John Roberts, Calling Strikes and Strikes

In 2005, when John Roberts was seeking to persuade the Senate that he should be confirmed as Chief Justice, he famously (and misleadingly) likened Supreme Court Justices to baseball umpires, simply calling balls and strikes. To use his analogy, last week's ruling on voter ID in Texas showed just how far the umpire will go to rig the game.

Earlier this month, district court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos ruled that the voter ID law could not be enforced. Her careful consideration all of the evidence presented at trial led her to conclude that the Texas statute didn't simply have a racially discriminatory impact (as if that wasn't bad enough), but that state lawmakers had actually intended to make it harder to Latinos and African Americans to vote. She found that the law violated the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment, and the 24th Amendment (prohibiting poll taxes).

Not surprisingly, Texas wants to enforce the law during this year's election, while its appeal is pending. After all, if a law designed to obstruct people of color from voting isn't allowed to be enforced during the election, then what's the point? Less than a week after Judge Ramos issued her ruling, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit granted Texas's request for a stay. The two George W. Bush-nominated judges on that panel wrote of the irreparable harm to Texas if its law were not enforced, with little concern about the irreparable harm to the law's targets if it were enforced.

So voting rights advocates asked the Supreme Court to vacate the appeals court's stay. But last week, over the dissent of at least three Justices, the Roberts Court denied that request, meaning that Texas can enforce the law during the current election. Although the Court did not provide its reasoning, they presumably believe that the state's interest in enforcing a law found to be intentionally discriminatory is greater than the interests of those targeted by the law.

What a terrible message the hard-right conservative judges are sending Latinos and African Americans: We just don't think your rights are important.

Using the baseball metaphor, even when the pitcher intentionally beans the batter, Umpire Roberts and his conservative colleagues will call it a strike. The umpire takes sides, and tough luck if you're on the wrong team.

But this isn't a baseball game, and Americans can do more than just boo from the stands: We can vote, and we can get our friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and anyone else we know to vote. When we vote for Senate, we're picking the people who will vote on whether to confirm or block the next Supreme Court nominee. What better to way to prove to the Roberts Court that we all matter?

PFAW Foundation

Fifth Circuit's Voter ID Decision Shows the Attitude of Bush's Judges

Last week, a federal district court judge concluded that Texas's strict voter ID law (SB 14) violated both the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. Judge Nelva Ramos concluded that the law was passed with illegitimate motives:

This Court concludes that the evidence in the record demonstrates that proponents of SB 14 within the 82nd Texas Legislature were motivated, at the very least in part, because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law's detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate. As such, SB 14 violates the VRA as well as the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Unites States Constitution.

Nevertheless, yesterday, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas can hold this fall's elections under the voter ID law anyway. Although the ruling was unanimous, the two Bush-43 judges on the panel (Edith Brown Clement and Catherina Haynes) took a very different approach to the case than did the Obama nominee.

Judge Gregg Costa, the court's newest member, wrote in his short concurrence:

The district court issued a thorough order finding that the Texas voter ID law is discriminatory. We should be extremely reluctant to have an election take place under a law that a district court has found, and that our court may find, is discriminatory. … I agree with Judge Clement that the only constant principle that can be discerned from the Supreme Court's recent decisions in this area is that its concern about confusion resulting from court changes to election laws close in time to the election should carry the day in the stay analysis. … On that limited basis, I agree a stay should issue.

Those recent Supreme Court actions Judge Costa cites are hard to interpret, since they came with no explanation. But they also didn't involve a judicial finding of intentional racial discrimination in violation of the Constitution, which we have in this case.

While Costa's concurrence was only a paragraph, the Bush judges' opinion went on for many pages. Judge Clement (joined by Judge Haynes) wrote that Texas will be irreparably harmed if the stay is not issued: "When a statute is enjoined, the State necessarily suffers the irreparable harm of denying the public interest in the enforcement of its laws."

But what is the public interest in enforcing a law that a district judge concluded was passed with the intent to make it harder for African Americans and Latinos to vote? What interest does Texas have in enforcing a law that violates the Constitution?

The two Bush-43 judges also stated critically that Judge Ramos didn't give a reason for applying the injunction so close to the beginning of an election, even though Texas warned it would disrupt the election process.

Perhaps "disrupting the election process" is warranted when that process has been intentionally designed to disenfranchise targeted groups.

While all three judges agreed to stay the district court's ruling and allow Texas to enforce its voter ID law, the different approach taken by Bush and Obama judges is notable.

PFAW Foundation

Texas Judge Could Teach the Roberts Court a Thing or Two

Late yesterday, federal district Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos struck down Texas' restrictive voter ID law. Judge Ramos found that it creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect on African Americans and Latinos, and is an unconstitutional poll tax. Most importantly, a careful analysis of the record led her to conclude that the law was passed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.

This is a terrific development for those who care about the right to vote. And the fact that the discrimination was intentional triggers Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, which permits Judge Ramos to subject Texas to the same type of preclearance conditions it was subject to under Section 5, before the notorious Shelby County decision. She is expected to decide whether to pursue that course of action within the next few days.

This is a textbook case of why courts matter, and why it matters who sits on those courts. Texas citizens' right to vote was being threatened by their own state government, in clear violation of the law. The federal courts have now stepped in to make sure the promises of the U.S. Constitution are kept.

The opening of Judge Ramos' opinion makes clear that she recognizes the preeminent importance of the right to vote:

The right to vote: It defines our nation as a democracy. It is the key to what Abraham Lincoln so famously extolled as a "government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people." The Supreme Court of the United States, placing the power of the right to vote in context, explained [in 1964]: "Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized." [footnotes removed]

She could teach a thing or two to the five conservatives on the Roberts Court, whose Shelby County ruling gave the green light to politicians in Texas and elsewhere eagerly seeking to make it harder for certain people to vote.

PFAW Foundation

A New Reason to Confirm Texas Judicial Nominees This Fall

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts this morning formally reclassified a longstanding judicial vacancy in southern Texas as a judicial emergency. That means the caseload is too high for the work to get done in a fair and efficient manner, so Americans seeking to vindicate their rights can't be assured of getting their day in court. But this vacancy is hardly alone: Of the Lone Star State's 11 current vacancies, eight of them are judicial emergencies, and eight of them have no nominees. Those numbers are too high.

Fortunately, nominees for three of the state's emergencies are having hearings before the Judiciary Committee tomorrow: Amos Mazzant, Trey Schroeder, and Robert Pitman. They have the support of the White House that nominated them and the two Republican senators who recommended them. In a historic first, Pitman would be Texas's first openly gay federal judge. He would also fill a seat that has been vacant since 2008, the nation's second oldest vacancy.

If tomorrow's hearing doesn't uncover any problems, then Texans need for all three nominees to take their places in the courtroom as soon as possible. If the Judiciary Committee can vote them out before leaving town later this month, the Senate should be able to hold a confirmation vote before the election. Otherwise, senators will need to come back to approve them in a lame duck session. There is no excuse to leave any courtrooms empty until next year if they can be filled this fall – especially in a state with as many judicial emergencies as Texas.

PFAW

The Right Wing's Immigration Hysteria: Round-Up

Here’s a round-up of last week’s Right Wing immigration hysteria:

PFAW

Judicial Vacancies Wreaking Havoc In U.S. Courts

Judicial vacancies slow down courts’ work, drive up litigation costs, cause evidence to go stale, make it harder to settle civil cases, and even pressure defendants into pleading guilty, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center. The report cites example after example of how not having enough judges erodes our nation’s system of justice. Everyone counts on having their day in court, a fundamentally American principle that is threatened by persistent vacancies. The report quotes Chief Judge William Skretny of New York’s Western District:

We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.

Heavier caseloads and backlog created by vacancies also take a toll on judges, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on each case.

Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis in the Eastern District of Texas described the situation in his district as “simple math.” With more cases “you have less time to give to [an individual] case,” he explained. “It affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quantity of work you can complete,” he added.

[Judge Davis] also highlighted the impact of the Sherman vacancy on the timing of sentencing. “It’s a hardship for the litigants,” he explained. “Due to the backlog and [the] vacancy [in Sherman], we have a very high population of criminal defendants, about 200, sitting in county jails, having pled guilty and waiting for sentences. They can’t get their cases processed.” He noted that inmates are typically housed in a county jail because there are no federal facilities available, which is more costly for the government and leaves inmates with fewer work and educational opportunities. “That’s not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities,” he said.

As the report makes clear, vacancies have real impacts for all citizens. This is why PFAW supports the speedy confirmation of qualified judicial nominees to federal courts. Filling judicial vacancies with quality judges will reduce backlogs and costs while allowing the judicial system to better serve all Americans. Maintaining the third branch is one of the most important constitutional functions that the Senate performs.

PFAW

The Right Wing's Inflammatory Reaction to the Border Crisis

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As we’re dealing with the refugee crisis on the southern border, right-wing elected officials have amped up their inappropriate, inflammatory rhetoric to dehumanize immigrants and attack immigration reform:

  • Sen. Ted Cruz announced last week that his new “top priority”  in Washington is to end President Obama’s deferred action program for DREAMers and deport undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. While trying to soften his appearance by bringing teddy bears and soccer balls to children at the southern border, he proclaimed that “as long as that promise of amnesty is there, more and more children will come... We need to eliminate the promise of amnesty.”
  • Rep. Louie Gohmert claims children being held are a problem because “we don’t even know what all diseases they have” and added that our healthcare system “can’t withstand the influx,” which, he believes was orchestrated by President Obama to recruit millions of people to cast fraudulent ballots for Democrats.
  • Sen. David Vitter has “had it with undocumented immigrants,” and tweeted on Friday that “enough is enough.” To deal with the crisis, he introduced a bill that would “require mandatory detention for anyone” that is in the U.S. illegally, in order to get “illegal aliens on the next plane home.” (Mother Jones calculated that this effort would require more than 64,000 planes to actually work.)
  • Rep. Tom Tancredo shared a similar plan when he said that President Obama should “sign an executive order saying all these people ought to be returned. Put them on buses or planes, send them back to the countries from which they came and have the governments there take care of it.”
  • Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, claimed that these unaccompanied minors from Central America are probably “gangbangers” and questioned why they are being sent to this county in the first place.

Of course, elected extremists aren’t the only ones making outrageous statements:

  • The Minuteman Project’s Jim Gilchrist said this crisis is “part of a concerted effort to transfer populations of Central America and Mexico into the United States using minor children, illegal immigrants under the age of 18, as human shields… to detour our ability to enforce our immigration laws.”
  • The American Family Association’s Sandy Rios suggested the child refugees should be quarantined like lepers used to be, harking back to “biblical times” when the “lepers were separated” because it was “understood that leprosy was so contagious.” Rios' fretted that these children are transported in the “same planes that you and I fly in… How do we know about lice and disease before they get on public transportation?”
  • Jody Hice, running to replace Georgia Rep. Paul Broun in the U.S. House, suggested that people take up arms in response to “a government that refuses to secure our borders” because “that is the reason we have a Second Amendment.”

The Right Wing's inflammatory rhetoric distorts the reality of the crisis, causing more conflict and damage.

PFAW

PFAWF Celebrates Confirmation of Julián Castro as U.S. HUD Secretary

Andrew Gillum is the Director of Youth Leadership Programs at  People For the American Way Foundation.

Julián Castro, current mayor of San Antonio, was just confirmed in the Senate by a 71-26 vote to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department. Castro, one of the earliest members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, is the first to become a Cabinet member.

I remember meeting Julián at our very first YEO convening in 2006, and being impressed with his passion to serve and better his community in Texas. We are incredibly proud of Julián and excited to see what he’ll accomplish in this new position. His proven leadership in fostering urban revitalization and economic growth make him a natural fit for this position, where he will be able to combat homelessness and help secure access to affordable, quality housing for more Americans.

Julián’s confirmation yesterday demonstrates how supporting young elected officials in our movement can reap tremendous results. I often say that YEOs are the state and local leaders of today as well as the national leaders of tomorrow. While Julián will be the first (former) YEO member to serve in a cabinet level post, I am sure he won’t be the last.

PFAW Foundation

Voting Rights Advocates Rack Up More Wins

Earlier this month, PFAW reported on what has gone right for voting rights at the state level in 2014. While there is much more work to be done to enact needed reforms and to step up and counter threats when the right to vote is under attack, states like Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina have shown that we can win.

Now we've uncovered even more evidence of why we can and should keep fighting the challenges that lay before us.

Voters themselves will get to decide what voter empowerment means in Illinois. House Speaker Michael Madigan's constitutional amendment providing "that no person shall be denied the right to register to vote or to cast a ballot in an election based on race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, sex, sexual orientation, or income" passed both chambers and will be on the November ballot. A similar effort is afoot in Ohio.

Native American voters in Montana have seen two encouraging developments. In Jackson v. Wolf Point School District, an agreement was reached that will provide for five-single member school board districts in addition to one at-large representative, as opposed to the existing multimember districts that heavily favored the area's white population. Wandering Medicine v. McCullough, which challenges the availability of late registration and early voting for residents of the Crow, North Cheyenne, and Fort Belknap Reservations, will proceed following a failed motion to dismiss the case.

In Washoe County, Nevada, home to Reno and the state's second most populated county, voters have come to expect 14 consecutive early voting days. This year, though, county commissioners planned to eliminate the two optional Sundays that fall within that period. The American Civil Liberties Union and other allies organized quickly, sending a letter to Chairman David Humke and providing testimony at a commission meeting. Thankfully at that same meeting Chairman Humke announced that Sunday early voting was back on and warrants further study.

Tod Story, ACLU of Nevada Executive Director, said:

Early voting allows more people to participate in our democracy, and weekend voting is necessary for many hardworking Nevadans. Weekends are especially important days for voting drives, including for communities of faith

US District Judge Nelva Ramos told Texas legislators, much like US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake did in North Carolina, that their emails must be disclosed – albeit confidentially – in the ongoing Voting Rights Act challenge to the 2011 Texas voter ID law.

Huffington Post:

The United States argued that the emails could be the only existing candid evidence about the purpose of the legislation because Texas Republicans coordinated their talking points on the bill and refused to publicly engage with the concerns of minority legislators. If any of the emails reveal discriminatory intent, the U.S. will still have to argue to get them admitted as evidence during the trial phase of the lawsuit.

Finally, Utah is taking Election Day Registration for a test drive. Governor Gary Herbert has signed HB 156, which sets up an opt-in pilot program for counties and municipalities. The state will keep an eye on how they do and report back to the legislature for possible further action.

We can win, and let's not forget that.

Check out PFAW’s website for more voting rights updates.

PFAW

Texas Republican Highlights How GOP Should Face the Changing Electorate

In the famously red state of Texas, Republican state legislator Jason Villalba of Dallas last week offered a frank assessment of the crossroads at which his party finds itself.

[T]he time has come closer when we will see the sleeping giant [of the Hispanic electorate] awaken and it will make a tremendous difference in our ability to win elections if we cannot win the votes of our fellow Hispanics.

Even as the country rapidly becomes more diverse, the GOP has clung to its strategy of alienating Latinos, African Americans, women, and LGBT people with an endless barrage of outrageous statements and discriminatory policies.

As some Republican leaders, like Villalba in Texas, are noting, this tactic isn’t good for the GOP. Demographic changes, though small on the surface, could have major political impacts, particularly in swing states, that will make it harder and harder for Republicans to win important elections.

In Texas alone, analysts are projecting a two percent increase in the Latino electorate for the 2016 election cycle compared to 2012. That kind of increase is still relatively minor in Texas, but a similar shift could make a crucial difference in swing states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. As GOP pollster Whit Ayres notes

Changing the demographics of the state by two percentage points puts a finger on the scale in each of the swing states for the party that’s doing well among Hispanics. This underscores the critical importance for Republican candidates to do better among nonwhite Americans, particularly among Hispanics, if Republicans ever hope to elect another president.

Some far right activists argue that the GOP can win by increasing its share of the white vote, but the numbers don’t bear that out. As Resurgent Republic noted, “every month for the next two decades, 50,000 Hispanics will turn 18.” Without appealing to those voters, Republicans face a steep climb to victory in any national race—and a quick journey to minority party status.

No wonder the party is so fond of strict voter ID laws, restricted early voting opportunities, and proof of citizenship laws to deter certain people from coming out to vote.

PFAW