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The Senate Could Cut Judicial Nominations Backlog in Five Minutes…or Five Weeks

On January 13, the Senate confirmed Judge Robert Wilkins to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. So far, despite a growing backlog of judicial nominees, he is the only judge to have been confirmed this year.

There are currently 96 vacancies in federal courts across the country. Thirty-nine of them have been officially designated “judicial emergencies” by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, indicating that there are too few judges available to handle the court’s workload. This isn’t a built-in feature of the judicial system. In fact, the Senate could cut the judicial vacancy rate by one third today.

There are 32 federal judicial nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee and are waiting for Senate confirmation votes – enough nominees to fill one-third of the country’s judicial vacancies and reduce the number of judicial emergencies by a quarter. All but three nominees cleared the Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support, most unanimously. The Senate could confirm all 32 in an afternoon if Republicans would agree to hold simple yes-or-no confirmation votes on their nominations. They could even confirm all 32 in less than five minutes by holding a unanimous consent vote.

But Senate Republicans still seem to be uninterested in confirming nominees to carry out the business of the nation’s courts, even in the many cases where nominees have been recommended and supported by Republican senators.

Since the Senate was forced to change the rules of the filibuster in response to Republican intransigence, the GOP has retaliated by obstructing nominations in other ways. One of these has been demanding that each confirmation vote take the maximum amount of time possible: Senate rules allow for “post-cloture debate” after a filibuster has been broken – 30 hours of floor time for appeals court nominees and two hours for district court nominees. If Republicans forced the Senate to take the  maximum amount of time on all 32 nominees currently waiting for votes, it would take the Senate 204 hours to clear the backlog.

Those 204 hours would add up to five weeks of full-time work: five weeks in which the Senate wouldn’t be able to do anything else – not immigration reform, not a debt ceiling deal, not an update to the Voting Rights Act.

The Senate could use five weeks of its time this year to confirm judicial nominees. Or, Senate Republicans could agree to confirm all 32 nominees in five minutes, cut the number of judicial vacancies by a third, and move on to other business.

PFAW has launched a petition to urge Senators to address the judicial nominations crisis and stop the obstruction of judicial nominees .

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While the GOP Fiddles, Judicial Emergencies Mount

A second emergency has been declared in Michigan, where four qualified nominees should have been confirmed last year.
PFAW

GOP-Created Nominees Bottleneck Grows

GOP refusal to allow any confirmation votes may force the Senate to devote weeks in needless "post-cloture debate."
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Leader Pelosi and Rep. Sarbanes Call for Government by the People Act and Reversal of Citizens United

Today Representative John Sarbanes was joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others in introducing legislation to help put our democracy back where it belongs: in the hands of “We, the People.”  The Government by the People Act (H.R. 20) is a bill designed to empower everyday voters to make small donations to candidates, amplify those donations through matching funds, and make our elected officials accountable to all of us, rather than to wealthy campaign donors.

In the Washington Post yesterday, Representatives Pelosi and Sarbanes penned a powerful op-ed in the support of the bill, calling for solutions to the influx of money that has flooded our elections in the post-Citizens United world.  That Supreme Court decision, they wrote, “shook the foundation of our democracy: the principle that, in the United States of America, it is the voices of the people, not the bank accounts of the privileged few, that determine the outcome of our elections and the policies of our government.”

But they note that we can, and must, push for solutions – including a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United:

We must disclose the sources of the money in our campaigns, amend the Constitution to reverse the grievous error of the Citizens United decision, reform our broken campaign finance system and empower citizens everywhere to exercise their right to vote.

The Government by the People Act would help build a politics and a government that answer to the people. Together, we can reassert the full promise of our ideals and restore confidence in our democracy.

PFAW has launched a petition to urge members of Congress to do all they can to support passage of the Government by the People Act.

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Wisconsin Marriage Equality Lawsuit and the Judicial Vacancy Crisis

In the Western District of Wisconsin, one of the two active federal judgeships has been vacant for five years.
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Inaction on Immigration Reform Leaves Families Hanging by a Thread

The following is a guest post by Cairo Mendes, a 2013 Fellow of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) program.

When I came to the U.S. in 2002, I remember being told on the way home from the airport that I was undocumented. I was told that if anyone knew this, our whole family would be deported and we would lose out on the “American Dream.” That was over ten years ago, but as I write this I cannot help but hold back emotions – a mixture of anger, sadness, and confusion. I feel this way because ten years later, millions of people in our country – including my mother – continue to live in limbo, in the shadows. We continue to be treated as second class citizens.

When I recently received a call informing me that I would be covered under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process, I was working at a factory, recycling wire. I remember the joy and relief I felt at that moment. For the first time I would be able to have a social security card and a work permit. I felt like maybe, just maybe, I too could be “normal” and get a driver’s license. Yet later that day, my happiness became bittersweet. My mom – my strong, heroic, single mother – would not be able to receive those same benefits. Still, when I got home later that day I realized how happy she was for me. It was then that I told her, looking straight into her eyes: “Mom, we will figure a way out of this. We will fight, we will march, and we will organize – we are going to figure out a way.”

When President Obama won reelection in 2012 after receiving 71 percent of the Latino vote (compared to Romney’s 27 percent), I felt for the first time that we were on the offensive. From the rhetoric coming from Washington to the energy within the immigrant rights movement in the weeks following the elections, immigration reform was finally a real possibility. But it has not been an easy road. Even though we were able to push the Senate to pass an immigration reform bill through our lobbying, organizing, and advocacy efforts, House leadership has – until very recently – been closed off to the calls for reforms, ignoring the cries of families throughout the country.

As a result, we ended 2013 with no bill delivered. The extreme right – small but loud faction of the Republican Party – managed to derail any efforts involving citizenship, and Speaker Boehner avoided putting the Senate bill up for a vote. His inaction could cost the Republican Party in the 2016 elections, since immigration reform is a top issue for Latino voters.

The Senate immigration reform bill is not perfect, but as families struggle to live day by day, comprehensive immigration reform is still a light at the end of the tunnel. It will make legalization – and hopefully citizenship – possible for many who have lived in the shadows until now, like my family.

This debate goes beyond stats about how many billions of dollars could be added to the economy as a result of reform. This is a moral issue. And it’s one that – if not resolved soon – will result in more deportations and more family separations that damage individual lives and diminish our country as a whole.

Because of Congress’ inaction, mothers and fathers are still being separated from their children and loved ones as 2014 begins.  We cannot wait – our communities need relief now.
 

PFAW

The Wrong Way to Address the Backlog of Pending Nominations

Blocking committee votes is hardly the most cooperative way to prevent a buildup of nominees waiting for a floor vote.
PFAW

GOP: Sensitivity Training in Animal House

When we learned last month that John Boehner was providing "sensitivity training" to his male Republican colleagues, I knew we would be in for a treat.
PFAW

Presidential Commission Issues Report on Election Administration

The PCEA recommendations are indeed a welcome addition to the voting rights debate, helping us move closer to the day when every eligible voter can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts. We must keep in mind, though, that the PCEA isn't the last word on American electoral reform. Nor does the PCEA replace what the Voting Rights Act lost after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
PFAW

Marking the 41st Anniversary of Roe v. Wade


Today marks the 41st anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade decision protecting every woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. Today, according  to NARAL Pro-Choice America, seven in ten people support Roe v. Wade.

A poll conducted by NBC News and Wall Street Journal last year found that a record number of respondents supported a woman’s right to choose in all or most circumstances.

This support is especially important in light of the work conservative activists continue to carry out in an attempt to undermine women’s health and autonomy.  As noted in our 2013 report, Chipping Away at Choice, from mandatory waiting periods to “TRAP” laws, the ability for women to access safe and legal abortions is under attack. People For the American Way will continue to work with our allies in protecting women’s right to choose.

PFAW

Report on Judge Cebull Shows Why Courts Matter

When federal judges hear people's cases and decide their rights, it has an enormous impact on their lives.
PFAW

The Senate Could Immediately Reduce the Vacancy Rate by a Third

The Senate could confirm 29 fully vetted judicial nominees this week, if only Republicans would allow it.
PFAW

Sen. Burr Invents New Rule to Hide Obstruction of NC Judicial Nominee

Burr's current refusal to publicly comment on a pending judicial nominee stands in contrast to his practice for previous nominees.
PFAW

Republicans Obstruct Judicial Nominees They Supported Last Year

Re-nominated judicial nominees face re-obstruction from Judiciary Committee Republicans.
PFAW

PFAW Writes Letter Supporting Nomination Of Debo Adegbile To Head DOJ Civil Rights Division

This week, People For the American Way sent a letter to every U.S. senator, urging them to confirm Debo Adegbile to head the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. Adegbile’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was this morning.

The letter [pdf] praises Adegbile’s civil rights record, which includes arguing two critical voting rights cases before the Supreme Court:

Because of its importance in enforcing laws eliminating barriers to equality and opportunity, the Civil Rights Division is a critical means by which Americans protect the promises and values of the United States Constitution. Among many other things, the Civil Rights Division is charged with helping to eliminate discrimination in employment, housing, and education. The Division also has the responsibility to protect the right to vote, which Thomas Paine rightly observed over 200 years ago is “the primary right by which other rights are protected.”

It is fitting, therefore, given the enormity of the Civil Rights Division’s responsibilities, that President Obama has nominated one of this generation’s preeminent civil rights litigators, the supremely qualified Debo Adegbile, to lead the Division. Adegbile’s career exemplifies a dedication to advancing the civil rights of all Americans. Before becoming senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he spent more than a decade in various leadership positions at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, overseeing civil rights litigation at both the trial and appellate level. As director of litigation, then as acting president, Adegbile not only developed expertise in the areas of education, economic justice, criminal justice, and nonpartisan political participation, he also exercised the type of significant administrative and leadership responsibilities that will serve the Civil Rights Division well. Firefighters, school custodians, public parks employees, and Katrina evacuees are just some of the ordinary people all across the nation whom Adegbile has helped.

Adegbile has special expertise in voting rights, and he has twice defended the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act before the United States Supreme Court. He also worked extensively on the 2005-2006 legislative effort to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which led to overwhelming bipartisan majorities voting to renew the law in 2006.

Unfortunately, some conservative activists are opposing Adegbile’s nomination because they object to his civil rights record. We looked at some of those attacks over at Right Wing Watch today.
 

PFAW

Rubio Should Not Have the Last Word on Florida Nominee

Why did Marco Rubio unfairly attack qualified nominee William Thomas while denying him a chance to correct the record? (VIDEO)
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Video: PFAW’s Drew Courtney Discusses Right Wing Extremism on Politics Nation with Al Sharpton

Last Monday, Right Wing Watch reported on an upcoming far-right rally, “Operation American Spring,” calling for the ousting of President Obama. Rally organizer Harry Riley predicts that “millions of Americans will participate” in this mission to “bring down the existing leadership.”

On Friday, PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney joined Rev. Al Sharpton on Politics Nation to discuss these fringe plans to overthrow President Obama and what it means when the rhetoric of far right activists creeps into the language of GOP elected officials:
 

 

PFAW

Scalia Predicted It: Equal Rights Means Equal Rights

"It has never yet been discovered how to make a man unknow his knowledge, or unthink his thoughts."
--Tom Paine, The Rights of Man

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved--I do not expect the house to fall--but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."
--Abraham Lincoln in his "House Divided Speech"

United States District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby's masterful December 20, 2013 decision striking down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage is headed to the Supreme Court. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which takes cases from Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, refused to stay the decision and nearly 1,000 jubilant gay and lesbian couples have married in the state in just over a week.

The outbreak of marriage equality in conservative Utah is another huge and momentous crack in the crumbling wall of marriage discrimination against gay Americans. So the Attorney General of the state is preparing a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court to turn back the mounting tide of equal rights and freedom.

The state's petition will first reach Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who oversees cases in this group of states. She will be able to either decide the petition herself or refer it to the full Court. If she rejects the petition, as she is likely to do, Utah can appeal to the full Court.

Those people who thought the Court could buy some time after its electrifying 5-4 decision in June striking down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act misunderstand the logic of constitutional freedom. The phony alibis for marriage discrimination have fallen away, and the Court's decision in United States v. Windsor leaves no doubt: gay people have an equal right to marry in the United States of America and the laws standing in the way impose irrational discrimination.

One delicious irony about Judge Shelby's decision is that he freely quoted Justice Antonin Scalia's doleful dissenting opinion in the Windsor case, which repeatedly predicted -- just as Scalia has been warning all along in other gay rights cases, like Lawrence v. Texas (2003) -- that the Court's decision to defend the equal rights of gay Americans would inescapably lead to the downfall of marriage discrimination. Judge Shelby wrote: "The court agrees with Justice Scalia's interpretation of Windsor and finds that the important federalism concerns at issue here are nevertheless insufficient to save a state-law prohibition that denies the Plaintiffs their rights to due process and equal protection under the law."

There should be nothing surprising about either Justice Scalia's gloomy reactionary lament in Windsor or the fact that his words are coming back to haunt him now. As we pointed out several months ago in this PFAW Report, Equal Protection or 'Social Tradition': The Supreme Court's Test in the Marriage Cases," Justice Scalia chastised Justice O'Connor back in 2003 for voting in Lawrence v. Texas to strike down anti-sodomy laws because they do nothing other than legislate "moral disapproval" of other people's private and consenting conduct. Scalia angrily observed that "'preserving the traditional institution of marriage' is just a kinder way of describing the State's moral disapproval of same-sex couples." In other words, if we can't put gay people in jail because we disapprove of their relationships, how will we stop them from marrying? As always, Justice Scalia's intellectual rigor and candor, from the other side of the barricades, have proven to have great predictive power about the unfolding of the law.

Still, it is not entirely clear what will happen on the Court in response to Utah. It requires four Justices to vote to grant a Cert petition and hear a case. Undoubtedly the hard Right of the Court -- Justices Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito -- will feel Utah's pain intensely, and Chief Justice John Roberts is likely to want to join them, although he may count the votes and decide not to test Justice Anthony Kennedy's willingness to vote with the liberals to wipe away the stain of marriage discrimination.

After all, Justice Kennedy's reputation as a thoughtful figure on the Court has essentially been made by authoring the majority opinion in a series of brilliant decisions enunciating the equal rights of gay Americans: Romer v. Evans (1996), Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and most recently United States v. Windsor (2013). In Windsor, Justice Kennedy wrote that the "principal purpose" of the Defense of Marriage Act was "to impose inequality" and to put gay people in "a second-tier marriage," locking them out of hundreds of valuable federal benefits and rights. Significantly, he wrote that this legislation not only "demeans the couple" but "humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples." The table may now be set for another 5-4 gay rights decision that makes Justice Kennedy an historic figure.

If Justice Kennedy and the moderates can indeed count to five on the big question, one or more of them might even provide a vote for cert, on the theory that the country has hit a tipping point, with marriage now available to gay people in 17 states and the District of Columbia and public opinion racing ahead to full equality. It may be time to do what the Court did in Loving v. Virginia (1967), when it told the truth about "white supremacy" and wiped out the anti-miscegenation laws that made it a crime for Richard and Mildred Loving to marry.

Still, 33 states are blocking the courthouse door for gays seeking to wed and Justice Kennedy did sprinkle lots of pro-states' rights language in his dissenting opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013), Windsor's companion decision which punted on the merits of marriage discrimination. So the wheel is still in spin during this go-round.

But, as we stated in the "Equal Protection or 'Social Tradition'" Report, the overall dynamic of freedom and equality has been unleashed for our gay and lesbian citizens, and it will be nearly impossible to rewind the tape. On national marriage equality, it is just a matter of when -- not if. There is no way to get this movement or intelligent jurists to unthink their thoughts about fundamental rights, and ultimately, a country divided over a basic right like marriage for millions of people, can't stand. All signs point to equal rights and liberties for gay people in America.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

PFAW

Challenges & Opportunities: 2014 Political Landscape PFAW Telebriefing

On a recent national activist teleconference, pollster Geoff Garin of Hart Research Associates told PFAW supporters that 2014 could see challenging mid-year elections for progressives. Garin said 2013’s rollout difficulties with the Affordable Care Act, Tea Party obstructionism, and sliding poll numbers for President Obama stand out in voters’ minds. But he also highlighted opportunities for change, including the push to unseat GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Tea Party Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

Following trends like Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial win in Virginia, Garin observed that Democrat Michelle Nunn is well positioned to win in Georgia. Garin and PFAW Political Director Randy Borntrager both noted that as Republicans continue to move further to the right, Democrats who represent a new, positive direction stand to pick up seats in swing areas because of voters’ frustration with obstructionism and division.

You can listen to the audio of the teleconference here:



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