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Blue Slips: Republicans Should Stop Abuse of Consultation Process

In an op-ed Sunday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, addressed critics of his use of blue slips, a committee tradition that Republicans continue to abuse. Under this policy, the chairman asks the Senators from a nominee’s home state to submit a blue slip expressing their support or opposition. The consequences have varied over time, depending on who the chairman has been. Leahy’s practice has been to not hold a hearing unless both senators submit their blue slips saying they support letting the committee process the application. As Senator Leahy points out

The Constitution requires presidents to seek both the “advice and consent” of the Senate in appointing judges to lifetime posts on the federal courts. … When senators return this paper, it is proof that the senators elected to represent that state were consulted and the nominee is likely to be confirmed.

Leahy states he “cannot recall a single judicial nominee being confirmed over the objection of his or her home-state senators,” and affirms the importance of home-state support in moving the process forward.

But Leahy also acknowledges that the “judicial confirmation process in the Senate has grown increasingly difficult,” and that Senate practices that bring principles of the Constitution to life do need “ongoing evaluation to make sure they work as intended. And he reiterates that he “would not rule out proceeding with a nomination if the blue slip is abused.”

Indeed, since his election, President Obama has routinely sought the advice of senators through the judicial nominations process. It has been a hallmark of his presidency. But too many Republicans have refused to engage in a cooperative process, instead seeking the authority to pick the nominee themselves, even if it is someone the president would oppose. When that happens, no nomination is made. Other times, the senators withhold the blue slip indefinitely, often refusing to give a reason why, and sometimes even after they themselves recommended the nominee they are now blocking. The result of this abuse has been the worsening of a serious judicial vacancy crisis.

Chairman Leahy has stressed the importance of blue slips in showing that senators have been consulted by the White House. Taking heed of Leahy’s words, Republicans should be wary of continuing the abuse of the blue slip process to block judicial confirmations. Their continued use of this “silent, unaccountable veto” is a detriment to the judicial process. As GOP obstruction continues through withholding of blue slips despite substantial consultation, judicial nominations grow more cumbersome, and the impracticality of this part of the process becomes clearer.
 

PFAW

YEO Leads Fight Against ‘Right to Discriminate’ Law in Mississippi

In the wake of the recent uproar about an expansive “right to discriminate” bill that was vetoed in Arizona, on Thursday Mississippi governor Phil Bryant quietly signed similar legislation, the so-called Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, into law.

Mississippi State Senator Derrick Simmons, a member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, has been a vocal opponent of the distressing law. On the floor of the state Senate last week, Sen. Simmons, who is African American, said:

If you have never been discriminated against, you don't know how that feels…. I urge you to vote against this bill because it legalizes discrimination.

On Friday he spoke out again in a powerful op-ed outlining some of the negative repercussions his state may see now that, in Simmons’ words, “the worst outcome has occurred”:

Businesses wishing to discriminate against any person under state law could use “religious exercise” as a defense to justify their actions.

Federal and state laws do not let business owners with religious objections to “mixing the races” refuse service on religious grounds. We do not let business owners with traditional views of sex roles refuse to sell certain products to women or not hire married women for full-time jobs on religious grounds. Yet the way this bill is written could open the doors to many other types of discrimination.

…The Jim Crow laws ended in 1965. I was born 11 years later. I never witnessed those horrible years. I don’t want to see any shadow of the Jim Crow era, but this bill could turn back the clock. Arizona stopped it from happening when Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill in her state. I was praying for the same here; however, Mississippi just doesn't have the will to do what is right. Mississippi is burning again.

The worst outcome has occurred - Governor Bryant has signed the discriminatory bill into law. Yes, we can hope the Mississippi court system will recognize the importance of enforcing protection from discrimination, but we can act locally. We must ask our counties and cities to pass non-discrimination ordinances so our friends of all races, colors, creeds and orientations can find oases from prejudice in the great state of Mississippi.

PFAW

African American Ministers in Action Featured This Week in Safe Schools Letter Campaign

The letter-a-day campaign for safe schools that PFAW is leading just finished another week, and now twenty groups have gone on record with Congress in support of safe schools legislation. Together, we are sending loud and clear the message that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools. PFAW's own African American Ministers in Action was one of this week's highlights.
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McCutcheon v. FEC Response Rally Hosted by People For The American Way at the Supreme Court

Within hours of the Supreme Court issuing its decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, People For the American Way organized a rapid response protest, the first of over 140 that are taking place across the country today. 

The protest featured key movement leaders from Congress and a wide range of advocacy organizations, all of whom were outraged about the Roberts Court’s disregard for democratic safeguards, like those gutted in McCutcheon v. FEC.

Emceed by People For the American Way’s Diallo Brooks and concluded by People For’s Drew Courtney, the rally featured Senator Bernie Sanders [VT], Representative Keith Ellison [MN-5], and Representative Ted Deutch [FL-19], as well as Jotaka Eaddy of the NAACP, Michael Russo of US PIRG, Steve Cobble of Free Speech For People, Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, George Kohl of Communication Workers of America, Miles Rappaport of Common Cause, Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth, and Courtney Hight of the Sierra Club.

Speakers highlighted the problem of “big money” dominating the political process, and discussed the range of solutions--from enacting disclosure and public financing laws to amending the Constitution--that are available to solve it.

 
   
PFAW

Fair Housing for LGBT People Rejected in Louisiana

Under current law, Louisiana protects the ability "to compete for available housing on an open, fair, and equitable basis, regardless of race, color, religion, [and] sex." House Bill 804, introduced by Representative Jared Brossett of New Orleans, would have added to the list protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and marital status.
PFAW

Safe Schools Letter Campaign Wraps Another Week, Twelve Groups Have Gone on Record

The letter-a-day campaign for safe schools that PFAW is leading just finished another week, and now twelve groups have gone on record with Congress in support of safe schools legislation. Together, we are sending loud and clear the message that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.
PFAW

PFAW Releases New Policy Toolkit on Safe Schools

For too many students, school is not a safe place. More than six in ten LGBT students have felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and more than four in ten because of their gender expression. Losing their sense of safety means that they lose access to the quality education all students deserve.

In anticipation of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s Day of Silence on April 11, an annual event to highlight the silence created by anti-LGBT harassment in schools, today People For the American Way released a new policy toolkit, Education Without Discrimination: Creating Safe Schools for All Students.



 

From talking points to sample lobbying letters to social media resources, the toolkit is designed to help you understand and advocate for the critical legislation that has been introduced in Congress to address this problem, including the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

Together we can send a loud and clear message to Congress: all students deserve safe schools.

PFAW

Florida Puts Hold on Voter Purge, North Carolina Lifts the Veil on Voter ID Law

When we last checked in with the controversial Florida voter purge, advocates and media alike were speculating over what route Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner would take in 2014, with Detzner's office considering comparing its voter records with the US Department of Homeland Security's federal citizenship database known as Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE). Now we know: the purge is off for 2014. Also this week, in North Carolina US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled that lawmakers must release correspondence related to the formation of the state's new voter ID law, saying that though some records might be shielded, many are considered public.
PFAW

New Hampshire Campaign to Become 17th State to Call for Amendment to Overturn ‘Citizens United’ Stalls

Rising from her chair in the Senate chamber of the capitol building in Concord, New Hampshire – the country’s oldest chamber still in use, housing democratic debate since 1819 – State Senator Martha Fuller Clark (D-21) was unequivocal in her warning:

Citizens United is threatening our citizen-led legislature.”

Senator Clark’s words came yesterday afternoon as she spoke out in favor of SB 307, a bill that she introduced.  The legislation calls for a committee to examine the different constitutional amendments that are under consideration in the 113th Congress that would overturn Citizens United.  But in its most recent form, SB 307 needed a corrective amendment to realign the bill towards its original intent. The amendment would have declared that the committee would assume a constitutional amendment was necessary and discuss which proposal would be best, rather than to debate whether or not a constitutional amendment was needed in the first place.

By this point, the people of New Hampshire had already conveyed, through organizing, through polling, through walking across the state in the dead of winter, through the 48 town hall meetings that had just passed Citizens United amendment resolutions earlier in March, that the debate was long over: the country needs constitutional reform, and it needs it now.

Unfortunately, Senator Clark’s corrective measure failed on a 12-12 vote, with only one Republican, Senator Russell Prescott (R-23), crossing party lines to vote in favor. Russell stated on the Senate floor,

“I just can’t make the leap… that a corporation has the same First Amendment rights as people.” 

Notably, State Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-2) – whose district includes Bridgewater, Bristol, Dorchester, Groton, Piermont, Plymouth, and Tilton, towns that all had just voted in favor of an amendment – refused to support Senator Clark’s correction.

However not all hope is lost for New Hampshire to become the 17th state to call for a constitutional amendment this legislative session.  SB 307 passed with the incorrect intent of examining the need for an amendment.  It will most likely be paired with a much stronger version of the bill from the House in conference committee, which could result in the stronger measure coming back to the Senate.  So it’s important to keep the pressure up.  

In the face of such obstruction, a quote from Winston Churchill comes to mind:

“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” 

Senator Clark and the people of New Hampshire have brought the truth to Concord; it’s only a matter of time before the legislature acts on it.

PFAW

Harry Reid Moving Judicial Nominations Forward, Despite Republican Obstruction

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed cloture yesterday on the nomination of John B. Owens to a seat on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—one that has been declared a judicial emergency and which has been vacant for almost 10 years. This moves forward the Senate judicial confirmations process that has been relentlessly slowed down by GOP obstruction. In an atmosphere of constant delays, it is commendable that Sen. Reid is taking action to get nominees confirmed, especially circuit court nominees.

Because of obstruction by Senate Republicans, nominations for the circuit court have been made particularly cumbersome. As we explained last month, if Senators refuse to provide “unanimous consent” to schedule a vote, Sen. Reid is forced to file a cloture petition to allow a yes or no vote on the nominee. Once cloture is invoked,  Senate rules allow the minority to insist on “post-cloture debate”— up to 30 hours for circuit court nominees.

With six circuit court nominees now on the Senate calendar, (including the most recent addition, Fifth Circuit nominee Gregg Costa, who was recommended unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning) and more in the pipeline, Republicans can tie the Senate up for 180 hours of needless “post cloture debate” – that is weeks of floor time that could be spent doing something useful. Time is growing short to get them all confirmed by the end of the year. One easy answer is for Senate Republicans to forego their delaying tactics and permit the Senate to both confirm judicial nominees and perform the other important work waiting to be done. Until that happens, Sen. Reid should be applauded for pushing the process forward.

PFAW

Texas Republican Highlights How GOP Should Face the Changing Electorate

In the famously red state of Texas, Republican state legislator Jason Villalba of Dallas last week offered a frank assessment of the crossroads at which his party finds itself.

[T]he time has come closer when we will see the sleeping giant [of the Hispanic electorate] awaken and it will make a tremendous difference in our ability to win elections if we cannot win the votes of our fellow Hispanics.

Even as the country rapidly becomes more diverse, the GOP has clung to its strategy of alienating Latinos, African Americans, women, and LGBT people with an endless barrage of outrageous statements and discriminatory policies.

As some Republican leaders, like Villalba in Texas, are noting, this tactic isn’t good for the GOP. Demographic changes, though small on the surface, could have major political impacts, particularly in swing states, that will make it harder and harder for Republicans to win important elections.

In Texas alone, analysts are projecting a two percent increase in the Latino electorate for the 2016 election cycle compared to 2012. That kind of increase is still relatively minor in Texas, but a similar shift could make a crucial difference in swing states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. As GOP pollster Whit Ayres notes

Changing the demographics of the state by two percentage points puts a finger on the scale in each of the swing states for the party that’s doing well among Hispanics. This underscores the critical importance for Republican candidates to do better among nonwhite Americans, particularly among Hispanics, if Republicans ever hope to elect another president.

Some far right activists argue that the GOP can win by increasing its share of the white vote, but the numbers don’t bear that out. As Resurgent Republic noted, “every month for the next two decades, 50,000 Hispanics will turn 18.” Without appealing to those voters, Republicans face a steep climb to victory in any national race—and a quick journey to minority party status.

No wonder the party is so fond of strict voter ID laws, restricted early voting opportunities, and proof of citizenship laws to deter certain people from coming out to vote.

PFAW

Sheldon Adelson Shops for Next GOP Candidate

The Washington Post reports today that Sheldon Adelson – the casino magnate who spent, with his wife, more than $92 million in the 2012 elections – is in the market for a 2016 GOP presidential candidate to support.

After throwing reams of money at losing candidate Newt Gingrich in the last election, Adelson is now looking for someone he believes will be seen as electable by a country with swiftly changing demographics. He is already being wooed by GOP presidential hopefuls:

The change in attitude comes amid early jockeying by a lengthy list of aspiring Republican presidential contenders to win the affections of the billionaire, who is in the beginning stages of assessing the field.

“The bar for support is going to be much higher,” said Andy Abboud, Adelson’s top political adviser and an executive at the Adelson-run Las Vegas Sands Corp. He added, “There’s going to be a lot more scrutiny.”

This strategy would favor more established 2016 hopefuls such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All four will descend this week on Adelson’s luxury hotel in Las Vegas, the Venetian, for an important step in what some are calling the “Sheldon Primary.”

Funny, I don’t remember learning about the “Sheldon Primary” in my high school civics class. But in our Super PAC-filled, post-Citizens United world of unlimited election spending, this seems to be the reality of how candidates who have a real shot are chosen. As Harvard law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig puts it,

We have a general election, but only after the funders have had their way with the candidates who wish to run in that general election.

With Adelson essentially interviewing potential candidates, it begs the question: will our presidents be working for the people who elected them, or will they increasingly serve as the puppets of billionaire benefactors? 

When a tiny fraction of the country’s wealthiest people are able to hand-pick candidates, it’s doubtful that we’ll have a government that focuses on the priorities of everyday Americans. A democracy simply doesn’t work if the voices of those of us who aren’t having swanky private dinners with presidential hopefuls are drowned out by the few who are.

PFAW

‘Right to Discriminate’ Bills, Meet Hobby Lobby

Last month, as Arizona governor Jan Brewer deliberated whether to sign or veto a law that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers, the public outcry was immense. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain shared their opposition via Twitter. Companies including American Airlines, Apple, and AT&T urged a veto. Multiple state senators who had voted for SB 1062 asked Gov. Brewer to veto it. When she did, advocacy groups praised the decision and many in Arizona and across the country breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief.

But it turns out that sigh may have been premature.

This morning the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a case that, on its face, appears to be dealing with a different issue – women’s access to contraception – but in fact grapples with some of the same core issues in play with “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s. In the Hobby Lobby case, as in its companion case Conestoga Wood Specialities v. Sebelius, corporations are trying to avoid complying with the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. But both the Supreme Court cases and the “right to discriminate” bills address the question of whether for-profit corporations have religious rights and can use those “rights” in a way that brings harm to others. 

Comparing the vetoed Arizona bill to efforts to let companies deny covering contraception, National Women’s Law Center vice president Emily Martin put it like this: “What you’re seeing in both cases are corporations asserting the right to break the law in the name of religion, even if it results in harm and discrimination for third parties.” And The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin noted,

Indeed, a victory for Hobby Lobby might bring in an Arizona-style rule through the back door….The Arizona law and the Hobby Lobby case represent two sides of the same coin. Both assert that the invocation of a religious belief allows a company to opt out of a government requirement that applies to everyone else.

But corporations have never had religious rights, and as affiliate PFAW Foundation senior fellow Jamie Raskin wrote in a recent report, that concept is simply “absurd.”

[I]t is time for the Court to restore some reality to the conversation.  Business corporations do not belong to religions and they do not worship God.  We do not protect anyone’s religious free exercise rights by denying millions of women workers access to contraception.

PFAW

A Commendably Speedy Process for a Vermont Judicial Recommendation

Patrick Leahy has shown the country what an exemplary process for identifying potential district court judges looks like.
PFAW

Rubio's Delay Increases Urgency of Florida Judicial Nominations

Early this year, President Obama nominated Judge Beth Bloom, Judge Darrin P. Gayles, Judge Carlos Eduardo Mendoza, and Paul G. Byron to the Southern and Middle District Courts of Florida. Of the four vacancies in the Southern District, three have been declared judicial emergencies. The situation in Florida is so dire that even if every vacancy were to be filled tomorrow, it would not be enough to take care of the courts’ growing workloads. In fact, the Judicial Conference has requested a number of new judgeships for the state, including:

• 5 new judgeships for the Middle District, plus a temporary judgeship; and
• 3 new judgeships for the Southern District, plus the conversion of a temporary judgeship to a permanent position.

It is imperative that these nominations be confirmed swiftly; the Senate’s delays in confirming nominees translate to delays for Floridians waiting for their day in court.

Sen. Marco Rubio stated on NPR last month that he did “not anticipate having any objection to moving forward on any of [President Obama’s] nominees” for the district courts in Florida. In fact, the nominees were recommended by Sen. Rubio, along with Sen. Bill Nelson, based upon the recommendations of a bipartisan committee the two senators put together. Yet to date Sen. Rubio –unlike Sen. Nelson—has not signed the “blue slips” the Senate Judiciary Committee customarily requires before nominees are given a committee hearing. This is cause for some concern in light of Sen. Rubio’s refusal last year to sign off on other Florida nominees to seats that he himself had recommended.

Rubio’s slow-walking of his “blue slips” comes in the context of the GOP obstruction that has needlessly delayed the confirmation of most Obama nominees. After committee approval, President Obama’s district court nominees have been forced to wait an average of three times longer for a confirmation vote than President George W. Bush’s at this point in his presidency. Obama’s circuit court nominees are forced to wait nearly two months longer than Bush’s. This slowing down of the process seems completely gratuitous and politically motivated since the overwhelming majority of Obama’s judicial nominees have been confirmed unanimously or near-unanimously.

The current nominees are also important because they represent much-needed diversity in the federal courts. Gayles, for example, would be the first openly gay African-American man on the federal bench. However, with Rubio’s history of unfavorable treatment of previous nominees he has recommended, there is little expectation that he will help move this nomination process forward any faster. Gayles is up for the same seat to which William Thomas, also an openly gay African American man, was nominated in November 2012, a nomination that Rubio sabotaged.

Some were expecting these four Florida nominees (who were nominated in early February) to have their committee hearings this week, but because Rubio has not submitted his blue slips, that will not happen.

We join advocacy groups in Florida in urging Rubio to help get the state’s nominees confirmed as soon as possible.
 

PFAW

Safe Schools Supporters Make Strong Showing for Launch of Letter Campaign

PFAW recently launched a letter campaign urging members of Congress to support safe schools legislation. Along with six allies who also sent letters this week, and those who will soon join us, we are making a strong showing for the idea that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.
PFAW

Urgent Action Needed on Georgia Early Voting Bill on Last Day of Legislative Session

Updated March 21: Georgia's legislative session closed without final action being taken on HB 891. According to Facing South, "House sponsors declined to take up a vote on the revised bill, and HB 891 was dead." The report quotes Kelli Persons of League of Women Voters of Georgia, "The message here is that it's very important . . . to pay attention to what's happening at the local level," in reference to the bill's impact on municipal early voting.
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