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.


First day of Senate debate to #GetMoneyOut

Monday marked the first day of Senate debate on the Democracy for All amendment. Not only did it clear an important procedural hurdle, but we heard from many strong champions of getting money out and voters in, and from those who, contrary to the views of three fourths of the American public, are satisfied with the democratic imbalance created by Citizens United and related cases.

Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa each claimed to know what this debate is really all about.

Senator Cornyn:

In reality what this amendment would do would be to undermine some of our most cherished, most fundamental, and most important liberties.

Senator Roberts:

They want to silence their opponents. The First Amendment does not allow them to do so, so they are going to try and change it.

Senator Grassley:

The amendment being proposed would put those who would engage in political speech on notice that they may be prosecuted for being active citizens in our democracy.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois was there to set the record straight, about the true reality of this debate, and about the seriousness with which Democracy for All supporters have approached this historic step forward in the movement to take back our democracy from powerful corporations and billionaires.

Senator Durbin:

Six constitutional amendments, landmark civil rights legislation, and Supreme Court decisions helped make the promise of one person and one vote a reality. We must, in our time, in our generation, be constantly vigilant against threats to these victories which were won through the blood, sweat, tears, and even the lives of many Americans. That is why we are engaged in this debate today, because the right to vote is under siege. It is in peril. A well-funded, coordinated effort has made it harder for millions of Americans to vote and at the same time unleashed a tidal wave of special interest and corporate money into elections to drown out the voices of average Americans . . . During his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court said this of the right to vote. It was ‘‘the right preservative of all other rights.’’ And he pledged to be a neutral umpire, calling balls and strikes when it came to issues such as the right to vote. But because of the judicial activism of Chief Justice Roberts and his four conservative allies, the right to vote of average Americans is now at greater risk than any time since the Jim Crow era.

Other highlights from day one:

Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada:

If spending is speech, where does that leave the rest of the American people? Should their role in democracy be diminished because they are paying a mortgage and sending kids to college? Should a family hard hit by a recession— let’s say they are out of work— does that mean they shouldn’t have any say at the ballot box? Should families hard hit by the recession take a back seat in our government to a couple of billionaires? Right now the answer is yes.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont:

The Court’s radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment contradicts the principles of freedom, equality, and self-government upon which this Nation was founded. The consequence of the Court’s opinions is that a small, tiny minority of very wealthy individuals and special interests are drowning out the voices of hard-working Americans and skewing our electoral process. What they are saying is: I have millions of dollars. I have a voice in elections. You? You are just an average hard-working man or woman, and you do not have any voice.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts:

This is an extraordinary situation. The Supreme Court overturned a century of precedent, voiding campaign finance restrictions passed by Congress and making it far easier for millionaires, billionaires, and big corporations to flood our elections with massive amounts of money. The Supreme Court is helping them buy elections . . . This is the time to amend the Constitution. I urge my colleagues to support this effort. We were not sent to Congress to run this country for a handful of wealthy individuals and powerful corporations. We were sent here to do our best to make this country work for all our people.

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, lead sponsor of the Democracy for All amendment:

Folks want Congress to get to work and work together so we can find real solutions to real problems and spend our time raising hopes instead of raising cash. That is why Senator Bennet and I have introduced our constitutional amendment and that is what I wish to talk about today.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont:

People do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns for fun, for the hell of it; they are spending money because they have an agenda. And the billionaire agenda is not the agenda of the American people . . . I am not saying every Republican adheres to every aspect of this agenda, but [the Koch brothers] are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process for a reason, and that reason is to make the wealthiest people in this country even wealthier while they do away with all legislation that protects working families.

You can find these passages and more from Monday's debate here.

Follow @peoplefor and check out our blog for more coverage of Democracy for All.


Durbin Questions Potential ALEC Backers on Stand Your Ground Laws

As the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meets in a swanky Chicago hotel for its 40th annual summit this week, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) has raised some important questions for the corporations that may be funding the group.

Roll Call reports that Sen. Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s civil rights subcommittee, has reached out to more than 300 corporations that are possible ALEC funders to ask for their positions on “Stand Your Ground” laws.  Durbin announced last month that he will hold a hearing on these laws in the fall.

Because ALEC operates behind closed doors, it can be a challenge to expose the corporations, corporate trade associations, and corporate foundations backing its damaging work.  Durbin’s letter notes:

Although ALEC does not maintain a public list of corporate members or donors, other public documents indicate that your company funded ALEC at some point during the period between ALEC’s adoption of model “stand your ground” legislation in 2005 and the present day.

Despite the potential roadblocks, Durbin’s letter shines a spotlight on the clear link between ALEC, an organization that connects corporate lobbyists with state legislators, and the “Stand Your Ground” laws it helped to get on the books in over two dozen states.   And this is a critical connection to highlight, because as PFAW President Michael Keegan wrote last month, these are laws which “help create a climate like the one that encouraged George Zimmerman to use lethal force against an unarmed teenager.”


A United Front Against Partisan Obstruction of Judicial Nominations

This morning, a number of Senators gave impassioned floor speeches condemning the unprecedented Republican obstruction of judicial nominees. They talked about the vacancy crisis that is keeping Americans from having their day in court. They spoke of qualified nominees with wide bipartisan support who were nonetheless blocked by Republicans. They talked about a time when qualified consensus nominees could be confirmed easily by a united Senate that put the interests of the American people over partisan warfare.

Some of the highlights are now on video, featuring (in order) Sens. Dick Durbin (Illinois), Chuck Schumer (New York), Pat Leahy (Vermont – and also the chairman of the Judiciary Committee), Chris Coons (Delaware), Dianne Feinstein (California). It is well worth viewing.


The Judicial Vacancy Crisis in Illinois

Among the senators taking to the floor earlier today to condemn the GOP obstructionism harming the our nation's judicial system was Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. Sen. Durbin discussed the crisis facing Americans in the Northern District of Illinois, a crisis exacerbated by unprincipled Republican partisanship.

Last week, I received a letter from the chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois, Judge Jim Holderman. His district is one that has been declared a judicial emergency, meaning the backlog of cases is stacking up and the vacancies need to be filled. He was writing me and Senator Kirk asking that we do everything in our power to move two noncontroversial, strongly supported nominees through the Judiciary Committee.

When the district's chief judge is writing to beg you to do everything in your power to advance two utterly noncontroversial nominees, you know the situation must be dire. But as Sen. Durbin noted:

Well, they're moved through. These two who came through a bipartisan process are now sitting on the Senate calendar. They are John Lee and John Tharp. John Lee, my nominee; John Tharp, Senator Kirk's nominee. A bipartisan agreement, a bipartisan committee has led to their selection. No one has questioned their ability to serve well on the federal court.

Indeed, neither nominee is controversial. Each cleared the Judiciary Committee with overwhelming bipartisan support, with only Utah's Sen. Mike Lee voting no (presumably to continue protesting President Obama's recent recess appointments). Each would fill a judicial emergency. Each has the support of both Democratic Sen. Durbin and Republican Sen. Kirk.

The only reason to oppose them is that they were nominated by President Obama, and that is a shameful reason.


Senate Democrats Condemn Republican Obstruction of Judicial Nominees

This morning, a number of Senate Democrats took to the floor to condemn the unprecedented obstruction of qualified, consensus judicial nominees that Senate Republicans have been engaged in since the start of the Obama Administration. Here are just a few of the many highlights:

Sen. Klobuchar:

Today I'm here to discuss along with my colleagues another dynamic of Capitol Hill that is making people lose faith in Washington, the apparent inability of Congress to get routine business done, specifically, the failure of the Senate to fill the dozens of judicial vacancies that exist around the country.

Sen. Durbin:

The bottom line -- judicial nominees with no controversy, widespread bipartisan approval are being held up on the Senate calendar and not approved. Why? Well, I can tell you why. It's fairly clear. ...

What we are seeing now is an effort by the Republicans to hold up our stop judicial nominees in the hopes that they'll be left vacant through the entire calendar year and then if they have their way at the polls a Republican president will fill the vacancies a year from now with new nominees. That is crass, it is unfair. ...

Sen. Coons:

President Obama's nominees have waited four times longer after committee approval than did President Bush's nominees at this point in his first term.

Sen. Cardin:

I am concerned, Mr. President, that our judicial confirmation process here in the Senate has broken down due to partisanship, particularly for noncontroversial judges.

Sen. Schumer:

We have confirmed only three judicial nominees this session, only five in the past two months, and only 11 in the last 90 days. And of the three judges whom we've confirmed this session, we've had to file cloture on two of them. This isn't a responsible use of the Senate's advise and consent powers.

Sen. Feinstein:

Today, partisanship has stalled even the most uncontroversial judicial appointments. Senate Republicans allowed no nominees to be confirmed at the end of the last session, and have allowed but five so far this year. In this environment, even those reported out of committee by voice vote, without any controversy, are unable to receive a floor vote for many months, if they ever receive one at all.

Sen. Leahy, who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee has spoken out many times on the issue, today said:

These highly qualified – consensus – nominees should be confirmed without further delay.  They should have been confirmed last year.  One hundred and thirty million Americans live in circuits or districts with a judicial vacancy that could be filled if Senate Republicans would consent to votes on these nominees.  The delays are as damaging as they are inexplicable.  Ultimately, it is the American people who pay the price for this unnecessary and harmful delay in confirming judges.

There are now 19 pending nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee who are waiting for a simple up-or-down vote from the Senate. Seventeen were approved by the Judiciary Committee with very strong bipartisan support: 12 without any opposition at all, and 5 with only one no vote. Ten have been waiting for three months or more for a vote from the full Senate. Ten have been nominated to fill vacancies classified as judicial emergencies. Fourteen of the 19 are women or people of color, and one is an openly gay man.

It is long past time to allow the Senate to vote on their confirmations.


Menendez Introduces Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill

Senator Robert Menendez, along with Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senators Richard Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Charles Schumer, and John Kerry, today introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011. The bill creates a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who must meet strict requirements before waiting in line to become legal residents. The bill also addresses the continuing need for effective border security. Most notably, this bill includes the provisions for LGBT families outlined in the Uniting American Families Act, as well as the DREAM Act and AgJOBS. Here at PFAW, we’re very pleased to see such inclusive legislation being introduced.

America is a nation of immigrants, and our country’s history would be unfathomable without the men and women who have come here from all around the world. Comprehensive immigration reform will help the economy and create greater fairness and equality in our deeply flawed immigration system. We applaud these senators for their leadership in seeking to create a comprehensive and fair immigration policy. When addressing undocumented immigrants, the best thing our nation can do is to implement a stable path to legal citizenship, with equal opportunity for all, and that’s precisely what this bill does.


Star of the Kagan Hearings is the Corporate Court

Democratic Senators used the opportunity of Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings today focus attention on nine people who were not in the room. The Senators called the Roberts Court out for some of its more outrageous decisions as they began to reframe the debate on the role of the Court and the Constitution. Central to the discussion was the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, in which it overturned a century of settled law to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.

Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, was one of the chief designers of the campaign finance rules that the Supreme Court knocked down in Citizens United. He said:

[W]hen a decision like the one handed down earlier this year by a 5-4 vote in the Citizens United case uproots longstanding precedent and undermines our democratic system, the public’s confidence in the Court can’t help but be shaken. I was very disappointed in that decision, and in the Court for reaching out to change the landscape of election law in a drastic and wholly unnecessary way. By acting in such an extreme and unjustified manner, the Court badly damaged its own integrity. By elevating the rights of corporations over the rights of people, the Court damaged our democracy.

Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island took on the Court’s pro-corporate leanings by brilliantly co-opting Chief Justice Roberts’ famous baseball metaphor:

Only last week, the Rent-A-Center decision concluded that an employee who challenges as unconscionable an arbitration demand must have that challenge decided by the arbitrator. And the Citizens United decision -- yet another 5-4 decision -- created a constitutional right for corporations to spend unlimited money in American elections, opening our democratic system to a massive new threat of corruption and corporate control.
There is an unmistakable pattern. For all the talk of umpires and balls and strikes at the Supreme Court, the strike zone for corporations gets better every day.

Ted Kaufman of Delaware told Kagan, “I plan to spend the bulk of my time asking you about the Court’s business cases, based on my concern about its apparent bias.”

The Court’s decision last fall in the Citizens United case, which several of my colleagues have mentioned, is the latest example of the Court’s pro-corporate bent. The majority opinion in that case should put the nail in the coffin of claims that “judicial activism” is a sin committed by judges of only one political ideology.

What makes the Citizens United decision particularly troubling is that it is at odds with what some of the Court’s most recently confirmed members said during their confirmation hearings. We heard a great deal then about their deep respect for existing precedent. Now, however, that respect seems to vanish whenever it interferes with a desired pro-business outcome.

Al Franken of Minnesota explained the real impact of campaign finance laws:

Now, you’ve heard a lot about this decision already today, but I want to come at it from a slightly different angle.
There is no doubt: the Roberts Court’s disregard for a century of federal law—and decades of the Supreme Court’s own rulings—is wrong. It’s shocking. And it’s torn a gaping hole in our election laws.

So of course I’m worried about how Citizens United is going to change our elections.

But I am more worried about how this decision is going to affect our communities—and our ability to run those communities without a permission slip from big business.

Citizens United isn’t just about election law. It isn’t just about campaign finance.

It’s about seat belts. It’s about clean air and clean water. It’s about energy policy and the rights of workers and investors. It’s about health care. It’s about our ability to pass laws that protect the American people even if it hurts the corporate bottom line.

As Justice Stevens said, it’s about our “need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government.

And finally, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois summed up the retort to any GOP Senator complaining about “judicial activism”:

We've heard from those across the aisle about their support for traditionalism, and their opposition to judicial activism. I have two words for them: Citizens United.

We’re looking forward to hearing a lot more about Citizens United and the Corporate Court as the hearings progress