PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Unanimous D.C. Circuit Rejects Attacks on "Pay to Play" Prohibition

The D.C. Circuit did something today it doesn’t do very often:  It issued a unanimous en banc opinion.  All 11 judges on the court, conservative as well as progressive, rejected as meritless an effort to strike down a federal law prohibiting federal contractors from contributing money to federal candidates, parties, or committees.  This common-sense “pay to play” prohibition has been on the books for 75 years and, fortunately, will remain in force.

In Wagner v. Federal Election Commission, the plaintiffs are individuals who are also federal contractors, and they claim their First Amendment rights are violated by the ban.  In an opinion written by Chief Judge Merrick Garland, the court disagreed.  The court showed how the federal ban serves two key governmental interests: (1) preventing real and perceived corruption (even as narrowly defined by the Roberts Court); and (2) protecting merit-based government administration.

The opinion delves in great detail into the history of campaign finance corruption involving contractors, as well as others similarly situated to contractors (such as federal employees).  Decade after decade, from the 19th century to the 21st, the judges take us on a tour of one example after another, on both the state and federal level, of the corrupting influence of money.  It is hard to read this section of the opinion and not want to shower afterward.

Refreshingly, the court doesn’t close its eyes to how the world really works.  For instance, the plaintiffs argued that the introduction of formalized competitive bidding since the ban was passed in 1940 immunized the system from the type of political interference that motivated passage of the statute.  But as several of the examples show, contracting is anything but immune from political interference, including from members of Congress and the executive branch.  As the court writes:

Unlike the corruption risk when a contribution is made by a member of the general public, in the case of contracting there is a very specific quo for which the contribution may serve as the quid:  the grant or retention of the contract.  Indeed, if there is an area that can be described as the “heartland” of such concerns, the contracting process is it.

Today’s opinion applies only to bans on contributions to candidates, parties, and committees; the issue of independent expenditures wasn’t before the court.

But here’s a question to ponder after reading this opinion’s long history of corruption surrounding the nexus of federal contracts and money in politics:  If a contractor publicly giving $100 to a candidate creates an appearance of corruption that can be banned, then why do we let that contractor secretly give $1 million in dark money to some shadowy entity buying ads slamming that candidate’s opponent?  Shouldn’t we know how the money is flowing?  As today’s court ruling shows, federal contractors are right at the nexus of concerns about money in politics.

PFAW Foundation

On Judicial Confirmations, 4 ≠ 21

Politico is reporting today on how the Senate GOP is blocking President Obama’s judicial nominees:

The GOP-controlled Senate is on track this year to confirm the fewest judges since 1969, a dramatic escalation of the long-running partisan feud over the ideological makeup of federal courts.

The standoff, if it continues through the 2016 elections as expected, could diminish the stamp that President Barack Obama leaves on the judiciary — a less conspicuous but critical part of his legacy. Practically, the makeup of lower-level courts could directly affect a number of Obama’s policies expected to face legal challenges from conservatives.

As we’ve written before, to determine how fairly or unfairly Republican-controlled Senate is treating Obama’s circuit and district court nominees during his last two years in office, the fairest and most accurate comparison is with how the newly-Democratically-controlled Senate treated George W. Bush’s nominees during his last two years:

  • So far this year, the Senate has confirmed only four judicial nominees.  By this same point in 2007, the Senate had confirmed 21 of Bush’s judicial nominees.
  • Since the beginning of the year, circuit and district court vacancies have jumped from just 40 to 59, a nearly 50% increase.  In contrast, in 2007, vacancies dropped from 56 at the beginning of the year to 51 on July 1.  In fact, by the fall of 2008 the Democratic-controlled Senate had confirmed so many of Bush’s nominees that the number of vacancies got as low as 34.
  • Judicial emergencies have skyrocketed from 12 at the beginning of this year to 27 today.  In contrast, in 2007, emergencies dropped from 25 at the start of the year to 18 as of July 1.

When asked about the GOP’s slow-walking of judicial nominees, Republicans went into full avoidance and distraction mode, echoing talking points that Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley has given before.  Politico reports:

Republicans say statistics show that Obama is receiving comparable treatment to Bush. So far, Obama has gotten 311 judges installed nationwide — compared to 276 for Bush at the same point in his presidency.

The following passage did not appear in Politico, but it would have been great if it had:

Grassley has not publicly turned beet red with embarrassment for taking credit for so many confirmations when, in fact, he and his party opposed even allowing the Senate to vote on an enormous percentage of them.  The GOP forced time-consuming cloture votes on 93 of President Obama’s judicial nominees, even though Republican senators voted to confirm most of them anyway.  The number is high not because of Republicans but in spite of Republicans.  And cloture votes only tell part of the story of the obstruction.  Although Senate Republicans did everything they could to gum up the works and prevent timely confirmation votes for President Obama’s nominees, they seem more than happy to take credit for their eventual confirmation.

Back to the real Politico article:

And while Democrats boast that they had confirmed 21 judges at this point in 2007, Republicans noted that 13 of them had been awaiting floor consideration the previous year. In contrast, Democrats confirmed 27 judges during the lame-duck session late last year before Republicans took over.

And here is how that paragraph might have appeared without the prism of Republican talking points:

By this time in 2007, the Senate had confirmed 13 judges left over from 2006 who were denied a vote during the lame duck not by Democrats, but by Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas.  The Senate had by this point in 2007 also confirmed an additional eight judges who had cleared the Judiciary Committee for the first time that year, a number that by itself is twice the number confirmed by the current Senate.

It is also unclear how mentioning last year’s lame duck confirmations makes the GOP look any better.  If Mitch McConnell was unwilling to schedule more than a mere four confirmation votes during the first half of the year, forcing nominees to wait month after month after committee approval before a vote, then it is hardly realistic to think that adding last year’s lame duck nominees to the mix would have done anything except increase the size of this year’s bottleneck.

The Republican talking points also don’t mention that all but three of the lame duck confirmations had unanimous Republican support.  Even though the nominees had been fully vetted, and even though Republican senators concluded that they were qualified for a lifetime position on the federal bench, they still filibustered most of them before voting to confirm them.  They apparently believed then and believe now that the judgeships these nominees filled should have remained vacant well into this year, even though the Senate was prepared to confirm them last year, and despite the harm that delay would have caused to Americans across the country.

But put all that aside.  At mid-year, here’s the short version:  The GOP-controlled Senate confirmed only four Obama judicial nominees in the first half of this year.  By the same point in 2007, the Democratic-controlled Senate had already confirmed 21 of Bush’s.

No matter how you slice it, 4 ≠ 21.

PFAW

PFAW Telebriefing Analyzes End of Supreme Court Term

The Supreme Court finished its session on Monday, ending a term filled with landmark decisions regarding fair housing, marriage equality, and healthcare.

On Wednesday, PFAW hosted a telebriefing for members about the end of the Court’s term and the implications of several cases. PFAW Communications Director Drew Courtney moderated a dialogue among PFAW Senior Fellows Elliot Mincberg and Jamie Raskin, Right Wing Watch researcher Miranda Blue, and PFAW Executive Vice President for Policy and Program Marge Baker.

Raskin covered Obergefell v. Hodges and Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. He first noted that Obergefell would not be possible without the “many decades of intense social struggle and millions of people coming out of the closet” which created a momentous societal shift in public opinion of LGBT rights. The Arizona case, which effectively obstructed state legislature’s gerrymandering efforts, was also a huge triumph for democracy, because, as Raskin notes, “the whole point of democracy is that power begins and resides with people.”

Mincberg discussed King v. Burwell as well as Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project—two cases that, according to Mincberg, represent “attempts by the far right to push legal theories that had been rejected by the lower courts over and over again.” The fair rulings in both cases have led many analysts to assume an overall shift left in the Court; however, Mincberg asserts that their inclusion on the docket in the first place contradicts this assumption.

Finally, Blue reviewed reactions from the Religious Right regarding the marriage decision from this session. Presidential candidates and conservative pundits alike have voiced their disapproval of the decision, with responses ranging from terrorist attack predictions to calls for a revolution. “This is a defining moment for the Religious Right,” said Blue. “It’s a test of whether the movement can survive into the future as it exists now.”

At the end of the briefing, Courtney asked the panelists about the next session of the court, including a union case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, that was recently added to the docket. Raskin labeled the case as “the new wedge to destroy unions,” and another GOP attempt to use legal doctrine to undermine progressive initiatives like public sector unions.

Listen to the full briefing here:

PFAW

New Hampshire Budget Battle Highlights How Big Money Affects Fiscal Policy

 In our current political landscape, moneyed interests frequently use their financial leverage to impact policy. For instance, Wall Street banks lobbied against a bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren that would help relieve students of their loan debt. For every dollar the fossil fuels industry spends on lobbying, it receives $103 in government subsidies. Now in New Hampshire, special interests are looking to change the state’s longstanding fiscal policy in their favor.

 New Hampshire Representative Timothy Smith credits the state’s ability to stay afloat financially without imposing a sales or income tax with its substantial business taxes, which bring in sizable amounts of revenue. However, that might change with the introduction of a bill by 13 Republican senators that would significantly lower the business tax, creating a hole of $90 million in the budget. Rep. Smith connected the introduction of this legislation to the fact that special interest groups, many of which would benefit from this change, spent over $900 thousand in New Hampshire’s legislative elections last year.

 Not surprisingly, New Hampshire residents are unhappy with the growing trend of big money influencing politics. Over two-thirds of the state’s voters believe that a constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United should be implemented. Sixty-nine state localities have passed resolutions calling for such an amendment, and over 120 small businesses are hosting Stamp Stampede stations, where patrons can stamp phrases like “not to be used for bribing politicians” on their bills.

 Rep. Smith co-sponsored a bill that called for an amendment to get big money out of politics, which passed in the New Hampshire House with bipartisan support. In addition, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan dismissed the business tax reductions as “unpaid for tax cuts to big corporations” that would “put corporate special interest ahead of New Hampshire's families.” Officials in the state government are listening to their constituents’ concerns about the harmful effects of big money in politics.

 “Our constituents are trying to tell us something. They’re tired of their government serving lobbyists rather than citizens,” said Rep. Smith.

PFAW

Voters Are Concerned About the Influence of Big Money in 2016

Voters Are Concerned About the Influence of Big Money in 2016

Last week the Wall Street Journal and NBC published the results of a poll on various issues leading up to the 2016 presidential elections, showing that the influence of wealthy donors on elections is a growing concern among Americans.

Thirty-three percent of those surveyed say that the influence of wealthy donors is their biggest concern in the 2016 presidential race. Although the majority were Democrats, big money in politics was the issue with the most agreement between the two parties, only a seventeen percent gap separated Democrats and Republicans. The poll suggests that the influence of the wealthy is becoming less of a partisan issue, and more of a general anxiety for Americans when it comes to elections.

 The poll also revealed that

“the influence of wealthy donors was the primary concern for independents.”

This can and should influence the positions of the 2016 candidates as they seek to win over swing voters. Whether the growing anxiety amongst Americans about big money in politics will lead to changes in campaign finance remains uncertain, but the heightened awareness may bring the issue to the forefront of the 2016 race.

PFAW

Why The Right's Response To Marriage Equality Is Anything But Principled

This post by PFAW and PFAW Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon was originally published in the Huffington Post. 

Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and other conservative leaders have recently lashed out against the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality by proclaiming that local clerks who don't personally agree with marriage equality should not be required to issue marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples - even though it's their job to provide that service to the public.

Their logic is fundamentally flawed. Civil marriage is a civil function, not a religious one. Government employees allowing someone to access their legal rights are not doing anything religious, nor are they condoning the actions being licensed any more than with any other type of license.

That's why when government employees in our country have had religious objections to divorce and remarriage, they have still had to do their jobs. And when government employees have had religious objections to interracial marriages, they have still had to do their jobs. So, too, have government officials with other religious objections to whether or how certain couples get married.

But when the particular religious belief in question is opposition to lesbians and gays, that's apparently a different matter altogether. Now, suddenly, we're told that government employees need to have their religious liberty "protected."

A principle of religious liberty that is invoked only in the context of one particular religious belief is no principle at all. It is a pretext.

The far-right movement that is coalescing around these "protections" allowing civil servants to impose their religious beliefs on others and deny them service does not have clean hands in this regard. While they proclaim loudly that they just want to "live and let live," the policies they have pursued vigorously for decades have aggressively sought to prevent LGBT people from having basic human rights. The Right's new clamor for "protections" is just another form of homophobia.

If the religious right simply wanted to "live and let live," they would not have spent these past decades seeking to impose their religious beliefs about homosexuality on others both through custom and through force of law. They would not have boycotted television networks for airing shows portraying LGBT people as ordinary people. Nor would they have screamed bloody murder when popular celebrities came out of the closet. They would not have fought to prevent us from raising children. They would not have battled to ensure that surviving members of couples be denied Social Security survivor benefits. They would not have opposed letting us serve our country in the intelligence services or in the military. They would not have put so much energy into convincing Americans that we are sexual predators going after their children. They would not have tried to bar us from teaching in public schools. They would not have threatened us with criminal prosecution just for our private, consensual sexual conduct.

Whether it's religious refusals specific to marriage, more general Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in a post-Hobby Lobby world, or Sen. Mike Lee's misleadingly named "First Amendment Defense Act," the Right is yet again attacking LGBT people. With a growing number of Americans - and now the Supreme Court - affirming that the right to marry is a right guaranteed to all regardless of sexual orientation, some on the Right have come to understand that their best tactic to fight marriage equality is to couch their homophobic goals with the language of "religious liberty" instead of explicitly speaking out against LGBT rights. But it's up to all of us to make sure that they do not succeed in these efforts to portray themselves as virtuous defenders of religious liberty, because in reality they're just waging another war against LGBT people.
 

PFAW

New Hampshire Activists Launch Photo Petition Urging Sen. Ayotte to Support an Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

PFAW activists and allies are continuing to pressure Sen. Kelly Ayotte for her reluctance to support a constitutional amendment that would overturn cases like Citizens United.

A group of New Hampshire activists, many of whom have worked to pass local resolutions in their towns in support of an amendment, met with Sen. Ayotte’s legal counsel in May to deliver over 12 thousand petitions in support of the Democracy For All Amendment— a federal constitutional amendment that would allow Congress and the states to set reasonable limits on money in elections.

Over a month later, her office has given no indication she will support the Democracy For All Amendment.

In previous public statements she has characterized a constitutional amendment as “dangerous.”  And in a recent form letter to activists, Sen. Ayotte wrote,

By creating a "carve out" to the First Amendment that gives politicians the power to limit free speech and stifle political dissent, the Udall proposal jeopardizes all Americans' freedom of speech rights - and essentially says that our Founding Fathers got it wrong. It would also alter the First Amendment in ways that jeopardize more than political speech.

Of course, we know this issue isn’t about protecting free speech; it’s about everyone having an equal say in our elections and not having their own voices drowned out by a flood of big money.

In light of Sen. Ayotte’s clear refusal to recognize the influence of money in politics as stifling the voices of all Americans, PFAW activists and allies created photo petitions this weekend to send Sen. Ayotte a clear message about why 69 percent of New Hampshire voters support a constitutional amendment.

photo petition photo petition
photo petition photo petition
photo petition photo petition

 

PFAW

A Liberal Supreme Court Term? Hardly.

In the last week, conservatives lost major cases at the Supreme Court on issues like fair housing, healthcare, nonpartisan redistricting, and marriage equality.  Some are questioning whether the Roberts Court is really all that conservative.  The New York Times’s The Upshot trumpeted The Roberts Court’s Surprising Move Leftward, writing that this term had a greater percentage of liberal decisions than any since 1969.

But this is no liberal court.  It hasn’t even been all that much of a liberal term, certainly not in the way that we saw decades ago.

Take the fair housing case, for instance: Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project.  There was unanimity among all 11 circuit courts that had considered the issue that a practice that has an unjustified discriminatory impact can violate the federal Fair Housing Act even when a discriminatory purpose can’t be proved.  Congress had amended the law with this type of “disparate impact” clearly in mind.  Ordinarily, under these circumstances, the Supreme Court never would have heard a case claiming that the Act does not allow for disparate impact cases.  But this is the Roberts Court, and four Justices (the minimum needed to grant certiorari) were clearly hungry to change the law.  Rather than moving the law in a progressive direction, the 5-4 result simply fought off a fringe right-wing legal attack against a long-established civil rights law.  Even so, this case was only one vote away from going in the other direction.

Similarly, King v. Burwell – the Affordable Care Act subsidies case – hardly marks new frontiers in progressive jurisprudence.  The plaintiffs’ attack against the law was laughably weak, and there was no circuit split in the lower courts to resolve.  That the Supreme Court took this case at all was both absurd and ominous.  While the Court rejected the anti-Obamacare activists’ claim 6-3, it is hard to imagine an earlier Court not ruling 9-0, or even refusing to take the case in the first place.  The majority opinion left the law exactly as it was intended and understood when it was passed.

Yesterday’s ruling in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission upholding that state’s nonpartisan redistricting commission shows the same dynamic.  Arizona voters adopted this reform 15 years ago, in response to the damage done by partisanship in the drawing of district lines.  But conservative politicians sought to undo this reform and launched a constitutional attack they thought would find favor in the Roberts Court.  They lost by one vote yesterday, as a 5-4 majority upheld the status quo.

Similarly, in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, this term saw the Court entertain a conservative attack against a common-sense campaign finance law for judicial elections, one that prohibits state judicial nominees from directly soliciting campaign contributions.  Since the Roberts Court has gone out of its way to undo or undermine longstanding legal precedent supporting efforts to regulate money in politics, many thought the challenge would be successful.  However, by one vote, the Supreme Court chose to uphold the Florida law, one that applies in many other states, as well.

The Court’s four moderates are sometimes able to garner a majority to reject right wing attacks on the law.  That is a far cry from the liberal Court terms of an earlier era, when the Justices expanded the frontiers of liberty and equality, making the stirring promises of the Constitution real for millions of people.  Those were decisions that empowered Americans to vote and effect their will through fair elections, that recognized the essential dignity and liberty of the individual, and that ensured that civil rights statutes were interpreted in ways to carry out Congress’s intent.

So no, the Supreme Court did not just complete a liberal term.  Progressives breathed a sigh of relief after a number of cases this term when the Court didn’t accept invitations to lurch even further to the right.  And the Court did take one important progressive step in affirmatively ruling for marriage equality, although only by a 5-4 vote.  But there is much more work to do if we really want to see a liberal Supreme Court term.

PFAW Foundation

Latest 5-4 Rulings Show Importance of Supreme Court in 2016

The Supreme Court issued its last three opinions of the term this morning.  All three were important.  All three were decided 5-4.  And all three are reminders that no matter what issue you care about, the Supreme Court is a critically important issue in the 2016 elections.

In Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, Justice Ginsburg wrote for a 5-4 majority upholding that state’s voter-passed redistricting reform, in which a commission rather than the state legislature resets district boundaries after each census.  She wrote:

The people of Arizona turned to the initiative to curb the practice of gerrymandering and, thereby, to ensure that Members of Congress would have “an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people.” The Federalist No. 57, at 350 (J. Madison). In so acting, Arizona voters sought to restore “the core principle of republican government,” namely, “that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.” … The Elections Clause does not hinder that endeavor.

In Michigan v. EPA, Justice Scalia wrote for a 5-4 majority striking down EPA regulations of mercury and other toxins emitted from certain types of electric power plants.  EPA studied the issue and determined that these emissions needed to be regulated.  Then, in a separate proceeding, it adopted regulations, carefully taking the costs of regulating into consideration in crafting its rules.  Notwithstanding that, the five conservative Justices ruled that the EPA had been required to consider costs at the start, in its initial decision on whether regulating these particular emissions was appropriate and necessary.

In Glossip v. Gross, the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Alito, ruled that it is not unconstitutionally cruel and unusual to execute someone by lethal injection using midazolam as the initial drug.  That particular drug is supposed to ensure that the person doesn’t feel burning, searing pain when the follow-up drugs causing death are given.  There is evidence that the drug does nothing of the sort, so that people endure what Justice Sotomayor in her dissent calls “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.”

These decisions join a host of other 5-4 rulings this term, including

And let us not forget some of the most notorious 5-4 cases of recent years:

  • Citizens United (opening the flood gates to untold amounts of money in politics);
  • Hobby Lobby (upholding a corporation’s “religious liberty” right to exempt itself from a law protecting women’s health);
  • Shelby County (striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act).

By 2018, four Justices will be in their 80s, meaning there may be several vacancies during the next president’s term.  Any replacements could cement a hard-right conservative majority that would extend cases like Citizens United and Shelby County and seek to limit the rights of LGBT people that were gained in Obergefell.  Or we could see the end of what our affiliate PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin has called The Citizens United Era, so the Court will no longer bend logic and twist the law in order to rule in favor of powerful and corporate interests.

No matter what issue you care about – money in politics, LGBT equality, voting rights, women’s health, the environment, defendants’ rights, the death penalty – the president elected in 2016 will make all the difference, as will the Senate that will either confirm or block the president’s nominees.

On Election Day, it is the Supreme Court that will be on the ballot.

PFAW

PFAW Foundation Rallies #LoveWins

Paul said it best, "Wow."

It was certainly a "Wow" moment as People For the American Way Foundation stood outside the Supreme Court to watch marriage equality become the law of the land.

People For the American Way Foundation at the Supreme Court for Love Wins

Though there were clouds aplenty, the crowd was strong.

Crowd at the Supreme Court for Love Wins

And spirits were high.

Spirits High as Love Wins at the Supreme Court

Spirits High as Love Wins at the Supreme Court

Marriage equality is now.

But the fight for justice is not over.

People For the American Way Foundation Fights for Justice for All

People For the American Way Foundation will keep fighting every day for justice for all.

PFAW Foundation

A Historic Day for Liberty, Equality, and America

Wow.

The Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  This day is profoundly American and a testament to our Constitution: Individuals who faced discrimination at the hands of the government turned to the courts to vindicate their rights.  And the Supreme Court did that today, in a ruling that gives justice to the plaintiffs and, in the process, makes real the promises of liberty and equality that are written in our Constitution.

When the American Way works as intended, it is a beautiful thing to see.

As Justice Kennedy describes in his majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, gays and lesbians have for most of American history been scorned, stigmatized, imprisoned, labelled as mentally ill … you name it.  Given the horrific consequences for being openly gay, it is no wonder that for so long, as Kennedy writes, “a truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken.”

That is profoundly sad, and it is profoundly unjust.

Fortunately, society has changed over the past few decades.  The Court majority writes:

In the late 20th century, following substantial cultural and political developments, same-sex couples began to lead more open and public lives and to establish families. This development was followed by a quite extensive discussion of the issue in both governmental and private sectors and by a shift in public attitudes toward greater tolerance.

While this is a recent development for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans, it is quite a familiar process for America itself.  Indeed, it is the story of America.

This was stated eloquently several years ago when Maryland was debating marriage equality.  The marriage bill’s sponsor, Maryland state senator Rich Madaleno, testified in support of the legislation:

Our state and our nation were founded on principles of fairness and equality. These principles are timeless; unfortunately, their application has not been. Yet every generation of Americans has held out their hand to some who had been left out of the promise of equality – held out their hand and brought them fully into our civil society, saying, “You are not the other. You are us.”

After today’s Supreme Court decision, my place in society as a gay American is profoundly changed as a matter of constitutional law.  I am no longer the other.  I am us.

Today, the system worked.

PFAW Foundation

Protecting Civil Rights from Judicial Attack

To many people’s surprise, the Supreme Court this morning didn’t gut the Fair Housing Act in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project.  Many had feared the far-right conservatives would rule that a practice that has an unjustified discriminatory impact could no longer be judged to violate the FHA unless a discriminatory purpose could be proved.  Such an interpretation would have gone against congressional intent to create a robust legal tool to bring fair housing to everyone in the nation, all 11 circuit courts that have considered the question, and the interpretation of the law by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Despite the absence of a circuit split, and despite the fact that Congress had amended the FHA after those judicial decisions with the clear assumption that such “disparate impact” cases would be generated, the Roberts Court had taken identical cases in 2011 and 2013, but the parties settled before the Court could rule.  But at least four justices – the minimum required for the Court to agree to hear a case – clearly wanted to address this issue.

And now we can be pretty sure who they were: today’s four dissenters (the Chief Justice, and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito).

Fortunately, they did not prevail.  Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy highlighted the vital role played by the Fair Housing Act, both at the time of its passage in 1968 and today, in eliminating “zoning laws and other housing restrictions that function unfairly to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods without any sufficient justification.”

Much progress remains to be made in our Nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation.  …  The FHA must play an important part in avoiding the [1968] Kerner Commission’s grim prophecy that “[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Kerner Commission Report 1.  The Court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the Nation toward a more integrated society.

For nearly 50 years, the Fair Housing Act has been a critical tool for eliminating discrimination and expanding opportunity to all.  After today, it will remain so.

So much was at stake in this case, and this morning’s 5-4 ruling could easily have gone the other way had one Justice voted differently.  That is much too close for comfort.  Indeed, this second anniversary of the 5-4 Shelby County decision gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act reminds us that those who value equality and civil rights are too often on the losing side of these 5-4 cases.

PFAW Foundation

Minister Leslie Watson Malachi’s Remarks at Roanoke Voting Rights Rally

Today, on the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, People For the American Way joins a diverse group of civil rights and voting rights advocates in Roanoke, Virginia to rally for a restored Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way, is addressing the crowd. Below are her remarks, as prepared.

Hello everyone. I am Minister Leslie Watson Malachi and I’m the director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way.

It’s been two years since the Supreme Court gutted the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement. Two years since Justice Scalia claimed that protecting the right to vote somehow represents “racial entitlement.”

The Voting Rights Act, when it was whole, was one of the most important tools we had for confronting a very ugly entitlement: the entitlement of those who think that certain votes and certain voices should matter more than others. It helped interrupt a phenomenon that is still alive and well – the ongoing devaluation of the votes, and the lives, of Black Americans. The racist massacre at Emanuel AME church in Charleston provided a horrific reminder of that reality.

The VRA gave a sense of security and safety that translated beyond just security and safety in the voting booth. After the VRA, we had the election of first-time African Americans in mayoral and gubernatorial seats post Reconstruction. The Voting Rights Act was more than a piece of public policy. It was a statement, enshrined in law, about the value of African American lives and voices.

So far, Congress has failed to restore that statement, those protections. What kind of message does that send?

Chairman Goodlatte, we are here in your backyard to demand that you and your Republican colleagues do better. Stop ignoring racial discrimination at the polls. Stop ignoring the calls from Americans of all political stripes and restore the VRA.

In the past two years, politicians in cities and states that were once protected by the federal oversight of the original VRA have been passing laws that make it harder for people of color to vote. These politicians didn’t waste any time in turning back the clock on progress we’ve made toward making sure that all Americans can participate in our democracy.

Congress shouldn’t waste any more time in doing just the opposite: restoring the Voting Rights Act and protecting every person’s right to cast a vote that counts.

Fifty years ago, courageous men and women died fighting for these protections. They knew that the right to vote is the most precious right we have in a democracy. We can’t let their legacy come undone.

PFAW

Obamacare Comes Out Stronger Than Before

In a decision that surely disappointed far right politicians, a strong 6-3 majority today rejected a pitifully transparent and legally ridiculous effort to destroy Obamacare.

The King v. Burwell plaintiffs claimed that Congress intended to make healthcare insurance subsidies via tax credits available to Americans in certain states (ones where the state exchange was set up by the state itself) but not in others (states where the exchange was set up by the federal government).  Fortunately, six Justices refused to go along with this.

The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Roberts, and joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  They acknowledged that the phrase “established by the state,” if completely stripped of all context, could be interpreted to exclude exchanges established by the federal government.  But looking at congressional intent and the structure of the ACA as a whole, they concluded that – of course – Congress did not mean to deny subsidies to Americans in the federal-exchange states.

While the Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s judgment against the anti-ACA activists, the legal reasoning isn’t exactly the same.  In fact, the Court closes off a future avenue of attack against Obamacare that the Fourth Circuit had left open.

Specifically, the Fourth Circuit had found the phrase in question ambiguous in meaning.  Therefore, it turned to how it was interpreted by the federal agency charged with interpreting it and carrying out its commands – in this case, the Internal Revenue Service.  Under a doctrine called “Chevron deference,” courts generally defer to agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous statutory commands as long as they are reasonable.  The Fourth Circuit noted that the IRS interprets the ACA to allow subsidies to be made available to people in all states, and it upheld that interpretation as reasonable.

Note that this approach could have left the ACA vulnerable to a future presidential administration proffering a different interpretation – i.e., the ones pushed by the anti-Obamacare plaintiffs and their conservative activist backers.

That threat would seem to be gone.  The Supreme Court noted that the subsidies are a critical component of the congressional plan to reform healthcare, and if it had wanted to delegate a question as critically important as that to a federal agency, it surely would have said so.  So Chevron deference wasn’t even a factor here.

The Court then looked at the statute as a whole and made the only obvious conclusion: Of course Congress did not mean to deny subsidies to people based on whether their state set up its own exchange or instead relied on the federal government to set it up.  That would have disrupted the entire system Congress was setting up:

Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.  If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.

Quoting an earlier case, the majority observed that “[w]e cannot interpret federal statutes to negate their own stated purposes."

Even today’s dissenters once acknowledged the majority’s interpretation.  The Chief Justice quotes their dissent in the first ACA case, where they argued the law was unconstitutional.  In that dissent (which Kennedy was also part of), they agreed that “[w]ithout the federal subsidies . . . the exchanges would not operate as Congress intended and may not operate at all.”

The majority concludes that the context and structure of the ACA “compel” the interpretation assumed by Congress, the Obama Administration, and everyone else when the law was debated and passed: Subsidies are available in every state.

“Compel.”  And no Chevron deference.  That means a future conservative president cannot direct the IRS to revisit the subsidies issue and thus put Obamacare into a death spiral.  That puts the law on a stronger footing than it was under the Fourth Circuit’s ruling.

Given that the plaintiffs were confident of a 5-4 victory, today’s 6-3 defeat is not just a loss, it is a powerful rebuke.

But this case should never have been before the Court in the first place.  There was no circuit split (a contrary DC Circuit panel ruling had been vacated en banc), and the plaintiffs’ legal reasoning was laughable.  The fact that we went into this morning not knowing what the result would be shows just how much of the Court’s legitimacy the Court’s five conservatives have sacrificed in their effort to remake the law to fit their political ideology.  While today’s ruling is a great outcome, it should not blind anyone to the nature of the Roberts Court overall.

PFAW Foundation

Activists Join Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton to Protest Bogus ‘Religious Liberty’ Objections to DC Anti-Discrimination Law

The right-wing tactic of pushing discriminatory policies under the guise of religious freedom is nothing new -- we’ve already seen it used to hurt LGBT people in North Carolina, Louisiana, and elsewhere across the country. But now Republican lawmakers are going a step further, by attacking anti-discrimination legislation meant to protect Americans who aren't even represented in Congress.

The legislation is Washington, DC’s Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA), which would protect workers from being fired or punished by their employers for things like using birth control, getting pregnant without being married, or having an abortion. DC’s City Council recently passed RHNDA, and now Congress is using its (fundamentally undemocratic) authority to reverse DC’s local laws to repeal it on the grounds that it violates the religious freedom of employers. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a rider that would block DC from using local funds to enforce RHNDA.

Today, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) held a press conference in DC, where she denounced these congressional attacks and praised the DC employers who have vowed to embrace RHNDA’s protections anyway.

“Republicans do not understand how united this city is against discrimination, and they do not need to; they just need to let the District be the District... Our Republican opponents claim that the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act will allow pro-choice employees of anti-choice organizations to espouse their own personal pro-choice beliefs.  That falsehood must be met with the truth that employees must carry out the mission of their employer.”

Nearly 33,000 people have already signed PFAW’s petition telling Congress not to meddle with DC’s Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act.

PFAW