PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Justice O’Connor Speaks Out. Kinda.

The New York Times has a short interview of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and it’s interesting to see all the topics she doesn’t want to talk about.

Whom did you vote for in the presidential election?

Come on, is this about my Web site?

She dodges a question about Harriet Miers and declines to call herself a feminist, but one thing O’Connor doesn’t hold back on is her desire to see another woman appointed to the Court.

It was better for me when I was joined at the court by a second woman. When I was there alone, there was too much media focus on the one woman, and the minute we got another woman, that changed.

Makes sense.

Diversity on the Court—in all its many forms—was a big topic at our recent Beyond the Sigh of Relief panel. Take a look if you haven’t already.

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Torturing the Rule of Law

Newsweek is reporting:

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify—and publicly release—three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees. The memos, written by Justice Department lawyers in May 2005, provide the legal rationale for waterboarding, head slapping and other rough tactics used by the CIA. One senior Obama official, who like others interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the memos were "ugly" and could embarrass the CIA. Other officials predicted they would fuel demands for a "truth commission" on torture.

Torture and the other illegal activities approved at the very highest levels of the Bush Administration must be exposed to the public for a simple reason: sweeping officially-sanctioned lawbreaking under the rug is dangerously corrosive to the rule of law.  After all, if one president can get away with illegal behavior without any consequences, what’s to prevent another president from doing the same?

America will have more presidents, good and bad, and letting the malefactors of the Bush Administration off the hook can only encourage future criminal abuses of authority.

We must have full accountability for what happened during the Bush era.
 

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Marriage Equality on the March

As if Ben and Jerry’s wasn’t enough reason to love Vermont, it looks like marriage equality legislation is moving forward in the state legislature:

A Vermont Senate committee voted to advance a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

The senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 on Friday to advance a bill that was the topic of an emotional public hearing on Wednesday that drew hundreds to the Statehouse.

Governor Douglas has said he opposes the bill, but hasn’t said that he’d actually veto it if it got to his desk.

Of course, even if same-sex couples in Vermont can get married, they’re still prevented from receiving the federal protections that marriage affords their heterosexual friends. Just another reason why we should Dump DOMA.

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Kathryn Kolbert Talks Judges and GOP Hypocrisy on Air America Radio

People For the American Way president Kathryn Kolbert appeared recently on the David Bender Show on Air America to talk about President Obama’s judicial nominees.

 
Even before Obama nominated a single person, GOP Senators threatened to filibuster his nominees. These are the very same Senators who were pounding their fists over President Bush’s nominees and clamoring for the “nuclear option,” which would have obliterated the filibuster.
 
You can listen to the interview here:

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Truth Telling in the Senate Judiciary Committee

President Obama’s choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel moved out of the Judiciary Committee today on a not-quite party line vote of 11-7. All the Democrats on the Committee supported her nomination, and all the Republicans opposed it, except for Arlen Specter, who passed.

Today’s vote is important because now the nomination of this extraordinarily qualified woman to head the Office of Legal Counsel will go forward to the floor, where—hopefully—she will get a vote by the full Senate.

But today’s session was also important because of the truth telling by a number of members, including Senators Leahy, Durbin, and Whitehouse, about the central role the Office of Legal Counsel played during the Bush Administration in undermining the rule of law and advancing some of its "most horrendous practices." As Senator Whitehouse said it was the "leading contender for the most rotten place during the Bush Administration.” 

The Senators made the case for how qualified Dawn Johnsen is to head this office—her record of previous service as a Deputy Attorney General; her intellectual honesty and exceptionally good judgment; her extremely constructive role, in response to the Bush Administration excesses, in pulling together nineteen former OLC attorneys to craft a statement of principles to guide the Office of Legal Counsel that has won bipartisan praise. And they told their colleagues on the other side of the aisle that when this nomination comes to the floor, if they want to debate the past role of the Office of Legal Counsel, if they want to debate the role that John Yoo among others played in undermining the rule of law, then bring it on. That’s the kind of debate the American people will understand!

This was a good day for the American people, and for the rule of law.  Let’s hope it continues.

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Stop Voter ID in Texas

The New York Times editorial board probably didn’t write their piece today directly in response to a vote in the Texas State Senate yesterday, but they might as well have. 

From the NY Times editorial:

In last year’s presidential election, as many as three million registered voters were not allowed to cast ballots and millions more chose not to because of extremely long lines and other frustrating obstacles. Ever since the 2000 election in Florida, the serious flaws in the voting system have been abundantly clear. More than eight years later, Congress must finally deliver on its promise of electoral reform.

At a hearing last week, the Senate Rules Committee released a report sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the sorry state of voting. It said that administrative barriers, such as error-filled voting lists or wrongful purges of voter rolls prevented as many as three million registered voters from casting ballots. Another two million to four million registered voters were discouraged from even trying to vote because of difficulty obtaining an absentee ballot, voter ID issues and other problems.

More on the voter ID bill from the Dallas Morning News:

Senate Republicans pushed through a bill Tuesday that would require Texans to show a photo ID or two alternative IDs before voting, while Democrats shifted their efforts to derail the legislation to the House.

The measure, commonly referred to as "voter ID," was approved 19-12, with all Senate Republicans voting for the bill and all Democrats voting against it. A final vote will be required Wednesday before the proposal is sent to the House.

As if we need any extra barriers to an already broken system.

The article goes on to say that there’s a 50-50 chance of passage in the House. There are 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats in the House. That means your calls and advocacy are crucial. If you’re a Texas resident, make sure to call your representative and tell them that to stop this thinly-veiled attempt to keep certain kinds of voters – voters who wouldn’t vote for them – away from the polls.
 

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Hamilton, Due Process, and the Right

Ed Whelan in yesterday's post about Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals nominee David Hamilton bemoans Hamilton's "inventive invocation of substantive due process to suppress evidence of a criminal defendant's possession of cocaine." Sound ominous? Perhaps - if it were true.

Here's the real story.

There were two defendants in this case. The first, the cocaine dealer, was convicted and received a sentence from Judge Hamilton of 188 months. Although Hamilton concluded that the search warrant pursuant to which drugs were found was not based on probable cause, he nonetheless refused to exclude the evidence obtained from the search because the officers conducted the search based on good faith that the warrant was properly issued. The defendant challenged Judge Hamilton's decision on appeal and lost in the Seventh Circuit. No substantive due process suppression of evidence for this defendant.

The second defendant was a girlfriend of the convicted cocaine dealer. She was charged with possession of marijuana and related offenses--but what concerned Judge Hamilton was how the police collected their evidence against her: by using a school social worker to interrogate her nine-year old daughter for, as Judge Hamilton found, the sole purpose of getting the "goods" on her mother.

This offended Judge Hamilton's sense of fundamental fairness and he concluded as such in an extremely carefully-reasoned opinion. He found that this governmental abuse of power violated a core interest at the "foundation of American liberty long protected by constitutional safeguards: the privacy and sanctity of family relations."

The Seventh Circuit didn’t agree with Judge Hamilton’s analysis of the government’s rationale for questioning the defendant’s daughter and the balancing of government interests v. intrusion into familial relations and it so reversed the decision. But this is not exactly the picture of "extremism" painted by Whelan, is it?
 

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Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) is a prime issue for LGBT lobbyists and activists nationwide--including here at People For. Freedom from discrimination is a basic right that all Americans should enjoy. Repealing DADT is necessary for our nation to restore its core values, especially the principle of equality for all.

On Friday, March 13th, 2009, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) hosted a lobby day and a "Freedom to Serve Rally" on Capitol Hill, and I was pleased to be able to join them. Lobby groups targeted Representatives and Senators who currently oppose the repeal.

As a supporter of repeal, it was difficult for me to understand how Representatives and Senators could refuse to support ending DADT. It was shocking for me to see how many Congress members were completely uninterested in hearing from our group--even those of us who had served in uniform for our country.

Later, I could not hold back the tears when some of our discharged service members, some after even 25 years of service, shared their stories during the Freedom to Serve Rally. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) was a standout among an impressive lineup of speakers. Rep. Norton declared: "I'm done asking! And I'm telling!" We're not asking for repeal any longer, we're telling Congress and President Obama that the time for repeal is now. And this isn't just about fairness and job discrimination, Rep. Norton noted, but it is also about the strength of our military.

Lifting the ban on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is not only necessary for retaining equality, but it's necessary for ensuring that our armed forces remain the best in the world. It is imperative that we join together to make sure that all Americans can serve honestly and openly in our armed forces. Together, we can and we will lift the ban!

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Obama's First Judicial Nomination: A Good Start

News reports state that David Hamilton, a federal district court judge in Indiana, will be President Obama’s first judicial nominee. He will apparently be nominated to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

I am just learning about Judge Hamilton. In 2005, according to the New York Times, "he made news by ruling that the legislature was prohibited from beginning its sessions with overtly Christian prayers. The decision drew widespread criticism in the legislature and across the state."

I can only imagine.

The overwhelming majority of Indianans are Christian. I’d venture to guess that very few of them have ever lived in a society where theirs was a minority religion, and where the government officially promoted a religion that condemned theirs. The experience of their lives is one where they are comfortably in the majority.

As a Jew who grew up in conservative Texas, my experience is different. I know how it felt in elementary school when public school teachers imposed their Christianity upon the classroom. Officially-sanctioned Christianity regularly made it clear that I was an outsider in my own society: I did not belong.

That is but one of the many excellent reasons that the Founders wisely adopted the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion by government. But it’s the one that first occurred to me as I read about the Indiana legislative prayer case.

It is important that judges as a group reflect the diversity of America, so the bench is filled with jurists with a wide variety of life experiences, ranging from the top to the bottom of the social ladder. But that does not excuse the individual judge from being able to step outside their own life experience and recognize that what is not a problem for them can be a severe problem for someone whose life has been different. That is an essential quality for a judge. It’s what made the Brown v. Board of Education decision so different from Plessey v. Ferguson, even though both cases were decided by all-white Courts. Similarly, it’s what made 1976’s Craig v. Boren (establishing a higher level of scrutiny for legal sex-based classifications) so different from 1872’s Bradwell v. Illinois (upholding the state’s prohibition against women attorneys), even though both cases were decided by an all-male Court.

Perhaps Judge Hamilton’s ability to step outside his own experiences helped him decide the legislative prayer case. Either way, he clearly was willing to enforce the First Amendment and clear Supreme Court precedent in a case where he knew that he would be condemned by many people in his state. He put the law over ideology. That’s another quality needed in a judge.

This is an encouraging first judicial nomination from President Obama.

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Do elephants really never forget?

From today's Politico:

McConnell said that Coleman’s team seems to have been laying the groundwork for a federal appeals challenge by citing the 2000 Supreme Court case in Bush v. Gore, which ended the Florida recount. McConnell argued that the equal protection clause of the Constitution ensures that each county should use similar standards in counting its ballots, which the Coleman campaign asserts was not done in Minnesota.

"We all remember Bush v. Gore," McConnell said.

I am not sure Senator McConnell remembers.

It's interesting that McConnell is willing to let an election -- which has already had a recount -- hang in the air for two months. After all, less than a month after the 2000 election, McConnell was already demanding that Al Gore concede to George W. Bush. McConnell's comments to the Lexington Herald-Leader on Nov. 27, 2000:

We've had a count, we've had a recount, we've had a recount of the recount. It's been three weeks since the election and it's time for Gore to be a statesman and give it up.

But do not worry, others have not forgotten, Senator McConnell.

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Obama Rebukes Radical Right on Stem Cells

The week started on a very positive note Monday morning with President Obama signing an executive order to overturn the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It was a great step toward "restoring scientific integrity to health care policy," as one administration official phrased it. But it was a somewhat bittersweet for me as I remembered Christopher and Dana Reeve, who were such amazing champions for this issue and unfortunately passed away before being able to enjoy the moment. In fact, the order came only three days after the third anniversary of Dana's death on March 6.

When he died, Christopher Reeve was scheduled to participate in the upcoming edition of Justice Talking, a talk radio show I produced before a live audience at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. His wife Dana joined us for the event. Both Christopher and Dana were very active with many progressive causes and organizations including People For the American Way.

Despite the scientific and medical communities' optimism about the cures embryonic stem cell research might produce and significant majorities of Americans supporting this research, the reaction of the Right's anti-choice zealots was less than jubilant. From Right Wing Watch:

"As expected, President Barack Obama overturned the Bush administration ban on using federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.  Needless to say, the Religious Right is livid: FRC called it a 'slap in the face'; Gary Bauer called it 'a tragedy'; Operation Rescue called it 'morally, unethical and fiscally irresponsible'; and others weighed in as well."

But perhaps the most absurd response was the comparison of stem cell research to eugenics by Fox News' Glenn Beck. Of course, right-wing talk show hosts crossing the line on this issue is nothing new. We can all remember Rush Limbaugh's sick attack on stem cell research advocate Michael J. Fox and his cruel mocking of the actor's Parkinson's disease symptoms. Limbaugh has long been part of the Right's misinformation campaign about this important scientific research.

The new administration's policy is a great step towards correcting our nation's path, not only because it's a victory for science and the economic competitiveness and medical breakthroughs this biotechnology can yield. It also marks a much-needed departure from the Religious Right being able to shove its views down the throats of all Americans via federal policy.

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Playing Politics with America’s Future

As weeks go, I think this has been a fascinating look at the Republican obstruction machine – and how willing they are to play politics with our future.

First, the Republicans fumed and fumed about the omnibus appropriations bill, as President Obama explained, last year’s undone business that had to be taken care of to move on to the urgent problems facing us. They held it up over the weekend, forced votes on a whole bunch of amendments this week that they knew wouldn’t pass just so they could try to play “gotcha” with the Democrats and then passed the bill on a voice vote. So much for principled opposition! 

Then they fumed and fumed about how horrid David Ogden was – this is President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s eminently qualified choice to be the second in line at the Justice Department.  They wrung their hands about “hard left radicals” who have endorsed Ogden, such as the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the National District Attorneys Association.  The Republicans slow-walked the nomination through Committee and then threatened a filibuster in the full Senate, but couldn’t muster the votes.  The right-wing Family Research Council said they’d “score” the vote in an effort to hold senators accountable for the dastardly act of voting for Ogden and then today he was voted on by the full Senate and received a resounding 65-28 vote! Clearly the final result was not in doubt.

So what were these histrionics about?  And how long can they justify playing politics with America's future?

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Supreme Court Chips Away at Voting Rights Protections

Twenty four hours after thousands celebrated “Bloody Sunday” earlier this week – a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery where civil rights marchers including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) were attacked and brutally beaten by Alabama state and local police, but ultimately led to the historic passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the Supreme Court undermined some of the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act.

I was troubled, in particular by this reference in a NY Times article about Richard Pildes, an expert whose views the Justices relied on in Mondays’ decision, who, according to the Times, “said that current events, including the fact that both major political parties are led by African-Americans, had complicated the legal landscape, creating ‘tremendous pressure on a statute that was primarily structured for an earlier era in which blacks were completely excluded from office.’ “

There’s no disputing the fact that much progress has been made, but even today, we’re a far cry from the post-racial world that MLK described in his famous I Have a Dream speech. To it's credit, even the Supreme Court recognized that racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. This issue is not simply about having an African American President or leader in the Republican Party. This is a larger issue of opportunity for all citizens and one federal election has not summarily changed the reality existing in this country still. There’s no African American representing an overwhelmingly white district in the House, and no African American governors representing a Southern state (there’s only been one in history – Douglas Wilder of Virginia).

I recognize that there’s been much progress, but there’s more work to be done and vital protections such as those in the VRA are still necessary.
 

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NYT: Who's Filibustering Now?

Great editorial in New York Times this morning recognizing the hypocrisy of Senate Republicans threatening to filibuster President Obama's judicial nominees well before any are named and urging Senator Leahy to let the blue slip process -- under which senators get a way to block judicial nominees from their home state -- die quietly. The editorial very eloquently echoes some of the most important points People For the American Way has been making for weeks, and it is definitely worth reading.

When President George W. Bush was stocking the federal courts with conservative ideologues, Senate Republicans threatened to change the august body's rules if any Democrat dared to try to block his choices, even the least-competent, most-radical ones. Filibustering the president's nominees, they said, would be an outrageous abuse of senatorial privilege.

Now that President Obama is preparing to fill vacancies on federal benches, Republican senators have fired off an intemperate letter threatening -- you got it -- filibusters if Mr. Obama's nominees are not to their liking. Mr. Obama should not let the Republicans' saber-rattling interfere with how he chooses judges.

Read the whole article.

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Republican Silence in the Face of More Rush Outrage

Rush Limbaugh is at it again, this time with his glaringly offensive - and tasteless - reference to Senator Kennedy's health. I'm sure you've seen the comment:  "Before it's all over, it'll be called the Ted Kennedy memorial health care bill."  Well, Politico's just up with this post about the deafening silence so far from the GOP's top leaders:  House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and RNC Chair Michael Steele: http://www.politico.com/blogs/glennthrush/0309/GOP_silent_on_Rushs_Kennedy_slap.html?showall  Wonder when -- or, more likely,  if -- we'll ever hear anything from these folks?

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