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November 03, 2005

Fighting Alito: Why Chittister is the Key Case

So this is my strategy memo, for what it's worth.

To build the case against Alito, we do need to document all the ways that Alito opposes the rights of the accused, threatens abortion rights, and endangers workers rights.

But we need at least one decision that encapsulates what's wrong with Alito's view of the law, unites the maximum voters against him, and divides the potential opposition.

And that case is Chittister v. Department of Community and Economic Development, the decision where Alito ruled that the Family and Medical Leave Act did not apply to millions of state employees across the country. This was a decision that was overturned by the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Rehnquist.

There is little question that the Family and Medical Leave Act is one of the popular laws passed in recent decades -- a lifesaver for many mothers and fathers who want to stay home with a newborn or a sick family member without fear of being fired from their job for taking that time off.

Opposition to Alito's decision is a unifier-- it unites feminists, oganized labor, public employees, and soccer Moms. And by alienating working mothers especially, who depend on FMLA leave, Chittister has the potential to deeply divide the Republican base.

Other issues that motivate progressive activists-- Casey for abortion rights activists, Alito's deeply disturbing anti-union attacks or his disdain for criminal defendants -- will motivate key groups, but the question is how to we make the danger of Alito on the Supreme Court clear enough to swing voters that their Senators fear the backlash.

Politically, the pressures on parents in balancing work and family is overwhelming. That Alito would attack a common sense law like the Family and Medical Leave Act in the name of "states rights" will seem to most such voters as pure rightwing ideology. And it can be painted as exactly the judicial activism, the "legislating from the bench" that Bush claimed his judges would not engage in.

If we want to encapsulate what the "federalism revolution" means, what the "Constitution in Exile" means for average families, it is this: ordinary laws enacted by democratic majorities will randomly be struck down in the name of rightwing ideology.

It's worth thinking about why Renhquist, the original architect of the federalism legal revolution, decided to uphold the Family and Medical Leave Act when it came before the Supreme Court. A pretty fair analysis is that, aside from the legal arguments, Rehnquist recognized that a decision against the Family Leave law would create such a backlash that it might endanger the whole legal movement in the long term.

So raising the profile of Chittister should be a key strategy, to raise that spectre of a shift of the Court not just to the right of O'Connor but to the right of Renhquist and to raise pressure on those swing Senators.

Posted by Nathan at November 3, 2005 08:09 AM