Courts Reject Lawsuit Challenging U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

Today is Election Day in the U.S. Most public opinion polls and political commentators say that the Republican Party is likely to emerge from the election with at least a simple majority in the U.S. Senate, i.e., more than 50 Senate seats. As a Democrat I lament this likely result and probably should be glad that the Senate’s filibuster rule will provide the Democrats in the Senate with a means to block at least some of the Republican-backed measures in the next Session of Congress. But I am not pleased with the possible use of the filibuster by the Senate Democrats. I have believed, and still believe, that the filibuster rule is an abomination and should be eliminated, as has been discussed in many prior posts.

Such elimination, however, will not come from the courts.

As discussed in a prior post, on May 14, 2012, Common Cause, a non-profit organization, joined by four members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three private citizens commenced a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of U.S. Senate Rule XXII that requires at least 60 votes to stop debate and proceed to a vote on the merits of a bill or other proposal. In other words, the rule that permits filibusters.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia on December 21, 2012, dismissed the complaint in the case. (Common Cause v. Biden, 909 F. Supp. 2d 9 (D.D.C. 2012).) The court held that none of the plaintiffs had standing to bring the case and that the case presented a non-justiciable political question. This decision also was covered in a prior post.

On April 15, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit unanimously affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, but on different grounds.

According to the Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs failed to sue the proper defendant: the U.S. Senate or a U.S. Senator. The reason this was not done is apparent. The U.S. “Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause provides that ‘for any Speech or Debate in either House,’ Senators and Representatives ‘shall not be questioned in any other Place.’ U.S. CONST. art I, § 6. The Clause confers immunity for any act that falls ‘within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity.’ Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491, 503 (1975); see also Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168, 204 (1880) (the Clause covers all ‘things generally done in a session of the House [or Senate] by one of its members in relation to the business before it’). And it protects not only elected legislators but their aides, to whom legislative work is delegated. See Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606, 616-18 (1972). That is, the Clause covers aides when their conduct ‘would be a protected legislative act if performed by the Member himself.’ Id. at 618.”

As a result, the Court of Appeals held it had no jurisdiction to decide the case on the merits.

On November 3, 2014, the case ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of certiorari, i.e., refusal to hear the case on the merits. (Common Cause v. Biden, No. 14-253 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 3, 2014).)

Common Cause immediately issued a statement criticizing the Supreme Court’s action. Its President, Miles Rapoport said, “The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Common Cause’s case challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule is both shortsighted and ominous. Instead of protecting debate, the 60-vote filibuster rule has shut down discussion on important legislation, from a living wage to addressing climate change.” Rapoport added, “the extreme use of the filibuster has led to partisan gridlock and dysfunction that ultimately robs the American people of a Senate that should be responsive to the needs of our country.” Moreover, “the Supreme Court let stand a DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision that makes it logically impossible to challenge Senate rules that violate the Constitution.”

Although I share Common Cause’s disappointment in the failure to have the filibuster rule eliminated, I am not surprised by the courts’ refusal to treat the issue on the merits. Indeed, courts in our constitutional system should not be deciding issues like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congress Passes Violence Against Women Act of 2013

U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. House of Representatives

On February 28th the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The vote was 286 to 138. The majority was comprised of 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans. All of the 138 negative votes were Republicans while 7 other Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, did not vote.

This House action came immediately after the House had rejected a weaker version offered by Minority Leader Eric Cantor, 166-257. The prevailing negative votes came from 197 Democrats and 60 Republicans.

This action is significant in several respects.

First, the Act includes for the first time protection of gay, bisexual or transgender female victims of domestic abuse and of Native American women who are victims of certain kinds of violence by non-Indian men.

As discussed in a prior post, I have been most concerned about the jurisdictional “black hole” that has prevented investigation and prosecution of abuse of Native women by non-Indian men, and the bill now passed by Congress remedies that defect.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

Novelist and Native-American Louise Erdrich highlighted this jurisdictional problem in her novel The Round House, and she recently penned an op-ed article in the New York Times that countered criticisms of the tribal courts jurisdictional provision in this bill.

Erdrich said the “Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped over her lifetime, while other sources report that many Native women are too demoralized to report rape.  Perhaps this is because federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. [In addition’] . . . a Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.”

Moreover, according to Erdrich, the “Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center says this gap in the law has attracted non-Indian habitual sexual predators to tribal areas . . . [and another source] has found that rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season.”

Erdrich also defends the abilities and fairness of tribal courts against the charge that they would be unfair to non-Indian defendants. She says,“Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.” In addition, “[t]ribal judges know they must make impeccable decisions . . . that they are being watched closely and must defend their hard-won jurisdiction. Our courts and lawyers cherish every tool given by Congress. Nobody wants to blow it by convicting a non-Indian without overwhelming, unshakable evidence.”

Erdrich’s comments are echoed in a New York Times editorial that stated, “Violence and crime rage unchecked in Indian country, yet the federal government, the primary law enforcer on reservations, is investigating and prosecuting fewer violent felonies, and reducing financing for tribal courts and public-safety programs. That is a scandal . . . . [and]  a moral atrocity.”

Second, the House Republican leadership permitted the Senate version to come to the floor even though it did not have the support of a majority of the Republican members. This was a “violation” of the so-called unofficial Hastert Rule established by a previous Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, whereby the Republican majority would only bring to the floor for a vote measures that were supported by a “majority of the majority.” Moreover, this was the third time this year that the Hastert Rule has not been followed. The other occasions were a bill to avert automatic tax increases and a bill providing relief for states hit by Hurricane Sandy.

John Boehner
John Boehner

Although this three-time refusal to follow the Hastert Rule upsets at least some of the more conservative Republican Representatives, I applaud Speaker Boehner’s acting as a Speaker of the entire House of Representatives, not just the Republican caucus. I hope that he continues to do so or that a truly bipartisan Speaker replaces him.

It must also be noted that allowing the VAWA bill to come to the floor for a vote and to be passed is a reversal of  longstanding House Republican opposition to the bill. This change is seen as a recognition by at least some of the House GOP leadership that the party needed to try to repair its standing among women, who gave the Democrats a substantial margin of victory in the 2012 election. Apparently 13 Republican Representatives who are announced or likely candidates for the Senate in 2014 disagree with this political judgment as they voted against VAWA on Thursday.

President Obama
President Obama

Immediately after the House action President Obama expressed his approval of the House action:“Today’s vote will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and members of the LGBT community.  I want to thank leaders from both parties . . . for everything they’ve done to make this happen.  Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk.”

Joseph Biden
Joseph Biden

 

Vice President Biden also applauded the House and thanked “the leaders from both parties . . . and the bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate” for passage of the bill.