Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ended this Supreme Court session with a bang, writing the majority opinion in two cases that gave for-profit corporations the right to make religious liberty claims to evade government regulation and set the stage for the fulfillment of a central goal of the right-wing political movement: the destruction of public employee unions.
Neither of the decisions was particularly surprising. Samuel Alito is the single most pro-corporate Justice on the most pro-business Court since the New Deal. Still, Alito's one-two punch was another extraordinary milestone for the strategists who have been working for the past 40 years to put business firmly in the driver's seat of American politics.
Many would suggest that the modern right-wing movement began with the failed presidential bid of Barry Goldwater. But there's a strong case to be made that it begins in earnest with a 1971 memo by Lewis Powell, who argued that American businesses were losing public support and called for a massive, continuing campaign to wage war on leftist academics, progressive nonprofit groups, and politicians. The memo by Powell, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court via a nomination by Richard Nixon, inspired a few very wealth men like Adolph Coors, John M. Olin, and Richard Mellon Scaife, who set about creating and funding a massive infrastructure of think tanks, endowed academic chairs, law schools and right-wing legal groups, including the Federalist Society, which has nurtured Alito's career.
Chief among the right-wing movement's tactics has been building sufficient political power to achieve ideological dominance over the federal judiciary. As activists like Richard Viguerie recruited foot soldiers to help win elections for the GOP, the Federalist Society built the intellectual foundations for an extreme conservative legal movement that would gain traction when its members won confirmation to the federal bench. That process began in earnest during the Reagan administration and reached new heights during the George W. Bush administration with the ascendance to the Supreme Court of John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Samuel Alito was, is, and always has been a man of the movement, an ideological warrior with a clear set of goals. His commitment to achieving those goals by any means available to him is reflected in his record in the Reagan Justice Department, the White House Office of Legal Counsel, as an appeals court judge, and now as a Supreme Court justice, where he is helping to wage a legal counterrevolution aimed at reversing hard-won advances protecting workers, the environment, and the rights of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people.
He remains an active part of the political and legal movement that shepherded his rise to power. The Federalist Society's Leonard Leo steered Alito's Supreme Court nomination through the White House and Senate. Alito has returned the favor, participating in numerous events for the Federalist Society even after he became a member of the Supreme Court. He has shown no concern about positioning himself as part of the movement, telling listeners at a Federalist Society dinner in 2012 that the Obama administration is promoting a vision of society "in which the federal government towers over people." He has also helped raise funds at events for the right-wing American Spectator Magazine (where he mocked VP-elect Joe Biden), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Manhattan Institute.
Alito's class at Princeton was the last all-male class at the university, and when Alito was angling for a promotion within the Reagan-Meese Justice Department in 1985, he bragged that he was a "proud member" of Conservative Alumni of Princeton, a group that aggressively fought the university's efforts to diversify its student body by accepting more women and people of color. (He developed a surprisingly thorough amnesia on the topic between his Justice Department days and his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.)
At the Justice Department, Alito was part of a team that pushed to limit civil rights protections and advance a right-wing legal ideology. Even in that hothouse of right-wing activism, he was an outlier, unsuccessfully trying to push Ronald Reagan to veto an uncontroversial bill against odometer fraud on the grounds of federalism. Alito argued that it is not the job of the federal government to protect the "health, safety, and welfare" of Americans. He continued to push that kind of federalism argument as a judge, dissenting from a ruling that upheld a federal law restricting the sale of machine guns. On the Third Circuit Court of Appeals he was often the lone dissenter staking out far-right interpretations of the law that consistently sacrificed the rights and interests of individuals to powerful corporate or other institutions.
Among the right-wing movement's key long-term goals - from the Nixon era up until today - has been to rig the system to prevent progressives from being able to win elections and exercise political influence. They have sought to "defund the left" by starving government agencies and progressive nonprofits of funds and by weakening or destroying organized labor, which is a crucial source of funding and organizing efforts for progressive causes and candidates. For example, the DeVos family pushed anti-union "right to work" legislation in their home state of Michigan, and the Koch brothers and their political networks have poured massive resources into the political arm of the movement, exemplified by politicians who, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are hell-bent on the destruction of public employee unions.
Alito's recent decision in the Harris v. Quinn case was just the latest step towards that goal. In that case, Alito and his conservative colleagues invented a new employee classification in order to declare that one class of workers paid by the state are not subject to the same labor laws as other public employees. The decision was prefigured in a 2012 case, Knox v. SEIU, in which Alito led an attack on unions by deciding to answer a question that had not even come before them in the case. In essence, he and the other conservative justices argued that a system that allows workers to opt out of assessments for unions' political work was suddenly unconstitutional, and required an opt-in. Justice Sotomayor slammed the Alito decision for ruling on an issue which the SEIU had not even been given an opportunity to address. That kind of right-wing activism moved People For the American Way Foundation's Paul Gordon to write that the Court's conservative judges "might as well have taken off their judicial robes and donned Scott Walker T-shirts in their zeal to make it harder for unions to protect workers."
In his Harris decision, Alito went out of his way to invite right-wing legal groups to bring a more far-reaching case, one that would finally give him and his pro-business colleagues an opportunity to take a sledgehammer to public employee unions by eliminating, in the name of the First Amendment, the requirement (specifically upheld by the Supreme Court over 30 years ago) that workers benefitting from a collective bargaining agreement help pay for the costs of negotiating that kind of agreement. That would devastate union financing, sharply limiting their ability to protect their members and potentially setting up a death spiral as fewer employees would see the benefits of joining (and paying dues to) the unions. Not coincidentally, this would also severely weaken the progressive political organizations and parties that unions have long supported. Movement conservatives have long looked forward to checking that off their "to do" list.
Alito's determination to re-write federal law in ways that strengthen corporate power and undermine workers' rights was also on display a few years earlier, when he wrote an indefensible opinion -- joined by his conservative colleagues -- in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Alito ignored judicial precedent, common sense, and the clear purpose of the law in order to create an unreasonable deadline for making a pay discrimination claim, one that would be insurmountable for someone who was not immediately aware that they were being discriminated against. Lilly Ledbetter, a loyal Goodyear employee who learned she had been paid less than male colleagues for years, was, in the words of law professor and PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin, "judicial roadkill along the highway in the majority's campaign to restrict, rewrite, and squash anti-discrimination law." Alito also wrote the 5-4 majority opinion in last year's Vance v. Ball State decision, which made it easier for companies to avoid liability in discrimination cases by declaring that someone who directs an employee's day-to-day activities doesn't count as a "supervisor" unless they have power to take "tangible employment actions" against them like firing them. As in the Ledbetter case, Alito ignored how workplaces really work in order to reach his result.
In Hobby Lobby, the other blockbuster case this week, Alito wrote a decision declaring, for the first time ever, that for-profit corporations have "religious exercise" rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In order to do so, Alito had to ignore common sense (for-profit corporations don't have religion), to say nothing of the clear historical record and explicit statutory language that RFRA was intended to return the state of the law to the era before the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith (which many believed undermined protection for religious minorities). In the face of all evidence, Alito argued, in Ginsburg's words, that RFRA was "a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence."
In an effort reminiscent of the Supreme Court's "applies only in this case" approach to Bush v Gore, Alito argued that his ruling was "concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate" and applied solely to closely held corporations.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn't let him get away with it, calling Alito's ruling "a decision of startling breadth." Having created an entirely new legal avenue by which closely held for-profit companies (which includes about 90 percent of American businesses, hiring more than half of the nation's workforce) can try to evade regulation, Alito has undoubtedly generated excited activity in right-wing legal organizations who are likely to use the ruling to try to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws for business owners that oppose homosexuality or gender equality, or perhaps for evangelical business owners who believe the Bible opposes minimum wage laws and collective bargaining. And he gave no limiting principle on extending RFRA to for-profit corporations, leaving open the question as to whether an enormous publicly-traded corporation like IBM or GE would also count as a "person" with religious liberty rights under RFRA.
Alito's insistence that the Court must accept the plaintiff's claim of "substantial burden" on religious free exercise based on their belief that some forms of contraception cause abortion -- in spite of the consensus of the medical and scientific establishment to the contrary and Justice Ginsburg's explanation of why that belief does not translate into a "substantial burden" -- was prefigured by an argument he made when working in the Office of Legal Counsel, where he helped write a memo arguing that, in spite of anti-discrimination provisions, employers in federally funded program could exclude people with AIDS regardless of whether or not their "fear of contagion" was reasonable.
Given that the Hobby Lobby case has been trumpeted by the right as a victory for "religious liberty," it is worth noting that, in this year's 5-4 Town of Greece decision, Alito joined his conservative colleagues in a decision that showed little regard for the religious beliefs of citizens of minority faiths whose public town board meetings were consistently begun with sectarian prayers. During consideration of his nomination to the Supreme Court, the editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution had written that Alito would be "likely to further erode the protections that have kept the majority from imposing their religious views on the minority."
Alito also joined the Court's 5-4 majority in last year's decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, another long-pursued goal of the right-wing movement. That decision, in Shelby County v Holder, is another example of the step-by-step shift in the law being pursued by the conservative justices. Shelby was built in part on a 2009 Voting Rights Act decision in which the Court declined to vote on the constitutionality of the provisions they threw out in Shelby, but in which Chief Justice John Roberts included language about "constitutional concerns" that he would later cite in Shelby. Earlier in his career, Alito made clear that he disagreed with Court decisions that established the crucial "one man, one vote" principle that undergirds many voting rights protections.
As a Supreme Court justice, Samuel Alito has demonstrated the traits of the right-wing movement from which he emerged: he denounces judicial activism while aggressively pursuing it; he is willing to twist laws, precedents, and established processes in order to advance his political goals; and he has often demonstrated contempt for those who disagree with him, as when he rolled his eyes and shook his head while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent in the Shelby County case.
Much of the initial news coverage of the Hobby Lobby and Harris cases focused on the description of them by their author as being "limited" rather than "sweeping" in scope. That ignores the clear evidence from those cases, and from the record of the Roberts court, that Roberts and Alito are playing a long game. They have decades in which to relentlessly push the agenda that has been fostered by right-wing legal and political groups for the past four decades. Their one-step-after-another dismantling of campaign finance law, from Citizens United to McCutcheon, makes it clear that Roberts and Alito see the value of patience and of presenting a public image of restraint while carrying out a revolution. But a revolution they are pursuing, one in which the First Amendment's protections for religious freedom and free speech are manipulated in the service of undermining religious liberty, the rights of workers, and the ability of the government to regulate corporate behavior.