North Carolina Puts Anti-Equality Amendment on the Ballot

North Carolina’s Senate today passed a measure to put an anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot. North Carolina is currently the only Southeast state that hasn’t amended its constitution to ban same-sex marriage, although it already has a statutory ban.

State anti-marriage amendments like North Carolina's are often put on the ballot to boost turnout for other elections – the Bush administration, for instance, was active in getting 11 anti-marriage amendments on state ballots in 2004.

What is remarkable about these amendments is that they change state constitutions to take away rights from citizens, while the traditional role of state and federal constitutions has been to guarantee rights for citizens, especially those who may not be popular among the majority.

It’s sad to see yet another state putting the rights of a minority at the mercy of a majority vote.

 

PFAW

Justice Ginsburg Mourns Breakdown of Judicial Nominations Process

At a speech yesterday at Southern Methodist University, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg touched upon the depressing state of our nation's judicial nominations process. As reported by the Associated Press:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday that the confirmation process has become much more partisan and that she probably never would have made it to the high court under the current climate.

"I wish we could wave a magic wand and go back to the days when the process was bipartisan," Ginsburg told the crowd of about 2,000 as she spoke as part of a lecture series for Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

While most of us cannot wave such a magic wand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can. With one word he could stop many of the GOP obstruction tactics against President Obama's judicial nominees. It was just such obstruction that prevented the Senate from voting to confirm twenty pending nominees before it left town several weeks ago, 17 of whom got through committee with no recorded opposition.

As ThinkProgress reported, Justice Ginsburg also noted the hostility felt by some senators toward the ACLU: "Today, my ACLU connection would probably disqualify me."

Unfortunately, she may be right. Late last year, Senator Jeff Sessions – then the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee – railed against judicial nominees who had worked with or been a member of the ACLU, specifically targeting William Martinez, Edward Chen, Goodwin Liu, Jack McConnell, Amy Totenberg, Robert Wilkins, and Michael Simon. He concluded his tirade with the following warning to President Obama:

I do believe the administration needs to understand that this is going to be a more contentious matter if we keep seeing the ACLU chromosome as part of this process.

Republican hostility to the ACLU – and to the constitutional rights it regularly protects – is extremely disturbing. At the same time, the blocking of even unopposed nominees suggests that the GOP's main problems with President Obama's nominees is that they are President Obama's nominees.

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A Supreme Court Win for John Ashcroft, a Grim Reminder for the Rest of Us

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously (with Justice Kagan recused) that former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be personally sued for alleged abuse of material-witness arrests in the days after the 9/11 attacks. In the weeks and months after 9/11, innocent people were being rounded up by the federal government with little to no evidence against them through abuse of the Material Witness Statute. However, the Justices agreed that what Ashcroft did was not in violation of "clearly established law" at the time, so he cannot be personally sued for money damages.

But that unanimity hides a deep divide on other issues. Justice Ginsburg's concurrence reminds us of the lawless nature of the Bush Administration. She asks:

what even arguably legitimate basis could there be for the harsh custodial conditions to which al-Kidd was subjected: Ostensibly held only to secure his testimony, al-Kidd was confined in three different detention centers during his 16 days' incarceration, kept in high-security cells lit 24 hours a day, strip searched and subjected to body-cavity inspections on more than one occasion, and handcuffed and shackled about his wrists, legs, and waist.

...

[His] ordeal is a grim reminder of the need to install safeguards against disrespect for human dignity, constraints that will control officialdom even in perilous times.

Americans should never forget the many ways that the Bush Administration violated basic American constitutional principles and the rule of law. After 9/11, People For the American Way Foundation led the nation in exposing and condemning the Ashcroft Justice Department's multifaceted threats to liberty.

Perhaps if the threats had been against Big Business's bottom line, today's corporate-funded Tea Partiers would have joined us in protecting the Constitution. Their silence then makes shameful their current efforts to appropriate the Constitution as uniquely theirs.

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Murkowski Shows Her Colleagues How to Keep One's Word with Liu Vote

As a bit of follow up to Michael's post about the Goodwin Liu vote, it is worth noting that Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the ONLY Republican senator to break with her party and do the right thing, voting to move the nomination forward to a full floor vote.

In 2005, she said, “Let me make it clear that I support an up-or-down vote on all nominations brought to the Senate floor, regardless of the president nominating them or which party controls the Senate.”

Murkowski said in a statement after today's vote, "I stated during the Bush Administration that judicial nominations deserved an up or down vote, except in ‘extraordinary circumstances’ and my position has not changed simply because there is a different president making the nominations."

Sen. Murkowski deserves to be thanked for her consistency, and for sticking to a commitment that many in her party also made but abandoned.

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It's Time to Confirm Goodwin Liu

The Senate is currently debating the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu is a phenomenally well qualified legal scholar who has support across the political spectrum, as well as among a majority of U.S. Senators. However, because Senate Republican leaders are putting politics over all else, they are set on stymieing the majority and filibustering the nomination. A cloture vote to end this stalling tactic may occur as soon as tomorrow morning.

People For the American Way supports the nomination. We sent a letter this morning that says much of what we have been saying in person on the Hill for over a year. Among other things, the letter states:

Perhaps the most powerful testament to Professor Liu's superb qualifications is the extensive support his nomination has garnered from across the ideological spectrum. It is not only progressive and moderate legal thinkers who admire his work: He has received endorsements from conservatives such as Ken Starr, Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan; Richard Painter, the chief ethics counsel for President George W. Bush; and Clint Bolick, Director of the conservative Goldwater Institute.

When a judicial nominee attracts such strong support independent of political ideology, you can be confident that he is exactly the kind of mainstream, talented, and fair jurist we need on the federal bench.

Although Liu has the support of a majority of senators, his opponents are working to block his nomination from receiving an up or down vote. Their claim is that Liu's nomination constitutes one of those rare "extraordinary circumstances" warranting a filibuster, under the benchmark developed by the Gang of 14 during the George W. Bush Administration.

By no measure can this nomination be considered to even approach "extraordinary circumstances." Even a cursory look at President Bush's nominees who were approved using that test – those whose nominations were not considered to constitute "extraordinary circumstances" – makes clear that Liu's nomination must be permitted to go forward.

  • Pricilla Owen's dissenting positions on the Texas Supreme Court were so extreme that even her fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court in different cases described them with phrases like "an unconscionable act of judicial activism," "disregard of the procedural elements the Legislature established," "def[ying] the Legislature's clear and express limits on our jurisdiction," and "inflammatory rhetoric." Her nomination was not considered extraordinary, and the Senate afforded her an up-or-down vote for a seat on the Fifth Circuit, where she is now serving.
  • Thomas Griffith pushed to severely curtail laws ending discrimination against women and girls' participation in school athletic programs, declaring "illegal" a test upheld by all eight of the nation's Circuit Courts of Appeals that had considered the issue. He was also suspended from the DC Bar for failure to pay mandatory Bar dues yet continued to practice law in the District during that time. Published reports and an examination of Utah law indicated that he had been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Utah for the four years prior to his nomination. Nevertheless, the Senate did not consider Griffith's nomination extraordinary, and he received an up-or-down vote confirming him to a seat on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Janice Rogers Brown criticized opposition to the Lochner decision, which began the period when the Supreme Court issued its most pro-corporate rulings—rulings that struck down laws requiring minimum wages, regulating working hours and conditions, and banning improper business practices. In addition, despite several Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, she explicitly suggested that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional. Despite this record, her nomination was not considered an "extraordinary circumstance," and the Senate was allowed to cast an up-or-down vote, confirming her to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • William Pryor called Roe v. Wade "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history" and urged Congress to consider repealing or amending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the significant opposition that these and other extreme positions garnered, his nomination was not filibustered, and he was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Each of these nominees attracted substantial controversy and was opposed by numerous civil rights and civil liberties groups, but not one was found to constitute "extraordinary circumstances."

The claim that Goodwin Liu is out of the mainstream as compared to any of these nominees simply does not bear scrutiny. In fact, a fair reading of his work makes clear that Liu is well within the judicial mainstream.

By any standard articulated by either party, Goodwin Liu's nomination deserves a vote on the Senate floor, and he should be confirmed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tomorrow, we will learn which Republican senators are willing to toss logic, consistency, principles, and the good of the nation's court system out the window in order to score political points against a Democratic president.

PFAW

A Reminder of the Mendacity of the Bush Administration

The Washington Blade is reporting on a seemingly frivolous lawsuit launched by a former high-level Bush Administration official that tells us a lot about anti-LGBT zealotry and the mendacity of the previous administration. It involves RICO, the federal racketeering statute.

Scott Bloch was President Bush's choice to lead the Office of Special Counsel, the agency designated to protect federal employees from illegal discrimination and to ensure whistleblower protection. During Bush's first term, he ordered the removal of all information on filing complaints of sexual-orientation discrimination from OSC's website and brochures. And he didn't exactly protect whistleblowers in his own office. As reported by Talking Points Memo back in 2007:

Bloch himself has been under investigation since 2005 for a variety of infractions, including retaliating against employees who took issue with internal policies and discriminating against those who were gay or members of religious minorities. At the direction of the White House, the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been pressing on with an investigation of Bloch.

During the investigation, Bloch bypassed OSC's tech staff and hired "Geeks On Call" to scrub his office computer files. He was finally removed from office in the final year of the Bush Administration. Last year, he pleaded guilty to contempt of Congress for hiding the computer caper from a House committee.

Now, according to the Blade, Bloch is going after the gays and his former Republican colleagues:

Two gay Obama administration officials and the Human Rights Campaign were lumped in as defendants with former Bush administration operative Karl Rove and more than a dozen others in a federal racketeering lawsuit filed by anti-gay Bush official Scott Bloch.

[The lawsuit] charges the defendants – including former GOP Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia – with conspiring to force Bloch out of his job as head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel through a trumped up criminal investigation, according to Courthouse News Service, which first broke the story. ...

One of the Obama officials being sued is Elaine Kaplan, who ran OSC during the Clinton Administration.

In his lawsuit, Bloch alleges that the Bush White House demanded that he back off from reversing Kaplan's polices at the Office of Special Counsel, saying White House aides threatened to arrange for his dismissal if he failed to comply with their request.

Bloch and his wife, who are representing themselves in the case, filed their suit under a federal statute called the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. The statute allows both criminal and civil charges to be brought in cases where the government or a private party alleges that others conspired to commit an illegal act or to damage a person or a business through a "criminal enterprise."

Other parties named as defendants in the lawsuit include the Executive Office of the President, the Office of Special Counsel, the National Treasury Employees Union, and several government watchdog groups, including the Government Accountability Project.

Bloch and his wife are representing themselves against this giant conspiracy. One has to wonder if the reason Bloch is representing himself is because no other lawyer could be paid to take it.

Bloch makes up in zealotry what he seems to lack in competence, and he is the person Bush chose to head of the Office of Special Counsel. Despite his disregarding of the law in order to hurt gays and strike back at whistleblowers, the White House kept him on. It was only after the FBI investigation and the embarrassing computer episode became public that he was removed from office. That says everything you need to know about the Bush Administration and its commitment to the rule of law.

PFAW

Attorney General Disappoints on Faith-Based Issue

Question: When does a law saying "do not discriminate" really mean "discrimination is allowed"? Answer: Now, since Attorney General Holder yesterday refused to repudiate the Bush Administration’s seemingly deliberate misreading of federal law in the context of grants to faith-based organizations.

One of the gravest flaws of the Faith-Based Initiative that President Obama inherited and has since made his own is that it permits federally funded employment discrimination on the basis of religion. Numerous federal statutes creating grant programs specifically prohibit those receiving funds from engaging in employment discrimination. However, the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) adopted a policy memo turning those provisions on their head.

According to the memo, requiring compliance with anti-discrimination laws as a condition of receiving federal funds can impose a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of faith-based grant recipients. Therefore, it reasoned, such a requirement may be impermissible under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening religious exercise unless that burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. According to this harshly criticized legal memorandum, RFRA can be interpreted to let religious grantees ignore very specific nondiscrimination provisions within a federal grant program.

At a hearing before the House Oversight Committee yesterday, upon questioning by Rep. Bobby Scott, Attorney General Holder testified that the OLC memo is not being reconsidered. Even worse, when asked the Obama Administration has adopted that interpretation as its policy, Holder gave a meaningless and evasive answer. According to Congressional Quarterly (subscription required):

SCOTT: So if you're running a Head Start Program, they're running the Head Start Program they can discriminate, even though there's a statutory provision prohibiting discrimination? They can discriminate anyway?

HOLDER: What I'm saying is that in terms of -- with regard to that specific OLC opinion, we are not in the process of reconsidering it. That is not something that, as I understand ...

SCOTT: Well I'm not talking about the memo. I'm talking about the policy. Can they discriminate notwithstanding a specific statutory prohibition against discrimination; they can discriminate anyway based on that interpretation?

HOLDER: Obviously discrimination cannot occur, that is, that contravenes federal law.

Since whether an act of employment discrimination violates federal law is the focus of the debate, Holder’s response is not enlightening.

It is hard to believe that less than three years ago, candidate Barack Obama told an audience in Zanesville, Ohio that "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion."

PFAW

Issa Suddenly Concerned About Capturing Presidential Records (Created After 1/20/2009 Only)

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, waving an iPad in front of senior White House technology officials earlier today, demanded to know whether administration staffers were flouting the Presidential Records Act by conducting work-related business on their personal email systems instead of on the official server. Issa said his purpose was to address so-called “transparency setbacks” in the administration’s record keeping. Presumably, as Issa noted in the hearing, White House staffers could be communicating with the DNC on their personal property, free from public scrutiny.

But in 2008, that very same scenario seemed preposterous to Issa, who raised this point in a similar hearing about possible improper email use in the Bush Administration:

 

"Are we simply going on a fishing expedition at $40,000 to $50,000 a month?" Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked National Archives and White House officials at the hearing. "Do any of you know of a single document, because this committee doesn't, that should've been in the archives but in fact was done at the RNC?"

 

As it turns out, that is quite possibly what happened. Of the 22 million Bush Administration email messages that went missing due to a faulty archiving system, it was widely suspected that Karl Rove and other senior advisors used RNC email systems to conduct official White House business.

Interestingly, Issa defended the loss of the Bush Administration emails because they were using old software. This is just another example of how Issa’s priorities change as quickly as administrations do.

PFAW

The Right's Use of Records Requests to Chill Dissent and Attack Academics

In Wisconsin and Michigan, we are seeing what appears to be the latest right wing tool to intimidate and harass its critics: extensive – and baseless – public records requests against academics at public universities. The consequences for the free and open debate on which our democracy depends are serious indeed.

Last week, Wisconsin Republicans clamped down on criticisms of their party's efforts to undermine workers' rights by filing a broad demand for copies of all of the emails of University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Cronon that mention Governor Scott Walker, the eight Republican state senators who have been targeted for recall, or unions that represent government employees. Cronon had recently penned a blog post calling attention to the work of a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its apparently significant influence on Republican state lawmakers, including those in Wisconsin such as Governor Walker. The message was clear. Criticize what we do and we'll come after you to see what we can dig up to smear you with.

Any thought that this might be an isolated response was quickly shattered when similar requests were made for Wisconsin-related e-mails at three Michigan universities. Rather than being from the Wisconsin GOP, these were from a right-wing organization called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. They filed requests for e-mails of the faculty of the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center, the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, and the Labor Education Program of Michigan State University. The requests cover not only e-mails relating to the Wisconsin clash over the labor rights, but, according to press reports, also any e-mails mentioning Rachel Maddow.

Aside from their far right conservative ideologies, the Mackinac Center and ALEC have something else in common: Although not well known among the general public, they are part of a network of right wing ideological organizations that have been heavily funded over the years by many of the same small group of wealthy funders, including the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Coors family, the Scaife family, and corporate giant Exxon Mobil.

It is not likely a coincidence that these two right wing organizations employed the same unusual tactics in two different states just days apart. Who knows where they will go next. Clearly this is a pattern. And, unfortunately, it's a familiar one. Just as in the McCarthy era, academics face intimidation and harassment and possible threats to their reputations if they take public stands against the far right. The specific method of intimidation may be different (i.e., public records requests), but the goal is the same.

This intimidation is as insidious now as it was more than half a century ago, because it does not matter that the targets have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. As we have seen, all it took was one purloined e-mail, taken out of context and distorted beyond all recognition, to manufacture the phony "Climategate" scandal that threatened the reputation of climate scientists around the world and set back climate change regulations by years.

Anyone doubting that the far right is both willing and able to destroy their reputations with such distortions needs look no farther than the devastating video "exposés" of ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood. The ACORN video came first and essentially destroyed the organization. In the best traditions of McCarthyism, the right now uses any association with ACORN to discredit its opponents. They are hoping for equal success with NPR and Planned Parenthood.

People For the American Way strongly supports the Freedom of Information Act and its state and local equivalents. Opening government records to the public serves as an essential check on the abuse of government power. Indeed, the Bush Administration prepared for its long war against civil liberties in the administration's early days by essentially reversing the Clinton Administration's presumption that FOIA requests should generally be granted unless there is some reason to deny it.

Such laws exist to expand public dialogue and the dissemination of information affecting the public welfare. But the rights granted by FOIA laws, like so many others, have limitations and can be abused. A demand for information can be made not to hold government accountable and enhance public debate, but instead to harass, intimidate, suppress public debate, and keep information and opinions out of the public square. This is particularly true when it is aimed at individuals in state academic institutions.

That's what we see happening in Wisconsin and Michigan.

The public has a right to know about the activities of government entities working in its name. When a government entity has the authority to issue licenses, allocate funds, imprison people, conduct safety inspections, conduct elections – the core activities of government, all of which have substantial impacts on individuals, businesses, and groups – open records laws can help ensure that these tasks are done lawfully, without favoritism or waste. Reflecting how often members of the public request such information, many government organizations have entire offices dedicated to fulfilling these records requests.

So how often does a member of the public submit a record request for, say, the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan? I asked Roland Zullo, a research scientist there. He had to think about it because such requests are so rare, but he thinks the last one was about five years ago, a fishing expedition from a conservative organization essentially seeking all of their records going back to the 1950s. When the organization learned how much it would have to pay to cover the costs of its truly expansive request, it apparently backed off.

The Supreme Court has recognized the unique role that universities, including public universities, play in maintaining our liberties. As it stated in 1957, during the McCarthy era, "[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

That is why the American Historical Society has strongly condemned the efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to intimidate Professor Cronon:

The purpose of the state's Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

We should recognize that public universities are a unique hybrid. They are funded by the public, and we should be able to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and legally. But their work also contributes to the robust debate over public issues without which our freedom will die. And that debate requires that we protect academic freedom and ensure that faculty have no reason to feel intimidated for asking difficult questions, conducting their research and writings, and making statements that those in power do not wish to hear.

That is the American Way.

PFAW

GOP Women Rally Behind Planned Parenthood

Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican governor of New Jersey and member of the George W. Bush administration, wrote an impassioned op-ed for a New Jersey newspaper today, calling attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and other family planning services “unacceptable”:

I know firsthand the value of Planned Parenthood health centers in providing preventive care to women. In rural areas, Planned Parenthood is often the only place to turn for vital health care needs as well as sex education, and in dense urban areas, Planned Parenthood provides these same services to women in disproportionately low income and underserved communities.

Every year, Planned Parenthood’s doctors and nurses provide more than 3 million women with preventive health care, including nearly one million lifesaving screenings for cervical cancer, 830,000 breast exams, contraception to nearly 2.5 million patients and nearly four million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Literally, they are a trusted health care provider to millions of women.

For those who oppose abortion, they should know that Planned Parenthood’s services prevent 973,000 unintended pregnancies and 406,000 abortions each year. Those are statistics that Republicans and Democrats should wholeheartedly embrace.

But the extreme proposals undermining both the National Family Planning Program and Planned Parenthood will have an adverse effect on those numbers. While defunding Planned Parenthood will do nothing to reduce the deficit or improve the economy, it will lead to an increase in unplanned pregnancies and abortions and result in escalating Medicaid costs.

Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins have also been adamant about preserving federal funding for Planned Parenthood and similar organizations. Murkowski wrote to the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ““I believe Planned Parenthood provides vital services to those in need and disagree with their funding cuts in the bill.” Collins’ spokesman told Politico that federal family planning funds have “successfully reduced the number of unplanned pregnancies, therefore helping to reduce health care costs.”

Meanwhile, social conservatives are continuing to lob at Planned Parenthood every attack they can muster. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, wrote an op-ed today arguing that the organization is somehow responsible for a hike in abortions and in STDs.

 

PFAW