On December 11, 2009, a federal judge ruled that Congress had unconstitutionally cut off all federal funds to ACORN. The judge issued an injunction stopping federal authorities from continuing to cut off past, present and future federal funds to the community organization.
ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and its allies in 75 cities will again have access to millions of federal dollars to counsel people facing foreclosure, seeking IRS tax refunds and looking for affordable low-cost housing. ACORN, which has received about $54 million in government grants since 1994, will be able to apply for new federal programs just like any other organization.
The court ruled that Congress had violated the US Constitution “by singling out ACORN and its affiliates for severe sweeping restrictions” and that such action constitutes illegal punishment or a “bill of attainder.”
What is a bill of attainder? Even most lawyers have no idea. Bills of attainder are acts of Congress which unilaterally punish an individual or organization. Essentially, Congress acts as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. The US Constitution has prohibited bills of attainder since 1787. US founders objected to bills of attainder because in England Parliament passed many such bills against political enemies, using them to throw people in prison and even execute them without trial.
Congress punished ACORN without trying to figure out if any laws had been broken or allowing the 500,000-member organization to defend itself. What about protecting the taxpayers against fraud? As the court pointed out, there are many legal ways for the government to investigate and terminate federal contractors which have been proven to engage in fraud or illegal activity. But Congress did not want to wait for trials or proof or to allow ACORN due process. Conservatives developed a voting majority and imposed punishment without a hearing or anything.
ACORN has been a target of right-wing politicians for years. Conservatives hate ACORN primarily because it registered over two million people to vote since 2003 and because it has an overwhelming African-American, working class, Democratic-voting membership.
Fox News is obsessed with ACORN. Google Fox News and ACORN and you will see over two million hits. Google Glenn Beck and ACORN and you get over a million hits, six hundred thousand for Rush and three hundred thousand for Michelle Malkin. Right-wing members of Congress accused ACORN of being a “shell game” using millions of taxpayer dollars “to advertise for a political candidate” and claimed it “helped President Obama get elected.” After a highly dubious right-wing sting operation in September, the conservative media machine overran Congress members, including, sadly, many Democrats, and passed the bill of attainder cutting off all federal funds to ACORN and any affiliates, subsidiaries and allies.
Most Congress reps knew full well this was an illegal bill of attainder, as it was pointed out in the debates and even by the Congressional Research Office, but voted to let it go through anyway. Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) and Alan Grayson (D-Florida) and Sen. Leahy (D-Vermont), among others, repeatedly pointed out that this was unconstitutional. Democrats who voted for the bill of attainder included many who had sought and received help from ACORN members in the past. They have some explaining to do.
Progressives who remained silent while the nation’s largest low-income African-American community organization was under attack also should rethink their lack of support. Did anyone think that if the right-wingers took down Van Jones and ACORN they would stop there? What is ahead? Surely the conservative opponents of ACORN will continue to bloviate and keep trying to try to put ACORN out of business. There will likely be fights galore. But with this ruling the fights will be a little fairer.
ACORN won this case. The US Supreme Court has called the prohibition of Congressional bills of attainder a “bulwark against tyranny.” Here the bulwark against tyranny worked to stop the right-wing smear machine. But the rule of law won too. And all of us and Congress have again been taught a valuable lesson – there are no shortcuts when it comes to following the Constitution.
Bill Quigley is legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and one of the team who represented ACORN in their successful federal constitutional challenge. You can read the opinion at www.crrjustice.org.