PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Kathleen Turner Speaks Out for Dawn Johnsen

People For the American Way Foundation board member Kathleen Turner posted a piece today on the Huffington Post making a forceful case for confirming Dawn Johnsen as the head of Office of Legal Counsel.

To restore integrity and respect for the rule of law to the Department, President Obama has nominated an inordinately qualified individual - Dawn Johnsen - who is now being attacked by Republicans and her right-wing allies for having the nerve to criticize Bush administration excesses. They're faulting her for criticizing OLC opinions that the Bush administration itself repudiated. In other words, she's being pilloried for having the very integrity and respect for the rule of law that the Bush OLC so clearly lacked.

If you want to speak out to support Dawn Johnsen’s confirmation, don’t forget to sign the petition.
 

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Not a Joke. We think.

What do you get when you cross a desperate Republican House campaign and a US senator who only months ago held the very seat the Republican candidate is seeking?

Another reason no-excuse absentee voting makes sense.

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Obama Administration Raises the Bar on Wiretap Secrecy

Two of the most damaging legacies of the Bush Administration - the gutting of FISA through warrantless wiretapping, and the assertion of the almost monarchical "unitary executive" theory of executive branch authority - returned to center stage late last week, as the government responded to the suit brought by the EFF in Jewel v. NSA.

Glenn Greenwald writes in a post yesterday the disappointing direction Obama's DOJ has taken in regards to the warrantless wiretapping lawsuit the Electronic Frontier Foundation brought against the Bush Administration in October. On Friday the DOJ offered up its first response to the court. Greenwald:

[T]he Obama DOJ demanded dismissal of the entire lawsuit based on (1) its Bush-mimicking claim that the "state secrets" privilege bars any lawsuits against the Bush administration for illegal spying, and (2) a brand new "sovereign immunity" claim of breathtaking scope -- never before advanced even by the Bush administration -- that the Patriot Act bars any lawsuits of any kind for illegal government surveillance unless there is "willful disclosure" of the illegally intercepted communications.

Greenwald's post involves a lot of legal heavy lifting, but it's very accessible and worth reading.

This development is scary, but sadly not the first time Obama's DOJ has taken cues from its predecessor. In February we noted with disappointment the continued use of the "state secrets" privilege in the extraordinary rendition case Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen.

One of the much lauded compromises of the FISA amendments last year was the fact that while telecom corporations were immune from suit, government officials could still be brought to court for illegal wiretapping. So while the new FISA now allows for longer periods of warrantless wiretapping (7 days, up from 48 hours) and permits the destruction of wiretap records, the DOJ now aims to snatch away the single bone thrown to civil libertarians.

You can read the EFF's press release here.

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What a Day for Marriage!

As we hope you’ve already heard, champagne corks are popping in Vermont where both houses of the state legislature successfully overrode the Governor’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation. And for those of us in DC, marriage equality is a step closer now that the District’s City Council enacted legislation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

We’re exceptionally proud of the fact that the legislation granting marriage equality in Vermont was co-sponsored by a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, Representative David Zuckerman.

And he’s just one of the YEOs doing great work for LGBT rights nationwide. You can read about other members working hard for equal rights for all in the most recent YEO Newsletter.

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The Audacity of Blackmail

According to the Daily Beast, the GOP is threatening to filibuster President Obama’s legal nominees if he moves to release the infamous “torture memos” that came out of the John Yoo-era Office of Legal Counsel:

A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principal reason for the Obama administration’s abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents. A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward.

It was bad enough that George W. Bush spent the last eight years politicizing the Department of Justice and degrading the rule of law. Now, instead of working with the new administration to clean up the DOJ, Republican Senators are apparently doubling down and desperately attempting to cover up the Bush Administration’s misdeeds and their own complicity.

As several of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said during the Committee’s vote on Dawn Johnsen’s nomination: bring it on. If the GOP wants a public debate about what’s been going in on the Justice Department, that’s the kind of debate the American people will understand.

In the mean time, now would be a good time to remind every member of the U.S. Senate, Democrat and Republican alike, that it’s time to confirm Dawn Johnsen and clean up the DOJ.

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More Good News from Iowa

While national Religious Right leaders have reacted with predictably apocalyptic venom to the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruling upholding marriage equality, there's more good news from the state's political leaders. According to the national Stonewall Democrats, the Iowa Democratic Party has long been on record supporting marriage equality, with a position clearly and unequivocally written in the state party platform.

And while state Religious Right leaders are demanding that the legislature begin the process of amending the state constitution, legislative leaders instead praised the Supreme Court's decision. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy issued a strong statement. Here's an excerpt:

Thanks to today's decision, Iowa continues to be a leader in guaranteeing all of our citizens' equal rights.

The court has ruled today that when two Iowans promise to share their lives together, state law will respect that commitment, regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight.

When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today's events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.

Marriage equality is a done deal in the state for now. Even if legislative leaders were eager to amend the state constitution, it's a long and complicated process that requires action by both houses in two consecutive general assemblies to put an amendment before the voters. According to the Des Moines Register, Iowa Family Policy Center President Chuck Hurley "acknowledged that until a constitutional amendment could be placed on the ballot, there's nothing gay-marriage opponents can do to stop gay couples from marrying in Iowa. The soonest such a vote could take place would be 2012."

Congratulations and thanks, Iowa. Next up: Vermont, where marriage equality has passed both houses with large majorities in spite of a veto threat from the governor. The vote to override is expected to be a close one.

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Iowa Marriage Decision Recognizes Religious-Civil Distinction

People For the American Way Foundation's recent Right Wing Watch In Focus report documented the deceptive ways that Religious Right leaders blur the distinction between civil and religious marriage in order to convince Americans that marriage equality is a threat to religious liberty. Today's thrilling unanimous Iowa Supreme Court decision that it is unconstitutional to deny marriage to same-sex couples in the state included a powerful and respectful section on the same topic. Here's how it concludes:

In the final analysis, we give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage—religious or otherwise—by giving respect to our constitutional principles. These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage. Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle of law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views. A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution.

The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.

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GOP Boycotts Hamilton Hearing

I’m just back from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Judge David Hamilton to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which the Republicans on the committee boycotted because they claimed they had not been given sufficient time to prepare for the hearing. In an ironic twist, the hearing was held in a small room off of the Senate floor—the same room that Senator Leahy, the Chair of the Committee, used to continue holding hearings on President Bush’s judicial nominations in the immediate aftermath of September 11th.

As Senator Leahy noted today, the Democrats on the Committee have a better record of pushing through Republican judicial nominees than the Republicans had when they were in charge. Yet today, the Republicans once again were all about trying to delay the process, and we’re now even seeing complaints that the hearing was moved to the Capitol, a move which actually helped accommodate Senators who needed to be on the floor to vote on budget amendments.

In the absence of the Republicans, Senator Leahy ended up asking Judge Hamilton about cases that Senator Specter had identified as potentially problematic – in other words he asked the Republicans questions for them!

David Hamilton is eminently qualified to sit on the Seventh Circuit. We hope the Committee will move his nomination forward when the Senate returns from its upcoming two-week recess.

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If You Care About the Environment . . .

You should also care about the Supreme Court.

In a setback for environmentalists, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that federal regulators may consider costs when deciding whether to order the operators of power plants to install protections for fish.

By 6 to 3, the court overturned a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan, which had ruled that the Clean Water Act barred the Environmental Protection Agency from engaging in the kind of cost-benefit analysis that it had proposed.

The recent narrow-but-good decision in Massachusetts v. EPA shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking that the Supreme Court is a particularly green institution at the moment, and today’s 6-3 decision (Justice Breyer wrote a concurrence) should be a reminder that the “liberal” wing of the Court is far from uniform. There’s a big difference between a good Justice and a great one, especially when it comes to environmental issues.
 

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What About the D.C. Voting Rights Act?

The DC Voting Rights Act (H.R. 157) is currently sitting in limbo, hung up over controversial amendments. The bill has been removed from the floor, further delaying the vote that the citizens of the District deserve.

This week DC Vote began to run a new series of ads with the line: “D.C.’s rights held hostage.”

The entire episode shows why D.C. desperately needs a vote. Congress shouldn’t be passing laws for D.C. without the input and consent of Washingtonians. And on the issue of guns, it appears Congress and the District are at odds:

"[DC Mayor Adrian] Fenty said that if the city secured a House vote, it would give the District more power to fight laws it doesn't agree with, "such as getting rid of the amendment.”

We must pass the D.C. Voting Rights Act as a clean bill, and every day that passes until then is another day of injustice and disenfranchisement—“taxation without representation”—for the residents of our nation’s capital.
 

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Homophobia and the Black Church Event

This week, People For Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council is co-sponsoring the Harambee* celebration at Howard Divinity School. 

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend one of the panels we sponsored, “Homophobia in the Black Church.” It was, if I do say so myself, pretty great.

The event is part of AAMLC's ongoing work to target homophobia in the Black Church.  And while it would be nice to say that everyone was in complete agreement on the subject, that would also be a little dull. That wasn’t a problem yesterday.

Instead, there was a rich and respectful conversation about homophobia, sexuality, history, theology, and the role religion to plays in our Democracy. (Which stands in stark contrast to the deception and fear mongering that the Right has used to exploit divisions on the issue.)

Harambee!

The panel was moderated by Rev. Tony Lee, Senior Pastor of Community of Hope AME Church in Temple Hills, MD, and featured:

  • Rev. Dr. Kenneth L. Samuel, Senior Pastor of Victory for the World (Stone Mountain, Ga.) and Vice Chair of the African American Ministers Leadership Council
  • Donna Payne, Associate Director of Diversity, Human Rights Campaign
  • Rev. Byron Williams, syndicated columnist and pastor of the Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, CA.
  • Rev. Dr. Ronald Hopson, psychologist and ordained minister. Dr. Hopson holds a joint appointment as a professor with the Howard University Department of Psychology and the School of Divinity.
  • Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, Fellow in Residence at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture

We had a sizable crowd, but if you weren’t able to attend, fear not: we’ll be releasing a transcript of the event in the near futures, and the conversation will be continuing throughout the year.

(* - "Harambee" is the Kenyan tradition of community self-help.  In case you were wondering.)

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Obama DOJ Invokes State Secrets For Second Time

This Washington Post recently had a story on a second instance of the Obama Department of Justice invoking "state secrets" in an effort to shut down a lawsuit challenging violations by the Bush Administration of individuals' constitutional rights.

The first instance, in February, came in the case of Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen, a suit challenging a company's alleged participation in the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries where they suffered torture. At that time, People For the American Way decried the "blow to our much-needed efforts to restore justice." This time the lawsuit involves allegations by the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation that the federal government used warrantless wiretaps to gather information on the charity's board members and attorneys in violation of their due process and free speech rights.

The Post story reports that in addition to invoking the state secrets privilege to terminate the lawsuit -- thereby denying the charity its day in court -- the Justice Department is also threatening to remove the documents from the district court's custody to keep them out of the hands of the charity's lawyers. No doubt there must be a careful balancing of competing interests in these kinds of cases -- legitimate efforts to protect our nation's security versus holding the government accountable for violations of individuals' constitutional rights. But I must say the balancing that appears to be going on in these instances is making me pretty nervous.

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More Nonsense from the Right on Hamilton

Late last week several leaders of the Right, including Tony Perkins, Edwin Meese, and Alfred Regnery issued a statement opposing the nomination of David Hamilton (currently the Chief Judge of the Southern District of Indiana) to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Among other things the statement recycles the screed working its way through the right wing blogoshpere that treats Hamilton's one-month job as a canvasser for ACORN thirty years ago when he was twenty two as if it constitutes a major portion of his career.  And it repeats the gross mischaracterization of a decision by Hamilton that police shouldn’t be allowed to violate “the privacy and sanctity of family relations” by directing a school social worker to interrogate a nine-year old student to get evidence against her mother.

And, now, for the first time as far as I’m aware, the statement levels charges that Hamilton ruled that prayers to Jesus Christ offered at the beginning of state legislative sessions were impermissible, but that prayers to Allah were not.

Of course, that’s not an accurate reading of Hamilton’s opinion. Rather, he concluded, as the Supreme Court has said, that “any official prayers [must] be inclusive and non-sectarian and not advance one particular religion.” And he found, based on an in-depth analysis of the record, that the official prayers being offered in the Indiana House in fact “repeatedly and consistently” advanced the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, and as such, were impermissible. He also said that Muslim prayers that similarly advanced the Muslim faith were also impermissible, but that the one and only instance of a prayer being offered by a Muslim imam “was inclusive and was not identifiable as distinctly Muslim from its content.”

A debate on the merits of judicial nominees is perfectly appropriate. But let’s at least get the facts straight.

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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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