PEOPLE FOR BLOG

97-Year-Old Arizona Woman Disenfranchised by Voter ID Law

Shirley Preiss was born in Kentucky in 1910 — a full 10 years before American women gained the right to vote. She first voted in a presidential election in 1932, for FDR. She’s voted in every presidential election since, but that’s all about to change due to Arizona’s draconian voter ID law.

As Art Levine reported, Shirley effectively lost her right to vote when she moved to Arizona:

After living in Arizona for two years, she was eagerly looking forward to casting her ballot in the February primary for the first major woman candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. But lacking a birth certificate or even elementary school records to prove she’s a native-born American citizen, the state of Arizona’s bureaucrats determined that this former school-teacher who taught generations of Americans shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

The state’s voter ID law, passed in 2004, requires voters to show ID at the polling place and to provide proof of citizenship in order to register. But birth certificates weren’t issued in 1910 in Shirley’s birthplace of Clinton, KY, and her elementary school no longer exists.

Shirley appeared on the local news Monday night in Phoenix to tell her story:

 

 

She’s far from the only victim of this law. The Arizona Advocacy Network reports that nearly 40,000 voter registration forms have been rejected due to inadequate proof of citizenship. And it’s getting to be a national problem.

The Supreme Court gave Indiana the green light last month on its restrictive voter ID law, and other states have already or are in the process of passing similar laws. Everywhere such laws are enacted, the voting rights of thousands of Americans - especially among the poor, elderly, and minorities - are put at risk. Fortunately many other states have fended off voter ID laws, and I’m proud that People For the American Way’s Democracy Campaign played a role in many of those fights. Nothing short of a concerted effort by the progressive movement over the coming years will succeed in safeguarding the right to vote.

Cross-posted on CrooksAndLiars.com

PFAW

Supreme Court Narrows Protections for Public Employees

In a 6-3 ruling on June 9, the Supreme Court made it harder for public employees who are victims of arbitrary or malicious firings to obtain justice. In doing so, the Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, rejected an approach followed by nine federal appellate courts that had allowed a public employee who is arbitrarily treated differently from other similarly situated employees to bring an equal protection claim under the 14th Amendment, even if that employee had not been discriminated against because of membership in a particular class (e.g., African Americans or women).

Those courts had held that membership in a "class of one" is sufficient in the public employment context to invoke the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment, which protect "any person." Chief Justice Roberts was joined in this opinion by the other conservative members of the Court (Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas), as well as by Justice Breyer.

Justice Stevens wrote a sharp dissent, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg, accusing the majority of "carv[ing] a novel exception out of state employees' constitutional rights." According to the dissent, "[e]ven if some surgery were truly necessary to prevent governments from being forced to defend a multitude of equal protection 'class of one' claims, the Court should use a scalpel rather than a meat-axe." Instead, in the words of Justice Stevens, the Court had "adopt[ed] an unnecessarily broad rule that tolerates arbitrary and irrational decisions in the employment context."

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Ledbetter v. Goodyear and Fair Pay, One Year Later

As a Senator, John McCain has helped George W. Bush pack the federal courts with right wing judges, judges who serve for life and who will extend the legacy of President Bush for decades to come. In fact, it seems that Senator McCain has never met a bad Bush judicial nominee he didn’t like, including John Roberts and Samuel Alito. With McCain’s help, Roberts is now the Chief Justice of the United States, and Alito is right by his side on the Supreme Court.

And with McCain continuing to heap praise on Roberts and Alito, it’s only fitting, as we approach the first anniversary of one of the most harmful rulings in which Roberts and Alito have participated, to take a look at the damage done in that one decision alone.

Lilly Ledbetter worked for decades in a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama, the kind of place where so many Americans work. But until Lilly received an anonymous tip late in her career, she had no idea that for years on end she was being paid far less than were her male colleagues doing the same work — and that the unequal pay was the result of a discriminatory evaluation.

Lilly sued, and won her case before a jury, which found that Goodyear had unlawfully discriminated against Lilly because of her sex, and awarded her back pay.

Did Goodyear settle with Lilly, a longtime employee? No, it appealed, all the way to the Supreme Court, and in a 5-4 ruling on May 29, 2007, the Court ruled against Lilly, taking away her back pay. In an opinion by Justice Alito and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, the five-justice majority held that Lilly had sued too late, that she should have filed her lawsuit within 180 days of the discriminatory evaluation. Alito and Roberts rejected the previously accepted view of federal anti-discrimination law — that each paycheck Lilly received based on a discriminatory evaluation started a new 180-day clock running on the time to sue.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a scathing dissent in which she accused Alito and Roberts of a "cramped interpretation" of the anti-discrimination law that was incompatible with the law’s "broad remedial purpose." As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, many employees have no idea what their co-workers earn, and discriminatory pay is often hidden by employers.

And so thanks to the Supreme Court, Lilly Ledbetter has been left with no remedy for the sex discrimination that she suffered on the job. Lilly could be any worker, anywhere. The Court’s decision in her case will make it harder for workers across the country who have been victimized by unlawful pay discrimination to recover the back pay to which they are entitled. Rulings like the one in Lilly’s case underscore how important the Supreme Court is to all Americans, every single day.

Happy Anniversary, Senator McCain.

PFAW

Brown v. Board of Education: a 54th Anniversary Reminder of the Importance of the Supreme Court

As George Orwell might put it, all Supreme Court decisions are important, but some are more important than others. And in the history of our country, there can be little doubt that one of the Court’s most important decisions was its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, decided 54 years ago this May 17th. Overturning the shameful “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and striking down school segregation laws, the ruling in Brown gave substance to the Constitution’s promise of equality for all. Without question, May 17, 1954 saw the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, at its very best.

Flash forward 53 years, to June 28, 2007. On that date, a bitterly divided 5-4 Supreme Court, now headed by Bush-nominee John Roberts, invalidated the school-assignment plans adopted by two public school districts to promote racial diversity in their schools. Joining Chief Justice Roberts in striking down those plans were Justices Samuel Alito (the Court’s other Bush-nominee), Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy.

Although Brown had eliminated state laws mandating segregated schools, it could not rid the country of school segregation created by local housing patterns. So public school districts, recognizing that children benefit from being educated in racially diverse schools, have tried to achieve such diversity on their own. The Court’s ruling last year has made that goal much harder to attain.

In a half-century, we’ve gone from a Court taking a stand for equal opportunity and against legally imposed segregation to a Court that rejects good-faith efforts by school officials to overcome patterns of segregation and give students the benefit of more diverse schools. That pretty much sums up the direction of the Court and its two Bush-nominated justices. Educational opportunity is only one of the arenas in which the Court is leading the nation in retreat. Every American is affected by the Court’s recent rulings undermining voting rights, privacy and reproductive choice, fair pay, religious liberty, and the very ability of individuals to turn to the federal courts for justice when their rights or interests have been harmed.

The Court will be on the ballot this November, as Americans vote for a new President and new Senators. Under Chief Justice Roberts, the Court has already moved far to the right. You can help People For the American Way Save the Court.

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Reflections on Mildred Jeter Loving, an American Hero, and the Importance of the Supreme Court

A very heroic woman died yesterday. She probably never wanted to be a hero. She did want to be a wife, though. But back in Virginia in the late 1950s, when Mildred Jeter, a black woman, fell in love with Richard Loving, a white man, and they decided to marry, that was indeed a heroic act. Not only because of society's prejudices, but also because it was a crime — a felony punishable by one to five years in prison.

Virginia's law prohibiting interracial marriage wasn't some unenforced statute, either. Oh no, Virginia was quite serious about keeping the races from "mixing." The County Sheriff burst into the Lovings' home in the middle of the night, and Mildred and Richard were charged as criminals and prosecuted — that's right — prosecuted — for having gotten married. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a year in prison. The trial judge, in a moment of magnanimity, made the Lovings an offer they couldn't refuse: he agreed to suspend their prison sentence for 25 years if they would just leave Virginia and not return for a quarter of a century. He also had this to say about interracial marriage:

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

No fools, Mildred and Richard moved to Washington, D.C. But they also took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, in a unanimous decision by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court reversed their convictions and declared that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The Court struck down these laws — 15 other states had them as well — because they were racially discriminatory and also because they infringed on what the Court recognized was every person's fundamental right to marry.

Richard Loving was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. Last year, on the 40th anniversary of the Court's historic ruling in their case, Mildred Loving issued a statement supporting the right of all couples to marry, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Mildred knew that what makes a marriage is love and commitment, not race or gender. And she knew that it shouldn't take a lawsuit, either, for two people in love to be able to marry.

Mildred and Richard Loving helped teach America some important lessons. Lessons in courage, lessons in love, and, yes, lessons in the importance of the Supreme Court.

America lost another hero yesterday.

PFAW

The Supreme Court Makes It Harder To Vote

The state of Indiana has the most restrictive voter I.D. law in the country. Show up at the polls without a currently valid, government-issued photo I.D., and you can’t vote. I realize that to many Americans, that doesn’t sound like much of a burden. And for many Americans, it isn’t.

But it is a very substantial burden for many groups of eligible voters, including the elderly who don’t drive, college students, and the poor who don’t own cars. There’s a great deal of overlap between those who are unduly burdened by this law and Democratic voting constituencies. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that support for Indiana’s restrictive law came from Republicans in the state legislature.

Indeed, the law is a “solution” looking for a problem, since Indiana has been unable to identify a single case of in-person voter fraud occurring in its history. In fact, studies have shown that widespread, in-person voter fraud simply does not exist, whereas many eligible voters do in fact lack the I.D. that laws such as this require.

No matter. Today, by a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Indiana law. The Court that should be the staunchest defender of American democracy has enabled a state, without substantial justification, to erect barriers to voting. As we approach a presidential election with the possibility of a record voter turnout, the last thing our democracy needs is more roadblocks to voting.

There’s a small ray of hope, however, as the Court left the door open to future challenges to the Indiana law and to voter I.D. laws in other states. In the meantime, today’s ruling once again underscores how important the Supreme Court is to the rights of every American, including that most fundamental of rights — the right to vote.

PFAW

The Supreme Court: What a Difference an Election Makes

April 18, 2007 is the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling upholding a federal ban on certain abortion procedures even though the law did not include an exception to protect a woman’s health. And that ruling, which significantly chips away at women's reproductive freedom, upheld the federal ban even though the Court had struck down a virtually identical state law several years ago.

What had changed in the interim? Well, as Justice Ginsburg observed in her dissent in last year's case, only the composition of the Court. Justice O'Connor, who had voted with the majority to strike down the state law, had been replaced by Justice Alito, who voted in last year's case to uphold the ban. Samuel Alito, an extreme, far right nominee, was put on the Supreme Court by President Bush and complicit Senators.

Regardless of one's views about abortion, the Court's very obvious, 180-degree reversal of course on the same critical issue of women's reproductive freedom last year was a stark reminder that who sits on the Court matters. And when it comes to who sits on the Court, it was also a reminder of the importance of elections.

The President elected in November will likely have the opportunity to fill one or more vacancies on the Court. And Senators elected in November will vote on whether or not to confirm that President's nominees. Although the future of the Court won't be a line item on the ballot in November, it is definitely at stake on Election Day.

Cross-posted on Daily Kos

PFAW

Court Allows FedEx Age Discrimination Case to Go Forward

In a 7-2 decision today, the Supreme Court held that current and former employees of FedEx who had sued the company claiming age discrimination could proceed with their lawsuit. At issue before the Court was whether one of the employees had filed a "charge" of discrimination with the EEOC — a prerequisite to being able to file suit under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act — when the form that she had submitted to the EEOC was not a "charge" form but rather an "intake questionnaire."

In a majority opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that the documents submitted by the employee satisified the requirements for a "charge," upholding a ruling by the Court of Appeals that rejected form over substance and allows the employees to proceed with their lawsuit. Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented, and would have denied the employees their day in court.

As we have previously reported on Court Watch, People For the American Way Foundation filed an amicus curiae brief in this case along with AARP and several other organizations, urging the Court to rule as it now has in favor of the employees.

PFAW

Been Stuck on a Plane With Overflowing Toilets Lately?

Well, thanks to a ruling yesterday by a trio of judges put on the federal bench by President George W. Bush, New York State's efforts to give a modicum of human dignity to airline passengers stuck in planes for hours on the ground may now be for naught.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held Tuesday that New York's Passenger Bill of Rights is pre-empted by federal law, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. After all, the New York Passenger Bill of Rights is pretty darn radical. It requires that when passengers have been stuck on planes on New York runways for more than three hours, the airlines have to provide adequate electricity for fresh air and lights, waste removal to clean out overflowing toilets, and adequate food and drinking water and other refreshments. Nope, wouldn't want the states to be able to require these sorts of things at all.

Read more here in the New York Times.

PFAW

Reflections on Fourth Circuit Oral Argument in Church-State Case

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit does not inform those who argue before it of the identities of the judges on the three-judge panels who will be hearing specific cases until the very morning of the oral argument. And so it was a great surprise — and an even greater honor — to learn yesterday when we walked into the courthouse in Richmond that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would be a member of the panel hearing Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The other panel members were Fourth Circuit Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Dennis Shedd.

As we’ve reported previously, this is a case in which Hashmel Turner, a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, has taken the very bizarre step of suing his own City Council. Represented by a religious right organization, the Rutherford Institute, Turner claims that he has a free speech right to offer official City Council prayers in the name of Jesus, and that the Council’s policy requiring that its opening prayers be nonsectarian is unconstitutional. Along with the law firm of Hunton & Williams, we represent the City Council in this case.

Turner’s arguments are completely contrary to judicial precedent, as the federal district court judge who first heard this case — and ruled against Turner — observed. According to Turner, when he prays in his official capacity as a Council member on behalf of the Council, his prayer nonetheless is private speech, not government speech. Turner’s “private speech” argument has been rejected by every court to have considered the issue of legislative prayer, including the Fourth Circuit. After all, if it is the legislative body’s prayer, how can the prayer not be government speech? And, because the prayer is government speech, the Constitution requires that it cannot be sectarian.

Given the case law rejecting the very claims that Turner is making here, it was not surprising that the judges yesterday seemed unmoved by the arguments of Turner’s counsel, Johan Conrod. Justice O’Connor asked Mr. Conrod if he could think of a single case involving legislative prayer in which the prayer was not considered to be government speech, and he said he could not. “I can’t either,” said Justice O’Connor, who also said it seemed “perfectly reasonable” for the City Council to require that its opening prayers be nonsectarian.

When Mr. Conrod suggested that a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Turner’s sectarian Council prayers would be a difficult one, Judge Motz said, “Not in the Fourth Circuit or in the United States of America.” And echoing the words of the federal district court judge who has already ruled against Turner, Judge Shedd told Mr. Conrod that he had “a pretty big hill to climb.”

The Rutherford Institute has misrepresented the City Council’s policy as trampling on Mr. Turner’s free speech and free exercise rights. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In his capacity as a private citizen, Mr. Turner has the same constitutional rights as every other private citizen, including the right to pray in the manner dictated by his faith.

But when Mr. Turner, or any other government official, is acting in his government capacity to offer a prayer on behalf of a legislative body, he stands in the shoes of that body and is no longer acting as a private citizen. And in that capacity, his speech is government speech and cannot be permitted to advance any particular faith. Contrary to the claims of the Rutherford Institute that Councilor Turner is merely seeking equal rights here, he is in fact seeking special rights that the Constitution does not give to any government official.

PFAW

Religious Right Using Lawsuit in Attempt to Undermine Church-State Separation

In 2006, the Rev. Hashmel Turner, a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, took the bizarre step of suing his own City Council. Councilor Turner’s complaint? As an elected government official, he wants the special right to begin City Council meetings by offering a City Council prayer in the name of Jesus — a sectarian, non-inclusive prayer that excludes many Fredericksburg citizens. The City Council, however, following the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent, wisely adopted an inclusive policy requiring that any prayers offered to begin its meetings be nondenominational.

So, represented by the religious right Rutherford Institute, Councilor Turner sued in federal district court — and lost — before a Republican-nominated judge who told his attorney at oral argument that “all the case law is against you.” But that has not deterred the Rutherford Institute, which has appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Councilor Turner’s behalf and is using this case in an effort to get the issue before the Supreme Court. Clearly, the Rutherford Institute hopes that with the Supreme Court’s recent sharp turn to the right, the Court might ultimately take this case and use it to weaken church-state separation by allowing government officials — acting in their official capacities — to engage in sectarian prayer on behalf of government entities.

On March 19, the Fourth Circuit will hear Turner’s appeal. That court has previously ruled that the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent prohibit a town council from beginning its meetings with sectarian prayer. It should issue a similar ruling here, upholding the nonsectarian prayer policy of the Fredericksburg City Council, which has chosen inclusion over divisiveness.

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People For the American Way Foundation Legal Director Judith E. Schaeffer and the law firm of Hunton & Williams represent the Fredericksburg City Council in this case.

PFAW

Marriage Back in Court — Another Chance for California to Make History

Sixty years ago, the California Supreme Court courageously became the first in the country to strike down a law that prohibited interracial marriage — a full twenty years before the United States Supreme Court effectively wiped such laws off the books nationwide. Tomorrow, the California Supreme Court will once again confront marriage discrimination as it hears oral arguments in the consolidated lawsuits challenging the state's refusal to allow same-sex couples to marry. Although the California legislature passed a bill that would have ended this discrimination , it was vetoed by the Governator, and it is now once again up to the state Supreme Court to ensure that, in California at least, equality under the law is a reality for all.

Americans understand that marriage is about love and commitment, about shared responsibilities, about growing old with one very special person. And they understand fairness; they understand that there is something fundamentally unfair about denying someone the opportunity to marry the person he or she loves. Massachusetts and our wonderful neighbor to the north have already shown America that the world will not end, the sky will not fall, if gay men and lesbians are allowed to marry under civil law. One day, it will not take lawsuits for such marriages to happen.

But the courts are an important avenue for achieving justice by faithfully applying constitutional principles when other branches of government have failed to do so. Today, we suspect that most Americans simply cannot fathom the notion that a man and a woman would be legally prevented from marrying based on the color of their skin. And we are confident that at some point in the future, the same will be true when it comes to the marriages of same-sex couples. As Dr. King often said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

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People For the American Way Foundation, a staunch supporter of equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, has filed an amicus curiae brief in the California Supreme Court urging the Court to rule in favor of those challeging the state's refusal to allow same-sex couples to marry. A copy of our brief can be found here.

PFAW

Supreme Court Rules on Sprint Age Discrimination Case

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion today by Justice Thomas in Sprint v. Mendelsohn, an employment discrimination case in which PFAWF had joined eleven other civil rights groups in filing an amicus curiae brief in support of the plaintiff-employee, as earlier discussed on Court Watch here. The Court's ruling adopted the position that our brief had urged — namely, that in an employment discrimination case, evidence of unlawful employment discrimination from co-workers who were supervised by people other than the plaintiff's supervisor cannot be subjected to a per se rule of exclusion, a very harmful per se rule that had been urged by Sprint and its supporting amici.

The Court's decision today is primarily about the role of district court judges in determining the admissibility of evidence in the first instance, and the Court ruled that the 10th Circuit, which had reversed the trial court's exclusion of "other supervisor evidence," had erred in then holding the evidence admissible, rather than sending the case back to the trial court to clarify the basis for excluding the evidence. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts to have the district court clarify the basis for excluding the "other supervisor" evidence. In the context of this remand to the lower courts, the Supreme Court's opinion states that the Federal Rules of Evidence "do not make such evidence per se admissible or per se inadmissible."

PFAW

The State of the Judiciary and the Bush Legacy

Individual Rights, Access to Justice Threatened
President Bush's final State of the Union address will in part be an effort to shape the public view of his presidency. But here's something he won't say: a long-lasting part of his legacy will be the weakening of Americans' rights and legal protections due to the dangerous state of the federal judiciary created by judges he has placed on the federal bench.

President Bush may actually brag about his success in placing Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Indeed, this is one arena in which he accomplished what he set out to do. He has also populated the lower federal courts with judges of similar ilk. The result is a Supreme Court more firmly in the grip of an ideology that is undermining individual rights and the constitutional and legal principles that are supposed to protect them, and a federal judiciary that is increasingly denying ordinary Americans their day in court to challenge unlawful treatment by corporations, government agencies, and other powerful entities.

The federal judiciary's declining commitment to protecting Americans' liberties and access to justice is a consequence of an aggressive campaign by the Federalist Society and other right-wing strategists to transform the federal courts. With his judicial nominees over the past seven years, President Bush enthusiastically embraced that campaign, leaving a harmful legacy that will last for a generation or more.

Read more >> 

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Roe v. Wade at 35: Up For Grabs in the Next Election

January 22, 2008 is the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision recognizing that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy includes the right to choose to end a pregnancy. Without question, Roe is one of the leading examples, and certainly one of the most famous, of the Court’s vital role in protecting Americans’ individual rights and freedoms.

The controversy that has surrounded Roe since it was decided not only serves to underscore the importance of the Court, but also of the election of Presidents to nominate individuals to fill vacancies on the Court and senators who decide whether or not to confirm those nominees. For decades, Religious Right activists have clamored for the appointment of justices to the Court who would overturn Roe, and have supported presidential and Senate candidates who embrace that agenda. There can be little question that their voices have been heard by President Bush, who has made anti-choice ideology a virtual if not actual litmus test for his selection of federal judges.

With Bush nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito joining Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, it is quite likely that there are now four votes on the Court to overturn Roe. Indeed, Jeffery Toobin states in his recent book, The Nine, that conservatives seeking to "[r]everse Roe v. Wade and allow states to ban abortion" are "very close to total control. Within one vote, to be precise."

The next president will likely to have one or more vacancies on the Court to fill. The major Republican presidential candidates have either declared that they are anti-choice or have already promised to nominate justices in the mold of the four right-wing conservatives already on the Court.

If nothing else, it is clear that when it comes to protecting individual rights, the Court matters. And so do elections.

The Save the Court campaign is a project of PFAW. Learn more about the campaign at SaveTheCourt.org.

PFAW