Maryland

One Year After Citizens United, Right-Wing Demands Even More Corporate Money and Less Transparency in Politics

As Americans remember the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United with calls for action to limit corporate influence in politics and reverse the Court’s reckless decision, pro-corporate activists and their Republican allies in Congress seek to further erode corporate accountability and transparency. As American University Constitutional law professor, Maryland State Senator, and People For Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin writes, Citizens United not only ushered an avalanche of corporate and secret money in elections but also paved the way for more attacks on restrictions on corporate power. Raskin asks:

Do you want to wipe out the ban on federal corporate contributions that has been in place since 1907? This should be a piece of cake. If a corporation is like any other group of citizens organized to participate in politics for the purpose of expenditures, why not contributions too?

Apparently, the answer is “yes.”  While the majority decision in Citizens United said that corporations can use money from their general treasuries to finance outside groups, the ban on direct donations from corporations to candidates was left intact. But as profiled in People For’s report “Citizens Blindsided,” corporations have a number of mouthpieces, front groups, and political allies who want to create even more ways for Big Business to influence American politics.

NPR’s Peter Overby reports that pro-corporate activists from groups like Citizens United and the Center for Competitive Politics now want Republicans in Congress to further weaken already-diluted laws on transparency and fairness in elections:

Citizens United has helped to upend the debate over political money — so much so that when the American Future Fund ran a radio ad targeting Sen. Kent Conrad earlier this month for the 2012 Senate race, it was treated as just part of the political game. Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said this week that he won't seek re-election.



Michael Franz, a political scientist with the Wesleyan Media Project, tracks political ads.

"The effect of Citizens United in 2010 may not have been as huge, because what was going on had been set in motion earlier," he said. "But what the court did in Citizens United could suggest huge effects for other campaign finance laws down the road."

First of all, disclosure is under attack.

"Just because it may be constitutional to impose these disclosure rules, doesn't mean it makes for sound policy," said Michael Boos, counsel to the group Citizens United.

The federal ban on foreign donors faces a court challenge. House Republicans plan to vote next week to kill off public financing in presidential elections.

And the Center for Competitive Politics, an anti-regulation group, wants to undo the century-old ban on corporate contributions to federal candidates.

That was one of the first campaign finance laws on the books. The center says the corporate world now is far different from what it was in 1907, when Congress imposed the ban.
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More Voices Call For a Constitutional Amendment to Reverse Citizens United as Ruling’s Anniversary Approaches

Friday is the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which helped unleash massive corporate spending in the 2010 elections, and more voices have emerged to denounce the Court’s wrongheaded and extreme ruling. The decision’s impact on public policy debates became more apparent today as the House of Representatives prepares to vote to repeal the health care reform law after pro-corporate groups spent handsomely to discredit the law with bogus charges and attack Congressmen which supported reform.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, along with companies like Patagonia, Stonyfield Farms and Honest Tea, have launched Business for Democracy, “a coalition of like-minded businesses to protest a Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on corporate campaign spending in candidate elections.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “members of ‘Business for Democracy’ believe ‘the decision is inconsistent with the basic ideal of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’" and support a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision.

In today’s Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed how the vast corporate spending to influence the midterm elections was “just an experiment” compared to how corporations plan to sway the 2012 election. But despite the push by pro-corporate groups to keep spending by businesses in elections unchecked, the efforts for legislative remedies and the push for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United persevere:

According to Bill de Blasio, New York City's public advocate, Citizens United spending - that is, spending that was only made possible by the court's ruling - accounted for 15 percent of the roughly $4 billion spent on the 2010 midterm elections. Eighty-five million dollars of Citizens United money was spent on U.S. Senate races alone. Worse, 30 percent of all spending by outside groups was funded by anonymous donations, an illegal action prior to the ruling. Forty million of the dollars spent on Senate races came from sources that might never be revealed.

But as striking as these consequences might be, the 2010 election was just an experiment, the first opportunity to test the new law. In future elections, corporations and shadowy organizations will have a clearer understanding of the boundaries they are operating within, a reality that is sure to translate into more undisclosed cash. And the savvier corporate players know that the mere threat of a corporate onslaught of funding for or against a candidate is enough to win legislative favor, in effect blunting prospects for sound regulation, consumer protection and fair tax policies. As former senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), himself a victim of Citizens United spending, said, "It is going to be worse in 2012 unless we do something - much worse."

Yet even as we lament this decision, we should recognize the opportunity it presents. Justice Roberts and his allies overreached so brazenly that they have created an opening for genuine reform.



The clearest and boldest counter to the court's ruling would be a constitutional amendment stating unequivocally that corporations are not people and do not have the right to buy elections. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced such an amendment to counter Citizens United during the last session of Congress and views it as the only sure way to beat back the court. "Justice Brandeis got it right," she noted last February. " 'We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.' "

Campaigns for constitutional amendments demand a great deal of patience and tenacity. But as Jamie Raskin, a Democratic Maryland state senator and professor of constitutional law at American University, notes, "American citizens have repeatedly amended the Constitution to defend democracy when the Supreme Court acts in collusion with democracy's enemies." Not only is a push for an amendment a worthy act, it also provides a unique opportunity to educate the broader public, raise the profile of this important issue and force elected officials to go on record as to where they stand. The campaign could create enormous pressure on state legislatures and Congress, prompting changes to campaign finance even before an amendment is ratified.

Success will require a coalition that transcends party. In this case, there is promising news. An August 2010 Survey USA poll found that 77 percent of all voters - including 70 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents - view corporate spending in elections as akin to bribery. Broad majorities favor limiting corporate control over our political lives. A coordinated effort, executed right, could unite progressives, good-government reformers and conservative libertarians in a fight to restore democracy.
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Progress in Maryland Voter Suppression Investigation

There has been a development in investigating one of the Election Day efforts to suppress the Democratic vote.

On Election Day, Maryland Democrats received telephone calls late on Election Day telling them that Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley had won reelection, so they could "relax" (i.e., not vote). It was soon discovered that the calls were generated by an operative working for the campaign of O'Malley's Republican opponent, former Governor Bob Ehrlich.

On Friday, state police raided that operative's home. According to the Baltimore Sun:

Investigators for the state prosecutor on Friday raided the home and office of Julius Henson, the political operative who ordered the controversial Election Day robocalls for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich. ...

Henson, a Democratic operative who was working this year for the Republican Ehrlich, ordered more than 112,000 robocalls before the polls closed on Election Day last month.

The calls focused on Democratic precincts in Baltimore and Prince George's County. The recorded message featured a female voice suggesting that Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley had already won the election and encouraging supporters to stay home. ...

Ehrlich, who paid Henson $111,000 for "community outreach," told the Annapolis Capital last week that the calls were "done outside of my purview." When news of the calls broke on Election Night, an Ehrlich spokesman called them "absolutely irresponsible."

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has filed a civil lawsuit against Henson, alleging voter intimidation and vote suppression.

By the way, the effort to suppress the Democratic vote failed. Not only did Governor O'Malley win reelection by 14 points (double the margin over the same opponent in 2006), but Democrats gained seats in the state senate.

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Revitalizing Neighborhoods: The YEO Network Tours Baltimore

Last week, People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network gathered in Baltimore to talk about ways states and municipalities can address the foreclosure crisis and promote neighborhood stabilization. On Saturday, 40 of the elected officials toured Baltimore to find out about creative ways city residents are working to revitalize troubled neighborhoods.

Baltimore's Fox 45 News met up with the group and interviewed Andrew Gillum, the YEO Network's director:

The first stop of the tour was the Whitelock Community Farm in the Reservoir Hill area. Whitelock, on a formerly vacant commercial lot, is tended by neighborhood residents. It sells produce to neighbors and donates food to a local soup kitchen.

 

 Whitelock Farm’s Thor Nelson shows YEOs around the farm’s greenhouse:

 

 In Central Baltimore, an area that had been losing residents…

...became the site of a brand new affordable housing for artists connected to the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art:

Charlie Duff of Jubilee Baltimore, one of the developers behind the project, showed the YEOs around one of the apartments:

Finally, the YEOs visited Load of Fun Gallery, an arts venue in Central Baltimore that uses the graffiti-covered alley behind it to host performances and events:


 

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Big Victories for Young Progressives

This year People For the American Way Action Fund endorsed over eighty candidates of the age 35 or younger who were running for public office. Many of the candidates were already elected officials, while others were running for office for the very first time. The PFAW Action Fund helped provide young progressives with the resources to spread and bolster their messages of equality, justice, and good-government, and put them in the leadership pipeline to strengthen the progressive movement.

Of the candidates we endorsed for the general election, seventy-two of the eighty-six endorsed candidates won their races! Highlights from Tuesday include:

  • Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a solidly progressive State Representative and one of Time magazine’s 40 under 40, was elected to the State Senate.
  • Elena Parent of Georgia upset a conservative incumbent to secure a seat in the State House.
  • Ariana Kelly, a women’s-rights activist from Maryland, was elected to the House of Delegates.
  • Angie Buhl, a YP4 Fellow and Front Line Leaders Academy graduate, won a seat in the South Dakota State Senate.
  • We are also still waiting to hear the final results of Montana State Rep. Kendall Van Dyk, who is currently slightly ahead of his right-wing opponent in a competitive race for the State Senate.

Congratulations to all of the young candidates, and we hope you can support the efforts of the PFAW Action Fund to ensure a progressive future.

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Election Day Voter "Fraud" and Intimidation

Election Day saw a number of efforts to intimidate or trick Democrats out of their constitutional right to vote, stoke fear of rampant voter fraud, and delegitimize possible victories by Democrats. (See here for the days leading up to Tuesday). Here are a few examples:

  • Minnesota vote challengers were so aggressive they had to be reined in by election officials.
  • Also in Minnesota, the state Republican chair blamed voting machine failures and other problems on "[Democratic Secretary of State] Mark Ritchie and his ACORN buddies."
  • In Nevada yesterday, Sharron Angle filed a voter intimidation complaint with DoJ over an e-mail from a Reid campaign worker to a local casino urging it to ensure that employees had a chance to vote.
  • In Maryland, Democrats received telephone calls late on Election Day telling them that O’Malley had won and they could "relax" (i.e., not vote).
  • In Texas, African Americans were subjected to a flier telling them that a vote for the entire Democratic ticket would be counted as a vote for the Republican ticket instead.
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Yesterday’s Big Wins for Young Progressive Candidates

Gustavo Rivera, a young progressive candidate endorsed by the PFAW Action Fund, won a big victory yesterday in a New York state senate district in the Bronx, ousting the current Senate Majority Leader in the Democratic primary. Rivera won a decisive victory over Pedro Espada, who threw the state senate into a dysfunctional mess last year when he briefly switched over to the Republican Party.

Rivera, 34, is a strong progressive—he’s pro-choice, supports marriage equality, and is a leader on ethics reform and fair wages. In a heavily Democratic district, he’s a solid bet to head to Albany next year, where he’ll bring some much-needed new ideas.

Several other PFAW Action Fund-endorsed candidates are also bringing a progressive agenda to November’s elections after making it through yesterday’s primaries. In New York, Clarkstown Town Clerk David Carlucci, who has focused his campaign on campaign finance and ethics reform became the Democratic nominee for an open state senate seat, and Aravella Simotas of Astoria, who is a staunch advocate of LGBT equality, health care access, and public education, also won a Democratic primary for a seat in the State Assembly.

In Maryland, eight PFAW Action Fund candidates won primaries, including Victor Ramirez, who ousted a less progressive incumbent incumbent in the race for a state senate seat in Prince George’s County. Judd Legum of Maryland—a progressive activist who founded the Center for American Progress’s Think Progress blog—won a spot as a Democratic nominee for a state House seat. He’ll face off against a Republican incumbent with a history of fighting marriage equality. In Bethesda, Ariana Kelly, a longtime advocate for equal pay, the right to choose, marriage equality, public education, and environmental conservation, won a competitive Democratic primary for a seat in the House of Delegates.

The PFAW Action fund supports progressive candidates under the age of 35.
 

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Justice Thomas, Activist

Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog has done an impressive analysis of the Supreme Court’s decisions this term, and found several surprising results. Among these is pretty clear evidence that Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative Justices on the court, is also by far the most willing to rewrite established law and overrule judicial precedent:

Among all the Justices, it is in fact Scalia and Thomas – frequently heralded by conservatives as ideal members of the Court – who hesitate the least in invalidating legislation or (with respect to Thomas) calling for the overruling of prior precedent. They not only joined the Citizens United majority, but they would also have held unconstitutional the “honest services” statute (Skilling), the civil commitment statute (Comstock), and the ruling upholding a beach-erosion statute (Stop the Beach).

Just as fascinating is Justice Thomas’s openness to reconsidering almost every issue in the law that he views as wrongly decided. This Term, he wrote eight separate opinions suggesting the reconsideration of existing law: McDonald (incorporation); Berghuis v. Smith (fair cross-section requirement for juries); Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz v. United States (commercial speech); Maryland v. Shatzer (custodial interrogation); Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter (interlocutory appeals); Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder (immigration); United States v. O’Brien (jury trial rights); and Wilkins v. Gaddy (cruel and unusual punishment). 

[Emphasis is mine].

We can’t say it here enough: it’s stunning that conservative Senators are still throwing around the term “judicial activism” with a straight face.
 

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Senator Cardin on a Constitutional Amendment

In a hearing today entitled "We the People? Corporate Spending in American Elections after Citizens United,” the Senate Judiciary Committee discussed the impact of the Citizens United v. FEC and possible steps to repair the damage.  In addition to touching on legislative fixes, the question of a Constitutional Amendment came up, posed by Senator Benjamin Cardin on Maryland. 

Don't forget to sign our petition, calling for a Constitutional Amendment to restore government by the people.

UPDATE: YouTube has been having some problems with embedded videos. If you have trouble playing it, try double clicking the video to open it in YouTube in a new window.

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Despite the Right's Objections, Maryland To Recognize Same-Sex Marriages from Other States

This morning, the Maryland Attorney General released a well-reasoned opinion that firmly establishes that the state may recognize same-sex marriages from other states (and countries). The Far Right, of course, wanted an opinion stating that Maryland would not recognize out-of-state marriages. Unfortunately for them, the law just wasn't on their side, and the Attorney General was not willing to twist it for their purposes.

Maryland law specifically prohibits same-sex marriage. But as the AG writes in detail, Maryland has a long history of recognizing out of state marriages that cannot be performed within the state. The only exception: During the dark era of Jim Crow, Maryland found out-of-state interracial marriages so repugnant to its public policy that its high court stated that they would not be recognized within the state.

As the AG opinion points out, Maryland has numerous laws that protect and respect the rights of same-sex couples. Gays and lesbians do not face a virulent and violent foe in the form of the state, as African Americans once did. So you'd have to bend legal precedent beyond the breaking point to say that Maryland cannot recognize the out-of-state marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

The Far Right will likely not be happy with this opinion, claiming that it violates the right of Maryland to decide this issue by itself, rather than have other states decide for it. But an opinion doing what they want would be based on animus, not principle.

Every day in this country, state officials choose to recognize lawful out-of-state marriages of the type that their own state legislatures have explicitly rejected.

For instance, fully one half of the states - twenty-five - prohibit marriages between first cousins, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nevertheless, cousins who marry in one of the other 25 states don't go from married to unmarried and back to married again every time they cross state lines. That's because across America, states recognize marriages performed in their sister states even if they themselves would not allow the marriage.

Yet we do not hear screeds from the Far Right on how this violates the people's [or state legislatures'] right to define marriage in their own states.

So don't be fooled by the Far Right's claimed fealty to respect for the rule of law or state sovereignty. That's not what this is about.

Do the Far Right groups demand that states revoke recognition of all out-of-state marriages that could not be performed within the state?

Of course not. Because this has nothing to do with state sovereignty. It has everything to do with animus against gays and lesbians. Statements against the AG's opinion should be recognized – and condemned – as such.

PFAW

A Good Day For Equality in Maryland

The Baltimore Sun is reporting good news on the marriage equality front in Maryland today, where a bill that would have prohibited the state from recognizing out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples was defeated in committee.

The state's Attorney General is currently making a legal determination as to whether Maryland law recognizes such out-of-state marriages. The bill would have short-circuited that determination.

Maryland's long-settled practice is to recognize marriages validly solemnized in other states that could not be solemnized in Maryland. However, the state has in the past made an exception to that rule: Maryland once refused to recognize out-of-state interracial marriages, calling them "repugnant to Maryland's public policy."

Today, legislators were asked to echo that ugly history by treating gays and lesbians' marriages in the same discriminatory way that interracial marriages were treated during the era of Jim Crow. Fortunately, a majority of members of the House Judiciary Committee chose not to go down this path.

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“Ministerial Exception” in Maryland Court

Today, Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, will hear oral argument in the case of Mary Linklater v. Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.  Its decision will address the application of the “ministerial exception” – a judicially recognized legal doctrine that has been misused by courts to improperly shield religious employers from unlawful employment practices.  The exception says that ministers and other clergy members should be able to make hiring decisions based on religious criteria.  But too often the law is used to shield some clergy members from laws that should obviously apply to all—like laws preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Mary Linklater was in just such a situation, and she sued.  A jury ruled in favor of Linklater and awarded her over a million dollars in damages after she proved that she was unlawfully terminated by the church as its music director after complaining about the pastor’s repeated sexual harassment of her.  

People For Foundation filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that the exception was never intended to relieve religious employers of their obligation to comply with neutral laws of general applicability.  A copy of our brief can be viewed here.

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Roberts and Alito Legislating From the Bench

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Maryland v. Shatzer, a case involving the constitutional right to counsel during police questioning. The questions asked by the Justices – even the most conservative of them – exposed one of the great lies the Far Right tells about our nation’s judiciary: that courts should not make policy.

In 1981, the Court held that once you tell the police that you want your lawyer, the questioning must stop either until your lawyer arrives, or you yourself initiate further communication. This rule protects you from being badgered by the police to change your mind before the lawyer shows up.

In 2003, after Michael Blaine Shatzer asked for a lawyer, the police dropped their investigation and released him from their custody. Three years later, new evidence arose in the case. The rule established in 1981 would suggest that the police were still barred from questioning Shatzer. That was the issue before the Court this week. To help them analyze the case, the Justices asked the sorts of hypothetical questions they often ask. The Washington Post reports:

Justices seemed generally supportive … that police should have been allowed to question Shatzer again, but they had a hard time agreeing on how the rule should be changed.

[Chief Justice] Roberts worried that police could repeatedly question and dismiss a suspect who asks for a lawyer. "You know, just sort of catch-and-release, until he finally breaks down and says, 'All right, I'll talk,' " Roberts said. ...

[T]he justices wondered what could be done about a suspect who asks for a lawyer, never actually receives one or is convicted, and then is questioned years later, perhaps for a different crime.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. posed this hypothetical: What if someone was arrested for joy riding in Maryland, invoked his Fifth Amendment protection, and was never convicted? Could police in Montana question him as a murder suspect in Montana 10 years later?

When [Shatzer’s attorney] said no, Alito replied: "And you don't think that's a ridiculous application of the rule?"

[Then] Alito raised the hypothetical ante to a crime committed 40 years later ...

If the police let a suspect go after he asks for a lawyer, does the Constitution prohibit the police from questioning him again half a century later? Should there be limits? What should they be? How do you decide?

The Justices deciding this case are not simply calling balls and strikes, the insulting umpire analogy that Roberts infamously used during his confirmation hearings. Roberts, Alito, and the other Justices are weighing the consequences of different possible interpretations of the 1981 precedent as they apply it to a new and unforeseen situation.

Just as legislators do, they will be making policy. And that's fine. That's what courts are supposed to do. It's inherent in interpreting the law in difficult cases such as this.

So the next time the Washington Post quotes a right wing propagandist condemning progressive judges for making policy or "legislating from the bench," perhaps the Post will do more than collaborate by simply reprinting the accusation. Perhaps the Post will cite its own reporting and point out that all judges weigh policies and make law, but that the Far Right is silent when conservative judges do it.

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Marriage Equality Bill Introduced in DC

DC Councilman David Catania introduced a bill on Tuesday that will end discrimination against same sex couples who wish to marry in the nation's capital. The District already recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, but the new proposal will allow the nuptials to take place in the city.

The bill is expected to pass the 13-member city council, and it is supported by DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. In spite of this strong support in the city, outsiders will once again focus on denying marriage equality to DC residents.

Harry Jackson, Bishop of the Hope Christian Church in Maryland, is once again vowing to bring the issue to the ballot. As PFAW has reported, Jackson is an ardent supporter of homophobic ballot initiatives; this time he has the support of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, Colorado-based Focus on the Family, and the National Organization for Marriage.

In addition, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who failed at derailing the marriage recognition bill from over the summer, has expressed interest in overturning DC law again, though he admits it is unlikely that Congressional Republicans will be able to muster enough support to do so.

 

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Maryland High School Says No to Hate

Protesters from the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kanas - the "God Hates Fags" folks led by Fred Phelps - protested at Walt Whitman HIgh School in Bethesda, Maryland on Friday. Why? Well, for one thing, the school is named after someone who wasn't heterosexual. Isn't that reason enough?

According to the Potomac Almanac:

When Whitman sophomore Ryan Hauck first heard about the scheduled protest at Whitman from a friend he thought it was a joke. Then he went online — the church’s Web site is www.godhatesfags.com — and saw just how serious the church is.

"I was just shocked just from the second I heard it and I knew I had to do something," Hauck said. "[It was] the hatred of the whole thing that shocked me. It’s not disapproval, it's outright hatred. It’s not something you would expect from people who would consider themselves a church." ...

[To help Hauck,] sophomore Amar Mukunda set up a Facebook group to generate support for [a] counter-protest.

According to the Washington Post, more than 500 students came out to stand up against anti-gay hatred. And it wasn't just students who did the right thing:

[A]t Whitman, the protesters arrived to palpable excitement. Faculty had spun the event into an interdisciplinary lesson. English teachers spent the day on Whitman's verse. Social studies teachers led a unit on tolerance. Math teachers fanned through the crowd, attempting a head count.

I am heartened to see school faculty and students coming together against anti-gay bigotry. And I'm grateful to live in a country where the First Amendment protects the right of even the most hateful people to speak and worship as they please.

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Beyond the Sigh of Relief...

Earlier this week, People For the American Way Foundation hosted -- and I moderated -- a panel at the National Press Club to discuss what the election of Barack Obama means for the future of the Supreme Court and what kind of justices we should be fighting for. The event's title, "Beyond the Sigh of Relief," says a lot in itself, and it's fantastic that our conversation could focus on the prospects for a return to justice on the High Court rather than strategizing about how to forestall complete disaster.

I hope to have video of the full discussion to share with you in a week or two. The next day, Maryland State Senator and Constitutional Law Professor Jamin Raskin (who was on the panel) and I were on Pacifica Radio in a very substantive joint interview on the same topic. You can listen to that segment here.

Sen. Raskin is also the director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project and shares my passion for civic education -- I've known and worked with him for years, going back to my time at Justice Talking. The other phenomenal panelists were: Julius Chambers, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and founder of Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter PA; John Payton, President, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and one of the finest Court journalists out there, Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor of Slate.

Any conversation about the future of the Court needs to start with acknowledging the voter mandate Obama received on Election Day to appoint judges with a strong commitment to constitutional rights and values. Redefining the conventional wisdom that the Supreme Court is an issue that only the Right Wing cares about, this time it was Obama voters who said that the Court was extremely important to them.

Here were a few quick highlights from the rest of the event:

  • Julius Chambers made some great points about the Court's role in protecting the poor. It's not just disputes over civil rights for minorities, workers rights and environmental protections on which the Court must sometimes weigh in when the government or companies violate constitutional rights. The poor deserve to be protected by the Constitution like we all do, and too often, they certainly do not receive equal justice under the law.

  • There was much discussion about promoting racial and gender diversity on the Court and there was a consensus among us that race, religion, gender and even sexual orientation could be important considerations because they can bring different perspectives to the Court. John Payton in particular stressed just how vital this diversity of perspectives is in having a Court that functions for the best benefit of the people and the law. We also speculated on the pedigrees and career tracks of recent and not so recent nominees -- why should they all come from the corporate world or the major law firms? There are tremendous lawyers working to advance justice at places like nonprofit organizations and unions.

  • Dahlia Lithwick stressed that we need to make sure people know that the judicial philosophies we believe in are based on rigorous interpretation and a sincere love of the Constitution. The public debate over judicial philosophies has too often bought into the Right's claims that so-called "strict constructionism" is the only rigorous approach to the Constitution. But the ideals embodied in both the main articles of the Constitution and the amendments are what John Payton referred to as "aspirational" -- and it's that aspirational view of the law and justice that we subscribe to and that we think President-elect Obama does as well. It's an understanding that the Constitution is a guardian of rights and opportunity for all Americans, including those without much power in our society.

The stimulating conversation left me feeling optimistic about advancing the constitutional principles that have been under attack from right-wing organizations and the Bush administration. After eight years of seeing right-wing ideologues nominated to the federal bench, there is immense opportunity to restore constitutional values. The only thing standing in our way is the Right and the senators who are already gearing up to fight good nominees -- senators like John Kyl (R-AZ), who promised a filibuster of any Court nominee he deemed too liberal... only three days after the election.

People For the American Way will be ready for Sen. Kyl, other right-wing senators and the Right's media echo chamber. Together, we'll make sure President Obama fulfills his mandate to give Americans the Supreme Court justices they deserve.

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Victory for Equal Rights in Maryland

Need a bit of good news this gloomy-weather Friday? Here's some: there was a great victory for equal rights in Montgomery County, Maryland earlier this week.

As the good women of Feministing report, the county council passed a law a year ago prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, but right-wing groups' efforts to prevent it from taking effect have delayed its enforcement. On Wednesday, a court put an end to the right-wingers' obstructive tactics.    

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