Sonia Sotomayor

Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College, and the Importance of Women Justices

Days after the Supreme Court handed down its damaging 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, SCOTUS issued an order that underscored the danger that Hobby Lobby poses for women’s health.

In Wheaton College v. Burwell, SCOTUS temporarily granted relief to Wheaton College, a religious institution that is “categorically” opposed to providing contraceptive services, from the contraception coverage compromise solution that the  Court explicitly endorsed in Hobby Lobby. The order says that Wheaton may be exempt from submitting a form that would inform the government that they object to covering birth control. Wheaton College argued that submitting this form would make it “complicit in the provision of contraceptive coverage.” The temporary order indicates that the Court’s majority may accept this problematic argument.

In what Think Progress called a “blistering dissent” to the order, Justice Sonia Sotomayor — joined by the two other female Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — sharply criticized the order. Sotomayor wrote in the dissent:

“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.”

While this order is temporary until the case may be heard in front of the Court, the female Justices’ strong dissent demonstrates not only the division within the Court, but also the importance of having diversity on our courts. Women on the bench provide a critically important perspective on all cases, but especially those that deal with women’s lives. It is more important than ever, when women’s rights are under assault, that women are more fairly represented at all levels of government.

PFAW Foundation

Sotomayor's Schuette Dissent

Justice Sotomayor analyzes a state constitutional ban on affirmative action through the lens of history and the reality of race in America.
PFAW Foundation

Women Justices Press Important Questions During Hobby Lobby Arguments

Crowds of activists and advocacy groups gathered outside while the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. case.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not shy away from asking difficult questions that demonstrate the broad implications this case could have. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan voiced concerns regarding the implications of a ruling for the first time in our nation’s history that for-profit corporations have religious rights. Both justices questioned whether this decision would allow companies to deny access to coverage of not only contraceptive methods, but also of other lifesaving procedures employers might object to on religious grounds—like blood transfusions or vaccines.

The Huffington Post quotes Justice Kagan as saying, “There are quite a number of medical treatments that could be religiously objected to… Everything would be piecemeal, nothing would be uniform.”

Pushing the issue further, Justice Sotomayor asked, “How are courts supposed to know whether a corporation holds a particular religious belief?”

Similarly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

was a law that was passed overwhelmingly [by] both houses of Congress. People from all sides of the political spectrum voted for it. It seems strange that there would have been that tremendous uniformity if it means [corporations are covered].

She added…

[T]here was an effort to adopt a … specific conscience amendment in 2012, and the Senate rejected that… That amendment would have enabled secular employers and insurance providers to deny coverage on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions. It was specifically geared to secular employers and insurance providers. And that…was rejected.

Justice Kagan noted that RFRA was considered non-controversial when it passed, an unlikely reaction if it had been understood to open the door to employers citing religious objections to complying with laws relating to sex discrimination, minimum wage, family leave, or child labor.

Justice Kagan also noted that women are “quite tangibly harmed” when employers don’t provide contraceptive coverage. This decision, however, could have far-reaching implications beyond women’s reproductive rights since this case deals with some of the same core issues seen in “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s, as we pointed out yesterday morning.

PFAW Foundation

How Money in Politics Undermines Diversity in Elected Office

During a speech to a packed audience at the University of Washington on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was asked by a student what problems need to be fixed in order to see more women and people of color in government. 

Sotomayor’s answer, as reported by The Seattle Times, was simple: “Money.”

“Money,” Sotomayor said to laughter. “No, seriously. Look at what’s happening in politics. What’s talking the loudest is money.” For more minorities and women to gain more of a foothold in government decisions, “we’re going to have to work the political system at the highest level,” she said.

Justice Sotomayor is right. Today our country is represented by leaders who, as a whole, look little like the electorate they are supposed to represent and serve. Women are a majority of the population, and yet only make up 20% of the Senate and 18% of the House, putting us 83rd in the world for women’s political representation. We have only one openly LGBTQ person and only a handful of people of color in the US Senate – in 2012 there were no African Americans. This picture is not only problematic in itself, but it also has broad implications for policy outcomes.

It’s true that we have also seen some promising developments in political representation in recent years. The 113th Congress is the most diverse in history, with a record number of women and minorities elected, as well as a number of firsts. As the policy director for the Young Elected Officials Network, I am heartened by the changing faces of leadership at all levels of government, and what this means for our country both symbolically and substantively. But, like Justice Sotomayor, I’m also concerned that our country’s money in politics problem is standing in the way of further progress.

Much has been said lately about the impact of money in politics on political representation. At The Atlantic’s Shriver Report summit on women and poverty in January, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted,

If you reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of civility in debate, more women will run for office… We say to women, we want you to go raise 12 million dollars, and by the way, subject yourself to 10 million dollars in negative publicity.

The influence of money in politics not only fuels corruption and the elevation of special and powerful interests, but it exacerbates the imbalance of power as a whole in our country by creating barriers to political representation for communities who are already marginalized. It perpetuates a system where the country is led by people who don’t understand the daily lived and embodied experiences of their constituents.

On Capitol Hill, we see the effects of this imbalance play out each day. From thwarted gun violence prevention efforts to legislation attacking women’s reproductive health voted on by committees and panels made up entirely of men, we continue to have elected leaders who side against the demonstrated wishes of its voters and with the moneyed interests.

We must pursue reforms that transform our electoral processes, even the playing field for all candidates, and restore the power to the people by reducing the outsized influence of big money and protecting the rights of voters. All indications show that we get better results for everyone when there’s diversity in governing bodies.

It’s both common sense, and a matter of basic human rights.

PFAW Foundation

A Good Day at the Court for Drug Manufacturers (But Not the Rest of Us)

The Court's sharply divided 5-4 opinion in Mutual Pharmaceuticals v. Bartlett leaves severely injured consumers with no remedy.
PFAW Foundation

Why It's Important to Have Diversity on the Federal Courts

The Washington Post ran a story yesterday about President Obama's successful push to bring greater diversity to the federal courts. The story quoted a conservative activist who accused the White House of "lowering their standards" in order to find diverse nominees and a Republican aide who claimed that the White House's focus on diversity would "override the substantive qualifications of the nominees."

Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way, responded with the following letter to the editor:

To the editor:

Regarding the March 3 story, “Obama pushing to diversify federal judiciary amid GOP delays.”

One of President Obama’s most significant, but least noticed, achievements has been his effort to bring more women and people of color to the federal bench. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court showed us just how critical that effort is.

In oral arguments on Shelby County v. Holder, the challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Antonin Scalia declared that the renewal of voting protections for people of color simply amounts to a “racial entitlement.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the Supreme Court, promptly contradicted him.

Scalia’s arrogant dismissal is echoed by the conservative activist who tells the Post that the White House may be “lowering their standards” in nominating women and people of color and the  GOP aide who worries that a focus on diversity would “override the substantive qualifications of the nominees.”

President Obama hasn’t had to choose between qualified nominees and diverse ones. Instead, he’s chosen judges and justices like Sotomayor: excellent nominees from diverse backgrounds, all of whom have earned their way to judgeships for which they are eminently qualified. 

LESLIE WATSON MALACHI
DIRECTOR, AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS
PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WAY

PFAW

Sotomayor Calls Out Prosecutor’s Attempt to ‘Substitute Racial Stereotype for Evidence’

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement today in connection with the denial of a cert petition for a case from Texas. She agreed with the decision not to hear the appeal, but she recognized the need to also release a statement condemning the offensive, racially charged remarks of a federal prosecutor during a drug-focused trial.  During the cross-examination of a man who testified that he was not part of and did not know about friends’ plan to buy illegal drugs, the prosecutor asked:

“You've got African-Americans, you've got Hispanics, you've got a bag full of money. Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn't go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”

Sotomayor called the prosecutor’s comment “pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason.” She went on:

“It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”

Sotomayor’s powerful response highlights the critical importance of diversity in our court system.  As Justice Sotomayor noted in 2001, “our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.”  During her confirmation, People For the American Way Foundation documented the far right’s vitriolic reactions to Sotomayor’s insightful discussion of the ways in which her life experiences as a Latina woman inform her view of the law. 

But today’s statement is one example of what that looks like in practice.  It highlights what it looks like when a woman of color on our nation’s highest court has the power to call out blatant racism in the judicial system. 
 

PFAW Foundation

Sotomayor Debunks Right-Wing Line on Courts

In an interview with “60 Minutes” this weekend, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave one of the best debunkings I’ve seen of the Right's line that a judge should be no more than an umpire, exercising no independent judgment and facing no difficult questions. Using the politically neutral example of the 3rd Amendment, Sotomayor explains how even the most seemingly clear-cut parts of the Constitution still require interpretation by judges and Justices:

Chief Justice John Roberts made headlines when, in his confirmation hearings, he said that a judge’s job was merely to call “balls and strikes.” The comforting words of his analogy hide the fact that most of the issues the Supreme Court approaches are complex and require human judgment – that’s why they reach the Supreme Court in the first place. They also conveniently obscure the fact that the conservative bloc on the Court is plenty influenced by their own ideology – there are plenty of examples here.

Justice Elena Kagan, in her confirmation hearings, gave another great rebuke to Roberts’ flawed baseball analogy. “We know that not every case is decided 9-0,” she said, “and we know that’s not because anybody’s acting in bad faith. It’s because reasonable people can reasonably disagree sometimes. So in that sense, the law does require a kind of judgment, a kind of wisdom. “

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PFAW

On Every Issue, Vote the Court

We are seeing increasing recognition of the Supreme Court as a central and critical issue in the presidential election.
PFAW

Toobin Asks Candidates to 'Take a Stand' on Supreme Court. They Already Have.

On CNN’s website today, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin laments out how small a role the Supreme Court has played in the presidential election so far. He writes:

With a little more than a month to go, it's not too late to ask the candidates to take a stand on their plans for the court. The president has already had two appointments, and he named Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. But what does Obama, a former law professor, think about the court? Does he believe in a "living" Constitution, whose meaning evolves over time? Or does he believe, like Justices Scalia and Thomas, that the meaning of the document was fixed when it was ratified, in the 18th century.

By the same token, what kind of justices would Romney appoint? Who are his judicial role models? Romney has praised Chief Justice John Roberts, but is the candidate still a fan even after the chief voted to uphold the ACA?

No one is asking these questions. But there are few more important things to know about our current and future presidents.

Toobin is absolutely right that the candidates’ plans for the Supreme Court deserve a lot more air time than they’re getting. But he’s wrong to suggest that we know nothing about what President Obama and Governor Romney have in mind for the Court.

President Obama has already picked two Supreme Court justices. Both, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, have been strong moderates, balancing out the retro extremism of Justices Scalia and Thomas. When female Wal-Mart employees wanted to band together to sue their employer for pay discrimination, Sotomayor and Kagan stood on the side of the women’s rights, while Scalia and Thomas twisted the law to side with the corporation. When Justices Thomas and Scalia ruled that a woman harmed by a generic drug couldn’t sue the drug’s manufacturer in state court, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan stood up for the rights of the consumer.

Mitt Romney obviously hasn’t had a chance to pick a Supreme Court justice yet, but he’s given us a pretty good idea of who he would choose if given the opportunity. On his website, Romney promises to “nominate judges in the mold of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito.” After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the health care reform case, Romney announced he had changed his mind about Roberts, who declined to destroy the law while still writing a stunningly retrogressive opinion redefining the Commerce Clause.

And, of course, Romney sent a clear signal to his conservative base when he tapped Robert Bork to advise him on legal and judicial issues. Bork’s record, and what he signals about Romney’s position on the Supreme Court, is chilling:

Romney’s indicated that he would want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. He’s even attacked the premise of Griswold v. Connecticut, the decision that prohibited states from outlawing birth control by establishing a right to privacy.

Yes, the candidates should be made to answer more questions about their plans for the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. But there’s a lot that we already know.

(For more, check out PFAW’s website RomneyCourt.com.)

PFAW

A Diversity Milestone for Federal Judges

President Obama had as many women judges confirmed as Bush did in 8 years, but Republicans are preventing votes that would further diversify our courts.
PFAW

A Sotomayor or a Bork? The Decision Is Ours in November

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Three years ago today, the first Supreme Court confirmation battle of Barack Obama's presidency came to an end. Justice Sonia Sotomayor took the oath of office on August 8, 2009, after enduring days of hearings at which she had been lambasted by Senate Republicans for such offenses as calling herself a "wise Latina" and acknowledging, like many male nominees before her, the shocking fact that her life experiences had shaped her perspective on the law.

In the three years since, I've been relieved to have Justice Sotomayor on the Court. I haven't agreed with all her decisions, but she has shown time and again that she understands how the Constitution protects our rights -- all of our rights. In 2010, she dissented to the Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, which twisted the law and Constitution to give corporations and the super wealthy dangerous influence over our elections. In 2011, she joined the four-justice minority that stood up for the rights of women Wal-Mart employees who were the victims of entrenched sex discrimination. This year, she was part of the narrow majority that upheld the Affordable Care Act, saving a clearly constitutional law that is already helping millions of Americans receive health care coverage.

Over and over again in the past years, the Supreme Court has split between two very different visions of the law and the Constitution. On one side, we have justices like Sotomayor who understand how the Constitution protects all of our rights in changing times. On the other side, we have right-wing justices like Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who are determined to walk back American progress, turn their backs on the values enshrined in the Constitution, and ignore decades of our laws and history. On issues from voting rights to women's equality to environmental regulation, Americans' rights are being decided by the Supreme Court -- often by a single vote. Even the decision to uphold health care reform, in which Chief Justice John Roberts joined Sotomayor and the three other moderates on the court, would not have been as close as it was if the Court had not moved steadily to the right.

November's presidential election will be a turning point for the Supreme Court. The next president will likely have the chance to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice, setting the course of the Court for decades to come. President Obama has shown his priorities in his picks of Justice Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan.

Mitt Romney has a very different vision for the Supreme Court. Campaigning in Puerto Rico earlier this year, Romney bashed Sotomayor -- who also happens to be the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and the Court's third woman ever. Instead, he says he'd pick more justices like Thomas, Alito and Antonin Scalia, the core of the right-wing bloc whose decisions are systematically rolling back Americans' hard-won rights. He used to say that he'd pick more Justices like Chief Justice Roberts, but changed his mind when Roberts ruled in favor of the health care reform plan similar to the one that Romney himself had helped pilot in Massachusetts.

So who would Romney pick for the Supreme Court? We've gotten a hint from his choice of former judge Robert Bork as his campaign's judicial advisor. Bork's brand of judicial extremism was so out of step with the mainstream that a bipartisan majority of the Senate rejected his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. Bork objected to the part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that desegregated lunch counters; he defended state laws banning birth control and "sodomy"; he was unabashedly in favor of censorship; he once ruled that a corporation could order its female employees to be sterilized or be fired. And, though it might not seem possible, since his confirmation battle Bork has gotten even more extreme.

Any justice appointed by Romney would likely fall in the footsteps of Bork in undermining workers' rights, eliminating civil rights protections, siding with corporations over the rights of individuals, threatening women's reproductive freedom, and rolling back basic LGBT rights. President Obama, on the other hand, has promised to pick more justices who share the constitutional values of Justice Sotomayor.

Three years into the term of Justice Sotomayor, the Court hangs in the balance. It's important that we all know the stakes.

PFAW

President Obama: A Romney Court Could ‘Turn Back the Clock for Women and Families for Decades’

Speaking at a campaign event in Colorado today, President Obama laid out the crucial importance of the Supreme Court in November’s election:

Today is the three-year anniversary of Sonia Sotomayor taking her seat on the Supreme Court. Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of Elena Kagan taking her seat on the Supreme Court. So let's be very clear -- the next President could tip the balance of the Court in a way that turns back the clock for women and families for decades to come. The choice between going backward and moving forward has never been so clear.

The choice has never been so clear. In the Huffington Post today, People For president Michael Keegan lays out what’s at stake as we pick the man who will pick our next Supreme Court justices:

So who would Romney pick for the Supreme Court? We've gotten a hint from his choice of former judge Robert Bork as his campaign's judicial advisor. Bork's brand of judicial extremism was so out of step with the mainstream that a bipartisan majority of the Senate rejected his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. Bork objected to the part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that desegregated lunch counters; he defended state laws banning birth control and "sodomy"; he was unabashedly in favor of censorship; he once ruled that a corporation could order its female employees to be sterilized or be fired. And, though it might not seem possible, since his confirmation battle Bork has gotten even more extreme.

Any justice appointed by Romney would likely fall in the footsteps of Bork in undermining workers' rights, eliminating civil rights protections, siding with corporations over the rights of individuals, threatening women's reproductive freedom, and rolling back basic LGBT rights. President Obama, on the other hand, has promised to pick more justices who share the constitutional values of Justice Sotomayor.

To learn more about Mitt Romney's dangerous vision for the Supreme Court, visit www.RomneyCourt.com.

 

PFAW

Roberts Court Limits Privacy Act Protections

The five conservatives sharply limit when you can sue the government for illegally releasing personal information about you.
PFAW Foundation

"The Number One Reason to Vote"

Lawrence O'Donnell discusses the critical importance of the Supreme Court in this - and any - presidential election.
PFAW

Empathy and The Loving Story

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama let us know who he would be selecting as judicial nominees.

You know, Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire. But the issues that come before the court are not sport. They're life and death. And we need somebody who's got the heart to recogni-- the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges.

This “empathy standard” became a red herring used to attack the President and qualified jurists like Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Then Senator Ted Kaufman (DE) emphasized just how wrong that argument was.

Likewise, President Obama’s promotion of empathy is not, as his critics suggest, the advocacy of bias. “Empathy,” as a quick look at the dictionary will confirm, is not the same as “sympathy.” “Empathy” means understanding the experiences of another, not identification with or bias toward another. Let me repeat that. “Empathy” means understanding the experiences of another, not identification with or bias toward another. Words have meanings, and we should not make arguments that depend on misconstruing those meanings.

As we continue to hear empathy trotted out as something sinister, it’s important to consider where our country might’ve been without it. That’s the lesson of The Loving Story.

Virginia’s argument that its law did not discriminate on the basis of race because it restricted both whites and African Americans equally might have persuaded Justices who were blind to the devastating impact of anti-miscegenation laws on everyday people. However, empathy allowed the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia to see what it really meant to ban interracial marriage. Yet just because that meant the Warren Court came down on the side of the “little guy,” doesn’t mean it ignored constitutional principles.

This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. For reasons which seem to us to reflect the central meaning of those constitutional commands, we conclude that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment.

It just so happens that the Lovings were on the right side of the Constitution in their struggle to live with who they loved, where they were happiest, and where they wanted to raise their family.

If you get the chance to see The Loving Story, as I did at a DC screening earlier this week (more in Silver Spring next week), think about Mildred and Richard Loving and the countless couples who faced the same struggle. Think about how their state laws wronged not only them but also the Constitution. Think about how empathy put justice back on track.

Laura Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office, sums it up better than I ever could.

PFAW