This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Fifty years ago in Alabama hundreds of peaceful marchers calling for voting rights were violently attacked by state police. Fifty years later Americans from all walks of life are expected to gather this weekend to mark the anniversary of what became known as Bloody Sunday and embrace the spirit for courage, sacrifice and justice of those women and men who marched, were beaten and no doubt underestimated the impact that their bruises would have on future generations.
The events of that day and the tense days and weeks that followed shocked our national consciousness and became a catalyst for passage of what some call the "crown jewel" of the civil rights movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It's a law that held bipartisan support and helped protect countless Americans from discrimination at the ballot box for almost five decades.
Every year since that bloody day we have honored those 600-plus marchers who put their lives on the line in pursuit of basic democratic rights and racial justice. But this year, with a passion as never before, we must do more than just give lip service. This time marchers of today must clearly connect with the purpose in the pain that started in prayer on a Sunday morning and ended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with blood and tears in the afternoon. Why? Because as John Legend so eloquently put it last week, "Selma is now."
The shadow of Bloody Sunday is there, nearly two years after a core provision of the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in the Shelby County case, as we practice patience for Congress to restore and strengthen what was taken away. When our leaders say that they honor those who refused to turn around, will they also commit to restoring the kinds of voting protections that they were marching for?
Today, 40 bills to restrict voting rights have been introduced in states across the country, from voter ID legislation to proposals reducing access to absentee ballots to bills that would make it more difficult for those with past criminal convictions to vote. When our leaders say they honor those who were beaten and bruised with billy clubs 50 years ago, will they also commit to voting against proposed laws that would make it harder for all people to have an equal voice in our democracy? Will they commit to confirming the highly qualified Loretta Lynch, a woman with a strong commitment to civil rights, to lead -- as the first female African American -- the Justice Department in effectively monitoring and enforcing the voting rights laws we already have and those yet to come?
Today, African Americans and Latinos, especially males, endure being routinely profiled, targeted, and attacked by the police. The report released this week from the Department of Justice about policing in Ferguson, Missouri, revealed that 93 percent of arrests were of African Americans, though they make up only 67 percent of the city's population. It showed and confirmed that African Americans in Ferguson were disproportionately likely to have force used against them by the police. When our leaders say they honor those who were hospitalized for peaceful protest 50 years ago, will they also commit to fighting against discrimination and violence at the hands of those meant to serve and protect our communities?
Selma is now, and the march continues. Selma needed protection for voting rights then, and Selma needs protection for voting rights now. Many civil rights leaders, past and present, and even future leaders, will be in Selma this weekend. But thousands of others who can't be there in person will not be excluded from being a part of a new march. Men and women will with great intent make sure every registered voter gets to the polls to vote in every election, will minister with an activist heart to their neighborhoods when violence upends daily life, will use social media as a tool to motivate participation in work aimed at ending all forms of discrimination in the name of religion, and will organize their communities in active opposition when yet another bill is introduced to undermine, restrict, or deny basic civil and human rights.
On the evening of that Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. informed the media that ministers would march and called for clergy from around the country to join them. He said, "The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of America, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. ... In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land."
I was not there then, but today as with every day, especially because of the Shelby Counties and the Fergusons, I give thanks and will not forget that struggle. On March 7, 1965, the world watched as nonviolent mothers, fathers, students, workers, faith leaders were beaten, tear gassed and hospitalized. On March 7, 2015, let the world watch as this next generation genuinely honors those who had the courage to take a stand that Bloody Sunday "for the survival of democracy." How? By registering, advocating, teaching, speaking up, marching and continuing their work in pursuit of voting rights, freedom, and justice as if our unseen bruises, our lives, our souls depend on it.
Yesterday, People For the American Way members participated in a telebriefing to discuss the Supreme Court’s upcoming term and to preview some of the important cases the Court will be hearing this year. The call was kicked off by PFAW President Michael Keegan and moderated by PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney. PFAW’s Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon reviewed highlights of his recent report previewing the Supreme Court’s upcoming term and answered questions from members. Also on the call and answering questions were Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg and Executive Vice President Marge Baker.
Among the cases Gordon previewed were Young v. UPS, Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, Mach Mining v. EEOC, Holt v. Hobbs, and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama / Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama. The issues addressed in these cases range from employment discrimination and workers’ rights, to religious liberty and voting rights.
He also discussed potential cases that the Court could still add for this term, which included cases on marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, and contraception coverage by religious nonprofits—the “sequels to Hobby Lobby.”
Members’ questions focused on how the country can move forward to change some of the more damaging decisions like Citizens United, and what each person could do to effect change and impact the courts. Emphasizing what is at stake this election, both PFAW President Michael Keegan and Gordon called on people to vote in November because “when you vote … for the Senate, you are voting for the next Supreme Court justice.”
Listen to the full audio of the telebriefing for more information.
Get ready. There’s more Republican obstruction on the way.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on 11th Circuit nominee Robin S. Rosenbaum for this Thursday, which is an important step forward in the fight to address our judicial vacancy crisis. Fully a third of the 11th Circuit’s twelve active judgeships are currently vacant, and all four of its empty slots have been declared judicial emergencies by the Administrative Offices of U.S. Courts.
The vacancy crisis in the 11th Circuit is so bad that the court’s chief judge, Edward Carnes, issued an order in December temporarily suspending the standard rule that at least two judges on a three-judge 11th Circuit panel must be members of that court. That means that going forward, two of three judges on these panels could be visiting from someplace else, potentially outvoting the one 11th Circuit judge. It is vital that Judge Rosenbaum be confirmed in a timely manner. And that starts with a timely committee vote.
But it’s unlikely that’s enough reason for GOP Senators to drop their campaign of endless delays for judicial nominations.
That is, unless Sen. Marco Rubio or Sen. Jeff Sessions steps in.
Rosenbaum is from Florida, which gives Rubio a special responsibility to urge Republican senators on the committee not to delay the vote. It is a chance for him to prioritize his constituents over politics. Similarly, Sessions, who represents a state (Alabama) covered by the 11th Circuit, also has a unique responsibility, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, to avoid such needless delay.
Will either Rubio or Sessions step up and help move the process in a more functional direction? We’ll learn on Thursday, but if past events are a predictor of future behavior, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved the nomination of Maine attorney William Kayatta Jr. to sit on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Only two committee members voted against allowing Kayatta a vote from the full Senate: Utah’s Mike Lee, who is still protesting all Obama nominees, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who gave the following reason, according to the Portland Press Herald:
In a statement on his opposition to Kayatta's nomination, Sessions cited Kayatta's role as lead evaluator for the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary during the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
Sessions said Kayatta saw fit to give Kagen the highest rating despite her lack of substantial courtroom and trial experience, as a lawyer or trial judge. Sessions said the rating was "not only unsupported by the record, but, in my opinion, the product of political bias."
Yes, that’s right. Kayatta was involved in the American Bar Association’s nonpartisan rating process, which dared to call the solicitor general and former Harvard Law School dean “well qualified” for the job of Supreme Court Justice.
Sessions, one of the most outspoken opponents of Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination frequently slammed her lack of judicial experience in her confirmation hearings two years ago. He seemed to conveniently forget that the late conservative icon Chief Justice William Rehnquist also came to the High Court without having previously served as a judge – as have over one third of all Justices in U.S. history. The American Bar Association similarly found Rehnquist qualified for the job and called him “one of the best persons available for appointment to the Supreme Court [pdf].
It would be funny if it weren’t so appalling: Sessions’ grudge against Kagan runs so deep that he not only objected to her nomination, he’s objecting to anyone who who’s dared to call her qualified for her job.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the discriminatory law that banned gays and lesbians from openly serving in our nation’s armed forces, has been officially been relegated to the history books after a devastating 18-year existence that snatched away the careers of more than 14,000 capable and dedicated servicemembers. With repeal celebrations happening across the country, President Obama released a statement, which said in part,
Today’s achievement is a tribute to all the patriots who fought and marched for change; to members of Congress, from both parties, who voted for repeal; to our civilian and military leaders who ensured a smooth transition; and to the professionalism of our men and women in uniform.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal is a major achievement in itself, but it is also indicative of where we are as a country regarding LGBT equality. While the Right Wing has issued statements condemning this historic occasion, Republican members of Congress have largely remained silent. Opponents of gay rights realize that their discriminatory views are quickly becoming outdated, and that younger voters overwhelmingly support LGBT equality.
Celebrations have been occurring across the country. One moving video in particular has gone viral on Youtube. In it, a gay soldier from Alabama, currently stationed in Germany, calls his father right after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal is finalized to come out. The soldier is greeted with acceptance and loving support. After the long fight waged by People For the American Way, other progressive groups and brave men and women in uniform who often risked their careers to fight for what they believe in, it’s heartening to see how America has become a little more just, equal and fair today than it was before.
Last year, Arizona’s state legislature caused a national uproar when it passed a constitutionally dubious bill giving state and local law enforcement officers the power to police for illegal immigrants and essentially requiring all people who may look like immigrants to carry their immigration papers. Parts of that law are currently on hold as courts determine their constitutionality, but the copy-cat laws keep coming. Alabama’s governor has now signed the state’s own SB 1070 on steroids, or what its sponsor called “an Arizona bill with an Alabama twist”:
Under the new measure, police must detain someone they suspect of being in the country illegally if the person cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.
It also will be a crime to knowingly transport or harbor someone who is in the country illegally. The law imposes penalties on businesses that knowingly employ someone without legal resident status. A company's business license could be suspended or revoked.
The law requires Alabama businesses to use a database called E-Verify to confirm the immigration status of new employees.
Alabama's law is unique in requiring public schools to determine, by review of birth certificates or sworn affidavits, the legal residency status of students.
In other words, not only are Alabama police now being roped into immigration enforcement – so are public schools and private businesses and even private citizens. The law enforcement provision is troubling: like Arizona’s law, it would seem to encourage racial profiling by police officers instructed to detain people who they suspect may be undocumented immigrants. But Alabama’s new “twist,” requiring schools to investigate the immigration status of their students is one of the most dramatic over-reaches included in the many anti-immigrant laws that have been making their way through state government’s since the passage of SB 1070.
It’s no surprise that the mind behind Alabama’s law is Kris Kobach, Kansas’s secretary of state, who was also behind Arizona’s law. Kobach was formerly the top lawyer at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of FAIR, the central group in the anti-immigrant movement, which has a long history of racially-charged attacks on immigrants. FAIR, formerly a fringe group, and the divisive and dehumanizing rhetoric it pushes have been enjoying a renewed national prominence in the vicious anti-immigrant movement that has begun to take hold among even the mainstream GOP. We reviewed the tactics of Kobach and his allies in a report last year on growing trends in anti-immigrant rhetoric.