PFAW Files Amicus Brief Supporting Fair Trials for Undocumented Immigrants

Last Thursday, People For the American Way, joined by the UC Hastings Appellate Project (HAP) and the ACLU of Southern California, submitted an amicus brief to the California Court of Appeal in Velasquez v. Centrome, Inc. dba Advanced Biotech, a toxic tort case brought by an undocumented immigrant that resulted in a gross denial of justice.

Wilfredo Velasquez filed a lawsuit against a chemical manufacturer seeking damages for medical expenses after contracting a devastating lung disease due to exposure to one of the company’s toxic chemicals while on the job. During the jury selection process, where prospective jurors are questioned to discover potential biases, the trial judge wrongly disclosed Mr. Velasquez’s immigration status to the entire jury pool, despite the fact that it was not relevant to any issues in the case. The disclosure appears to have harmed Mr. Velasquez’s pursuit of justice: Even though the jury ultimately found the chemical manufacturer negligent, it awarded no damages to Mr. Velasquez. He effectively lost his case. The court refused to grant a mistrial for its error in possibly tainting the jury, and Mr. Velasquez appealed the verdict. 

PFAW submitted its amicus brief in support of a new trial for Mr. Velasquez because of the highly prejudicial nature of the court’s wrongful disclosure of his citizenship status, explaining, “Rather than protect against prejudice, the judge’s statement unnecessarily injected prejudice into the [jury] selection process, making it impossible to know whether Mr. Velasquez received his constitutionally guaranteed fair trial by impartial jurors.” Given the ongoing hostility towards undocumented immigrants, as chronicled by PFAW’s Right Wing Watch blog, PFAW’s brief urges the appellate court to find that when a trial court erroneously discloses a litigant’s citizenship status to the jury during voir dire a new trial must be awarded.

Read the full text of the amicus brief for more information
 

PFAW

YEO Evan Low, US Senator Tammy Baldwin, Anne Kronenberg, and Others Dedicate the Harvey Milk Stamp

Last week, the highly-anticipated Harvey Milk stamp made its debut in a White House dedication ceremony featuring a roster packed with dynamic speakers including Evan Low, a Campbell, California city councilmember and participant in PFAW Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network, who recounted his personal story and stressed the importance of electing LGBT Americans to public office.

US Senator Tammy Baldwin later touched on where the LGBT equality movement stands today, more than 35 years after Harvey Milk's tragic assassination, crediting the youngest among us for understanding what's at the heart of the progress made and the work left to be done – love and fairness.

Anne Kronenberg, Harvey Milk's campaign manager, included in her closing remarks a simple statement of what the Milk stamp means – that new people and places will get to meet Harvey simply by opening a mailbox.

We remember.

We remember Harvey Milk

PFAW Foundation

LGBT Equality Pioneer Harvey Milk Memorialized with New Stamp

Today the United States Postal Service releases its highly-anticipated Harvey Milk stamp, memorializing the LGBT equality pioneer on what would have been his 84th birthday. Evan Low, a Campbell, California city councilmember and participant in PFAW Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network, is expected to join other trailblazers at the White House dedication ceremony.

Councilmember Low had this to say last November in marking the 35th anniversary of Milk's tragic assassination:

In 2009, I became the youngest openly gay mayor as well as the youngest Asian-American mayor in the country. Some journalists wrote about how I was making history, but I like to point out that I was preceded by a number of other courageous “firsts.”

I became mayor 35 years after Kathy Kozachenko was the first openly LGBT person elected to public office, and 32 years after Harvey Milk – affectionately known as “the mayor of Castro Street” – was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the same state I serve today.

This week marks the anniversary of the tragic end of Milk’s short time in office, when he and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. But the legacy of Harvey Milk and other LGBT trailblazers is very much alive. Today there are more than 500 openly LGBT elected or appointed officials serving our country. Through their service and that of public officials representing other marginalized communities, it is clear that our democracy works best when our lawmakers reflect the nation’s diversity.

South Dakota State Senator Angie Buhl O'Donnell, another YEO, also reflected on Milk's impact:

Milk’s legacy has been a personal inspiration for me, as an openly bisexual elected official. Earlier this year, I became a Harvey Milk Champion of Change. While I was honored to be recognized by the White House with an award bearing his name, I actually had some hesitation about accepting. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I was worried about people thinking I didn’t really “deserve” it. But I realized that line of reasoning was not what Harvey Milk would have embraced. His legacy is about sharing your own identity, your own truth in whatever form that might take.  Besides, there’s a “B” in “LGBT” for a reason.

Though the right-wing has long tried to rewrite Milk's legacy, as affiliate People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch notes in this report on Liberty Counsel's Matt Barber . . .

Liberty Counsel’s Matt Barber is upset that the US Postal Service will issue a stamp honoring Harvey Milk, telling the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow that Milk was a rapist and “demonstrably, categorically an evil man.”

. . . it's clear that today is a day to celebrate how far the LGBT equality movement has come and to recognize the work that remains.

We remember.

We remember Harvey Milk

PFAW Foundation

Public Turning Against the Private Prison Racket

PFAW’s 2012 report, “Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy,” included a section titled, “The Pernicious Private Prison Industry.” We reported that across the country, private prisons were often violent, poorly run facilities that put prisoners, employees and communities at risk even while failing to deliver on promised savings to taxpayers. But state legislators, encouraged by ALEC and by private prison interests’ lobbying and campaign expenditures, continued to turn prisons over to private corporations, often with contract provisions that acted as incentives for mass incarceration.

A new story in Politico Magazine, “The Private Prison Racket” comes to the same conclusions. “Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records,” says author Matt Stroud. “So why do we keep giving them our business?”

The Politico story slams “bed mandates” – guarantees given by states to private companies to keep prisons full.  Contracts like that build in incentives for governments to lock people up – and punish states financially when they try to reduce prison populations.

Politicians are taking notice. Last month, In the Public Interest reported that reality has turned the tide against private prisons: “Coast-to-coast, governments are realizing that outsourcing corrections to for-profit corporations is a bad deal for taxpayers, and for public safety.” The dispatch cited problems with private prisons in states as diverse as Arizona, Vermont, Texas, Florida, and Idaho, where Gov. Butch Otter, a “small government” conservative, announced last month that the state would take control of the Idaho Correctional Center back from private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America due to rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity, and contract fraud.

But the huge private prison industry is not going away anytime soon. As In the Public Interest notes:

All of this momentum does not suggest the imminent death of the for-profit prison industry. Some states, including California and West Virginia, are currently gearing up to send millions more to these companies. But the past year has been a watershed moment, and we are heading in the right direction. In light of these developments, these states would be wise to look to sentencing reform to reduce populations, rather than signing reckless outsourcing contracts.

The arguments against private prisons are myriad and compelling. Promised savings end up as increased costs. Lockup quotas force taxpayers to guarantee profits for prison companies through lock up quotas hidden in contracts. They incentivize mass incarceration while discouraging sentencing reform in an era when crime rates are plummeting.

But more than anything else, the reality of the disastrous private prison experiment has turned the public against the industry.

 

PFAW

Senate to Vote Today on Four Federal District Court Nominees

The Senate is scheduled to vote to end filibusters and then to confirm four federal district court nominees tonight and tomorrow morning, two for the Northern District of California, one for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and one for the District of Connecticut. All four of these nominees were thoroughly vetted and approved by unanimous voice vote by the Judiciary Committee last year. They should have and could have been confirmed months ago. (In contrast, George W. Bush’s confirmed district court noms only waited about a month on average between committee approval and confirmation.) However, because of Republican obstruction, all four nominees have waited months for a simple confirmation vote. And Senate Republicans are indicating that they won’t stop their obstruction anytime soon.  In fact, it looks like they are willing to waste weeks of time in “post-cloture debate” on these and subsequent nominees.

Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer of Connecticut has been waiting for a confirmation since he was first approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 19. Judge James Maxwell Moody, Jr., of Arkansas has been waiting since November 14. The two nominees from Northern California, Judge James Donato and Judge Beth Labson Freeman, have both been waiting since October 31st.

This frustratingly slow process is the result of layers of delaying tactics by GOP senators. Republicans refused to hold votes on these nominees for months, and now that they are being called on their obstructionism through filibuster-ending cloture votes, they’re making the votes take as long as possible by demanding that each take hours of “post-cloture debate.” This is especially ridiculous for nominees whom the Republicans actually support. Not only is this delaying confirmation of judges in these particular states; it’s also delaying nominees in other states waiting in line for their turn, including many for posts that have been deemed “judicial emergencies.” This delaying tactic from Republicans not only slows what should be a simple process, it deprives these states’ constituents the fully functioning justice system they deserve.

PFAW

Harvey Milk’s Legacy

The following is a guest post by Campbell, California Mayor Evan Low, a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.

In 2009, I became the youngest openly gay mayor as well as the youngest Asian-American mayor in the country. Some journalists wrote about how I was making history, but I like to point out that I was preceded by a number of other courageous “firsts.”

I became mayor 35 years after Kathy Kozachenko was the first openly LGBT person elected to public office, and 32 years after Harvey Milk – affectionately known as “the mayor of Castro Street” – was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the same state I serve today.

This week marks the anniversary of the tragic end of Milk’s short time in office, when he and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. But the legacy of Harvey Milk and other LGBT trailblazers is very much alive. Today there are more than 500 openly LGBT elected or appointed officials serving our country. Through their service and that of public officials representing other marginalized communities, it is clear that our democracy works best when our lawmakers reflect the nation’s diversity.

That’s not to say that things are always easy for LGBT elected officials. Like Milk, I have received my share of hate mail, with messages like: “We don’t want the homosexual agenda in our community.” As I have told reporters before, I don’t know what is on that so-called agenda, other than basic equality for all people.

One issue that’s certainly on my agenda is the end of the FDA’s ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. In a petition that now has more than 62,000 supporters, I wrote:

…recently, I hosted a blood drive on city property, but was banned from donating blood myself.

As the mayor of Campbell, providing for the welfare of the general public is a top priority. As a gay man, however, I am conflicted in my advocacy for blood drives. Under current U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, a man who has sex with another man is deferred for life from donating blood.  The ban was imposed in 1983 when there were no reliable tests for screening blood for HIV/AIDS.  It was also made during a time of mass medical confusion and cultural homophobia associated with HIV/AIDS.  The current FDA ban is wildly outdated and perpetuates unfair labels against gay and bisexual men that live on through decades of discrimination.

These kinds of stereotypes are not unlike the ones Harvey Milk was fighting nearly four decades ago, and why he, like I do today, encouraged LGBT people to come out whenever possible – to dispel the harmful lies about our community with the truth.  Stuart Milk, nephew of Harvey Milk and founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, continues his uncle's legacy, and we are so fortunate to have Stuart carry the torch. 

In a tape Milk recorded before his death, he said, “I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement.” I think he would be proud of the movement that lives on in his spirit today.
 

PFAW Foundation

California, Here We Come: A Republican Nightmare Offers Our Country A Path Forward

Originally appeared at Huffington Post.

Right-wing activists like to point to California as an example of what could happen to America if progressives have their way. They're right to be worried -- for their own political futures, that is.

As Americans grapple with how to handle a Republican Party that has followed its most extreme fringe off the rails, California provides a useful example. For years, many in this country lamented the woes of California, long thought to be ungovernable. But after years of frustration and hoping that that Republican Party would come to its senses, California voters stopped trying to accommodate or compromise with the right-wing fringe. Progressives actually won the old-fashioned way, by winning. Now, California can enact actual policy and fix actual problems.

In many ways, the implosion of California's Republican Party was predictive of the implosion of the national GOP that we're seeing today. Faced with a growing and changing population with different needs than in previous generations, California's Republicans didn't adapt. Instead, they dug in their heels. By 2012, voters had delivered the governor's mansion, every state office and veto-proof majorities in both houses of the state legislature to Democrats. And this right-wing nightmare has resulted in common sense policy bringing California back from the brink. This year's budget in California increased funding for education and logged a surplus -- imagine if the US Congress could do that.

It's easy to spot the turning point in the Republican Party's downfall in California -- and it would be a good one for the national GOP to keep in mind as they seem determined to make exactly the same mistakes. In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson reacted to the state's changing demographics in a very similar way to what the Tea Party is doing throughout the country today. With slumping poll numbers, Wilson decided to roil up anti-immigrant sentiment among his mostly-white base in order to win reelection. He went all-out in backing Proposition 187, a draconian measure that denied undocumented immigrants access to basic services including emergency room care and public education. It worked for Pete Wilson and his reelection but it was disastrous for his party's future. The referendum passed, but the state GOP had written its own obituary.

After Republicans pushed through Prop 187, California's Latino community organized. In 1994, only 53 percent of eligible Latinos in California were registered to vote. By 1996, it was 60 percent. Since then, Latinos have made up a gradually expanding percentage of the state's electorate, from 11 percent in 1994 to 22 percent in 2010.

California went blue. After Bill Clinton's hard-fought victory in 1992, no presidential election in California has even been close.

The lesson of Prop 187 isn't just about California's, and the United States', flourishing Latino population. It's about what happens when a political party that depends on reactionary politics rooted in their version of an idyllic past of privilege and exclusion runs up against an inclusive, vibrant, dynamic future. Republicans aren't losing just because they're digging in on the politics of white resentment in an increasingly non-white country. They're also losing because their mean-spirited policies are so out of touch and affect such a broad swath of the American public that they are simply unsustainable.

Just look at the issue of gay rights, which Republicans used to great effect to rally supporters in 2004, but which less than 10 years later has become a third rail for all but the Tea Party fringe. And the Republican Party has driven away women as it rallies around retrograde policies policing women's bodies. The more they dig in their heels in the past, the more they're left behind as the country moves forward.

That's already happened in California. Bill Maher recently said it best: "Everything conservatives claim will unravel the fabric of our society -- universal healthcare, higher taxes on the rich, gay marriage, medical marijuana -- has only made California stronger. And all we had to do to accomplish that was vote out every single Republican."

This month's pointless, destructive government shutdown, which earned Republicans record low approval numbers and little else, illustrated yet again that the Tea Party lives in a very different world than the rest of us. If the Republican Party keeps on catering to the Tea Party fringe at the expense of the rest of America, we can't accommodate them so we'll just have to beat them. The national party will have go the way of Republicans in California. And that's good news for all of us.

PFAW

Matthew Shepard calls upon us to Imagine

Fifteen years ago today, on October 7, 1998, Aaron Kreifels found Matthew Shepard clinging to life in a field outside Laramie, Wyoming. Unfortunately, Shepard lost that battle five days later. What resulted was a rallying cry for the LGBT equality movement. It's a movement that has indeed seen tremendous progress. 2009: The Shepard-Byrd hate crimes law passes. 2010: Don't Ask, Don't Tell is repealed. 2011: The military begins to implement a new culture of inclusion. 2012: The Supreme Court accepts two marriage cases. 2013: DOMA and Prop 8 rulings significantly advance marriage equality. But it's also a movement that has more to achieve. So not only do we remember Matthew Shepard this week, but we pledge anew to honor his unfilled potential and how his silenced voice – how all those silenced by hate – calls upon us to Imagine.

Think. Share. Act.

PFAW

New documentary revisits the climate change we all should want

Last spring, PFAW staff members and friends attended a screening of Lee Hirsch's documentary, Bully, which tells the stories of young people bullied in school, the challenges they faced, the actions they took, and the lessons they teach us all.

One such lesson was the idea that bullying is an environmental problem that requires climate change. Everyone has a stake. It’s not just bullies and the students they target. It’s students who witness incidents. It’s teachers and administrators with the power to intervene. It’s nurses and counselors dealing with the physical and emotional tolls taken. It’s parents trying to get through to their children. It’s community groups who simply want to help. It’s bus drivers. It’s also not about paying lip service to the problem. It’s about having a genuine interest in making it better now and sustaining those solutions in the future.

Now HBO is set to tell another story of the climate change we all should want.

It was February 12, 2008. 15-year-old Lawrence “Larry” King, who had begun openly exploring a female expression of his gender identity, and 14-year-old Brandon McInerney were in a computer lab at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California. With the flash of two gunshots, Larry was off to the hospital, fighting for his life in a battle that he would soon lose; and Brandon was under arrest, later tried as an adult and sentenced to 21 years. Never would their teacher and their classmates be the same.

Both boys had troubled family lives and were caught up in a system that never fully met their needs. They were students in a school where the administrators and most of the teachers and students didn’t understand Larry or what he was going through. Nobody adequately stepped up for Larry leading up to that fateful day. Even Larry's friends and allies could do little to make the situation better.

At the Valentine Road screening, Eliza Byard, GLSEN's Executive Director who recently spoke in commemoration of the March on Washington, said something to this effect:

Larry's legacy is more than our enduring sadness. There is more that we can do.

It's the same call to action that Dennis Van Roekel has made in his work as President of the National Education Association: (5:24)

Stories like Larry’s are the reason we must support climate change in schools nationwide. They’re the reason we must support federal legislation like the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

Let’s make sure we stand up for not only tolerance but also for understanding in our own communities and schools.

PFAW

PFAW Releases New Toolkit on Getting Money Out and Voters In to Our Democracy

Americans today face twin threats to the integrity of our elections. The threats are multifaceted and formidable, involving all branches of government at the local, state and federal level – from legislative bodies, to governorships, to courthouses. The aims are clear:

  • Manipulate the campaign finance system to get "the right people" elected.
  • Manipulate the balloting process to make it harder for "the wrong people" to vote.

These measures must be confronted. But we also need long-term proactive and pro-democracy strategies of our own.

The “Money Out, Voters In” campaign embodies this long-term vision premised on the concept of political equality, of one person = one vote.

We believe in a democratic system where all Americans have equal access to the voting booth and where all Americans, regardless of wealth, can express their views to one another and their government on a level playing field.

Through A Guide to Democratic Reform, a new toolkit released today by People For the American Way, we provide the structural framework for enacting this vision. We do not have all the answers, nor could we. We must embrace an evolution of ideas, tactics, and legislative language to achieve our goals. Yet, as the local, state, and federal initiatives cited herein show, much of that work is already well-underway.

Click here for information about critical allies and other resources.

PFAW