PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Dawn Johnsen and the GOP Obstruction Game

As you may have seen reported, in a perfect exclamation point to the obstruction we've seen all year, when the Senate adjourned last week, the Republicans objected to what is ordinarily a routine request to waive Senate rules and permit pending nominations to remain in the Senate confirmation pipeline. Without what's called "unanimous consent," under Senate rules, pending nominations must be returned to the President, who then has to re-nominate in the next session. In what has become a far too typical exercise by the "Just Say No" party, Republicans objected to three DOJ nominees who have been on the Senate’s calendar awaiting consideration for months: Dawn Johnsen, for the Office of Legal Counsel; Chris Schroeder for the Office of Legal Policy; and Mary Smith, for the Tax Division. They also objected to two pending federal District Court nominees (Edward Chen, for a seat on the Northern District of California and Louis B. Butler for a seat on the Western District of Wisconsin) and to Craig Becker for reappointment as a member of the National Labor Relations Board. 

This is just more of the same unconscionable obstruction by the Republicans that is interfering with the President's ability to assemble the team he needs to serve the American public. And the obstruction is pointless. All the Republicans are doing is slowing down the inevitable -- but as we've seen with any number of issues, anything they can do to gum up the works they treat as a victory. So much for the Republicans' past claims about how elections matter and about the deference owed to the President in filling out his cabinet.

Right now, three of eleven Assistant Attorney General slots in the Justice Department -- more than one quarter of the key leadership slots at DOJ -- are filled by individuals in interim "acting" capacities because the Republicans are playing politics and tying up the nominees. It's nearly one year since Dawn Johnsen's nomination was announced; her nomination has been pending on the Senate calendar for nine months.

We fully expect the President and the Senate to work through this latest round of irresponsible Republican obstruction. The nominees will be sent back to the Senate; the Judiciary Committee will consider them promptly; they'll go back on the Senate Calendar; and, unless cooler and more responsible heads prevail, Senator Reid, unfortunately, will have to file cloture on each and every one of them to put an end to the obstruction. These are exceptionally talented nominees -- and the American people will be well-served when they are finally confirmed. 

PFAW

DC Victory for Marriage Equality

Yesterday, PFAW staff joined hundreds of DC residents at the Rally for Marriage Equality at the Kennedy Recreation Center in Washington, DC to support the DC Council’s vote on marriage equality.

Several lead sponsors of the bill including Jim Ward, David A Catania, and Harry Thomas Jr. addressed the boisterous crowd to declare their emphatic support for marriage equality. Community organizers and activists also shared their thoughts on the battle they have waged for years for marriage equality.

Earlier today, the DC Council voted 11-2 in favor of marriage equality. Mayor Adrian Fenty is expected to immediately sign the bill. Congress has 30 legislative days to review the measure.

PFAW President, Michael B. Keegan, issued the following statement:

“Today’s vote is a major step forward for equality and a proud day for all the residents of the District of Columbia. At long last, same-sex couples will be allowed the same protections and responsibilities that straight couples have always enjoyed.

“This vote wouldn’t be possible without the years of hard work by activists from every ward in the city. Today’s legislation is supported by people of every race and religion. I am especially proud of the many clergy members who spoke out in favor of equality as a core value that all of us share.
 

PFAW

Senator Leahy Decries Republican Obstruction on Nominees

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy lashed out today at the unprecedented obstruction of judicial and executive branch nominees by the Republican majority. There are currently 12 judicial and 15 executive branch nominees on the Senate Calendar that the Republicans are stalling. Some, like Dawn Johnsen, as Senator Leahy notes, have been awaiting action for more than nine months. The last judicial nominee, whom Republicans delayed for six weeks, was confirmed unanimously by a vote of 97 to zero. Since that vote on December 1st, not a single judicial nominee has been considered by the full Senate. There are now more judicial nominees pending on the Senate calendar than have been confirmed all year.

The Republican agenda of delay and obstruction is clear. The price to the American people is also clear. With the range of critical issues before this Administration, the President needs his team at the Justice Department in place. And, with the 97 current and 23 announced judicial vacancies reaching record proportions, the threats to the administration of justice are serious. As Senator Leahy said, “Justice should not be delayed or denied to any American because of overburdened courts and the lack of Federal judges.”

You can read Senator Leahy’s full statement here. And click here to read PFAW’s recent report on the obstruction of executive branch nominees.
 

PFAW

Joe Lieberman Speaks Out Against Joe Lieberman

You might have read the recent news about Joe Lieberman’s efforts to block meaningful health care reform. It’s no longer surprising that Senator Lieberman is doing everything he can to slow down or stop reform, but it might be surprising to know that his efforts have been opposed by . . . Joe Lieberman.

Yes, just a few years ago, Senator Joe Lieberman testified in support of legislation offered by Senator Joe Lieberman to stop the kind of maneuvering that Senator Joe Lieberman is doing right now.

In late 1994, I joined Senator Harkin in launching an effort to encourage Senate discussion of reforming the Senate's cloture rule. Like Senator Harkin, I had become increasingly frustrated at the way the Senate's cloture rule repeatedly allowed a minority of Members to prevent the Senate's majority from enacting legislation. I felt--and continue to feel--that the Senate rules should be changed to prevent a small minority of Senators from bringing legislation to a halt simply by saying that they will never end debate. Senator Harkin and I therefore offered a proposal under which an initial cloture vote would require 60 votes, but the requisite number to reach cloture would decline by three with each of the next three cloture attempts on the same matter. As of the fourth cloture vote, 51 votes--a simple majority--would suffice to invoke cloture.

Yes, Senator Lieberman was deeply concerned by abuse of the filibuster. But apparently times have changed. Since Democratic activists booted him from the party, Senator Lieberman has reversed himself on any number of major issues for no discernable reason beyond political expediency. (NB: This is what Senator John McCain calls “principle.”)

PFAW

Annise Parker Elected Mayor of Houston

On Saturday, Annise Parker was elected mayor of Houston. This makes Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, the largest municipality in America to have elected an openly gay mayor.

Of course, the right wing has never met an openly gay person they didn’t want to dehumanize, so Rick Scarborough, along with other figures from the anti-gay movement, decided to step in and attack Parker by sharing his copy of the “homosexual agenda.” Via Right Wing Watch:

1. Legalize same sex marriage.

2. Mandate public acceptance of the homosexual activities.

3. Teach homosexuality to school children, starting in kindergarten, as an acceptable, alternative lifestyle. This is known as multisexualism. This enables homosexuals to recruit children to their lifestyle.

4. Lower or remove age of consent laws leading to relaxation of laws prohibiting pedophilia. See www.nambla.org /

5. Elevate homosexuals to a minority class, leading to affirmative action for homosexuals in the workplace. Cross dressers could force employers to accept their actions at work.

6. Prohibit any speech which opposes homosexual activity. This would be considered “hate speech” and have criminal sanctions. This would destroy 1st Amendment free speech rights for those who oppose homosexual conduct and the homosexual political movement.

7. Require employee benefits to be provided to same sex partners.

8. Elect candidates to office who will work to implement the homosexual agenda.

Unfortunately for Scarborough, the voters of Houston decided to evaluate the candidates on the decidedly less salacious issues of crime, taxes, and development policy. How boring.

So congratulations to Parker and to all the voters of Houston!

And we hope that Scarborough is enjoying the view from the dustbin of history.
 

PFAW

Sotomayor takes progressive step forward, refers to “undocumented immigrant”

Senator Durbin once referred to America’s immigration crisis as a “crisis of humanity.” Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed when she referred to immigrants not as “illegal” or “alien” but as “undocumented.” Use of this humanizing term marks both the first ruling of Justice Sotomayor’s high court career, and also the first time such a term has been used by the Court as a whole – ever.

As reported by the New York Times:

"In an otherwise dry opinion, Justice Sotomayor did introduce one new and politically charged term into the Supreme Court lexicon.

Justice Sotomayor’s opinion in the case, Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter, No. 08-678, marked the first use of the term “undocumented immigrant,” according to a legal database. The term “illegal immigrant” has appeared in a dozen decisions."

Undocumented immigrants don’t sacrifice their humanity when they decide to cross the border. Many who come to the United States, including the undocumented, decide to come here in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. What value could be more human that that?

No person is “illegal.” And as far as I know, none of us is “alien.” That Justice Sotomayor recognizes this is a hopeful signal for the future of immigration in the Court’s jurisprudence.

Click here for more information from America’s Voice.

PFAW

The Pew and the Bench: A Faith Summit on the Federal Judiciary

Today, there was a panel at the Religious Action Center discussing the role of religious communities in debates over judicial nominees. Joi Orr, program assistant with People for the American Way’s African American Religious Affairs department spoke about the role of the religious vote and what People for the American Way is currently doing around judicial nominations.

Other panelists included: Nancy Zirkin from the Leadership Conference on civil rights, Jim Wimkler from the general board of the United Methodist Church, Holly Hollman from the general counsel of the Baptist joint committee, Sammie Moshenberg from the National Council of Jewish Women, Rick Foltin from the American Jewish Committee and Mark Pelavin from the Religious Action Center.

Panelists briefly discussed how their organizations reach various faith communities, and reiterated the importance of having strong judicial candidates for these lifetime position. Joi summarized the work that the African American Religious Affairs department is accomplishing with regards to judicial nominations.

The ministers programs were founded to act out of the prophetic vein of the Black Church. So I will say, that we do not claim to speak on behalf of the entire black church, because it is not a homogeneous group. We particularly advocate and represent the marginalized, disenfranchised, and outcast. So like the prophet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we advocate with a liberal reading of the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. That’s what the prophetic black church has done throughout history. We rejected the “slaves obey your masters” rhetoric of the New Testament, while embracing the nation’s sacred documents that purport to stand for liberty and justice for all. And I want to underscore the word all. Because the truly prophetic black church is inclusive in its advocacy. That’s why MLK was an integrationist. That’s why as an organization we work on fair public education for all of our children, fair comprehensive immigration reform, and LGBT rights, because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

PFAW

Supreme Court Takes Church-State Case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case with important consequences for church-state separation.

The group, the Christian Legal Society, says it welcomes all students to participate in its activities. But it does not allow students to become voting members or to assume leadership positions unless they affirm what the group calls orthodox Christian beliefs and disavow “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle.” Such a lifestyle, the group says, includes “sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman.”

The law school, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, part of the University of California, allows some 60 recognized student groups to use meeting space, bulletin boards and the like so long as they agree to a policy that forbids discrimination on various grounds, including religion and sexual orientation. The school withdrew recognition from the Christian group after it refused to comply with the policy.

Hastings is a public university, and it has a clear policy requiring all student groups to be open to all comers. So, to make a long story short, the group, CLS sued and the case made its way to the Supreme Court.

At stake is whether or not tax dollars—your tax dollars—should go to fund a group which specifically excludes people based on religion or sexual orientation. The answer, in case you were wondering, is “no.”

PFAW

New GAO Report Exposes More About Politicization of Department of Justice Under Bush

With a new Government Accountability Office report on the activities of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice between 2001-2007, we are learning even more about a department that had been politicized to a dangerous degree under the Bush Administration. Instead of representing the best interests of the American people, the DOJ had been turned into a political machine. The report, obtained by The New York Times, found:

When compared with the Clinton administration, its findings show a significant drop in the enforcement of several major antidiscrimination and voting rights laws. For example, lawsuits brought by the division to enforce laws prohibiting race or sex discrimination in employment fell from about 11 per year under President Bill Clinton to about 6 per year under President George W. Bush.

The report also found that recommendations of career DOJ lawyers to pursue voter intimidation and other cases were inexplicably rejected, with the supervisors leaving no information explaining why the cases had been closed.

The office also found that case files often had no information explaining why supervisors had decided to close cases, sometimes against the recommendation of career officials. In a companion report, it also found that six years of internal audits about the division’s case-tracking system were missing.

People For the American Way followed the politicization of the DOJ during the Bush Administration, calling for the resignation of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others who played a part in the department’s politicization. We reported on the U.S. attorneys scandal, in which career attorneys at the department were instructed to follow the lead of the White House, not the rule of law, to smear Democratic candidates, protect GOP candidates, and suppress voter turnout through overzealous pursuit of baseless voter fraud claims. We responded to the Inspector General’s report which confirmed the inappropriate actions surrounding their firing.

PFAW

Stop the 'Stupak Attack'

Today, several hundred pro-choice activists from across the country descended on Capitol Hill to tell members of Congress, “Stop Stupak,” and oppose language in the health care reform bill which would cause millions of women to lose reproductive health care insurance they already have. The Stupak amendment goes far beyond current law, the Hyde amendment enacted more than 30 years ago, which has unfairly prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion in most cases.

People For the American Way joined more than 60 groups with the Coalition to Pass Health Care Reform and Stop Stupak and dozens of members of Congress rallying to keep this anti-choice amendment out of the Senate’s health reform bill.

Among the members of Congress on hand to express their support of our efforts to stop the Stupak amendment were Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Patti Murray (D-WA), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) Diana Degette (D-CO), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Lois Capps (D-CA), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Judy Chu (D-CA), among others.

Upon passage of the Stupak amendment in the House, Rep. Diana Degette wrote a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, signed by a total of 90 Pro-Choice Members of Congress, vowing to oppose any conference report from the health care legislation that included the Stupak amendment language:

The Stupak-Pitts amendment to H.R. 3962, The Affordable Healthcare for America Act, represents an unprecedented and unacceptable restriction on women’s ability to access the full range of reproductive health services to which they are lawfully entitled. We will not vote for a conference report that contains language that restricts women’s right to choose any further than current law.

Advocates made statements with various signs including one that read “a woman is not a pre-existing condition,” “Stop the Stupak Attack,” and another that read “Don’t make me ‘unfriend’ health care reform.” Speakers called on activists to call their senators to remind them that women need health reform that covers all of their needs, including comprehensive reproductive health care. After the two hour rally, advocates dispersed through the halls of the Senate to lobby members to protect the rights of millions of women and families and take a stand against this restrictive and overly-burdensome language.

 


 

PFAW

Happy Birthday, Origin of Species!

In case you had somehow overlooked it, today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” the scientific landmark that reshaped the way we see the natural world—and which religious extremists rail about to this day.

People For the American Way Foundation has a long history of opposing religious belief being taught as fact in public schools, and we’ve worked hard to defend classrooms against religious doctrine dressed up as science.

To learn more about the many ways creationists have tried to push Darwin out of public schools, check out our Creationism Timeline as well as Right Wing Watch’s coverage of creationism. And don’t forget to raise your glass tonight to wish “On the Origin of Species” a very happy birthday.
 

PFAW

The Senate Armed Services Committee has confirmed that a scheduled November hearing on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) has been indefinitely postponed. The delay has been attributed to the pressures of Committee work on other issues, including the recent shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas and the possibility of sending additional troops to Afghanistan.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin said that one possibility for ending DADT could be attaching the legislation to the 2011 Defense Reauthorization Bill, a tactic that was used to pass hate crimes legislation this year. This approach is supported by the White House and several Democratic leaders in the House.

PFAW

Not the End of DOMA (Reprise)

This week, there was a new development in a California case where a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in February ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The Los Angeles Times reports the new development:

In a legal end-run around the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a federal judge Wednesday ordered compensation for [Brad Levenson,] a Los Angeles man denied federal employee benefits for his spouse because they are both men. ...

[In February, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen] Reinhardt, who is responsible for resolving employee disputes for public defenders within the 9th Circuit, had ordered the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to process Levenson's application for spousal benefits. But the federal Office of Personnel Management stepped in to derail the enrollment, citing the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal government recognition of same-sex marriage.

Levenson appealed, seeking either an independently contracted benefits package for Sears or compensation for the costs they incurred in the absence of coverage. Reinhardt ordered the latter, based on a back pay provision in the law governing federal defenders' employment.

As reported on this blog back in February, this case is less than it might seem at first blush. DOMA remains the law of the land. Rather than being a traditional court case, this is an internal employee grievance procedure within the office of federal public defenders of the Ninth Circuit. As a result, the judge is not acting in his capacity as a judge. Instead, he is acting in his capacity as the designated administrative decision-maker for the Ninth Circuit's Standing Committee on Federal Public Defenders.

Since it's not a traditional court case, it imposes no binding precedent and is not going to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, the new order does add an important new element to the conversation over DOMA's constitutionality. And coming from a federal circuit court judge, its reasoning has resonance, even if it is not binding precedent.

In the new order, Judge Reinhardt repeats his February analysis of DOMA's constitutional infirmities, rejecting various arguments in its favor. He also addresses a new argument and determines that it, too, fails under the rational basis level of scrutiny, the easiest of standards to meet:

Recently, the government has advanced an additional argument in defense of DOMA: that the statute serves a legitimate governmental interest in maintaining a consistent definition of marriage at the federal level for purposes of distributing federal benefits while individual states consider how to resolve the issue of marriage equality for same-sex couples. ... Even under the more deferential rational basis review, however, this argument fails. DOMA did not preserve the status quo vis-à-vis the relationship between federal and state definitions of marriage; to the contrary, it disrupted the long-standing practice of the federal government deferring to each state's decisions as to the requirements for a valid marriage. ...

Congress thus sided with those states that would limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, and against those states that would recognize the marriages of same-sex couples. Taking that position did not further any government interest in neutrality, if indeed such an interest exists.

And just where did this additional argument come from? From Barack Obama's very own Justice Department.

Equality cannot wait. It's time to dump DOMA.

PFAW

New York Court Rules Some Same-Sex Couples Entitled to Benefits

Yesterday, the New York State Court of Appeals rejected the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund’s challenge to two local and state policy determinations that had the effect of extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of government employees who were married outside of New York. The 4-3 decision did not address whether the New York must recognize same-sex marriage or declare that same-sex couples are generally entitled to the rights of other married couples.

From The New York Times:

The state’s highest court on Thursday upheld policies giving some government benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married outside the state, but did not rule on whether gay marriage should be legal in New York, leaving that issue for the Legislature to decide.

Though the majority in the 4-to-3 decision focused its decision on the narrow question of benefits, the three judges in the minority went further and said the court should have upheld the policies because same-sex marriages legally performed in other states deserved to be recognized in New York.

This comes just as the State Senate is poised to vote on legalizing same sex marriage. Again from the Times:

Advocates have been pressing the Senate to at least vote on the matter, forcing lawmakers to make their positions known and ensuring a passionate debate on the floor. Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, seized on the court’s urging the Legislature to act.

“The Court of Appeals was unusually explicit in its ruling today,” Mr. Van Capelle said. “We agree and eagerly anticipate a debate and vote on the marriage bill in the State Senate. Full recognition of the rights of gay couples is imperative.”

Perhaps the Alliance Defense Fund should spend less time finding ways to hurt innocent people. When victory for you is stripping people of their health insurance, it may be time to question your mission.

PFAW

Reid Announces Senate Health Care Bill Without Stupak Amendment

Surely we have a lot of fighting left to do, but it’s encouraging that the Senate has introduced a health care bill without the Stupak-Pitts anti-choice amendment, which passed in the House. There’s no doubt that the right-wing will attack this bill, and work fervently to get the anti-choice language into this bill. This summer, People For the American Way alerted you that the right wing was fanning the flames on abortion:

Religious Right leaders have enthusiastically joined Republican-led opposition to health care reform efforts.

Much of the Religious Right’s organizing energy has been devoted to incendiary and false claims about the administration’s alleged stealth plan to force every health plan to cover - and force all doctors to provide - abortion services. None of these approaches are actually included in the plans working their way through Congress. In fact, anti-choice members of Congress are using health reform to institute a new nationwide abortion ban in private insurance plans taking away coverage women already have.

And guess what’s happened… By now you know that the House recently passed a health care reform bill with the Stupak-Pitts amendment. As you’ve read here before, the Stupak-Pitts amendment prohibits private insurance companies participating in the new health care system (which will be created by the bill) from covering abortion services. Translation: private insurance companies that individuals pay to provide quality health care with their own money cannot provide the option of abortion coverage.

The right wing is already out in force on this. They’ll be lobbying members of Congress and talking to their allies at Fox News, The Washington Times, and news sources across the country spreading lies and misinformation. Our representatives need to hear from us, and know that this is unacceptable. Earlier this week, NARAL and People For the American Way delivered more than 97,000 petitions to Sen. Harry Reid’s office, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. More than 97,000 of you have spoken up and called for Sen. Reid to reject the anti-choice language to this bill. Now it’s up to us to make sure it stays this way.

UPDATE: On Saturday night (11/21), the Senate voted along party lines -- 60-39 -- to move forward the Reid-introduced health care bill for debate.

We have plenty of work ahead in the Senate. If you have not joined our petition, please take a moment to do so now.

PFAW