The following is a guest blog from Reverend Michael Couch, a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action.
On Tuesday, while speaking at the Georgetown University Law Center, Attorney General Eric Holder called for a repeal of state voting laws that disenfranchise formerly incarcerated people. In a country where nearly six million citizens are unable to vote because of felony convictions, these changes could not come quickly enough.
State laws dictating voting rights for those who have served time in prison vary, from an automatic restoration of rights after sentence completion in some states to outright bans in others. Restrictions on this civil right in states like Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, and Virginia should no longer be subject to criteria such as the type of convictions, arbitrary time frames, petitions to clemency boards and/or the state governor.
I work daily with others around the country to make sure nonpartisan voting education and voter registration of women and men who have completed their sentences takes place. Laws that disenfranchise formerly incarcerated people take away the single most fundamental American right, and they do so disproportionately to people of color. As Attorney General Holder pointed out in his speech, restrictive laws prohibit a shocking one in thirteen African Americans adults from voting.
As an African American faith leader, I find this to be both morally unacceptable and counterproductive to the goal of fostering supportive, engaged communities. I know from experience if someone has committed a crime, served their time in prison, and is released, no good could come of permanently stripping them of their most basic right and responsibility. Moreover, what isn’t often addressed is how restrictive laws keep families of those adults from helping them transition back to being a responsible, contributing citizen of their community. It’s time to change the message sent to the nearly six million Americans who have lost their voice and civic responsibility in our democracy.
Attorney General Holder is right: These laws are “unwise…unjust, and… not in keeping with our democratic values.” It’s time for states to get rid of laws that suppress those who have served their time and prevent them from fully participating in our democratic system.
A historic nomination by President Obama is being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee: Diane Humetewa is poised to become the first Native American woman on the federal judiciary. Humetewa is a highly qualified nominee with bipartisan support. She was nominated by President Obama with Senator McCain ’s recommendation to serve on the federal judiciary and was previously appointed by President Bush as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had Humetewa’s confirmation hearing on January 29, and her committee vote has been scheduled for this Thursday, February 13. But there is already a growing line of nominees stalled on the Senate floor unable to get a confirmation vote. On January 29, 29 nominees were stalled, and by February 6 the waiting list grew to 32 nominees who are stuck at Senate floor step in the confirmation process. Humetewa and her five fellow Arizona nominees will be added to the end of this already unacceptably long line.
In the meantime, Arizona needs qualified judges like Humetewa to fill its six federal judicial vacancies.
If Diane Humetewa is confirmed, she will be the:
First Native American woman to serve as a judge in a federal court;
Third Native American to be a federal judge; and
Only Native American in active service on the federal bench.
Diversity on the federal bench is always important, and Indian legal advocates and tribal leaders have emphasized the need for federal judges who understand Indian Law in particular.
Many Americans know little more about the complexities of Indian tribal laws—and their unique relationship to state and federal laws. Indian sovereign authority, recognized by federal law, extends to the Indian tribal courts that adjudicate Indian affairs-related matters. Some law firms have a specialized practice area in Indian law. Some law schools, such as Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law where Humetewa is a professor, have an Indian legal program “to promote an understanding of the differences between the legal systems of Indian Nations and those of the state and federal governments.”
“Indian legal experts have long said that tribal law gets shortchanged in the federal legal arena because so few judges are well-versed and experienced in it. This is one reason why federal cases are often harmful to tribal and Indian interests, according to many tribal analyses,” reported Indian Country Today after Republican Senators blocked Avro Mikkanen, a Native American previously nominated by President Obama to the federal judiciary.
The National Congress of American Indians applauded the nomination of Diane Humetewa and particularly noted her firsthand experience in federal Indian law. Humetewa’s Indian law background includes her work as an attorney on the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee and an Appellate Judge on the Hopi Appellate Court.
This is an important nomination for which President Obama—and all Americans—should be proud. The Judiciary Committee should act expeditiously on this opportunity to make this federal judicial nomination a historic confirmation. That means that Republicans should not demand a needless delay in the committee vote as they have done in all but five cases since Obama became president. It also means the full Senate should finally be allowed to hold confirmation votes on the 32 nominees ahead of Humetewa and her fellow Arizonans.
Ohio Republican legislators are up to their voter suppression tricks again, trying to limit absentee ballot registrations and restricting voting hours ahead of the November 2014 elections. The Columbus Dispatch reported Friday that GOP Rep. Mike Dovilla, Chairman of the Ohio House Policy and Legislative Oversight Committee, said the committee will vote on Senate Bill 205 and Senate Bill 238 as early as Tuesday. If passed out of Dovilla’s committee, it could be off to the full House for a floor debate on Wednesday.
• SB 205 would ban county clerks from mass mailing absentee ballot applications to all voters, holding that duty only for OH Secretary of State Jon Husted, who has proven in the past that he will restrict voting access almost every chance he gets.
• SB 238 would achieve one of Husted’s anti-voter policy agenda items by limiting early voting days, effectively eliminating Ohioans’ ability to register and vote on the same day anywhere in the state.
These legislative moves come just days after the news broke that Hamilton County officials might relocate Cincinnati’s largest early voting location to a new, much less accessible location. That decision met with considerable push-back from voting rights activists and the media, resulting in a deadlock vote from the Board of Elections. The final decision now also goes to Secretary Husted to decide, effectively putting the power to restrict access to early voting in Cincinnati’s largest city in his hands.
If you are from Ohio, call your Representative now and tell them to protect your early voting rights by voting ‘NO’ on SB 205 and SB 238. You can find your Representative’s contact information here: http://www.ohiohouse.gov/members/member-directory. Once you have talked to your Representative, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know what they said. We’ll keep tabs on the situation and update you on voter suppression efforts in Ohio – and across the country – on the PFAW blog.
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 .
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.
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.
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.