PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Fight for immigration equality extends to the customs line

In other immigration news, US Customs and Border Protection is working to eliminate the discrimination faced by LGBT couples and families who currently aren’t recognized when they go through the customs line.

When you get a customs form, it clearly states, “only ONE written declaration per family is required.” An opposite-sex couple or a family led by an opposite-sex couple only has to fill out that single form. But if a same-sex couple or LGBT-led family goes through the line, they’re stopped, separated, and forced to fill out two forms.

In June 2011, Mihail – a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Pakistan – and Scott entered the U.S. following a European trip. They filled out one customs form, “since it states that only one form is needed for each family,” said Mihail. The customs officer asked why they had only completed one form, and when they replied they were domestic partners registered in the state of California, the officer said, “The federal government doesn’t recognize that.”

“Scott and I met the qualifications on the customs form, including a shared address, yet the federal government refused to recognize us as a family,” said Lari. “After waiting years for citizenship because federal law would not allow Scott to sponsor me, we were then faced with the reality that, even after I naturalized, we were still not family in our government’s eyes."

Such demeaning treatment is hardly an appropriate way to welcome people back to America. New regulations have just been released that, following a series of reviews, will correct this inequity and eliminate the “double” standard. A coalition including Immigration Equality and Family Equality Council was instrumental in bringing about this change.

PFAW applauds their work and CBP’s recognition that “gay families [are] ‘real families,’ too.”

PFAW

Disturbing Campaign Literature in Maryland

The anti-gay National Organization for Marriage is being widely condemned as Americans learn from previously secret organizational documents the lengths it is willing to go in order to turn one community of Americans against another. This week, campaign literature from one of NOM's allies in the fight against equality, Maryland state senator Anthony Muse, is raising questions as to whether he is using similar methods himself.

Muse, an African American minister in the Washington suburbs, is challenging Sen. Ben Cardin in a Democratic primary election next week. Cardin is Jewish. Maryland Juice has posted a copy of a Muse sample ballot reportedly being distributed at some early voting centers that seems to indirectly make Cardin's religion an issue. The second page notes the underrepresentation of African Americans and other people of color, but also seems to go out of its way to imply there are too many Jews in the Senate.

What legitimate reason is there to include a count of Jews in this tally, when there is no count of any other religious group? Noting that Jews are 12% of the Senate but only 1.8% of the population seems designed to stoke unwarranted and dangerous resentment among voters who are justifiably frustrated that there are no African Americans in the U.S. Senate today.

PFAW Foundation

Standing up for the freedom to marry, access to healthcare, and immigration equality

Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California, a Bush nominee, ruled last month against the federal-recognition component of the Defense of Marriage Act, saying:

The Court has found that DOMA unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex married couples.

In so doing, Judge White ruled in favor of Karen Golisnki, a Ninth Circuit staff attorney, who had sought the enrollment of her wife, Amy Cunninghis, in her existing family coverage health insurance plan with Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Now the spousal coverage can be granted.

In compliance with that Order, OPM hereby withdraws any outstanding directive regarding the enrollment of Ms. Golinski’s wife, Amy C. Cunninghis, in her family health benefits plan. Please implement an expeditious enrollment of Ms. Cunninghis, pursuant to the Standard Form 2809 dated September 2, 2008 as supplemented by this letter and consistent with the Court’s Order of February 22, 2012.

Judge White’s ruling is consistent with previous rulings and marks yet another step forward in the fight for the freedom to marry. Though applying only to Karen and Amy, it’s a strong statement that legally married couples shouldn’t have to go to court in order to access healthcare. (Click here to learn about the backlash.)

It’s also the latest sign that conservatives in Congress have a tough road ahead in their political push to keep DOMA on the books. On Monday, Representative Jerrold Nadler and the other lead sponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act sent a letter to Speaker Boehner asking that he abandon his defense of DOMA.

At a time when families are struggling to make ends meet and asking Congress to focus on jobs, the economy, and federal spending, all Members should be concerned that taxpayers dollars are being used to pay costly legal fees to make arguments that lack adequate factual or legal support, in pursuit of a law that is not worthy of a defense.

Senator Patrick Leahy is also taking a stand.

I am confident that justice and fairness will prevail in the end. Our Nation is too noble and our sense of liberty too strong to tolerate injustice without end. I am heartened by the progress that we are seeing across the country. Public consciousness is evolving, and will reach the point at which discrimination based on sexual orientation becomes another sad relic of our past. I believe we will look back at these prejudices with disappointment and regret, just as we have at other points in our history. But the capacity of our Nation to evolve and progress is a defining characteristic of the American spirit. And the American people ultimately come to reject that which is fundamentally unfair and unjust.

Senator Leahy is the lead sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, a bill that would allow same-sex “permanent partners” to be united legally through the US immigration process, making them eligible for green cards and immigrant visas. To protect against abuse, UAFA imposes the same penalties for immigration fraud as those currently imposed on married heterosexual couples – and in some cases sets the bar higher for same-sex couples.

Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda, two of Senator Leahy’s constituents, are legally married in Vermont. But Frances cannot sponsor Takako for immigration because they are not married under the eyes of the federal government. After over a decade together, DOMA repeal and, short of that, UAFA are the only ways to ensure that this loving couple is not torn apart or forced to live in a permanent state of uncertainty.

Please support Frances and Takako. And Tim and Edwin. And Michael and Gordon. Then take a moment to add your name to PFAW's petition urging Congress to Dump DOMA and end this unconstitutional, discriminatory policy once and for all.

PFAW

Analysis of the Roberts Court's 2011-12 Term

This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post.

Eric Segall, a professor of constitutional law at Georgia State University, has just written a provocative book called Supreme Myths: Why the Supreme Court Is Not a Court and Its Justices Are Not Judges. The thesis is that the Supreme Court, unbound by any court above it, unfastened by the vagueness of constitutional text, and uninhibited by the gift of life tenure, operates like a freewheeling political "veto council" and not like any court that we would recognize as doing judicial work. Professor Segall challenges the legitimacy of the Court's decisions and essentially mounts an attack on the whole institution of constitutional judicial review except where the text of the Constitution is perfectly plain and clear.

It is easy to share Professor Segall's exasperation these days, but his argument is not wholly convincing. It understates how often our other courts--federal appeals and district courts and state courts--operate in a political vein and how often they too find themselves in deep ideological conflict. It also understates how clear, coherent, and logical the Warren Court was when it interpreted even vague constitutional language, like "equal protection" or "freedom of speech." Yet, Segall's clarion call to roll back judicial review today will be read by conservative judges as an invitation to negate and undo essential lines of doctrinal development that began in the Warren Court, especially the "right to privacy" decisions under Due Process, like Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, which Professor Segall in no uncertain terms asserts were wrongly decided.

The claim that the Supreme Court is "not a court" distracts us from what is truly at issue today. The Supreme Court is a court alright--indeed, it is the most powerful court in America, perhaps the world, and there's not much getting around that. It takes cases and controversies, writes opinions that refer to precedents and principles, and operates with the full panoply of constitutional powers reserved to the judiciary. The problem is that it is not a court committed to the rights of the people or to strong democracy unencumbered by corporate power. Indeed, it acts with most energy vindicating the rights of the powerful and the unjust. Alas, this hardly makes it an outlier in American history.

With its 2010 decision in Citizens United, the Roberts-led Court essentially cemented the institution's return to a class-bound right-wing judicial activism. Just as the Supreme Court went to war against social reform and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, just as it nullified the meaning of Equal Protection in sanctifying "separate but equal" in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, just as it expressed the Supreme Court's pro-slavery and racist jurisprudence in the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the Citizens United decision secured the contemporary Court's unfolding legacy as the unabashed champion of corporate power and class privilege.

The 2011-2012 Supreme Court Term

Several cases currently on the Court's docket will tell us whether the Roberts Court will accelerate its assault on public policies that advance the rights and welfare of the vast majority of "natural persons" in the country. Consider:

Legal War on "Obamacare": Health Care Reform and the Contractible Commerce Clause: Of course, the blockbuster of the Term is the cluster of cases that the Court is hearing on the constitutionality of Obamacare. There are two principal challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The first, and certainly the one with the most political traction on the GOP campaign trail, is the claim that Congress has exceeded its Commerce Clause powers by compelling taxpayers to buy themselves health insurance or else pay a penalty in the program. However, the political ubiquity of this claim contrasts sharply with its feather-like legal force. Commerce Clause jurisprudence is replete with cases of Congress regulating national economic policy by compelling individuals to take actions that they would prefer not to take, such as serving customers in their restaurant that they don't want to serve or recognizing a union in their factory and reinstating workers who they fired for organizing it (see my Report for PFAW Foundation, The True Spirit of the Union: How the Commerce Clause Helped Build America and why the Corporate Right Wants to Shrink It Today, for a detailed accounting).

The ACA comes well within Congress's broad authority to address issues of national importance that affect the lives of millions of people moving and working in the streams of interstate commerce. Despite recent efforts by conservative Justices to constrict Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause, the vast majority of lawyers still believe that such powers are expansive and will be upheld even by the Roberts Court. An ABA poll of legal academics, journalists, and lawyers that allowed respondents to remain anonymous showed that fully 85% believe that the Court will uphold the ACA in full, and with a 6-3 vote seen as the most likely outcome. While the Supreme Court in the Citizens United era has been ready and willing to ignore precedent and defy logic in order to achieve its political goals, this law is so mainstream that even they are not expected to do so in this case.

The second challenge, a bit of a sleeper that saw little success in lower courts but now fascinates conservative lawyers, is that Congress has exceeded its powers under the Spending Clause and violated federalism by tying too many strings to federal Medicaid funding and thereby "coercing" states into accepting federal policies. The idea is that Medicaid has grown so big and pervasive that any conditions attached to it constitute a kind of Godfather offer that the states simply cannot refuse. From a doctrinal standpoint, the claim is somewhere between unlikely and silly, which is why no federal law or program has ever been found to unconstitutionally coerce the states under the Spending Clause . Experts in the ABA poll mentioned above predict that this outlandish argument will be rejected in an 8-1 split. A decision to strike down the ACA on this basis would be a stunning development indeed. As with the Commerce Clause issue, a decision to strike down the Medicaid expansion as unconstitutionally coercive would be recognized instantly as an exercise of political will rather than legal judgment.

Of course, should the Court uphold the ACA, as expected by most lawyers, that should not distract anyone from the damage it is doing in other ways, from the constitutional glorification of corporate political power to the continuing erosion of public health, environmental and workplace standards.

Immigration Law: the Arizona Case: Arizona v. United States addresses Arizona's efforts to develop and enforce an immigration law all its own. The statute in question provides law enforcement officers with the power to arrest someone without a warrant based on probable cause to believe that the person committed a deportable act. It also makes it a criminal offense for an undocumented immigrant to apply for a job without valid immigration papers. This presents a clear case of a law that is preempted by federal laws governing and defining U.S. immigration policy, which is committed by the Naturalization Clause of the Constitution to Congress. This case should offer no dilemma for conservatives on the Court, who almost always side with the Executive branch in preemption controversies relating to national security, police enforcement and immigration law. However, underlying all of the debate is legislation hostile to one of America's most scapegoated populations, the undocumented, and that political reality may change the legal calculus.

Attack on Labor Unions: From the repressive "labor injunctions" of the late-19th and early 20th-centuries to the Supreme Court's decisions undermining the right to organize during the New Deal, periods of judicial reaction have always included judicial assaults on the rights of labor to organize unions and fight for their interests. This period is no different, and the Supreme Court has given itself an opportunity, probably irresistible to the five conservative Justices, to take another whack at labor this Term. The case is Knox v. SEIU. It poses the question whether public sector unions must notify members of the union's political expenditures every time they happen so that employees who pay union agency fees to the union for purposes of collective bargaining only may demand a proportional rebate in advance for political expenditures. Or, alternatively, does it suffice to give an annual budgetary statement with notice of political expenditures and invite the "objectors" to seek a rebate at that point? The case, fairly frivolous on its face, but deadly serious in its political mission and reception on the Roberts Court, is obviously designed to further hobble unions and render them ineffectual political actors. The irony is that, through decisions like Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) and Communication Workers of America v. Beck (1988), the Court has granted muscular rights and powers to dissenting union members that are totally undreamed-of when it comes to dissenting corporate shareholders. Company shareholders who object to corporate political expenditures have no right to a proportional rebate of their corporate shares, much less that they must be told of such corporate treasury political expenditures in advance. While defenders of the Court's decision in the Citizens United case love to observe that the decision opened the floodgates not just on corporate treasury money but on union treasury money too (as if the two were comparable!), they never follow through and make the obvious point that corporate shareholders should, therefore, enjoy the same rebate rights against "compelled speech" as union members presently enjoy. In any event, the war on unions continues and accelerates, with the Supreme Court poised again to undercut the political effectiveness of public sector labor unions, the last meaningful bulwark of labor solidarity in America.

The Surprising Early Return of College Affirmative Action to the Court:
In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court has, surprisingly, decided to review its holding in Grutter v. Bollinger and explore dismantling what remains of affirmative action in the next Term. The 2003 Grutter decision preserved a soft form of affirmative action at the college and university level for young people who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, but only for a period that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested would be 25 years. Now, just nine years later, the ruling bloc is ominously poised to wipe out affirmative action entirely, a prospect we must judge a rather likely prospect given the Court's express loathing of progressive race-conscious measures and its brazen disregard for the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, whose framers clearly contemplated such measures. Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts insist that the Equal Protection Clause compels government to be "color-blind" even if seeks to remedy the effects of historical and continuing racism. This rhetorical gloss is a fundamental distortion of the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, whose framers clearly championed race-conscious measures, like the Freedmen's Bureau, to assist the historical victims of racism. The current project of using the Equal Protection Clause against racial and ethnic minorities seeks to deny any relationship between historical and present-day discrimination and continuing inequalities of opportunity.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court is, of course, still a court, no matter how much certain Justices behave like partisans. Yet, the Court's ideological politics are in full swing these days as the 5-4 conservative majority fleshes out one-sided doctrines in areas from corporate political rights to corporate commercial speech rights to affirmative action to Congressional power to union rights. This is a Court that almost always chooses corporate power over democratic politics and popular freedoms. In a Court of logic and precedent, a Court without aversion to the channels of popular democracy, the challenge to Obamacare would be a total non-starter. But here we are again, waiting to see whether the Court will follow the path of justice or the path of power.

Jamin Raskin is an American University Law Professor, Maryland State Senator and People For the American Way Senior Fellow.

PFAW

PFAW Rallies to Uphold Healthcare Law

PFAW staff and supporters joined the throngs of supporters of the Affordable Care Act outside the Supreme Court today, while the Justices were hearing the second day of arguments on the constitutionality of the law.

Hundreds of activists chanted and carried signs supporting ObamaCare. For so many Americans, the ACA is the difference between receiving potentially lifesaving healthcare services and being denied for a preexisting condition or being financially devastated by an unexpected illness.

The ACA is a practical and constitutional approach to a solving a pressing national problem, and the Supreme Court should uphold the law.

 

 

 

 

PFAW

PFAW Rallies for Corporate Political Spending Disclosure at SEC

PFAW joined a group of bipartisan organizations and public figures at a rally outside the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in Washington today to demand that the agency use its authority to require publicly-traded corporations to disclose their political spending. Currently, corporations can use their treasuries to spend unlimited amounts to influence our elections – but that money belongs to the corporation’s investors. If you’re one of the millions of Americans with a 401 (k) or similar retirement account, it could be your money being spent for political purposes without your knowledge or approval.

That’s why disclosure is so important. Democracy depends on transparency, and until we can pass a constitutional amendment to undo the harmful effects of Citizens United and related cases that have helped to bring on the current crisis in our elections, a SEC rule requiring corporate disclosure is a powerful start. At the rally, themed “Wake up SEC,” pro-democracy groups made the case that the SEC needs to do its job and protect Americans from the undue influence of wealthy corporations and special interests. The American people are increasingly alarmed by the effects of money in politics, and we need a regulatory agency that is not asleep at the switch.

To make the point, over 75,000 people sent letters to the SEC in support of the proposed rule.

 

 

 

PFAW

Undoing the Affordable Health Care Act Would Be…Unhealthy

On the second anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Health Care Act, the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments against its constitutionality, even though legal experts from across the ideological spectrum have concluded the Act is constitutional. Now, Americans who have been helped by the health care reform are speaking out in favor of the law.

The Affordable Health Care Act most effectively addressed three major systemic problems in American healthcare: frequent, unjustified rate hikes, discrimination against Americans suffering from pre-existing conditions, and young Americans losing coverage once they become ineligible for their parents’ insurance plan.

Prior to the Affordable Health Care Act: insured Americans spent around $1,000 caring for uninsured Americans, and paid skyrocketing premiums; insurance companies were allowed to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, including children; young adults, the group most unlikely to have health coverage, was ineligible to stay on their parents’ insurance plan.

And after Obama signed the Affordable Health Care Act? Up to $1.4 million in rebates could be distributed to as many as 9 million Americans, upwards of 17 million children suffering from pre-existing medical conditions could not be denied coverage, and 2.5 million young adults became eligible to remain on their parents’ health care plan until age 26.

By 2014, every American will access health care regardless of their employment status. Fast forward to 2019, and middle-class Americans are expected to save $2,000 dollars based on the Affordable Health Care Act’s provisions. The budget deficit is supposed to decrease by $127 billion between now and 2021

As long as the Affordable Health Care Act remains law.

If the Supreme Court does not strike down “Obamacare,” small businesses can receive tax credits to insure employees, 45 million women can easily access basic preventative care such as contraception and mammograms, and incentives for annual physician visits increase. And that’s just icing on top of the reform cake.

Or, the Supreme Court could declare the Act unconstitutional (an extremely unlikely, but nonetheless concerning possibility). In Massachusetts, Gale’s son with cystic fibrosis is not necessarily eligible for his parents’ health care plan anymore. Alice from Colorado has to start travelling to Mexico to fill her monthly insulin prescription again. And in Florida, Terry’s daughter might not survive a disease that attacks the arteries branching from her Aorta, so she most likely won’t become an elementary school teacher.

PFAW

Bullying, harassment, and hate crimes – got data?

In an effort to ensure equal opportunity, the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection surveys schools nationwide on a range of topics including staffing and finance; college and career readiness; and discipline. The most recent survey, for the 2009-2010 school year, asked about bullying and harassment for the first time in its 44-year history. The American Association of University Women analyzed the data on sex-based bullying and harassment.

As you can see, 14 of the 20 largest districts reported no bullying and harassment. If there really were no incidents, that would be great, and our work there would be done. But it’s hard to believe that’s the case given AAUW’s own data and that provided by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. (While sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t named on the DOE survey, LGBT youth often get caught up in other types of bullying incidents, especially those that are sex-based.)

For NYC, there's plenty of data. Yet their official report included no allegations of bullying and harassment. Not on sex. And not on race or disability. Then take a look at a much smaller district, my home of Jackson Local Schools. With just over 5,700 students, they reported 2 sex-based allegations, and 1 each for race and disability.

Similar inconsistencies are found when you look at hate crimes data. Nobody wants incidents like this to happen, but it’s pretty clear that they are happening.

According to the Anti-Defamation League:

The largest number of law enforcement agencies (14,977) since the start of the hate crimes annual report in 1990 participated in the 2010 collection of data. Yet, only 13 percent of these participating agencies reported a single hate crime to the FBI, which was the lowest number of agencies reporting one or more hate crimes since the 2002 report. Disturbingly, thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide did not report to the FBI, including at least three agencies in cities with populations of 250,000 or more and at least twelve agencies in cities with populations of 100,000 to 250,000.

With a population of over 400,000 in 2010, Miami has reported zero hate crimes in each of the last 5 federal reporting years, yet the state report lists 11 for Miami-Date County in 2010 alone. And Toledo, OH, which has over 300,000 residents, hasn’t even participated. WTOL: “Chief Mike Navarre says that it's not because they don't have them. His department doesn't have the manpower to separate hate crimes from the 75,000 reports they take a year.” In contrast, Massillon, OH, a city of just 33,000, reported 2 incidents.

Whatever the reasons for underreporting or nonreporting might be, the data is still critically lacking. Lisa Maatz of AAUW:

Transparency is a first step toward understanding sexual harassment in our schools and is necessary to make schools a safer place for all students to learn.

We can’t adequately address the problems of bullying, harassment, and hate crimes without understanding how far they reach. And a federal government collection of data, with uniform definitions and requirements, is the only way that we will get a useful national picture. Only then can we hope to accurately compare one area with another and effectively track where our efforts need to be focused.

PFAW

Illuminating Rick Santorum and the Religious Right’s Vision for America

Last weekend, People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch captured video of prominent Louisiana pastor Dennis Terry introducing Rick Santorum at an event with an incendiary sermon in which he insists that those who don’t believe that America is a Christian nation “get out” of the country.

The video quickly went viral, and Santorum was forced to distance himself slightly from Terry’s remarks, saying “I didn’t clap when he said that.”

As PFAW Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery wrote in a column for the Huffington Post, the incident illuminates the Religious Right worldview that Santorum and supporters like the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins – himself a parishioner of Terry’s – embrace:

While the media may understandably focus on Santorum's garbled economic message, his Sunday evening appearance is worth a longer look -- for what it tells us about Santorum and the Religious Right movement that is propelling his campaign.

The church at which Santorum appeared is Baton Rouge, La.'s Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, which Family Research Council President Tony Perkins describes as his home church. Perkins, in fact, was introduced at the event as a "dear friend" of Pastor Terry and as a church elder. Perkins, whose FRC has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for relentlessly promoting false and malicious propaganda about LGBT people, said of Greenwell Springs Baptist, "there is not a better church in the United States of America than right here." So in Perkins's mind, there is no better congregation than the one that applauded wildly at Pastor Terry's "Christian nation" assertions and his seeming suggestion that people who do not worship Jesus Christ should find some other country to live in.

Peter discussed his column and the Religious Right movement behind Santorum’s candidacy in an interview with TruthDig radio in Los Angeles yesterday. You can listen to the interview here.
 

PFAW

A Jury of One's (Corporate) Peers

David Oscar Markus's Southern District of Florida Blog highlights an interesting back-and-forth between Justice Samuel Alito and Carter Phillips, an attorney for the Southern Union Company. The issue had to do with how a judge determines the extent of criminal fines. But since the lawbreaker in this case was a corporation, a telling exchange resulted:

JUSTICE ALITO: Do we assume for purposes of this case that your client, a corporation, has a Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial?

MR. PHILLIPS: I think the language of the Sixth Amendment couldn't be clearer, that it says in all criminal prosecutions the -- the accused is entitled to a jury trial, and all -- and you know, Article III, section 2, says in all jury trial -- in criminal prosecutions there's a jury trial. So there is no effort whatsoever to limit the -- the individual, or in any way to -- the person or persons or entities that are entitled to those rights.

JUSTICE ALITO: What are the peers of the Southern Union Company that would sit on the jury, other railroads?

(Southern Union is a gas company, by the way, and not a railway company)

Justice Alito is one of the five Justices who, in Citizens United, latched on to the concept of corporate personhood to take a wrecking ball to our nation's democracy. Since then, Americans across the country have repudiated the idea that artificial corporations should have the same First Amendment rights as people to spend money to affect elections.

Perhaps Citizens United was only the start of rewriting the entire Constitution to make it We the Corporations. Perhaps only corporations should be allowed as jurors when another corporation is on trial. And perhaps the Second Amendment was intended to make gun ownership a fundamental corporate right. And perhaps any corporation over the age of 35 should be eligible to be president, as long as it presents its articles of incorporation to show it was born in America. The last thing we need is corporate birthers going after President Exxon.

PFAW Foundation

GOP's Under-the-Radar Sabotage of America's Courts

This afternoon, pursuant to their agreement last week, Republicans allowed votes on three district court judicial nominations this afternoon. David Nuffer of (District of Utah), Ronnie Abrams (Southern District of New York), and Rudolph Contreras (District of Washington DC) had been languishing on the Senate floor with Republicans refusing to allow a vote for 140, 161, and 140 days, respectively. That contrasts sharply with the 22-day average for George W. Bush's confirmed district court nominees at this point in his administration.

Today's vote reduces the number of nominees pending on the floor from 20 to 17. However, the only reason this number is going down is because Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are preventing it from forwarding more nominations to the full chamber. Last Thursday, the Committee was scheduled to vote on two nominees, but Republicans boycotted the session. This morning, the Committee was scheduled to vote on the same nominees, plus a third, but the GOP (with the exception of Sen. Grassley) once again refused to show up, thereby preventing a quorum.

Chairman Patrick Leahy was able to corral his reluctant colleagues earlier this afternoon and finally convened this morning's meeting ... at which point the Republicans demanded that all the votes be delayed at least a week. This is part of the mechanism of obstruction that flies under the public radar: Republicans have abused their right to request a delay for no reason for all but five of President Obama's nominees, which is unprecedented.

In a properly functioning Senate, nominations would be processed by the Judiciary Committee and go to the floor for a vote. Republicans suffered last week from the public exposure of how they have been obstructing floor votes. So they are now allowing a small number of votes and will doubtless claim credit for lowering the glut of pending nominations. But the only reason the number is going down is the chokehold they have placed on the committee.

So while the American judicial system continues to suffer from the worst vacancy crisis in at least 35 years, Senate Republicans can pat themselves on the back for a job of obstruction well done.

PFAW

GOP Again Boycotts Judiciary Committee

This morning, Americans looking for signs of progress in resolving the historic vacancy crisis harming our nation's federal courts instead saw another monkey wrench thrown into the gears of justice: Just as they did a week ago, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee boycotted their regularly scheduled Thursday meeting, thereby preventing a quorum and delaying yet again votes on highly qualified judicial nominees.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (the committee's ranking Republican) eventually showed up but claimed not to know where his colleagues were. Chairman Pat Leahy had no choice but to end the meeting, saying he would try this afternoon to find a spot off the Senate floor to reconvene and hold their already-delayed votes.

With this deliberate crippling of the Judiciary Committee, no nominees were approved and advanced to the Senate floor. Rather than address the glut of nominees waiting for a floor vote by actually allowing a yes-or-no vote, Republicans are preventing qualified nominees from ever reaching the floor.

One of the blocked nominees is Robin Rosenbaum of Florida, who would fill a district court seat so short of judges that it has been formally declared an emergency by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. A unanimous panel of the American Bar Association has given her its highest rating, finding that she is well qualified to serve as a district court judge. She has the support of her home-state senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio.

She would fill a vacancy that opened up more than a year ago. Also sabotaged today were efforts to fill courtrooms in the Eastern District of Michigan and in the Federal Circuit. Every day these courtroom remain empty, Americans seeking to protect their rights are met with more and more delay, making justice less and less a part of the American way of life.

 

PFAW

UPDATE: Minnesota fighting the voting rights battle on multiple fronts

UPDATE: After more than 9 hours of floor debate, at just after 2 am yesterday, the Minnesota House passed its version of the voter ID constitutional amendment (HF 2738), sponsored by ALEC State Chairwoman Mary Kiffmeyer. The Senate moved on its version earlier this month, and now a floor vote appears imminent. Once both chambers agree, rules state that the question will bypass Governor Mark Dayton and go to the voters in November.

Minnesota is currently fighting voting rights battles on multiple fronts, including voter ID and same-day registration.

The voter ID battle began last session when the state legislature passed SF 509, legislation requiring photo ID. Following Governor Dayton’s veto, supporters vowed to carry on. Now a voter ID constitutional amendment (SF 1577) is making its way through the Senate. Yesterday it passed the Finance Committee and will next go to the Rules Committee.

Minnesota Public Radio:

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee approved the measure today by a [party-line] vote of 9 - 6, sending it next to the Rules Committee. State officials estimate that local governments would have to spend $104,000 to place the question on the statewide ballot this fall. If it passes, they estimate first-year local costs at between $8.3 million and $23.3 million, depending on whether new electronic poll books are purchased. Finance Chair Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said Minnesota Management and Budget couldn't pin down the exact cost because lawmakers would still have to work out the details of the ID requirement during the 2013 session.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has suggested a possible compromise:

The proposed legislative fix of state election law would incorporate "electronic poll books," technology that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has advocated as a less-expensive alternative to a state-issued voter ID card.

Ritchie, a Democrat, appeared recently before a Senate subcommittee to discuss the benefits of the system, which would allow election officials to look up existing drivers' license photos or to take new photos of each voter up at the polling place.

"It doesn't disrupt absentee voting, or voting by service personnel overseas," he said. "It doesn't disrupt our voter registration system, our same-day registration system. It doesn't disenfranchise anybody."

Though its traction is yet unclear.

Republicans in the House and Senate passed a voter ID requirement last year, but Dayton vetoed it. State Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, a sponsor of last year's bill, said he has been working with the governor and the secretary of state this session on an updated version. Howe said electronic poll books would help achieve the goal of proper voter identification.

"I can't speak to whether this does anything on the constitutional amendment for photo ID," Howe said. "But I can tell you that I personally, along with many of my colleagues, want to see things done as much as we can legislatively."

[Side note: According to ALEC Exposed, Senator Howe is an ALEC member.]

In other news, the Minnesota Voters Alliance, joined by the Minnesota Freedom Council and Representative Sondra Erickson (another ALEC member), has filed a lawsuit that could greatly impact the state’s same-day registration system. The plaintiffs contend that same-day registrants should face the same eligibility checks faced by advance registrants, and their votes should not be counted until their eligibility is verified.

There is no question that we have a lot of work to do to ensure that eligible Americans can exercise their right to vote. But the goal should be fair and honest enfranchisement, not the politics of distraction. The fact is that same-day registration increases voter turnout and is good for democracy.

For more information, check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

“Gut and go” used to move up proof of citizenship in Kansas

In 2011, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed into law HB 2067. Sponsored by Representative Lance Kinzer (an ALEC member), this law contained requirements for ID when voting and proof of citizenship when registering. While the effective date for ID was set at January 1, 2012, it was delayed a year and set at January 1, 2013 for citizenship.

Last month, the Kansas House passed HB 2437 to move the citizenship effective date up to June 15, 2012. Last week, the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections decided not to vote on it.

Enter Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, no stranger to ALEC or Right Wing Watch.

Kobach and his supporters used a backdoor maneuver known as “gut and go” to bring HB 2437 back to life. Essentially they stripped the contents of SB 17 and inserted HB 2437. Now known as H Sub SB 17, it is has a new life and a viable path to Governor Brownback’s desk.

For more information, check out The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation.

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ALEC: The Hidden Player Behind ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin – the 17 year old African American who was slain while walking down the sidewalk of a gated community – has shocked the nation, and has drawn international attention to the role of race relations in America.

The tragedy has also shed light on Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law, which expands the legal justifications for "justifiable homicide" – and which is key to the "self-defense" claims of Trayvon’s alleged shooter, George Zimmerman. This "Stand Your Ground" law, signed into Florida statutes in 2005, became a model for legislation pushed by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and with ALEC’s help has since been replicated in states across the country.

On April 26th, 2005, Florida became the first state in the nation to pass "Stand Your Ground" legislation, which expanded the circumstances under which the use of deadly force for self-defense is considered justifiable. Under the so-called "Castle Doctrine," a person’s right to defend themselves from attack in their own home has traditionally been recognized and typically in such circumstances the burden falls on the individual to prove that the use of force is reasonable. Under the expanded “Stand Your Ground” laws, the permissible use of deadly force for self-defense expands beyond the home, into spaces including personal vehicles and even public places, and the burden of showing that the use of force was unreasonable falls on the prosecution. It is such provisions which are apparently complicating the current investigations in the Martin shooting.

"Stand Your Ground" laws have been popping up around the country in recent years (24 states currently have them on the books) – and that’s no coincidence. Just as we have seen with the proliferation of Voter-ID laws, the force behind the trend is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded front group that has helped advance the most extreme laws adopted by state legislatures, from SB 1070 in Arizona to SB 5 in Ohio.

Again and again, we’ve seen corporations use ALEC to push laws that put profits above the wellbeing of ordinary people. In the case of “Stand Your Ground” legislation, the weapons industry and ALEC have advocated for a law that encourages more people to carry weapons, thereby increasing industry profits.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a prominent member of ALEC, and has used its influence within the organization to push pro-gun policies across the country. In 2008, ALEC employee Michael Hough appeared on NRA News to talk about ALEC’s amicus brief in support of the NRA’s position in District of Columbia v. Heller. Hough described ALEC as a “very pro-Second Amendment organization,” and also stated, “Some of the things we were pushing in states was the Castle Doctrine [the name for ALEC’s model bill], we worked with the NRA with that, that’s one of our model bills that we have states introduce, and another one was the emergency powers legislation which was enacted in a couple states.”

Despite their grassroots image, the NRA is far from being simply a grassroots organization. An extensive report by the Violence Policy Center documents how gun companies bankroll the NRA through their many opportunities to sponsor NRA programs and make direct contributions to the organization:

Since 2005, corporations—gun related and other—have contributed between $19.8 million and $52.6 million to the NRA as detailed in its Ring of Freedom corporate giving program.1 In a promotional brochure for the program, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre promises that the “National Rifle Association’s newly expanded Corporate Partners Program is an opportunity for corporations to partner with the NRA....This program is geared toward your company’s corporate interests.” The vast majority of funds—74 percent—contributed to the NRA from “corporate partners” are members of the firearms industry: companies involved in the manufacture or sale of firearms or shooting-related products. Contributions to the NRA from the firearms industry since 2005 total between $14.7 million and $38.9 million.

That corporate funding helps to explain why the NRA has the means to donate, for example, $25,000 to ALEC in 2011 to achieve "Vice-Chairman" level sponsorship for ALEC’s annual conference. It also explains why NRA lobbying efforts are so important to their mission, since the laws they lobby for enrich the financial funders of the organization.

Unfortunately, until we change it, the ALEC model is working – for the corporations that fund the network. Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" legislation and ALEC’s model bill contain identical language, which has now been introduced in states across the country.

Those who aren’t served by this system are the American people. When politicians enact ALEC legislation that benefits corporations, real people suffer the consequences. The results are tragic:

 

(Source:  Data issued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement)

 

PFAW Foundation