Senate Judiciary Committee

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.

PFAW

Judiciary Committee Republicans: More and More Delay

As People For the American Way has noted before, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans have exercised their prerogative to delay committee consideration of every single one of President Obama's judicial nominees by at least one week, with only four exceptions. More than seventy of these nominees were confirmed without opposition.

Republicans have no good explanation for this. They are doing this simply to obstruct. The routine use of this hold, without cause and almost without exception, is unprecedented. It is part of a larger set of procedural roadblocks the Senate GOP uses to obstruct confirmation of qualified nominees whose only "fault" is that they were nominated by a Democratic president.

This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on the nominations of eleven judicial nominees, five of whom were scheduled for the first time. To the surprise of no one, they, too, fell victim to this form of partisan obstruction.

There is no reason that Republicans should have delayed committee consideration of Second Circuit Court nominee Christopher Droney or district court nominees Robert D. Mariani, Cathy Bissoon, Mark R. Hornak, and Robert N. Scola, Jr. All five appeared before the committee last month to answer questions. However, of the eight Republican members of the committee, only Ranking Member Grassley showed up for the hearing, where he spent just a few minutes asking questions of each nominee. Although all committee senators had an opportunity to ask follow-up questions in writing, no Republican but Senator Grassley did so.

So there really is no good reason for Senate Republicans to have exercised their prerogative to hold the vote over by a week for any of these nominees. But Republican obstructionism has become the rule: Highly qualified judicial nominees are blocked solely because they were nominated by a Democratic president.

Committee Republicans should be asked what exactly they need to learn about these nominees that they don't know already ... and, if they have questions, why they chose not to avail themselves of the many opportunities they have had to ask them.

More importantly, they should be asked why they are actively sabotaging the confirmation process when there are judicial crises all around the country. Americans need access to the courts, not partisan mudfights.

PFAW

Today's Supreme Court: Not Since the Gilded Age

There was once a Monty Python sketch about Dennis Moore, a confused Robin Hood wannabe who steals from the poor and gives to the rich. Minus the laugh track, that more and more seems to be the mission of the Corporate Court. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne has a terrific column on this: "The Supreme Court's Continuing Defense of the Powerful."

The United States Supreme Court now sees its central task as comforting the already comfortable and afflicting those already afflicted.

If you are a large corporation or a political candidate backed by lots of private money, be assured that the court's conservative majority will be there for you, solicitous of your needs and ready to swat away those pesky little people who dare to contest your power.

After discussing some of the outrages of the arch-conservative majority, Dionne writes:

[P]ay heed to how this conservative court majority bristles at nearly every effort to give the less wealthy and less powerful an opportunity to prevail, whether at the ballot box or in the courtroom. Not since the Gilded Age has a Supreme Court been so determined to strengthen the hand of corporations and the wealthy.

People For the American Way Foundation recently submitted testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee analyzing the ominous pro-corporate tilt of the Roberts Court in the term that just ended.

PFAW

Senate to Try New Thing Called 'Work'

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has cancelled the scheduled 4th of July recess, in the hopes that the Republican obstructionists in the upper chamber might finally allow some real work to take place on behalf of the American people. The debt talks certainly deserve attention, but this is also a great opportunity to whittle down the critical mass of still-unconfirmed presidential nominees. The number of vacant positions, particularly in the judiciary, is an embarrassing testament to the unprecedented obstruction that is taking place. According to PFAW’s Marge Baker as reported in the Huffington Post, we can’t even begin to tackle this problem unless the Senate actually shows up for work:

Baker sees a simple means of drilling through the obstruction by embarrassing an opposition that has chosen to enjoy fictional days at the office at a time when most Americans are working extra hard to keep their jobs in a tough economy.

“One way to do that is stay in session and work -- force them to work -- and get something done,” Baker said, referring particularly to the Senate where there is an enormous backlog of unfinished business on the appointment front alone.

Of nearly 300 civilian appointments Obama has made this year, fewer than 100 of them have been confirmed by the Senate -- even when there is no opposition.

It’s particularly stark with judicial appointees. Baker noted that there are 15 judge nominees who have been unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- nine of them women or minority appointees -- yet none have made it to the floor of the Senate.

To her, that just looks like obstruction. And even worse, in her mind, is the idea that Republicans simply want to flout the law by refusing to confirm anyone to the CFPB -- unless the law is changed.

PFAW

Senate Judiciary Committee Exposes the Corporate Court

The Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing this morning looking into the disturbing trend of the Roberts Court to shut down people’s access to justice when they go to court to vindicate their rights against large corporations.

The hearing was on Barriers to Justice and Accountability: How the Supreme Court's Recent Rulings Will Affect Corporate Behavior. Chairman Leahy opened the hearing discussing how recent Supreme Court cases are making it harder for working Americans to get their day in court. He expressed particular concern about three cases:

  • Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which will make it harder to hold big companies accountable when they violate civil rights laws;
  • Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, which shielded from accountability those who knowingly committed securities fraud; and
  • AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which prevents victims of consumer fraud from the protections of jury trials and class actions.

The committee invited four distinguished people to address the issue: Betty Dukes (plaintiff in the sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart) was the one panelist who was also a party to one of the cases being discussed. She spoke poignantly about her experience at Wal-Mart and the fear that so many women have of going against their employer, especially one as powerful as Wal-Mart. She promised to continue her fight, but knows that without a national class action, many women will be intimidated into not litigating.

Andrew J. Pincus (a Washington lawyer who has argued many cases before the Court) and Robert Alt (from the Heritage Foundation) denied that the Court was tilting unfairly to favor corporations, argued that the cases were decided rightly, and stated that the Court was simply upholding existing law. In contrast, Melissa Hart (law professor at the University of Colorado) and James Cox (law professor at Duke) took the position that the Court is wrongly shielding wrongdoers from accountability.

Professor Hart correctly characterized as a policy decision the Roberts Court's tendency to interpret procedural law so restrictively, despite congressional intent otherwise, so that Americans become unable to present their case to an impartial court.

Senator Whitehouse discussed the critical role juries play in American government. He noted that juries are mentioned three times in the Constitution, and that they remain a government institution that Big Business cannot corrupt. For years, the far right has been denigrating "trial lawyers" and "runaway juries" in an effort to keep Americans from being able to hold the powerful accountable. Whitehouse argued that the Roberts Court is acting consistently with that pattern.

People For the American Way Foundation submitted testimony to the committee on how the Roberts Court has removed substantive and procedural protections that are the only way that individuals can avoid becoming victimized by giant corporations that dwarf them in size, wealth, and power. These decisions often provide road maps to corporate interests in how to avoid accountability for harm that they do. The constitutional design empowering individuals to consolidate their power against corporations is slowly being eroded by a fiercely ideological Court. Today's hearing is part of an effort to expose the harm that is being done.

PFAW

Mat Staver Flaunts His Ignorance About Goodwin Liu

(cross posted to Right Wing Watch)

Mat Staver of the ironically named Liberty Counsel has a new video up where he takes credit for the shameful filibuster of Goodwin Liu. That clears up so much.

Was it Mat Staver who "exposed" the "extremism" of this extremely qualified nominee? Was it Mat Staver who convinced every Republican senator but one to ignore Liu's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his detailed written submissions, and his many articles, all of which disproved the lies being told about him? Was it Mat Staver whose keen legal arguments completely discredited conservative legal figures like Ken Starr, Clint Bolick, Richard Painter, and John Yoo, all of whom were part of the vast network of support Liu received from the nation's legal community across the ideological spectrum?

Yeah, right.

No, it was naked partisan politics at its worst and not Mat Staver that sank Goodwin Liu's nomination.

But the video does raise an interesting question: If Staver knows so much about Goodwin Liu, why does he repeatedly call him "Godwin"? Don't you think he would know the man's name after all of his exhaustive research and outreach to senators?

PFAW

With Liu Gone, GOP Still Twisting his Record

On Wednesday night, Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu wrote to President Obama asking that the his nomination to sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals be withdrawn. Liu’s exit was the culmination of two years of smears, scapegoating and filibustering, in which the nominee never even got an up or down vote from the Senate.

The main gist of Republican opposition to Liu was the claim that he would be an “activist judge” in favor of making up constitutional rights willy-nilly (a claim that Republicans in the Senate have lobbed at any number of highly qualified judicial nominees, including current Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, but interestingly not at Republican nominees who have shown strong streaks of creative legal interpretation).

In an op-ed earlier this week, the New York Times singled out Sen. John Cornyn for his false claim that Liu holds the “ridiculous view that our Constitution somehow guarantees a European-style welfare state.” Yesterday, in a letter to the editor, Cornyn fought back, providing this quote from a 2006 law review article by Liu to back up his claim:

On my account of the Constitution’s citizenship guarantee, federal responsibility logically extends to areas beyond education. ... Beyond a minimal safety net, the legislative agenda of equal citizenship should extend to systems of support and opportunity that, like education, provide a foundation for political and economic autonomy and participation. The main pillars of the agenda would include basic employment supports such as expanded health insurance, child care, transportation subsidies, job training and a robust earned income tax credit.

What is interesting about this quote is that it doesn’t say what Cornyn says it says. At all. Nowhere in the quote -- which Cornyn points to as decisive evidence that Liu wants the courts to turn us into Denmark -- does Liu say that the courts should enforce a social safety net. In fact, Liu is careful to specify that he is discussing the duty of Congress to create a “legislative agenda” that fulfills the highest ideals of the Constitution, rather than a judicial responsibility to enforce that agenda.

Elsewhere in the article [pdf], Liu makes it perfectly clear that he sees it as the duty of Congress, not the courts, to guarantee basic living standards for citizens. He even explicitly states that he intentionally doesn’t use the term “rights” because that would imply “judicial enforceability” of the values that he’s discussing:

In this Article, I do not address whether the Supreme Court or any court should hold that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees an adequate education. Although that question remains open in the case law, my thesis is chiefly directed at Congress, reflecting the historic character of the social citizenship tradition as “a majoritarian tradition, addressing its arguments to lawmakers and citizens, not to courts.” Whatever the scope of judicial enforcement, the Constitution—in particular, the Fourteenth Amendment—speaks directly to Congress and independently binds Congress to its commands. Thus the approach to constitutional meaning I take here is that of a “conscientious legislator” who seeks in good faith to effectuate the core values of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the guarantee of national citizenship.

From this perspective, the language of rights, with its deep undertone of judicial enforceability, seems inapt to probe the full scope of a legislator’s constitutional obligations. As Professor Sager has observed, “[T]he notion that to be legally obligated means to be vulnerable to external enforcement can have only a superficial appeal.” It is more illuminating to ask what positive duties, apart from corresponding rights, the Fourteenth Amendment entails for legislators charged with enforcing its substantive guarantees. Framed this way, the inquiry proceeds from the standpoint that Congress, unlike a court, is neither tasked with doing legal justice in individual cases nor constrained by institutional concerns about political accountability. Instead, “Congress can draw on its distinctive capacity democratically to elicit and articulate the nation’s evolving constitutional aspirations when it enforces the Fourteenth Amendment.” By mediating conflict and marshaling consensus on national priorities, including the imperatives of distributive justice, Congress can give effect to the Constitution in ways the judicial process cannot.

Thus the legislated Constitution, in contrast to the adjudicated Constitution, is not “narrowly legal” but rather dynamic, aspirational, and infused with “national values and commitments.” …

(emphasis is mine)

Cornyn and his pals in the Senate know what was in the article they attacked. Liu even explained it to them in detail in response to written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee [pdf]. But it was easier to willfully misinterpret Liu's writing and paint him as irresponsible than to engage in a substantive debate on his qualifications.

 

PFAW

The Corporate Court Strikes Again: By 5-4, Supreme Court Undermines Class Action Consumer Protection Suits

Yesterday at the Supreme Court, the five conservative Justices on the Corporate Court handed corporate interests even greater control than before over Americans' daily lives. In AT&T v. Concepcion, a narrow 5-4 majority used a federal arbitration law in a way wholly alien to its intent: to undermine state consumer protection laws across the country. Even worse, under yesterday’s precedent, employers may now be able to easily cut off anti-discrimination enforcement through class action lawsuits – often the only way to address employment discrimination – by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration clauses that contain a ban on class action.

This case started when AT&T allegedly scammed thousands of customers by offering a "free" second phone, then charging them for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the phone. One of its victims brought a class action suit against the company. However, AT&T had a service contract where consumers had to agree to resolve any future claims against the cell phone company through arbitration, rather than the courts. In addition, customers had to agree not to participate in any class action against the telecommunications giant. So AT&T asked the court to enforce the agreement it had imposed upon the Concepcions by throwing out the class action suit and forcing them into arbitration, one lone family against AT&T suing for a few dollars without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.

Under California law, the contractual prohibition against class action is so outrageous as to be illegal. California recognizes that such provisions effectively protect companies from being held liable for their transgressions and that they are able to force them upon consumers only because of the corporations’ vastly superior bargaining position.

But the Roberts Court said this state protection of consumers is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.

Many of us have gotten incomprehensible bills from giant telecom companies with relatively small charges for services never ordered, or mysterious taxes or fees that the company should not be charging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are cheated in these situations don't even realize it. Moreover, because the amounts at issue are relatively small, there is little incentive for consumers to undertake the significant expenses of recovering their loss. Even when the company pays out to the tiny percentage of defrauded customers who go to the trouble to engage in lone arbitration against the company, the overall scheme remains profitable.

That is why class actions are so important. They allow the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible the deterrent effect of a potentially significant financial loss to the deceptive corporation. In ruling for AT&T, the Roberts Court has devastated state-level consumer protections like California’s and essentially given corporations an instruction manual on how to commit rampant fraud against consumers. Beyond that, using the same interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act, employers may be able to evade class-action discrimination lawsuits as well, putting all workers at risk.

Fortunately, unlike Citizens United, this Corporate Court gift to Big Business rests on an interpretation of a statute, not the Constitution. In other words, Congress can fix this problem with a simple bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has already called on Congress to do just that.

PFAW

Still More Bipartisan Support for Goodwin Liu

Richard Painter, once the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, has a comprehensive, well-researched piece in the Huffington Post whose title says it all: "Qualified, Measured, and Mainstream: Why the Senate Should Confirm Goodwin Liu." Now a professor at the University of Minnesota, this conservative lawyer is one of the many legal scholars from across the political spectrum to support Liu's nomination.

Despite this broad support, perhaps no jurist nominated to the federal bench by President Obama has been maligned, mischaracterized, and mistreated by far right extremists more than Goodwin Liu. Point by point, Painter demolishes the myths about Liu. As Painter explains in detail, the caricature the far right has created bears no relation to reality. As he writes:

Liu's opponents have sought to demonize him as a "radical," "extremist," and worse. National Review Online's Ed Whelan has led the charge with a "one-stop repository" of attacks on Liu. However, for anyone who has actually read Liu's writings or watched his testimony, it's clear that the attacks--filled with polemic, caricature, and hyperbole--reveal very little about this exceptionally qualified, measured, and mainstream nominee. ...

This post brings together a variety of material about Liu:

  • First, I review Liu's background, qualifications, and key endorsements.
  • Second, I highlight two letters from respected authorities that shed important light on Liu's scholarly record.
  • Third, I provide several responses to various attacks on Liu.
  • Fourth, I address Liu's opposition to the Supreme Court confirmations of Roberts and Alito, two Justices whom I vigorously supported as a Bush administration lawyer and whom I believe were outstanding additions to the Court.

These materials summarize why Liu is an excellent choice for the federal bench. But even if you read this entire post, nothing substitutes for reading Liu's writings or watching his testimony for yourself. That is how I reached the conclusion that Liu deserves an up-or-down vote in the Senate and ought to be confirmed.

Liu's nomination has been stalled by Republican senators for more than a year. Today, he appears yet again before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When the committee once again approves his nomination and sends it to the Senate floor, leadership should schedule a vote, defy any GOP threats to filibuster, and get this most talented of judicial nominees confirmed at last.

PFAW

Arizona Effort to End Constitutional Citizenship Faces Backlash

Two bills proposed by Republican legislators in Arizona that would revoke constitutional citizenship are running into trouble in the State Senate. State Senate President Russell Pearce, a key force behind the state’s draconian SB-1070 anti-immigration law, is leading efforts to deny citizenship to US-born children of undocumented parents, rescinding a right plainly guaranteed by the Constitution's 14th Amendment.

The Arizona Daily Star reports that the bills were unlikely to win the approval of the Judiciary Committee, and now Pearce may bring the legislation to a more sympathetic committee. Children of undocumented parents, immigration activists, and members of the business community spoke out against what they called an unpopular, confusing, and dangerous attempt to undermine the Constitution:

A bid to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants faltered Monday when proponents could not get the votes of a Senate panel.

After more than three hours of testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, yanked the two measures.

Gould said he lacked the backing of four other members of the Republican-controlled panel, which he chairs. Gould said he will keep trying to secure votes. And Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said, if necessary, he will reassign the proposal to a more friendly committee.



Even before any testimony, Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, said the proposal, based on that idea of Arizona citizenship, raises a host of unanswered questions.

"I don't understand how you become an Arizona citizen if you move to Arizona, what the bureaucratic model would be," he said. "Do you then need to bring your own birth certificate and both of your parents' birth certificates?"

There were also several children who spoke against the bill, including 12-year-old Heide Portugal who said she was born in this country but her parents were not and that a measure like this, had it been in effect, would have denied her citizenship.

The proposals also drew opposition from the business community.

Kevin Sandler, president of Exhibit One, said he worried about the message adopting such a law would send.

Sandler said his firm, which provides audiovisual equipment to courts across the nation, had to lay off six employees after some out-of-state firms boycotted Arizona businesses after lawmakers adopted SB 1070 last year. That measure gives police more power to detain illegal immigrants.

"We've created a toxic environment," he told lawmakers. "Businesses don't want to move here."

He said companies looking to relocate pay attention to the political climate in a state.

"What we've really done is create a not-open-for-business environment here."



Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network, said denying citizenship to children born in this country based on a parent's citizenship would create "a permanent underclass" of people in the state.
PFAW

2008’s Court

David Savage of the Los Angeles Times and Adam Liptak of the New York Times both examined this week how president Obama’s two Supreme Court picks are changing the dynamic of the high court. “Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan,” writes Savage, “have joined the fray and reenergized the liberal wing.”

Gone are the mismatches where the Scalia wing overshadowed reserved and soft-spoken liberals like now-retired Justices David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens. Instead, the liberals often take the lead and press attorneys defending the states or corporations.

"They're clearly on a roll," said Washington attorney Lisa S. Blatt, who has argued regularly before the high court. "They are engaged and really active. It just feels like a different place."

That dynamic was on display this fall, when a court that leans conservative on cases of crime and punishment heard California's appeal in a case where a panel of three federal judges had ordered the release of about 40,000 prisoners. The state's lawyer stepped to the lectern with reason to expect a friendly reception.

The order is "extraordinary and unprecedented," Carter G. Phillips began, and "extraordinarily premature" because the state was not given enough time to solve its prison problems.

But Sotomayor soon cut him off.

"Slow down from the rhetoric," she said, launching into a withering discussion of the state's 20-year history of severe prison overcrowding and "the needless deaths" from poor medical care.

Kagan picked up the theme, contending that the state had spent years fighting with the judges but not solving the problem. It's too late now for "us to re-find the facts," Kagan said. The California judges had delved into the details for 20 years, and it was time now to decide whether the remedy was right, she said.

While Kagan, due to her recent role as the administration’s Solicitor General, has had to sit out many of the most contentious cases since she took her seat on the court, Sotomayor has clearly shown herself “alert to the humanity of the people whose cases make their way to the Supreme Court,” writes Liptak. He looks at the three opinions Sotomayor has written commenting on the court’s decision not to hear particular cases:

Justice Sotomayor wrote three of the opinions, more than any other justice, and all concerned the rights of criminal defendants or prisoners. The most telling one involved a Louisiana prisoner infected with H.I.V. No other justice chose to join it.

The prisoner, Anthony C. Pitre, had stopped taking his H.I.V. medicine to protest his transfer from one facility to another. Prison officials responded by forcing him to perform hard labor in 100-degree heat. That punishment twice sent Mr. Pitre to the emergency room.

The lower courts had no sympathy for Mr. Pitre’s complaints, saying he had brought his troubles on himself.

Justice Sotomayor saw things differently.

“Pitre’s decision to refuse medication may have been foolish and likely caused a significant part of his pain,” she wrote. “But that decision does not give prison officials license to exacerbate Pitre’s condition further as a means of punishing or coercing him — just as a prisoner’s disruptive conduct does not permit prison officials to punish the prisoner by handcuffing him to a hitching post.”

In the courtroom, she was no less outraged at the argument in a case concerning prison conditions in California, peppering a lawyer for the state with heated questions.

“When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record?” she asked. “When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state?”

In her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kagan praised her former employer and mentor Justice Thurgood Marshall, saying his “whole life was about seeing the courts take seriously claims that were not taken seriously anyplace else.” Obama’s appointment of two justices who follow vocally in his path may be one of the most profound and lasting results of the 2008 elections.
 

PFAW

White House: Judicial Nominations are a Priority for Lame Duck

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday that pushing through stalled judicial nominations would be one of the president’s priorities in the last days of the lame duck session of Congress.

People For released a memo last week detailing why it’s important for the Senate to confirm all 38 stalled nominees immediately:

As the end of the 111th Congress approaches, 38 judicial nominees approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee are waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. Many of the nominees have been waiting for months, while a few have been waiting for almost a year.

Of these nominees:

  • 21 (55%) have been nominated to fill emergency slots.
  • 29(76%) are women or people of color.
  • 29 (76%) came out of committee without opposition and an additional 3 came out of committee with significant bipartisan support.

There’s no question that a majority of senators will vote to confirm every one of these nominees, and it’s unlikely that any of them would fail to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles that the GOP has deployed on virtually every function the Senate has performed since President Obama took office. (This is doubly true considering that many members of the GOP have publicly asserted that filibusters of judicial nominees aren’t just wrong, but actually unconstitutional.)

Now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems to be offering Democrats a devil’s bargain: confirm a number of the nominees that don’t have any opposition at all, but send the rest back to the White House at the end of the Congress. The group being sent back to the White House will almost certainly include four of the eminently qualified – and mainstream -- nominees who have had the misfortune of being tagged as “controversial” by Republicans:

  • Rhode Island nominee John McConnell, who has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce for his willingness to represent victims of lead paint poisoning.
  • Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to prevent his reelection.
  • U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen, who has been attacked for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • And then, of course, Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page has pointed out, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.

Senator Reid and his colleagues should call Senator McConnell’s bluff and start holding cloture votes on these nominees. The process will take time, but adding time to the calendar is entirely within the Democratic leadership’s purview. By confirming McConnell, Butler, Chen, and Liu, Senators can make clear that they will fight the unprecedented and enormously damaging obstruction of highly qualified judicial nominees. Walking away from these nominees delivers the confirmation process to the GOP: they’ll effectively block confirmable jurists without even having to go on record with their obstruction.

President Bush worked hard to pack the courts with far-right, Federalist Society judges. Confirming Obama’s picks will not only fill vacancies causing judicial emergencies and add much-needed diversity to the federal bench, it will prevent the federal bench from continuing to be dominated by Bush’s far-right appointments.

 

PFAW

Empowered GOP Seeks to Sink Immigrant Rights

The Republican Party’s virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are far from mere political tactics, as GOP members of Congress usher in a radical agenda to rollback the rights of immigrants and their families. Iowa Rep. Steve King, who has appeared with violent vigilante groups and has referred to undocumented immigration as both a “slow-motion Holocaust” and a “slow-motion terrorist attack,” is set to chair the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration. Members of the House Republican Freshman Class, including Pennsylvania’s Tom Marino and Florida’s Allen West, frequently used immigrant-bashing in their campaigns, and Louisiana Senator David Vitter made demonizing immigrants the cornerstone of his reelection campaign.

Two new reports today demonstrate how extreme the Republican Party is moving to not only oppose immigration reform but also to undermine one of the most important protections guaranteed by the US Constitution:

GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees immigration, is expected to push a bill that would deny "birthright citizenship" to such children.

The measure, assailed by critics as unconstitutional, is an indication of how the new majority intends to flex its muscles on the volatile issue of illegal immigration.

The idea has a growing list of supporters, including Republican Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and Dan Lungren of Gold River, but it has aroused intense opposition, as well.

"I don't like it," said Chad Silva, statewide policy analyst for the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. "It's been something that's been a part of America for a very long time. … For us, it sort of flies in the face of what America is about."

Republicans are also gearing up to defeat the DREAM Act, which would allow students and military servicemembers who came into the country illegally as children and have a clean criminal record to gain a pathway to citizenship. Even though the DREAM Act has historically garnered bipartisan support, Politico reports that Republicans on the Hill are trying to deceptively tar the bill as amnesty for criminals:

Already, GOP staffers have begun circulating to senators and conservative groups a white paper outlining what they see as the social and financial costs of passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.

“In addition to immediately putting an estimated 2.1 million illegal immigrants (including certain criminal aliens) on a path to citizenship, the DREAM Act would give them access to in-state tuition rates at public universities, federal student loans and federal work-study programs,” said the research paper, being distributed by Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.



The bill’s backers, though, say it outlines a “rigorous and lengthy process” for legalization, hardly the amnesty plan that opponents have depicted.

Eligible immigrants must have entered the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country for at least five consecutive years before the bill’s enactment and been at least under age 35 at the time of enactment; been admitted to a college or earned a high-school diploma or GED certificate; and have no serious criminal record.

A recent Rasmussen poll found that a majority of Americans believe that “children brought to the U.S. illegally should get a chance at citizenship if they complete two years of college or participate in the military,” and military leaders have called on Congress to pass the DREAM Act as a way to strengthen the country’s armed forces. A study by UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center states that the DREAM Act both “offers a moral solution to the trap of being a young, motivated, undocumented immigrant in the U.S.” and is “an economically sensible piece of legislation that advances the interests of U.S. society as a whole.”

However, the extreme anti-immigrant sentiment that is pervasive within the GOP stands in the way of reasonable efforts at reform, and even leads to radical legislation that challenges the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

PFAW

Former Bush Lawyer: Stop Partisan Bickering and Confirm Liu

The Blog of the Legal Times is reporting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning to call Senate Republicans on their obstruction of judicial nominees and break the gridlock that has kept four of these nominees pending, in some cases for over a year. Reid will attempt to stop the Republican filibuster of Ninth Circuit nominees Goodwin Liu and Edward Chen, Rhode Island District Court nominee John McConnell, and Wisconsin District nominee Louis Butler. 

This is a critical moment for these nominees, who despite support from their home-state senators and endorsements across the ideological spectrum, have for various reasons been branded as “too extreme” by obstructionist Republicans in the Senate. McConnell has been up against an expensive lobbying campaign from the Chamber of Commerce, which objects to his work as a public interest lawyer representing victims of lead paint poisoning. Butler has been up against business interests who don’t think he was friendly enough to them when he was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chen was accused by Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee of having an apparently disqualifying “ACLU chromosome.”

Liu’s nomination has been the subject of the most partisan squabbling. Liu’s main obstacle, it seems, has been his own brilliance: some on the Right worry that if he makes it on to the bench, he could eventually become a Supreme Court nominee. But Liu’s nomination is backed by legal luminaries from across the ideological spectrum, including former Bush White House lawyer Richard Painter, who today wrote another plea for the Senate GOP to break the judicial gridlock and at least take a vote on Liu’s nomination:

In any event, nominees who should not be controversial, including Goodwin Liu (I have made previous posts here on his nomination), are described as radical activists, the same tactic that advocacy groups deployed to mischaracterize many of President Bush’s nominees.

Public opinion of Members of Congress (both parties) these days is lower, far lower, than it was in the days when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge used just the right term to describe what he saw going on when Senators filibustered legislation. Those of us who care about the future of the judiciary should make it clear that the delay must stop.

This does not mean the Senators should vote "yes". They can vote "no". But they should vote.

Specific nominations aside, the federal judicial system in general has taken a drubbing under the Senate GOP’s refusal to confirm nominees. A new report from the Alliance for Justice has found that the number of vacancies in the federal judiciary has nearly doubled since President Obama took office, and that the number of open seats designated as “judicial emergencies” has risen from 20 to 50, affecting 30 states.

Confirmation votes will become much more difficult next year, with Democrats hanging on to a much slimmer majority in the Senate. Now’s the time to push through the nominees whom the GOP has been the most eager to obstruct.
 

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“The ACLU Chromosome” and other judicial disqualifiers

Politico today outlines an emerging trend in judicial obstruction. While partisan battles over judicial nominees have in past years focused on the occasional appellate court judge or Supreme Court justice, these days even nominees to lower-profile district courts are fair game for partisan obstructionism. Among other problems, this doesn’t make it easy to keep a well-functioning, fully staffed federal court system:

According to data collected by Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution and analyzed by POLITICO, Obama’s lower-court nominees have experienced an unusually low rate of confirmation and long periods of delay, especially after the Senate Judiciary Committee has referred the nomination for a confirmation vote by the full Senate. Sixty-four percent of the district court nominees Obama submitted to the Senate before May 2010 have been confirmed — a number dwarfed by the 91 percent confirmation rate for Bush’s district court nominees for the same period.

But analysts say the grindingly slow pace in the Senate, especially on district court nominations, will have serious consequences.

Apart from the burden of a heavier case load for current judges and big delays across the federal judicial system, Wheeler, a judicial selection scholar at Brookings, says that potential nominees for district courts may think twice before offering themselves up for a federal nomination if the process of confirmation continues to be both unpredictable and long.

"I think it means first that vacancies are going to persist for longer than they should. There’s just not the judge power that there should be," Wheeler said. And private lawyers who are not already judges may hesitate to put their practices on hold during the confirmation process, he added, because "you can’t be certain that you’ll get confirmed" for even a district judgeship, an entry-level position to the federal bench.

Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has been at the lead of the GOP’s obstruction of every judicial nominee who can possibly be obstructed. He told Politico that he simply wants to make sure every new federal judges passes his litmus test: "If they’re not committed to the law, they shouldn’t be a judge, in my opinion."

Sounds fair. But the problem is, of course, that Sessions’ definition of “committed to the law” is something more like “committed to the way Jeff Sessions sees the law.”

In a meeting yesterday to vote on eight judicial nominees-- five of whom were going through the Judiciary Committee for the second or third time after Senate Republicans refused to vote on their nominations--Sessions rallied his troops against Edward Chen, nominated to serve as a district court judge in California. Chen is a widely respected magistrate judge who spent years fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union. But Sessions smelled a rat: Chen, he said, has “the ACLU chromosome.”

The phrase really illuminates what Sessions and his cohort mean when they talk about finding judges “committed to the law” or who won’t stray from “the plain words of statutes or the Constitution.” It isn’t about an “objective” reading of the Constitution. It’s about appointing judges who will find ways to protect powerful interests like Exxon, BP, and the Chamber of Commerce, while denying legal protections to working people, women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and gays and lesbians.

(Sessions himself was nominated for a judgeship in 1986, but was rejected by a bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee for his history of not-so-ACLU-like activity).

Sessions’ warns that “Democrats hold federal judiciary as the great engine of the left,” but the reality is far from that. Besides having the most conservative Supreme Court in decades, nearly 40% of all current federal judges were appointed by George W. Bush, who made a point of recruiting judges with stellar right-wing credentials.

No matter how much disarray it causes in the federal courts, it’s in the interest of Sessions and the Right Wing to keep the number of judicial seats President Obama fills to a minimum. If they succeed, they keep their conservative, pro-corporate courts, tainted as little as possible by the sinister “ACLU chromosome.”
 

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The GOP Displays Effective Use of Taxpayer Dollars

The Senate Judiciary Committee this morning voted to approve seven federal judicial nominees. Four of these nominees are Judiciary Committee pros by now—they’ve already been approved by the committee, but were blocked by Senate Republicans, and had to start the nomination process all over again. Two are going through the process for the third time.

So what high ground is the GOP standing on in their months long blocking of these four nominees and insistence on holding the same debate multiple times?

Well, there are the objections to Rhode Island nominee John McConnell, who had the gall to represent victims of lead paint poisoning, and be proud of it.

Not to mention the record of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to stop his reelection.

Then there’s the outrage against U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.

And then, of course, there’s the all-out battle against Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page points out today, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.

And these are just the nominees to which the GOP has been able to articulate some sort of objection. There are now 23 nominees waiting for votes on the Senate floor--17 of them made it through the Judiciary Committee without the objection of a single Republican.

Witness the trademark efficiency of the Party of No.
 

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Unprecedented Obstruction: Exhibit "A"

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse just made a forceful presentation at the Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting about the unprecedented obstruction currently being waged by Republicans against judicial nominees. The statistics are powerful: from 1949, when Senate rules were changed to provide for cloture votes on nominees, until 2009, only three cloture motions were filed on District Court nominees, and one of those was withdrawn.

By contrast, three District Court nominees were voted out of Committee for a second (John McConnell) or third (Edward Chen, Louis Butler) time today after Republicans refused to permit votes on their nominations and forced their re-nomination by the President--Exhibit "A" of this unprecedented obstruction.

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Udall and Bennett Push for Vote on Judge

Another set of senators have come forward to try to break the GOP’s logjam on judicial nominees.

Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennett sent a letter Friday to the leaders of the Senate and the Senate Judiciary Committee to request a Senate vote on Colorado district court nominee William Joseph Martinez. Martinez was nominated to the seat in February and approved by the Judiciary Committee in April.

The GOP has refused to vote on Martinez’s nomination, along with the 20 other pending judicial nominations.

"We can all agree that the Senate must act quickly on this and other pending judicial nominations in order to avoid further strain on our federal court system," the senators wrote. "The federal court system is already burdened by an overwhelming caseload, and the existence of these vacancies only adds to a mounting backlog."

I wrote last week about the profound consequences of GOP obstruction of run-of-the-mill judicial appointees: When the GOP stalls the nomination of one well-qualified nominee with bipartisan support, it’s an annoying political game. When that political game is multiplied by the dozens, it becomes a concerted attempt to keep the judiciary in the hands of the Right Wing.

The more senators who speak out on behalf of individual nominees, the greater the chances of breaking the dangerously low-profile obstruction.
 

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Chairman Leahy Reprimands Senate Republicans

After helping Elena Kagan sail through the Judiciary Committee, Chairman Leahy isn’t content resting on his laurels. Yesterday the Chairman censured his Republican colleagues for their obstructionism on lower profile but just as vital judicial nominations. When Republicans foiled his attempt to schedule discussion on 4th Circuit nominee Jane Stranch of Tenessee, who enjoys the bipartisan support of her home state Senators, Chairman Leahy called them out:

Senate Republicans have further ratcheted up the obstruction and partisanship that have regrettably become commonplace this Congress with regard to judicial nominees. We asked merely for a time agreement to debate and vote on the nomination. I did not foreclose any Republican Senator from voting against the nominee or speaking against the nominee but simply wanted a standard agreement in order to allow the majority leader to schedule the debate and get to a vote. This is for a nomination reported favorably by the Judiciary Committee over eight months ago with bipartisan support. Yet the Republican leader objected and blocked our consideration.

For anyone who still thinks that both parties engage in this kind of obstructionism when in the minority, Senator Leahy came prepared with statistics:

No one should be confused: the current obstruction and stalling by Senate Republicans is unprecedented. There is no systematic counterpart by Senate Democrats. In fact, during the first 2 years of the Bush administration, the 100 judges confirmed were considered by the Democratically controlled Senate an average of 25 days from being reported by the Judiciary Committee. The average time for confirmed Federal circuit court nominees was 26 days. The average time for the 36 Federal circuit and district and circuit court judges confirmed since President Obama took office is 82 days and the average time for Federal circuit nominees is 126 days. So when Republicans say that we are moving faster than we did during the first 2 years of the Bush administration they are wrong. It was not until the summer of 2001 that the Senate majority shifted to Democrats, but as soon as it did, we proceeded on the judicial nominations of President Bush, a Republican President. Indeed, by this date during the second year of the Bush administration, the Senate had confirmed 58 of his judicial nominations and we were on the way to confirming 100 by the end of the year. By contrast, Republican obstruction of President Obama's judicial nominees has meant that only 36 of his judicial nominees have been confirmed. We have fallen dramatically behind the pace set for consideration of President Bush's nominees.

…Indeed, when President Bush was in the White House, Senate Republicans took the position that it was unconstitutional and wholly inappropriate not to vote on nominees approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. With a Democratic President, they have reverted to the secret holds that resulted in pocket filibusters of more than 60 nominees during the Clinton years. Last year, Senate Republicans successfully stalled all but a dozen Federal circuit and district court nominees. That was the lowest total number of judges confirmed in more than 50 years. They have continued that practice despite the fact that judicial vacancies continue to hover around 100, with more than 40 declared judicial emergencies.

As Chairman Leahy emphasized, these obstructionist tactics have rarely come with explanations. For example, Judge James Wynn, who was nominated first by President Clinton and then by President Obama and would become the first black Justice on the 4th Circuit, has been on anonymous hold for six months with no reason given.

Our judicial system can’t function properly without qualified judges on the bench. But Senate Republicans are leaving dozens of judicial vacancies open for purely political reasons. Good for Chairman Leahy for speaking out on this.

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Saying No To Good Government

Although Elena Kagan’s nomination moved out of committee yesterday, almost every Republican committee member voted against her, and most Senate Republicans are expected to follow suite. Why? As an editorial in the New York Times pointed out , Republican opposition to the broad interpretation of the commerce clause in recent decades may partly explain their refusal to support Kagan:

[D]ozens of Senate Republicans are ready to vote against [Kagan], and many are citing her interpretation of the commerce clause of the Constitution, the one that says Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states. At her confirmation hearings, Ms. Kagan refused to take the Republican bait and agree to suggest limits on that clause’s meaning. This infuriated the conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee because it has been that clause, more than any other, that has been at the heart of the expansion of government power since the New Deal.

The clause was the legal basis for any number of statutes of enormous benefit to society. It is why we have the Clean Air Act. The Clean Water Act. The Endangered Species Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a minimum wage and limiting child labor. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in the workplace and in public accommodations. In cases like these, the Supreme Court has said Congress can regulate activities that have a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce, even if they are not directly business-related.

…Make no mistake that such a vote is simply about her, or about President Obama. A vote against the commerce clause is a vote against some of the best things that government has done for the better part of a century, and some of the best things that lie ahead.

In voting against Kagan’s anticipated interpretation of the commerce clause, the “Party of No” isn’t just opposing the confirmation of extremely qualified Supreme Court Justice; they’re also opposing the government fulfilling its responsibility to protect clean air and water, fair labor standards, and civil rights for all.

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