District of Columbia

A Third Judge Upholds the Healthcare Law

Another federal district judge has found the healthcare reform law constitutional. Judge Gladys Kessler in the District of Columbia becomes the third federal judge to uphold the law. As the New York Times reports:

The judge suggested in her 64-page opinion that not buying insurance was an active choice that had clear effects on the marketplace by burdening other payers with the cost of uncompensated medical care.

"Because of this cost-shifting effect," she wrote, "the individual decision to forgo health insurance, when considered in the aggregate, leads to substantially higher insurance premiums for those other individuals who do obtain coverage."

Judge Kessler observed that the basic argument against the law's constitutionality "ignores reality."

As previous Commerce Clause cases have all involved physical activity, as opposed to mental activity, i.e. decision-making, there is little judicial guidance on whether the latter falls within Congress's power. [internal citation omitted] However, this Court finds the distinction, which Plaintiffs rely on heavily, to be of little significance. It is pure semantics to argue that an individual who makes a choice to forgo health insurance is not "acting," especially given the serious economic and health-related consequences to every individual of that choice. Making a choice is an affirmative action, whether one decides to do something or not do something. They are two sides of the same coin. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality.

Perhaps that is why many of those on the right screaming most loudly that the law is unconstitutional were expressing the exact opposite opinion before the corporate-funded Tea Party arose, with its bizarre version of the United States Constitution seemingly written for We the Corporations, rather than We the People. After all, the individual mandate was a Republican idea and originally championed by many of those who now scream that it is an unconstitutional usurpation of power by the federal government. For instance, Senators Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley co-sponsored legislation during the Clinton Administration that featured an individual mandate. As recently as June 2009, Sen. Grassley expressed his belief that there was a bipartisan consensus for individual mandates in the health care legislation. Both have completely flip-flopped on the issue.

Whatever this debate is about, it certainly isn't constitutional principle. Pretending otherwise is, to use Judge Kessler's words, ignoring reality.

PFAW

Focus on the Family’s New Target: Anti-Bullying Policies

Maintaining that “activist groups that want to promote homosexuality in kids” seek to violate the “innocence and purity of children,” Focus on the Family has launched the “True Tolerance” campaign to prevent “homosexuals” from capturing “the hearts and minds of our children at their earliest ages.” The Orwellian-named True Tolerance project believes that efforts by school districts to improve safety among their students through enacting anti-bullying policies are actually trying to send a “message about homosexuality — that it's normal and should be embraced.”

According to Focus on the Family, anti-bullying and anti-harassment laws are only meant to produce “special protections” for LGBT students and “reverse discrimination.” The far-right group says that schools should instead “unite around the teachings of our Founding Fathers— in particular, the principle that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with unalienable rights.” However, Focus on the Family believes that the sexual orientation and gender identity of students should determine just how “equal” they are.

Research from GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) shows that the vast majority of LGBT students have experienced verbal harassment in schools, and that 44.1% of LGBT students “reported being physically harassed and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.” Educators are solidly in favor of strategies to thwart bullying, and 85% of secondary school teachers “agree that they have an obligation to ensure a safe learning environment for LGBT students.”

The push to stop schools from implementing policies to prevent harassment and bullying is a dangerous new low in the Religious Right’s long and vicious fight against equality for the LGBT community. Currently, only twelve states and the District of Columbia have policies meant to protect students based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. With increased attention on the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act, Focus on the Family intends to gear up its fight to block school districts from protecting some of their most vulnerable students from maltreatment and violence.

PFAW

Justice delayed is justice denied

I recently reported that an agreement had been reached to move forward on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act. Four days later came word that this was no longer the case. The fight is not over, but DC’s centuries-long wait to have a voting voice in Congress will continue.

The right-wing forced an agreement with which nobody was happy. And in the end it turns out to have not been an agreement at all but a way for the right-wing to delay their inevitable counterpunch. DC can’t keep fighting these intrusions without a meaningful way to say “aye” or “no” when those infamous bells ring calling members to the House floor.

I cannot speak for Dorothy Height on the events of the last week. But I want to honor her for her commitment to DC voting rights. I remember her arrival at a hearing on a previous iteration of the bill. Without saying a word, her entry alone commanded respect.

I’m not sure if this photo was taken that same day, but Life noted one such occasion on which Dr. Height visited the Hill to champion our cause.

PFAW

DC voting rights bill expected to move next week

DC has waited over 200 years to have a voting voice in Congress. Today the nation’s capital may be as close as it’s ever come to making that dream a reality.

On Wednesday afternoon came the breaking news that an agreement had been reached to move forward on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, which would give DC a full Representative with the same voting power as other House members. Just this morning, I joined a room full of concerned citizens and activists for a briefing lead by DC Vote and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. We then took to the halls of Congress in support of the Delegate’s tireless efforts on this issue.

Nobody is happy that this agreement comes at the price of right-wing interference in local affairs. But to go any longer without voting rights is an even higher price to pay. DC can’t keep fighting these intrusions without a meaningful way to say “aye” or “no” when those infamous bells ring calling members to the House floor. As Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights put it:

The civil rights community recognizes that it must be prepared to accept some setbacks in the name of long-term progress. Virtually every major piece of civil rights legislation, from 1957 onwards, has involved difficult and often painful tradeoffs. In this case, given the fundamental importance of gaining a vote in Congress, we are prepared to move forward with the voting rights bill.

People For the American Way believes that the right-wing should stay away from this bill. But we also believe it’s a tragedy that our Democracy has allowed DC residents to live without voting representation for over 200 years. Any citizen who pays taxes, and is otherwise legally eligible to vote, should be able to vote. And certainly no member of the armed services should be robbed of the right to vote simply because of where they live.

The fight will not be over even when DC can cast a House vote. It is high time the nation’s capital be given both House and Senate representation, with voting power in both chambers.

PFAW

“A new breed of judicial activist” on the D.C. Circuit

With public attention now focused on the selection of a new Supreme Court Justice, it might be easy to forget the federal judicial appointments that get a lot less press, but which can also make a whole lot of difference in the lives of ordinary people.

Steven Pearlstein, a business columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a great column this morning—just before the news of Justice Stevens’ retirement broke—about how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has been instrumental in slowing down or stopping altogether important regulations of drug companies, mutual funds, telecommunications providers, and other industries.

There's a lot of talk these days about how Washington has become dysfunctional. While most of the focus has been on Congress, the inability to perform even basic functions also extends to the agencies that are charged with protecting workers, consumers and investors. Unfortunately, it often takes a global financial crisis or a deadly coal mine explosion to remind us of the serious consequences of regulatory failure.

Much of the blame belongs with regulators who have been captured by the industries they are meant to oversee or have been swept up in the general political drift toward deregulation. But, as we were reminded by a case this week involving the Federal Communications Commission, another big culprit is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which over the past decade has intimidated, undermined and demoralized the regulatory apparatus.

Pearlstein singles out conservative judges whose regulatory reluctance has kept the Food and Drug Administration for ensuring the speedy availability of generic drugs, and the Federal Trade Commission from disciplining a tech company monopolist.

These cases, Pearlstein writes, “are the means by which a new breed of judicial activist is quietly undermining the reach and the effectiveness of government.”

The leaders of this new breed were, unsurprisingly, nominated by former Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Yet another reminder that judicial nominations at all levels make up one of any president’s most enduring legacies.
 

PFAW

DC Victory for Marriage Equality

Yesterday, PFAW staff joined hundreds of DC residents at the Rally for Marriage Equality at the Kennedy Recreation Center in Washington, DC to support the DC Council’s vote on marriage equality.

Several lead sponsors of the bill including Jim Ward, David A Catania, and Harry Thomas Jr. addressed the boisterous crowd to declare their emphatic support for marriage equality. Community organizers and activists also shared their thoughts on the battle they have waged for years for marriage equality.

Earlier today, the DC Council voted 11-2 in favor of marriage equality. Mayor Adrian Fenty is expected to immediately sign the bill. Congress has 30 legislative days to review the measure.

PFAW President, Michael B. Keegan, issued the following statement:

“Today’s vote is a major step forward for equality and a proud day for all the residents of the District of Columbia. At long last, same-sex couples will be allowed the same protections and responsibilities that straight couples have always enjoyed.

“This vote wouldn’t be possible without the years of hard work by activists from every ward in the city. Today’s legislation is supported by people of every race and religion. I am especially proud of the many clergy members who spoke out in favor of equality as a core value that all of us share.
 

PFAW

D.C. Strikes Down Anti-Marriage Equality Initiative

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics issued a memorandum today keeping anti-marriage equality legislation off the ballot in the District of Columbia. A public hearing was held on October 26, 2009 on the “Marriage Initiative of 2009”, which would establish that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the District of Columbia.” D.C. law currently recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions and there is pending pro-marriage equality legislation in the D.C. council. Board Chairman Errol R. Arthur said today,

“We have considered all of the testimony presented to the Board and understand the desire to place this question on the ballot. However, the laws of the District of Columbia preclude us from allowing this initiative to move forward.”
Bishop Harry Jackson proposed the initiative and is leading the push for anti-marriage equality legislation in D.C.
 
PFAW

A Not-So-Great End to a Very Good Week

In many ways it was a very good week for anyone interested in LGBT equality. Marriage equality legislation took a big step forward in the District of Columbia, federal hate crimes legislation was signed into law after a decade long fight, and today the President reauthorized the Ryan White Act and announced that he would take the final steps to rescind the HIV travel ban. So it’s too bad that the week ended on a disappointing note.

In a brief filed today in federal court, the DOJ moved to dismiss the challenge against DOMA lodged by the state of Massachusetts on behalf of the legally married same-sex couples in the state who are nevertheless being denied federal benefits.

To be clear: Massachusetts is right in this case and the DOJ is wrong. DOMA is unconstitutional and should be struck down.

But the brief (much like most of the other briefs we’ve seen) took pains to point out that the President is defending the law not because he likes it, but because he’s compelled to. In fact, the brief points out, the President is opposed to DOMA and supports its repeal.

Great. Let’s do that.

It’s time for the President to make clear that repealing DOMA is a priority, and that his support is more than lip service. No one expects repeal to be immediate, but it won’t happen without Presidential leadership.

Then we can have good weeks, that are just plain old good weeks.

(If you want to push the process forward, don’t forget to sign our Dump DOMA petition.)
 

PFAW

Marriage Equality Marathon

Almost 100 people testified on Monday, October 26 in a 7 ½ hour hearing on marriage equality legislation moving in the District of Columbia council. Another 169 people who signed up will testify on Monday, November 2. After that, marriage equality will move from committee to the full council and should be passed into law by the end of the year.

The hearing was inspiring and invigorating. I testified in support of the bill on behalf of People For the American Way and as a DC resident hoping to get married next year. I was at the halfway point of the hearing but stayed until almost 11 p.m. to hear everyone speak.

The good news is that pro-equality speakers, and pro-equality clergy, vastly outnumbered opponents. Included were other professional advocates from the Human Rights Campaign and the ACLU; a dozen pro-equality religious leaders, men and women representing many faiths, races, and ethnicities, among them Rev. Dennis Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church and Rev. Robert Hardies of All Souls Church, Unitarian, leaders of DC Clergy United for Marriage; pro-equality leaders from the local Democratic and Republican political parties; and a long list of DC residents, LGBT and not, testifying on behalf of themselves, their partners, their families and friends, and their children.

There were many moving moments: a young gay couple, one of them a vet, tightly holding hands and fighting back tears to testify; a heterosexual married man who testified with his seven-year old daughter at his side, because she already understands that it's wrong that the gay people in her life, including the parents of her best friends, aren't treated equally under the law; dozens of women and men speaking the truth about their lives, their eagerness to protect their loved ones, and their desire to be treated equally in the city that is their home.

Opposing the measure were Bishop Harry Jackson, who leads the city's anti-equality forces, a handful of local civic activists, and a group of officials from the Catholic archdiocese of Washington and Catholic Charities. The most interesting back-and-forth of the night took place between the panel of Catholic leaders and Councilmembers David Catania and Tommy Wells over the scope of the religious liberty protections in the bill. Councilmember Catania had said earlier in the day that he was willing to consider changes to those provisions, but he and Wells were deeply skeptical of demands that Catholic Charities be given carte blanche to discriminate against same-sex couples in provision of services and treatment of its employees when 75 percent of its revenues are from public funds. Notably, a few panels earlier, Professor Joseph Palacios from Georgetown University had testified in favor of the legislation, citing recent research showing strong support for marriage equality among lay Catholics nationally and even stronger support in the District of Columbia.

The legislation is assured of passage: it was co-sponsored by nine of the 12 councilmembers, and another councilmember announced his support at the hearing. DC Mayor Adrian Fenty has pledged to sign it. Activists are working with congressional leaders to make sure that the legislation survives the legislative review period that DC's laws are subjected to. The council's overwhelming support for the measure was a source of frustration to some of the anti-equality speakers, who angrily denounced the hearing as a sham and demanded that the issue be put to a public vote. Earlier in the day, Jackson and other anti-equality speakers urged the District's Board of Elections to allow them to put marriage equality before the voters, even though the board had ruled earlier this year that doing so would violate DC law against putting human rights protections on the ballot.

Watch my testimony here: 

PFAW

Patrick Leahy is fed up ... and he should be

Patrick Leahy is fed up and he should be.

Dawn Johnsen, President Obama's nominee to head the all important Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, has been awaiting action by the full Senate since mid-March.

David Hamilton, President Obama's first judicial nomination, has been waiting since the beginning of June. 

Marisa Demeo, nominated to be an Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia has been waiting since the end of May.

These are just three of the 15 Justice Department and Judicial nominees that Republicans have been stalling for months!
"The Senate has to do better," says
Judiciary Chairman Leahy — and we couldn't agree more.

Click here to read more.

And take action by signing onto our petition urging the Senate to confirm Dawn Johnsen.

PFAW

Does the Anti-Gay Movement in DC think that Congress should run the District?

As a supporter of marriage equality for all people, I'm thrilled at the almost-unanimous vote of the DC City Council to recognize marriages of same-sex couples performed elsewhere.

As a supporter of marriage equality for all people and voting rights for the residents of DC (myself included,) I'm a little concerned about the response from the anti-marriage forces on the right.

Another protester, C.T. Riley, added: "This is not over. We are going to the Hill with this issue."

. . .

Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, who opposes gay marriage, said opponents are developing a "political and legal strategy" to block same-sex marriage in the District.

Does this imply that right wing activists are going to attempt to ignore the decision of the elected representatives of the District of Columbia by asking a body in which District residents have no representation to overrule the decision?

I look forward to discovering how this jives with the right's opposition to pro-gay rulings from "unelected judges" and allegations that it's the pro-gay rights community which is "usurping" the legacy of civil rights movement.

PFAW

DC has a 200-year long line at the polls…but not for long

Long lines at the polls on Election Day are a problem not to be ignored. But imagine if you had been standing in line to vote since 1801. That’s where you’ll find the nearly 600,000 Americans living in DC. Thankfully, their 200-year wait is nearly over.

This morning the Senate brought DC one step closer to the ballot box by clearing a procedural hurdle placed in the way of the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 (S. 160). I was in the Capitol as 62 Senators cast votes in favor of moving this bill forward. By the end of the week, it may very well be in the hands of the House. Then it’s on to the President’s desk. President Obama is a strong supporter of DC voting rights and a former cosponsor of the bill, which would give DC a full Representative with the same voting power as other House members.

As I joined my colleagues who had gathered for the vote, I couldn’t help but think about my own journey to get to this point. DC voting rights has had a place in my portfolio for some time, and an even longer history with People For the American Way, an organization that has worked for years in the field and on Capitol Hill alongside DC Vote and its coalition in support of DC’s voting voice in Congress.

Today is a day of great celebration for all of us who belong to this movement, including those of you who have made calls, written letters, and visited Congress to say that House representation is long overdue for DC. Thank you for everything you’ve done.

But the fight is not yet over. The right-wing has S. 160 (and its House companion, H.R. 157) in its sight and will try to derail its progress. Contact your Representative and Senators to make sure they are on the right side of history when it comes to the rights of DC residents.

And the fight will not be over even when DC can cast a House vote. It is high time the nation’s capital be given both House and Senate representation, with voting power in both chambers.

PFAW

Trending Toward Greater Acceptance

GLAAD today published a new survey of Americans' feelings on GLBT issues.  The news, I'd say, is generally positive.

    • Three-quarters of U.S. adults (75%) favor either marriage or domestic partnerships/civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. Only about two in 10 (22%) say gay and lesbian couples should have no legal recognition. (Gay and lesbian couples are able to marry in two states, and comprehensive civil union or domestic partnership laws exist in only five others and the District of Columbia.)

    • U.S. adults are now about evenly divided on whether they support allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry (47% favor to 49% oppose).

    • Almost two-thirds (64%) of U.S. adults favor allowing openly gay military personnel to serve in the armed forces. (The current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law bans military service by openly gay personnel.)

But it also called to mind a fascinating piece by Ann Friedman in The American Prospect.

This is something I've heard a lot in the wake of the passage of California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. "History is on our side! Don't worry, the demographic trends are with us!"

I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough. These are the kind of conciliatory comments that go part and parcel with the culture-war frame. Civil-rights era activists knew history was on their side. But their goal was not to make every white American comfortable with the idea of sharing public spaces and power with people of color. It was to guarantee people of color those rights, regardless of where the culture stood. That's the thing about rights. You have to claim them.

If you're interested in claiming a few rights, you should sign onto People For's petition to stop federal discrimination against some married couples and Dump DOMA.

PFAW

New Senate Can Deliver Some Quick Victories

A Washington Post article today points out that even not counting the two yet-undecided Senate contests in MN and GA, the Democrats could have the filibuster-proof 60 votes to move several key pieces of legislation by picking up a few Republicans. The article highlights several possible bills - two of which are civil rights bills of particular interest to People For the American Way.

First up: DC Voting Rights. The right of voters to be fully represented in Congress is paramount to the health of our democracy. Shamefully, the institutional disenfranchisement of Americans is probably most egregious in our nation’s capital, where 600,000 taxpayers have a congressional representative with no voting power.

Voting rights in Congress for the District of Columbia is another example. Legislation to expand the House of Representatives from 435 to 437 seats by giving the District and Utah an additional vote each were three votes shy of the 60 needed to end a filibuster in September 2007. Eight Republicans voted with the Democratic majority, which is 51 to 49 and includes two independents.

In addition, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - for which People For the American Way was far out front in leading the fight - could have the support it needs to correct a terrible Supreme Court decision (a decision supported by both of President Bush's right-wing Supreme Court nominees, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito).

In April, 50 Democrats and six Republicans supported legislation that would have amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act by allowing more time for workers to file discrimination complaints. Five new Democrats will be replacing Republicans who opposed the legislation named after Lilly Ledbetter, the female employee who lost her suit against Goodyear Tire and Rubber over discrimination claims. The Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter should have filed her claim within six months of the alleged incidents.

PFAW

How to Create a Good Voting Website

Voting rights activists and web designers alike should take a look at the Election Assistance Commission's new best practices for voter information websites.

Most of the information to be included on a website seems to be pretty obvious:

  • Answers to common voter questions such as “Am I registered to vote?” and “Where do I vote?”
  • A mapping service to show polling locations.
  • A sample ballot that is identical to the ballot issued for the election.
  • Information on the registration and voting process.

But a point later on might be easy to overlook.

  • Well designed interfaces that are easy to navigate.

God bless the District of Columbia, but its Board of Elections and Ethics website is kind of a mess. I’m sure they include everything they ought to, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find information about in-person absentee voting and it took me forever to find my sample ballot. I have to imagine that if the site were designed by, say, these guys, I’d be able to find everything just fine.

Just one of the many ways in which voting can (and should) be made less cumbersome.

PFAW

"Can I Wear My Obama T-Shirt to Vote on Election Day?"

The Root answers the question, "Can I Wear My Obama T-Shirt to Vote on Election Day?"

Short answer: It depends.

Longer answer:

An ominous e-mail has been causing quite a bit of confusion for voters recently. With an urgent warning to recipients, the e-mail claimsthat election officials have the right to turn away any voters wearing campaign paraphernalia to the polls. So what's up? Can you rock that "Obama Mama" T-shirt to cast your vote on Nov. 4?  

In most states, you're in the clear. Wearing campaign paraphernalia—a button, a sticker and, of course, a T-shirt—in support of any candidate is seen as passive electioneering. Some states are more lenient. In Kentucky, Marylandand Florida, election officials most often make no fuss about voter attire. The only thing banned there is the display of excessive campaign garb (i.e. head-to-toe Obama gear) or outright solicitation. Wearing campaign paraphernalia and lingering in the polling station is also a no-no in those states. 

Other states, such as Pennsylvaniaand New York, maintain laws on passive electioneering while remaining lax in enforcement. In New York, for example, refusing to comply with the request of election officials to remove an item is considered a misdemeanor, but arrests have rarely—if ever—been made.  

Not everyone is as laid-back about the issue. In the District of Columbia, strict rules apply. Prior to entering a polling station in the District, everyone is required to remove or cover up any exposed campaign paraphernalia. No exceptions.

Takeaway: Find out from your state's board of elections (find a link to yours here) what's acceptable and what's not.

It's cool to be excited about your candidate, but you don't want your campaign bling (fabulous as it is) to make it harder for you to actually cast a ballot on Election Day.

PFAW

Supreme Court to Hear Controversial Gun Control Law Case

District of Columbia v. Heller, No. 07-290
On November 20, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a highly controversial case that, whichever way it is decided, is likely to produce a landmark ruling on the issue of gun control and the Second Amendment. D.C. v. Heller is the District of Columbia's appeal from a 2-1 ruling of the D.C. Circuit invalidating D.C.'s ban on private handgun ownership. The D.C. Circuit majority (which included controversial Bush nominee Thomas Griffith) broke with most federal appellate courts that have considered this issue to hold that the Second Amendment confers on individual Americans a right to possess firearms, rather than a "collective right" stemming from the Amendment's language pertaining to a "well regulated militia."

PFAW