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.
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:
"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.
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:
Adding to this week’s great news on marriage equality, today U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban, which was put into the state constitution by referendum in 2004.
One of the far right’s standard attacks on the increasing number of judicial opinions striking down discriminatory marriage laws is that judges are “redefining marriage” and “usurping the legislature.” No doubt they will do so again in this case. Fortunately, Judge Shelby opens his opinion with a brief but important explanation of how the American constitutional system works:
The issue the court must address in this case is therefore not who should define marriage, but the narrow question of whether Utah’s current definition of marriage is permissible under the Constitution.…
[T]he legal issues presented in this lawsuit do not depend on whether Utah’s laws were the result of its legislature or a referendum, or whether the laws passed by the widest or smallest of margins. The question presented here depends instead on the Constitution itself…
In his opinion, Judge Shelby also takes apart the harmful, bogus argument that preventing same-sex couples from marrying somehow “elevate[s] the status of opposite-sex marriage”:
Rather than protecting or supporting the families of opposite-sex couples, Amendment 3 perpetuates inequality by holding that the families and relationships of same-sex couples are not now, nor ever will be, worthy of recognition. Amendment 3 does not thereby elevate the status of opposite-sex marriage; it merely demeans the dignity of same-sex couples. And while the State cites an interest in protecting traditional marriage, it protects that interest by denying one of the most traditional aspects of marriage to thousands of its citizens: the right to form a family that is strengthened by a partnership based on love, intimacy, and shared responsibilities. The Plaintiffs’ desire to publicly declare their vows of commitment and support to each other is a testament to the strength of marriage in society, not a sign that, by opening its doors to all individuals, it is in danger of collapse. (Emphasis added.)
I can understand why Senate Republicans are angry about the recent change in the Senate’s filibuster rules. It means that their agenda of obstruction just got a lot harder. But all their righteous indignation is ringing hollow.
Yesterday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, issued a statement attacking the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, for saying he would consider changing committee policies to make it harder for Republican senators to hold up nominations.
Democrats “are slowly but surely taking the world’s greatest deliberative body and moving towards a majoritarian body,” Grassley charged.
The reason Leahy has to even consider policy changes in committee is that GOP senators, in an attempt at retribution for the “nuclear option,” have repeatedly brought up an obscure rule that allows them to prevent the Judiciary Committee from meeting. They have also prevented the committee from meeting by simply not showing up, ensuring the lack of a quorum. Along with threats that Republican senators would refuse to return their “blue slips” signaling approval for hearings on home-state nominees, Sen. Leahy was faced with the prospect of not being able to process any nominees. Senate Republicans have literally not been allowing “the world’s greatest deliberative body” to deliberate on judicial nominations.
And the reason why Senate Democrats were driven to change the filibuster rules for presidential nominees in the first place was that the Republican minority was blocking nominees to positions they just didn’t want the president to be allowed to fill. In other words, they were using the Senate’s rules of obstruction in an attempt to nullify laws they did not like and reverse the results of the presidential election.
This didn’t promote “deliberation.” It shut the entire process down.
This sanctimonious whining from Grassley and his fellow obstructionist Republicans isn’t fooling anyone. Personally, I would have preferred not to have gotten to this place. My guess is that Senator Leahy would as well. But when you’re trying to govern a country and the minority party won’t let you complete even the most basic tasks of governance, there really is no choice. Comity has to be a two-way street.
The high and mighty act doesn’t work when you’re behaving like a child.
It has been quite a year for marriage equality. Today the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state is required by its constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry. This means that New Mexico joins the impressive list of states that legalized marriage for same-sex couples in 2013 alone, including Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, and becomes the 17th state in the country to legalize marriage equality.
As the march toward full equality nationwide continues with today’s victory in New Mexico, the momentum is undeniable. PFAW will continue to advocate for marriage equality until every couple can access the protections necessary to take care of each other for a lifetime.
Last week ALEC held its annual meeting here in Washington, DC, once again bringing together state legislators and corporate representatives to advance legislation that hurts everyday Americans. But they weren’t alone.
Outside their meeting at the Grand Hyatt, PFAW and ally organizations led a protest to stand up to ALEC’s extreme agenda. Holding signs like “ALEC shoots first… and hits real people” and “Stop the war on workers,” hundreds of advocates from diverse organizations and backgrounds marched, chanted, and made speeches about the real toll ALEC-supported policies have on Americans’ lives.
PFAW’s Diallo Brooks’ speech to the crowd was interrupted many times with cheers and applause. He said:
It doesn’t matter where they meet—here in Washington or any other city. When ALEC comes to town, we need to let them know that it is not okay for them to have private meetings with our legislators and corporations and write legislation that impacts our lives every day. We’re here to let them know—loud and clear—that democracy is still alive. We’re paying attention, and we’re going to call them out wherever they go.
Following last week’s news that ALEC drafted an agreement for their state chairs calling on them to put the interests of ALEC first, Brooks and other protest leaders went into the meeting area and asked attendees to sign an alternative pledge – one asking ALEC legislators to honor the Constitution and their constituents rather than corporate interests. None of the attendees signed.
On October 8th, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in McCutcheon v. FEC, which has the potential to be the most destructive campaign finance case it has considered since Citizens United v. FEC. In McCutcheon, the Court is examining the constitutionality of aggregate contribution limits and, depending on the decision it’s expected to release in early 2014, could allow even more money to be poured into our elections.
In addition to mobilizing its networks around the case, People For hosted a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court, where activists from a wide range of backgrounds and issue areas spoke about how moneyed politics affects our democracy. The rally was co-emceed by People For’s Marge Baker, and featured YEO Maryland State Director Craig Rice and YP4 Fellow Brendien Mitchell.
To learn more about People For the American Way’s campaign against big money in politics, visit our Government By The People page.