Over the past week or so, there seems to have been some real progress in tamping down the hysterical narratives surrounding ACORN -- namely that they're some sinister combination of the Communist Party, the Corleone Family, and the Illuminati. Last week an independent review requested by ACORN and conducted by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger found no pattern "of intentional, illegal conduct by ACORN staff." Their problems were instead the result of "a lack of training, a lack of procedures, and a lack of on-site supervision."
The report did note, however, that the "prostitution" videos that caused the original controversy had been heavily edited and that the videographers refused to make the originals available. Even a writer at Big Hollywood -- a website owned by Andrew Breitbart,
the right-wing activist behind the videos -- conceded that ACORN didn't
break any laws.
Then over the weekend, Judge Nina Gershon ruled that the defunding of ACORN, passed during the height of anti-ACORN hysteria in Congress, amounted to an unconstitutional "bill of attainder." Glenn Greenwald does a great job of summarizing the constitutional issues here:
The reasons the Founders barred such bills of attainder are perfectly highlighted by the ACORN case. During the reign of abusive Kings, it was a favorite instrument for enabling unpopular parties to be convicted, punished and deprived without benefit of a trial. Under the Constitution, parties aren't supposed to be found guilty of wrongdoing as a result of a Fox-News-led witch hunt joined by cowardly members of Congress. The recent finding of the Massachusetts Attorney General that ACORN had not committed crimes in connection with the notorious prostitution videos underscores the danger of the state's assuming someone's guilt outside of the judicial process. Congress is especially ill-suited to pass judgment on whether a particular party has violated the law, as they are far more likely to protect the powerful and popular and punish the weak and unpopular (which is one reason, incidentally, why it was wrong for Congress to retroactively immunize rich and powerful telecoms based on the consummately judicial finding that they acted in "good faith" when violating eavesdropping laws).
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented ACORN in ACORN v. USA,
released a statement on Friday saying, "Our Constitution forbids
lawmakers from singling out a person or group for punishment without a
fair investigation and trial, precisely to avoid the kind of political
retribution and grandstanding we saw in the case of ACORN."
Congress' behavior in this case underscores the absurdity of the right-wing narrative surrounding ACORN. ACORN was vulnerable precisely because they are an organization focused on the needs of America's low to moderate income residents. If they were Halliburton or
Blackwater Xe -- which is to say, if they had anything remotely like the access to power they were alleged to have had -- they never would have been treated this way, regardless of their institutional problems.
But Congress wasn't the only institution throwing up its hands and shrieking wildly in the aftermath of the Breitbart videos. Many mainstream publications were quick to proclaim ACORN a major story that had been overlooked because of liberal bias, and then they promptly proceeded to get the story wrong in a mad scramble to show conservatives how fair and balanced they could be.
-- A. Serwer