ACORN Suing U.S. Over “Unconstitutional” Defunding Bill

ACORN is suing the U.S. government over a law passed recently by Congress that bars the controversial community group from receiving federal money.

In a complaint filed this morning in U.S. District Court in New York, ACORN charges that the law is unconstitutional, because it’s a bill of attainder — that is, it targets a specific individual or group for punishment.The complaint, brought on behalf of ACORN by the Center for Constitutional Rights, also mounts a broader push-back against ACORN’s conservative critics. According to a draft version examined by TPMmuckraker, it claims that the law to defund ACORN was passed thanks to “a public relations campaign orchestrated by political forces” that are hostile to its work registering low-income voters. And it charges that ACORN “earned the animosity of political forces who are dedicated to the proposition that the fewer poor people who vote the better.”

“It is outrageous to see Congress violating the Constitution for purposes of political grandstanding,” said Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Congress bowed to FOX News and joined in the scapegoating of an organization that helps average Americans going through hard times to get homes, pay their taxes, and vote. Shame on them.”

In September — in the wake of a scandal in which several ACORN employees were caught on camera giving advice to two people posing as a pimp and a prostitute about how to evade tax laws — Congress passed the Defund ACORN Act, a measure pushed by Republican House Leader John Boehner which cut off all federal funding from the group.

Critics of the bill immediately argued that it was unconstitutional, thanks to the Constitution’s prohibition on bills of attainder. The courts have long held unconstitutional any acts of Congress that apply either to specific individuals, or to easily ascertainable members of a group, in order to punish them without a trial.

Said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) at the time:

Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial, and that’s what this Amendment does. Whatever one may think of an organization, the Constitution’s clear ban on Bills of Attainder is there for the protection of all of our liberties.

In the new complaint, ACORN notes that, even before Congress passed the Act, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service warned in a written report that singling out ACORN “may well” may well be unconstitutional. And it also points out that, in introducing the bill, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE) declared on the floor of the Senate: “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.”

In addition, the complaint argues that the funding ban has done real harm to the organization and those it aims to serve. Since the law went into effect last month, it charges, the group has been force to lay off employees, close offices, and “drastically” reduce services to low and moderate income people. In addition, “many organizations partnering with ACORN cut off relationships with ACORN for fear of being tainted by association with ACORN.”

We reported in September on how the defunding bill would affect ACORN’s work on behalf of low-income people, according to the group.

The complaint names Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and OMB Director Peter Orszag as defendants, as their agencies have enforced the law.