PEOPLE FOR BLOG

More of the Same, As Grassley Delays More Judicial Nominees

This morning, two judicial nominees were scheduled for a vote before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Unfortunately, Republicans on the committee delayed the votes for Kara Farnandez Stoll (for the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals) and Roseann Ketchmark (for the Western District of Missouri) by at least a week.

Why? Because they could.

Committee rules let senators "hold over" (i.e., delay) committee votes without explanation. This can be a useful mechanism when a nominee is controversial or when senators need more time to evaluate a particular nominee. At its best, the rule can be of use to senators who take seriously their constitutional obligation to staff the federal courts with highly qualified, apolitical judges.

Unfortunately, it can also be of use to Republicans senators seeking to slow down the confirmation process as much as possible in order to maximize the number of vacancies available for a future Republican president to fill with right-wing ideologues.

Since Obama became president, only 12 of his circuit and district court nominees have had their committee votes held on schedule. Republicans have had committee votes held over without cause for all but 12 of his judicial nominees, which is an unprecedented abuse of the rule. That's less than 5% of all the Obama judicial nominees who the Judiciary Committee has voted on.

It was bad enough when Republicans were in the minority and demanding needless delays of President Obama's nominees over the course of six years. But now they are in the majority. They're demanding delays in the schedule that they themselves set up.

So while the number of circuit and district court vacancies has jumped from 40 at the beginning of the year to 50 today, and while judicial emergencies have nearly doubled from 12 to 23 in the same period, Sen. Grassley and his GOP colleagues on the Judiciary Committee are using every opportunity to delay the consideration of judicial nominees.

PFAW

95 Senate Roll-Call Votes While Lynch Waits for Hers

Loretta Lynch's nomination has been languishing on the Senate floor since February 26. In that time, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has found time to hold 95 roll call votes but somehow he just can't fit in a vote on the Lynch nomination. Why? Because he's holding Lynch's nomination hostage on a totally unrelated item that has nothing to do with her qualifications to be Attorney General.

Having been thoroughly vetted, Lynch was approved by a bipartisan majority of the Judiciary Committee seven weeks ago. She could and should have confirmed within a few days, as is customary for Attorney General nominees. Yet that hasn't happened. In fact, she has been waiting for a floor vote longer than the seven most recent attorneys general combined, a landmark she passed even before the Senate's two-week spring recess.

Since Lynch has been waiting for a floor vote, the Senate has taken 95 roll call votes. These have covered five bills, four executive nominations, one judicial nomination, one resolution of disapproval of an NLRB action, and one resolution on the budget. That last one is particularly worthy of note, because several dozen of the roll call votes were on non-binding amendments to a non-binding budget resolution.

McConnell held a veto override vote on the Keystone Pipeline bill, a major priority of some important Republican donors but not connected to the Lynch nomination. He held a roll call vote to repeal the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, a major priority of the Tea Party base that had no chance of ever becoming law, and which has no connection to confirming Lynch. And he has held multiple roll call votes to force Democrats to accept abortion restrictions on women who are victims of human trafficking ... which also has nothing to do with Lynch, except that McConnell has chosen that particular item as the ransom to demand in exchange for releasing his hostage.

McConnell needs to drop this ridiculous demand and allow a vote. The position of Attorney General of the United States is simply too important for such nonsense.

PFAW

Clinton’s Focus on Fighting Money in Politics Mirrors Americans’ Commitment to the Issue

With the movement to take back our democracy from wealthy special interests growing by the day, some of the country’s top political leaders are taking note and bringing the issue of money in politics front and center for 2016.

Yesterday presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed support for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics and said that campaign finance reform was going to be one of the four pillars of her campaign.

As PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker pointed out:

That Hillary Clinton will make the fight against big money in politics the centerpiece of her campaign is indicative of how much Americans care about this issue. She’s tapping into a deep-seated belief among people of all political stripes that we have to reclaim our democracy from corporations and billionaires. Americans are ready for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United, and ready for leaders who are going to make it a priority.

Amending the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United is a widely popular proposal with cross-partisan support. A July 2014 poll of Senate battleground states found that nearly three in four voters (73 percent) favor a constitutional amendment, including majorities “in even the reddest states.” In the five years since the Citizens United decision, local organizing has led 16 states and 650 cities and towns to support an amendment to overturn the decision and get big money out of politics. More than 5 million Americans have signed petitions in support of an amendment.

PFAW

PFAW Foundation and Leadership Programs Support #Unite4Marriage

PFAW Foundation and its leadership programs, African American Ministers Leadership Council – Equal Justice Task Force, Young Elected Officials Network, and Young People For, are united in their support for the #Unite4Marriage coalition. Marriage equality supporters are currently organizing around the April 28 oral arguments before the Supreme Court and a ruling expected in the coming months on whether the fundamental right to marry enshrined in the US Constitution is limited to opposite-sex couples. There will be events in DC and in communities across the country.

Back in January, PFAW Foundation President Michael Keegan applauded the Court's decision to hear the four Sixth Circuit cases.

This is unquestionably an important step towards marriage equality for all Americans. Since the Sixth Circuit got this wrong and denied people in four states their basic rights, the Supreme Court did the right thing by taking these cases. Now the Court needs to do the right thing by making a clear statement about the Constitution’s guarantee of fundamental equality for all people. The time is long overdue for every American to have the right to marry the person they love.

That said, this is likely to be yet another five-four decision from the Court that gave us Citizens United and Hobby Lobby and gutted the Voting Rights Act. That should be a reminder that our fundamental rights are in jeopardy in our nation’s highest court — and the future of the Court and these rights will be in the next president's hands. Americans should be able to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of ordinary Americans — whether that’s the right to marry, or to vote, or to be treated fairly on the job, or to control their own reproductive health.

Today is an important step towards full equality for same-sex couples—and a powerful reminder that every American should be concerned about the balance of the Supreme Court.

Just last month, PFAW Foundation joined the Anti-Defamation League and an expansive coalition of religious and civil rights organizations in submitting an amicus brief in support of marriage equality.

[C]ontrary to the arguments of some who defend the marriage bans, invalidating the bans will not jeopardize religious liberty. As an initial matter, the cases before this Court concern whether same-sex couples are entitled to the benefits of civil marriage. Religious groups will remain free, as they always have been, to choose how to define religious marriage and which marriages to solemnize…. Religious liberty should serve as a shield, not as a sword to discriminate against members of a disadvantaged minority group.

We'll share more about #Unite4Marriage as we hear it.

See you on the 28th!

PFAW Foundation

Where is Pat Toomey on Phil Restrepo's Nomination?

Sunday was the five-month anniversary of when President Obama nominated Pennsylvanian Phil Restrepo to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Yet Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley has still refused to schedule a hearing for him.

It's not like the committee has been hearing too many other circuit and district court nominees to make room for Restrepo. In fact, Grassley has had only two hearings for such nominees so far this year. At the second one, he only scheduled it for two nominees, although several other long-waiting nominees could easily have been accommodated.

And it's not like there is no need to fill the vacancy. In fact, on January 27, Third Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell announced her intention to take senior status on July 1, making it important to get Restrepo confirmed by then so the court would not needlessly have a second vacancy. Nevertheless, Grassley did nothing.

A few weeks later, on February 20, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts officially re-designated the vacancy that Restrepo would fill as a judicial emergency. Grassley's response was to do nothing. It was three weeks later that he held a hearing for two other judicial nominees and chose to exclude Restrepo.

Way back in November, Restrepo's nomination prompted statements of support from both of his home state senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey. Unfortunately, it has been clear for awhile now that Grassley needs additional prodding, and given GOP control of the Senate, Toomey has a particular responsibility to make sure this nominee receives the attention he deserves. Other than release a statement five months ago, has Toomey spoken with Grassley? If not, why not? And if so, why has he been so ineffectual over these past five months?

 

PFAW

Mitch McConnell: Doing the Least He Can Possibly Do

Last week, PFAW’s Paul Gordon pointed out that Senator Mitch McConnell’s ongoing campaign to obstruct President Obama’s judicial nominees had resulted in not a single new judge since Republicans took over the US Senate. If there’s been no movement it certainly hasn’t been for lack of need. The number of judicial vacancies has risen from 40 to 51, and the number of judicial emergencies has doubled from 12 to 24. Yet up until recently, Senator McConnell hasn’t seen fit to allow a vote on a single nominee.

But lest anyone think that Mitch McConnell hasn’t been paying attention to the judicial vacancy crisis or the Americans who pay the price when their cases are delayed or relocated, today everything changed: today Senator McConnell allowed a vote on … one judicial nominee!

Surely, Senator McConnell’s name will now be listed along with the great senate leaders of our history because he finally brought himself to allow a vote on one, single, solitary nominee. Just look at those numbers!

McConnell's Remarkable Record of Confirming Judicial Nominees

Truly, Senator McConnell, your willingness to move heaven and earth to do—literally—the least you could possibly do to put partisanship aside and perform the duties you’re paid for is an inspiration to us all.

Let’s give you a round of applause. You earned it.

Mary Poppins Is Not Impressed

PFAW

PFAW's New Radio Ad Calls Out Marco Rubio's Dangerous Agenda

In anticipation of Marco Rubio’s announcement that he is running for President, People For the American Way launched a Spanish-language radio ad criticizing Rubio for his dangerous agenda that ignores the interests of working families, including Latinos. The ad makes clear how Rubio is no different from the rest of the GOP; his far-right positions should disqualify him from the Presidential ticket.

The ad runs this week, starting Monday morning, on Spanish-language radio stations in Miami, FL and Denver, CO.

Listen to the radio ad here:

You can find full Spanish and English transcripts here.

PFAW

Lindsey Graham Says We Need an Amendment to Fix Money in Politics (VIDEO)

At an event with a local television station in New Hampshire this weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham was asked a question about what he would do to fight big money in politics. In his response, Graham pointed to the need for a constitutional amendment to address the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United:

Well, Citizens United has gotta be fixed. Y'all agree with that? You're gonna need a constitutional amendment to fix this problem. I was for McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that provisions in McCain-Feingold basically no longer apply.

You're gonna get sick of watching TV in New Hampshire. So the next President of the United States needs to get a commission of really smart people and find a way to create a constitutional amendment to limit the role of super PACs because there's gonna be like $100M spent on races in New Hampshire — which'll be good for this TV station — ripping everybody apart. You don't even know who the people are supplying the money, you don't even know their agenda. Eventually we're gonna destroy American politics with so much money in the political process cause they're going to turn you off to wanting to vote. [emphasis added]

This is not the first time Sen. Graham has spoken out against the big money takeover of our elections. In March, Bloomberg’s David Weigel wrote about a comment Graham made to a voter — again, in New Hampshire — about his desire to see some “control” over money in politics so it won’t “destroy the political process.”

While voicing support for an amendment is important, when the Senate voted in September on the Democracy for All Amendment, a proposal that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and help get big money out of politics, Sen. Graham voted against it.

So here’s a follow-up question for Sen. Graham: Will you back up your words with action? Will you work with your colleagues in Congress who are already pushing for an amendment and help tackle the issue of big money in politics? 

PFAW

#DemandDemocracy: Congressman Sarbanes Supports Solutions to #GetMoneyOut

Americans are fed up with the amount of money being spent in our political system. Fortunately, some members of Congress understand this frustration and are fighting for solutions to level the political playing field and create a democracy that is truly of, by and for the people.  

In this installment of our #DemandDemocracy video blog, Congressman John Sarbanes from Maryland’s third district discusses his support of []such solutions, including the Democracy for All Amendment, a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, and the Government By the People Act, a bill intended to empower small donors in elections.

On the fifth anniversary of Citizens United, January 21st of this year, a suite of reform bills referred to as the “Defend Democracy” legislative reform package was introduced to the 114th Congress. The reform package consists of the Democracy for All amendment, the Government By the People Act and several other bills aimed at addressing the influence of big money in politics. A broad range of organizations have endorsed these solutions and are currently working to mobilize their members around advocating for them.

PFAW’s #DemandDemocracy video blog series is a collection of short videos that highlight how big money in politics affects — and often stalls progress on — a range of other critical issues.

The GOP Finally Allows a Judicial Confirmation Vote

The Senate is back from their two-week recess with a lot on their plate. First and foremost, they need to have a vote on Loretta Lynch, who was cleared by the Judiciary Committee back in February. But while this is a prominent illustration of Mitch McConnell’s refusal or inability to run a competent Senate, there are other examples that don’t get as much attention.

For instance, judges. Later today, the Senate is scheduled to vote to confirm Alfred Bennett to the Southern District of Texas. But if McConnell is expecting congratulations, he should expect to wait a long time … just as he forces judicial nominees to wait for a confirmation vote.

More than three months into the 114th Congress, and we are finally seeing the first judicial confirmation vote. As PFAW noted when the Senate went out a couple of weeks ago, the GOP-controlled Senate's failure to confirm President Obama’s judicial nominees stands in stark contrast to how the newly Democratic-controlled Senate treated George W. Bush’s judicial nominees in his final two years.

In 2007, the Judiciary Committee under Chairman Patrick Leahy hit the ground running. There were numerous nominees from the previous Congress approved by the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee but left unconfirmed at the end of 2006. Rather than force them into new hearings for the benefit of the new committee members, Chairman Leahy arranged for quick votes instead. The Committee also processed several first-time nominees. As a result, by end of March 2007, the Senate had confirmed 15 new judges.

And today, even though there are four judicial nominees who were approved by the Judiciary Committee without opposition way back in February, McConnell is today allowing a vote on only one of them.

Why no vote for Jill Parrish, who would fill a vacancy in Utah that has been open for more than a year? Why no vote for George Hanks of the Southern District of Texas, who would fill a vacancy that has been open for nearly as long? Why no vote for Jose Rolando Olvera, who would fill a judicial emergency in the same district that has been open since the end of 2012?

If McConnell wants to be taken seriously as someone who is guided by anything other than sheer partisanship, he surely has not shown it in the way he has exercised his responsibilities as Senate Majority Leader. Unfortunately, the ones who pay the price are the individuals and businesses whose access to justice is hampered by the lack of enough judges on the bench.

PFAW

Maryland Passes Bill Bolstering Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated People

Today the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would allow people to regain the right to vote as soon as they are released from prison. The legislation rights a wrong in current Maryland law, which denies people voting rights until their entire sentence has been completed, including probation and parole. Without this bill, thousands of formerly incarcerated Marylanders — many of whom are people of color — will continue to be needlessly forced to stay home on Election Day.

PFAW activists in Maryland and members of PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action have been working with allies to help change this, calling their state representatives and urging them to support the immediate restoration of voting rights.

Disenfranchising those who have served their time in prison hampers the process of reintegration and shamefully blocks thousands of Americans from participating in elections. It worsens the discrimination already faced by formerly incarcerated people — who pay taxes, work, and contribute to their communities — and it weakens our democracy.

Passage of this bill is a big step forward in the movement for voting rights for all. Now it’s up to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to sign it and help make the state’s democratic process as fair and accessible as possible.
 

PFAW

The Courts Have to Matter to LGBTQ Americans

The following is a guest post by Erik Lampmann, a 2011 Young People For (YP4) Fellow. It is cross-posted on the Alliance for Justice blog and the YP4 blog.

Federal courts routinely hand down judgments that affect everyday Americans at an immediate, painful, and personal level – for good or ill.

Consider the case of Seamus Johnston, a transgender student expelled by the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (UPJ) for his use of male restrooms and gym facilities on campus. When he sought redress for his experiences at the hands of UPJ, U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled he had no room to claim discrimination since he was being treated in accordance with his sex as assigned at birth and had not had sex reassignment surgery.

In some ways, Johnson was warranted in thinking he was free to live openly as a transgender man since UPJ offers gender identity and expression protections under its student nondiscrimination statement. Indeed, Johnson had lived openly and without significant difficulty as a man since 2009 — even having taken advantage of men-only exercise courses. Only in 2011 was Johnson first confronted for using a men’s locker room. After issuing Johnson citations, barring him from certain facilities, and eventually arresting him, the university expelled him for his attempt to use the bathroom in which he felt most at peace and which he believed he was permitted to use by university policy. In his appeal for justice, Johnson didn’t ask for much — simply that a university that purports to protect students based on “gender identity and expression” allow him a modicum of relief as a transgender person rather than criminalizing his attempts to live authentically.

Essentially, Judge Gibson acknowledged Johnson’s self-identification as a transgender man, but she didn’t think it really mattered in the context of the Equal Protection Clause or Title IX.  Flatly ignoring guidance from the Department of Education encouraging institutions of higher education to recognize transgender and gender non-conforming students’ right to protections under Title IX, Judge Gibson left Johnston, and other transgender students, without protection from sex discrimination. She wrote:

While Plaintiff might identify his gender as male, his birth sex is female … It is this fact … that is fatal to Plaintiff’s sex discrimination claim. Regardless of how gender and gender identity are defined, the law recognizes certain distinctions between male and female on the basis of birth sex. Thus, even though Plaintiff is a transgender male, his sex is female.

In sum, this decision reflects a sobering reality for LGBTQ people, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming individuals: The government — more specifically, a judge — holds the power to determine if the law protects how you define yourself.

This example dramatizes just one way that our courts fail to live up to the promise of the motto “equal justice under law” by protecting the vulnerable among us from exclusion and discrimination. I’ll admit that several years ago the result in this case might have led me to give up on the courts as an avenue for change.

Recent decisions from the Supreme Court and other federal courts have prompted some progressives to view the courts as a once-relevant institution home only to disconnected jurists. When we as progressives write off the courts and treat them as spaces where our communities were never meant to triumph, we concede the power to speak from our lived experience as those affected by the law and to shift the balance of power within the judiciary.

In reality, the legal knowledge of our communities paired with our deeply personal understanding of how the courts’ decisions impact real people gives us a tremendous power to affect the composition of the courts and to create legal precedents that respect rather than ignore our communities’ needs.

Seamus Johnston’s experiences with the justice system are then instructive for progressives building long-term judicial strategies. His loss in the Western District of Pennsylvania is but one battle in a much longer struggle for social justice.

The courts have to matter for LGBTQ Americans and so many others who find themselves on the losing end of cases like Johnston’s. They have to matter because we cannot afford to write off institutions, elected officials, or organizations as permanent friends or enemies. Rather, if we truly believe another world is possible, we have to build it brick by brick, precedent by precedent, judge by judge.

PFAW Foundation

New Report Examines Supreme Court’s “Citizens United Era”

People For the American Way Foundation's latest report explores the extreme pro-corporate jurisprudence of the Supreme Court in recent years, identifying parallels to the Court’s infamous Lochner era a century ago.

The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era” by PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin explores how the Roberts Court’s right-wing majority has established a precedent for privileging corporations over individuals, allowing corporations to enjoy the rights of the people while reducing the rights that people have against corporations.

Raskin writes:

“Corporations increasingly enjoy all the rights of the people, but the people increasingly have no rights against corporations. Indeed, as we shall see, the conservative majority on the Roberts Court not only interprets federal law in dubious ways to defeat corporate liability but often works its special wonders to preempt state laws that would hold corporations accountable for civil injuries they cause against patients and consumers.”

The report covers cases ranging from Hobby Lobby, which granted corporations religious rights to opt-out of requirements on women’s health, to Sorrell v. IMS Health, which struck down Vermont’s prescription confidentiality law, to Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, which allowed interlocking corporations to hide assets from individuals defrauded by investment advisors.

You can find the full text of the report here. 

PFAW Foundation
C3

Warren Buffett: Citizens United Pushes U.S. Toward a Plutocracy

In a wide-ranging interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow released this week, Warren Buffett had some strong words about Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that have handed increasing political power to the super-rich. Responding to a question about income inequality, Buffett raised the issue of money in elections:

With Citizens United and other decisions that enable the rich to contribute really unlimited amounts, that actually tilts the balance even more toward the ultra-rich…The unlimited giving to parties, to candidates, really pushes us more toward a plutocracy. They say it’s free speech, but somebody can speak 20 or 30 million times and my cleaning lady can’t speak at all.

Watch the interview clip here:

PFAW

Half a Million Americans Urge President Obama to Shine a Light on Dark Money

This afternoon activists from PFAW and ally groups participated in a petition delivery at the White House calling on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring corporations that receive government contracts to disclose their political spending. More than 550,000 petition signatures were delivered in support of this executive order, collected by a collaborative effort of more than 50 organizations.

In addition to leaders from organized labor, civil rights, environmental and consumer protection groups, PFAW Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks (pictured below), was one of the individuals to speak at the event. Highlighting the fact that transparency is essential to accountability, Mr. Brooks and other speakers reiterated the strong message sent by the half a million petition signers.

President Obama has shared his support for reform on numerous occasions. Most recently, in his State of the Union address this January, the president called attention to the issue by speaking out against “dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.” Obama went on to call for a “better politics.”

Rallies like the one held in Washington today also occurred in nearly 60 cities across 28 states, all encouraging the president to use his authority and issue an executive order to help bring about that “better politics.”

Have you added your name to the petition yet?