Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

This Supreme Court Case Could Give Corporations Even More Power to Screw Consumers

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 4:56 AM PST

On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court will hear a case that has the potential to give big corporations free rein to write contracts that prevent consumers from ever holding them accountable for fraud, antitrust violations, or any other abuses of consumer and worker protection laws now on the books. It's a case that hasn't gotten much attention, but should.

The case, Italian Color v. American Express, was brought by a California Italian restaurant and a group of other small businesses that tried to sue the credit card behemoth for antitrust violations. They allege Amex used its monopoly power to force them to accept its bank-issued knock-off credit cards as a condition of taking regular, more elite American Express cards—and then charging them 30 percent higher fees for the privilege.

The small businesses claims were pretty small individually, not more than around $5,000 per shop. So, to make their case worth enough for a lawyer to take it, they banded together to file a class action on behalf of all small businesses affected by the practice. In response, Amex invoked the small print in its contract with them: a clause that not only banned the companies from suing individually but also prevented them from bringing a class action. Instead, Amex insisted the contract required each little businesses to submit to the decision of a private arbitrator paid by Amex, and individually press their claims. (Arbitration is heavily stacked in favor of the big companies, as you can read more about here and here.)

The restaurants estimated, with good evidence, that because of the market research required to press an antitrust case, arbitration would cost each of them almost $1 million to collect a possible maximum of $38,000, making it impossible to bring their claims at all. After a lot of litigation, the little guys prevailed in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the arbitration clause was unconscionable because it prevented the plaintiffs from having their claims heard in any forum. The court said the arbitration contract should be invalidated and that the class action should go forward in a regular courtroom. (Sonia Sotomayor sat on one of the appeals before heading to the high court and is recusing herself from the case as a result.) Now Amex is appealing and arguing that some of the high court's recent decisions in favor of big companies mean it has every right to use contracts to deprive the little guys of access to the legal system.

Consumer advocates are worried about how the court's going to decide this case. Under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has been especially amenable to the sorts of arguments Amex is making, and the results have been pretty damaging to consumers. The Alliance for Justice has a list here of some of the types of cases that were thrown out after the court's last pro-business decision about mandatory arbitration, which allowed companies to use arbitration clauses to trump state consumer and worker protection laws. It's not pretty.

If the court rules in favor of Amex, big companies will essentially be able to immunize themselves from any legal accountability, simply by forcing customers and employees to sign a contract to get a job or a cellphone or a bank account. Civil and consumer rights laws will stay on the books, but big companies will be able to ignore them.

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Tea Party Group Behind Saturday's Gun Rallies Under Fire

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 2:50 PM PST

On Saturday, gun rights advocates will be organizing at least 121 rallies across the country in a "day of resistance" to President Obama's gun violence prevention proposals. But some tea party activists are questioning the credentials of the group organizing the rallies, a Mesa, Arizona-based outfit called TheTeaParty.net that's been criticized as a data-harvesting operation designed to vacuum up contact information and credit card numbers from unsuspecting and largely clueless conservative activists. They've complained that the group raises tons of money under the tea party name but doesn't spend much to further the movement, and they're skeptical of its move into the gun debate.

Robin Stublen, a Florida tea party activist and gun owner, is suspicious of the Day of Resistance event. "All my life I have been around guns of some sort," he says. "Some are truly works of art. I respect them. I would never think of using them as the next political toy to make a fast buck. I seriously doubt if any of these so-called 'leaders' could tell the business end of a gun, let alone take them apart and clean them. They are opportunists and should be ignored."

TheTeaPary.net was founded by Todd Cefaratti, an Arizona man who is the CEO of a "lead generation" company for the reverse-mortgage industry and who has inserted himself into tea party politics in recent years. In 2011, TheTeaParty.net sponsored a truck at NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series, and it made a big splash by sponsoring a tea party "unity rally" at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, last year. It's been a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference in DC this year and last, raising its profile among conservative activists.

Originally called Stop This Insanity Inc., Cefaratti's outfit has gone through a series of iterations and spinoffs, variously advertising under the name  JointheTeaParty.us, the Tea Party News Network, and recently, its leadership fund has been advertising on TV as Tea Party Demand, complete with an 800-number:

 

Now, it's hosting the Day of Resistance website. And the group has had an ever-changing cast of characters associated with it, including Judson Phillips, the founder of the Tea Party Nation, who's come under fire for making racist comments and for his efforts to make a buck off the movement by scoring an appearance by Sarah Palin at a for-profit tea party convention. Donna Wiesner Keene, the wife of NRA president David Keene, also worked briefly for the group. 

Why Tea Party Gov. Rick Scott Flip-Flopped on Obamacare

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 12:08 PM PST
Florida Governor Rick Scott on the campaign trail.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010 almost entirely thanks to his activism opposing the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Scott spent $20 million of his own considerable fortune attacking the law, and the Republican backed the state's lawsuit challenging its constitutionality all the way to the Supreme Court. Scott had declared last summer that Florida would implement the law basically over his dead body, including the optional part that would provide federal funding to expand Medicaid to people making up to 138 percent of the poverty line.

So it was a bit of a surprise Wednesday when he announced suddenly that he had changed his mind: Florida should embrace the Medicaid expansion. We'd like to think that this article might have had something to do with his decision; Scott himself claims that mother's death inspired his change of heart. But it's more likely that the decision was a direct result of the US Department of Health and Human Services agreeing to grant Florida a waiver that would allow it to move more Medicaid recipients into private managed-care plans—many of which are part of huge corporate insurance companies waiting to cash in on the latest installment of Obamacare. (The Medicaid expansion is expected to send $66 billion in federal funds to Florida in the next decade.)

Scott has been saying for months that if HHS approved Florida's waiver request, he might be more willing to take the Medicaid expansion. He was in DC in January meeting with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the issue. But HHS's decision to grant the waiver was somewhat surprising, given that the state was asking to expand a very troubled pilot project going back to the Bush era. The pilot project, which also required a waiver from HHS, allowed the state to put Medicaid recipients in five counties into private, HMO-type health plans rather than the traditional government health plan for the poor and disabled. Scott has championed the pilot as an innovative way of keeping government spending in check. Health care advocates, though, saw the program as a major disaster.

Rick Scott, Tax-and-Spend Tea Partier?

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 4:01 AM PST
Fla. Governor Rick Scott (R), who chopped $300 million out of the higher education budget last year, talks about his plans to boost education spending.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has discovered the hard way that devotion to tea party economics has a significant downside—namely that the voters really hate it.

Elected in 2010 on a wave of tea party anger, Scott took office promising to slash spending, lower taxes and shrink the size and reach of the state government. And that he did. As my latest magazine feature documents, Scott’s first two state budgets cut state funding for everything from environmental protection to education, and he made a show of rejecting millions in federal funding for high-speed rail and health care  programs, just on principle.

Two years and many millions in cuts later, Scott is one of the country’s most unpopular governors. And now that Scott is facing reelection next year, he’s  changing his tune about government spending. The budget he presented to the state legislature this month was nearly $10 billion larger than the one he unveiled (at a tea party rally) in 2011, and the largest ever proposed in Florida history. And for the past two weeks, Scott has been touring the state, campaign-style, highlighting all the  ways he wants to spend more taxpayer money.

 

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