Rob Lorei Interviews Caroline Fredrickson, author of Democracy Fix: How to Win the Fight for Fair Rules, Fair Courts, and Fair Elections

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Select Wednesday, May 29th from the drop down menu. The interview begins 30 minutes into the program.

Radioactivity: Interviews & Live Call-In

Read the transcript by Blannie Whelan below:

Rob Lorei (Host): Our next guest today is Caroline Fredrickson, author of Democracy Fix: How to Win the Fight for Fair Rules, Fair Courts, and Fair Elections.  She is the President of The American Constitution Society.  Caroline, welcome to WMNF.  Good to have you here.

CF: Thanks so much for having me.

RL: So, I want to ask you about what Senator McConnell said yesterday.  What do you make of that?

CF: Well, nobody should be surprised.  I’m certainly not surprised.  I could have told you as soon as he said that President Obama could not fill the seat, that he would assume any Republican president could fill any seat at any time.  He’s made clear his outcomes that matter to him.  It’s not processed, it’s not some perceived fairness.  What he wants is a very, very right wing court.  He made that clear in his answer to the question that you just played from the Paducah Chamber of Commerce, that the courts are laughing.  Legislative victories are fleeting.

RL: So, when McConnell said, if you want to have a long lasting impact on the Country, appoint a judge for a life-time appointment.  That has a long lasting impact.  How successful have conservatives, like McConnell, been in appointing life-time judges in the last few years?

CF: Devastatingly.  This is an area, and I talk about this in my book, the Right has been focused like a laser beam, for decades, on the courts: state courts, Federal courts, trial courts, the appeals courts, the Supreme Court.  They have focused on developing a conservative cohort of young people to be nominated and confirmed with extremely right-wing views that have driven our courts in a rightward direction.  And people who follow the decisions of the court can speak to this, because it’s seen area after area where the Left has been focused on the Legislative battles, which as McConnell notes, can be changed at the next election.  The right has been focused at fixing their gains for the long-term.  And so, they have been taking over the courts, and undoing voting rights successes, undoing women’s access to reproductive rights, blocking democratic efforts to expand the franchise to women, gerrymandering.  And we see this.  It goes on and on.  And one of the things that I think should be terrifying to people is that we have a president who is unstable, to say the least.  He questions democracy constantly, admires dictators.  If he loses the election, and Florida is kind of the epicenter of this, right, and they match??? This challenge to the outcome in Florida, you, better than almost anyone, remember the Bush-Gore. He’s locking in a court that can have a Trump versus whoever, and we know what the outcome of that’s going to be.  So we all need to be terrified about what’s happening to our democracy when the courts are moved in such a rightward direction.

RL: So, if the courts are moving in a rightward direction, I hear this talk about the Federalist Society all the time, which is an association of judges and lawyers, is the Federalist Society sort of “minor leagues” for wanna be conservative judges?

CF: Well, it’s the major leagues.  They have really been aggressive, and the man who is most well-known from the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo, has been extremely outspoken on what he desires.  He wants a court that is reflective of where this country was in the early 20th century.  So, before the New Deal, certainly before the Civil Rights movement, way before the Women’s Rights movement.  He wants to undo all of those gains.  He’s fiercely anti-choice.  He claims it’s his highest goal is to have Roe verses Wade overturned.  He is very opposed to voting rights.  The Voting Rights Act has been chipped away at.  It was given a devastating blow by the Roberts court, the Shelby County Decision, and now they want to end it completely.  And, there are a number of other areas, including ensuring that we don’t face environmental tragedy. They want to undo the ability of the Government to make sure we have clean water and clean air, and that Florida coastlines aren’t eaten away by high tides, to protect us from pollution and climate change.  And all of that is a target of this effort to move the courts to the right.  And the Federalist Society, it’s not just a minor league, although they certainly are the minor league in that they cultivate, starting with law students or before, very convinced conservatives who want to move this country back a 100 years, just like Leonard Leo, but they move them through law school, and into law practice, and then to become judges.  So they have “farm teams” and they’ve got the major leagues.  It’s an area where the Left, and Progressives generally, and moderates, who should care about having a fair court system, really  need to be up in arms and make sure that we have an equal or greater investment in ensuring that we have fair minded judges and fair courts for all Americans.

RL:  Our guest Caroline Fredrickson, she’s the author of the new book The Democracy Fix: How to Win the Fight for Fare Rules, Fair Courts, and Fair Elections, and she is the President of The American Constitution Society.  We’ll talk more about that in just a moment.  So, if the Federalist Society major league pipeline that puts these conservative judges on the benches around the country, how are they funded?

CF: Well, I think what you’re probably guessing is right, that they are a major recipient of dark money from the various plutocrats from the right, the Koch brothers, the Mercers,???, the Bradleys, those billionaires who are heavily invested in preventing the forward movement of this country and preventing expansion of the right to vote, preventing their companies from being regulated.  The Koch brothers, in particular, their oil money is where they come from, they want to make sure they can exploit, create negative environmental impact without any cost to themselves.  And that’s one reason they understand the courts are a major focus for that, and with the ideology that’s pushed by the Federalist Society and their allies, regulation is highly suspect.  That means the rest of us get dirty air and dirty water, and the Koch brothers take home billions of dollars.

RL: You’re the President of the American Constitution Society.  If you were to look at your resources, what you have at your finger-tips and how you’re able to recruit, I assume you want to recruit liberal, progressive, more moderate judges, and correct me if I’m wrong, how would you compare your resources to those of the Federalist Society?

CF: Well, that’s a good question.  We obviously don’t have those same resources, and we depend on a broader much array of supporters.  We don’t have these right wing billionaires funneling us money for decades.  And so, we have to fight harder.  But we have the people on our side, and I think what’s really vital to our efforts is that we are representative of the future.  What we’re looking to do, as we gather and nurture the next generation of legal leaders, is to make sure that the legal leaders are much more reflective of the America that we are and are becoming.  That we have a diverse group of nominees, that they come from different communities, as well as have different areas of practice.  So we don’t need just prosecutors and corporate lawyers, but also public defenders, lawyers who represent people who have been harmed.  So it’s a real broad based effort.  That’s who’s behind us.  It means we don’t have as much money, but the future is on our side.  But the one thing we have to do, is to convince professors and moderates, and 2/3s of the political spectrum need to pay attention to the courts, because that small minority to the right really believes, and Leonard Leo has said this explicitly, that everything after the beginning of the 20th century was wrong in America.  He wants to take us back to that era when everything was completely unregulated, when you couldn’t have a minimum wage, when child labor was permissible – it couldn’t be regulated, when women and no control of their bodies, when women couldn’t vote.  That’s what his ideal is.  That’s what these people are pushing for, and if the rest of us don’t start to pay attention and invest the resources, both the time and the money to make sure that we have a counter effort, that we have a plan to move good, fair minded judges through system and we need to reclaim our country, because otherwise, it’s going to be a very different place that we will be living in.  And remember, those judicial appointments on the Federal level, those are for life.

RL: Caroline Fredrickson is our guest, and her book is Democracy Fix.  You’re listening to WMNF in Tampa.  So, okay, if the Federalist Society and its vice president Leonard Leo want to go back to that era before the minimum wage, before unemployment insurance, before Social Security and Medicare, before union protection, before the beginning of civil rights protections and gender rights protections, before we had no ban on child labor laws, a work week that could last, for some people, sixty or eighty hours, that was an era where business ruled, and what we now call corporations ruled, and it would seem to me that that would be a formula to dismantling the middle class that we have.

CF: Well, exactly, it’s exactly right, and it’s sort of the formula that you mentioned that that is one of the reasons that the Chamber of Commerce, and you just played that clip of Mitch McConnell speaking in front of his local Chamber, but the national Chamber has been part of this effort for a long time, really from the beginning when it was platted out, and I described this in my book, in 1971 where the future Supreme Court justice Louis Powell drafted a memo to the Chamber about what he described as a frontal attack on capitalism because all of a sudden corporations were not allowed to kill people who bought their cars.  Remember Ralph Nader sued the car companies for putting out extremely dangerous cars.  And they were not allowed to pollute as much as they wanted, and the country started demanding environmental protections, and the EPA was set up.  It was even set up by Richard Nixon.  And he thought this was the end of capitalism as we know it.  And so he organized the corporations and the business leaders behind an effort to stack the courts with right wingers, and they made a devils bargain with the far right on social issues, knowing that it is easier to rally people around abortion, or school prayer, or something like that, than it is to rally them around policies that will actually be bad for them.  These are the Reagan democrats, as they were called.  It’s hard to rally them around corporate tax cuts that are going to decimate social programs that people benefit from.  Instead they rally them around the social agenda, and they’ve been in the pink for there many decades building this process, supporting it, financing an effort to ensure that the Right is going to dominate the court system, both in the state elections and in the appointment Federal process.

RL: I can hear people objecting, saying, “well look, who in their right mind would want to dismantle the American middle class?”  Why would anybody want to do that?  If that’s what happens if you undo the Great Society programs, and if you undo the programs that fought the Great Depression under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and if you undo the laws breaking up the segregated schools in the 1950s, then we go back to an era where money rules, and the people have no protection against the power of big money.  I mean, who would actually want to go there?

CF: You wouldn’t think so.  But nonetheless and unfortunately, these people are ideologues.  They have a firm notion that the regulatory state, as we know it, which is a terminology for everything that you described, for social security, for minimum wage protection, for bans on child labor, for controls on pollution from factories, and making sure our water is drinkable.  That’s all to them illegitimate, unconstitutional, and needs to be dismantled. I think we all know that we live in a dystopia.  For that to happen, it would be a country that would be unlivable for most of us.  And yet, nonetheless, they pursue this effort.  And you can already see, to the extent that the Trump administration has been dismantling environmental protections aggressively, as well as in other areas.  The Labor Department has had so many of its rules rolled back that were basic minimal protections for workers.  They were not anything at all aggressive or radical.  This is their agenda.  And I think, even for those plutocrats and billionaires, who somehow think that they should fund these efforts.  One can only imagine that it will be bad for them in the long term and their financial interests, not to have a resilient middle class. But ideology seems to be winning out over common sense.  And, I think again, it’s very dangerous for all of us.  But the writing is on the wall.  They have announced it, and as you mentioned, segregated schools, that’s Brown vs Board decision. Trump’s nominees for the courts are not being willing to say that they support that decision.  That is truly radical.  That was an area where all nominees would say okay.  If there’s one thing settled under the law, that’s the Brown verses Board of Education was properly decided and that segregation is illegal.  Well, not anymore.

RL: Caroline Fredrickson is here.  She’s written a new book called Democracy Fix.  Your book is not entirely dark and depressing.  Caroline, you do have some ideas on how to fix this.  So let’s talk about some of your six points, your six main points for making our democracy more responsive to the people.

CF: Yeah, well, I think there are some clear things, and Florida has already taken some steps.  One is to make sure we have fair elections.  That is ensuring that the systems are accessible to all eligible voters.  Expanding the electorate, for example, making sure the people who have served their time, can restore their rights and participate in the system.  That’s obvious been a bit of a roadblock in Florida.  But that’s incredibly important.  Making it easier to register to vote.  On line voter registration, automatic voter registration.  When you sign up for a government service, or get your driver’s license.  Expanding early voting.  We also need fair districts.  You cannot have politicians, and I mean democrats as well as republicans, deciding how to draw up their own districts.  Incumbents are biased here.  What matters is what the people want, what the voters want, and districts should be drawn in the fairest way to make sure that representation is democratic and not biased for incumbents.

RL: Let me stop you right there.  It’s interesting because we’ll be going through the census and then the redistricting process here in the next couple of years in Florida, as every state will do.  We now have a 7 to 2 conservative majority on the Florida Supreme Court.  In the past, the Florida Supreme Court has looked at partisan redistricting and taken somewhat of a strong stand on partisan redistricting.  Now with the conservative majority on the Court, and Republicans controlling Tallahassee, our state capital, they’ll be able to draw whatever plan they want and not get much push-back from the Florida Supreme Court.  And that goes to your point about the importance of judgeships, that when you elect a governor or you elect a president, that president has a lot of power to put people in place, almost permanently.

CF: Exactly. You bring me to my next point which is, we cannot allow ourselves, people who are anywhere to the left of Genghis Khan, we cannot ignore the courts, as we have for too long. We cannot let this minority of extreme right wingers dominate, because the courts are such a vital place for decisions like this to be made.  Can we have fair districts in America?  Can we have districts that are not drawn to the savor the interests of that party that’s in power, to benefit incumbents at the expense of our democracy and expense of the voters’ interests?  That’s so critical.  Do we have laws that protect the right to vote or access to basic healthcare?  That is all upended when we don’t pay attention to the courts and focus only on elections. I know I feel this nervous about to really pay attention to what is going on in the Florida courts, to make sure they are voting based on who the judges are, who’s going to appoint them, and what their stated positions are on the key issues, because Florida has really suffered from elections that have been is such turmoil, and if any state deserves to have a fair state system that can’t be manipulated by politicians, but in fact are there to serve the voters, you guys deserve it, and I hope that you are successful in fighting for it.

RL: Now one of your six points is to reform voting laws to energize democratic participation and win elections.  How do you energize democratic participation by reforming voting laws?

CF: Well, insuring that it’s not a frustrating process to try and vote.  We make it so hard to vote. All sorts of efforts that start months before the election day that inhibit people’s ability to get on the rolls, and then strip people from the rolls inappropriately.  There are all sorts of ways that people who want to vote find abilities have been restricted.  So, that is demoralizing.  People decide not to show up.  The voter suppression, on top of that, where people are told that they’ll be harassed at the polling place.  Carl Rove, who is a republican operative, was famous for running campaigns that told people that election day had been moved, or that there would be cops waiting outside the polling place to check anybody who had unpaid parking tickets, or things like that.  It’s a classic move from these right wing interests to try and make sure that, especially minority voters, are harassed and prevented from voting.  So part of it, when people are sure that the system is fair, and that their vote is going to count, they’re energized.  If they feel it is a part of their civic duty.  If it’s an incredible challenge to get there, that their vote may not be counted, that causes people not to show up.  And that causes a real harm to our democracy.

RL: So Caroline, you say that the Left needs to have a strong media hub to generate content, and, unlike the Right, the Left should not use lies and distortion.  Some conservatives say, “Well the Left has NBC, or the New York Time, or National Public Radio, and therefore, the Left already has a media outlet.  Is that your idea of Left media outlet?

CF: It’s kind of like saying university professors tend to be liberal, and therefore students are indoctrinated.  I guess you can say journalists are more moderate to a little bit on the left.  But that doesn’t mean a good journalist is pushing an agenda.  Journalists are supposed to be telling you what’s happening in the world. But I think that’s still true of the sites you mentioned. The Times, NPR, the others, they’re actually trying to cover the news, and they were pretty hard on Obama when they wanted to be.  They covered their opinion pages, criticized him in the news, and covered things that went wrong on his watch.  In contrast, you got Fox News and the whole negative infrastructure on the right which pushes stories that are just false.  For example, the whole President Obama was not born in the United States, born in Kenya, which is called the birther lie that Donald Trump falsified.  That was all over Fox News.  They kept repeating it.  Rush Limbaugh and the others, it was an echo chamber, that repeats these lies until people start to think they’re true.  That’s not a road that I think any news organization should go down.  But I do think that an organize progressive, not the news media, but an organization of the party, need to think about how to talk to people in a more compelling way, and one of the points I make is we have some really great entertainers and comedians who are generally progressive.  You’ve got Samantha B, Steven Colbert, and Trevor Noah.  People who can really illustrate what’s going wrong with this country.  So why can’t we use some of that brilliance to actually drive a message that leads to change, as opposed to just a message that makes people laugh?

RL: Here’s a question from one of our listeners.  Suzanne writes I never used to vote on local judges because I didn’t know anything about them.  If you go to their web page, it’s all good news.  How do you find unbiased and truthful information about judges for local elections?  And I’ll add, how do make sure that you’re not electing a Federalist to a judgeship, if that’s your preference.  You might be a conservative and want to elect a Federalist, but let’s say, for those who are progressive and liberal, who don’t want to elect a Federalist, how do you find out?

CF: It’s a really great question, and i think there are different sources.  So, for one, the local bar association may be a place where they have reviews of judges, the League of Women Voters.  I would look at other groups the do election work in your area who are focused on local elections.  If you’re a democrat, ask the Democratic Party.  If you are independent, look to see what both parties are saying about the candidates.  Look online to see if there are articles about them.  I think it’s a little bit harder than some of the other races, for sure.  We need to get better about making sure there’s more information.  But I encourage people to just dig in a little bit.  But start with those resources, and you should get a sense of what the judges are all about.  Look at their contributors, too.  If they’re running for election, you should see who is giving them money, and that might give you some sense too, of what their interests are.  It’s an unfortunate thing, and I personally don’t think we should elect judges at all, because the idea that the judges are taking money from interests that might appear in front of him or her in the courtroom. Sometimes there’s dealings the next day after a fund raiser.  It’s disquieting to say the least, that our justice system can be influenced by money.

RL: I’ve seen that up close.  Caroline, we’re almost out of time.  If there are local lawyers who want to join the American Constitution Society, how can they join?

CF: Well, you can go right to our website and join there. But also, we have several chapters in Florida, including in Tampa.

RL: Alright.  Caroline Fredrickson, thanks a lot.  Author of The Democracy Fix, and the president of the American Constitution Society.  Thanks for coming on WMNF

CF: It was really a pleasure.  Thanks so much for having me.