Seeking Justice

  • 06/13/2013
  • Reporters Desk

Senate Republicans have blocked Obama’s judicial appointments to an unprecedented degree—and workers’ rights have been targeted. On June 4, Obama started fighting back.

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

On June 4, President Barack Obama took the unprecedented step of announcing the simultaneous nomination of three justices to fill vacancies on the Washington D.C. District Court, the second highest court in the land.

Obama nominated Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins.

“These are three of the most qualified individuals you’ll ever meet,” Obama said.

Obama made the triple announcement to focus national attention on the level of Republican obstructionism devoted to stalling and blocking his judicial appointments. As Obama explained, nominating federal judges is one of his most important duties, and the Senate has a constitutional duty to confirm or reject nominees in a timely fashion.

However, he noted, “Throughout my first term as president, the Senate too often failed to do that.”

“Too often” may have been an understatement. Twenty times during Obama’s first term, Republican filibusters had forced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to call cloture votes on district court nominees bring them up for confirmation votes. Comparatively, there was  just one cloture vote each under Clinton and Bush, according to a January report from the Alliance for Justice, a national association of over 100 progressive organizations. As a result, judicial vacancies had increased 58 percent during Obama’s first term, compared to declines of 51 percent and 13 percent in Clinton and Bush’s first terms, respectively.

“[T]he nation‘s federal courts remain in crisis,” the report stated. “Over 10 percent of all judgeships are unfilled. There are 87 current vacancies— a huge increase over the 55 vacancies when President Obama was first inaugurated—30 of which have been classified as judicial emergencies.”

Senate obstructionism is only part of the story. Activist conservative justices—especially those on the D.C. Circuit Court—have also gotten into the act, at times even performing as a tag team with GOP Senators. Nowhere has this been more evident than when dealing with labor law and the body which enforces it, the National Labor Relations Board. Not only have GOP senators blocked judicial nominations, they’ve blocked numerous executive branch appointments as well, not just preventing individuals chosen by the president from serving, but actually crippling agencies in an effort to block implementation of laws they don’t like, but don’t have anywhere near the votes to change.

Two recent recent decisions involving the NLRB are shocking examples. Last month, on May 7, in NAM vs. NLRB, the D.C. District Court held that it was unconstitutional for the NLRB to require employers to display an 11-by-17-inch poster reviewing the full range of right that are guaranteed to workers under the National Labor Relations Act, including the right to join and form unions and to advocate for better wages and working conditions, as well as the right not to join a union.

The court ruled that requiring employers to display the poster would violate their First Amendment free speech rights, which it said included a “right to silence.” This directly contradicted the language of their own 2003 ruling, when they found that it was perfectly legal for then-President Bush to require all federal contractors to display a notice only highlighting workers’ right not to join unions.

In that case, the court said, “[A]n employer’s right to silence is sharply constrained in the labor context, and leaves it subject to a variety of burdens to post notices of rights and risks.”

In response to the June ruling, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said:

“The Republican judges of the D.C. Circuit continue to wreak havoc on workers’ rights. … In today’s workplace, employers are required to display posters explaining wage and hour rights, health and safety and discrimination laws, even emergency escape routes. The circuit court’s ruling suggests that courts should strike down hundreds of notice requirements, not only those that inform workers about their rights and warn them of hazards, but also those on cigarette packages, in home mortgages and many other areas.”

That sharp reversal of established law was not an isolated incident. Earlier this year, on Jan. 25, in deciding Noel Canning v. NLRB, the same court overturned a practice that had gone unchallenged for almost 150 years. It ruled that Obama’s recess appointment of three NLRB board members (made necessary by GOP obstruction of the normal appointment process) was unconstitutional: the president only had the power to make such appointments in between sessions of Congress, the court ruled, and not when a given session of Congress was in recess. As a result, an entire year of NLRB rulings were invalidated.

Nevermind that presidents had been making such appointments since Reconstruction. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney cited 285 “intrasession” recess appointments from 1867 to 2004. The practice only became unconstitutional when Republicans in Congress started blocking all of Obama’s appointments, shutting down parts of the government, and he responded just as other presidents before him had done. In the case of the NLRB vacancies, it meant that the board could not function—employers could violate labor laws with unprecedented levels of impunity.

Republicans have responded with bombastic hypocrisy. On the one hand, they have falsely decried Obama’s triple nomination as “court packing”, when it was simply a dramatization involving his normal responsibility to fill existing vacancies. On the other hand, they’ve advanced a real court-packing scheme of their own: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has introduced a bill to eliminate the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court, which would block Obama’s appointments and preserve the current right-wing dominance of that court.

This struggle isn’t only a matter of labor law—as Trumka himself noted in his comments. With Republicans blocking virtually everything in Congress, Obama’s second term agenda seems increasingly reliant on executive power, and the DC Circuit hears virtually all cases challenging such power, including environmental and consumer protection, for example. Thus, the battle to confirm the three justices announced on June 4 is very much a battle to see if Obama will be allowed to govern at all in the years ahead. And not surprisingly, the rights of workers stand squarely in the middle of that fight.

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