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May Book of the Month: Closing the Courthouse Door

51o5FtK+zsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Closing the Courthouse Door: How Your Constitutional Rights Became Unenforceable
By Erwin Chemerinsky
Reviewed by Andrea Woods, Reference Librarian

Esteemed constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky wrote Closing the Courthouse Door: How Your Constitutional Rights Became Unenforceable after decades of mounting frustration over how Supreme Court jurisprudence has chipped away at the ability of the federal courts to perform their most important and basic task—to enforce the Constitution. He examines how the Court has limited the ability of a plaintiff to sue state and local governments for constitutional violations, expanded immunity protection for government officers, narrowed the instances where the court will find standing for injured parties, restricted access to habeas corpus, thwarted plaintiffs from suing in class actions, and increased abstention by finding more and more cases are nonjusticiable political questions. The result of the Court’s expansion of these procedural doctrines is that many citizens are left with no remedy when their constitutional rights are violated. Chemerinsky eloquently and passionately argues that the role of the Constitution is to hold the government and its officers accountable to those whose constitutional rights have been infringed upon, and if the federal courts are not able to enforce the Constitution, then it is as if those rights did not exist at all.

Most disturbing in this snowballing trend is that the procedural doctrines the Court has expanded are entirely the Court’s own creation—they are not based on the Constitution, and they are not founded on federal statutes. For example, the defense of immunity for government officers is not found in the language of section 1983, which creates a private right of action against government officials who deprive a person of a constitutional right. Not only did the Court create this defense, but it found that some tasks warrant absolute immunity, even for the most egregious violations of a constitutional right, and even when officials act in a way that clearly exceeded their authority. Chemerinsky maintains that there is no need for absolute immunity at all because all officials have qualified immunity, but even here, the Court has made it increasingly difficult for plaintiffs to recover for their injuries by continually expanding the scope and availability of the defense.

Throughout Closing the Courthouse Door, Chemerinsky cites example after heartbreaking example where a person was left with no recourse after their constitutional rights were trampled. Because of one procedural doctrine or another, the federal courts were left unable to enforce the Constitution. Chemerinsky notes that this should be a bipartisan issue, and in fact, he surmises that many conservatives should theoretically welcome the idea of holding the government accountable for its actions. He optimistically concludes each chapter with a suggested path forward, where either the Court itself or Congress could act to rectify these erroneous doctrines. In many cases, the changes he presses for would only restore the law to what it was several years ago, before more restrictive holdings were announced. Chemerinsky posits that the federal courts have been diminished as a co-equal branch of government as a result of abstaining from hearing many types of cases, and that we as a nation should want our courts to be able to ensure that constitutional wrongs can be righted.

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December Book of the Month: Corporations Are Not People

Corporations Are Not PeopleCorporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy from Big Money and Global Corporations
By Jeffrey D. Clements
Reviewed by Aaron Parsons, Reference Librarian

In Corporations Are Not People, author and San Francisco Law Library MCLE speaker Jeffrey Clements argues for and enlists readers’ help in passing a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United. This 2010 Supreme Court decision invalidated or weakened campaign finance laws like McCain-Feingold, and has allowed billions of dollars in corporate funded influence and “attack ads” to drown out average citizens’ voices, ideas, and opinions, in favor of narrow and powerful moneyed interests. This corporate influence, Clements argues, produces an anathema to the democratic protections that were written into our Constitution “of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

Clements discusses similar historical upswings of organized corporatism and traces the current tide as the long-term effect of a push back against environmentalists beginning with the first Earth Day in 1970. The corporate response was an organized attempt to curtail environmental and other regulation, and was led by Lewis Powell—a corporate lawyer and tobacco corporation executive, who would take a new wave of corporate activism onto the U.S. Supreme Court where he wrote corporation-favoring precursor cases to Citizens United, such as First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti. Under Powell’s influence, corporations “gained vastly increased political power at the expense of average citizens.”

But what is a corporation, and what are corporate rights, asks Clements? He says that, strangely, the definition of a corporation is left vague and described in “word clouds” in Citizens United and other decisions that Justice John Paul Stevens called “glittering generalities.” These generalities allow corporations, as government created entities, to wear sheep’s clothing at the same table that people enjoy, where they are protected by laws, including the Bill of Rights. Clements provides statistics showing the billions spent on lobbying and on saturation advertising in elections by a handful of corporations. He argues that those efforts promote the interests of a few giant corporations at the expense of both conservative and liberal points of view.

Clements offers many resources and avenues to get involved in changing government to work more effectively for the people instead of for a few massive corporations, including his organization, American Promise, that seeks to enact a 28th Amendment to the Constitution and is backed by an increasing number of states, politicians, and Americans from across the political spectrum.

Corporations Are Not People was generously donated to the Library by Mr. Clements.


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The Oxford Handbook of the U.S. Constitution and Freedom of Speech

Oxford HandbookThe Oxford Handbook of the U.S. Constitution

Edited by Mark Tushnet, Mark A. Graber, and Sanford Levinson

The U.S. Constitution may be 230 years old, but it’s as relevant today as ever. Learn more about it in The Oxford Handbook of the U.S. Constitution, a collection of interdisciplinary essays edited by Mark Tushnet, Mark A. Graber, and Sanford Levinson. This title offers an overview and introduction to the Constitution, and is divided into sections on History, Political Science, Law, Rights, and Themes. The essay on Free Speech and Free Press, both hot issues, explores the history of freedom of speech, including its opposing traditions of dissent and suppression, initial Supreme Court cases and their impact on democracy and free expression, and recent developments in the field. Additional essays cover citizenship, emergency powers, constitutional authority, and more. Stay informed about current issues and the Constitution by reading this book at the Library today!


Interested in learning more on Freedom of Speech? Check out these websites for easy guidance on what free speech really means:

The U.S. Courts What does Free Speech Mean? page presents examples of the legal elements of free speech with links to landmark cases providing the legal context and reasons behind each issue. Use this site to understand your rights to free speech and what is considered a violation.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Free Speech site presents a timeline of free speech in America; a listing of guides to current issues such as Internet Speech and the Rights of Protesters; and coverage of free speech issues in the news. Use this site to gain understanding of current issues and happenings regarding free speech.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Free Speech site provides guidance on the “Internet as a platform for free expression through law, technology, and activism.” Included here are topics such as anonymity, bloggers rights, and current analysis of online free speech issues in the news. Use this site to understand free speech in the online world.