PEOPLE FOR BLOG

How Big Money In Politics Is Making It Harder For Criminal Defendants To Get A Fair Trial

When the Supreme Court struck down limits on outside spending in elections in the 2010 Citizens United case, critics pointed to a potentially huge public policy impact in issues ranging from environmental protection to tax policy to health care to voting rights.

But one impact of Citizens United has gone without as much public discussion as it deserves: It’s making it harder for criminal defendants to get a fair trial.

Last fall, the American Constitution Society released a report by two Emory University law professors illustrating that the big spending that Citizens United let loose in state judicial elections created a climate in which elected judges were more reluctant to side with defendants in criminal cases.

Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang found that outside groups seeking to influence judicial elections — usually for reasons unrelated to criminal justice policy — often relied on “Willie Horton” style attack ads implying that targeted judges were “soft on crime.” The proliferation of outside spending and the attack ads that the spending bought, they found, correlated with a decrease in the frequency with which elected state appellate judges ruled in favor of defendants in criminal cases.

“Unlimited independent spending is associated with, on average, a seven percent decrease in justices’ voting in favor of criminal defendants,” they wrote. “That is, the results predict that, after Citizens United, justices would vote differently and against criminal defendants in 7 out of 100 cases.”

Shepherd discussed her findings yesterday at a panel convened by ACS, along with retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Norman Reimer and Tanya Clay House of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Nelson, who was on the Montana Supreme Court when it famously ruled that Citizens United didn't apply to that state's unique history of corruption (Nelson dissented, saying the high court’s ruling applied to Montana, but took the opportunity to demolish the decision while he was at it), said he had lived first-hand the impact of big money in judicial races.

“The fact of the matter is that is when justices running for political office are attacked during their campaigns, it forces them to look over their shoulder constantly,” he said. “And I can tell you that from personal experience. You have to fight to make yourself vote the way the law requires you to vote. And most judges do. But it’s in these marginal cases where there’s a close call and perhaps the case should go to a defendant, it doesn’t go to the defendant.”

The groups spending money on judicial attack ads, he said, “really don’t give a damn about defendants’ rights. They really don’t care. What they want to do is to get somebody onto a court who marches in lockstep with their philosophy, or get somebody off the court that does not march in lockstep with their philosophy.”

Reimer sounded a similar note: “The fight is really about commercial interests. It’s usually about the plaintiffs’ bar versus the corporate interests, the unions, the conservatives. It’s about nothing to do with criminal justice. But because of the fear factor, that’s where you go after somebody.”

“I think we all need to understand and appreciate what’s really at risk here,” Nelson said. “And what’s really at risk is the fair, independent and impartial judicial system that most citizens in this country, and I think most lawyers in this country, simply take for granted. And if the dark money flows from Super PACS and the Koch brothers and RSLC and groups like them get control of the judiciary … That’s what this is all about: getting control of the third branch of government. If they get control of that third branch by spending their way to the top, then we’re going to lose that fair, impartial and independent judiciary that we’ve all come to expect and rely upon. Certainly criminal defendants are going to suffer immeasurably.”

Clay House pointed out that there is already “a different perception of the criminal justice system and judiciary among communities of color.” Pew found in 2013 that 68 percent of black Americans said they were “treated less fairly than whites” in the courts, while the majority of whites were oblivious to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Unchecked spending in judicial elections, the evidence shows, may be making that perception, and the reality, even worse.

PFAW

Clinton, Supreme Court Nominations, and Protecting Our Democracy

Hillary Clinton's campaign has made clear perhaps the most important way that America's choice for president in 2016 will have a profound effect for good or for ill on the health of our democracy: the next president's Supreme Court nominees.

As reported in Bloomberg, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta noted the importance of Supreme Court nominations during an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose yesterday:

"What she's out there doing is saying that we need to clean up financial—the campaign finance. Just listen to the voices of everyday Americans to, you know, move forward, and if it takes a constitutional amendment, so be it. I think the first thing that she'll do, quite frankly—and that this will set her apart from her Republican opponents—is that she'll appoint Supreme Court justices who protect the right of every American to vote, not every corporation to buy an election."

The Roberts Court's devastating campaign finance rulings like Citizens United have all been 5-4. It is that one-vote margin that gave corporations the ability to pour unlimited amounts of dark money into influencing our elections, that has tossed out common-sense efforts to restore the voices of those who are not among the nation's financial elite, and that has ramped up the ability of millionaires and billionaires to give even more money directly to parties and campaigns.

But those recent cases are sharp departures from the Court's previous jurisprudence on the First Amendment, and it could take only one new Supreme Court Justice to overrule them.

Similarly, the rampant assault on voting rights we have seen in recent years can be traced back to bad rulings in Shelby County (gutting the Voting Rights Act) and Crawford (okaying restrictive photo ID requirements to vote). We can be sure that more challenges to the right to vote will make their way to the Supreme Court, and it is critical that we have Justices who understand the importance of protecting that right.

Three of the current Justices will be 80 or older by the time the next president is inaugurated, and a fourth will turn 80 in 2018. The next president may have one or more opportunities to change the Court, either to strengthen the current hard-right majority for a generation or more, or to restore a Court that we can rely on to protect our rights and our democracy.

PFAW

Grassroots Organizing to Make Money in Politics a Key Issue in 2016

From a mailman flying a gyrocopter to the Capitol to protest big money in politics, to Hillary Clinton making the issue a centerpiece of her campaign, to Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Lindsey Graham being asked about their stances on campaign finance reform at Q&A events, it’s clear that money in politics is shaping up to be a major issue in 2016. Yesterday The Washington Post’s Matea Gold reported on the grassroots push to spotlight the topic of big money’s influence on our democracy:

[F]ive years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — which held it was unconstitutional to ban independent political spending by corporations and unions, and helped set off a financial arms race — there are signs that politicians are beginning to confront a voter backlash.

….For those who feel strongly about it, the 2016 primaries and caucuses — and the up-close access they bring to the presidential contenders — offer a ripe opportunity to elevate the topic.

In New Hampshire, nearly 500 people have volunteered to attend public forums and press the White House hopefuls about money in politics, Weeks said.

In an interview aired Friday on National Public Radio, PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker underscored the importance of top candidates elevating this issue:

"When the leading candidate for president says she's going to make reducing the influence of money in politics one of the four pillars in her campaign, you know that that's going to be a major issue in 2016," Baker said. "So this is a very, very big deal."

While there are many issues that divide Americans, addressing the big-money takeover of our political system is not one of them. That both Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton expressed support for an amendment to get big money out of politics in the past two weeks underscores the fact that fighting to fix our broken democracy is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good politics – across the political spectrum.

PFAW

Thanks, Mitch: Confirmed Judges to Skyrocket From One to Two

The GOP-controlled Senate's record for slow-walking President Obama's judicial nominees stands in stark contrast to how the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed George W. Bush's judicial nominees in his final two years. Democrats shepherded 68 of Bush's circuit and district court judges through confirmation in his last two years, including 15 by this point in 2007.

Back in February, the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved four district court nominees from Texas and Utah. But it wasn't until last week that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally allowed a vote on one of them, the first and only judicial confirmation vote of the 114th Congress.

Today, McConnell is taking aggressive action by scheduling a Senate vote on ... one of the three remaining district court nominees that have been pending on the floor for nearly two months. Wow, one! Such progress!

The sky's the limit!

PFAW

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.

PFAW

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