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Al Franken and the Sotomayor Hearings: A Senate Star Is Born

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For spanking new Senator Al Franken (D. MN), the televised hearings and debate over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor have been a perfect opportunity to announce his arrival as an important new progressive voice on the political scene. Boy has he capitalized.

It was something special just to have Franken on the Senate Judiciary Committee, reprising a role he first played on Saturday Night Live. And after shutting down his funny-gene for most of his campaign, Franken was laugh out loud funny at times in the hearings, stumping Judge Sotomayor with a question about a Perry Mason episode, and grabbing an opportunity to briefly assume the Chairman's chair in his first week in the Senate.

But Franken knows a good comedy routine will only get him so far in the Senate. He made his name in politics by writing a series of books, most famously Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, that were simultaneously funny and brilliant, with a sharp political edge. It's this Franken that has been on display over the last several weeks during the Sotomayor confirmation process.

Indeed, alone among his colleagues, Senator Franken seems to have figured out just how fundamentally the debate over the Supreme Court has changed in Roberts Court era. While colleagues on both sides of the aisle were debating old stories about the Supreme Court of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as new conservative talking points about guns, race and property rights, Franken focused like a laser-beam on the activism of the Roberts Court.

With dramatic effect, during the Sotomayor hearings, Franken whipped out his pocket Constitution and read Section 2 of the 15th Amendment, text that should alone settle any question about the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, which the Roberts Court questioned last term. Then, this week, Franken wrapped his entire argument up with a bow in his speech supporting his vote for Judge Sonia Sotomayor (and I quote a length, because he raises several important points):

[T]his Supreme Court came close to overturning critical portions of the Voting Rights Act. The Court did this despite the powers that Congress was granted under the 15th Amendment to enact this law, and despite the fact that this body has reauthorized these measures four times, most recently just a few years ago by a vote of 98 to 0....

[T]his Supreme Court reversed a 100-year old ban on price-fixing under the Sherman Act. This shifts the burden to consumers and small businesses to show that price-fixing hurts them....

This is the same Supreme Court that said that older workers don't have the same rights in the workplace as minorities or women - that made it harder to sue for age discrimination in the workplace. It is now harder, if not practically impossible, for an older worker to sue an employer who fired him because his pension was about to increase in value.

This is the same Supreme Court that stands poised to overturn another 100-year old principle, in place since the Tillman Act of 1907, that corporations should not be spending money on our election campaigns -- not in donations, not in ads, not in anything. The Court upheld this principle in 2003, when it upheld McCain-Feingold. And yet, the Supreme Court has decided to reconsider the constitutionality of a provision it upheld just six years ago.

This is judicial activism. This is a Court that is willing to reverse itself to limit the rights of individual Americans. This is a Court that is more than willing to overturn Congress to achieve its own agenda of what is right.

And in this context, in these times, a vote for Judge Sotomayor is a vote against judicial activism.

This is spot on. Here, Sen. Franken makes precisely the argument progressives should be making to raise alarms about the direction of the Roberts Court and to make the case for judicial nominees who will respect the text and history of the Constitution. Having live blogged the Sotomayor hearings for Huffington Post, I can say with confidence that no one made these points as concisely and powerfully as Senator Al Franken did. A new Senate star is born.


Doug Kendall is the President of Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC), a law firm, think tank and action center based in Washington DC. For more on the progressive promise of the Constitution's text and history visit CAC's website or blog.