitate the use of contraception any more directly than they already do by authorizing Freshway to pay wages.

Edwards quotes a 1982 Supreme Court decision:

Congress and the courts have been sensitive to the needs flowing from the Free Exercise Clause, but every person cannot be shielded from all the burdens incident to exercising every aspect of the right to practice religious beliefs. When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.

If not for the filibuster, that might be the majority opinion.

Texas abortion law. One of the other Bush judicial appointees who made it through the Senate under threat of the nuclear option was Priscilla Owen, whose appointment the Houston Chronicle opposed with these words:

The problem is not that Owen is “too conservative,” as some of her critics complain, but that she too often contorts rulings to conform to her particular conservative outlook. It’s saying something that Owen is a regular dissenter on a Texas Supreme Court made up mostly of other conservative Republicans.

No less a conservative than Alberto Gonzales once characterized Owen’s opinion in a Texas abortion case as “an unconscionable act of judicial activism”. In other words, even among conservative judges, she stood out as particularly radical.

The stipulation in the recent Texas abortion law (the one Wendy Davis delayed for a session with her famous state-legislature filibuster) that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges in local hospitals is one of a number of regulations designed to close clinics, and is largely devoid of any legitimate purpose. The lower-court judge found that the law was “without a rational basis and places a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion.” Similar laws in Wisconsin and other states have been blocked by federal judges.

But thanks to Judge Owen, this one is allowed to take effect. Abortion clinics are already closing, and it is estimated the 1/3 of all abortion clinics in Texas — already not that common — will be unable to meet the requirement.

End the filibuster. Right now, conservatives are benefitting from the fact that Senate Republicans have been more willing to play hardball than Democrats. Democrats under Bush attempted to block only the most outrageous nominees, and for the most part they failed. Those judges are on the bench now, fighting the war on women.

That’s just one front of the struggle, the one whose dots were most easily connected this week. Ultra-conservative judges have brought us Citizens United, came close to constructing an entirely novel interpretation of the Commerce Clause specifically to torpedo ObamaCare, and across-the-board have extended the rights of corporations and the rich over workers, consumers, and the general public.

President Bush did not try to be “reasonable” in his appointments or seek uncontroversial nominees. He nominated the most activist conservative judges he could find, and Senate Republicans refused to let the Democrats filibuster even the worst of them.

Now that the tables have turned, the filibuster has been expanded into a general tool of minority rule. It’s time to end it, once and for all.

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  • By Seven score and ten years ago | The Weekly Sift on November 25, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    […] ongoing abuse of the filibuster should not be news to Sift readers. I’ve covered it here and here, as well as considering the larger issue of how we are slowly losing the cultural norms […]

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