Today the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Virginia’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.
This is a historic step forward for equality in the South. Beyond Virginia, the ruling will also affect the other states covered by the 4th Circuit, including North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia, which have similar bans in place. In West Virginia, the district judge considering the challenge to the state’s ban said last month that he would not proceed until the federal appeals court had ruled.
In the majority opinion, the judges noted that bigotry and fear cannot be the basis for the denial of equal rights under the law:
We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable. However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws.
…The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual's life. Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.
For those who claim that marriage bans are legitimate because they were adopted by popular vote, the court quoted a Supreme Court case from 1964:
A citizen’s constitutional rights can hardly be infringed simply because a majority of the people choose that it be.
That one sentence perfectly encapsulates why courts matter.
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 West Virginia Legislature has approved a resolution calling on Congress to propose a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC and related cases. This makes West Virginia the twelfth state to call for such an amendment.
People For the American Way has been working with activists in West Virginia to help rally support for the resolution. As PFAW Legislative Representative Calvin Sloan noted in a recent action alert, many West Virginians already understood the need to get big money out of politics:
“West Virginia has already seen the drastic need for a constitutional amendment to enact free and fair elections. In 2010, West Virginia’s congressional races attracted more than $15 million from outside groups such as American Crossroads and FreedomWorks, organizations that can, in the wake of Citizens United, raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in our elections.”
As a West Virginian, I am especially proud to see this resolution pass in my home state. While the states that have called for an amendment are diverse – stretching from Hawaii to Rhode Island – protecting the integrity of our democratic process is a core American value. As one West Virginia delegate pointed out,
“One of government's roles within this great democracy is making sure everyone has a voice.”
West Virginians are now formally joining the proliferation of voices across the country calling for a democracy of, by, and for the people.
The Roberts Court is notorious for too often seeking excuses to close the courthouse door and keep individuals from vindicating their rights. So yesterday’s unanimous opinions in Bond v. US and Smith v. Bayer were refreshing.
In Bond, the Court ruled that an individual has standing to challenge a federal criminal conviction that she claims violates the Tenth Amendment. That Amendment states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Cited by many Tea Partiers as part of their efforts to diminish federal authority, it goes to the federal structure of our country and the rights of states; it does not directly address the rights of individuals. However, that does not bar individuals from standing to argue that they have been harmed by a congressional act that violates the Tenth Amendment.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision completely and correctly bypassed the substantive issue and remanded it to the lower courts. But regardless of the merits of Bond’s argument, she has the right to make it as someone whose freedom or imprisonment rests on whether the law she is challenging is constitutional.
Smith v. Bayer was similarly a breath of fresh air. The case asked if a federal court that has denied class certification can prohibit a separate West Virginia state court lawsuit seeking class certification in a case that is brought by people who had not been part of the federal lawsuit, but who would have belonged to the federal class had it gone through. A federal law called the Anti-Injunction Act authorizes a federal court to shut down state litigation of a claim or issue that was already presented to and decided by the federal court.
In an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court unanimously pointed out that the federal rules on when you can validly form a class are not necessarily the same as West Virginia’s rules. So the state court was addressing a new legal question, not the one that the federal court had already addressed. In addition, eight of the Justices (all but Justice Thomas) agreed that because the federal class status was denied, Smith was by definition not a party to the federal claim and cannot be bound by it.
While the Supreme Court kept the courthouse doors open in these two cases, there are still cases pending like Wal-Mart where the Corporate Court can do significant damage to people’s ability to hold corporations accountable.
Inside yesterday's Supreme Court opinion in Smith v. Bayer lies a repudiation of much of the far right's propaganda about judges. The severely flawed analogy of a judge interpreting the law with an umpire calling balls and strikes is one the right has favored since John Roberts used it at his confirmation hearing for his nomination to be Chief Justice. What makes yesterday's repudiation particularly interesting is that every member of the Court, including Roberts, signed on to it.
The opinion discussed whether one could assume that West Virginia's rule on forming class actions is the same as the federal rule, whose wording it closely follows. The lower court had concluded that the state rule is the same as the federal one. But as the unanimous Supreme Court explained:
The Eighth Circuit relied almost exclusively on the near-identity of the two Rules' texts. That was the right place to start, but not to end. Federal and state courts, after all, can and do apply identically worded procedural provisions in widely varying ways. If a State's procedural provision tracks the language of a Federal Rule, but a state court interprets that provision in a manner federal courts have not, then the state court is using a different standard and thus deciding a different issue.
In other words, you can't just read the text of a law and automatically know how to interpret it. Different judges can reasonably come to different conclusions about how to interpret the exact same text. The Justices do not condemn state courts for this, but instead understand it as an unexceptional aspect of jurisprudence.
In other words, judging is not simply the mechanical calling of balls and strikes.
The New York Times today reports on what it calls the “odd alliance” between populist-seeming Tea Party groups and corporate lobbyists. The paper’s investigation into a Tea Party group’s all-out campaign to boost the profits of an Indonesian paper company is illuminating, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Since its start, the Tea Party movement has been tied to, and financially supported by, giant corporate interests. In January, PFAW’s Jamie Raskin wrote about the corporate agenda behind many of the Tea Party’s legislative priorities:
The 2010 congressional elections should have been centered, at least in the domestic sphere, on three freshly minted corporate catastrophes made possible by industry regulatory capture and systematic deregulation: the subprime mortgage crisis that caused a multi-trillion dollar collapse on Wall Street and the destruction of millions of peoples’ jobs, incomes, pensions and housing security; the BP oil spill, which wrecked an entire regional ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico and registered as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history; and the collapse of the Massey Coal corporation mines in West Virginia that killed 25 mine workers after the company had been cited dozens of times for unaddressed regulatory violations.
In the wake of these disasters, the Tea Party skillfully mobilized public anxiety about the direction of American politics but turned it against President Obama’s efforts to deal with the mounting crises of the society. Tea Party activists drew Hitler mustaches on photographs of the president and decried health care reform, which they called “Obamacare” and described as a totalitarian plot. They railed against President Obama’s efforts to get BP to set up a $20 billion fund to pay the victims of the British company’s recklessness and unlawful conduct: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), a Tea Party hero, denounced Obama’s “redistribution of wealth fund” and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) apologized to BP for being “subjected” to “a 20 billion dollar shakedown” by the president. And, in the debate over financial reform, the Tea Party joined other conservative Republicans in seeking to give Wall Street a free pass for the appalling predatory actions and crimes that brought our economy to its knees. Today, many Republicans, flush with Wall Street money, are calling for a severe dilution or outright repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act and have placed a bull’s-eye target on the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the entity charged with protecting the public against fraudulent and deceptive financial practices.
"I don't want everybody to vote ... our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." - Paul Weyrich, founding father of the conservative movement, 1980.
When news hit last week that Democrats were doing better than expected in early voting turnout, Republican Dick Armey - whose FreedomWorks organization ensures that the Tea party is well funded by Big Business - immediately took to the airwaves with two goals: to delegitimize any potential Election Day victories for Democrats, and to justify this year's efforts by Republicans and their allies to keep people of color from voting. Armey told Fox News viewers that:
Democrats vote early because there's "less ballot security," creating a "great opportunity" for fraud. He also claimed that such fraudulent early voting is "pinpointed to the major urban areas. The inner city."
Of course, the former congressman had no more evidence to support his false and inflammatory claims than Joseph McCarthy had for his. But he does have an echo chamber of Republican and allied supporters all making the same unsupported claims of rampant voter fraud to justify aggressive efforts to keep likely Democratic voters - especially African Americans - out of the voting booth.
First, let there be mo mistake: Analysis after analysis has shown that there is no national problem with voter fraud. For instance, in its report The Truth About Voter Fraud, the Brennan Center for Justice has
analyzed purported fraud cited by state and federal courts; multipartisan and bipartisan federal commissions; political party entities; state and local election officials; and authors, journalists, and bloggers. Usually, only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated - and most of the remainder is either nothing more than speculation or has been conclusively debunked.
Similarly, when the New York Times turned its investigatory resources to the "problem" of voter fraud in 2007, it found that
[f]ive years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department ha[d] turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews.
Nevertheless, the Republicans and their close allies are up to their usual election-time hysterics about voter fraud, especially by nefarious dark-skinned people. They are ginning up fears of stolen elections ... so they can suppress the vote and thereby steal the elections themselves.
Over the past few weeks, as reported in Talking Points Memo and elsewhere:
This isn't new territory for the Right. For instance, in 2006, the Bush Administration fired U.S. Attorneys who refused to press phony voter fraud prosecutions. In 2008, until their plans were exposed, Michigan Republicans planned to use home foreclosure lists to challenge likely Democratic voters at the polls, supposedly to prevent voter fraud. That same year, the Montana Republican Party challenged the eligibility of 6,000 registered voters in the state's Democratic strongholds after matching the statewide voter database with the National Change of Address database to identify voters who aren't living where they are registered to vote. In Ohio, voter caging was used as a prelude to challenge individuals at the voting precinct.
These actions were part of a larger pattern. During the fall of 2008, the Right was setting itself up to challenge the integrity of the election. Across the country, they repeatedly trumped up claims of voter fraud, attacking ACORN and other voter registration efforts and lambasting the Justice Department for its failure to stop this alleged "fraud." However, that effort sputtered when the false claims of voter fraud mushroomed into threats against ACORN workers and vandalism of their offices, which PFAW helped to expose. Last year's doctored "pimp and prostitute" ACORN videos and their aftermath showed the lengths Republicans and their allies are willing to go to demonize and ultimately destroy successful minority voter registration efforts.
Clearly, the Right puts a great deal of energy into tackling a non-existent problem. But while these actions may do nothing to prevent instances of voter fraud that were never going to happen in the first place, they do accomplish something very important, as noted above: They intimidate people, often people of color, into not voting. They also work to paint any election victory by Democrats as illegitimate, thereby seriously destabilizing one of the foundations needed for America's constitutional government to work.
Voting is our assurance that those in power govern only by the consent of the people. The theory of American electoral democracy is that We the People act through government officials who we elect to act on our behalf. However, that assumes that all parties are willing to abide by the results of free and fair elections, win or lose.
Unfortunately, when the most powerful groups in society are willing to ignore democratic principles when it’s convenient - when they are eager to disenfranchise those who are most likely to vote against them - the democratic system fails.
In the past, these forces used poll taxes, literacy tests, and even brute force to keep disfavored Americans from voting, staining the legitimacy of the elected government in the process. Today, far more wary of appearances, they use the false accusation of "voter fraud" to do the same thing, often against the same targets: African Americans and other people of color.
With Election Day fast approaching, tens of millions of dollars from corporations flooding the airwaves each week and seemingly endless news stories about apathy in the Democratic base, right-wing candidates are getting more brazen -- advancing ever more extreme positions and spreading outright lies.
Sharron Angle, the Republican running to unseat Harry Reid in Nevada, told a crowd that Dearborn, Michigan and a town named Frankford, Texas are under Islamic Sharia Law. Utter nonsense. The statement earned her a strong rebuke from the Mayor of Dearborn and it turns out that Frankford, TX doesn't even exist!
Rand Paul, running for Senate in Kentucky, now supports ending the income tax in favor of a more regressive national sales tax that would hit the poor and middle class far more harshly than the income tax. After saying a few months back that he would have opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and making controversial statements about mining and the BP oil spill, Paul's handlers have tried hard to keep his extremism under wraps. But for someone as "out there" as Rand Paul, that's hard to do for very long.
In a debate on Wednesday night, Tea Party favorite and Republican Senate candidate in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell, perpetuating an attack that has been thoroughly discredited, accused her Democratic opponent Chris Coons of being a Marxist, based on Coons' tongue-in-cheek comment in an article he wrote as a student. On a roll, O'Donnell launched into a rant that included attacks on Coons for things he never said and completely fabricated declarations about the "tenets" of Marxism.
These are just some of this week's salvos from the right-wing Rogue's Gallery of Senate candidates -- let's not forget some of the past gems from Tea Party candidates. Sen. Russ Feingold's opponent in Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, is such an extreme pro-corporate ideologue that he tries to push the notion that global warming is caused by sunspots in order to cover for corporate polluters... he also wants to drill for oil in the Great Lakes and even fought against protections for victims of child abuse on the grounds that it would be bad for business.
But the worst of the bunch has to be Colorado's GOP Senate candidate Ken Buck. When he was a county D.A., he refused to prosecute a rape that the accused essentially admitted he had committed. Instead, Buck chose to blame the victim, calling her charges a case of "buyer's remorse." Perhaps most disturbingly, it appears his statement and inaction might have been retribution for what some claimed was an abortion the victim had a year before (despite the victim's claim that she had a miscarriage). Keep in mind this is a man who is against legal abortion even in the cases of rape and incest, and apparently agrees with Sharron Angle that rape victims who become pregnant as a result of their assault should make "lemonade" out of "what was really a lemon situation."
If this weren't enough, this week an interview from March reemerged in which the "get rid of government no matter what the cost" Buck actually came out in favor of privatizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention! Imagine the CDC privatized -- the profit motive being the sole determination for whether the Center might act to save millions of lives... or let millions suffer or even die.
This is what extremism looks like. These could be the new people making our laws.
But it's not too late. We can Stamp Out Extremism. Please, this election, dig deep, speak out and get involved.
The latest poll numbers have progressive Democrat Joe Sestak ahead of pro-corporate extremist Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania Senate race for the first time... Colorado is a very tight race and our endorsed candidate Michael Bennet is in position to defeat Buck with enough of our help... the progressive Senate candidate in Kentucky, Jack Conway, is running very close and could actually beat Republican Rand Paul because of his extremism... and we are fighting tooth-and-nail to keep Russ Feingold in the Senate and stop the radically right-wing Ron Johnson. We are in the process right now of producing ads for all of these states and more, and finalizing our field plan to get out the vote.
Please stay tuned for more on those products and activities, and, in the meantime, help spread around our resources, like our "Rogues Gallery" report, which calls out the GOP's extremist Senate candidates, and our "After Citizens United" report, which exposes the corporate front groups that are trying to buy this election for the Republicans.
UPDATE: Jed Lewison at Kos highlights right-wing candidates attacks on the miminum wage:
As Joan McCarter (here, here, and here) and DemFromCT (here) have documented, in the past few weeks leading Republican candidates have come out against the minimum wage, either calling for it to be lowered or for eliminating it altogether because they think it's unconstitutional. And now West Virginia GOP Senate nominee Joe Raese is once again vowing to repeal the Fair Labor Standards Act which established the minimum wage.
The key thing about the GOP position is that it's not just the minimum wage that they want to get rid of. They want to nuke virtually every law and regulation that protects workers. And that includes another provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act: overtime pay.
UPDATE 2: Tea Party House candidate in California's 11th Congressional District, David Harmer, wants to abolish public schools. Sharron Angle and others want to do away with the Department of Education, but Harmer's position could be an even more extreme attack on public education. Harmer is leading progressive incumbent Rep. Jerry McNerney in the polls...
For those still in doubt about the potential for corporate influence in national elections in the post-Citizens United world, it might be helpful to look at the growing sway of corporate money in state-level judicial elections.
Eliza Newlin Carney at the National Journal found some staggering statistics:
Predictions that the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling will unleash a torrent of corporate money are wildly overblown, free speech advocates insist. As evidence, they argue that corporate money has yet to flood elections in the 26 states that already impose no limit on corporate spending.
But a closer look at state-level elections suggests that independent political expenditures by corporations, unions and other special interests are substantial. This is particularly true in judicial elections, which have gotten dramatically costlier, nastier and more controversial over the past decade. The Citizens United ruling may impact judicial races even more drastically than federal elections, some experts argue.
Campaign spending in state Supreme Court elections for the 2008 cycle topped $45 million, continuing a trend that started in the early 1990s, according to Justice at Stake, a nonprofit promoting judicial impartiality. Judicial campaign fundraising totaled $206.4 million between 2000 and 2009, according to a forthcoming Justice at Stake report, more than double the $83.3 million raised between 1990 and 1999.
Corporate money dominated those expenditures, according to Justice at Stake spokesman Charles Hall, who said some 30 percent of the $206.4 million had "clear links" to the corporate sector. Other big judicial campaign money sources were lawyers and lobbyists, who accounted for about 28 percent of the $206 million-plus total.
The Supreme Court itself highlighted the dangers of this trend in last year’s decision banning a West Virginia Supreme Court justice from participating in a case involving a man who had spent $3 million helping him get elected. The funder in question was Massey Energy Company owner Don Blakenship—who has recently earned criticism as an example of what can happen when corporations have more regulatory influence than the citizens they employ.
Today in the Supreme Court, a case was argued that makes a pretty compelling case for a fair and independent judiciary. Robert Barnes at the Washington Post did a good overview yesterday.
Caperton and his little coal company sued a huge coal company on claims that it unlawfully drove him out of business, and a jury agreed, awarding him $50 million.
That company's chief executive vowed an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court -- but first, he spent an unprecedented $3 million to persuade voters to get rid of a justice he didn't like and elect one he did.
Today during arguments the Court was (no surprise) divided. But the real principle may be bigger than simply campaign donations.
The Constitution sets up the judiciary as the branch of government dedicated to ensuring that the rule of law applies equally to all people. When it's broken – or perceived to be broken, -- there's scant reason for citizens to put their full faith in the government. And yet over the last years, President Bush has systematically flooded the courts with jurists who put political ideology over our most basic constitutional principles.
No longer fearing the worst when it comes to judicial appointments is, well, a big sigh of relief, but this case makes very clear how crucial it is that we repair the damage eight years of George Bush has done.