Senate Judiciary Committee

Failing to Defend the Right to Vote Is Simply Not an Option

As we work to ensure not only that President Obama receives legislation without undue delay, but also that whatever language he signs protects as many voters as possible from discrimination, it is important to remember those who died a half century ago fighting for this very cause.
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Money in Politics Takes Top Billing on Congress.Gov

Congress.gov saw so many views of S.J. Res. 19 because Americans across the country are interested in creating an America that does not allow corporations to use their money to cozy up with politicians.
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PFAW and Allies Deliver to Senate Hearing Two Million Petitions for an Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

Before yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a proposed campaign finance constitutional amendment had even begun, advocates from People For the American Way and partner organizations had already delivered a powerful message from the American people. Carrying signs saying “Restore the First Amendment” and “Amend the Constitution to #GetMoneyOut,” activists rolled in stacked boxes of more than two million petitions in support of an amendment to get big money out of politics.

 

In his opening remarks, Sen. Patrick Leahy noted that these petitions serve as a “tangible reminder that Americans are calling on Congress to act.”

In an rare move that underscored the importance of the proposed amendment, both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell testified at the hearing. Sen. Reid issued a call to action for the amendment, urging Americans to work together to restore the basic principle of one American, one vote. “Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances,” he said.

Sen. McConnell, on the other hand, used the platform to claim that the proposed amendment is about shutting people up, calling it the “latest proposal to weaken the First Amendment.” Later, Sen. Ted Cruz continued to push the false claim that the amendment would “repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment” and “muzzle” Americans.

But other witnesses were quick to debunk this myth, including constitutional law expert Jamie Raskin, who is also a senior fellow at People For the American Way. In his testimony, Raskin noted:

[E]ven as our huge majorities of Americans support reclaiming our democracy, opponents of the Amendment are waving the flag of the First Amendment, as if political democracy and free speech are enemies. But the Citizens United era has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with plutocratic power. Citizens United did not increase the rights of a single citizen to express his or her views with speech or with money. Before the decision, all citizens, including CEOs, could express themselves freely, make contributions, and spend all the money they had to promote their politics. They could band together with the help of the corporation and form a PAC. All Citizens United did was confer a power on CEOs to write corporate treasury checks for political expenditures, without a vote of the shareholders, prior consultation or even disclosure.

In terms of real world consequences, Raskin went on to note, these damaging Supreme Court decisions did not “expand the political freedom of citizens but… reduce[d] the political power of citizens.”

North Carolina State Senator Floyd McKissick described some of those real world effects, noting that he can divide his time in the state legislature into two distinct periods: “before Citizens United, and after”:

Suddenly, no matter what the race was, money came flooding in. Even elected officials who had been in office for decades told me they’d never seen anything like it. We were barraged by television ads that were uglier and less honest than I would have thought possible. And they all seemed to be coming from groups with names we had never even heard of. But it was clear that corporations and individuals who could write giant checks had a new level of power in the state.

PFAW

PFAW Opposes Nomination of Michael Boggs to be Federal Judge

Federal district court nominee Michael Boggs of Georgia had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The hearing was his opportunity to address the many serious concerns we and others have had about his record. When he first ran for office as a state judge, he assured voters that they could know where he stood by looking at his legislative record, including his opposition to marriage equality. But judges aren’t supposed to let their personal political beliefs determine how they rule on cases. In addition, the legislative record he cited is deeply disturbing.

Unfortunately, his testimony in response to senators’ questions only deepened our concerns. So in a letter Wednesday to members of the Senate, People For the American Way expressed strong opposition to this confirmation. PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon delineated the reasoning behind the organization’s opposition to Boggs’ confirmation.

“[Boggs’] record makes clear that senators should not confirm him to a lifetime position as a United States judge,” the letter states. “…we do not believe Michael Boggs has demonstrated that he would be able to bring to his service as a lifetime judge on the federal courts the requisite impartiality necessary for such a position.”

The five page letter discusses the problems around Boggs’ ability to perform in the role of judge and his actions relating to LGBT equality, reproductive rights, and government promotion of religion. It also discusses the controversy around his support for the inclusion of Confederate imagery in the Georgia state flag, as well as his candor before the Judiciary Committee. You can read the full text of the letter here.
 

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As Immigration Bill Advances, Common Sense Faces off with Extremism

Last night the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 to advance immigration legislation that creates a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.  It is expected to come to the Senate floor for debate in June. 

As the bill moves forward, Republicans in Congress will have to make a choice between casting their lot with the majority of their party and country in supporting common-sense reform or with anti-immigrant extremists attempting to stand in the way of progress.  As Right Wing Watch has documented, right-wing activists continue to push damaging, outrageous lies about immigrant communities.  Maria Espinoza, director of a project linked to the nativist Numbers USA, proclaimed that “no one is immune to the illegal who drives wildly drunk, or the wanna-be gang-banger who needs to machete innocent citizens to gain entry and respect into the Latino or other gangs.” Center for Immigration Studies director Mark Krikorian has called GOP immigration reform supporters “useful idiots” and claimed that “Native-born Hispanic Americans, who make up most Hispanic voters, have a majority of the children that are born to them are illegitimate, very high rates of welfare use.”

As the GOP works to change their party’s image for Latino voters, they face a choice between standing with those on the far-right fringe such as Krikorian and Espinoza or standing with the bipartisan majority pushing for much-needed change.

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For Judicial Nominees, The Hidden Obstruction Continues

Ongoing Republican abuse of committee procedures is keeping our nation's courtrooms empty.
PFAW

GOP Boycotts Judiciary Committee

Are Senate Republicans Finding New Ways to Keep Our Nation's Courtrooms Empty?
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PFAW's Peter Montgomery: Republicans Using 'Religious Liberty' to Attack Obama, Women's Health

Attacking President Obama for his supposed “hostility” to religious liberty is the tactic du jour for congressional Republicans, according to a new piece in the Huffington Post by PFAW Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery.

After a widely-mocked hearing before the House Oversight Committee on contraceptive coverage, conservatives testifying before the Judiciary Committee continued to claim that the Obama Administration’s compromise on contraceptive coverage is not sufficient – and even if were, the Administration couldn’t be trusted to actually carry it out.

But many of their arguments relied on narrow definitions of the beginning of life that are at odds with medical standards and even with the rest of the religious community:

The arguments from Republican members and their witnesses boiled down to three main claims: the regulations requiring contraception coverage are unconstitutional burdens on religious organizations; the compromise to prevent religious organizations from having to pay for contraceptive coverage is only "an accounting gimmick" that does not resolve any of the moral or religious liberty issues; and the Obama administration has proven itself hostile to religious liberty and cannot be trusted to follow through on its promised accommodation.

...

Several Democratic members pointedly noted that Lori was not speaking for all Catholic leaders, placing into the record positive statements about the proposed compromise from the Catholic Health Association, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and other Catholic groups. Meanwhile, outside the hearing, other Catholic voices challenged the credibility of the bishops' religious liberty alarmism.

Others cited fallacious examples to attempt to bolster their claim of lacking religious accomodation.

Also on hand: more nonsensical analogies to join Bishop Lori's previous testimony that the regulations were akin to forcing a Jewish deli to serve pork. Committee Chair Lamar Smith asked whether the government could force people to drink red wine for its health benefits. (As Rep. Zoe Lofgren noted, no one is being forced to use birth control.) Religious Right favorite Rep. Steve King lamented that in the past Christians had "submitted" to Supreme Court decision on prayer in schools and the Griswold decision and the right to privacy "manufactured" by the Supreme Court.

The piece goes on to discuss how religious liberty does require some accommodation of religious beliefs, and striking an appropriate balance is a delicate task. But whatever the outcome, Montgomery notes, the courts will evaluate the regulation of competing interests, and “religious liberty in America will survive.” You can read the entire article here.

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Senate Hearing Examines Indefinite Detention of Americans

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “The Due Process Guarantee Act: Banning Indefinite Detention of Americans,” which shed light on controversial provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA).

That act, signed into law on December 31, 2011, codified some of the most extreme abuses of civil liberties that have been pursued following the initiation of the ‘War on Terror,’ the actions of which, under the current administration, are now engaged under the title, ‘Overseas Contingency Operations.’ The most striking provision of the NDAA affirmed a broad interpretation of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (2001) and stated that the executive has the power to detain anyone “who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities … without trial, until the end of the hostilities authorized by the [AUMF 2001],” which many interpret would permit even the indefinite detention of American citizens.

Although the current executive branch has pledged to not act upon these powers with respect to American citizens – President Obama signed the law with an adjoining statement, declaring, “my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens” – the potential for future administrations to engage in such clearly unconstitutional behavior, or for the Obama Administration to simply change its mind, is a danger that all Americans should be wary of.

Troubled by these possibilities, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the ‘Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011’ just hours after the final version of the NDAA was approved by the Senate. The bill seeks to amend the United States Code affected by the NDAA, effectively barring the executive from utilizing indefinite detention on American citizens without express approval from Congress to do so.

The hearing today regarded this remedial act; and there were fireworks to say the least.

Senator Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and is the author of the bill, repeatedly called into question the effectiveness of the provisions in question. Alluding to her past experiences on the Intelligence Committee, Feinstein echoed the concerns of leaders of intelligence and domestic crime fighting agencies who have expressed their disagreement with the infringement of the Armed Forces into domestic security concerns.

Senator Patrick Leahy, before passing the gavel to Senator Feinstein to chair the session, spoke more broadly about the practice of indefinite detention in his opening statement, stating, “A regime of indefinite detention degrades the credibility of this great Nation around the globe, particularly when we criticize other governments for engaging in such conduct.”

The most heated portion of the hearing arose when Senator Al Franken objected to the testimony of Steven G. Bradbury, a former Bush Administration appointee invited by Senate Republicans to testify in favor of the indefinite detention provisions. Franken alluded to the ‘enhanced interrogation’ memos (more accurately called torture memos) that Bradbury authored – which were the subject of a Justice Department probe that concluded by seriously questioning the legal work of Bradbury and others - and stated, “it’s very difficult for me, frankly, to rely on your legal opinion today.”

To ensure that future generations of Americans are not subject to indefinite detention without charge or trial, which was deemed unconstitutional by the Hamdi Supreme Court decision in 2004, please contact your local Representative and Senators to express your opposition to the NDAA, and encourage them to co-sponsor legislation to make sure the law reflects our Constitution’s most essential values. ( H.R. 36702 in the House; S. 2003 in the Senate).

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Senate Republicans Only Delayed Four of Five New Nominees Today!

This morning, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee did something they have done only a handful of times: They exercised their discretion NOT to obstruct one of President Obama's judicial nominees.

The Committee was scheduled to vote on ten nominations this morning. With only four exceptions during the entirety of Obama's presidency, Republicans have exercised their prerogative to delay a committee vote for judicial nominees, even when those nominees are unopposed and are desperately needed to address burgeoning judicial emergencies. It is part of their larger strategy to throw sand in the wheels of the confirmation process in every way possible.

This morning, they did not request a delay for Jennifer Guerin Zipps, who has been nominated to be a district judge in Arizona. What makes Guerin Zipps different? The seat is a judicial emergency, but that has not mattered before. The nominee is unopposed, but even nominees without opposition and with the strong support of their Republican home-state senators have seen their votes delayed.

Only one thing makes this nomination different: Republicans know that the American people are paying attention, because this is to fill the seat that was held by Judge John Roll, who was among those killed in Tucson last January when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot. Roll was seeking to meet Giffords to discuss the worsening caseload crisis overwhelming the area's federal judges. Americans were appalled by the violence, which brings this particular vacancy far more public attention than usual.

Knowing the American people are somberly watching, Senate Republicans declined to play political games with this nomination.

Not surprisingly, for all the other nominations that were scheduled for a committee vote for the first time this morning, they demanded a needless delay.

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Justice Ginsburg Mourns Breakdown of Judicial Nominations Process

At a speech yesterday at Southern Methodist University, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg touched upon the depressing state of our nation's judicial nominations process. As reported by the Associated Press:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday that the confirmation process has become much more partisan and that she probably never would have made it to the high court under the current climate.

"I wish we could wave a magic wand and go back to the days when the process was bipartisan," Ginsburg told the crowd of about 2,000 as she spoke as part of a lecture series for Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

While most of us cannot wave such a magic wand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can. With one word he could stop many of the GOP obstruction tactics against President Obama's judicial nominees. It was just such obstruction that prevented the Senate from voting to confirm twenty pending nominees before it left town several weeks ago, 17 of whom got through committee with no recorded opposition.

As ThinkProgress reported, Justice Ginsburg also noted the hostility felt by some senators toward the ACLU: "Today, my ACLU connection would probably disqualify me."

Unfortunately, she may be right. Late last year, Senator Jeff Sessions – then the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee – railed against judicial nominees who had worked with or been a member of the ACLU, specifically targeting William Martinez, Edward Chen, Goodwin Liu, Jack McConnell, Amy Totenberg, Robert Wilkins, and Michael Simon. He concluded his tirade with the following warning to President Obama:

I do believe the administration needs to understand that this is going to be a more contentious matter if we keep seeing the ACLU chromosome as part of this process.

Republican hostility to the ACLU – and to the constitutional rights it regularly protects – is extremely disturbing. At the same time, the blocking of even unopposed nominees suggests that the GOP's main problems with President Obama's nominees is that they are President Obama's nominees.

PFAW

Ongoing Focus on GOP Obstruction of Judicial Nominations

Since President Obama took office, Republican obstruction of his judicial nominees has been multifaceted, unstinting, highly partisan, hypocritical, and unprecedented in scope. When the Senate left town at the start of the month, Republican leaders prevented the Democrats from scheduling a vote on 20 extremely qualified nominees who had cleared the Judiciary Committee.

Yesterday, the White House Blog called attention to the obstruction and to the highly qualified and diverse federal bench that the president is working to build:

[T]he President's nominations for federal judges embody an unprecedented commitment to expanding the racial, gender and experiential diversity of the men and women who enforce our laws and deliver justice.

Unfortunately, the delays these nominees are encountering on Capitol Hill are equally unprecedented: earlier this month, the Senate left for its August recess without considering 20 eminently qualified candidates, 16 of whom had passed through the bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee completely unopposed, a development the Washington Post called "not only frustrating but also destructive" in an editorial published yesterday.

As the Republicans know, their intransigence is exacerbating a destructive vacancy crisis in federal courtrooms, one that is making it harder and harder for Americans to secure their rights:

The victims of these delays, of course, are the American citizens who are being denied the fair and timely judicial proceedings they deserve because of the chronic shortage of federal judges on the bench. Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association, told Senate leaders in a recent letter that the abundance of vacant federal judgeships "create strains that will inevitably reduce the quality of our justice system and erode public confidence in the ability of the courts to vindicate constitutional rights or render fair and timely decisions."

Click here to see the White House's infographic highlighting the obstruction and its consequences for families and businesses. It shows that:

  • The average wait time between committee approval and confirmation has leapt from 29 days for George W. Bush's circuit court nominees to an incredible 151 days for President Obama's.
  • For district court nominees, a 20-day wait for Bush's nominees has become a 103-day wait for Obama's.
  • Judicial vacancies have grown from 55 in 2009 to 91 today.
  • People are forced to wait an average of more than two years for a civil jury trial.
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ACLU DNA, Lead Paint, and the Judges who Made it Through GOP Obstruction

As we like to remind anyone who will listen, the current GOP senate has been shameless in its enthusiasm for obstructing judicial nominees just for the sake of obstruction. For instance, a PFAW memo on August 2 reported that of 24 nominees then waiting for confirmation votes, 21 had been voted through the Senate Judiciary Committee with no recorded opposition. Instead of sending through at least the unopposed nominees in a voice vote and moving on with its business, the Senate decided to keep these potential jurists off the bench for as long as possible – despite the pressing problem of unfilled judicial seats leading to slowed down justice. Ultimately, 4 of those nominees were confirmed by the Senate before it left for its August recess, and 20 remain waiting. (The Washington Post this morning lamented that such “gamesmanship is not only frustrating but also destructive”)

This sort of thing is a clear example of obstruction for obstruction’s sake. But what about the nominees who do face some GOP opposition? Last week, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen took an in-depth look at some of President Obama’s nominees who were ultimately confirmed by the Senate, but who received more than 25 “no” votes. The reason? Most were opposed because of a record fighting for civil liberties or against big corporations. Here are a few of Cohen’s examples:

7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hamilton (Votes 59-39). Even though his local Federalist Society endorsed this nephew of former Congressional leader Lee Hamilton, Senate Republicans mostly didn't because, as a trial judge, Hamilton had issued this 2005 ruling which had infuriated the religious right. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Judge Hamilton had ruled that Indiana's legislative prayer before each session could no longer be "sectarian" and regularly invoke the name of Jesus Christ.


Northern District of Ohio Judge Benita Y. Pearson (Votes 56-39). The first black female federal jurist in Ohio almost didn't get the gig. The precise reasons why are unclear. The People for the American Way suggested that she was a member of an animal rights group and thus earned the wrath of those in the cattle industries -- although 39 "no" votes is quite a lot of beef to have against a pioneering jurist.


District of Colorado Judge William J. Martinez
(Votes 58-37). By contrast, it is not hard to understand why this Mexico-born nominee roused so much Republican opposition on the floor of the Senate. Before he was nominated, Martinez advised the Americans with Civil Liberties Union and was a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (just like Clarence Thomas before him, only Justice Thomas' EEOC experience evidently was a boon for his nomination). Of nominee Martinez, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said: "It seems that if you've got the ACLU DNA you've got a pretty good leg up to being nominated by this president."


District of Rhode Island Judge John J. McConnell (Votes 50-44). It's also fairly clear why Judge McConnell almost didn't make it onto the bench. Senate Republicans didn't like him because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn't like him because, as a lawyer, McConnell had successfully sued Big Tobacco and fought for those harmed by lead paint. Evidently that's five Republican votes more serious in the Senate than ticking off Big Beef.


Northern District of California Judge Edward M. Chen
(Votes 56-42). Like Judge Martinez, Edward Chen evidently was touched with the "ACLU gene," which rendered him objectionable to Senate Republicans. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose state's Asian population is nearly three times lower than the American average, voted against Chen because he thought the well-respected former magistrate judge employed the "empathy standard" of judging.


District of Oregon Judge Michael H. Simon
(Votes 64-35). Harvard educated? Check. Prior government experience with the Justice Department? Check. So why 35 "no" votes? Because Simon had worked for the ACLU. The seat he took on the federal bench, reported the Oregonian, had been vacant for 664 days, two months short of two years. How would you like to have been a litigant in Oregon during that time?


All of these nominees were ultimately confirmed – but not after plenty of stalling and debate over the value of “ACLU DNA” or of holding big corporations accountable for their actions. When we talk about the many nominees who are unopposed yet unaccountably stalled, it’s important to remember that the few nominees who do face GOP opposition don’t always face that opposition for the most convincing of reasons.
 

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Help build support for comprehensive immigration reform

Last month, Sen. Menendez introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011. Drawing on provisions from the AgJOBS, DREAM, and Uniting American Families Acts, this piece of legislation seeks to establish a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Countless families have been torn apart, young people’s dreams of a bright future crushed, and communities brought to a halt because of harsh and unfair immigration laws. Menendez’s legislation, however, will make changes that allow undocumented workers, students, and families a chance at the American dream.

This legislation would be a powerful step not only towards making our nation a more humane place, but also towards making all of us safer. Undocumented workers would have to meet stringent requirements before being considered for citizenship, but creating a pathway to citizenship recognizes the hardwork of many undocumented immigrants and the numerous contributions they have made to American society.

Currently, the bill awaits further action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are currently 9 cosponsors of the legislation, but it will need much more support in order to pass. Please contact your senators and urge them to cosponsor the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Immigrants throughout our history have transformed us into a strong country, and the immigrants of today will help build upon this legacy to keep this nation great.

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Senate holds historic hearing on DOMA repeal

Today, Sen. Patrick Leahy convened the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold the body's first ever hearing on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages, was signed into law in 1996, and since then has had a tremendous impact on the lives of thousands of married gay and lesbian couples and their families.

In March, Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the discriminatory policies of DOMA and provide the same federal rights and benefits to same-sex married couples as their opposite-sex counterparts.

The three-panel hearing began with powerful and profound testimony from Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the Civil Rights movement. Calling DOMA a “stain on our democracy,” Lewis reaffirmed his continued commitment to fighting for the civil rights of all people, including gays and lesbians.

Representative Nadler echoed much of Lewis’ testimony, adding that DOMA hurts same-sex couples, especially those with children, because of the financial burdens that it places on them. Many of the witnesses in the second panel told stories of how the discriminatory law has been both a psychological and financial hardships for them and their spouses.

Because only two DOMA-supporting senators, Orin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, were willing to show up at the hearing, the task of arguing against the legislations repeal was left to some of the witnesses.

Edward Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center claimed that the fight for marriage equality and repeal of DOMA is part of the left’s plan to “path the way for polygamy and other polyamorous relationships,” ignoring the fact that no state to legalize marriage equality has seen any organized movement to legalize polygamy.

Thomas Minnery of Focus on the Family claimed research shows children raised in households headed by a same-sex couple were worse off than those in a “traditional family,” ignoring, well, just about every scrap of objective research on the subject. The research he was citing, however, was a study done by the Department of Health and Human Services, which in fact suggests children are better off with two parents regardless of their gender.

Watch Sen. Al Franken question Minnery’s misuse of the study below: 

The Senators asked the witnesses important questions about the very real and powerful harms DOMA has caused same-sex couples and their families. Many of their stories were heartbreaking and show the necessity for repealing this discriminatory law.

Contact your representative and senators and urge them to support the Respect for Marriage Act. All Americans deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity, and the Respect of Marriage Act would ensure that all Americans have access to the protections that only marriage can afford.

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