Are Conservative Justices Suggesting that Oppression Justifies More Oppression?

At today's oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges (the marriage cases), some Justices expressed concern with concluding that the Constitution prohibits marriage bans when no state allowed same-sex couples to marry until 2003, and that they could not think of a society in history that had allowed same-sex couples to marry.

It seems that gets things backward. It's not like throughout recorded history, gays and lesbians have been treated well but for the itty-bitty fact that we were not allowed to marry the people we loved. In fact, the opposite is true. For much of history, gays and lesbians have been stigmatized, tortured, scorned, cast out, etc. by the governing forces in their societies, both church and state. American society from our founding is far from immune from this indictment.

It is hardly a surprise that societies that suppress a minority don't establish institutions like marriage to take that minority's needs into account.

The absence of marriage equality in much of human history is not a rationale to continue to deny this fundamental right to same-sex couples. Oppression does not warrant continued oppression under the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. Exactly the opposite is true: A history of oppression warrants heightened scrutiny of laws that harm the targets of historical oppression.

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In Marriage Arguments, Scalia Overlooks the People's Role in Adopting Equal Protection

During oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges this morning, Justice Scalia sought to frame the marriage issue as a question of who decides how to define marriage: the people, or the Court?

At one point, he asked how many states have chosen to allow same-sex couples to marry by legislative act or referendum. When the attorney for the couples also mentioned states whose courts have interpreted their state constitutions as requiring marriage equality, Scalia responded:

But ... that's not the people deciding, it's judges deciding.

But those state constitutions, like the federal one Scalia is tasked to interpret, were adopted by the people. And in adopting constitutional guarantees of Equal Protection, the people agreed to impose powerful and permanent limitations on their future lawmaking. The people agreed that they wanted to be held to a higher standard when, then or at some future point, they decide to pass laws harming a particular group. And the people chose to do so by adopting Equal Protection as a general principle, rather than adopting a specific list of who is worthy of protection.

The Supreme Court should rule that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates the Equal Protection Clause, a promise the people made to themselves and to us when they adopted the 14th Amendment.

PFAW Foundation

Justice Ginsburg Tackles Idea that Marriage Definition Has Existed for Millennia

One of the words being bandied about at this morning's oral arguments in the marriage cases was "millennia." One of the anti-equality side's main talking points is that equality proponents are asking the Justices to "redefine marriage," as if marriage has been static in nature for time immemorial. Justice Kennedy raised this issue early in oral arguments. As reported in the Washington Post:

10:06 a.m.: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is believed to be the deciding vote in this case, quickly jumped in with a question about the long-standing view of marriage as between two members of the opposite sex. "The word that keeps coming back to me is ‘millennia,' " he said.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in the United States for only about a decade, since Massachusetts legalized it in 2006, Kennedy said. "I don't even know how to count the decimals," he said. "This definition has been with us for millennia."

Perhaps no one is better qualified to tackle this aspect of the case than Justice Ginsburg. As live-blogged by SCOTUSBlog:

One seemingly striking moment came when Justice Ginsburg spoke of how it was recent changes to the institution of marriage that made it appropriate for gay and lesbian couples -- in particular, it becoming an egalitarian institution rather than one dominated by the male partners who determined where and how the couple would live.

Indeed, the idea of marriage as the voluntary union of two lawful equals is hardly one that goes back millennia, or even to our nation's founding. For much of American history, women who got married actually lost their civil identities as individuals, being seen in the eyes of the law only as the wives of their husbands, who had all the legal rights. In the 19th century, it was considered a major reform to allow a woman to keep her own property in her own name after she married, rather than having it automatically transfer to her husband. A more recent reform is that a wife is not automatically considered to have given consent to her husband for sexual intercourse.

Marriage as it is practiced in our country is hardly millennia old. Much of what defined marriage in U.S. history would today be struck down as violating the rights of women under the 14th Amendment. When a New York court in the 1980s struck down that state's rape exemption that allowed men to rape their wives, the judge opened his opinion with quotation from John Stuart Mill's 1869 essay The Subjection of Women: "Marriage is the only actual bondage known to our law. There remain no legal slaves, except the mistress of every house."

But the court that struck down the spousal rape exemption more than a century after that was written was not engaged in an illegitimate "redefinition" of marriage. It was simply enforcing the 14th Amendment, as the Supreme Court is being asked to do today.

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Grassley Threatening to Shut Down His Minimal Actions on Judges in Mid-2016

According to press reports, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley suggested today at a National Press Club event that the Senate will shut down judicial confirmations in July of next year since it is a presidential election year. CQ reporter John Gramlich tweets:

.@ChuckGrassley on judicial noms: "Come July of 2016, probably they'll be cut off...It's just kind of tradition."

This is awfully rich, coming from the man who has done so much since becoming chairman to ensure that our nation's courts are not adequately staffed. Even though President Obama nominated seven qualified people to the bench back in November, Grassley has allowed only two of them to have hearings. Ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy noted last week that the committee had “not held a hearing on single judicial nomination in more than six weeks and we have several well qualified nominees waiting for a hearing.”

For instance, Eastern Pennsylvania district judge Phil Restrepo was nominated to the Third Circuit back on November 12 with the support of both of his home state senators (Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey), but Grassley has refused to schedule a hearing for him. Other nominees from last November being affirmatively neglected are Dale Drozd (Eastern District of California), LaShann DeArcy Hall and Ann Donnelly (Eastern District of New York), and Travis McDonough (Eastern District of Tennessee).

Once they have their hearings, there are another seven people who were nominated this year who also need consideration, most of whom were nominated back in February.

Even when he allows hearings and schedules a committee vote to advance a circuit or district court nomination to the floor – something that he has allowed only six times this year – Grassley delays the vote without providing a reason.

The backlog that the Iowa senator is deliberately creating is growing.

And now he is talking about shutting down the process next year? You could barely tell he's started the process!

Also, someone ought to remind the Senator what happened during George W. Bush's last year in office. In 2008, the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee held hearings for ten of Bush's judicial nominees in September, and all ten were confirmed by the full Senate that same month. In fact, half of those were confirmed just three days after their committee hearing.

Perhaps Chairman Grassley should spend more time processing circuit and district court nominations and less time laying the groundwork for prematurely shutting down the confirmation process altogether.

PFAW

How Big Money In Politics Is Making It Harder For Criminal Defendants To Get A Fair Trial

When the Supreme Court struck down limits on outside spending in elections in the 2010 Citizens United case, critics pointed to a potentially huge public policy impact in issues ranging from environmental protection to tax policy to health care to voting rights.

But one impact of Citizens United has gone without as much public discussion as it deserves: It’s making it harder for criminal defendants to get a fair trial.

Last fall, the American Constitution Society released a report by two Emory University law professors illustrating that the big spending that Citizens United let loose in state judicial elections created a climate in which elected judges were more reluctant to side with defendants in criminal cases.

Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang found that outside groups seeking to influence judicial elections — usually for reasons unrelated to criminal justice policy — often relied on “Willie Horton” style attack ads implying that targeted judges were “soft on crime.” The proliferation of outside spending and the attack ads that the spending bought, they found, correlated with a decrease in the frequency with which elected state appellate judges ruled in favor of defendants in criminal cases.

“Unlimited independent spending is associated with, on average, a seven percent decrease in justices’ voting in favor of criminal defendants,” they wrote. “That is, the results predict that, after Citizens United, justices would vote differently and against criminal defendants in 7 out of 100 cases.”

Shepherd discussed her findings yesterday at a panel convened by ACS, along with retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Norman Reimer and Tanya Clay House of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Nelson, who was on the Montana Supreme Court when it famously ruled that Citizens United didn't apply to that state's unique history of corruption (Nelson dissented, saying the high court’s ruling applied to Montana, but took the opportunity to demolish the decision while he was at it), said he had lived first-hand the impact of big money in judicial races.

“The fact of the matter is that is when justices running for political office are attacked during their campaigns, it forces them to look over their shoulder constantly,” he said. “And I can tell you that from personal experience. You have to fight to make yourself vote the way the law requires you to vote. And most judges do. But it’s in these marginal cases where there’s a close call and perhaps the case should go to a defendant, it doesn’t go to the defendant.”

The groups spending money on judicial attack ads, he said, “really don’t give a damn about defendants’ rights. They really don’t care. What they want to do is to get somebody onto a court who marches in lockstep with their philosophy, or get somebody off the court that does not march in lockstep with their philosophy.”

Reimer sounded a similar note: “The fight is really about commercial interests. It’s usually about the plaintiffs’ bar versus the corporate interests, the unions, the conservatives. It’s about nothing to do with criminal justice. But because of the fear factor, that’s where you go after somebody.”

“I think we all need to understand and appreciate what’s really at risk here,” Nelson said. “And what’s really at risk is the fair, independent and impartial judicial system that most citizens in this country, and I think most lawyers in this country, simply take for granted. And if the dark money flows from Super PACS and the Koch brothers and RSLC and groups like them get control of the judiciary … That’s what this is all about: getting control of the third branch of government. If they get control of that third branch by spending their way to the top, then we’re going to lose that fair, impartial and independent judiciary that we’ve all come to expect and rely upon. Certainly criminal defendants are going to suffer immeasurably.”

Clay House pointed out that there is already “a different perception of the criminal justice system and judiciary among communities of color.” Pew found in 2013 that 68 percent of black Americans said they were “treated less fairly than whites” in the courts, while the majority of whites were oblivious to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Unchecked spending in judicial elections, the evidence shows, may be making that perception, and the reality, even worse.

PFAW

Clinton Recognizes the Key Role of Supreme Court Nominations in Protecting Our Democracy

Hillary Clinton's campaign has made clear perhaps the most important way that America's choice for president in 2016 will have a profound effect for good or for ill on the health of our democracy: the next president's Supreme Court nominees.

As reported in Bloomberg, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta noted the importance of Supreme Court nominations during an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose yesterday:

"What she's out there doing is saying that we need to clean up financial—the campaign finance. Just listen to the voices of everyday Americans to, you know, move forward, and if it takes a constitutional amendment, so be it. I think the first thing that she'll do, quite frankly—and that this will set her apart from her Republican opponents—is that she'll appoint Supreme Court justices who protect the right of every American to vote, not every corporation to buy an election."

The Roberts Court's devastating campaign finance rulings like Citizens United have all been 5-4. It is that one-vote margin that gave corporations the ability to pour unlimited amounts of dark money into influencing our elections, that has tossed out common-sense efforts to restore the voices of those who are not among the nation's financial elite, and that has ramped up the ability of millionaires and billionaires to give even more money directly to parties and campaigns.

But those recent cases are sharp departures from the Court's previous jurisprudence on the First Amendment, and it could take only one new Supreme Court Justice to overrule them.

Similarly, the rampant assault on voting rights we have seen in recent years can be traced back to bad rulings in Shelby County (gutting the Voting Rights Act) and Crawford (okaying restrictive photo ID requirements to vote). We can be sure that more challenges to the right to vote will make their way to the Supreme Court, and it is critical that we have Justices who understand the importance of protecting that right.

Three of the current Justices will be 80 or older by the time the next president is inaugurated, and a fourth will turn 80 in 2018. The next president may have one or more opportunities to change the Court, either to strengthen the current hard-right majority for a generation or more, or to restore a Court that we can rely on to protect our rights and our democracy.

PFAW

Thanks, Mitch: Confirmed Judges to Skyrocket From One to Two

The GOP-controlled Senate's record for slow-walking President Obama's judicial nominees stands in stark contrast to how the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed George W. Bush's judicial nominees in his final two years. Democrats shepherded 68 of Bush's circuit and district court judges through confirmation in his last two years, including 15 by this point in 2007.

Back in February, the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved four district court nominees from Texas and Utah. But it wasn't until last week that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally allowed a vote on one of them, the first and only judicial confirmation vote of the 114th Congress.

Today, McConnell is taking aggressive action by scheduling a Senate vote on ... one of the three remaining district court nominees that have been pending on the floor for nearly two months. Wow, one! Such progress!

The sky's the limit!

PFAW

More of the Same, As Grassley Delays More Judicial Nominees

This morning, two judicial nominees were scheduled for a vote before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Unfortunately, Republicans on the committee delayed the votes for Kara Farnandez Stoll (for the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals) and Roseann Ketchmark (for the Western District of Missouri) by at least a week.

Why? Because they could.

Committee rules let senators "hold over" (i.e., delay) committee votes without explanation. This can be a useful mechanism when a nominee is controversial or when senators need more time to evaluate a particular nominee. At its best, the rule can be of use to senators who take seriously their constitutional obligation to staff the federal courts with highly qualified, apolitical judges.

Unfortunately, it can also be of use to Republicans senators seeking to slow down the confirmation process as much as possible in order to maximize the number of vacancies available for a future Republican president to fill with right-wing ideologues.

Since Obama became president, only 12 of his circuit and district court nominees have had their committee votes held on schedule. Republicans have had committee votes held over without cause for all but 12 of his judicial nominees, which is an unprecedented abuse of the rule. That's less than 5% of all the Obama judicial nominees who the Judiciary Committee has voted on.

It was bad enough when Republicans were in the minority and demanding needless delays of President Obama's nominees over the course of six years. But now they are in the majority. They're demanding delays in the schedule that they themselves set up.

So while the number of circuit and district court vacancies has jumped from 40 at the beginning of the year to 50 today, and while judicial emergencies have nearly doubled from 12 to 23 in the same period, Sen. Grassley and his GOP colleagues on the Judiciary Committee are using every opportunity to delay the consideration of judicial nominees.

PFAW

Where is Pat Toomey on Phil Restrepo's Nomination?

Sunday was the five-month anniversary of when President Obama nominated Pennsylvanian Phil Restrepo to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Yet Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley has still refused to schedule a hearing for him.

It's not like the committee has been hearing too many other circuit and district court nominees to make room for Restrepo. In fact, Grassley has had only two hearings for such nominees so far this year. At the second one, he only scheduled it for two nominees, although several other long-waiting nominees could easily have been accommodated.

And it's not like there is no need to fill the vacancy. In fact, on January 27, Third Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell announced her intention to take senior status on July 1, making it important to get Restrepo confirmed by then so the court would not needlessly have a second vacancy. Nevertheless, Grassley did nothing.

A few weeks later, on February 20, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts officially re-designated the vacancy that Restrepo would fill as a judicial emergency. Grassley's response was to do nothing. It was three weeks later that he held a hearing for two other judicial nominees and chose to exclude Restrepo.

Way back in November, Restrepo's nomination prompted statements of support from both of his home state senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey. Unfortunately, it has been clear for awhile now that Grassley needs additional prodding, and given GOP control of the Senate, Toomey has a particular responsibility to make sure this nominee receives the attention he deserves. Other than release a statement five months ago, has Toomey spoken with Grassley? If not, why not? And if so, why has he been so ineffectual over these past five months?

 

PFAW

Mitch McConnell: Doing the Least He Can Possibly Do

Last week, PFAW’s Paul Gordon pointed out that Senator Mitch McConnell’s ongoing campaign to obstruct President Obama’s judicial nominees had resulted in not a single new judge since Republicans took over the US Senate. If there’s been no movement it certainly hasn’t been for lack of need. The number of judicial vacancies has risen from 40 to 51, and the number of judicial emergencies has doubled from 12 to 24. Yet up until recently, Senator McConnell hasn’t seen fit to allow a vote on a single nominee.

But lest anyone think that Mitch McConnell hasn’t been paying attention to the judicial vacancy crisis or the Americans who pay the price when their cases are delayed or relocated, today everything changed: today Senator McConnell allowed a vote on … one judicial nominee!

Surely, Senator McConnell’s name will now be listed along with the great senate leaders of our history because he finally brought himself to allow a vote on one, single, solitary nominee. Just look at those numbers!

McConnell's Remarkable Record of Confirming Judicial Nominees

Truly, Senator McConnell, your willingness to move heaven and earth to do—literally—the least you could possibly do to put partisanship aside and perform the duties you’re paid for is an inspiration to us all.

Let’s give you a round of applause. You earned it.

Mary Poppins Is Not Impressed

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