PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Standing Up For Fairness

Last week, four Congressmen, obviously concerned that they had so-far failed to plumb the depths of anti-Muslim bigotry, decided to demand an investigation into Muslim interns in Congress.  Their evidence?  A book published by World Net Daily, itself a monument to America's First Amendment protections for the ignorant and the morally bankrupt.

But before this story gets swept into the dustbin of political history, we should applaud some folks who stood up against the reckless, McCarthy-like accusations being leveled against young people who wanted to get engaged in the political process.

Per TMP, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez was first out of the gate in condemning the smear, followed by John Conyers and Andre Carson.

And, if you missed it, Rachel Maddow spoke out on the issue, appropriately slamming the group of Congressmen who decided that it would be politically expedient to fan the flames of religious strife.

So, while it's important to condemn elected leaders who exploit bigotry for political gain, it's important to applaud those who stand up to it.

Bravo!

PFAW

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Uighur Detainees' case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided to hear the case of 13 Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo Bay who are no longer classified as enemy combatants and have been determined to be no threat to the national security of the United States. These detainees - who were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan and have been held by the U.S. since 2001 - were cleared for release by the Pentagon in 2003, but six years later, they have yet to be set free.

After the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene last year that Guantanamo detainees have the right to bring habeas corpus claims in federal court to challenge the legality of their detentions, a federal judge in DC ordered that the Uighur detainees be immediately released into the United States since they cannot return to their own country. As members of a Turkic Muslim minority from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, their release back into their own country would likely result in torture and execution.

In February 2009, a 3-judge panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that order, finding that the federal courts lack the authority to order their release into the U.S. Describing it as an immigration decision, the panel concluded that only the executive branch has such authority and even suggested that the detainees apply for entry into the United States through the Department of Homeland Security pursuant to our immigration laws. In petitioning the Supreme Court for certiorari review, the Uighur detainees argued that stripping the power from the federal courts to order their release into the United States rendered the habeas right recognized by Boumediene meaningless. And indeed, they continue to be held behind chained fences guarded by military men.

Disappointingly, Obama's Solicitor General Elena Kagan urged the Supreme Court not to hear the case, arguing that they have no right to enter the United States. Kagan wrote that "they are free to leave Guantanamo Bay to go to any country that is willing to accept them," but acknowledged that the detainees "understandably do not wish to [return to their home country]." Kagan's brief even attempted to portray the conditions of the Uighurs' imprisonment as not so bad.

In contrast to individuals currently detained as enemies under the laws of war, petitioners are being housed under relatively unrestrictive conditions, given the status of Guantanamo Bay as a United States military base…[They are] in special communal housing with access to all areas of their camp, including an outdoor recreation space and picnic area. . . [They] sleep in an air-conditioned bunk house and have the use of an activity room equipped with various recreational items, including a television with VCR and DVD players, a stereo system, and sports equipment.

Sounds just as good as freedom, doesn't it?

But what if there is no country willing to accept them? That is the case for at least one of the Uighur detainees who has serious mental treatment needs. In that scenario and under these set of circumstances - where they have been found to be no threat to the United States - shouldn't the U.S. take it as a moral imperative to immediately release these people even if they must be released into our borders? Particularly since the media coverage of their wrongful detentions at Guantanamo Bay by the United States is what highlighted the bull's eyes on their backs for the Chinese executioners in the first place?

Let's not be distracted by side arguments by the DC Circuit or our new SG. First, this is not an immigration matter subject to the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security or Congress. These people had no intention or desire to migrate to the United States. They were involuntarily and wrongfully imprisoned by the United States for over eight years. Second, they are not free in any way and are in every sense of the word imprisoned. If relocation to another country is not available, the United States has a moral duty to immediately release these people into the U.S. subject to any parole conditions that may be appropriate. And if the judiciary is the only branch of our government that has the moral compass to do what is right, they should be vested with the power to do so. That is the root of habeas corpus relief which was designed to remedy unlawful government detention. That is why we have our constitutional system of checks and balances.

PFAW

PFAW Opposes Unconstitutional Vitter-Bennett Amendment

Today, People For the American Way was represented by our General Counsel Debbie Liu at a press conference to oppose the Vitter-Bennett amendment, which would require Census workers to ask all Americans their citizenship and immigration status in the 2010 census. Doing so could discourage minority communities’ participation in the 2010 census, and would result in an inaccurate census. Not only is the amendment unconstitutional, it is a thinly-veiled effort by the radical Religious Right and their counterparts in Congress to target undocumented immigrants. 

Above, attendees at the press conference to oppose the Vitter-Bennett amendment.

The New York Times featured an editorial citing how changing the census would waste time and valuable resources. Should the Vitter-Bennett amendment pass, the Census Bureau would have to reprint forms, promotional materials and training software:

As required by law, the Census Bureau gave Congress the exact wording of the survey’s 10 questions in early April 2008 — more than 18 months ago. Changing it now to meet Mr. Vitter’s demand would delay the count, could skew the results and would certainly make it even harder to persuade minorities to participate.

It would also be hugely expensive. The Commerce Department says that redoing the survey would cost hundreds of millions of dollars: to rewrite and reprint hundreds of millions of census forms, to revise instructional and promotional material and to reprogram software and scanners.

Other civil rights groups including the Center for American Progress (CAP), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Demos, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) attended the press conference.

PFAW

Obama Continues to Defend Discrimination

Once more, the Obama Administration is in federal court defending government-mandated discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans. This time, it's Don't Ask Don't Tell, in a case arising in a California federal district court.

Previously, DoJ asked the district court to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the Log Cabin Republicans, arguing that Ninth Circuit precedent already clearly addresses the legal issues in favor of the Administration. The court denied the motion to dismiss and allowed discovery to proceed, and the Log Cabin Republicans filed their request for discovery. (Discovery is the pretrial phase of a lawsuit where each party can compel the other parties to turn over documents and other evidence that may be relevant to the case.)

So on Friday, the Department of Justice filed what's called a motion to certify order for interlocutory appeal (legalese for "we want to appeal the court's decision now, instead of waiting until the end of the trial") to avoid its obligation to respond to the discovery requests. The Administration is arguing that the case will eventually be dismissed. Since the plaintiff's discovery requests are so "burdensome" for the Administration, appealing the court’s decision not to dismiss the case will "materially advance the ultimate termination of this litigation."

If the Administration is concerned about bureaucratic burdens, the President can issue a stop-loss order and freeze the anti-gay machinery that is destroying lives and weakening our armed forces.

And if he wants to "materially advance the ultimate termination of this litigation," there's a better way than an interlocutory appeal. That would be for President Obama to show some leadership on this issue. He ought to give a timeline for repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell and push Congress to act on it.

PFAW

Perez Says Justice Department Will Attack Gay Discrimination

Tom Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, has celebrated the imminent passage of legislation that will allow the Justice Department to prosecute discrimination against the LGBT community.

Pending legislation includes hate crimes legislation that passed the House last week and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

In a speech to his colleagues, Perez said, "We must fight for fairness and basic equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters who so frequently are being left in the shadows [and to] ensure that there's a level playing field in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are judged by the content of their character."

Perez’s announcement is a welcome step forward for ending discrimination against the LGBT community in a division that has traditionally focused little attention on LGBT equality issues.

Perez began his position in the Civil Rights Division only last week after failed attempts by Senate Republicans to block his confirmation. Senate Republicans have continued to block well-qualified nominees like Perez from being confirmed to important offices, especially Dawn Johnsen’s nomination to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

Sign the PFAW petition to confirm Dawn Johnson so that she too can restore justice at the Justice Department.

PFAW

The "Balls and Strikes" Fraud Continues to Wither Under Scrutiny

The Right regularly attacks progressive judges for "making policy" and "legislating from the bench." But in oral arguments yesterday, the Supreme Court Justices demonstrated yet again that one of their most important roles is to make policy in difficult circumstances where the law is unclear.

The case involves a man named José Padilla who was born in Honduras and has lived in America for 40 years. (He is no relation to the former "enemy combatant" of the same name). Considering whether to plead guilty to trafficking in marijuana, he turned to his lawyer for advice. Relying on the lawyer's incorrect assertion that a guilty plea would not affect his immigration status, he pled guilty and now finds himself subject to deportation.

The Court must decide if Padilla was unconstitutionally deprived of effective assistance of counsel and should therefore be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. During oral argument, Justices across the ideological spectrum appropriately asked probing questions as they wrestled with difficult policy options. The Washington Post reports:

Justice Sonia Sotomayor ... said the threat of deportation was an important component of a defendant's decision on whether to go to trial and risk a longer sentence, or plead guilty to a charge that would automatically send him back to a place where he "might starve to death."

But other justices worried that it would be impossible to limit the issue to deportation -- a tack that Padilla's attorney Stephen B. Kinnaird suggested was one way to narrowly decide the case.

"We have to decide whether we are opening a Pandora's box here, whether there is any sensible way to restrict it to deportation," said Justice Antonin Scalia. "What about advice on whether pleading guilty would -- would cause him to lose custody of his children? That's pretty serious. What if pleading guilty will -- will affect whether he can keep his truck, which is his main means of livelihood, or whether -- whether it would be seized by the government as the instrument of his crime?"

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he was sympathetic to Padilla's predicament. "Your argument has an appeal because removal is such a harsh consequence, particularly for someone like your client, who had been in the United States for a long time," he said. But he wondered how to ever know whether such a conversation had occurred between client and attorney.

Clearly, deciding difficult cases like this is not as easy as simply calling balls and strikes.

I look forward to hearing those who vigorously complain about "legislating from the bench" condemn Justices Scalia and Alito for yesterday's questions.

I also look forward to seeing exactly what process they propose the Justices use to call this a ball or a strike.

PFAW

National Equality March

Sunday, October 11, 2009 marked Coming Out Day and the National Equality March in Washington DC. The sun was shining but it wasn’t too hot. There was a large crowd of tens of thousands of people who came from near and far to attend the march. There were lots of college students who came from all over the country to march. The area was well guarded with police officers on segways and on foot. The atmosphere was peaceful and upbeat.

I only encountered a few protesters saying that gay people are going to hell and that they are here to save us. These protesters also had anti-choice posters with pictures of aborted fetuses. Although I am not sure how gay rights and abortion are related, my guess is these right wingers just wanted to lump all the liberally minded causes together.

Most of the homemade signs addressed the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. One favorite sign: “Obama—let mommy marry momma!” and the chant “Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Homophobia has got to go!” I carried my handmade sign reading “Pass a trans-inclusive ENDA” while a friend I marched with carried their sign reading “Equali(t)y—the T is not silent!” although there were very few other signs addressing ENDA or other gender identity-specific sentiments. Our chant of “Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Transphobia has got to go!” caught on for a while but didn’t seem to gain as much momentum as some of the other chants.

With the combination of perfect weather, good company, and an excellent cause, I left the march feeling excited about how many young people were at the march and the energy that we—as young activists—have towards LGBT issues. And even as we push to repeal DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it’s important that we make sure that the ENDA gets the grassroots support it deserves.

PFAW

Last night, the House passed the Department of Defense Authorization bill in a 281 to 146 vote. Attached to the legislation was the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which will expand current hate crimes law to cover acts of violence motivated by a victim's sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity.

The bill passed despite Republican opposition to the hate crimes provision and accusations that it would prosecute "thought crimes." People For the American Way President Michael B. Keegan said in a statement:

Last night's vote was an important step towards finally enacting these hate crimes protections into law. This bill will help ensure that fewer Americans will become victims of violence simply because of who they are, while at the same time providing strong First Amendment protections. Limited hate crimes protections have existed for years on the basis of race and religion. It's long past time to expand this to include other targeted groups. I'm especially proud that this bill includes protections based on gender identity-the first time gender identity will receive positive protection in federal law.

The Byrd/Shepard Act is expected to pass in the Senate next week, the same week as the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student murdered in 1998 because he was gay.

PFAW

Scalia, Empathy, and Crayons

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Salazar v. Buono, a case involving the display of a cross on top of Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve, which is federal property. (People For the American Way Foundation joined an amicus brief in this case filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and other religious and secular non-profits).

By now, you've probably read about Justice Scalia's angry response when a Jewish lawyer had the audacity to point out that Jews don't use Christian crosses to honor their dead.

Mr. Eliasberg [the ACLU Foundation attorney] said many Jewish war veterans would not wish to be honored by "the predominant symbol of Christianity," one that "signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins."

Justice Scalia disagreed, saying, "The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead."

"What would you have them erect?" Justice Scalia asked. "Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David and, you know, a Muslim half moon and star?"

Mr. Eliasberg said he had visited Jewish cemeteries. "There is never a cross on the tombstone of a Jew," he said, to laughter in the courtroom.

Justice Scalia grew visibly angry. "I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead," he said. "I think that's an outrageous conclusion."

When I read this, my mind immediately went to … crayons. Yes, crayons.

When I was five, I had a somewhat peach-colored crayon that Crayola called "flesh." I'm white, and the crayon was close to my own skin color. It didn't occur to me that Crayola was assuming that all people are white. I didn’t need to think about it – After all, I was part of the majority. Later on, of course, I realized how this nomenclature marked African Americans as other, as outsiders in our society.

But not everyone who is a member of the in group has the capacity to understand what it is to be on the other side. Justice Scalia certainly doesn't.

For Justice Scalia, the cross has never had anything but positive connotations. From the perspective of his life experience, how could a cross grave marker be anything but an honor?

But in the history of America, Jews and other non-Christians have experienced the cross at times as neutral, and at times as a symbol of exclusion and persecution. Yet when someone points out that Jews do not see the cross as a symbol of honor, Justice Scalia gets angry.

In analyzing how the law impacts people, a wise judge considers people who are different from himself. A wise judge has empathy. Justice Scalia has none.

PFAW

President Obama nominates Judge Chin and Judge Thompson to Court of Appeals

Judge Chin clerked on the Southern District of New York for Judge Henry F. Werker. He was the first Asian-American appointed as a U.S. District Court Judge outside of the Ninth Circuit. Judge Chin is currently the U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York

Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson serves on the Rhode Island Superior Court.  She was the first African-American woman on that court. As an Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court, Judge Thompson has original jurisdiction over all felony cases and civil actions, including those sounding in equity

President Obama said:

Judges Chin and Thompson have displayed exceptional dedication to public service throughout their careers They have served on the bench with distinction in New York and Rhode Island and I am honored to nominate them today to serve the American people on the United States Court of Appeals. I am confident that they will be judicious and esteemed additions to the First and Second Circuits

We hope that the Senate confirms these nominations quickly. With both Judge Chin and Judge Thompsons' credentials, we think that they will be excellent additions to both the First and Second Circuits

PFAW

Roberts and Alito Legislating From the Bench

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Maryland v. Shatzer, a case involving the constitutional right to counsel during police questioning. The questions asked by the Justices – even the most conservative of them – exposed one of the great lies the Far Right tells about our nation’s judiciary: that courts should not make policy.

In 1981, the Court held that once you tell the police that you want your lawyer, the questioning must stop either until your lawyer arrives, or you yourself initiate further communication. This rule protects you from being badgered by the police to change your mind before the lawyer shows up.

In 2003, after Michael Blaine Shatzer asked for a lawyer, the police dropped their investigation and released him from their custody. Three years later, new evidence arose in the case. The rule established in 1981 would suggest that the police were still barred from questioning Shatzer. That was the issue before the Court this week. To help them analyze the case, the Justices asked the sorts of hypothetical questions they often ask. The Washington Post reports:

Justices seemed generally supportive … that police should have been allowed to question Shatzer again, but they had a hard time agreeing on how the rule should be changed.

[Chief Justice] Roberts worried that police could repeatedly question and dismiss a suspect who asks for a lawyer. "You know, just sort of catch-and-release, until he finally breaks down and says, 'All right, I'll talk,' " Roberts said. ...

[T]he justices wondered what could be done about a suspect who asks for a lawyer, never actually receives one or is convicted, and then is questioned years later, perhaps for a different crime.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. posed this hypothetical: What if someone was arrested for joy riding in Maryland, invoked his Fifth Amendment protection, and was never convicted? Could police in Montana question him as a murder suspect in Montana 10 years later?

When [Shatzer’s attorney] said no, Alito replied: "And you don't think that's a ridiculous application of the rule?"

[Then] Alito raised the hypothetical ante to a crime committed 40 years later ...

If the police let a suspect go after he asks for a lawyer, does the Constitution prohibit the police from questioning him again half a century later? Should there be limits? What should they be? How do you decide?

The Justices deciding this case are not simply calling balls and strikes, the insulting umpire analogy that Roberts infamously used during his confirmation hearings. Roberts, Alito, and the other Justices are weighing the consequences of different possible interpretations of the 1981 precedent as they apply it to a new and unforeseen situation.

Just as legislators do, they will be making policy. And that's fine. That's what courts are supposed to do. It's inherent in interpreting the law in difficult cases such as this.

So the next time the Washington Post quotes a right wing propagandist condemning progressive judges for making policy or "legislating from the bench," perhaps the Post will do more than collaborate by simply reprinting the accusation. Perhaps the Post will cite its own reporting and point out that all judges weigh policies and make law, but that the Far Right is silent when conservative judges do it.

PFAW

Last night, in a 178-234 vote, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act moved one step closer to becoming law. This legislation protects victims of hate crimes based on disability, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. 

The vote was taken on what's called a motion to instruct conferees - this one would have instructed those negotiating a final Defense Authorization bill to remove the hate crimes language included by the Senate. In a series of speeches (item 35) fit only for Right Wing Watch, the motion's supporters tried to take down this critical update to "equal protection under the law." Thankfully, their efforts were to no avail, and the Shepard/Byrd bill may soon reach President Obama's desk. A few minor hurdles remain, but we hope to see it signed within the next week.

With the stroke of a pen, the President will have an opportunity to send loud and clear the message that freedom from discrimination is a right all Americans should enjoy. And we cannot forget that this action would affirm - for the first time in federal law - a positive protection for gender identity.

Click here for more information from People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action.

PFAW

Church, State, Land Swaps, and the Supreme Court

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing oral argument in the case of Salazar v. Buono, a case involving the display of a cross on top of Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve, which is federal property. A former employee of the Preserve sued in federal court challenging the legality of the display, arguing that the religious symbol violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  The district court agreed and ordered that the display be taken down.  So far, so good.

But in order to sidestep the ruling, Congress swapped Sunrise Rock—but none of the land around it—with a private party who agreed to maintain the cross.  Buono asked the Court to enforce its order prohibiting the display of the cross and also asked the court to prohibit the land swap.  The court agreed as to both and on appeal to the 9th Circuit, the district court’s order was upheld.

People For the American Way Foundation joined a brief filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and other religious and secular non-profits on behalf of Buono to point out that objections to such religious displays on public land are more than the just general grievances.  Rather, the effects of an unconstitutional government display of religion inflict real and significant harm that cannot be easily ignored. 

Government-sponsored religious symbols are potent forms of speech that can have real, palpable effects on people who are subjected to them. The harm from them is not that they evoke mere distaste, displeasure, or even disgust. It is that they deprive citizens of the use and enjoyment of public lands, because using a public facility where the government has chosen to erect a monument to one faith stigmatizes nonadherents as second-class citizens, while demeaning the faith of adherents by coopting what is sacred.

Also, these harmful effects cannot be fixed by a contractual land transfer of a particular parcel of land, particularly when the parcel is entirely enclosed within a federal preserve and where the government has taken no steps to disassociate itself from the display[].  Nothing was done at all to make it clear that the display is no longer on government land.  As such, the transfer cannot be seen as anything other than a cheap strategy designed solely to preserve the display of the cross.  Allowing a scheme like that to cure the unconstitutionality of a government act wouldn’t correct the wrong—it would perpetuate it.

 

PFAW

Correcting the Court

Exhibit A from last term of the Roberts Court's conservative judicial activism is the Gross age discrimination case where the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reached out to decide an issue that hadn't been briefed and changed the law in a way that will make it much harder for older workers to prove that they were discriminated against in the workplace. Today, three key Democratic leaders, Senators Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy and Rep. George Miller, announced plans to introduce a bill to correct the Court's error. As noted in the coverage of the announcement, this is the second time in a year that Congress has reached out to correct the court, the first being the Lilly Ledbetter legislation, the first measure signed into law by President Obama in January of this year.

PFAW

Marriage Equality Bill Introduced in DC

DC Councilman David Catania introduced a bill on Tuesday that will end discrimination against same sex couples who wish to marry in the nation's capital. The District already recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, but the new proposal will allow the nuptials to take place in the city.

The bill is expected to pass the 13-member city council, and it is supported by DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. In spite of this strong support in the city, outsiders will once again focus on denying marriage equality to DC residents.

Harry Jackson, Bishop of the Hope Christian Church in Maryland, is once again vowing to bring the issue to the ballot. As PFAW has reported, Jackson is an ardent supporter of homophobic ballot initiatives; this time he has the support of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, Colorado-based Focus on the Family, and the National Organization for Marriage.

In addition, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who failed at derailing the marriage recognition bill from over the summer, has expressed interest in overturning DC law again, though he admits it is unlikely that Congressional Republicans will be able to muster enough support to do so.

 

PFAW