Civil Liberties

Sen. Durbin Asks: Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been Chummy With Conservative Lawmakers?


Sen. Dick Durbin
Sen. Dick Durbin

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights will hold a hearing nominally devoted to "stand your ground" laws. The laws were briefly the focus of a media furor during and after the trial of George Zimmerman, even though they played no role in his successful defense after his shooting of Trayvon Martin. What the hell—it was an opportunity to slap at the concept of self-defense, for people who like to do such things. But even the subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-a state that looks honest only by comparison to Rhode Island), doesn't seem all that interested in the laws. Instead, he's spent the last couple of months grilling organizations and companies about their relationships with an association of conservative state lawmakers and vowing to publicize such associations during the hearing.

Last month, Darcy Olsen, the president of Arizona's Goldwater Institute, wrote, "Earlier this week, U.S. Sen Dick Durbin (D-Ill) contacted the Goldwater Institute to inquire about the private organization's relationship to the American Legislative Exchange Council–most notably, whether the Institute has supported ALEC in the past or endorsed the group's "Stand Your Ground" model legislation." She helpfully posted Durbin's letter online (PDF), which reads, in part:

I ask that you please reply to this letter by answering yes or no in response to the two questions below. Please feel free to provide additional information explaining your yes or no response.

1. Has Goldwater Institute served as a member of ALEC or provided any funding to ALEC in 2013?

2. Does Goldwater Institute support the "stand your ground" legislation that was adopted as a national model and promoted by ALEC?

Please provide a response to this letter by September 1, 2013. Note that I am sending similar letters to other organizations that have been identified as ALEC funders at some point between 2005 and today. In September, I plan to convene a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to examine "stand your ground" laws, and I intend to include the responses to my letters in the hearing record. Therefore, please know that your response will be publicly available.

Olsen took the opportunity to have a little fun with Durbin. "Have You No Sense of Decency?" she asked, echoing the famous rejoinder to Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Tiger Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association also invoked "not-so-faint echoes of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy" in a piece at Forbes on a similar letter received by ATRA inquiring into the group's relationship with ALEC.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has been a thorn in the side of left-of-center types for years, since it links conservative legislators with policy experts and business leaders. That allows legislation to be crafted once and then be introduced in multiple states by sympathetic lawmakers—often very quickly. Whether that legislation enables good idea or bad ideas is left to the observer (it can be a mixed bag from a libertarian perspective, but generally pro-freedom on economic issues), but ALEC has been very effective at generating and disseminating model legislation.

Political organizations like the Goldwater Institute and ATRA are unlikely to be intimidated by Durbin's tactics—Olsen and Joyce seem to relish the fight—but the businesses that provide resources to ALEC may not appreciate such attention. Linking them to ALEC and to controversial legislation (theoretically "controversial"—the public never seemed that upset and Floridians support the law as is) has the potential to drive at least some of them out of the spotlight, and reduce the organization's resources.

The Chicago Tribune in Durbin's own state editorialized that Durbin had cooked up an "enemies list" and pointed out that "while the letter acknowledges that recipients have a right to participate in policy debates, Durbin's intent is transparent: Renounce ALEC, and quit donating money, or I'll shame you but good."

The editorial continued, "it would be more than wrong for a U.S. senator to use the power of his high federal office as a cudgel against his enemies."

So far, Durbin's effort appears to have misfired. The "controversial" law to which he's trying to tie ALEC doesn't appear to have held the public's attention, and ALEC gained the media's sympathy. The group may even benefit, since real victimization by a powerful politician is one of the best rallying tools there is.

Keep an eye on the hearing next week and see just what sort of wacky shenanigans Durbin has in mind.