Women Justices Press Important Questions During Hobby Lobby Arguments

Crowds of activists and advocacy groups gathered outside while the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. case.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not shy away from asking difficult questions that demonstrate the broad implications this case could have. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan voiced concerns regarding the implications of a ruling for the first time in our nation’s history that for-profit corporations have religious rights. Both justices questioned whether this decision would allow companies to deny access to coverage of not only contraceptive methods, but also of other lifesaving procedures employers might object to on religious grounds—like blood transfusions or vaccines.

The Huffington Post quotes Justice Kagan as saying, “There are quite a number of medical treatments that could be religiously objected to… Everything would be piecemeal, nothing would be uniform.”

Pushing the issue further, Justice Sotomayor asked, “How are courts supposed to know whether a corporation holds a particular religious belief?”

Similarly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

was a law that was passed overwhelmingly [by] both houses of Congress. People from all sides of the political spectrum voted for it. It seems strange that there would have been that tremendous uniformity if it means [corporations are covered].

She added…

[T]here was an effort to adopt a … specific conscience amendment in 2012, and the Senate rejected that… That amendment would have enabled secular employers and insurance providers to deny coverage on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions. It was specifically geared to secular employers and insurance providers. And that…was rejected.

Justice Kagan noted that RFRA was considered non-controversial when it passed, an unlikely reaction if it had been understood to open the door to employers citing religious objections to complying with laws relating to sex discrimination, minimum wage, family leave, or child labor.

Justice Kagan also noted that women are “quite tangibly harmed” when employers don’t provide contraceptive coverage. This decision, however, could have far-reaching implications beyond women’s reproductive rights since this case deals with some of the same core issues seen in “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s, as we pointed out yesterday morning.

PFAW Foundation

Sheldon Adelson Shops for Next GOP Candidate

The Washington Post reports today that Sheldon Adelson – the casino magnate who spent, with his wife, more than $92 million in the 2012 elections – is in the market for a 2016 GOP presidential candidate to support.

After throwing reams of money at losing candidate Newt Gingrich in the last election, Adelson is now looking for someone he believes will be seen as electable by a country with swiftly changing demographics. He is already being wooed by GOP presidential hopefuls:

The change in attitude comes amid early jockeying by a lengthy list of aspiring Republican presidential contenders to win the affections of the billionaire, who is in the beginning stages of assessing the field.

“The bar for support is going to be much higher,” said Andy Abboud, Adelson’s top political adviser and an executive at the Adelson-run Las Vegas Sands Corp. He added, “There’s going to be a lot more scrutiny.”

This strategy would favor more established 2016 hopefuls such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All four will descend this week on Adelson’s luxury hotel in Las Vegas, the Venetian, for an important step in what some are calling the “Sheldon Primary.”

Funny, I don’t remember learning about the “Sheldon Primary” in my high school civics class. But in our Super PAC-filled, post-Citizens United world of unlimited election spending, this seems to be the reality of how candidates who have a real shot are chosen. As Harvard law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig puts it,

We have a general election, but only after the funders have had their way with the candidates who wish to run in that general election.

With Adelson essentially interviewing potential candidates, it begs the question: will our presidents be working for the people who elected them, or will they increasingly serve as the puppets of billionaire benefactors? 

When a tiny fraction of the country’s wealthiest people are able to hand-pick candidates, it’s doubtful that we’ll have a government that focuses on the priorities of everyday Americans. A democracy simply doesn’t work if the voices of those of us who aren’t having swanky private dinners with presidential hopefuls are drowned out by the few who are.


‘Right to Discriminate’ Bills, Meet Hobby Lobby

Last month, as Arizona governor Jan Brewer deliberated whether to sign or veto a law that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers, the public outcry was immense. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain shared their opposition via Twitter. Companies including American Airlines, Apple, and AT&T urged a veto. Multiple state senators who had voted for SB 1062 asked Gov. Brewer to veto it. When she did, advocacy groups praised the decision and many in Arizona and across the country breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief.

But it turns out that sigh may have been premature.

This morning the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a case that, on its face, appears to be dealing with a different issue – women’s access to contraception – but in fact grapples with some of the same core issues in play with “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s. In the Hobby Lobby case, as in its companion case Conestoga Wood Specialities v. Sebelius, corporations are trying to avoid complying with the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. But both the Supreme Court cases and the “right to discriminate” bills address the question of whether for-profit corporations have religious rights and can use those “rights” in a way that brings harm to others. 

Comparing the vetoed Arizona bill to efforts to let companies deny covering contraception, National Women’s Law Center vice president Emily Martin put it like this: “What you’re seeing in both cases are corporations asserting the right to break the law in the name of religion, even if it results in harm and discrimination for third parties.” And The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin noted,

Indeed, a victory for Hobby Lobby might bring in an Arizona-style rule through the back door….The Arizona law and the Hobby Lobby case represent two sides of the same coin. Both assert that the invocation of a religious belief allows a company to opt out of a government requirement that applies to everyone else.

But corporations have never had religious rights, and as affiliate PFAW Foundation senior fellow Jamie Raskin wrote in a recent report, that concept is simply “absurd.”

[I]t is time for the Court to restore some reality to the conversation.  Business corporations do not belong to religions and they do not worship God.  We do not protect anyone’s religious free exercise rights by denying millions of women workers access to contraception.


A Speedy Process for a Vermont Judicial Recommendation

The senators of Vermont, and especially Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, have shown the country what an exemplary process for identifying potential district court judges looks like. Today, Leahy recommended Geoffrey Crawford to the White House as the next federal judge in Vermont.

Leahy and his colleague Sen. Bernard Sanders have moved quickly to ensure that Vermont individuals and businesses are not denied their right to a fully functioning federal court system:

  • January 15: It was announced in advance that a vacancy would be opening on June 15.
  • January 24: Sens. Leahy and Sanders announced the formation of a commission to recommend potential nominees. "The nine-member, nonpartisan panel consists of three commissioners named by Leahy, three by Sanders, and three by the Vermont Bar Association. Rep. [Peter] Welch will also have input during the selection process."
  • February 21: Applications were due to the commission.
  • March 10-11: The commission held interviews with seven people.
  • March 12: The commission announced two recommendations to the senators.
  • March 24: Sen. Leahy recommended Geoffrey Crawford to the president for nomination. (Under Vermont tradition, the senior senators of the president's party makes the recommendation.) Crawford is a current state Supreme Court justice with previous experience representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases, just the kind of background that enhances professional diversity on the bench and makes the federal judiciary stronger.

Just a little over two months after senators became aware of the vacancy and nearly three months before the vacancy actually becomes open, the White House has received a recommendation and can start the vetting process. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Leahy knows how important this is. Senators in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado have also moved quickly to make timely recommendations for recent vacancies in their states.

Would that every senator did so.


Rubio's Delay Increases Urgency of Florida Judicial Nominations

Early this year, President Obama nominated Judge Beth Bloom, Judge Darrin P. Gayles, Judge Carlos Eduardo Mendoza, and Paul G. Byron to the Southern and Middle District Courts of Florida. Of the four vacancies in the Southern District, three have been declared judicial emergencies. The situation in Florida is so dire that even if every vacancy were to be filled tomorrow, it would not be enough to take care of the courts’ growing workloads. In fact, the Judicial Conference has requested a number of new judgeships for the state, including:

• 5 new judgeships for the Middle District, plus a temporary judgeship; and
• 3 new judgeships for the Southern District, plus the conversion of a temporary judgeship to a permanent position.

It is imperative that these nominations be confirmed swiftly; the Senate’s delays in confirming nominees translate to delays for Floridians waiting for their day in court.

Sen. Marco Rubio stated on NPR last month that he did “not anticipate having any objection to moving forward on any of [President Obama’s] nominees” for the district courts in Florida. In fact, the nominees were recommended by Sen. Rubio, along with Sen. Bill Nelson, based upon the recommendations of a bipartisan committee the two senators put together. Yet to date Sen. Rubio –unlike Sen. Nelson—has not signed the “blue slips” the Senate Judiciary Committee customarily requires before nominees are given a committee hearing. This is cause for some concern in light of Sen. Rubio’s refusal last year to sign off on other Florida nominees to seats that he himself had recommended.

Rubio’s slow-walking of his “blue slips” comes in the context of the GOP obstruction that has needlessly delayed the confirmation of most Obama nominees. After committee approval, President Obama’s district court nominees have been forced to wait an average of three times longer for a confirmation vote than President George W. Bush’s at this point in his presidency. Obama’s circuit court nominees are forced to wait nearly two months longer than Bush’s. This slowing down of the process seems completely gratuitous and politically motivated since the overwhelming majority of Obama’s judicial nominees have been confirmed unanimously or near-unanimously.

The current nominees are also important because they represent much-needed diversity in the federal courts. Gayles, for example, would be the first openly gay African-American man on the federal bench. However, with Rubio’s history of unfavorable treatment of previous nominees he has recommended, there is little expectation that he will help move this nomination process forward any faster. Gayles is up for the same seat to which William Thomas, also an openly gay African American man, was nominated in November 2012, a nomination that Rubio sabotaged.

Some were expecting these four Florida nominees (who were nominated in early February) to have their committee hearings this week, but because Rubio has not submitted his blue slips, that will not happen.

We join advocacy groups in Florida in urging Rubio to help get the state’s nominees confirmed as soon as possible.


Judge Strikes Michigan’s Ban on Marriage for Same-Sex Couples

A federal judge ruled today that Michigan’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is unconstitutional, the latest in a string of state marriage equality victories.

The Associated Press reports:

U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman announced his ruling after a rare two-week trial that mostly focused on the impact of same-sex parenting on children.

There was no indication that the judge was suspending his decision. Attorney General Bill Schuette said he was immediately filing a request with a federal appeals court to suspend Friedman's decision and prevent same-sex couples from immediately marrying. The decision was released shortly after 5 p.m., when most county clerk offices in Michigan were closed.

PFAW Foundation

Safe Schools Supporters Make Strong Showing for Launch of Letter Campaign

PFAW recently launched a letter campaign urging members of Congress to support safe schools legislation. Along with six allies who also sent letters this week, and those who will soon join us, we are making a strong showing for the idea that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.

Below are excerpts from this week's letters.

Human Rights Campaign:

Federal statutory protections address discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and disability. Unfortunately, federal civil rights laws do not expressly protect students from discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Decades of civil rights history show that civil rights laws are effective in decreasing discrimination against specific vulnerable groups. It is time that we extend these laws to protect our LGBT youth.

American Civil Liberties Union:

The Student Non-Discrimination Act would have a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students in the U.S. by ensuring that discrimination and harassment of students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity has no place in our country’s public elementary and secondary schools. It would do so in a way that preserves the right of all students to speak freely and the right of all students to benefit equally from the educational programs offered.

League of United Latin American Citizens:

Each time another news story comes out about the suicide of a gay teen, we must ask ourselves what we as a nation can do about it. Last year, I contacted your office about the tragedy of Carlos Vigil, a 17 year old Latino student from New Mexico, who committed suicide after posting a note on his Twitter account about the bullying he had suffered over the years. While not a solution to anti-gay prejudice, SNDA and SSIA represent a positive step forward in protecting our students from this kind of harassment. Both of these bills would help establish policies in schools across the nation that would help put an end to such egregious bullying. These bills are not only about the government offering protections, but they would also empower families to act in ensuring the safety of their children. As of now, families have limited or no recourse for putting an end to harassment against their child. These bills would give hope to parents worried about their kids and feeling powerless to help.

National Association of School Psychologists:

Based on the research, there is a solution to this problem. Bullying prevention programs that include prevention, school-wide universal positive behavioral supports, early intervention, and individualized interventions for bullies and victims, parental involvement and increased adult supervision can reduce bullying by up to 50% (Olweus, 1997). If we are to solve the problem of bullying and harassment in America’s schools, we need to make a significant investment in prevention and intervention programs.

National Women's Law Center:

The Safe Schools Improvement Act (S. 403/H.R. 1199) and the Student Non-Discrimination Act (S. 1088/H.R. 1652) present Congress with a historic opportunity to implement important protections against bullying and harassment for all students, and to offer critical protections to current and future generations of LGBT youth and their student allies by ensuring that discrimination against and harassment of students on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity will have no place in our country’s public elementary and secondary schools.

Point Foundation:

Point Foundation is the nation’s largest scholarship-granting organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students of merit. Every year, thousands of LGBTQ students apply for our scholarships. Many have experienced harassment in school that no student should experience.

PFAW will be sharing even more with you as we approach April 11, this year's Day of Silence – an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that is meant to draw attention to the "silencing effects" of anti-gay harassment and name-calling in schools and to be a way for students to show their solidarity with students who have been bullied.

In the meantime, please check out PFAW's report on Big Bullies: How the Religious Right is Trying to Make Schools Safe for Bullies and Dangerous for Gay Kids and its 2012 update.


Jamie Raskin Discusses Hobby Lobby and Corporate Religion

Thursday afternoon, PFAW hosted a special member telebriefing on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a critically important case being argued before the Supreme Court next week that represents the overlap of two important issues: attacks on women's health, and the radical expansion of constitutional "rights" for artificial and increasingly powerful for-profit corporations.. The briefing featured senior fellow Jamie Raskin, who is a respected constitutional scholar at American University and a leading progressive Maryland state senator. Jamie previewed a new report from our affiliate PFAW Foundation: The Gospel of Citizens United: In Hobby Lobby, Corporations Pray for the Right to Deny Workers Contraception.

In Hobby Lobby and a companion case, the Affordable Care Act's contraception provision is being challenged by for-profit corporations regulated by the Act, as well as by the individuals who own the companies. One of the astonishing facets of this case is that for-profit corporations are actually arguing that they – the corporations themselves, totally separate from their owners – have religious liberty rights that are protected by law.

How did we get to a point where for-profit corporations are claiming religious beliefs and rights and not being laughed out of court? Jamie described how Citizens United was a watershed, completely transforming our constitutional jurisprudence and opening the door to Hobby Lobby's arguments. He noted the Tenth Circuit's conclusion that since corporations have First Amendment political speech rights, it follows that they also have religious rights.

Jamie pointed out that no court has ever found that ordinary for-profit corporations have religious rights. And that's what Hobby Lobby is: a profit-making corporation operating more than 500 arts-and-crafts stores with more than 13,000 employees. Quoting Justice Stevens' dissent in Citizens United, Jamie pointed out that "corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires." Yet just as that case empowered corporate CEOs to use the corporation's treasury to affect elections, Hobby Lobby threatens to empower corporate officials to impose their own religious beliefs on company employees. In both cases, the power of ordinary people is diminished, as they become more and more subject to the power of corporations.

Jamie also discussed how the implications of Hobby Lobby go far beyond this particular case. If corporations are "ensouled" and found to have religious liberty rights, it opens the door to letting them opt out of anti-discrimination and labor laws their owners don't like. And while Hobby Lobby is a family-owned company where the family ascribes their religion to the corporation, how would you determine the "religion" of a widely-held company like Exxon? Jamie pointed out that the law sees both – the family owned business and the large multinational corporation -- the same.

What can regular people do about all this? PFAW Vice President Marge Baker pointed out that most people don't even know about the dangerous power grab by corporations that the five far-right Supreme Court justices are assisting. It's important to educate our friends, colleagues, and family members about how frequently and dangerously the Supreme Court is bending the law in order to hand power to already-powerful large corporations. And elections matter, because the judges who make these decisions on the Supreme Court and every federal court in the nation are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. With control of the Senate at stake in this year's elections, the results this November will have an enormous impact on the courts.


Urgent Action Needed on Georgia Early Voting Bill on Last Day of Legislative Session

Updated March 21: Georgia's legislative session closed without final action being taken on HB 891. According to Facing South, "House sponsors declined to take up a vote on the revised bill, and HB 891 was dead." The report quotes Kelli Persons of League of Women Voters of Georgia, "The message here is that it's very important . . . to pay attention to what's happening at the local level," in reference to the bill's impact on municipal early voting.

Earlier this month we told you about legislation in Georgia that would reduce the availability of early voting in municipal elections. While it was welcome news that the bill was amended to keep early voting at three weeks, requiring cities to pass their own legislation if they wanted to make further cuts, the League of Women Voters of Georgia is now reporting a flaw in the language that could take municipal early voting down to zero.

According to the League, it's time to act:

Please call, email, facebook/twitter & fax . . . Lt. Governor Cagle and Senate members,

And tell them to protect early voting and STOP HB 891 or FIX HB 891 before allowing a vote. It is a discredit to democracy to ask our Senators to vote on a flawed bill!

There is an "agreement" to correct the error before HB 891 is signed into law, but it should be fixed now – or stopped. Timing is especially critical as today, March 20, is the last day of Georgia's legislative session.

In other voting rights news, a federal judge has ruled in the Arizona-Kansas proof of citizenship case, early voting expansion suffers a setback in Louisiana, Virginia voter ID implementation moves forward – ahead of schedule, and Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans alike are speaking out against voter suppression.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.


People For the American Way and Allies Tell Congress, "Stand up for Safe Schools"

Last week we told you about Marcel Neergaard, who has consistently spoken out against the "don't say gay" push in Tennessee. Marcel's latest words have come in the month leading up to the Day of Silence, an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that is meant to draw attention to the "silencing effects" of anti-gay harassment and name-calling in schools and to be a way for students to show their solidarity with students who have been bullied.

As we approach April 11, this year's Day of Silence, PFAW is doing its part to spread Marcel's message – the idea that allstudents deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.

Today People for the American Way sent a letter to every member of Congress urging their support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA). We are joined by twenty-four other safe schools supporters also sending letters to Congress. Each of us has taken a day to tell the House and Senate that this issue is not forgotten, that quality education means education without discrimination.

People For the American Way today on SSIA and SNDA:

Through SSIA and SNDA, and their inclusion in the Strengthening America's Schools Act (S. 1094), Congress has recognized the need to reverse this trend. SSIA supports the creation of comprehensive anti-bullying policies that enumerate specific categories of targeted students – including those targeted based on sexual orientation and gender identity – as well as data collection, public education, and grievance procedures. SNDA protects students from school-based sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, much like Title IX does for gender discrimination, and much like other areas of law do for various protected classes. SNDA recognizes bullying and harassment as discrimination, and it provides both for remedies against discrimination and incentives for schools to prevent it from happening in the first place.

[ . . . ]

Ultimately, this is about stopping abhorrent behavior that gets in the way of quality education. All students deserve far better than that.

We'll be sharing even more with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, please check out PFAW's report on Big Bullies: How the Religious Right is Trying to Make Schools Safe for Bullies and Dangerous for Gay Kids and its 2012 update.


West Texas Judges Talk About the Need for More Judges

In discussing the severe conditions of the federal courts in Texas, we have noted that the Western District is one of the areas in particularly desperate need of new judges. The nonpartisan Judicial Conference of the United States – the principal policymaking body concerned with the administration of the federal courts – asked Congress last year to create four new judgeships in the Western District, as well as a fifth, temporary judgeship, bringing the total up from 13 to 18. So even if there were no vacancies in the Western District, you'd still need to increase the number of judges by 40% to make sure the courts could work effectively.

Unfortunately, the Western District has the dubious distinction of having the second oldest district court vacancy in the United States, going all the way back to 2008, when Judge Royal Ferguson of San Antonio took senior status and moved to another district. At a 2011 Brookings Institute event, Judge Ferguson discussed the importance of creating new judgeships and filling vacancies in existing ones:

We need more federal judges, we need more judgeships, and pending vacancies create an enormous difficulty. We need to do our civil cases. The business of America is business. And when businesses can't figure out if their patents are good, if their contracts are good, they can't figure out what to do about their tax situation, and so forth and so on, things bog down. And businesses need a strong rule of law and prompt rulings by judges. And they can't get it on the border.

He also described how the enormous caseload harms the deliberative process we expect from judges:

I would sometimes look out in the evening at the mass of people assembled in my courtroom and it would take me back to the days when I was a very young lawyer and my firm was assigning me to handle clients in night traffic court. And I felt like I was in night traffic court. The problem, of course, in night traffic court if my client got fined it was going to be a couple of hundred bucks at the most, and the problem that I had with the defendants before me, they were looking at years -- potentially years and years in a federal prison. And I was able to give them about as much attention as I could see those traffic judges giving their -- the defendants before them attention when the fines were about $100 or $200. It was not a good feeling and federal judges all across the border continue to deal with this problem of not having the time it takes to really consider what they're doing, especially in sentencing.

Back in September of 2012, Hawaii Judge David Ezra explained why he was moving to West Texas to help the beleaguered district, even though that would quadruple his caseload:

This is corollary to having a big wild fire in the Southwest Border states, and fire fighters from Hawaii going there to help put out the fire.

In March of last year, Chief Judge Fred Biery of the Western District discussed what it was like not having enough judges to handle the caseload:

It would be nice to get some help. We are pedaling as fast as we can on an increasingly rickety bicycle.

The Western District's online calendar has long had entries in the Del Rio Division for "Visiting Judge 1" and "Visiting Judge 2." Later this month, Kentucky's Danny Reeves will be the one lending the Del Rio court a hand.

Unfortunately, things are bound to get worse in the Western District if something isn't done soon: Judge Robert Junell announced earlier this year that he plans to take senior status next February, giving more than a year's notice in the hopes that his replacement will be identified, recommended, nominated, and confirmed in time. In addition, it has been reported that President Obama is considering elevating Judge Xavier Rodriguez of San Antonio to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which would create yet another vacancy in the Western District.

Last July, Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz tasked their Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee to recommend to them potential nominees, including one for San Antonio – the vacancy that has been open since 2008. But with a second Western District vacancy known to be opening next year and a third one possible as well, let us hope that the senators work with the White House to fill every vacancy as soon as possible.

Surely America can do better than the rickety judicial system that Texas has been experiencing.


Severe Conditions in Texas Courts

The Judicial Conference of the United States is a formal, nonpartisan body of federal judges that carefully analyzes courts' caseloads and makes recommendations concerning how many judgeships are needed to ensure that the work of justice gets done. It was a year ago that the Judicial Conference, chaired by the Chief Justice, asked Congress to create several dozen new federal judgeships to handle the nation's growing caseload. Among those were numerous new district judgeships in Texas. These are districts where just filling existing vacancies isn't nearly enough to ensure that Texas individuals and businesses have their day in court.

The Judicial Conference asked Congress to create two new judgeships and make permanent a temporary judgeship in the Eastern District, create two new judgeships in the Southern District, and create four new judgeships in the Western District. They also asked that a fifth, temporary judgeship be created for the Western District.

Districts listed in the Conference's request are among those most in need. But even within that group, Texas districts stand out for the severity of the crisis. In its cover letter to Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Conference urged immediate action on the five worst districts, two of which were in Texas:

[The caseload growth] has reached urgent levels in five of our district courts that are now struggling with extraordinarily high and sustained workloads. The severity of conditions in the Eastern District of California, the Eastern District of Texas, the Western District of Texas, the District of Arizona and the District of Delaware require immediate action. The Conference urges you to establish, as soon as possible, new judgeships in those districts. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, these new judgeships have not been created and, given the gridlock in Washington, that seems unlikely to change soon. And that makes the inaction on filling the growing number of vacancies in existing seats all the worse.

When the Conference made its request, there were seven vacancies (one of them future), all without nominees. A year later, there are 11 vacancies (four of them future). Ten of the eleven vacancies are in the districts that are in such trouble that they would still need more judges even if every vacancy could be filled tomorrow.

That's where Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz come in. The White House traditionally consults with home-state senators before making a district court nomination, often opting to wait until they receive recommendations. So while recognizing the urgency, the White House has also been solicitous of Cornyn and Cruz. Last April, the senators announced the formation of their Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee (FJEC) to help them identify and vet potential nominees. Unfortunately, despite the fanfare, they didn't actually task the Committee to do anything. That had to wait for more than three months, when the senators announced in July that he FJEC was accepting nominations for six current district court positions in the Southern (Houston, Corpus Christi, Brownsville), Eastern (Sherman, Texarkana) and Western (San Antonio) Districts.

These are the districts that the Judicial Conference says also desperately need new judgeships. Cornyn and Cruz can't snap their fingers and make that happen, although they should be working with their colleagues to get the necessary legislation passed. But what they can do right now is work to fill existing vacancies: the six vacancies they tasked their commission to look at last July, as well as the other vacancies that have been announced since then. Given the vacancy crisis in Texas courts, proposing nominees should be among these Senators' top concerns.

Let's hope we see a number of nominations soon.


Young People Are Leading the Way on Marriage and Family Equality

Last week's Washington Post-ABC News poll revealed that a supermajority now supports marriage equality, and half believe it's a constitutional right.

This week the Pew Research Center released its own numbers. 54 percent of respondents to the Pew poll, conducted in February, support a legal right to marry for gays and lesbians. Ten years ago, that number was just 32 percent. And in June 1996, the earliest available data, it was 27 percent.

Then Pew dug a bit deeper into the generation gap.

18- to 29-year-olds are leading the way overall (69 percent), both among Democrats (77 percent) and Republicans (61 percent). It's in the Republican Party where the generation gap is widest, with 30- to 49-year-olds 18 points behind at 43 percent, 50- to 64-year-olds 31 points behind at 30 percent, and those 65 and older 39 points behind at 22 percent.

The numbers on family equality tell a similar story.

PFAW will continue to support not only the freedom to marry nationwide and but also a definition of family that doesn't rest on parents' sexual orientation or gender identity.

In other LGBT news, new marriage equality litigation continues to pop up in the states, and Michigan has its first openly LGBT federal judge.

Check out even more news from our friends at GLAAD, the Victory Fund, and the Washington Blade.


How Money in Politics Undermines Diversity in Elected Office

During a speech to a packed audience at the University of Washington on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was asked by a student what problems need to be fixed in order to see more women and people of color in government. 

Sotomayor’s answer, as reported by The Seattle Times, was simple: “Money.”

“Money,” Sotomayor said to laughter. “No, seriously. Look at what’s happening in politics. What’s talking the loudest is money.” For more minorities and women to gain more of a foothold in government decisions, “we’re going to have to work the political system at the highest level,” she said.

Justice Sotomayor is right. Today our country is represented by leaders who, as a whole, look little like the electorate they are supposed to represent and serve. Women are a majority of the population, and yet only make up 20% of the Senate and 18% of the House, putting us 83rd in the world for women’s political representation. We have only one openly LGBTQ person and only a handful of people of color in the US Senate – in 2012 there were no African Americans. This picture is not only problematic in itself, but it also has broad implications for policy outcomes.

It’s true that we have also seen some promising developments in political representation in recent years. The 113th Congress is the most diverse in history, with a record number of women and minorities elected, as well as a number of firsts. As the policy director for the Young Elected Officials Network, I am heartened by the changing faces of leadership at all levels of government, and what this means for our country both symbolically and substantively. But, like Justice Sotomayor, I’m also concerned that our country’s money in politics problem is standing in the way of further progress.

Much has been said lately about the impact of money in politics on political representation. At The Atlantic’s Shriver Report summit on women and poverty in January, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted,

If you reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of civility in debate, more women will run for office… We say to women, we want you to go raise 12 million dollars, and by the way, subject yourself to 10 million dollars in negative publicity.

The influence of money in politics not only fuels corruption and the elevation of special and powerful interests, but it exacerbates the imbalance of power as a whole in our country by creating barriers to political representation for communities who are already marginalized. It perpetuates a system where the country is led by people who don’t understand the daily lived and embodied experiences of their constituents.

On Capitol Hill, we see the effects of this imbalance play out each day. From thwarted gun violence prevention efforts to legislation attacking women’s reproductive health voted on by committees and panels made up entirely of men, we continue to have elected leaders who side against the demonstrated wishes of its voters and with the moneyed interests.

We must pursue reforms that transform our electoral processes, even the playing field for all candidates, and restore the power to the people by reducing the outsized influence of big money and protecting the rights of voters. All indications show that we get better results for everyone when there’s diversity in governing bodies.

It’s both common sense, and a matter of basic human rights.

PFAW Foundation

More Professional Diversity in Recent Judicial Nominations

To ensure the best possible federal courts, it is essential that our nation's judges have significant diversity in their professional backgrounds and experiences. While prosecutors and corporate lawyers can and often do make terrific judges, a judiciary composed of only former prosecutors and corporate lawyers would be a great disservice to our country. When certain professional backgrounds are underrepresented on the bench, it is important that new nominations address that problem.

Fortunately, most of the nominations made by the White House so far this year would enhance the professional diversity of the federal judiciary. Nominees like Missouri's Stephen Bough, Louisiana's John deGravelles, and Illinois' Staci Yandle bring a wealth of experience representing individuals who have suffered personal injuries. Nevada's Richard Boulware has substantial public defender experience, and Washington's Salvador Mendoza spent years as a criminal defense attorney before becoming a state judge last year.

In some cases, this work is in areas the nominee has specialized in for years. In others, the time doing such work is part of a larger career experience. For instance, from 1997-2001, Florida's Carlos Mendoza worked in the U.S. Navy as court-appointed defense counsel and in the Navy equivalent of a legal aid clinic. While Florida's Beth Bloom has been a state judge for nearly 20 years, she had earlier experience representing individual plaintiffs in medical malpractice, wrongful death, personal injury, and product liability cases, as well as representing companies in commercial litigation cases.

In fact, three-quarters of the dozen men and women that President Obama has nominated so far this year to become federal judges bring experience as public defenders, criminal defense lawyers, or plaintiffs' attorneys. That experience will make our judiciary stronger.