Turns out a bill of attainder refers to a legislative act that singles out an individual or group for punishment without a trial — an act prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in a Brooklyn, New York federal court, alleges that when Congress cut off all funding to Acorn (an acronym for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) beginning Oct. 1 without first conducting an investigation or holding a hearing, the group was unfairly targeted for the type of punitive action the Constitution is supposed to protect against.
The Congressional Research Service, in an independent analysis, previously warned Congress that the so-called Defund Acorn Act appeared to indeed be a bill of attainder because it specifically targeted the organization.
The lawsuit also alleges that, because Congress didn’t just cutoff funding to Acorn but included other organizations affiliated or allied with the nonprofit organization, Acorn’s First Amendment rights of free speech and association have been violated. It’s also alleged that the group’s Fifth Amendment guarantee to due process has been violated.
It appears that concern over the bill’s language regarding “affiliated” and “allied” groups has been particularly damaging to Acorn’s finances. For example, banks such as Chase, Citibank and Bank of America cut off funding for mortgage and finance assistance to families which were facing foreclosure and being helped by the New York Acorn Housing Co. Inc., according to an affidavit filed in connection with the suit.
“Based on the timing and the context, it is pretty hard to deny these actions were motivated by a political intent to punish this organization,” says Detroit attorney Julie Hurwitz.
Hurwitz, along with fellow Detroit attorney Bill Goodman, helped draft the Acorn lawsuit.
Although there is some precedent for the suit, says Hurwitz, it is apparently the first time the bill of attainder issue has been used as the basis for a nonprofit group to sue the federal government for cutting off its funding.
What the lawsuit describes as the cutoff’s “malicious and punitive intent” is the result of a “heavily funded and orchestrated political campaign” against Acorn.
Among other things, the antipoverty group has been heavily involved in voter registration, helping more than 2 million people register to vote since 2003, according to the lawsuit.
Because it works primarily with low-income and minority populations — groups that traditionally tend to support Democratic candidates — Acorn has become a target of conservative political forces “dedicated to the proposition that the few poor people who vote the better,” according to the lawsuit.
If that deep-seated right-wing hostility toward Acorn were seen as an iceberg, the tip is a number of Acorn counselors who were secretly videotaped advising actors posing as a pimp and prostitute about how to launder their illegal earnings. Two counselors caught in the sting were fired, but that did nothing to appease the forces that want to crush what U.S. Rep Darrell Issa (R-California) has called a “corrupt and criminal organization.”
In the past, the right has also made much do about instances of fraud involving voter registration.
In September, Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, in urging passage of the defunding bill, told his colleagues, “Somebody has to go after Acorn. Well, I suggest today, on the floor of the Senate, that ‘somebody’ is each and every U.S. senator.”
According to the lawsuit, this is what Acorn has done: “It has advocated raising the minimum wage to a living wage in dozens of communities across the country. It works against predatory lending and to stop foreclosures. It has helped over 150,000 people file their tax returns. It has worked on thousands of issues that arise from the predicaments and problems of the poor, the homeless, the underpaid, the hungry and the sick, on the local, state and national level through direct action, negotiation, legislative advocacy and voter participation.”