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.


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.


West Texas Judges Talk About the Need for More Judges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Severe Conditions in Texas Courts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Senators Cornyn and Cruz Don't Help Texas Nominee

Several days ago we asked what Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz would do at this week's business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which they both serve. Would they stand up for their home-state's Fifth Circuit judicial nominee Gregg Costa? Or would they side with their fellow Judiciary Committee Republicans and let them delay Costa's scheduled vote for at least two weeks for no reason except to obstruct an Obama nominee?

This morning, we got our answer from the Texas senators: The vote was delayed. Cornyn and Cruz didn't even bother to show up for the meeting.

Committee chairman Patrick Leahy noted their absence:

I had hoped that we'd have one of the Texas senators here, so far as we have a Texas judge here, but apparently they're tied up.

It's not Senators Cornyn and Cruz who are tied up, but the Fifth Circuit Court, which has three vacancies, all of which have been designated as judicial emergencies. But they – and the people they serve – will just have to wait for some relief.


Will Texas Senators Help Delay 5th Circuit Judicial Nominee Gregg Costa?

This Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on several judicial nominees, including Fifth Circuit nominee Gregg Costa of Texas. With two Texans on the committee and the vacancy having been designated a judicial emergency by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, Sens. Cornyn and Cruz have the ability – and the responsibility – to make sure that vote isn't needlessly delayed by their GOP colleagues.

Costa sailed through his committee hearing last month, with no one expressing any concerns with his nomination. In fact, Sen. Cornyn cited Costa's nomination as a welcome area of agreement between the two parties. So why would we even be talking about a partisan-motivated delay?

Unfortunately, in the Obama era, needless delays of committee votes have become the GOP's standard operating procedure. Republicans have exercised the right of the minority party to have a committee vote delayed without cause in almost every instance for President Obama's judicial nominees, which is an unprecedented abuse of the rules. Until a month ago, they had allowed only five exceptions to this delaying tactic.

Notably, in a development Sens. Cornyn and Cruz should pay attention to, the number of exceptions doubled just a couple of weeks ago when Arizona Sens. Flake and McCain persuaded their colleagues not to delay a committee vote on six desperately needed district court nominees for a state overrun with judicial emergencies.

Like Arizona, Texas has an unusually acute need to have its vacancies filled. All three of the Fifth Circuit's vacancies are for seats slotted for Texas judges; that's a full third of the Lone Star State's allotted seats. All three of the court's vacancies have been formally designated as judicial emergencies, since the caseload is so high there. The seat to which Costa has been nominated has been vacant for more than two years.

If Costa doesn't get a committee vote as scheduled, that means a further two-week delay (since the Senate will be in recess next week). But why delay a consensus nominee whose service is badly needed? The senators from Texas are well placed, as members of the Judiciary Committee, to urge their GOP colleagues not to obstruct the scheduled vote.


Texas Ban on Same-Sex Marriage Struck Down

In another win for the marriage equality movement, today U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia struck down Texas’ ban on marriage for same-sex couples.  The judge wrote that "Texas' current marriage laws deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and in doing so, demean their dignity for no legitimate reason.”

The Washington Post reports:

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia did not say gay marriages could be performed immediately. Instead, he stayed the decision, citing a likely appeal.

"Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution," Garcia wrote in his decision. "These Texas laws deny Plaintiffs access to the institution of marriage and its numerous rights, privileges, and responsibilities for the sole reason that Plaintiffs wish to be married to a person of the same sex."

Similar bans have been struck down in states across the country – most recently in Virginia less than two weeks ago. Today’s victory in a state with a whopping 26 million residents brings us one important step closer to nationwide marriage equality.

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.



Texas Voter ID Law Disenfranchises Women Who Have Changed Their Names

In June, the Supreme Court struck down the key enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which mandated Justice Department review of election law changes in states and counties with a history of voting discrimination.

The state of Texas responded almost immediately by going ahead with an arduous photo ID requirement that had until the Supreme Court’s decision been blocked by federal courts.

As the Justice Department and voting rights advocates feared, Texas’ law, which went into effect on Monday, is already keeping qualified people from registering to vote. So far, only 41 of the 1.4 million people who lack an eligible voter ID have obtained a substitute “election identification certificate.” But the new requirement isn’t just preventing people who don’t have certain forms of ID from registering to vote – it’s also threatening to disenfranchise women who changed their names when they married.

Policy Mic notes that the Texas law “requires all voters to provide a photo ID that reflects their current name. If they cannot, voters must provide any of a series of other acceptable forms of identification all of which must match exactly and match the name on their birth certificate." This presents a problem for the 34 percent of women who lack an ID that shows their current name, including those who changed their names when they married:

In fact, only 66% of women have an ID that reflects their current name. If any voter is using name different than what appears on their birth certificate, the voter is required to show proof of name change by providing an original or certified copy of their marriage license, divorce decree, or court ordered name change. Photocopies aren’t accepted.

Now ask a woman who’s been married for years where her original marriage certificate is. Ask a woman who’s been divorced — maybe more than once — where all the divorce decrees are. Ask elderly women where their original birth certificate is.

Today, Think Progress reports on one Texas woman caught in this trap: a state district court judge who has been voting for nearly 50 years but whose registration was almost blocked because her drivers’ license lists her maiden name as her middle name, while her voter registration form did not:

As she told local channel Kiii News, 117th District Court Judge Sandra Watts was flagged for possible voter fraud because her driver’s license lists her maiden name as her middle name, while her voter registration form has her real middle name. This was the first time she has ever had a problem voting in 49 years. “What I have used for voter registration and for identification for the last 52 years was not sufficient yesterday when I went to vote,” she said.

Watts worried that women who use maiden names or hyphenated names may be surprised at the polls. “I don’t think most women know that this is going to create a problem,” the judge said. “That their maiden name is on their driver’s license, which was mandated in 1964 when I got married, and this. And so why would I want to use a provisional ballot when I’ve been voting regular ballot for the last 49 years?"

The Justice Department is currently suing Texas over the law  and asking a federal court to require preclearance in the future, under a section of the Voting Rights Act not affected by its recent ruling.


Houston Chronicle’s Buyer's Remorse Over Ted Cruz Endorsement

(Picture credit to @darth)

If you’re following the shutdown news at all, you probably realize that Ted Cruz has come out of this looking ridiculous. Unless you’re Ted Cruz, of course—he thinks it’s going great. Last week, at the Values Voter Summit, Cruz accepted the endorsement of, um, God:

A woman in the front row shouted a passage from Romans: “If God is with you, who can be against you?” “I receive that blessing,” Cruz said somberly.

It’s always nice when our politicians can retain a sense of perspective. ‘God’s on my side? That figures, I’m pretty great.’

Still, even if Ted Cruz thinks God is a card-carrying member of the righteous Tea Party, an editorial published yesterday shows that this would put God to the right of one of the most conservative large-paper editorial boards in the nation. The largest paper in Texas, the Houston Chronicle, lamented their decision to endorse Cruz last year and bashed him for his inability to reach across the aisle:

When we endorsed Ted Cruz in last November's general election, we did so with many reservations and at least one specific recommendation - that he follow Hutchison's example in his conduct as a senator.

Obviously, he has not done so. Cruz has been part of the problem in specific situations where Hutchison would have been part of the solution.

The paper went on to mourn the loss of Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst to the Cruz wing of the party, pointing out that Dewhurst’s attempt at a “full-blown political makeover” is “painful to watch.” Indeed it is: on Monday, Dewhurst called for the impeachment of President Obama. Your moderate alternative, Texas.

Aside from Cruz’s corrosive influence on Texas politics, though, the question remains: does he even know America thinks he’s nuts? Hopefully, a conservative outlet like this criticizing him will be a wake-up call for the Senator from Tea Partysville, but I worry that he’s too far gone now. If there’s any silver lining to this, it’s that the 2016 presidential debate between Ted Cruz and Rick Perry is going to be amazing.