Supreme Court Goes Back to Work and Shows Again Why Election Day Is Judgment Day

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

The Supreme Court began its 2015-6 Term earlier in October. Even though it issued no decisions, the critical issues it considered and the stark divisions on the Court illustrate why Election Day 2016 will be Judgment Day for the Supreme Court and our rights and liberties, when America determines the president who will select Supreme Court nominees beginning in 2017.

Three cases in which the Court heard oral argument in October are good examples. As Supreme Court analyst Tony Mauro put it, the importance of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Electric Power Supply Association is "hard to overestimate," since it could involve literally billions of dollars in electricity costs and determine whether the nation's power grid collapses in the case of a future blackout.

The question before the Court is the validity of a FERC rule that would have the economic effect of persuading large electricity users to cut back their demands at peak power usage times. Not surprisingly, conservative justices like Scalia and Roberts seemed to be clearly siding with big power companies, based on a narrow view of federal government authority, while moderates like Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor appeared to agree with the case for federal authority and the FERC rule.

With Justice Alito recusing himself from the case, the question is whether Justice Kennedy will side with the moderates and uphold the rule or vote with extreme conservatives and vote to affirm a lower court decision striking down the rule. A 4-4 tie would result in the lower court ruling being upheld without a controlling opinion. But if a similar issue arises in a year or so, and if Kennedy, Scalia, or Ginsburg have retired from the Court and are replaced by a nominee selected by the next president, the answer will likely depend on who nominates the new justice.

The Court was similarly divided during oral arguments in October in Montgomery v. Louisiana. That case concerns whether the Court's ruling in 2012, that it is unconstitutional to impose life sentences without possibility of parole on people convicted of murder when they were juveniles, applies to people like 70-year old Henry Montgomery, who was convicted for such a crime long before the Court's ruling and has already spent more than 50 years in prison.

Far right justices Scalia and Alito sounded clearly negative on Montgomery's claim, suggesting that the Court did not even have jurisdiction to hear it, while justices like Kagan and Breyer were far more receptive. As occurred in the 2012 ruling, this case is likely to produce a 5-4 decision with the outcome depending on Justice Kennedy. The fate of a thousand or more people convicted for life while juveniles like Henry Montgomery will hang in the balance.

On its last day of oral arguments in October, the Court heard Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, one of several cases this Term that concern efforts by business to prevent consumers and others from using class actions to redress corporate wrongdoing. Conservatives on the Court have generally sided with business in such cases and have already severely limited the use of class actions, and Gomez may well be another example.

The issue in the case is whether a business can prevent a consumer like Jose Gomez from bringing a class action to get large amounts of damages and other relief for many injured consumers by offering to give him personally all the damages he can recover as an individual -- in this case, around $1,500 for violating a federal law on unsolicited telemarketing. This would be a good deal for the company, since as many as 100,000 consumers could be included in a class action because of similar violations.

As in previous class action cases, questions from moderates like Justices Kagan and Ginsburg suggested they are likely to agree with the consumer, while those from conservatives like Scalia and Roberts were in the corporation's favor, and Justice Kennedy is likely to be the deciding vote. Regardless of how this case is decided, other cases to be considered by the Court this Term -- as well as in future years -- are likely to have a significant impact on the ability of consumers and others to band together via class actions to obtain meaningful relief for wrongs committed by corporations.

It is always difficult to predict Court decisions and votes based on comments and questions at oral argument, and the Court may not even reach the merits of all the issues presented in these cases. But the importance of the issues at stake -- billions of dollars in electricity costs, the stability of the nation's power grid, the fate of more than a thousand people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles, and the ability of consumers to effectively seek justice for corporate wrongdoing -- demonstrates the importance of the Supreme Court to the rights and interests of all of us. And the close divisions on the Court on these and other issues, coupled with the fact that four will be over 80 in the next president's first term, show the importance of the 2016 election on the future of the Court -- and why November 8, 2016 truly will be Judgment Day.

If you need more convincing, stay tuned as the Court continues its 2015-16 Term -- the last term before the 2016 election.

PFAW Foundation

Grassley's Leapfrogging Hurts Everyone, Especially Pennsylvania

Yesterday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley announced a scheduled hearing next week for four district court nominees, three of whom were nominated in July.  Once again, he is skipping over Florida’s Mary Barzee Flores, who was nominated way back in February. But he’s skipping over nine other nominees, as well.

That’s because the fourth nominee at the hearing is from Iowa.  Upon Grassley’s recommendation, President Obama nominated Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger for the Southern District of Iowa on September 15.  Grassley has allowed her to leapfrog over:

  • Mary Barzee Flores (Southern District of Florida), nominated February 26, 2015
  • Inga Bernstein (Massachusetts), nominated July 30
  • John Younge (Eastern District of Pennsylvania), nominated July 30
  • Robert Colville (Western District of Pennsylvania), nominated July 30
  • Susan Baxter (Western District of Pennsylvania), nominated July 30
  • Marilyn Horan (Western District of Pennsylvania), nominated July 30
  • Dax Lopez (Northern District of Georgia), nominated July 30
  • Mary McElroy (Rhode Island), nominated September 8
  • Stephanie Gallagher (Maryland), nominated September 8
  • Clare Connors (Hawaii), nominated September 8

During a press conference at the National Press Club in April, 2015, Chairman Grassley stated that under his chairmanship, the Judiciary Committee would consider judicial nominees in the order they came:

I want you to know we take them up the way they come up to us.  Particularly, that is true of judges, as an example.  So the priority’s set by what we receive from the White House.

Other things being equal, few would complain when a chairman moves quickly to advance a nominee from their home state, within reasonable limits.  Last year, for instance, then-Chairman Patrick Leahy scheduled a hearing for Vermont nominee Geoffrey Crawford ahead of three nominees who had been nominated less than three weeks before him, one of whom was for a circuit court.  (He also skipped over three other nominees for whom their Republican home state senators were refusing to submit blue slips.)  Leahy was also holding two hearings a month, so little time was lost.

But ten nominees are a lot to leapfrog, especially when nine of them were recommended and publicly endorsed by both home state senators, and when most were nominated long before Ebinger.  Also relevant is that Grassley’s chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee has been marked with such partisanship.  For instance, with the collaboration of his fellow Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (who refused to turn in his blue slip for a nominee he'd publicly endorsed on the day he was nominated), Grassley was able to delay a hearing for Third Circuit nominee Phil Restrepo for seven months.

And a quick look at the list of skipped nominees shows that Pennsylvania is bearing the brunt of this delay, as well.  Four of the skipped nominees would serve in that state.  All four were recommended by both Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic Senator Bob Casey, and all were nominated way back in July.  Three of them would serve in the Western District, where these seats have been vacant since 2013.  Casey submitted his blue slip long ago, but Toomey is once again delaying, as he did with Restrepo.

Grassley is playing self-serving and partisan games with our nation’s nonpartisan judiciary, which is a problem for everyone.  And since Toomey is collaborating with Grassley’s obstruction, the people of Pennsylvania are getting particularly hurt.


Despite Lack of Questions, Money in Politics a Constant Theme of Democratic Debate

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

When CNN asked for input from the public on topics for last night’s Democratic debate, they were flooded with hundreds, possibly thousands, of questions about getting big money out of politics. But none of the moderators asked a single question about it, either unaware of or indifferent to the groundswell of people who wanted to hear more from the candidates on this issue.

Even without a question posed, money in politics was a pervasive theme throughout the night. Jim Webb kicked off the debate by acknowledging that “people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process” and painting himself as a leader who hasn’t been “coopted” by the system. Bernie Sanders wove the issue throughout his comments, connecting it to everything from climate change to Wall Street regulation. He brought up the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens Uniteddecision more than once, saying that Americans rightly “want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United.”

The candidates are not only right to bring up the big-money takeover of our democracy -- they’re smart to do so.  Polling consistently shows that this is a top issue for voters and that Americans are looking for leaders who will fight for reform. More than nine in ten voters want to see their elected leaders work to lessen big money’s influence in elections.

But we want to hear more from candidates about how they will actually make reform happen. The leading candidates have laid out agendas on money in politics reform that include a range of solutions, from a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United, to disclosure of secret political spending, to small donor empowerment measures. The CNN moderators missed a ripe opportunity to ask the candidates how they would put these plans in place if they become the next president.

At the next debate, it’s time to move from talking about the problem of big money to talking about the solutions.


Event Primer: Rubio’s Address to the LIBRE Initiative Forum

On Saturday, Marco Rubio is speaking at a forum sponsored by the Kochs’ LIBRE Initiative. Both the LIBRE Initiative and Marco Rubio have an extensive history of pushing extreme measures that are out of line with the priorities of working families.

The LIBRE Initiative

LIBRE backs anti-immigrant Republicans while claiming to support immigration reform. For example:

  • The group attacked Rep. Pete Gallego (D-TX), a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform whose opponent had indicated that he would oppose reform.
  • LIBRE supported Andy Tobin (R-AZ), who not only opposed comprehensive reform, but also voted for Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant bill S.B. 1070 and hyped unfounded fears that Central American children fleeing to the southern border could be carrying Ebola.

LIBRE promotes conservative policy priorities at odds with the priorities of Latino working families.

  • On immigration, LIBRE has called DACA “pandering” and “dangerous" and opposes the President’s recent actions, DACA+ and DAPA.
  • LIBRE opposes increasing the minimum wage and rallies against clean energy development.
  • Much of LIBRE’s efforts go toward attacking the Affordable Care Act.
  • LIBRE's executive director said he supports voter ID laws, which make it harder for Latinos to vote.

LIBRE is a Koch front group designed to push a far-right agenda.

  • At least half of LIBRE’s revenue in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years came from two other Koch front groups.
  • Although LIBRE is organized as a trust, with executive director Daniel Garza as trustee, a Koch-connected group has the power to fire him at any time.

For an in-depth analysis of the LIBRE Initiative’s funding and tactics, see People For the American Way’s report on the LIBRE Initiative. The report is also available in Spanish here.

Marco Rubio

Presidential candidate Marco Rubio was first elected to the Senate with strong Tea Party support. When he’s not missing votes, he has stood out as one of the most extreme senators. The far-right Heritage Action for America ranks Rubio as the senator who is the 5th most aligned with their priorities. Key pieces of Rubio’s record:

On Immigration

  • Rubio initially backed comprehensive immigration reform, but balked when the far Right started speaking out against him. He now believes his work on the legislation was a mistake.
  • Rubio said he “would love to defund the immigration order” from President Obama that protects DREAMers and families from deportation.
  • Rubio promised that if he were elected president, he would not support citizenship or even legal status for undocumented immigrants during either of his possible terms as president.

On Economic Issues

  • Rubio said, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.”
  • Rubio’s tax plan gives extensive, undeserved tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
  • Rubio has voted multiple times against making college more affordable, including voting for an amendment that would’ve “stripped out money for Pell Grants and historically black colleges and $2 billion [from] community colleges.”

On Social Issues

  • Rubio warned that marriage equality represents “a real and present danger” to America.
  • Rubio believes abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest.
  • Rubio supports cutting Social Security and ending Medicare in the form that seniors have relied on for decades.

Democracy for Some?

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Fearless is the word that comes to mind after a recent visit to Selma with 60 members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) and African American Ministers In Action (AAMIA). Fearless were those who sat in, marched in, taught, prayed, would not be denied 50 years ago. They established the paradigm for what those of us today, who sadly are still in battles for many rights, but more specifically voting rights, must do.

Republican politicians who claim there is no need to restore the protections we lost two years ago when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) need not look any further than Alabama today to see why they are very wrong.

Alabama has a voter ID law requiring people to show government-issued identification in order to vote. But last week the state announced it was closing 31 driver’s license offices, including offices in all counties where Black residents comprise over three quarters of registered voters. In other words, the state is requiring that voters have ID to cast a ballot, and then taking away the places to get that ID - for Black communities in particular. If that doesn’t show that voting protections are still needed, I don’t know what does.

Despite this appalling development, Jeb Bush said yesterday that he doesn’t support reauthorizing the VRA, suggesting that there’s no longer a need for it.

No longer a need for it? The destructive changes in Alabama are exactly the kind of measures that the VRA was designed to protect against. For years, Alabama was one of the states covered by Section 5 of the Act, which required certain places with a history of voting discrimination to get all changes in voting procedures cleared by the federal government before they could take effect. That law stopped scores of voting changes from being implemented in Alabama before they could do any harm. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, that safeguard is gone. On the very same day the Shelby County Supreme Court ruling eviscerated the VRA, Alabama said it would start enforcing its voter ID law.

The fearless women and men in the same state that serves as a symbol of the advancement of voting rights, those Baby Boomers, must still fight with the Millennials to protect them. Like our tour guide last month, Joanne Bland, who in 1965 was an 11 year old member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, activists’ refusal to be discouraged from praying and marching in 1965 is still encouraging in 2015.  She and others were honored by thousands who marched and prayed this year on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, including President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and countless faith and community leaders and activists. They remain the symbol of intergenerational strategic and sacrificial actions that must be taken still today to address and end ongoing racial discrimination in voting.

But it’s not just Alabama. In Mississippi our AAMLC members are seeing precincts closing in or near African American churches, forcing Black residents to travel to white communities to vote. In Florida, a state representative is talking about Republicans winning elections by maximizing the number of incarcerated African Americans in a district, framing the disenfranchisement of Black Americans as an opportunity for political gain. Since the 2010 elections, a whopping 21 states have put new laws in place that make it harder to vote.

Like those who were fearless in the past, we must be fearless today and make sure that all know the fundamental, inalienable right to cast a ballot is in danger still, especially for people of color. Our political system is built on the promise of democracy for all, not democracy for those who can afford to drive cross-state on a weekday to get an ID. How can GOP leaders and presidential candidates continue to insist with a straight face that there’s no need to restore protections for voters? I wish they could one day walk, march in our shoes, to feel the pain of a promise with unnecessary barriers, to try to register and vote.  In the meantime let’s be fearless!

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Telebriefing: The Future of the Supreme Court

On Monday, the first day of the Supreme Court’s new term, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing for members detailing what’s at stake at the Court over the next year.

PFAW Senior Communications Specialist Layne Amerikaner moderated the call.  Affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon, who recently published an extensive Supreme Court term preview, and PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg, lead author of the new PFAW report, “Judgment Day 2016: The Future of the Supreme Court as a Critical Issue in the 2016 Presidential Election,” were joined by PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker to brief members and answer questions.

Paul kicked off the call by discussing the critical issues on the Court’s docket right now: the rights of working people, equal representation through voting, education opportunities through affirmative action, and more. For example, Paul explained that Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could “severely weaken the ability of workers to form unions” that negotiate salary, benefits, and more. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court could make it very difficult to “maintain healthy diversity at colleges and universities.”

As Paul explained, the mere fact that these and some other cases are on the docket is disturbing. These cases have been “ginned up to topple precedents that conservatives don’t like.” Affirmative action, union fair share fees to prevent free-riding, one person one vote for equality of representation: these are principles that the Court decided decades ago. It used to be that conservatives couldn’t muster up four justices to take on cases like these, but now that Justices Roberts and Alito have joined the Court, we’re seeing more and more cases and decisions that challenge fundamental rights.

Elliot detailed the importance of the ideological makeup of the Court: There have been more than 80 5-4 decisions in the Supreme Court since Roberts and Alito joined the Court. Most of these cases have been extremely harmful to our rights, in areas like money and politics, voting rights, and reproductive freedom. Some, though, have protected important rights, as Justice Kennedy has at times been unwilling to join the conservatives on the Court. For example, he voted with the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges to make marriage equality the law of the land. But as Elliot reminded members, there will be four justices in their 80s by the end of the next president’s first term, and another conservative justice would be devastating for issues that PFAW and members care deeply about, such as abortion rights, worker protections, and religious liberty, just to name a few.

Both conservative and progressive groups know that the next president could very well shift the makeup of the Court and thus the outcomes of key cases. Questions from members focused on what to do to take action on this issue. Elliot and Marge encouraged members to discuss with their friends and colleagues the critical impact the 2016 election will have on how pressing issues will be decided for decades to come. They also discussed with members the possibility of attending town halls for presidential candidates, who will nominate the next Supreme Court justices, as well as Senate candidates, who must confirm the justices, in order to ask questions about the types of justices they will support.

Listen to the full briefing here:


President 'Stuff Happens'?

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

On Thursday, Americans braced ourselves as reports trickled in about yet another mass shooting, this one at a community college in Oregon, leaving 10 people dead.

It was a horrific scene that we’d seen too many times before. But Jeb Bush was taking it in stride, and told an interviewer on Friday that although the shooting was “very sad,” it didn’t require government action.

“Look,” he said, “stuff happens, there’s always a crisis, and the impulse is always to do something, and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”

Remember the good ole days of the Bush administration when right after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as Bagdad was collapsing into chaos, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went before the press to inform us that “stuff happens”?

“Stuff happens,” he declared, “and it’s untidy and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that’s what’s going to happen.”

More stuff happened throughout the Bush years. Remember the Katrina stuff?  And yesterday it was reported that the Jeb! team is considering bringing George W. Bush out on the trail so he can bolster his sagging poll numbers and the entire country can relive the dream!

Regarding this most recent use of “stuff happens,” it perfectly encapsulates the attitude about gun violence that is now prevalent in the Republican Party, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the NRA and its fellow gun groups. The fact that this “stuff” happens more in America than anywhere else in the developed world doesn’t seem to change their mind that mass shootings are an inevitable act of nature.

But it also encapsulates a disturbing view of the role of government in solving national problems. Bush wasn’t saying just that our representatives in the government shouldn’t act when “stuff happens.” He was also saying that we should just let the stuff keep happening. Stop me if you’ve heard about this presidency before.


Celebrating Banned Books Week

For decades, the Religious Right has used public school students as pawns in the "culture wars," fighting to impose a political agenda on textbooks and curricula in school districts across the country. This has included battles over sex education, school-led prayer, publicly funded vouchers for religious institutions, and shaping what children learn by controlling the content of textbooks and access to books in school libraries and classrooms. People For the American Way Foundation has a long record of resisting censorship and defending the freedom to learn.

People For the American Way Foundation is a sponsor of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read -- and an opportunity for readers, authors, publishers, booksellers, and First Amendment advocates to call for continued vigilance against efforts to restrict that freedom. This year’s Banned Books Week has a focus on Young Adult books, which are challenged more frequently than any others.

"These are the books that speak most immediately to young people, dealing with many of the difficult issues that arise in their own lives, or in the lives of their friends,” says Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee. These are the books that give young readers the ability to safely explore the sometimes scary real world. As author Sherman Alexie said in response to the censorship of one of his young adult novels, “Everything in the book is what every kid in that school is dealing with on a daily basis, whether it’s masturbation or racism or sexism or the complications of being human. To pretend that kids aren’t dealing with this on an hour-by-hour basis is a form of denial.”

Platt describes the importance of Banned Books Week at the Reading Rainbow blog:

Banned Books Week is celebrated each year because efforts are underway in many parts of this country to remove “offensive” materials from public libraries, school libraries, and classroom reading lists. Arguments can be made for involving parents in the education of their children, and giving them an opportunity to voice objections when some reading material runs counter to their own values, but problems arise when that parent wants to dictate what all children can or cannot read. In the Coda to Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury said: “There’s more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Many libraries and bookstores are sponsoring events honoring Banned Books Week. Kelly Adams, a children's book specialist at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn., spoke with Minnesota Public Radio:

"Banned Books Week is my favorite week of the whole year. Seriously, it's better than Christmas.... Promoting books that have been banned or challenged shines a light on these attempts at censorship. It is an eye-opening experience for many.... We are basically a country built by rebels. When someone tells us 'you can't read that,' we naturally pick it up and read it."

In response to a recent article dismissing Banned Books Week as unnecessary, Peter Hart at the National Coalition Against Censorship argues that censorship is not just a thing of the past:

Graham thinks several hundred cases a year isn't much to get worked up about. But those numbers are a very conservative estimate of the problem. As Chris Finan of the American Booksellers for Free Expression pointed out recently, the American Library Association believes that as many as 80 percent of challenges go unreported. A Freedom of Information Act research project in two states confirmed this; the vast majority of formal challenges are never revealed publicly.

And what about librarians or school officials who seek to steer clear of controversy by avoiding potentially controversial books altogether? There is no doubt that this kind of chilling effect is real. A survey of over 600 librarians released by the School Library Journal in 2009 revealed that 70 percent reported that the possible reaction from parents affected their decisions not to buy a book. About half of librarians reported that they had gone through a formal challenge, and 20 percent of them revealed that the experience affected their book-buying decisions going forward.

So there's strong evidence that there are far more challenges than are reported, and that those challenges affect institutions over the long run. Self-censorship, as the School Library Journal put it, is "a dirty secret that no one in the profession wants to talk about."

The Banned Books Week website includes case studies on two of the most frequently challenged books, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Marjan Satrapi’s Persepolis.

You can take the New York Public Library’s banned books quiz at And you may be able to find an event near you.

Here’s more information on the impact of censorship challenges from People For the American Way Foundation’s “Book Wars” report:

While individual challenges don’t always succeed in removing a book from a school curriculum or forcing a textbook publisher to alter its content, they can have far-reaching effects.  Attacks on ethnic studies curricula or challenges to books that deal frankly with the lives and histories of marginalized communities can have divisive results beyond their original goals. For example, organizing a protest of a textbook that supposedly “promotes jihad” may not accomplish its stated goal, but might still succeed in stoking fear and resentment against Muslim Americans in that community.

Attacks on multicultural curricula in schools – like Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies classes – are joined by continuing efforts to ban books that acknowledge gay and lesbian families, teach about world religions, or deal frankly with the history of race in America. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, People For the American Way Foundation tracked challenges to books and curricula that included frank discussions of sexuality, race, and the less palatable truths of American history. In the 2000s, challenges focused also on books accused of promoting the “occult” or “undermining” Christianity, leading the Harry Potter series to top the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the decade.

One common theme among many challenged books is their frank portrayals of the experiences of marginalized people. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye are unflinching explorations of being a Black woman in America. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian chronicles a Native American teenager’s experiences living in an impoverished reservation, while going to school in a wealthy nearby town. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores African-American identity in the mid-20th century. Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, is a landmark piece of Chicano literature. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a dystopian tale about the oppression of women. Marjane Satrapi’s renowned graphic novel Persepolis, is about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.

And here are some things you can do to fight censorship in your community:

1.       Attend school board meetings. School boards and other school decision-makers need to hear from parents, students, and community members who oppose censorship. Attend school board meetings, and stay in touch with board members and principals — even when there are no censorship challenges — to let them know that you care about fair, accurate, and inclusive schools.

2.       Stay informed. If a parent or activist group challenges a book in your community's school or district, read the book and learn about its author and its history. Then share what you've found with fellow community members and the local media. A strong, well-informed argument is always an effective weapon against misinformation and prejudice.

3.       Make some noise. Start a petition among students and parents in your school or district in support of a challenged book or curriculum, and tell the local media about it. You could also consider holding a protest in favor of the challenged material. In most cases, activists challenging books represent a small fraction of a community; it sends a powerful message when the rest of the community speaks up for its values

4.       Look for outside voices. While the most effective arguments against censorship are made by local students and parents, in some cases it can be helpful to bring in outside experts. If the author of a challenged book is living, consider inviting him or her to join a discussion in your community or to send a statement to school leaders. Free speech advocacy groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association, and People For the American Way Foundation can also provide resources and advice on how to fight for free speech in schools.

5.       Run for office. If you don't like the way your elected officials handle censorship challenges, consider becoming an elected official yourself! Run for school board or volunteer to serve on a school committee that handles challenges against books.


PFAW Foundation

Senate Democrats Highlight Importance of Functioning Courts

With John Boehner’s decision to abandon his position as Speaker of the House, chances of a Republican-driven government shutdown beginning October 1 dwindled – and was averted today with only hours to spare.  Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have shown that they don’t need to shut down the government in order to sabotage the effective functioning of the part of the federal government that has a vital constitutional role in ensuring justice for all: the United States judicial system.

Without enough judges, our courts cannot function, and the American people cannot count on vindicating their rights in a court of law.  Either despite or because of the harm it causes ordinary Americans, the Republican-controlled Senate has only confirmed six judges all year.  In contrast, at this same point in 2007 (Bush’s seventh year), the newly-Democratic Senate had already confirmed 29 of his judicial nominees.  With Senate Republicans obstructing the confirmation of judicial nominees at every step of the way, the number of vacancies has skyrocketed from 40 at the beginning of the year to 64 as of October 1, an increase of 60 percent.  Judicial emergencies have jumped from 12 to 31 in the same time.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer recently took to the Senate floor, highlighting in particular three vacancies in his home state:

The lack of judges has real legal consequences. In the Western District of New York, Judge Skretny--on senior status--has admitted that he is encouraging all cases to settle in pretrial mediation in order to lower caseloads. Criminal trials are prioritized while civil trials languish in delay. The two retired judges, who are the only ones reading cases at the moment, are spending far less time on each individual case than they would under normal circumstances. And defendants may be inclined to settle, admit guilt, and take plea deals rather than wait out a lengthy trial process.

As many of my colleagues have said so eloquently, the harsh truth is that for these petitioners, companies, and communities, justice is being delayed and thus denied. And the same story line is playing out in courtrooms throughout the country. This is not how our judicial system is supposed to work, and it should be an easy problem to rectify.

Yesterday, Dick Durbin of Illinois stood up on the Senate floor and delivered an eloquent statement about the damage caused by obstructing votes on qualified nominees:

[P]eople are asking: When am I going to get my day in court? Well, you will not get your day in court until the new judge gets his day in the Senate. We don’t know when that might happen. There is no reason to delay these confirmation votes. These nominees would be confirmed with overwhelming support. … This is an important responsibility of the Senate. We should not neglect it. …

We could vote on [the many pending executive and judicial nominees] this afternoon. Are we holding off the vote because we are too busy on the Senate floor? If you are following the Senate, you know that is not the case. It is time for us to do our jobs so these nominees can do theirs.

And tying in to the Senate’s recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, Patrick Leahy of Vermont focused yesterday on several highly qualified Latino nominees being slow-walked by the GOP-controlled Senate:

These dedicated public servants are eager to serve, but they have been blocked by the Republican leadership’s virtual shutdown of the judicial confirmation process since they took over the majority in January. More than 8 months into this new Congress, the Republican leadership has allowed just six votes for judges. At this rate, the Senate this year will confirm the fewest number of judges in more than a half century. Luis Felipe Restrepo, Armando Bonilla, John Michael Vazquez, and Dax Lopez all deserve an up or down vote by this Senate.

Restrepo is President Obama’s nominee to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and would be the first Latino from Pennsylvania to ever serve on that court.  Senator Leahy cited supportive statements for Restrepo made by Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, Pat Toomey.  Yet Toomey, who has far more influence with GOP leadership than Democratic senators, has been noticeably silent in the face of Majority Leader McConnell’s refusal to schedule a confirmation vote for the nominee.

These Democratic senators clearly understand that courts play a vital role in making our legal rights real and enforceable.  Perhaps Senate Republicans simply don’t understand that.

Or, more ominously, perhaps they do.


Who's Behind the Anti-Choice Smear Campaign on Planned Parenthood?

Congressional Republicans continue to push for a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding, but the ongoing smear campaign against the healthcare organization that anti-choice activists are using to justify defunding hasn't held up to honest scrutiny. But who's behind these dishonest and strategically edited videos?

PFAW Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery writes in The Hill this morning about the real intentions behind the radical anti-choice attacks on Planned Parenthood:

The Center for Medical Progress was created by anti-abortion activist David Daleiden for the purpose of conducting the kind of "stings" used in previous efforts to “take out” Planned Parenthood. Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Conyers have urged an investigation into potentially illegal actions by Daleiden and CMP. But Daleiden’s lawyers have said he will invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than defend his actions.

Read the full article in The Hill here.

PFAW's latest Right Wing Watch: In Focus report, entitled "Operation Rescue’s Big Break: How an Organization Rooted in the Radical Fringes of the Anti-Choice Movement Is Threatening to Shut Down the Government," offers an in-depth look at David Daleiden's history within the radical anti-choice movement.


Why November 8, 2016 is Judgment Day for the Supreme Court -- and Our Rights

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

What would have happened if a President McCain had appointed conservatives to the Supreme Court, instead of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, before the Court ruled on marriage equality in the Obergefell case? And what if a President Kerry had filled the seats that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito took before the Court decided theCitizens United campaign finance case? Clearly both those rulings would have come out very differently, with enormous consequences for all Americans. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Roberts-Alito Court and as the 2016 elections get more and more attention, these examples and many more should alert us that Election Day 2016 is truly judgment day for the Supreme Court and for Americans’ rights and liberties. 

Today, People For the American Way released a comprehensive report, Judgment Day 2016, which looks at pivotal Court decisions since Roberts and Alito joined the Court that were decided by a single vote. Many have seriously harmed the rights of ordinary Americans and promoted the interests of powerful corporations. Examples include Citizens United, the ruling striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act inShelby County v. Holder, the decision allowing corporations to claim religion and  deny contraceptive coverage to women in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, and the holding reinterpreting the Second Amendment and severely limiting efforts to limit gun violence in District of Columbia v. Heller. All these and many other decisions could be overruled or limited if a progressive justice replaces just one conservative on the Court, significantly blunting the right-wing judicial assault on a broad array of our rights and liberties.

But there have also been many critical 5-4 decisions over the past ten years where the Court’s  moderate justices, usually joined by Justice Kennedy, have succeeded in protecting Americans’  rights and liberties. In addition to Obergefell, which found a constitutional right to marriage equality, examples include Massachusetts v. EPA, where the Court upheld EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases; Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, which invalidated a state redistricting scheme that used race to harm minority voters; and Boumediene v. Bush, which narrowly ruled that prisoners detained at Guantanamo can challenge their detention through habeas corpus petitions. All these and many other rulings could be overturned or limited if a right-wing justice replaces just one of the moderates on the Court. A Supreme Court with a far-right supermajority would put more and more of our rights at risk.

Why is this particularly important now? During the first term of whoever is elected President in 2016, four Supreme Court justices - including extreme conservative Antonin Scalia, conservative swing vote Anthony Kennedy, and moderates Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer - will be over 80 years old. Given that the average retirement age for justices since 1971 is 78, the odds are overwhelming that the President elected next year will be able to nominate one or more justices who could produce a critical shift in the Court’s ideological balance.

Leading presidential candidates from both parties have already recognized the importance of future Supreme Court appointments and made clear their intent to nominate justices in accord with their views on crucial constitutional issues. In criticizing the Court’s recent 5-4 decision in Obergefell striking down discriminatory marriage bans, for example, Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio pledged to appoint to the Court “people with a proven record of judicial restraint” and “justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood,” in the hope of undermining or reversing the Court’s decision. On the other hand, in criticizing the Court’s 5-4 decisions striking down federal campaign finance law in Citizens United and part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County, Hillary Clinton pledged to “do everything I can to appoint Supreme Court justices who protect the right to vote and do not protect the right of billionaires to buy elections.”

PFAW’s report carefully reviews 5-4 decisions in eleven key areas where the next President and Supreme Court justice could make such a crucial difference to all Americans. These include money in politics; civil and voting rights (including immigration); LGBT rights; reproductive freedom and women’s rights; workplace fairness; protecting the environment; religious liberty; gun violence; marketplace and consumer fairness; access to justice; and protection against government abuse. In addition to past 5-4 rulings in these areas that could be limited or overruled, the Court is quite likely to be deciding cases on these and other key subjects in the years to come.

 Conservatives clearly understand the crucial importance of the Court and the next election in all these areas, with one far right activist noting that “we cannot overstate the importance of the Supreme Court in the next election.” In fact, her group - the Judicial Crisis Network - recently launched an ad campaign criticizing Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy as not conservative enough,  and demanding that Republican candidates pledge to appoint even more conservative justices. The group noted that Court decisions affect “every aspect of our lives today” and that “the next President could appoint a new majority to last a generation.” Hopefully, statements like that will help all Americans to pay close attention to the Supreme Court in the 2016 election and to recognize that November 8, 2016 truly is judgment day.


Supreme Court Nominations: An Issue Affecting All Other Issues, in 2016 and Beyond

In the past decade, scores of Supreme Court decisions addressing some of the most fundamental questions in our country have hinged on the vote of a single Supreme Court justice. Who can marry? Can everyone access the ballot box? Can women be denied reproductive health care? Can corporations flood elections with money?

In past 5-4 decisions on questions like these, from Citizens United to Hobby Lobby to Obergefell, the impact of each presidential Supreme Court nomination on our rights and liberties is clear. And for future decisions, Election Day 2016 – when Americans elect a president who will almost certainly be nominating one or more new justices – becomes a “judgment day” for our rights going forward.

A new PFAW report out today, “Judgment Day 2016,” looks at 80 5-4 decisions the Court has issued since Bush-nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined the Court ten years ago in key areas like money and politics; civil and voting rights; LGBT rights; women’s rights; workplace fairness; protecting the environment, and more. On a range of issues, the report underscores what’s at stake when Americans vote next November.

As principal report author and PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg put it:

In the 2016 election, the Supreme Court is on the ballot…Our next president may very well be nominating three or more Supreme Court justices who could tip the balance in critically important cases.

You can read the report here.


Far Right SCOTUS: Not Extreme Enough For GOP Presidential Hopefuls

Last night’s Republican presidential debate made clear just how extreme the party has gotten when it comes to the Supreme Court … which means danger to the entire country should one of them have the power to nominate the next one, two, or three Justices.

For instance, Jeb! Bush praised Chief Justice John Roberts,  but suggested that his own Court nominees would have longer records of far-right jurisprudence than Roberts did when he was first nominated by George W. Bush in 2005:

John Roberts has made some really good decisions, for sure, but he did not have a proven, extensive record that would have made the clarity the important thing, and that’s what we need to do.  ... And, I think he is doing a good job.  But, the simple fact is that going forward, what we need to do is to have someone that has a long standing set of rulings that consistently makes it clear that he is a focused, exclusively on upholding the Constitution of the United States so they won’t try to use the bench as a means to which legislate.

Jeb! revealed quite a lot there.  Roberts provided the fifth vote in 5-4 rulings wrecking Americans’ ability to limit money in politics, gutting the Voting Rights Act, giving for-profit corporations religious liberty rights, elevating religious offense as a significant burden on religious exercise, upholding a late term abortion ban, weakening longstanding laws against job discrimination… the list goes on.  And Jeb! thinks Roberts is “doing a good job,” even if his own Justices would be more conservative.

Ted Cruz, on the other hand, angrily focused on the very few times when Roberts did not collaborate with the Republican Party’s efforts to destroy Obamacare.  Cruz blasted John Roberts as insufficiently conservative:

I’ve known John Roberts for 20 years, he’s amazingly talented lawyer, but, yes, it was a mistake when he was appointed to the Supreme Court. He’s a good enough lawyer that he knows in these Obamacare cases he changed the statute, he changed the law in order to force that failed law on millions of Americans for a political outcome.

And, you know, we’re frustrated as conservatives. We keep winning elections, and then we don’t get the outcome we want.

Mike Huckabee made clear what type of Justice he would nominate when the moderator asked if he would apply a litmus test to potential nominees:

You better believe I will … Number one, I’d ask do you think that the unborn child is a human being or is it just a blob of tissue? I’d want to know the answer to that. I’d want to know do you believe in the First Amendment, do you believe that religious liberty is the fundamental liberty around which all the other freedoms of this country are based? And I’d want to know do you really believe in the Second Amendment, do you believe that we have an individual right to bear arms to protect ourselves and our family and to protect our country? And do you believe in the Fifth and the 14th Amendment? Do you believe that a person, before they’re deprived of life and liberty, should in fact have due process and equal protection under the law? Because if you do, you’re going to do more than defund Planned Parenthood

So Huckabee Justices would help right-wing extremists accomplish their longtime dream of eliminating abortion rights altogether.  They would also change U.S. law in keeping with the current conservative project to make it easier for them to disobey laws that offend them religiously, even when it deprives other people of their rights.

The current Supreme Court has done so much damage to our basic rights and liberties, yet it is not conservative enough for Republicans seeking to be the next president.


Conservatives See 2016 as Key to a More Conservative SCOTUS

Four of the nine Supreme Court Justices will be in their 80s during the first term of whoever is elected president next year, meaning he or she could usher in an enormous shift in the Court’s makeup.  The Court issues enormously consequential rulings on numerous issues affecting everyone across the country – LGBT equality, money in politics, workers’ rights, religious liberty, workplace discrimination, abortion rights, and many others.  With the current Court so often divided 5-4, usually tilting toward far-right conservatives, it’s clear that the Supreme Court is perhaps the most important issue in the 2016 presidential election.

You certainly don’t need to persuade conservatives.  In fact, according to press reports, the far-right Judicial Crisis Network is launching a new website and ad campaign to pressure GOP presidential hopefuls ever rightward on the issue of Supreme Court nominations.  A reported in The Hill, the group blasts the arch-conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and very conservative Anthony Kennedy as insufficiently conservative.

“Demand justices with a proven record of upholding the constitution. We can’t afford more surprises,” a narrator says as the video shows the faces of Roberts, Kennedy and former Justice David Souter, who retired in 2009.

The three justices are “examples of bad GOP appointments,” the Judicial Crisis Network said in a statement announcing the advertisements.

[JCN] says it made the $200,000 television and digital ad buys ahead of the Republican presidential debates to get candidates on the record about their approach to Supreme Court picks. The next Republican debate is Wednesday.

The television and digital ads are set to run in Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. starting Monday, the group said.

Roberts and Kennedy … not conservative enough?  Along with Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, they formed the five-person majority that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County), opened the floodgates to corporate money in politics (Citizens United), twisted religious liberty into a tool to deprive others of their legal rights (Hobby Lobby), and regularly misinterpret and severely undermine our nation’s anti-discrimination laws (Ledbetter, for a start).  True, Justice Kennedy authored the Court’s key opinions recognizing the constitutional rights and basic humanity of LGBT people, but he is no liberal.

If conservative activists succeed in electing a conservative president who wants to drive the currently far-right Supreme Court even farther rightward, the repercussions will be enormous.

But imagine instead if Americans elect a president who wants to restore a high court that recognizes and protects our constitutional and statutory rights to liberty, equality, and democracy … Again, the repercussions for people across the entire country would be enormous.

There is one thing where we agree with the JCN.  As their ad says:

On the most important issues, the Supreme Court decides.  The next president could appoint a new majority to last a generation.

Keep that in mind between now and Election Day.  You can be assured that conservatives will.


What Sen. Toomey Left Out of His Re-Election Speech

Sen. Pat Toomey is running for reelection next year in a state that tends to favor Democrats in presidential election years.  So it is no surprise that the former head of the far right Club For Growth opened his campaign by presenting himself as a moderate.  As station WITF reports, Toomey presented the area of judicial nominations as an example of his ability to work across the aisle:

"One of the areas [Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and I] work together regularly on is filling vacancies on the federal bench," Toomey said. "The fact is in the four and a half or so years I've been in the Senate, we have been able to recruit, vet, nominate, confirm 15 men and women across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

Many judicial appointments are held up by partisan bickering.

Unfortunately, judges are one of the areas where Toomey has regularly put conservative ideology and the interests of party leaders in Washington, DC, ahead of the interests of the people of Pennsylvania.

The current example involves Phil Restrepo, President Obama’s nominee for the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.  The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has formally classified the vacancy Restrepo would fill as a “judicial emergency” because the caseload per judge is so high.  When judges are overburdened, it is hard for the court to provide justice to litigants in a timely, efficient, and fair manner, forcing too many people to learn the hard way that justice delayed is justice denied.

President Obama nominated L. Felipe Restrepo way back in November, and both Toomey and Casey praised the nomination.  That’s important, because the Judiciary Committee generally won’t even give a judicial nominee a hearing until their home-state senators formally signal their approval on a blue slip of paper.  Casey his submitted his blue slip immediately, but Toomey did not, giving cover to committee chairman Chuck Grassley’s efforts to delay the hearing for as long as possible (part of the GOP’s efforts to obstruct a Democratic president’s efforts to staff the nation’s courts with fair, just, and qualified judges in the hopes of leaving as many vacancies as possible for a Republican successor to Obama to fill).  It took a full seven months before Grassley held the hearing, far longer than was necessary.  The senator faced a torrent of criticism at home for his role in the delay, and Toomey’s efforts to explain Restrepo’s delay raised more questions than they answered.

There was enough time after the June hearing to confirm Restrepo before a second vacancy was scheduled to open in July.  Toomey could have prevented the Third Circuit from having two simultaneous vacancies by using his influence with his Republican colleagues to have Restrepo confirmed in time.  However, he chose not to.

When it became clear that Grassley was planning to delay the scheduled committee vote by two weeks for no reason other than delay’s sake, Toomey could have interceded with his fellow Republican.  That is exactly the kind of thing that home-state senators do for nominees they support.  But Toomey chose not to ask Grassley to hold the vote as scheduled.

When the committee finally approved the nomination in July – unanimously, by the way – there was plenty of time to get him confirmed and fill the emergency vacancy before the Senate’s August recess.  But Toomey failed to press his party leader for a timely vote on Restrepo, the Senate left town, and the vacancy remains open today.

Unfortunately, the Restrepo nomination is not the first time Toomey has put ideology and partisan judicial obstruction ahead of Pennsylvanians’ needs.  In late 2013 and early 2014, he voted in lockstep with Washington Republicans to prevent President Obama from filling any of the three vacant judgeships on the critically important D.C. Circuit Court.  Second in importance only to the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit is the exclusive court to consider appeals of a wide variety of federal agency regulations and decisions affecting the entire country.  Dominated by ideological conservatives, the court was becoming increasingly notorious for issuing troubling decisions favoring the powerful and limiting the role government can play to address national problems.  Working to keep the D.C. Circuit both short-staffed and dominated by far-right conservatives certainly didn’t help the people of Pennsylvania.  Yet he voted against all three highly qualified nominees: Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins.

Toomey apparently didn’t mention any of this in his re-election speech, but it is something Pennsylvanians ought to know when they go to the polls next year.