C4

In 2016, Remember This Week at the Supreme Court

It's been a week of mixed emotions for those of us who care about civil rights. There was the elation today when the Supreme Court overturned the so-called Defense of Marriage Act -- the discriminatory law that has hurt so many Americans in its nearly 17 years of existence -- and let marriage equality return to California. There was the anger when the Court twisted the law to make it harder for workers and consumers to take on big corporations. And there was the disbelief and outrage when the Court declared that a key part of the Voting Rights Act that was so important and had worked so well was now somehow no longer constitutional.

But throughout the week, I have been reminded of one thing: how grateful I am that Mitt Romney will not be picking the next Supreme Court justice.

It remains true that this Supreme Court is one of the most right-leaning in American history. The majority's head-in-the-sand decision on the Voting Rights Act -- declaring that the VRA isn't needed anymore because it's working so well -- was a stark reminder of why we need to elect presidents who will nominate Supreme Court justices who understand both the text and history of the Constitution and the way it affects real people's lives.

We were reminded of this again today when all the conservative justices except for Anthony Kennedy stood behind the clearly unconstitutional DOMA. Justice Antonin Scalia -- no stranger to anti-gay rhetoric -- wrote an apoplectic rant of a dissent denying the Court's clear role in preserving equal protection. If there had been one more far-right justice on the court, Scalia's dissent could have been the majority opinion.

Just think of how different this week would have been if Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were not on the court and if John McCain had picked two justices instead. We almost certainly wouldn't have a strong affirmation of LGBT equality. Efforts to strip people of color of their voting rights would likely have stood with fewer justices in dissent. And the rights of workers and consumers could be in even greater peril.

As the Republican party moves further and further to the right, it is trying to take the courts with it. This week, we saw what that means in practice. As we move forward to urge Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act and reinforce protections for workers and consumers, and work to make sure that marriage equality is recognized in all states, we must always remember the courts. Elections have real consequences. These Supreme Court decisions had less to do with evolving legal theory than with who appointed the justices. Whether historically good or disastrous, all these decisions were decided by just one vote. In 2016, let's not forget what happened this week.

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

PFAW

Supreme Court Dumps PART of DOMA

The Supreme Court today ruled that the core section of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. DOMA’s Section 3, which the Court vacated, prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states, thereby hitting legally married gay and lesbian couples with extra taxes and depriving them of a slew of federal protections.

People For the American Way Foundation president Michael Keegan said of the Supreme Court’s ruling: “Today’s  DOMA ruling is a profound step forward for loving, committed same-sex couples across the country. The decision is premised on the plain fact that there is no good reason for the government to recognize some legally married couples while discriminating against others.”

PFAW launched a campaign to “Dump DOMA” in 2008. Since then, our petition calling on Congress to repeal the discriminatory law  has gathered 230,000 signatures.

But the effort to overturn DOMA is not over. While Section 3 was the law’s most damaging provision, DOMA’s Section 2, which says that states don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, still stands. We will continue to work to overturn the remainder of DOMA and ensure that all gay and lesbian Americans have the right to marriage, no matter which state they make their home.

While our work continues, today’s decision represents a historic turning point for equality.  DOMA will no longer tear apart binational couples. It will no longer impose a “gay tax” on legally married same-sex couples. It will no longer deny benefits to same-sex spouses of federal employees. It will no longer deny gay and lesbian veterans benefits for their spouses.

The story of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff who brought DOMA to the Supreme Court, and Thea Spyer, her late wife and partner of 40 years, illustrates what this decision will mean to so many Americans:
 

PFAW

The Truth Behind the IRS ‘Scandal’

Now that the smoke has cleared, it appears that the IRS scandal that has consumed right-wing media for weeks is not much of a scandal at all. The original story that the IRS was unfairly targeting conservative groups has dramatically shifted thanks to new documents revealed by the Associated Press showing that the tax agency also targeted groups with liberal keywords in their name, such as “progressive” and “occupy.”

While the IRS may have exhibited some poor judgment, the agency was not waging partisan warfare. Nor was it carrying out any of the false right-wing conspiracy theories outlined yesterday by Right Wing Watch.

PFAW president Michael Keegan argued last month that the lesson being pulled from the blunders of the IRS was the wrong one. While conservatives across the nation cried scandal and used IRS activity to condemn big government, Keegan wrote,

“The danger of this frame is that it will discourage the IRS from fully investigating all nonprofit groups spending money to influence elections. And it will distract from the core problem behind the IRS's mess: the post-Citizens United explosion of undisclosed electoral spending.”

The recent revelation that the IRS was targeting liberal groups as well as conservative ones confirms this message.  Unharnessed and unaccountable spending is the real problem – not oversight.

PFAW

The Smoking Gun in the Voting Rights Case

Scalia's comments during oral arguments show that he was guided by personal ideology, not the law.
PFAW

HUD Report Documents Housing Discrimination Against Same-Sex Couples

A new report released this week by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the first-ever national study documenting discrimination against same-sex couples in the private rental market.
PFAW

Delaware Passes Historic Transgender Anti-Discrimination Bill

Last Tuesday Delaware Governor Jack Markell wrote that in his state, it is high time “our laws reflect our values.”  The bill in question was the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Act of 2013, which adds gender identity to the state’s hate crime prevention and non-discrimination laws.  As Gov. Markell pointed out,

“Under our State's laws, it is currently legal to fire someone, deny them housing, or throw them out of a restaurant simply because they are transgender. This is simply not the Delaware way…”

And it’s not the American way. With bipartisan support in the state House and Senate, the bill passed the Delaware legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Markell Wednesday evening, making Delaware the 17th state with an employment non-discrimination law covering gender identity in addition to sexual orientation.

This is a profound victory for transgender Delawareans like Jay Campbell, who has so far felt unable to come out in his workplace. Campbell told the News Journal of Wilmington earlier this month,

“Without basic protection from discrimination, I can’t afford to tell my employer. I can’t obtain health coverage for the fear I’ll be outed and fired.”

Campbell shares this concern with other transgender – as well as lesbian, gay, and bisexual – people across the country.  In the majority of U.S. states, it remains legal to fire someone for being LGBT. This means that far too many people find themselves forced to choose between risking their livelihoods and undertaking the painful work of hiding who they are, day after day.

Today’s victory in Delaware underscores the need for employment protections for LGBT workers in every state through the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  This common-sense solution would help ensure that employees like Campbell are judged by how well they do their job, not by who they are or who they love.

PFAW

Longer and Longer Waits for District Court Nominees

Because of a deliberately created backlog, district court nominees have waited longer and longer for a confirmation vote during the 113th Congress.
PFAW

Maddow Applauds PFAW's Work Monitoring the Right Wing

Rachel Maddow gave an appreciative nod to People for the American Way’s work monitoring the Right Wing.
PFAW

New Report Documents Republican Support for Citizens United Amendment

America has awakened. All across the nation, a burgeoning movement has begun to demand the overturn of Citizens United v. FEC and related cases via constitutional amendment, including, according to a new report by Free Speech for People, 130 Republican officials at the state and federal levels.

The new report released in June, titled "Across the Aisle: The Growing Trans-partisan Opposition to Citizens United", compiles quotes from these officials to form a comprehensive body of evidence in support of the fact that, indeed, getting corporations out of political campaigns – at least at the state level – is not a partisan issue.  In fact, Republican support has been instrumental in the passage of fifteen state-level resolutions calling for the overturn of Citizens United, with a Republican primary sponsor even leading the charge in Illinois. As Verner Bertelsen, former Secretary of State of Montana, put it,

... the bad Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and more recent decisions ... threaten to undo Montana's century-old laws against political corruption ... I am a lifelong Republican and I served as Montana secretary of state from  1988 to 1989... Corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech. CEOs of corporations may choose to personally contribute to political campaigns, but they shouldn’t be allowed to use shareholders’ money to do so.

These views, too, are hardly new – as Theodore Roosevelt declared in 1910,

It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs ... The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint ... has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. If our political institutions were perfect, they would absolutely prevent the political domination of money in any part of our affairs. We need ... a corrupt-services act effective to prevent the advantage of the man willing recklessly and unscrupulously to spend money over his more honest competitor.

With recent polling cited in the report showing robust support for amending the Constitution --  83% of Americans, including 81% of Republicans --  it's quite clear that, with continued education and mobilization, Citizens United's days are numbered.

PFAW

Anti-Bullying Protections Headed to Senate Floor

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected to bring the bill to the floor but has not released a date. People for the American Way will continue to monitor ESEA’s progress and the anti-bullying provisions it contains.
PFAW

Supreme Court Upholds Voting Rights in Arizona Proof-of-Citizenship Case

The Supreme Court issued 7-2 ruling in favor of voting rights today, finding that a restrictive Arizona law requiring that voters show proof of citizenship when registering by mail is preempted by federal law. The court upheld Arizonans’ right to register to vote by mail using a federal form created by the 1993 “Motor Voter” law, which allows voters to certify under oath that they are citizens. Arizonans will not have to submit information that the federal form does not require.

PFAW Foundation joined in an amicus brief in the case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of  Arizona, on behalf of its Young People For program.

The Arizona law, which would have required voters to present one of a narrow set of documents proving citizenship in order to register to vote, would have impeded the voting rights of countless Arizonans. As Demos put it:

Many eligible citizens do not possess these narrow forms of documentation required by the law and, of those who do, many  do not carry them while conducting their daily affairs.  Community-based registration efforts overwhelmingly rely on approaching individuals who did not plan in advance to register at that time or location and who are thus unlikely to be carrying a birth certificate, passport, or other documentation.

Even when a potential registrant does happen to be carrying one of the required documents, logistical hurdles—ranging from an inability to copy documents on the spot to an unwillingness to hand over sensitive identification documents to registration drive volunteers—greatly hinder the ability of community-based organizations to register people in Arizona.

The Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision in the other major voting rights case on its docket this term, the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

PFAW

First Lesbian Latina Confirmed as Federal Judge

Judge Nitza Quiñones Alejandro broke an important glass ceiling this week, becoming the first openly lesbian Latina confirmed to a federal judgeship.  The Senate confirmed her by voice vote to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania yesterday. Previously Quiñones served for more than two decades on the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. 

The Washington Blade notes that Quiñones is only the seventh openly LGBT person in our country’s history to be confirmed as a federal judge.

PFAW has advocated for more diversity in the judiciary, applauding President Obama’s push to bring qualified judges from many backgrounds to the federal bench.  Issuing decisions that affect all communities, the federal bench – and all benches – must reflect the diversity of our nation. 

Last year President Obama said he was committed to ensuring that “the judiciary resembles the nation it serves.”  This week’s confirmation is an important step toward that goal. 
 

PFAW

Recent YP4 Fellow Reunites With Her Mother at a Border Fence

Two months ago, Evelyn Rivera, an alumna our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program, wrote that her family’s dream is a future where “immigration reform will include family reunification and that my mom will return to the United States.”  Rivera’s mother, who she describes as “the most courageous woman I have ever known,” was sent back to Colombia more than six years ago after being stopped while driving without a license.

“I miss her every day,” Rivera said.

Yesterday NBC Latino featured a powerful video of the reunification of Rivera and two other DREAMers with their mothers.  Organized by United We Dream, the young people met their mothers at the border fence in Nogales, Arizona. 

Jacquellena Carrero of NBC Latino reported,

“For the first time in six years, Evelyn Rivera was able to give her mother a hug. But the circumstances were less than ideal: Her mother was on the other side of a steel bar fence, which marked the United States and Mexico border….‘There were so many tears and we couldn’t get words out. Then we just kept saying ‘I love you, I love you’,’ Rivera says, describing the first few moments she spent with her mother. ‘My mom was upset. She was saying ‘I thought I would be able to hug you better.’ But we were so happy just to be able to touch.’”

Across the country from where Rivera and her mom embraced, the Senate voted Tuesday to proceed to debate on the immigration bill – and deliberation among Congress members on immigration reform continues. 

Carrero noted:

“Although the Senate bill would help young immigrants like Rivera and Padilla by giving them an expedited pathway to American citizenship, Rivera says it does not do enough to bring back deportees. While the current bill would allow some deported children, spouses, and siblings of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to return, there is no provision that says deported parents of undocumented immigrants can come back. Republican senators have vehemently opposed the return of any deportees.”

Those in Congress would do well to keep the experiences of Rivera’s family – and the many families across the country and across the world like them – in mind as the debate proceeds.  As United We Dream notes, this is what immigration reform looks like. 

Watch a video of the reunion here:
 

 

PFAW

For LGBT Seniors Fighting DOMA is About Economic Survival

For the elderly, the fight against DOMA often isn’t only a question of receiving federal recognition for a marriage – it’s also a question of basic economic survival.
PFAW

New “Follow the Money” Report Documents Dangers of Big Money in Politics

Strong campaign finance laws lead to more competitive elections and a greater influence from small donors, according to a new report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The report, released in May, examines state-level elections to gauge the impact of campaign finance laws. Titled "Evidencing a Republican Form of Government: The Influence of Campaign Money on State-Level Elections," it follows the finances of candidates in each state, looking at their donors, expenditures, and disclosures, providing evidence of the deleterious effects that unrestrained campaign spending has on our democracy.

States with high or no contribution limits, for one, have dramatically fewer competitive races than those with public financing. For example, the Institute found that only 6 percent of 2010 elections in Georgia were competitive, compared with 75 percent of elections in Maine. Not coincidentally, Georgia has relatively high contribution limits, with winning candidates raising a median amount of $50,425, while Maine uses public financing and had a much lower fundraising median of $5,844.

Further, removing limits on contributions also appears to crowd out small donors. In Texas, a state where individuals are allowed to contribute unlimited sums directly to campaigns, the median fundraising gap between winners and losers for 2010 was a whopping $255,318. Meanwhile, just 4 percent of 2010 donations in the state were under $250, while 59 percent exceeded $10,000. In fact, the Institute’s data reveals that in Texas, nearly half of all political donations came from a few hundred people. In contrast, in Colorado, which has much stricter contribution limits, the equivalent half of all contributions came from about 35,000 people. The Institute found this pattern to be present in all 50 states.

Lax campaign finance law has a double effect: not only does it reduce the competitiveness of political races, allowing candidates with money to simply overwhelm their opponents with tides of spending, but it also drastically reduces small-donor participation in politics, concentrating power and influence in the hands of those with deep pockets. This, of course, is a problem – as DEMOS has pointed out, the elite “donor class” often has vastly different policy priorities than those of most Americans.

As corporations, wealthy individuals, and special interests continue to adjust their election strategies in the wake of Citizens United, pouring ever more money into political campaigns, the conclusions of this report are cause for worry. Fortunately, the American people are not sitting idly by while our democracy is threatened. We are mobilizing.

PFAW

Following PFAW Advocacy, Delaware Becomes 15th State Calling to Overturn Citizens United

In yet another state, the American people have made it clear that we will not allow our elections to be bought and sold.

Recent months have seen Delaware legislators and local advocates busy collecting signatures for a letter to Senator Carper, Senator Coons, and Representative Carney, asking them and their colleagues in Congress to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.  Working with Common Cause Delaware, PFAW has been on the front lines of this initiative.  Last month Legislative Representative Calvin Sloan went “door to door” with PFAW members and allies in the state legislature urging lawmakers to sign onto the letter.

Following their hard work, Delaware today became the fifteenth state to go on record calling for an amendment to reclaim our democracy. Signed by the majority of lawmakers in both chambers of the state legislature with bipartisan support, today’s victory means that 30% of our nation’s states have called for such an amendment.  Four of those states – West Virginia, Maine, Illinois, and now Delaware – have made their position official in just the last two months.

The tide is turning.  The momentum is undeniable.  As the letter points out, “There is no more critical foundation to our government than citizens’ confidence in fair and free elections.”  Today’s victory – as well as those in other states and those in states still to come – makes clear that Americans are taking back our elections.
 

PFAW

Equal Pay for Equal Work? Not Yet.


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act.  It should be a celebration.  But it should also be a wake-up call about how far our country still has to go toward fair pay.

When President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, he called the practice of paying women employees less than men doing the same job “unconscionable.”  The year was 1963, and Kennedy noted that women were making about 60 percent of men’s average wage. 

What was unconscionable then at 60 cents on the dollars is unconscionable now at 77 cents on the dollar, with women of color facing an even greater pay gap.  A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that this gap starts early:

“[I]n 2009—the most recent year for which data are available—women one year out of college who were working full time were paid, on average, just 82 percent of what their male peers were paid. After we control for hours, occupation, college major, employment sector, and other factors associated with pay, the pay gap shrinks but does not disappear. About one-third of the gap cannot be explained by any of the factors commonly understood to affect earnings…”

In order words, even after controlling for “choice” factors such as college major – men, for example, are more likely to major in lucrative fields like computer science – the pay gap remains.  Women doing the same work as men are still, on average, being paid less.

This discrepancy runs counter to basic ideas of fairness, with implications for almost all other aspects of women’s lives, from long-term economic stability to health and wellness. While 77 cents on the dollar may sound small, over the lifetime women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because of this gap. It is an injustice that harms not only women, but also their families. And with women increasingly serving as primary breadwinners, the implications for families are compounded. For all of these reasons, PFAW continues to advocate for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would provide women with additional tools to identify and fight back against pay discrimination. 

“Equal pay for equal work” has been a women’s rights rallying cry for decades, powerful in its simplicity and incontestable logic.  But as a country, we are not there yet.

PFAW

Student Debt Day 2013 Makes Noise for Struggling Students and Families

On June 5th, hundreds of students made their way to Capitol Hill to express their concerns and tell their personal stories about rising student debt. We wanted to bring attention to the federal student loan interest rate that is set to expire on July 1st.  After meeting with and leaving information for over 120 Senate and House members, student advocates from affiliate Young People For, Campus Progress, and other youth organizations hope to have left an impact on the senators considering various plans to address the impending increase. 

Students roaming the halls of the Senate and House offices were passionate and excited about their movement.  In meetings with offices including Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA), students were encouraged to continue making noise about this issue, as public attention is a key factor in forcing a bipartisan solution.  We were told that the public attention brought to the issue by President Obama’s campaign and 2012 State of the Union address was a key factor in passing the one year freeze that was enacted last summer.  Although the president spoke to a group of students on Friday about the interest rates, the public attention to the matter is smaller than it was last year. 

But student debt remains a pressing issue.  The average college student graduates with roughly $26,000 in student debt, and doubling the interest rate would result in what the president referred to as a $1,000 tax hike each year for students.  Over the course of four years, that’s $4,000 in addition to the initial loan amount.  That is $4,000 that is not going towards stimulating the economy, preventing graduates from buying cars and houses, and forcing them to put off big decisions like moving out of their parents’ houses and starting families and lives of their own.  This is something each student on the Hill echoed regardless of the degree to which they are personally affected by the student loan deficit.  As the roughly 7 million students with student debt contemplate how they will face the reality of their futures, they are turning around and telling future generations something we were never told:  It is not worth it.  If you are incurring debt in your undergrad years, going to graduate school might be even further out of the question.  As one student shared yesterday, “Masters degrees have become the new bachelors.”  When students cannot afford the education needed to be hired for the jobs available, the effects are felt across the nation. We now have less than one month to ensure that students are not incurring even more unnecessary debt that does nothing for our economy but hold us back.

Kelly Mears
Intern for affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For Program

PFAW

Delaware Senate Passes Transgender Anti-Discrimination Bill

Yesterday afternoon the Delaware Senate passed a historic civil rights bill adding gender identity to the state’s hate crime prevention and non-discrimination laws.  Despite damaging lies about transgender Americans pushed by organizations like Focus on the Family and the Delaware Family Policy Council, the state Senate approved the bill in an 11-7 vote.

Sarah McBride of Equality Delaware said,

“The Senate vote today inspired a lot of hope in me and I’m sure that’s true for many other transgender people across Delaware. It was inspiring to see a majority of the Senators stand up for a group that has seen disproportionate levels of discrimination and violence.”

If enacted, Delaware will become the 17th state with an employment non-discrimination law that covers gender identity in addition to sexual orientation. 
 

PFAW

Why Senate Republican Claims About the D.C. Circuit Don’t Pass the Pinocchio Test

Earlier this week President Obama nominated three unquestionably qualified candidates – appellate attorney Patricia Millet, former civil rights attorney Cornelia Pillard and D.C. District Court judge Robert Wilkins – to the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the country.  Republicans are already fighting hard against these nominations, claiming that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a large enough workload to necessitate filling the vacant seats.  Sen. Chuck Grassley (D-IA) even went as far as to say, “No matter how you slice it, the D.C. Circuit ranks last or almost last in nearly every category that measures workload.”

Not quite.  Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post wrote an article this morning delving deeper into Sen. Grassley’s claims.  Kessler wrote,

“Challenged by Grassley’s claim that the D.C. Circuit is last ‘no matter how you slice it,’ we came up with two other measures that might shed more light on the D.C. Circuit’s workload… One way to measure this is by looking at the data for ‘administrative appeals.’

In 2012, nearly 45 percent of those appeals at the D.C. Circuit involved administrative appeals concerning federal rules and regulations, which many experts say are highly complex and take more time to review.  By contrast, at the other circuits, virtually all of the administrative appeals involve immigration cases. Using the data in Table B-3, we found that in the other circuits, administrative appeals that did not involve immigration matters accounted for less than 3 percent of the appeals. (In some circuits, it was less than 1 percent.)”

In other words, the D.C. Circuit is considering some of the most intricate and far-reaching cases of any court.  The complexity of these types of cases make apples-to-apples comparisons with other circuits difficult. 

Kessler continues:

“Another measure of the complexity of the cases are statistics on written opinions. The raw data suggest that judges on the D.C. Circuit write fewer opinions than judges on other appeals circuits. (This was one stat that Grassley staff sent us.) But Table S-3 shows that the D.C. Circuit produced a greater proportion of written, signed opinions on cases determined on the merits than most other circuits.”

Overall, the Post concludes,

“[T]he certainty in Grassley’s argument is particularly misplaced, given the unusual nature of the D.C. Circuit… you can’t just assert that one appeals filing is equal to another — or that one set of statistics is better than another. Depending on the metrics, the D.C. Circuit could very well be in first place.”

In 2005, Sen. Grassley did not seem to have these workload concerns when he voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas B. Griffith to the tenth and eleventh seats on the D.C. Circuit.  Yet when he and other Republicans cast those votes, the court was handling the same number of cases as it is now.  As President Obama pointed out in his speech announcing the three nominees, this is an overtly political move on the part of Senate Republicans:

“When a Republican was president, 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit Court made complete sense. Now that a Democrat is president, it apparently doesn't – eight is suddenly enough.”

PFAW