Early this year, President Obama nominated Judge Beth Bloom, Judge Darrin P. Gayles, Judge Carlos Eduardo Mendoza, and Paul G. Byron to the Southern and Middle District Courts of Florida. Of the four vacancies in the Southern District, three have been declared judicial emergencies. The situation in Florida is so dire that even if every vacancy were to be filled tomorrow, it would not be enough to take care of the courts’ growing workloads. In fact, the Judicial Conference has requested a number of new judgeships for the state, including:
• 5 new judgeships for the Middle District, plus a temporary judgeship; and
• 3 new judgeships for the Southern District, plus the conversion of a temporary judgeship to a permanent position.
It is imperative that these nominations be confirmed swiftly; the Senate’s delays in confirming nominees translate to delays for Floridians waiting for their day in court.
Sen. Marco Rubio stated on NPR last month that he did “not anticipate having any objection to moving forward on any of [President Obama’s] nominees” for the district courts in Florida. In fact, the nominees were recommended by Sen. Rubio, along with Sen. Bill Nelson, based upon the recommendations of a bipartisan committee the two senators put together. Yet to date Sen. Rubio –unlike Sen. Nelson—has not signed the “blue slips” the Senate Judiciary Committee customarily requires before nominees are given a committee hearing. This is cause for some concern in light of Sen. Rubio’s refusal last year to sign off on other Florida nominees to seats that he himself had recommended.
Rubio’s slow-walking of his “blue slips” comes in the context of the GOP obstruction that has needlessly delayed the confirmation of most Obama nominees. After committee approval, President Obama’s district court nominees have been forced to wait an average of three times longer for a confirmation vote than President George W. Bush’s at this point in his presidency. Obama’s circuit court nominees are forced to wait nearly two months longer than Bush’s. This slowing down of the process seems completely gratuitous and politically motivated since the overwhelming majority of Obama’s judicial nominees have been confirmed unanimously or near-unanimously.
The current nominees are also important because they represent much-needed diversity in the federal courts. Gayles, for example, would be the first openly gay African-American man on the federal bench. However, with Rubio’s history of unfavorable treatment of previous nominees he has recommended, there is little expectation that he will help move this nomination process forward any faster. Gayles is up for the same seat to which William Thomas, also an openly gay African American man, was nominated in November 2012, a nomination that Rubio sabotaged.
Some were expecting these four Florida nominees (who were nominated in early February) to have their committee hearings this week, but because Rubio has not submitted his blue slips, that will not happen.
We join advocacy groups in Florida in urging Rubio to help get the state’s nominees confirmed as soon as possible.
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.
PFAW’s 2012 report, “Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy,” included a section titled, “The Pernicious Private Prison Industry.” We reported that across the country, private prisons were often violent, poorly run facilities that put prisoners, employees and communities at risk even while failing to deliver on promised savings to taxpayers. But state legislators, encouraged by ALEC and by private prison interests’ lobbying and campaign expenditures, continued to turn prisons over to private corporations, often with contract provisions that acted as incentives for mass incarceration.
A new story in Politico Magazine, “The Private Prison Racket” comes to the same conclusions. “Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records,” says author Matt Stroud. “So why do we keep giving them our business?”
The Politico story slams “bed mandates” – guarantees given by states to private companies to keep prisons full. Contracts like that build in incentives for governments to lock people up – and punish states financially when they try to reduce prison populations.
Politicians are taking notice. Last month, In the Public Interest reported that reality has turned the tide against private prisons: “Coast-to-coast, governments are realizing that outsourcing corrections to for-profit corporations is a bad deal for taxpayers, and for public safety.” The dispatch cited problems with private prisons in states as diverse as Arizona, Vermont, Texas, Florida, and Idaho, where Gov. Butch Otter, a “small government” conservative, announced last month that the state would take control of the Idaho Correctional Center back from private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America due to rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity, and contract fraud.
But the huge private prison industry is not going away anytime soon. As In the Public Interest notes:
All of this momentum does not suggest the imminent death of the for-profit prison industry. Some states, including California and West Virginia, are currently gearing up to send millions more to these companies. But the past year has been a watershed moment, and we are heading in the right direction. In light of these developments, these states would be wise to look to sentencing reform to reduce populations, rather than signing reckless outsourcing contracts.
The arguments against private prisons are myriad and compelling. Promised savings end up as increased costs. Lockup quotas force taxpayers to guarantee profits for prison companies through lock up quotas hidden in contracts. They incentivize mass incarceration while discouraging sentencing reform in an era when crime rates are plummeting.
But more than anything else, the reality of the disastrous private prison experiment has turned the public against the industry.
The following is a guest post from Elder Jabari Paul, a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers in Action, following last week’s Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Stand Your Ground laws.
My perspective on Stand Your Ground laws (SYG) is shaped by my experience and calling as a young African American clergyman and as a native of Florida, the first state to pass this type of legislation. I believe that these laws raise important questions about the moral values of our country.
The debate around SYG comes during challenging times in America – times when the political landscape is starkly divided and mass slayings in public settings are much too frequent. These laws have been divisive policies since the first one passed in October 2005 in Florida. Public contentiousness surrounding SYG can be traced back to the choices of many politicians to ignore the will of the majority on SYG laws and to push the agendas of powerful and moneyed interest groups, like the National Rifle Association. SYG has been a wedge issue because politicians, particularly conservatives, have supported such laws to placate their base in spite of a lack of need for these laws.
Stand Your Ground has been championed by its supporters as a type of law that is necessary to prevent crime in urban areas and to protect citizens from the violence of “thugs.” These arguments have clear racial undertones. Words like “urban” and “thug” have been used since America’s post-Reconstruction days to speak in coded language about African Americans and other minorities. SYG tramples upon the civil rights of those perceived to be a threat. The tragedy of these laws is compounded when the person attacked is killed and only their attacker has an opportunity to tell what happened.
As a Christian, minister and an African American male under 35, my views on SYG are shaped by my culture and my religious beliefs. I believe that SYG perpetuates violence in a society that already knows violence too well. Jesus Christ taught the opposite of violence – love. In His renowned “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In these verses, Jesus is stressing that violence should be the last form of recourse in any situation. SYG, on the other hand, justifies and can even facilitate violence.
Our country deserves better than this. The United States of America is called, and no doubt is, the greatest nation in world. It’s time for our elected officials to drastically amend or repeal Stand Your Ground laws.
The following is a guest post by Rev. Dorothy Chaney, a licensed Baptist minister in Miami and a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers in Action.
I have lived in Florida all my life, but here’s something I didn’t always know: in my state, you can be fired for being gay.
It’s true – although most of us don’t realize it. Here in Florida, we lack both a state and federal law protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) employees from workplace discrimination. That means that even if you are the most dedicated employee – always on time, always going that extra mile – you can still be fired because of who you are or who you love.
That’s not right.
Why? First of all, because ensuring that all of us have the opportunity to provide for our families is a core American value. Passing a bill in Congress called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would help make sure that LGBT workers across the country are protected from workplace mistreatment. It’s simple – if you work hard, you shouldn’t be fired because of attributes that have nothing to do with your work performance.
Second, my religious beliefs mean I am dedicated to supporting those in need. As Bishop Gene Robinson pointed out in 2011, “The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are filled with admonitions that we will be judged by the way we treat our most vulnerable members.” He wrote that we are “morally bound” to take care of those who are marginalized, such as LGBT Americans.
He’s right. As a Christian minister, I have worked for many years to lift up those most vulnerable in our communities, from counseling women facing unplanned pregnancies to speaking out in support of those needing access to health care. I have come to see that in order to continue my work for justice, I also need to speak out in support of employment protections for LGBT members of my community. Though faith traditions and leaders may have differing beliefs about sexuality, surely we can agree that every person should be treated with dignity in their place of work. Every person should be able to be open about who they are without fearing for their job.
Finally, not only is passing ENDA the moral thing to do, it’s also the popular thing to do. That’s true here in Florida and also across the country. New polling estimates that more than 60% of Floridians support ENDA.
Unfortunately, those who don’t support these protections are using dishonest arguments to try to mislead the public about the legislation. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, for example, has claimed that if ENDA is passed, “Our freedom of religion will be destroyed.” This is certainly not true. The ENDA bill even carves out a specific exemption so it will not apply to religious corporations, societies, associations, and schools. The fact is, it goes the extra mile to protect religious liberty, and it is supported by a broad array of religious groups. The bottom line is that ENDA is in no way an attack on religious liberty any more than existing anti-discrimination laws are.
Others are using repugnant arguments in an attempt not just to defeat the bill, but to attack and malign LGBT members of my community. Last year, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition went as far as using the Newtown tragedy in a misguided attempt to turn public opinion against ENDA. Referencing a school district anti-discrimination policy in nearby Orange County, Florida, Lafferty argued that while parents are concerned about “protecting our children” in the wake of the Newtown shooting, they should be worried about ENDA’s “devastating effects” as “people with some real issues [play] out their personal problems in the classroom.” These kinds of lies about our LGBT neighbors underscore why the discrimination protections are needed in the first place.
It is my hope that all of our elected officials will choose to stand on the side of pro-equality majorities rather than with those pushing hurtful lies about LGBT Americans. I was heartened to see that Sen. Nelson has signed on as a cosponsor. Now it’s time for Sen. Rubio to step up to the plate, as well.
Because at the end of the day, discrimination is discrimination. It has no place in our hearts and no place in our workplaces.
It’s all been quiet on the election-rigging front for a while—so quiet that you might have thought the Republicans’ plan to rig the electoral college had been quietly dropped. Sadly, that’s not the case.
Florida state Rep. Ray Pilon introduced a bill last week to change how the state apportions its electoral college votes. Under his plan, the state would award its electoral college votes by congressional district. If this plan had been in place in 2012, Florida would have awarded an extra 15 electoral college votes Mitt Romney. Indeed, as Think Progress points out, if every state used this plan, Romney would have won the election.
That massive hypothetical shift is partly due to another plank of the Republicans’ plan to rig elections in their favor: gerrymandering congressional districts. If states like Florida award their votes by congressional district, then the Republican party in those states can create a huge advantage for themselves by gerrymandering their congressional district maps. This part of the plan is already complete in many states, where we won’t have an opportunity to try and reverse some of this gerrymandering for nearly 10 years (and two presidential elections). Florida’s GOP would certainly benefit from such a plan, where the last round of redistricting created a map that will, in the words of the Washington Post, help “cement their overwhelming majority in the state’s delegation for a decade to come.”
Just look at the red the congressional district maps in Pennsylvania, where Obama won the popular vote by more than five percent but would have lost the majority of electoral college votes under a plan like Pilon’s. Indeed, congressional district maps throughout the country are so gerrymandered that while Democrats won the 2012 popular vote for House seats, we ended up with the second biggest GOP majority in 60 years.
It’s clear that this bill is another sad attempt to rig the game in the Republicans’ favor. It has nothing to do with fairness and democracy, and everything to do with partisan games. But just being sick of losing doesn’t give you the right to change the rules. Most people learned that as children on the playground, but it seems like the Republican party never got that lesson. The only way they’ll ever get these bills passed is if we let them get away with it, so it’s up to us to let them know that we’re paying attention. That’s how we’ve kept these bills from being passed in every other state that they’ve been proposed in over the past year, and that’s what we’ll do with this bill.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has for months been single-handedly holding up the nomination of William Thomas, an openly gay African American Miami judge, to a federal district court.
Rubio’s indefinite hold on Thomas’ nomination is one of the most egregious examples yet of Senate Republicans using the obscure “blue slip” procedure to prevent home-state judicial nominees from even having a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Under a Senate custom that has varied over time Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy will not advance a nominees’ consideration -- won’t even hold a hearing, let alone take a vote -- until both of that nominee’s home-state senators return a “blue slip” giving their permission for a nomination to go forward. The blue slip doesn’t indicate a senator’s approval of the nominee – the senator is still free to vote against the nominee and to lobby their fellow senators to do the same. It just means that the nominee can be considered by the Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate. But if just one senator doesn’t return a blue slip, the nomination won’t see the light of day.
Republican senators have been routinely using this tactic of withholding blue slips in order to slow-walk President Obama’s judicial nominees. Currently, five nominees are being held back because one or both senators have refused to return blue slips. And all are women or people of color.
Because the blue slip process is secretive and little-known, senators are often able to get away with holding nominees this way with little public pressure and no public explanation.
Rubio, however, faced pressure from the Florida legal community in recent weeks for his failure to return blue slips for Thomas and another Florida nominee, Brian Davis. The senator finally gave in under pressure and allowed Davis’ nomination to go forward, but is digging in his heels on his blockade of Thomas.
Rubio’s stated reasons for blocking Thomas’ nomination are exceptionally flimsy. He has cited two cases where he claims Thomas gave insufficiently harsh sentences in criminal trials; in one case, even the prosecutor has defended Thomas’ judgment and a local judge has written to Rubio to correct the record. In the other case the senator cites, Judge Thomas sentenced the defendant to death, which Rubio seems to think was insufficiently harsh. It is clear that there is no merit to the senator’s claims. Holding hearings on this nominee would help clarify that, if they were allowed to take place.
The real reason for Rubio’s blockade and his smear of Judge Thomas’ character, writes Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm, is plain and simple “crass Tea Party politics.”
Rubio has stated no compelling reason why Thomas should not have a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, where he can answer any of Rubio’s alleged concerns in the public record.
In what the Miami Herald is calling the “longest sit-in demonstration in recent memory,” a group of more than sixty young people called the Dream Defenders came to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office last Tuesday and have not left.
Arriving at the Florida Capitol just a few days after George Zimmerman was acquitted, the group is pushing for a special legislative session to take up a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act which would repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground law and address racial profiling, the school-to prison pipeline, and more. Among the many young people in Gov. Scott’s office is Dream Defenders leader Phil Agnew, a 2005 graduate of PFAW Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) leadership development program, as well as eight to ten other current or former YP4 Fellows.
Agnew told the Miami Herald that the work is broader than their specific demands:
“It’s also about a paradigm shift,” Agnew said. “It’s about empowering the next generation.”
PFAW Foundation has been helping support the courageous young people at the Capitol in any way we can, from providing administrative and financial support – including meals – to sending video cameras to help document their experiences. Young People For Director Joy Lawson highlighted the sit-in in a Huffington Post op-ed and is leading a powerful photo campaign collecting statements of support for the Dream Defenders.
Together, we are showing the Dream Defenders, and the country, that young people are standing with them in this fight.
I am a 24-year-old, proud Floridian. My parents came to the U.S. from Colombia many years ago, looking for a safe and opportunity-rich place to raise their daughters. From the time I was a toddler, I have spent my whole life here in Florida. I received a great public education, participated in sports, and served as a member of a Christian youth group. I am also an undocumented American.
What does that mean in my day-to-day life? It means that despite my top grades in high school, I can’t get financial aid to go to college. It means that no matter how hard I study traffic rules or parallel parking, I don’t qualify for a driver’s license. It means that though I am proud to have been raised here in America, there is no waiting list I can join to one day become a U.S. citizen. The path is simply not there for me.
The Senate “Gang of 8” includes my senator, Marco Rubio, who has said he believes in a path to citizenship. “But,” I asked in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed last month,
“when push comes to shove, will Rubio support a meaningful path to citizenship? It can't be a path in name only; it must be clear and direct, not tied to arbitrary metrics around border security, like he has proposed. The path to citizenship can't be full of hurdles and trap doors, and it can't require a decades-long wait in line. No one should be blocked from citizenship and relegated to a lifetime stuck in second-class status.
Rubio's parents left Cuba and came to the U.S. for economic opportunity – the same reasons my parents left everything they knew, making sacrifice after sacrifice for my family's future. Would Rubio deny my family the same opportunity his family had?...It's time for Rubio to truly represent Florida – the immigrant families who came here seeking a better life and everyone who believes in a common-sense solution that doesn't involve deporting millions of hard-working men and women or forcing them into a permanent underclass. It's time for Rubio to step up, on behalf of his mother and my mother...”
And thousands of other mothers and fathers out there. My parents had a dream that I could grow up in the United States and get a world-class education. My dream for my parents is that they can see me and my sisters thrive and fulfill our potential – and for them to be part of the American dream, too. Right now that dream seems distant for my mom, who was stopped while driving without a license over six years ago and is back in Colombia. My dream is now my parents' dream. A dream that immigration reform will include family reunification and that my mom will return to the United States. I miss her every day.
I’m a Young People For Fellow, a member of the United We Dream Network, an undocumented American, and most importantly a daughter to the most courageous woman I have ever known. I hope that no other family has to endure the separation that mine has, but I know that so many others are suffering the same heartbreak.
Our country needs immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship and keeps families like mine together. The national conversation on immigration reform isn’t a distant policy debate – it’s a conversation about my life.
Evelyn Rivera, Seminole State College
Member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For Program
Rob Boston at Americans United notes that the Arkansas House just voted to require the state’s Education Board to approve elective classes about the Bible if they meet appropriate standards. The Supreme Court has said the Bible may be taught about in public schools when “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”
But teaching about the Bible without teaching it religiously is not an easy thing to do. It requires carefully designed curricula, well-intentioned and well-trained educators, and a commitment to meaningful oversight. People For the American Way was part of a religiously and politically diverse group of organizations that worked together to produce the 1999 publication The Bible in Public Schools, a First Amendment Guide. That guide emphasized that how any such course is taught will determine whether it passes constitutional muster:
When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion – which is unconstitutional – and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair – which is constitutional.
But that’s not how if often works in practice. In 2000, People For the American Way Foundation published a scathing expose, The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Classes in Florida Public Schools. The PFAW Foundation investigation found that “Bible History” classes were often being taught more like Christian Sunday School classes from a sectarian, Protestant perspective. Bible stories were treated as literal history. Among lessons and exam questions asked of students:
That expose led Florida officials to yank those classes and revamp the curricula.
But more than a decade later, similar problems persist, as the Texas Freedom Network documented in a January report that found classes designed more to evangelize students to a literalist, fundamentalist view of the Bible rather than to teach about its role in literature and history. Included in the lesson plans examined by TFN were characterizations of Judaism as a flawed and incomplete religion, Christian-nation approaches to US history, and material “explaining” racial origins via the sons of Noah.
Are Arkansas legislators and education officials prepared to invest in the development of curricula, the training of educators, and meaningful oversight into how the classes are taught?
This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved five nominees to serve on federal district courts in New York, California and Florida and on the US Court of International Trade. A week ago, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley postponed votes on all five nominations without giving a reason, a delaying tactic that he has used on 97 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees who the committee has voted on.
Sen. Grassley did not explain the reason for the delay last week, when a coalition of Iowa and national groups urged him to stop such routine delays. And the reason remained unclear today, as all five nominees were approved without opposition.
These five nominees now join fifteen other federal judicial nominees awaiting confirmation votes from the full Senate. The Senate has made progress by scheduling confirmation votes on four unopposed district court nominees in the past week, but that small amount of progress isn’t nearly enough to fill the gaps in overworked federal courts. Seven of the nominees still waiting for votes would fill officially-designated “judicial emergencies.”
It would be easy, of course, for the Senate to hold votes on all of the remaining nominees before the end of the year. After all, most were approved by the Judiciary Committee many months ago. But Senate Republicans have continued to stall even nominees with strong bipartisan support. All the circuit court nominees waiting for votes have the support of their home-state senators, Republican and Democratic, and nearly all of the pending district court nominees were approved by the Judiciary Committee with unanimous or nearly unanimous bipartisan support. One circuit court nominee, New Jersey’s Patty Shwartz, has been waiting nine months just for an up-or-down vote from the Senate; Federal Circuit nominee Richard Taranto has also been waiting since March.
If the Senate fails to vote on these nominees during the lame duck, the confirmation process – from presidential nomination through floor vote – will have to start all over again next year.
Notable about the district court nominees approved by the Judiciary Committee today is that all are women or people of color, representative of President Obama’s efforts to bring diversity to the federal courts. The nominees also include New York’s Pamela Chen, who would become just the fifth openly gay person to be confirmed to a lifetime federal judgeship.