PFAW Telebriefing: The Future of the Supreme Court

On Monday, the first day of the Supreme Court’s new term, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing for members detailing what’s at stake at the Court over the next year.

PFAW Senior Communications Specialist Layne Amerikaner moderated the call.  Affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon, who recently published an extensive Supreme Court term preview, and PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg, lead author of the new PFAW report, “Judgment Day 2016: The Future of the Supreme Court as a Critical Issue in the 2016 Presidential Election,” were joined by PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker to brief members and answer questions.

Paul kicked off the call by discussing the critical issues on the Court’s docket right now: the rights of working people, equal representation through voting, education opportunities through affirmative action, and more. For example, Paul explained that Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could “severely weaken the ability of workers to form unions” that negotiate salary, benefits, and more. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court could make it very difficult to “maintain healthy diversity at colleges and universities.”

As Paul explained, the mere fact that these and some other cases are on the docket is disturbing. These cases have been “ginned up to topple precedents that conservatives don’t like.” Affirmative action, union fair share fees to prevent free-riding, one person one vote for equality of representation: these are principles that the Court decided decades ago. It used to be that conservatives couldn’t muster up four justices to take on cases like these, but now that Justices Roberts and Alito have joined the Court, we’re seeing more and more cases and decisions that challenge fundamental rights.

Elliot detailed the importance of the ideological makeup of the Court: There have been more than 80 5-4 decisions in the Supreme Court since Roberts and Alito joined the Court. Most of these cases have been extremely harmful to our rights, in areas like money and politics, voting rights, and reproductive freedom. Some, though, have protected important rights, as Justice Kennedy has at times been unwilling to join the conservatives on the Court. For example, he voted with the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges to make marriage equality the law of the land. But as Elliot reminded members, there will be four justices in their 80s by the end of the next president’s first term, and another conservative justice would be devastating for issues that PFAW and members care deeply about, such as abortion rights, worker protections, and religious liberty, just to name a few.

Both conservative and progressive groups know that the next president could very well shift the makeup of the Court and thus the outcomes of key cases. Questions from members focused on what to do to take action on this issue. Elliot and Marge encouraged members to discuss with their friends and colleagues the critical impact the 2016 election will have on how pressing issues will be decided for decades to come. They also discussed with members the possibility of attending town halls for presidential candidates, who will nominate the next Supreme Court justices, as well as Senate candidates, who must confirm the justices, in order to ask questions about the types of justices they will support.

Listen to the full briefing here:


Senate Democrats Highlight Importance of Functioning Courts

With John Boehner’s decision to abandon his position as Speaker of the House, chances of a Republican-driven government shutdown beginning October 1 dwindled – and was averted today with only hours to spare.  Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have shown that they don’t need to shut down the government in order to sabotage the effective functioning of the part of the federal government that has a vital constitutional role in ensuring justice for all: the United States judicial system.

Without enough judges, our courts cannot function, and the American people cannot count on vindicating their rights in a court of law.  Either despite or because of the harm it causes ordinary Americans, the Republican-controlled Senate has only confirmed six judges all year.  In contrast, at this same point in 2007 (Bush’s seventh year), the newly-Democratic Senate had already confirmed 29 of his judicial nominees.  With Senate Republicans obstructing the confirmation of judicial nominees at every step of the way, the number of vacancies has skyrocketed from 40 at the beginning of the year to 64 as of October 1, an increase of 60 percent.  Judicial emergencies have jumped from 12 to 31 in the same time.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer recently took to the Senate floor, highlighting in particular three vacancies in his home state:

The lack of judges has real legal consequences. In the Western District of New York, Judge Skretny--on senior status--has admitted that he is encouraging all cases to settle in pretrial mediation in order to lower caseloads. Criminal trials are prioritized while civil trials languish in delay. The two retired judges, who are the only ones reading cases at the moment, are spending far less time on each individual case than they would under normal circumstances. And defendants may be inclined to settle, admit guilt, and take plea deals rather than wait out a lengthy trial process.

As many of my colleagues have said so eloquently, the harsh truth is that for these petitioners, companies, and communities, justice is being delayed and thus denied. And the same story line is playing out in courtrooms throughout the country. This is not how our judicial system is supposed to work, and it should be an easy problem to rectify.

Yesterday, Dick Durbin of Illinois stood up on the Senate floor and delivered an eloquent statement about the damage caused by obstructing votes on qualified nominees:

[P]eople are asking: When am I going to get my day in court? Well, you will not get your day in court until the new judge gets his day in the Senate. We don’t know when that might happen. There is no reason to delay these confirmation votes. These nominees would be confirmed with overwhelming support. … This is an important responsibility of the Senate. We should not neglect it. …

We could vote on [the many pending executive and judicial nominees] this afternoon. Are we holding off the vote because we are too busy on the Senate floor? If you are following the Senate, you know that is not the case. It is time for us to do our jobs so these nominees can do theirs.

And tying in to the Senate’s recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, Patrick Leahy of Vermont focused yesterday on several highly qualified Latino nominees being slow-walked by the GOP-controlled Senate:

These dedicated public servants are eager to serve, but they have been blocked by the Republican leadership’s virtual shutdown of the judicial confirmation process since they took over the majority in January. More than 8 months into this new Congress, the Republican leadership has allowed just six votes for judges. At this rate, the Senate this year will confirm the fewest number of judges in more than a half century. Luis Felipe Restrepo, Armando Bonilla, John Michael Vazquez, and Dax Lopez all deserve an up or down vote by this Senate.

Restrepo is President Obama’s nominee to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and would be the first Latino from Pennsylvania to ever serve on that court.  Senator Leahy cited supportive statements for Restrepo made by Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, Pat Toomey.  Yet Toomey, who has far more influence with GOP leadership than Democratic senators, has been noticeably silent in the face of Majority Leader McConnell’s refusal to schedule a confirmation vote for the nominee.

These Democratic senators clearly understand that courts play a vital role in making our legal rights real and enforceable.  Perhaps Senate Republicans simply don’t understand that.

Or, more ominously, perhaps they do.


Why November 8, 2016 is Judgment Day for the Supreme Court -- and Our Rights

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

What would have happened if a President McCain had appointed conservatives to the Supreme Court, instead of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, before the Court ruled on marriage equality in the Obergefell case? And what if a President Kerry had filled the seats that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito took before the Court decided theCitizens United campaign finance case? Clearly both those rulings would have come out very differently, with enormous consequences for all Americans. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Roberts-Alito Court and as the 2016 elections get more and more attention, these examples and many more should alert us that Election Day 2016 is truly judgment day for the Supreme Court and for Americans’ rights and liberties. 

Today, People For the American Way released a comprehensive report, Judgment Day 2016, which looks at pivotal Court decisions since Roberts and Alito joined the Court that were decided by a single vote. Many have seriously harmed the rights of ordinary Americans and promoted the interests of powerful corporations. Examples include Citizens United, the ruling striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act inShelby County v. Holder, the decision allowing corporations to claim religion and  deny contraceptive coverage to women in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, and the holding reinterpreting the Second Amendment and severely limiting efforts to limit gun violence in District of Columbia v. Heller. All these and many other decisions could be overruled or limited if a progressive justice replaces just one conservative on the Court, significantly blunting the right-wing judicial assault on a broad array of our rights and liberties.

But there have also been many critical 5-4 decisions over the past ten years where the Court’s  moderate justices, usually joined by Justice Kennedy, have succeeded in protecting Americans’  rights and liberties. In addition to Obergefell, which found a constitutional right to marriage equality, examples include Massachusetts v. EPA, where the Court upheld EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases; Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, which invalidated a state redistricting scheme that used race to harm minority voters; and Boumediene v. Bush, which narrowly ruled that prisoners detained at Guantanamo can challenge their detention through habeas corpus petitions. All these and many other rulings could be overturned or limited if a right-wing justice replaces just one of the moderates on the Court. A Supreme Court with a far-right supermajority would put more and more of our rights at risk.

Why is this particularly important now? During the first term of whoever is elected President in 2016, four Supreme Court justices - including extreme conservative Antonin Scalia, conservative swing vote Anthony Kennedy, and moderates Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer - will be over 80 years old. Given that the average retirement age for justices since 1971 is 78, the odds are overwhelming that the President elected next year will be able to nominate one or more justices who could produce a critical shift in the Court’s ideological balance.

Leading presidential candidates from both parties have already recognized the importance of future Supreme Court appointments and made clear their intent to nominate justices in accord with their views on crucial constitutional issues. In criticizing the Court’s recent 5-4 decision in Obergefell striking down discriminatory marriage bans, for example, Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio pledged to appoint to the Court “people with a proven record of judicial restraint” and “justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood,” in the hope of undermining or reversing the Court’s decision. On the other hand, in criticizing the Court’s 5-4 decisions striking down federal campaign finance law in Citizens United and part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County, Hillary Clinton pledged to “do everything I can to appoint Supreme Court justices who protect the right to vote and do not protect the right of billionaires to buy elections.”

PFAW’s report carefully reviews 5-4 decisions in eleven key areas where the next President and Supreme Court justice could make such a crucial difference to all Americans. These include money in politics; civil and voting rights (including immigration); LGBT rights; reproductive freedom and women’s rights; workplace fairness; protecting the environment; religious liberty; gun violence; marketplace and consumer fairness; access to justice; and protection against government abuse. In addition to past 5-4 rulings in these areas that could be limited or overruled, the Court is quite likely to be deciding cases on these and other key subjects in the years to come.

 Conservatives clearly understand the crucial importance of the Court and the next election in all these areas, with one far right activist noting that “we cannot overstate the importance of the Supreme Court in the next election.” In fact, her group - the Judicial Crisis Network - recently launched an ad campaign criticizing Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy as not conservative enough,  and demanding that Republican candidates pledge to appoint even more conservative justices. The group noted that Court decisions affect “every aspect of our lives today” and that “the next President could appoint a new majority to last a generation.” Hopefully, statements like that will help all Americans to pay close attention to the Supreme Court in the 2016 election and to recognize that November 8, 2016 truly is judgment day.


Supreme Court Nominations: An Issue Affecting All Other Issues, in 2016 and Beyond

In the past decade, scores of Supreme Court decisions addressing some of the most fundamental questions in our country have hinged on the vote of a single Supreme Court justice. Who can marry? Can everyone access the ballot box? Can women be denied reproductive health care? Can corporations flood elections with money?

In past 5-4 decisions on questions like these, from Citizens United to Hobby Lobby to Obergefell, the impact of each presidential Supreme Court nomination on our rights and liberties is clear. And for future decisions, Election Day 2016 – when Americans elect a president who will almost certainly be nominating one or more new justices – becomes a “judgment day” for our rights going forward.

A new PFAW report out today, “Judgment Day 2016,” looks at 80 5-4 decisions the Court has issued since Bush-nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined the Court ten years ago in key areas like money and politics; civil and voting rights; LGBT rights; women’s rights; workplace fairness; protecting the environment, and more. On a range of issues, the report underscores what’s at stake when Americans vote next November.

As principal report author and PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg put it:

In the 2016 election, the Supreme Court is on the ballot…Our next president may very well be nominating three or more Supreme Court justices who could tip the balance in critically important cases.

You can read the report here.


Far Right SCOTUS Isn't Extreme Enough For GOP Presidential Hopefuls

Last night’s Republican presidential debate made clear just how extreme the party has gotten when it comes to the Supreme Court … which means danger to the entire country should one of them have the power to nominate the next one, two, or three Justices.

For instance, Jeb! Bush praised Chief Justice John Roberts,  but suggested that his own Court nominees would have longer records of far-right jurisprudence than Roberts did when he was first nominated by George W. Bush in 2005:

John Roberts has made some really good decisions, for sure, but he did not have a proven, extensive record that would have made the clarity the important thing, and that’s what we need to do.  ... And, I think he is doing a good job.  But, the simple fact is that going forward, what we need to do is to have someone that has a long standing set of rulings that consistently makes it clear that he is a focused, exclusively on upholding the Constitution of the United States so they won’t try to use the bench as a means to which legislate.

Jeb! revealed quite a lot there.  Roberts provided the fifth vote in 5-4 rulings wrecking Americans’ ability to limit money in politics, gutting the Voting Rights Act, giving for-profit corporations religious liberty rights, elevating religious offense as a significant burden on religious exercise, upholding a late term abortion ban, weakening longstanding laws against job discrimination… the list goes on.  And Jeb! thinks Roberts is “doing a good job,” even if his own Justices would be more conservative.

Ted Cruz, on the other hand, angrily focused on the very few times when Roberts did not collaborate with the Republican Party’s efforts to destroy Obamacare.  Cruz blasted John Roberts as insufficiently conservative:

I’ve known John Roberts for 20 years, he’s amazingly talented lawyer, but, yes, it was a mistake when he was appointed to the Supreme Court. He’s a good enough lawyer that he knows in these Obamacare cases he changed the statute, he changed the law in order to force that failed law on millions of Americans for a political outcome.

And, you know, we’re frustrated as conservatives. We keep winning elections, and then we don’t get the outcome we want.

Mike Huckabee made clear what type of Justice he would nominate when the moderator asked if he would apply a litmus test to potential nominees:

You better believe I will … Number one, I’d ask do you think that the unborn child is a human being or is it just a blob of tissue? I’d want to know the answer to that. I’d want to know do you believe in the First Amendment, do you believe that religious liberty is the fundamental liberty around which all the other freedoms of this country are based? And I’d want to know do you really believe in the Second Amendment, do you believe that we have an individual right to bear arms to protect ourselves and our family and to protect our country? And do you believe in the Fifth and the 14th Amendment? Do you believe that a person, before they’re deprived of life and liberty, should in fact have due process and equal protection under the law? Because if you do, you’re going to do more than defund Planned Parenthood

So Huckabee Justices would help right-wing extremists accomplish their longtime dream of eliminating abortion rights altogether.  They would also change U.S. law in keeping with the current conservative project to make it easier for them to disobey laws that offend them religiously, even when it deprives other people of their rights.

The current Supreme Court has done so much damage to our basic rights and liberties, yet it is not conservative enough for Republicans seeking to be the next president.


Conservatives See 2016 as Key to a More Conservative SCOTUS

Four of the nine Supreme Court Justices will be in their 80s during the first term of whoever is elected president next year, meaning he or she could usher in an enormous shift in the Court’s makeup.  The Court issues enormously consequential rulings on numerous issues affecting everyone across the country – LGBT equality, money in politics, workers’ rights, religious liberty, workplace discrimination, abortion rights, and many others.  With the current Court so often divided 5-4, usually tilting toward far-right conservatives, it’s clear that the Supreme Court is perhaps the most important issue in the 2016 presidential election.

You certainly don’t need to persuade conservatives.  In fact, according to press reports, the far-right Judicial Crisis Network is launching a new website and ad campaign to pressure GOP presidential hopefuls ever rightward on the issue of Supreme Court nominations.  A reported in The Hill, the group blasts the arch-conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and very conservative Anthony Kennedy as insufficiently conservative.

“Demand justices with a proven record of upholding the constitution. We can’t afford more surprises,” a narrator says as the video shows the faces of Roberts, Kennedy and former Justice David Souter, who retired in 2009.

The three justices are “examples of bad GOP appointments,” the Judicial Crisis Network said in a statement announcing the advertisements.

[JCN] says it made the $200,000 television and digital ad buys ahead of the Republican presidential debates to get candidates on the record about their approach to Supreme Court picks. The next Republican debate is Wednesday.

The television and digital ads are set to run in Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. starting Monday, the group said.

Roberts and Kennedy … not conservative enough?  Along with Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, they formed the five-person majority that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County), opened the floodgates to corporate money in politics (Citizens United), twisted religious liberty into a tool to deprive others of their legal rights (Hobby Lobby), and regularly misinterpret and severely undermine our nation’s anti-discrimination laws (Ledbetter, for a start).  True, Justice Kennedy authored the Court’s key opinions recognizing the constitutional rights and basic humanity of LGBT people, but he is no liberal.

If conservative activists succeed in electing a conservative president who wants to drive the currently far-right Supreme Court even farther rightward, the repercussions will be enormous.

But imagine instead if Americans elect a president who wants to restore a high court that recognizes and protects our constitutional and statutory rights to liberty, equality, and democracy … Again, the repercussions for people across the entire country would be enormous.

There is one thing where we agree with the JCN.  As their ad says:

On the most important issues, the Supreme Court decides.  The next president could appoint a new majority to last a generation.

Keep that in mind between now and Election Day.  You can be assured that conservatives will.


What Senator Toomey Left Out of His Re-Election Speech

Sen. Pat Toomey is running for reelection next year in a state that tends to favor Democrats in presidential election years.  So it is no surprise that the former head of the far right Club For Growth opened his campaign by presenting himself as a moderate.  As station WITF reports, Toomey presented the area of judicial nominations as an example of his ability to work across the aisle:

"One of the areas [Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and I] work together regularly on is filling vacancies on the federal bench," Toomey said. "The fact is in the four and a half or so years I've been in the Senate, we have been able to recruit, vet, nominate, confirm 15 men and women across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

Many judicial appointments are held up by partisan bickering.

Unfortunately, judges are one of the areas where Toomey has regularly put conservative ideology and the interests of party leaders in Washington, DC, ahead of the interests of the people of Pennsylvania.

The current example involves Phil Restrepo, President Obama’s nominee for the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.  The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has formally classified the vacancy Restrepo would fill as a “judicial emergency” because the caseload per judge is so high.  When judges are overburdened, it is hard for the court to provide justice to litigants in a timely, efficient, and fair manner, forcing too many people to learn the hard way that justice delayed is justice denied.

President Obama nominated L. Felipe Restrepo way back in November, and both Toomey and Casey praised the nomination.  That’s important, because the Judiciary Committee generally won’t even give a judicial nominee a hearing until their home-state senators formally signal their approval on a blue slip of paper.  Casey his submitted his blue slip immediately, but Toomey did not, giving cover to committee chairman Chuck Grassley’s efforts to delay the hearing for as long as possible (part of the GOP’s efforts to obstruct a Democratic president’s efforts to staff the nation’s courts with fair, just, and qualified judges in the hopes of leaving as many vacancies as possible for a Republican successor to Obama to fill).  It took a full seven months before Grassley held the hearing, far longer than was necessary.  The senator faced a torrent of criticism at home for his role in the delay, and Toomey’s efforts to explain Restrepo’s delay raised more questions than they answered.

There was enough time after the June hearing to confirm Restrepo before a second vacancy was scheduled to open in July.  Toomey could have prevented the Third Circuit from having two simultaneous vacancies by using his influence with his Republican colleagues to have Restrepo confirmed in time.  However, he chose not to.

When it became clear that Grassley was planning to delay the scheduled committee vote by two weeks for no reason other than delay’s sake, Toomey could have interceded with his fellow Republican.  That is exactly the kind of thing that home-state senators do for nominees they support.  But Toomey chose not to ask Grassley to hold the vote as scheduled.

When the committee finally approved the nomination in July – unanimously, by the way – there was plenty of time to get him confirmed and fill the emergency vacancy before the Senate’s August recess.  But Toomey failed to press his party leader for a timely vote on Restrepo, the Senate left town, and the vacancy remains open today.

Unfortunately, the Restrepo nomination is not the first time Toomey has put ideology and partisan judicial obstruction ahead of Pennsylvanians’ needs.  In late 2013 and early 2014, he voted in lockstep with Washington Republicans to prevent President Obama from filling any of the three vacant judgeships on the critically important D.C. Circuit Court.  Second in importance only to the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit is the exclusive court to consider appeals of a wide variety of federal agency regulations and decisions affecting the entire country.  Dominated by ideological conservatives, the court was becoming increasingly notorious for issuing troubling decisions favoring the powerful and limiting the role government can play to address national problems.  Working to keep the D.C. Circuit both short-staffed and dominated by far-right conservatives certainly didn’t help the people of Pennsylvania.  Yet he voted against all three highly qualified nominees: Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins.

Toomey apparently didn’t mention any of this in his re-election speech, but it is something Pennsylvanians ought to know when they go to the polls next year.


Bush Judge Stretches to Exempt Group from Contraception Coverage Requirement

Yesterday, Washington DC federal district court Judge Richard Leon – one of George W. Bush’s earliest judicial nominees – issued a bizarre ruling exempting a secular anti-abortion group from complying with the ACA’s contraception coverage requirement.  Judge Leon ruled that not giving March For Life the same exemption as religious entities like churches violates the Equal Protection Clause, and that requiring its employees to have insurance that covers contraception violates their religious liberty under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Leon concluded that, even under the lowest level of Equal Protection scrutiny, there is no rational basis for treating an organization opposed to contraception for moral grounds differently from one opposed on religious grounds.  But that goes against a long legal tradition of recognizing the unique position of religion in our society and under our Constitution.  The Supreme Court has made clear that when the government creates an exemption to a regulation that might otherwise interfere with religious organizations’ exercise of religion, the government does not have to offer that same exemption to secular organizations.  Judge Leon even cites a Supreme Court case saying that, but then proceeds to ignore it on the basis of seeming identity between religious and non-religious opponents of certain methods of contraception.

His RFRA analysis of March For Life’s religiously-motivated employees was no less flawed.  Leon rejected the government’s assertion that their religious exercise isn’t substantially burdened because they don’t have to use the contraception they oppose.  He called that a “veiled attack” on their religious beliefs, which he wrote are not just about using the contraception, but also about participating in a health insurance plan that covers such contraception.  This is the fruit of Hobby Lobby, the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in which the far-right Justices distorted RFRA and gave the green light to religious conservatives to seek to equate being religiously offended with having a substantial burden placed on their exercise of religion.

Adding insult to injury, Judge Leon didn’t even follow the appropriate process in granting the exemption.  Early in his opinion, he violated a judicial doctrine known as a “constitutional avoidance,” where a judge is supposed to decide cases on statutory bases if possible in order to avoid making unnecessary constitutional rulings.  In this case, Leon declined to “delv[e] into the thicket” of an inquiry into whether the rules comply with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which might have allowed him to avoid ruling on any constitutional issues, and instead jumped right to two constitutional arguments and one additional statutory one:

The APA permits a reviewing court to set aside an agency action that is “(A) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law” or, alternatively, that is (B) contrary to constitutional right, power, privilege, or immunity.” 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A)-(B). Stated differently, the APA allows courts to right two types of agency wrongs: procedural missteps and substantive transgressions. While procedural correctness is, to be sure, an important facet of any judicial inquiry, compliance with the law is the true touchstone of legality. Thus, in a context such as this, where plaintiffs have alleged serious constitutional and statutory infirmities, the appropriate starting point for the Court’s analysis is not the integrity of the agency’s decision-making process, but rather the lawfulness of the Mandate itself. I will therefore begin by addressing plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment, RFRA, and First Amendment arguments and, because I find the first two challenges meritorious, I will refrain from delving into the thicket of an APA review.

A fair reading of the law shows that both statutes and the Constitution make clear that no exemption should have been granted. But in this case the judge’s reluctance to address the APA issue allowed him to make a much more dramatic ruling, one with potentially wide repercussions if upheld by an appeals court, without even doing the tedious work of properly adjudicating it under the APA.

It is hard to imagine this decision not being reversed by the DC Circuit.  As to what the five Supreme Court Justices who gave us Hobby Lobby would do if they took the case, it might be better not to have to find out.

PFAW Foundation

Fifth Circuit Ruling on Texas Voter ID Shows Importance of Preclearance

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit today ruled that Texas’s restrictive voter ID law adopted in 2011’s SB 14 violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it has a racially discriminatory effect.  This is a great victory for voting rights.

The Texas voter ID law had previously been struck down by a district court.  Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos had concluded not only that the law violated Section 2, but that Texas had adopted it with the intent to discriminate, in violation of the Constitution.  The Fifth Circuit rejected her analysis of how to discern discriminatory intent, concluding that she relied on factors that should not have been considered, such as long-ago intentional discrimination and assertions by the law’s opponents.  The Fifth Circuit remanded the case for her to reanalyze that aspect of her decision using a narrower set of evidence.  If she reaches the same conclusion, the voter ID part of the law would be struck down completely as unconstitutional.  But even if she finds no intentional discrimination, Judge Ramos can still fashion a remedy for the Section 2 violation, although it could very well fall short of completely eliminating the voter ID requirement section of SB 14.

You might wonder why a bill passed in 2011 is at this state of litigation more than four years after it was adopted.  The answer lies in the Supreme Court’s notorious Shelby County decision from 2013 that gutted the VRA’s critically important preclearance provision, which had covered Texas.

In 2012, a three-judge district court refused to preclear the law, finding that it would have had a harmful effect on racial minorities.  That should have been the end of the story, with Texas unable to put the law into effect.  But Shelby County removed Texas from preclearance requirements, allowing it to implement the law despite its previous failure at preclearance.  That meant that its victims had to go to court to challenge the law, bearing the burdens of litigation and of proving their case, even while people across the state suffered from the law’s discriminatory effects, including during the 2014 elections.  In fact, more than half a million registered voters in Texas lack the proper ID required by the law.

Now, two separate federal courts have ruled that SB 14 violates Section 2 of the VRA, and the case still has further to go: Even if the state doesn’t appeal today’s ruling, the remand back to the district court means that more litigation is in store, and portions of the law may still end up going into effect, albeit with a less discriminatory impact.

Far more efficient and just would have been to allow the preclearance provision of the VRA to work as Congress intended.  Texas officials’ eagerness to implement this discriminatory law as soon as they were able to shows just how important the preclearance provision is in protecting the right to vote.

Tomorrow will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.  Today’s ruling is a reminder of the law’s importance.  It is also a great example of why Congress should pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would not only restore the vital protections of preclearance consistent with the Supreme Court’s directive that any formula should be based on modern circumstances, but also make other critical improvements to the landmark law.


Harry Reid Teaches GOP Basic Math and Civics

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid stood up on the Senate floor this morning to remind Republicans of one of their basic constitutional duties as senators: to consider the president’s nominees for federal judgeships.

He pointed out the stark contrast with how the Democratic-controlled Senate processed judicial nominations in George W. Bush’s last two years:

So far this Congress, Republicans have confirmed only 5 judges. By this same point in the last Congress of George W. Bush’s presidency, under my leadership, the Senate had confirmed 25 judges. Republicans are being outpaced 5-to-1. And there are real repercussions when Republicans refuse to act. If there aren’t enough judges to hear the cases that are piling up, a vacant judgeship is declared a judicial emergency. At the beginning of the year, there were only 12 judicial emergencies that deserved priority attention.  Yet in the mere 7 months of this Republican-controlled Senate, that number has doubled, and is on its way to tripling. As of today, there are 28 judicial emergencies – including four judges currently pending on the floor.

Of course, as much as Republicans try to obscure it, the fact is that 25 ≠ 5.

Reid also explained how the GOP’s abdication of responsible governing is hurting the American people:

By neglecting to live up to their constitutional duty to provide “advice and consent” for the President’s judicial nominees, the Republican Leader and his party are denying justice for the American people. Federal courts depend on the Senate to do its job so justice can be dispensed in courtrooms across the country. But Republicans clearly have no interest in seeing courtrooms and judicial chambers adequately staffed.

Reid also slammed Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton for blocking a confirmation vote last week for five nominees to the Court of Federal Claims.  These are nominees who were approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee last year and again this year to a court whose chief judge has urged the Senate to fill its vacancies so the court can handle its caseload.  Nevertheless, Cotton blocked the Senate from voting on the nominees, saying that the judges on the court are willing to carry the caseload themselves without new judges.  (Reid also mentioned yesterday’s report from CQ on how Cotton’s action seems to line up with the financial interests of a law firm he used to work for whose employees gave generously to his campaign.)

Courts matter.  So do the judges who are selected to serve on those courts.  Republicans are weakening our federal court system, even though our most important rights depend on being able to have our day in court front of a fair and unbiased judge.  Senator Reid is right to call on the GOP to do better by the American people.