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Progressive coalition launches $1 million campaign backing Supreme Court reform

United for Democracy is putting cash behind growing calls from the left for Congress to rein in the Supreme Court and its conservative majority.

By Nick Vachon - June 14, 2023
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The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 2, 2023.
FILE - The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 2, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File Photo)

United for Democracy, a coalition of more than 100 progressive advocacy organizations, grassroots groups, and labor unions, announced a campaign Tuesday calling on Congress to “rein in the court.” The campaign will highlight the consequences of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and encourage people to pressure their elected representatives to take legislative action.

In a press release, the coalition, which counts the American Federation of Teachers, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Service Employees International Union as members, said that it plans to spend $1 million in a swing state ad campaign targeting Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In the past year and a half, public confidence in the nation’s highest court has sunk to a historic low, a decline precipitated in part by the conservative majority’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that ended the constitutional right to abortion.

The group’s effort is a reflection of discontent among Democrats, many of whom believe the court needs to be reformed. Proponents have solutions that range from tougher ethics rules to adding more justices. New concerns over conservative Justice Clarence Thomas’ close relationship with a Republican megadonor have supercharged demands for ethics reform.

“It’s now clearer than ever that this Supreme Court has grabbed unprecedented power, shattered long-standing precedent, ignored judicial norms, rejected basic ethics and transparency, and is implementing an extreme partisan agenda that Americans have continuously rejected,” Stasha Rhodes, the group’s director, told the American Independent Foundation.

The ad buy is the first piece of a national movement that Rhodes said will directly engage with Congress, organize events across the country calling for court reform, and build support among members of its coalition partners.

Issue groups who may have been hesitant to weigh in on the Supreme Court before now understand that they don’t have a choice. More importantly, they understand that we have to use our collective power to fight back and protect our freedoms together. United for Democracy is creating a nationwide, movementwide coordinated effort to call out the Supreme Court and educate people about the impact it’s having on their lives and to pressure Congress to put it on their agenda and take action.

UFD’s inaugural ad features four people, identified in the spot as a Catholic priest, a teacher, the mother of a survivor of a school shooting, and an ex-service member and gun owner, condemning recent decisions made by the court’s conservative majority.

“It’s time Congress acts — for my students’ futures, for our communities, for our country,” the featured speakers say.

The news site Semafor notes that the five targeted states are home to some of the most vulnerable incumbent Democratic senators running for reelection in 2024.

Over the past year, the court’s six conservative justices have rolled back the ability of states to pass gun safety laws, eroded the federal government’s authority to regulate water pollution and carbon emissions, and ended the constitutional right to abortion. By some analyses, the court is the most right-wing it’s been in almost 100 years.

However, the coaltion is not endorsing specific policy solutions. “There are a lot of smart ideas for making the Supreme Court more accountable and transparent,” Rhodes said. “The problem isn’t a lack of ideas. It’s that Congress hasn’t moved. Our goal is to build political momentum to widen the window of opportunity for reforms to be enacted.”

In the wake of the Dobbs ruling, Republicans’ and Democrats’ approval of the court sharply diverged: Before the ruling, nearly half of Republicans and slightly more than a third of Democrats approved of the court; after the ruling, 75% of Republicans approved, while just 13% of Democrats did.

Earlier this year, a series of revelations about Justice Thomas further galvanized calls from the left to reform the court.

Reporting by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative newsroom, uncovered decades of extensive financial ties between Thomas and billionaire Harlan Crow, a real estate tycoon and a major Republican donor.

According to the reports, Crow has taken Thomas and his family on luxury all-expenses-paid vacations to far-flung locales almost every year for decades, paid the private school tuition of one of Thomas’ relatives, and even bought Thomas’ mother’s house.

Crow’s largesse makes no appearance in Thomas’ financial disclosures, a violation of a federal ethics law, according to experts interviewed by ProPublica.

In the wake of ProPublica’s reporting, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a critic of the Roberts court and a supporter of UFD, urged a federal investigation into the extent of Thomas’ and Crow’s relationship.

Any attempt to reform the court through the legislative process is likely to raise thorny constitutional issues because the court is the branch of government that determines the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. Chief Justice John Roberts, when invited by Senate Democrats to testify about the court’s ethics rules and the Thomas controversy, declined, citing his concerns about the “separation of powers” and “judicial independence.”

But in an interview last month with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Whitehouse rejected a similar line of argument, saying instead that Congress “absolutely” has the power to impose ethical safeguards on the court.

“In terms of administering how the internal ethics of the judicial branch are done, heck, the Judicial Conference, which does that, is a creation of Congress,” Whitehouse said. “[Congressional reform is] constitutional because the laws that we’re talking about right now are actually laws passed by Congress. The ethics reporting law that is at the heart of the Clarence Thomas ethics reporting scandal is a law passed by Congress.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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