PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Don't Like Fracking? #GetMoneyOut

Last week, PFAW’s Government By the People campaign coordinator Rio Tazewell joined Food and Water Watch, along with a dozen partner organizations, in delivering more than 350,000 petitions in support of the Protect Our Public Lands Act. This bill would outlaw the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, commonly known as “fracking”, on federally-owned lands. In his remarks, Tazewell highlighted the importance of connecting the dots between issues like protecting our public lands and the influence of unchecked, unlimited and undisclosed money in our elections, as well as the need for an amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United.

If scientific and public opinion were the driving forces in Congress, this bill would likely be passed with little resistance. But given that big money and corporate interests have rigged the electoral process to gain undue influence on the legislative process, reform organizations have to work even harder to advance commonsense legislation. Passing the Protect Our Public Lands Act would be a significant step toward ensuring a more sustainable country for all Americans to enjoy, present and future.

The groups represented in the petition delivery understand that in order to protect our public lands from the perils of fracking we must also address an underlying problem: too much corporate special interest money flowing into our elections. Fortunately organizations are already mobilizing around a set of solutions to address this issue. First and foremost, we need an amendment to the Constitution to reverse Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United. A monumental effort like amending the Constitution will require extensive cross-issue organizational collaboration, and last week’s petition delivery built on the foundation of what is becoming a broad movement to address the influence of big money in politics. 

PFAW
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Why Is Jeb Bush Courting Pat Robertson?

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Jeb Bush, battling slumping poll numbers, will travel to Regent University this Friday for an interview with the school's founder, televangelist Pat Robertson.

Jeb's decision may be mystifying, particularly to millennial voters who knowRobertson mostly as a televised buffoon given to outrageous and embarrassing comments, bad advice, faulty predictions, and personal conversations with God about presidential politics. But while Robertson's influence has diminished over the years, he has had a lasting (and damaging) impact on American culture and politics.

Like the late Jerry Falwell, Robertson was a pioneer in the use of television to build a Christian ministry, and Robertson joined Falwell and other televangelists who teamed up in the late 1970s to create the Religious Right political movement. Falwell was a fundamentalist Baptist and Robertson a charismatic Pentecostal, but they found common ground in promoting a sustained, religion-based attack on separation of church and state, feminism, gay rights, unions, and other enemies of the right-wing political strategists, like Paul Weyrich, who recruited them into politics

Robertson actually ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. He didn't get very far as a candidate, but he built a huge list of supporters. Political operative Ralph Reed turned that list into the Christian Coalition, which at the beginning of the 1990s set itself the goal of taking working control of the Republican Party.

Pat Robertson, in other words, helped create today's polarized politics -- a Republican Party that is much further to the right than Ronald Reagan's and far less willing to engage in the compromises required to govern, and a Religious Right movement that continues to poison our political climate by treating politics as spiritual warfare and political opponents as demonic enemies of faith and freedom.

A memorable example of that attitude came just after the 9/11 attacks, in which Robertson joined Jerry Falwell in blaming the attacks on gays, feminists, defenders of church-state separation, and People For the American Way. But we can hear the same attitude from GOP candidates and right-wing activists every day.

Regent University, where Jeb Bush will speak on Friday, is part of the massive cultural and political infrastructure that Religious Right leaders like Robertson have built in recent decades. Religious Right schools of government and law produce people like Michele Bachmann and former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who see public office as a way to make America conform to their "biblical worldview."

Another part of Robertson's infrastructure is the American Center for Law and Justice, which he created to be a Religious Right counterpart to the ACLU. The ACLJ has undermined church-state separation in the U.S. and promotes global culture war through offices in Europe, Russia, and Africa. While it portrays itself as a champion of religious freedom, the ACLJ fought bitterly against the building of a Muslim community center that was falsely dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque." 

ACLJ founder and chief counsel Jay Sekulow is scheduled to moderate the audience Q&A at Bush's appearance. He may or may not mention that his son Jordan, executive director of the organization, was hired earlier this year as an adviser to Jeb's Right to Rise PAC.

Jordan Sekulow's hiring was seen as a signal that the Bush campaign was serious about competing for conservative evangelical voters who might initially be more excited about other candidates. Bush's pilgrimage to Regent University is another sign that even "establishment" Republican candidates are dependent on the Religious Right activists who make up a big part of the party's base.

And Bush, whose plans to run as the financially dominant above-it-all powerhouse were derailed by Donald Trump, is back to the GOP primary slog. And he's looking for support from Religious Right leaders with their own political agenda, one that threatens the rights of women, LGBT people, religious minorities, and anyone who doesn't meet their definition of a real American.

PFAW

Leapfrog Day at the Judiciary Committee

Progress in moving judicial nominations is always welcome.  But small increments of progress also serve to shine a light on the greater obstruction that is going on.  That happened earlier this week when the Senate held a confirmation vote on one long-waiting nominee, but did nothing on eight additional nominees who were long ago fully vetted and advanced without opposition by the Judiciary Committee.

And it’s happening Wednesday morning, as the Committee holds a hearing for four district court nominees.  It’s good that Chairman Chuck Grassley is holding a hearing for two nominees from Iowa and one apiece from New York and California.  But it begs several questions.  For instance, since there are ten other nominees waiting for their opportunity to appear before the committee, why are there only four nominees at today’s hearing, rather than five or six?  And why has Grassley never held more than one hearing per month?  No wonder there is such a backlog of nominees at the committee stage, most of whom were nominated back in July or earlier.

In fact, all of them were nominated before one of the nominees up today, Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger, who Grassley allowed to leapfrog over all the others since he recommended her to the White House to serve in Iowa’s Southern District.  President Obama nominated Ebinger last month.  So why no hearing for Mary Barzee Flores of Florida, who was nominated way back in February on the recommendation of Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio?  Why no hearing for any of the four nominees for district courts in Pennsylvania, who were nominated in July upon the joint recommendation of Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey?

You shouldn’t have to have been hand-picked by Chuck Grassley to deserve a timely committee hearing.  As chairman, Chuck Grassley should be treating all nominees fairly.  If he wants to be taken seriously in his claims that he is conducting himself responsibly as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he should ensure that each of the remaining ten nominees has a hearing before Thanksgiving.

PFAW

Today's Vote Highlights Senate's Failures on Confirming Judges

Good news:  The Senate held a confirmation vote on a judicial nominee today.  Bad news: The Senate held a confirmation vote on only one judicial nominee today.

Ann Donnelly, set to fill a judicial emergency in the Eastern District of New York, was cleared by a unanimous Judiciary Committee way back on June 4, more than four months ago.  On the same day, the committee also unanimously voted to advance two other New York nominees to the full Senate.  Yet after months of delay, Majority Leader McConnell is finally allowing a vote on only one of the three.  Also being ignored are an additional six judicial nominees from other states who were unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee.  Most of the stalled nominees have been awaiting their floor vote since June or July.  All should have been confirmed by now.

It is hard to fathom a legitimate reason to refuse to schedule a vote on judicial nominees who have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee.  After all, that is one of the most important functions of the United States Senate, one that is specifically tasked to it by the Constitution.  Article III, which established the federal courts, was not some afterthought tossed into the nation’s charter document.  When the Senate abdicates its responsibility to consider judicial nominees, it sabotages the effectiveness of the judicial system that is indispensable in protecting the rights of the American people.

Like President Obama, George W. Bush had a Senate controlled by the opposing party in his last two years in office.  But the disparity in how the Senate carried out its constitutional responsibilities is stark.  While the Democratically-controlled Senate had voted on 33 of Bush’s judges at this point in 2007, New York’s Ann Donnelly will be only the eighth judge voted on this year.  Vacancies nationwide are up by more than 50% since the beginning of the year, and judicial emergencies have more than doubled.

So why are Senate Republicans refusing to hold confirmation votes for New York nominees Lawrence Vilardo and LaShann DeArcy Hall?  Why must individuals and businesses in Tennessee be forced to endure understaffed courts rather than have the Senate vote on nominees Waverly Crenshaw and Travis McDonough?  Why do Senate Republicans refuse to allow votes on Mimi Wright of Minnesota, Paula Xinis of Maryland, and John Vazquez of New Jersey?

Perhaps most egregious is the Senate GOP’s obstinate refusal to grant timely consideration to L. Felipe Restrepo of Pennsylvania, whose nomination to the Third Circuit is nearly a year old.  Nominated with the support of both home state senators – Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey – Restrepo was fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee without opposition.  He would fill a vacancy that has been designated a judicial emergency.  While his nomination has been pending, a second vacancy has opened on the same court, making his confirmation even more vital.  Yet despite his words of support for Restrepo, Toomey has collaborated with his GOP colleagues in making sure that his eventual confirmation be delayed as long as possible.

So today’s confirmation vote for Ann Donnelly is good news.  But the Senate’s refusal to vote on the eight other long-waiting circuit and district court nominees is bad news – bad news for the Senate, bad news for the judiciary, and bad news for the Americans whose access to justice is being sacrificed for partisan reasons.

PFAW

PFAW's Right Wing Watch Riles Up the Far Right

At Right Wing Watch – a project of People For the American Way – we know we’ve done our job when we’ve made the Right Wing really, really mad. So if the coverage we’ve been seeing in the right-wing media is any indication, we’ve been doing our job especially well lately. Here’s a roundup of some recent anti-endorsements:

  • The conservative blog Newsbusters calls Right Wing Watch PFAW’s “hit squad” in an article we couldn’t have written better ourselves. In addition to crediting PFAW with “destroying Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s reputation in the 1980s,” the article touts some of Right Wing Watch’s greatest successes – including its coverage of the anti-choice and anti-gay HGTV stars David and Jason Benham. Newsbusters correctly notes that Right Wing Watch broke the news when then-presidential candidate Scott Walker defended mandatory and medically unnecessary ultrasounds as “a cool thing out there” (though they incorrectly allege that the reporting “twisted” Walker’s words). And while the Newsbusters article fails to achieve its goal of discrediting Right Wing Watch, it does provide many great examples of Right Wing Watch’s reporting appearing in major news outlets like USA Today, MSNBC, Salon, Slate, and the Huffington Post.
  • In an interview with Family Research Council Vice President Jerry Boykin, far-right radio host Rick Wiles suggested that the gunman in the recent mas shooting at Umpqua Community College might have been inspired by reading Right Wing Watch. Boykin went on to accuse Right Wing Watch of using the “exact same tactics as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
  • Despite messianic rabbi Jonathan Cahn’s doomsday prophecy, the United States didn’t experience a cataclysmic disaster this past September, which must have rattled right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson who have spent months anticipating it. Right Wing Watch pointed out that the prophecy didn’t come true -- much to the frustration of WND, a Religious Right news site that Right Wing Watch has been reading and covering for years. WND took specific issue with Right Wing Watch blogger Brian Tashman, who had reported on the Cahn prophecy, for his “slander” and “lack of truthfulness.” It’s not clear how pointing out that the world didn’t end last month qualifies as slanderous, but you can read the rest of WND’s criticism here.
  • Right Wing Watch might consider outlandish criticism from the Radical Right to be a sign of a job well done, but many on the Right feel the same way about a mention on Right Wing Watch. Ann Corcoran, an anti-refugee resettlement advocate, has made several appearances on Right Wing Watch for her xenophobic remarks about Syrian refugees, posted on her blog that she considered the coverage to be “a great honor” and “a goal to work toward” for other right-wing activists.

Right Wing Watch is as committed as ever to monitoring and exposing the activities of the right-wing movement – no matter what they might say about us. Read more Right Wing Watch coverage.

PFAW

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.

PFAW

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.

PFAW

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:

PFAW

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.

PFAW

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 http://www.nypl.org/bannedbooks. 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.

PFAW

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.

PFAW