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.



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.

PFAW Foundation

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

Roberts Court Weakens the Family & Medical Leave Act

A closely divided Supreme Court today poked a hole – a small one, but a hole nonetheless – in the Family and Medical Leave Act, the milestone 1993 law guaranteeing eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year. Passed in response to widespread employment discrimination against women, the FMLA protects employees who need to take time off to take care of themselves or a family member, but fear being fired for doing so. After today's ruling, public sector employees who are not allowed to take time off for serious health conditions that make them unable to do their jobs cannot sue their state employers for money damages for this violation of the FMLA.

The opinion is tied up with the concept of "sovereign immunity," the Eleventh Amendment principle that states cannot be sued for money damages without their consent. The Court has previously ruled that Congress can pass a law that abrogates states' sovereign immunity if it is acting under its authority to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. One major example, the Court has previously ruled, is the FMLA's provision guaranteeing employees the right to unpaid leave to take care of family members. But today, the conservative Justices ruled that FMLA protections for employees who need time off to take care of their own health were not passed to remedy sex discrimination and, therefore, were not based on the Fourteenth Amendment. As a result, states retain the right not to be sued for violating this part of the law.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Breyer, wrote a forceful dissent. While the FMLA's self-care provision is written without regard to gender, Ginsburg explains in carefully documented detail how one of its primary purposes was to end well-documented evidence of employment discrimination against pregnant women, including in public employment. But advocates feared that a law mandating unpaid leave specifically for pregnancy would have unintentional consequences: employers would hire fewer women. So advocates pressed for a self-care provision written without regard to pregnancy or gender. As Ginsburg writes:

Self-care leave, I would hold, is a key part of Congress' endeavor to make it feasible for women to work and have families. ... By reducing an employer's perceived incentive to avoid hiring women, [the self-care provision] lessens the risk that the FMLA as a whole would give rise to the very sex discrimination it was enacted to thwart. The plurality offers no legitimate ground to dilute the force of the Act.

While today's case – Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals – involves a male employee, that is not relevant to whether Congress adopted this component of the FMLA as an exercise of its authority to eliminate unconstitutional sex discrimination. The Roberts Court is notorious for finding ways to shut the courthouse door to working women, and it did so again today.

PFAW Foundation

Ryan budget further exposes hypocrisy of the war on women

“There is no way for ‘experts’ in Washington to know more about the health care needs of individual Americans than those individuals and their doctors know.”

Sometimes the Right’s hypocrisy is just that clear.

This statement was made in the “Path to Prosperity” budget (page 28) released today by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.

NARAL’s reaction was swift and strong.

Rep. Ryan and his other anti-choice colleagues in the House have been practicing medicine without a license since they took over in January 2011. They want to take away prenatal care, contraceptive coverage, mammograms, and other basic care made possible by the health-reform law. They voted to defund family-planning programs. They even voted to allow hospitals to deny emergency abortion care to women who could die without it. Now they want to reinvent themselves as patient-privacy advocates. Putting Rep. Ryan and his cronies in charge of protecting Americans from political interference in their private medical decisions is like asking the same group to protect Medicare. It is ridiculous and out of touch with reality.

We agree with you wholeheartedly, Nancy. PFAW has been tracking the war on women on Capitol Hill and in the states. For Chairman Ryan to say that Washington should stay out of the healthcare business fails to recognize how hard he and the Right have been fighting to get into that business.

Just this month:

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Take action today!


Restrictive voter ID laws may impact trans people

Last October, PFAW Foundation released The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box as part of its Right Wing Watch: In Focus series.

This report reveals just how the far the Right Wing is willing to go to win elections. Eroding the achievements of the Civil Rights movement by disenfranchising voters is abhorrent. All Americans have a fundamental right to vote, and we need to be vigilant to make sure that ever eligible voter is ready and able to vote on Election Day.

Voting rights should cut across lines of wealth and poverty, race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and disability. Also gender identity. Yet transgender people may face their own challenges at the ballot box. National Center for Transgender Equality:

Because transgender people face disproportionate rates of unemployment and homelessness, they may experience barriers to meeting residency and identification requirements written into these laws. For these reasons, we fear that trans people may be inadvertently disenfranchised.

NCTE and Campus Progress continue:

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey [PDF] thoroughly documents trends and barriers to access that, when examined in conjunction with Voter ID research, yield a bleak picture for transgender peoples’ ability to vote in states where such laws have been enacted.

Click here to read more about this groundbreaking research by NCTE and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, including some important notes from the National Black Justice Coalition and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

We want to make sure that transgender voices are heard. Click here to tell your voting story. And take this with you to the polls.

PFAW Foundation

Voter suppression’s on the menu in Michigan

Last month we reported on the citizenship question that came up during Michigan’s primary. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for voter suppression in the Great Lakes State.

Pending before the Michigan House are 3 bills that the Senate has already passed. Common Cause Michigan (links added):

Senate Bill 754 would make it more difficult for Michiganders to exercise their right to vote. Two provisions of this legislation: identification requirements for in-person voter registration and the imposition of further restrictions on organizations conducting third party voter registration offer a solution in search of a problem.

Senate Bill 751 would create confusion over the registration and absentee voting process in Michigan particularly affecting young voters, college students, and mobile citizens such as military families.

Senate Bill 803 would require voters to check a box that affirms and explains their residency status, which would needlessly duplicate an existing provision, since voters declare their citizenship upon registration already.

Sponsors of the latter two, David Robertson and Darwin Booher, both have ties to ALEC.

Also pending in the House are the chamber’s own contributions to the voter suppression menu, including:

House Bill 5061 would require those wishing to vote absentee to provide photo ID when obtaining their ballots, as well as amend requirements for the ballot tracker program, ballot coaching at residential care facilities, and provisional ballot affidavit reports.

House Bill 5221 would require all persons registering to vote to provide proof of citizenship before they are added to the rolls.

The latter bill is sponsored by Dave Agema. Not only does he have ties to ALEC, but his text shares some similarities (and a few differences) with the proof of citizenship bill in South Carolina (SB 304), sponsored by ALEC member George Campsen.

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

UPDATE: DOJ and Houston senator take a stand for voting rights, against ID law

UPDATE: Texas has responded to last week’s DOJ ruling against the Texas voter ID law. Attorney General Greg Abbott has amended the state’s complaint in pending litigation to not just defend the law but to also add a direct challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, saying, “For the Department of Justice to now contend that Texas cannot implement its voter ID law denies Texas the ability to do what other states can rightfully exercise under the Constitution.” Austin American-Statesman reporting. US Senator John Cornyn also hit back at DOJ, saying, “The Justice Department's refusal to preclear this change in Texas law by the Texas Legislature is simply inexcusable.” As you can see below, the data just doesn’t back up their political claims. Texas is not subject to VRA preclearance without cause. In all locations, but especially where there are histories of discrimination, we must remain vigilant when voting law changes are made and bear out the review process.

Last May, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed SB 14 into law. An ALEC award-winner himself, Governor Perry had the support of several ALEC members and others who pushed the legislation. Together they made Texas a photo ID state.

Not so fast, says the Department of Justice.

Today DOJ issued an official objection that will stop SB 14 from going into effect, saying that it disproportionately affects Hispanic voters.

Thus, we conclude that the total number of registered voters who lack a driver’s license or personal identification card issued by DPS could range from 603,892 to 795,955. The disparity between the percentages of Hispanics and non-Hispanics who lack these forms of identification ranges from 46.5 to 120.0 percent. That is, according to the state’s own data, a Hispanic registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Hispanic registered voter to lack this identification. Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card issued by DPS, and that disparity is statistically significant.

DOJ said that Texas did not meet its burden of proof and failed to demonstrate that SB 14 made positive progress, without discriminatory intent, in ensuring election integrity.

In conclusion, the state has not met its burden of proving that, when compared to the benchmark, the proposed requirement will not have a retrogressive effect, or that any specific features of the proposed law will prevent or mitigate that retrogression. Additionally, the state has failed to demonstrate why it could not meet its stated goals of ensuring electoral integrity and deterring ineligible voters from voting in a manner that would have avoided this retrogressive effect. Because we conclude that the state has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the proposed law will not have a retrogressive effect, we do not make any determination as to whether the state has established that the proposed changes were adopted with no discriminatory purpose.

DOJ’s action flows from its mandate under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to review election law changes in certain jurisdictions, Texas being one of them.

State Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston sent DOJ a letter last week, urging:

Regardless of the excuses for why the State fails to fully answer the DOJ’s question, it is clear that the State falls far short of meeting the standards set out in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. As outlined on the DOJ’s own website, Section 5 “requires proof that the proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. If the jurisdiction is unable to prove the absence of such discrimination,” then the proposed change cannot receive preclearance and is legally unenforceable.

Again, given the State’s failure to prove that Senate Bill 14 has neither the purpose nor the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group, I respectfully request that the DOJ deny preclearance of Senate Bill 14. We must not proceed recklessly with far-reaching electoral changes that could potentially disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of legal voters.

Senator Ellis was responding to an in-depth Houston Chronicle review of the data that the state submitted to DOJ in support of its preclearance request.

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

Former congressman, voting rights coalition, Marine speak out on voting problems in Tennessee

Former US Representative Lincoln Davis thought that the Tennessee Primary on March 6 would be an Election Day just like any other for him and his wife, Lynda. But that was not the case when they made it to their polling place.

Without being notified, the Davises had been purged from the rolls, which appears to have been a mistake not of their doing but on the part of elections officials. Davis continues:

The incident has raised concerns about that mistake and a host of other election issues, including:

Lack of government-issued photo IDS for those over the age of 60, the end of early voting in Davidson County ahead of the previously agreed upon date, a Nashville judge who had been denied the ability to vote by an "improperly trained" poll worker, and provisional ballot documents that gave an incorrect phone number to voters.

Photo ID in particular has galvanized Tennesseans who support voting rights. The No Barriers to the Ballot Box coalition has come together in an effort to repeal Public Chapter Number 23. Also known as SB 16, this law was sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron and Representative Debra Maggart, both ALEC members.

Representative Mike Turner is championing repeal through HB 2176 (companion SB 2139), which recently passed the House State and Local Government Subcommittee. The Tennessean reporting:

“I hope that we start encouraging people to vote, because for the greatest democracy in the world, we have a very small number of people voting,” Turner told the panel. “I think this (law) discourages people to vote.”

The panel’s three Democrats were joined by Independent Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethtown and Republican Rep. Bob Ramsey of Blountville in voting for the bill. All three votes against the measure came from Republicans.

Click here for more from The Commercial Appeal.

Before the vote was taken, veteran Marine Tim Thompson testified regarding the sacrifices he and fellow servicemembers have made in order to protect our right to vote – sacrifices that he believes are undermined by the current law.

Thompson has also told his story to Rachel Maddow.

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

Whether Supporting Incumbents or Challengers, Super PACs Put Big Money in Charge

Proponents of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling have argued that Super PACs help shake up the almost-guaranteed reelection prospects for congressional incumbents, going so far as to cast Super PACS as a way to bring about a new era of good government. But the very nature of the Super PAC – a mechanism that enables wealthy individuals and special interests to secretly funnel money through corporate political donations in support of their favored candidates – practically invites corruption.

From the New York Times:

Incumbents in Congress usually have a huge fund-raising advantage over challengers. Big donors correctly assume they will probably be in office for years, and curry favor with contributions that only wealthy challengers can match. So why not try to neutralize this advantage by spending money on behalf of challengers? …

But the method they are using — a super PAC that can collect and spend unlimited amounts of money — is the opposite of good government, and demonstrates the inherent danger in allowing big money to steer election results. The handful of donors say their motives are pure, but the public has no way of knowing what their long-term goals are, or whether they have personal interests in the races they have chosen.

The electoral advantages incumbents enjoy is indeed a problem, but not one that is caused or solved by Citizens United. Super PAC funds are comprised not by grassroots donations but by large contributions from a few wealthy donors. Using these resources to usher challengers into office perpetuates the fundamentally anti-democratic influence of special interests of money in our elections.

Regardless of whether wealthy special interests seek to reelect reliable incumbents or replace them with sympathetic challengers, the end result is that the most influential voice in our elections is not that of the American people. We need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United in order to level the playing field for everyone – wealthy or otherwise.


Want to Help the Economy? Start by Maintaining the Courts

The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen explains why confirming nominees to our federal courts and helping to boost the economy aren’t two separate issues:

It's not complicated. When a federal judgeship goes vacant because of Senate intransigence, where judicial nominees with bipartisan approval are held up for no good reason, it's not typically the criminal cases which get unreasonably delayed. Criminal defendants have a speedy trial right under the Sixth Amendment. There is no such right for civil litigants. This means those litigants have to wait, often for years, for a trial judge to make available a time for the disposition of a dispute. The problem only gets worse, like it is now, when district courts are understaffed and judges are forced to handle more than their expected case load.

And who are civil litigants in our nation's federal courts? They are corporations and small business owners, investors and merchants, employees and employers, people just like you and me. Well, maybe not you and me since I didn't file a lawsuit this past year and you probably didn't either. But a lot of other people sure did. In 2010, according to federal court records, no fewer than 282,896 federal lawsuits were filed in America. In 2011, 289,252 lawsuits were filed, a 2.2 percent increase from the year before. The latest statistics reveal that there are currently 270,839 pending civil cases in our federal courts.

There's more alarming news. As Mike Scarcella reported last week in the National Law Journal, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts announced last week that there was "an 11 percent increase in intellectual property cases and a 15 percent increase in consumer credit filings" last year. The total number of pending cases in the federal system, including criminal cases, now is 367,600 and, guess what? Even as the number of federal laws (and federal crimes) increases, Congress plans to cut the budget for the federal judiciary come next January. Fewer judges. A smaller budget. Signposts on the road to third-world justice.

So what happens to many of these cases when our benches remain empty? They languish in limbo and the litigants have to live with the financial uncertainty that pending litigation brings. If you are sued for a million dollars, for example, you might choose not to invest that million dollars in a new store, or in hiring new employees, until the lawsuit is over. And if you are suing for money, you aren't likely to spend it until you get it. What federal trial judges do for these litigants, therefore, isn't just to pick a winner and a loser in a particular. The court system provides the oil that helps run the machinery of commerce.


ID and assistance restrictions on tap for voters in Mississippi

Last November, Mississippi voters approved by referendum a voter ID constitutional amendment. Because it requires enacting legislation, the House has passed HB 921. It must get through the Senate and Governor, and be approved by the US Department of Justice, before becoming law. Representative Bill Denny, an ALEC member, is its primary sponsor.

Representative Denny also sponsors HB 1315, which puts voting even further out of reach for those who are blind, disabled, or unable to read and write. Clarion Ledger, page 3:

After passionate debate, lawmakers passed 63-57 a measure that would set up rules on those who can assist a voter and how often. For instance, a Mississippi voter would have to get the assistance of two election officials, rather than just one, and if someone other than an election official were to assist those blind or otherwise disabled, that person must swear under oath he or she has followed the law.

Under that proposed law, those who aren't election officials are limited to helping 10 people. The measure also would require signed declarations of attesting witnesses.

The legislation connects with the voter fraud law, which carries up to five years in prison if convicted. The bill also connects with voter intimidation, which carries up to a year in jail.

Voters seeking assistance deserve strong legal protections, and those providing assistance should have their best interests at heart, but people who face already significant obstacles to enfranchisement shouldn’t be forced to climb even higher hurdles.

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

Courts' Workload Keeps Going Up

This week, we saw just how far Senate Republicans are willing to go to stop the confirmation of federal judges and keep America's courts from functioning properly. Unfortunately, newly released information shows that the number of cases before our nation's trial courts continues to increase, even though there are fewer and fewer judges available to hear them.

The Administrative Office of United States Courts has released its caseload statistics for fiscal year 2011. In a news release entitled Federal District Court Workload Increases in Fiscal Year 2011, the Office reports:

Civil case filings grew 2 percent for the second consecutive year, up 6,357 cases to 289,252. The increase was caused by a 2 percent rise in federal question cases – i.e. actions under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States in which neither the United States itself nor any of its agencies and offices is a party in the case. The growth in federal question filings stemmed from increases of 5 percent in civil rights cases, 15 percent in consumer credit filings and 11 percent in intellectual property cases. For example, civil rights filings related to the Americans with Disabilities Act rose 17 percent; intellectual property rights filings involving patents jumped 24 percent.

Almost 300,000 cases were filed in our federal district courts. At the same time, there are so few judges available to handle the caseload that we are experiencing the worst sustained judicial vacancy crisis in at least 35 years. In fact, 35 vacancies have been formally declared judicial emergencies, a number that has hardly changed from six months ago because Republicans refuse to allow timely votes on judicial nominations.

Republican efforts to sabotage the work of the Judiciary Committee and prevent timely floor votes are made even more damaging by the rising number of cases Americans are filing in our federal courts.


How Washington Gridlock Hurts Americans Seeking Justice

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights organized a call yesterday with Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and attorneys from Ohio, South Carolina and Arizona to discuss how judicial nominations gridlock in Washington hurts Americans seeking justice around the country.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reached a deal with Republicans to allow votes on 14 of 22 stalled judicial nominees. The first two of those were confirmed yesterday with overwhelming bipartisan votes.

The deal, while it represents more progress than Senate Republicans were previously willing to allow, still leaves eight nominees without even a vote from the Senate until May at least. Three of these nominees are from Ohio, Arizona and South Carolina.

This procedural gridlock is often portrayed as an inside-the-beltway issue. However, it has a real impact on American seeking justice from our federal courts.

Greg Kuykendall, a Tucson attorney who joined the call, told of a client who had to wait 14 months in jail before a District Court judge with an unmanageable caseload was finally able to review his claim that he was being detained in violation of his constitutional rights. “It effectively made the prisoner spend an additional 14 months in unconstitutional confinement, as a result of the judicial emergency,” Kuykendall said.

Cleveland attorney Michael Meuti told of a Ohio business that had to wait 14 months for a federal judge to review charges that had been brought against it. In the meantime, the business had to endure the uncertainty and cost of having a lawsuit hanging over it.

“Understaffed courts struggle to provide efficient and effective justice,” Meuti said. “When judicial vacancies increase, so do the workloads of each sitting judge. In turn, both individuals and businesses must wait longer for their cases to be resolved and must endure the uncertainties and costs of litigation for a greater period of time. President Obama’s nominees have waited four times longer than his predecessor’s. It is time for the Senate to abandon its obstructionist agenda, which can serve only to make justice harder to obtain for everyday Americans and American companies.”

Armand Derfner, a Charleston, South Carolina attorney, added, “"These nominees are being obstructed for no good reason. They’re suitable, qualified, and many have bipartisan support. The Senate should stop delaying votes to fill these vacancies.”

Full audio of the call is available here.