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Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse Takes Aim at SCOTUS

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse—He Aims to Save Us From this “Honorable” Supreme Court – July 16, 2023


The current SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United) State’s recent opinions are clearly not in step with the American people. They veer in a hard-right direction aimed at pleasing the economic top 1% and the “red-meat” MAGA social conservatives. In the 2021 -2022 term, the Roberts SCOTUS overturned “Roe v. Wade” and gutted reasonable gun control. In its latest 2022-2023 term, it denied college debt relief to millions of middle and lower-middle class Americans, ruled against LGBTQ rights, and overturned affirmative action which many people believed help make the U.S. a more diverse nation. In a dissent by Justice Elena Kagan, she stated that the High Court is “violating the Constitution by exercising authority it does not have.” The Roberts Court is not the first High Court to be so out of touch with the President and the American people. In the early to mid-1930’s the Supreme Court kept throwing out FDR’s New Deal programs as unconstitutional because they violated the ridiculously 19th Century idea of poor workers being “equally” able to contract with their super-rich employers, the “freedom of contract” drivel. FDR proposed adding additional Justices who would not have such reactionary views. Although that so-called “Court packing” plan failed, the High Court soon decided to allow economic legislation enacted by the States and Congress to pass that was reasonably justified. That political turnaround by the Hughes SCOTUS was aptly called the “switch in time that saved nine.” Before the 1930’s SCOTUS started affirming New Deal legislation, many liberals made fun of the opening phrase intoned by the Court’s marshal to open its sessions. The marshal would proclaim, “May God Save the United States AND this Honorable Court.” The liberal satire went, “May God Save the United States FROM This Honorable Court.” Well, many Americans, including many Democratic legislators, now believe we are in a second “May God Save the United States FROM This Honorable Court” era.


After Congress returns from its July 4th recess, the Senate, under Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) plans to open hearings to advance ethics reform by SCOTUS. As we all know by now, SCOTUS Justices, unlike lower federal court judges, have no code of ethics that they are bound to follow. It has recently been disclosed that Justices Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito have been embroiled in ethical controversies that raise possible conflicts of interest issues. Justice Thomas has received generous financial help to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars from conservative real estate magnate and close friend Harlan Crow. Thomas and his wife Ginni were gifted with thousands of dollars in annual vacation trips by Crow for decades. Crow helped pay for Thomas’ grand-nephews’s private school tuition (AP, Khalil, 4/13/23, cbsnews.com, Quinn, 5/04/23). Within months of his going on the High Court in October, 1991, Justice Thomas became a member of the Horatio Alger Society. In that group, Thomas associated with extraordinary wealthy and mainly conservative individuals. He has been welcomed to Horatio Alger vacation retreats and visited with these members. Every year, in the SCOTUS chambers, Thomas presides over that society’s major event—he places medals around the necks of new lifetime Horatio Alger members. Many members of this group have political interests and financial stakes in the SCOTUS decisions Thomas decides. Thomas has not disclosed many of the gifts and airplane flights he has received from his fellow Horatio Alger members and friends (See nytimes.com, VanSickle & Eder, 7/09/23). Justice Alito took a luxury fishing trip in 7/2008 with hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer who had several cases pending before SCOTUS. If Singer won those cases, he would benefit financially. Singer did win those cases and Alito voted with the majority in those opinions (propublica.org, Elliott, Kaplan, & Mierjeski, 6/20/23). Justice Thomas did not report his financial dealings with Crow. One of the very few rules on ethics that the Supreme Ct. currently has requires such reporting (See apnews.com, Khalil, 4/13/23). According to Senator Durbin, at these SCOTUS ethics hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee will push legislation called “the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act.” This legislation is sponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and in the House by Cong. Hank Johnson (D-GA). This proposed law would create a much-needed process for investigating misconduct at the Court. It will strengthen recusal standards for judges and disclosure rules for special interests trying to influence the courts. It will improve disclosure of travel and hospitality for judges and mandate creation of a binding code of ethics. SCOTUS Justices would have to adhere to the same disclosure standards for gifts, travel, and income as members of Congress (See whitehouse.senate.gov/news/release, 6/15/23, kos, 7/07/23). Let’s meet Sen. Whitehouse.


Third -term Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (67) is Rhode Island’s junior Senator. Although RI is the most Catholic state in the nation and mainly composed of blue-collar workers, it has a tradition of electing to the Senate wealthy blue-blood WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Many of those WASPS were connected or descended from the original settlers who previously ran that state. These included Theodore Green, Claiborne Pell, as well as John Chafee and his son Lincoln. Sen. Whitehouse shares that ancestry. Sen. Whitehouse’s father Charles was an undergraduate roommate of John Chafee at Yale University. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is descended from Charles Crocker, one of California’s “Big Four” magnates who built the Central Pacific Railroad (See Cohen & Cook 2022 Political Almanac, “Fifty States, Every Question Answered,” 2017, Baird, Brousseau, & Rose). Whitehouse’s father served as U.S. Ambassador to Laos and Thailand in the 1970’s. Sheldon Whitehouse, a native of New York City, grew up overseas. As a teenager, Whitehouse taught English to Vietnamese children in Saigon. He graduated from St. Paul’s prep school, received a 1978 diploma from Yale, and obtained a law degree in 1982 from the University of Virginia Law School (Cohen & Cook 2022).


In 1984, Whitehouse moved to RI to take a job as state assistant attorney general. In 1991, Whitehouse was named a top staffer to Democratic Governor Bruce Sundlun. Whitehouse served two years as head of Sundlun’s state Department of Business Regulation. In 1994, Dem. Senator Claiborne Pell, a family friend, recommended Whitehouse for the job as RI’s U.S. Attorney, an appointment that the Clinton administration gave him. In that office, Whitehouse launched an undercover probe that ended up convicting Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci on corruption charges. As RI’s U.S. Atty., Whitehouse additionally led an investigation that resulted in polluters paying the largest fine in state history for an oil spill in Narragansett Bay (Cohen & Cook 2022 Almanac).


In 1998, Whitehouse ran for state attorney general. He won the Democratic primary. In the general election, his GOP candidate forced Whitehouse to admit that he once tried drugs as a student. She also attacked him as “lacking the common touch and being unable to relate to people.” Translation: ”He’s a WASPY dilettante.” However, her highly negative ads about Whitehouse’s long ago drug use backfired and Whitehouse clobbered his opponent 67%-23% (Cohen & Cook 2022). In 2002, Whitehouse ran for governor, but lost the primary by 926 votes after being outspent 2:1. In 2006, Whitehouse ran for the U.S. Senate and won the Democratic Senate primary. In the general election, he ran against first-term incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the late GOP Sen. John Chafee’s son. Whitehouse and Lincoln Chafee were pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-stem cell research. Whitehouse campaigned against “W” Bush’s unpopular administration in heavily “Blue” RI. He ran an easily remembered ad, “Finally, a Whitehouse in Washington you can trust.” He won by eight points, 54%-46%. His victory was the first time in 70 years that a sitting RI Senator had lost. Whitehouse was among 8 new Democratic Senators who pushed that party into the majority in Congress’ upper chamber. Whitehouse was easily re-elected in 2012 and 2018, winning with 65% and 61% of the vote respectively (Cohen & Cook 2022).


In the Senate, Whitehouse chairs the Budget Committee. He also sits on the Environment & Public Works, Finance, and Judiciary Committees (Cohen & Cook 2022). In strongly Democratic RI, he has received 100% scores from the League of Conservation Voters and Labor’s AFL-CIO. Sen. Whitehouse has often relished the role of attack dog. He is best known for his work on pushing climate change as well as for going after the reactionary Roberts Supreme Ct. and its appointees. From 2012-2021, Sen. Whitehouse delivered weekly Senate floor speeches on the dangers posed by climate change. He became Congress’ most persistent voice on this issue. Each week that the Senate was in session, Whitehouse stood in front of a picture of Earth taken from space. On that picture were the words, “Time to wake up.” Sen. Whitehouse claimed he never gave the same speech on this topic because of all the matters that climate change dealt with. Whitehouse’s wife Sandra is a marine scientist and he credits her with helping him recognize the ocean’s importance in everyone’s lives (Cohen & Cook 2022). During the Trump administration, Sen. Whitehouse accused the GOP of not talking about this issue. He attacked Trump’s executive branch for gagging American scientists and civil servants and striking the term “climate change” off government websites. He accused business of being “at best doing zero; at worst, supporting really horrible trade associations that have been the worst climate obstructors in America.” In a 3/2019 NBC News op-ed, Whitehouse specifically went after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for its “obstructive stance on climate.” Whitehouse worked with both Democrats and GOPers on climate change. He teamed up on this matter with Brian Schatz (D-HI) as well as Mike Braun (R-IN), Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV), and Trump ally Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to make industry less carbon intensive (Cohen & Cook 2022).

In 2019, Whitehouse led five Democratic Senators in filing an amicus brief before SCOTUS that argued that since NY had changed a gun law in question, there was no need to take this case to loosen gun laws in the country. SCOTUS decided not to take that case. However, that Whitehouse victory was not permanent. After Amy Coney Barrett took the late Justice Ginsburg’s High Court seat, SCOTUS, in 2022, did loosen gun control (See Cohen & Cook 2022). Sen. Whitehouse pushes his strong progressive positions in newspapers and books. In 2017, he wrote a book “Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Business.” In this book, he took aim not only at his own Senate, but especially at the role of “dark money” that unduly influences SCOTUS. In another strongly written book, which I read and recommend, “The Scheme,” (2022), he goes into greater depth about how the right wing used dark money, sums from unnamed sources to capture the Supreme Court. Whitehouse told the Washington Post, “Right now, probably the most consequential influence-seeking in America is not done by lobbyists, it’s done by people showing up in the Supreme Court and asking the Supreme Court to make decisions in their favor (Cohen & Cook 2022). Whitehouse gained notice by his strong questioning of Trump SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barrett. He spent much time telling her and the rest of the nation about how the reactionary Federalist Society, of which Barrett was a member, runs Trump’s judiciary (Cohen & Cook). Whitehouse helped derail Matthew Petersen, a Trump nominee for a D.C. District Court seat. Whitehouse posted on social media Petersen’s comments about not having any judicial or trial experience or knowledge of basic legal procedural rules (Biskupic, “Nine Black Robes,” 2023).


Sen. Whitehouse is the perfect lawmaker to push Supreme Court reform. For the first time, a groundswell of progressive groups including Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the NEA have formed a coalition, United for Democracy, to push court reform (dailykos.com, McCarter,7/10/23). This group is demanding formal congressional investigations and hearings into SCOTUS corruption. We must get behind them and Sen. Whitehouse who will lead these efforts.

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