Civil Rights

Cummings takes on Issa (again): Exposes bias and partisanship in stewardship of Oversight Committee

House Oversight Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings has, yet again, exposed Representative Darrell Issa’s apparent use of his Committee chairmanship to advance a partisan agenda.

Cummings earlier today released a forty-page investigative report, which presents compelling evidence of efforts by Republican members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to support House Republican efforts to modify or repeal the Dodd-Frank Act (quite the departure from the bipartisan panel’s charge to investigate the causes of the financial crisis, not undermine legislative solutions to avoid future crises.) The report also raised serious ethical questions about the actions of GOP Commissioners and their staff, including evidence that they had leaked confidential Committee information to outside parties on multiple occasions.

This is a pretty amazing turnaround for an investigation launched by Chairman Issa to pursue baseless claims that Democratic FCIC commissioners and their staff had “conflicts of interest” and extensive ties to “partisan Democratic politics”. Yet rather than following up on the Cummings’ extensive report by agreeing to a request for bipartisan interviews with Commissioners Bill Thomas and Peter Wallison, the Chairman instead abruptly indefinitely postponed today’s hearings.

Unfortunately, this is not a surprising turn of events given Issa’s partisan stewardship of the Oversight Committee. Thank goodness for Rep. Cummings’ dogged pursuit of the truth and his sense of duty to the American people.

PFAW

Senate Judiciary Committee Exposes the Corporate Court

The Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing this morning looking into the disturbing trend of the Roberts Court to shut down people’s access to justice when they go to court to vindicate their rights against large corporations.

The hearing was on Barriers to Justice and Accountability: How the Supreme Court's Recent Rulings Will Affect Corporate Behavior. Chairman Leahy opened the hearing discussing how recent Supreme Court cases are making it harder for working Americans to get their day in court. He expressed particular concern about three cases:

  • Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which will make it harder to hold big companies accountable when they violate civil rights laws;
  • Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, which shielded from accountability those who knowingly committed securities fraud; and
  • AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which prevents victims of consumer fraud from the protections of jury trials and class actions.

The committee invited four distinguished people to address the issue: Betty Dukes (plaintiff in the sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart) was the one panelist who was also a party to one of the cases being discussed. She spoke poignantly about her experience at Wal-Mart and the fear that so many women have of going against their employer, especially one as powerful as Wal-Mart. She promised to continue her fight, but knows that without a national class action, many women will be intimidated into not litigating.

Andrew J. Pincus (a Washington lawyer who has argued many cases before the Court) and Robert Alt (from the Heritage Foundation) denied that the Court was tilting unfairly to favor corporations, argued that the cases were decided rightly, and stated that the Court was simply upholding existing law. In contrast, Melissa Hart (law professor at the University of Colorado) and James Cox (law professor at Duke) took the position that the Court is wrongly shielding wrongdoers from accountability.

Professor Hart correctly characterized as a policy decision the Roberts Court's tendency to interpret procedural law so restrictively, despite congressional intent otherwise, so that Americans become unable to present their case to an impartial court.

Senator Whitehouse discussed the critical role juries play in American government. He noted that juries are mentioned three times in the Constitution, and that they remain a government institution that Big Business cannot corrupt. For years, the far right has been denigrating "trial lawyers" and "runaway juries" in an effort to keep Americans from being able to hold the powerful accountable. Whitehouse argued that the Roberts Court is acting consistently with that pattern.

People For the American Way Foundation submitted testimony to the committee on how the Roberts Court has removed substantive and procedural protections that are the only way that individuals can avoid becoming victimized by giant corporations that dwarf them in size, wealth, and power. These decisions often provide road maps to corporate interests in how to avoid accountability for harm that they do. The constitutional design empowering individuals to consolidate their power against corporations is slowly being eroded by a fiercely ideological Court. Today's hearing is part of an effort to expose the harm that is being done.

PFAW

A Call to Action: Restore Equal Employment Opportunities in America

Saturday was the 70th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination by defense contractors. Last week, Congressman Bobby Scott hosted a press conference and briefing in honor of the anniversary of this event, which marked the first time a U.S. president had acted to combat discrimination by private employers who were using federal taxpayer money. Future presidents expanded on President Roosevelt’s action and added to its protections.

However, this was more than just a celebratory event of an important civil rights milestone: it was a call to action to correct an erosion of equal employment opportunity law that has been in effect since 2002. That’s when President Bush signed an Executive Order that made discrimination on the basis of religion by faith-based organizations using federal taxpayer money legal. In so doing, he reversed our nation’s continuous expansion of the promise of equal protection and opened a gaping hole in our nation’s civil rights protections. Religious entities had always been able to discriminate based on religion using their own money, but never to use taxpayer money to do so.

All the panelists were united in asking President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise of restoring the law. On the panel were: Congressman Bobby Scott (convener of the event); Congressman Jerrold Nadler; Professor Eric Arnesen (professor of history at George Washington University and biographer of civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, whose activism prompted FDR’s executive order); Rabbi David Saperstein (Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and also a board member of our affiliated People For the American Way Foundation); Barbara Arnwine (Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law); Hilary Shelton (Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau); and Rev. Dr. Paul L. Brown, Sr. (Pastor of Miles Memorial CME Church and member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action).

Among other things, speakers discussed how employment discrimination harms the victims and society as a whole; warned that religion can easily be used as a proxy for race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity; condemned discrimination paid for by the tax dollars of its victims; asked why the religion of someone ladling out soup for the hungry should matter; and warned of the dangerous consequences to churches that want to retain federal funding they have become dependent on. As the last speaker, Rev. Dr. Brown opened a window into his daily work helping the hungry and the homeless, the “least and the lost,” and strongly condemned federally funded discrimination.

When he was running for President, then-Senator Obama promised to reverse President Bush’s policy, but he has yet to do so. What better time than the anniversary of the issuance of Executive Order 8802 for President Obama to put our nation back on the right road and restore through executive order the prohibition against federally funded discrimination? Yesterday, People For the American Way and African American Ministers In Action joined more than 50 other civil rights and religious organizations asking him to do just that.

PFAW

Getting Your Day in Court Not So Simple?

We thought you might be interested in an HBO documentary, which premiers tonight, about the barriers to access that many Americans face when trying to seek justice in a court of law. The film discusses the impact of corporate influences on the judicial system and their implications for the civil rights of average Americans.

Here’s the trailer:

PFAW

Rep. Cummings Continues to Fight Foreclosure Crisis

Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, sent a letter on Tuesday to the panel’s chairman, Darrell Issa, pressing the leader to subpoena six mortgage servicing companies. This is Cummings’s fourth letter to Issa urging the committee to take action on the foreclosure crisis. In it he notes particular alarm over increasing reports of U.S. service members and their families being illegally evicted from their homes and charged millions of dollars in unwarranted fees.

In February, Cummings and other Democratic committee members sent letters to ten mortgage companies, but only four responded with the requested documents. One company, MetLife, refused to voluntarily release any documentation and said it would only do so if ordered by a subpoena.

Particularly in light of the Committee’s unanimous vote in February of this year to investigate “wrongful foreclosures and other abuses by mortgage servicing companies,” it would be behoove Chairman Issa to grant Cummings’s more than reasonable request.

In these difficult economic times, millions of Americans are paying more than they can afford at the gas pumps, worrying about job security, and losing their homes because of fraudulent and mismanaged foreclosures. It is imperative that Congress fight to hold big banks and mortgage companies accountable for their role in pushing the country into economic crisis.

Chairman Issa must do his part by supporting his Democratic colleagues in their fervent commitment to investigating and responding to mishandled and deceitful mortgage practices. Protecting American families from abuse and other corporate wrongdoings that put their finances in jeopardy is not an issue to be dealt with by playing partisan politics. Congress has a responsibility to stand up for the American people and do everything in its power to get to the bottom of and put an end to the foreclosure crisis.

PFAW

PFAW and AAMIA react to DC approps, reaffirm support for White House rally

Last week, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hosted a press conference on Capitol Hill in defense of her city. Speaking out against several policy riders that have been passed or threatened by conservatives in Congress, Delegate Norton, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, DC Vote, and members of the civil rights community, including People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action, voiced their support for autonomy and the right to self-government for the people of the District of Columbia.

PFAW and AAMIA just got their first glimpse of the FY12 DC appropriations bill. While some issues were spared, other riders are in.

Roll Call:

The bill that funds the District includes a provision restricting the city from spending federally appropriated and locally collected funds on abortion services, except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

It also includes $60 million for a federally funded, private-school voucher program, a key priority for Boehner.

Delegate Norton warns that we’re not out of the woods on any issue.

The introduction of the bill is only the first step in a long appropriations process, and action by the new national coalition is essential as the bill goes to committee and to the floor.

We are currently waiting for news from the first of the committee meetings.

PFAW President Michael B. Keegan recently noted:

Rather than address the many complex issues facing our nation, House Republicans are choosing to threaten women's constitutional rights by attacking choice and preventive care, and they are taking every chance they get to force their social priorities on the people of Washington, DC.

And while there is no doubt that educational opportunities and standards must be improved across the country, allocating money to private schools at the expense of public school students is not the way to succeed. Public dollars must continue to fund public services.

PFAW and AAMIA continue to believe that enough is enough – the people of DC deserve a voice. We hope that voice will be heard loud and clear on June 25 at the White House Rally for DC Democracy, organized by our friends at DC Vote.

Date: Saturday, June 25, 2011

Location: Lafayette Square Park, 16th Street & H Street NW (in front of the White House)

Time: 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM

Click here to RSVP, and here to learn about additional opportunities to support DC Vote on June 25.

As you may know, there have been dozens of civil disobedience arrests this year of citizens who stood up for the District’s right to self-govern. Neither PFAW nor AAMIA are organizing a civil disobedience action for June 25. If you need assistance, you may contact DC Vote directly.

For more information, please click here.

PFAW

Issa: "You Can Have Opinions" But They Aren't Valid

Recently, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has been working very hard to silence those who don’t agree with him, from choosing the minority’s witnesses for them to now discouraging them from responding to questions that Issa doesn't want answered. At today’s House Oversight Committee hearing on Project Gunrunner, when Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) asked an ATF agent if their prosecutions were made difficult by weak gun laws, Rep. Issa interrupted to remind the agent that “your testimony here is limited, and that it's not about proposed legislation and the like, and under House rules would not fall within the scope of this. So, anecdotally you can have opinions but ultimately it would not be considered valid testimony.” Will Issa stop at nothing to stack these hearings in his favor?

 

PFAW

Judge Won’t Vacate Prop 8 Decision, Rejects Argument that Gay Judge was Biased

Yesterday, proponents of California’s Proposition 8 went before a federal judge to argue that the ruling overturning the discriminatory law should be thrown out because the judge who issued it is gay.

Today, they were handed an epic takedown. In an order dismissing the motion to vacate the Prop 8 case, district court judge James Ware tore apart the arguments made by the anti-marriage equality lawyers who claimed that Judge Vaughn Walker’s decade-long same-sex relationship should have disqualified him from hearing the marriage equality case.

The arguments made by Prop 8’s defenders were so ridiculous (for example, see here and here) that it’s hard to pick just one part of Judge Ware’s takedown to quote, so I’ve picked out a few of my favorites.

The Prop 8 camp’s main line of argument was that the problem with Judge Walker wasn’t that he is gay but that he may at some point want to marry someone of the same sex, thereby benefiting from his own pro-marriage equality decision. This led them to partake in some celebrity-magazine style speculation about whether Judge Walker was planning to wed. Judge Ware responds that that type of speculation about a judge’s personal life isn’t enough to disqualify him from a case:

[D]isqualifying Judge Walker based on an inference that he intended to take advantage of a future legal benefit made available by constitutional protections would result in an unworkable standard for disqualification. Under such a standard, disqualification would be based on assumptions about the amorphous personal feelings of judges in regards to such intimate and shifting matters as future desire to undergo an abortion, to send a child to a particular university or to engage in family planning. So too here, a test inquiring into the presiding judge’s desire to enter into the institution of marriage with a member of the same sex, now or in the future, would require reliance upon similarly elusive factors.

Then there was the argument that Judge Walker’s long-term same-sex relationship “gave him a markedly greater interest in a case challenging restrictions on same-sex marriage than the interest held by the general public.” Judge Ware responds that in cases of fundamental rights, all members of society are affected by the outcome…in a way, turning the logic of the Prop 8 crowd (who argue that straight people will be hurt by gay marriage) on its head:

The fact that this is a case challenging a law on equal protection and due process grounds being prosecuted by members of a minority group does not mean that members of the minority group have a greater interest in equal protection and due process than the rest of society. In our society, a variety of citizens of different backgrounds coexist because we have constitutionally bound ourselves to protect the fundamental rights of one another from being violated by unlawful treatment. Thus, we all have an equal stake in a case that challenges the constitutionality of a restriction on a fundamental right. One of the duties placed on the shoulders of federal judges is the obligation to review the law to determine when unequal treatment violates our Constitution and when it does not. To the extent that a law is adjudged violative, enjoining enforcement of that law is a public good that benefits all in our society equally. Although this case was filed by same-sex couples seeking to end a California constitutional restriction on their right to marry, all Californians have an equal interest in the outcome of the case. The single characteristic that Judge Walker shares with the Plaintiffs, albeit one that might not have been shared with the majority of Californians, gave him no greater interest in a proper decision on the merits than would exist for any other judge or citizen.

And then Judge Ware tells Prop 8 supporters that not all gay people think in the same way…so they can’t assume that a gay judge will come to a certain conclusion:

Finally, the presumption that “all people in same-sex relationships think alike” is an unreasonable presumption, and one which has no place in legal reasoning. The presumption that Judge Walker, by virtue of being in a same-sex relationship, had a desire to be married that rendered him incapable of making an impartial decision, is as warrantless as the presumption that a female judge is incapable of being impartial in a case in which women seek legal relief. On the contrary: it is reasonable to presume that a female judge or a judge in a same-sex relationship is capable of rising above any personal predisposition and deciding such a case on the merits. The Motion fails to cite any evidence that Judge Walker would be incapable of being impartial, but to presume that Judge Walker was incapable of being impartial, without concrete evidence to support that presumption, is inconsistent with what is required under a reasonableness standard.

Ware concludes that requiring judges to recuse themselves under the standard proposed by Prop 8’s backers would lead to a “standard that required recusal of minority judges in most, if not all, civil rights cases.”
 

PFAW

PFAW and AAMIA condemn riders, sponsor White House rally

Last week, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hosted a conference on Capitol Hill in defense of her city. Speaking out against several policy riders that have been passed or threatened by conservatives in Congress, Delegate Norton, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, DC Vote, and members of the civil rights community voiced their support for autonomy and the right to self-government for the people of the District of Columbia.

Michael B. Keegan, President, People For the American Way:

The extreme social policies that threaten Washington, DC are yet another example of the hypocrisy of the GOP leadership . . . We hope that the Senate and President Obama will join us and say that enough is enough – the people of DC deserve a voice. Our democracy demands nothing less.

Leslie Watson Malachi, Director, African American Ministers in Action:

The people of Washington, DC are tired of being taken advantage of . . . It’s time to end the institutional repression of Washingtonians, and in the meantime, it’s time for Congress to stop playing political games with the lives of those who make their home in our nation’s capital.

Today, PFAW and AAMIA have taken their actions one step further by sponsoring the White House Rally for DC Democracy on June 25, organized by our friends at DC Vote.

Date: Saturday, June 25, 2011

Location: Lafayette Square Park, 16th Street & H Street NW (in front of the White House)

Time: 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM

Click here to RSVP, and here to learn about additional opportunities to support DC Vote on June 25.

As you may know, there have been dozens of civil disobedience arrests this year of citizens who stood up for the District’s right to self-govern. Neither PFAW nor AAMIA are organizing a civil disobedience action for June 25. If you need assistance, you may contact DC Vote directly.

For more information, please click here and here.

PFAW

The Problem with School Vouchers: FL Private “High School” Offers $400 Diploma

The quality of education is a serious problem facing our nation, and it’s clear that the best solution is high quality public schools, not unaccountable voucher schemes that drain money away from our public education system. Next time  someone assures you that private schools are so much better than public schools, you might want to point them towards the InterAmerican Christian Academy, which allowed a Florida man to “earn” a high-school diploma in just 8 days and for only $400.

 

It began with a poster on a streetlight in downtown Miami: “High School Diploma. (305) 716-0909.” I dialed, and a chipper female voice answered, “Hello. High school.” Eight days and $399 in cash later, at the school’s Doral “campus” — a cramped third-floor office next door to US Lubricant LLC and across the hall from a hair extensions company — I was grinning widely, accepting a framed diploma and an official transcript sporting a 3.41 GPA.

 

This is the same state in which the Governor, Rick Scott, is looking to substantially expand “school choice” programs. Sounds like a great use of taxpayer dollars…

Read the full story at Thinkprogress.org

PFAW

Issa to Dems: We'll Pick Your Witnesses For You

Last week, Rep. Patrick McHenry, chairman of a House Oversight and Government Affairs subcommittee, reached a new low of legislative immaturity when he accused Obama advisor Elizabeth Warren of lying about the schedule she had set with his staff. Now, it seems, committee chair Darrell Issa is trying to top him.

Issa has demanded that, in a departure from the way House committees traditionally select witnesses for hearings – where the majority and minority party each pick a certain number – Issa would now be picking some of the witnesses allotted to his committee’s Democratic minority. Whenever the committee’s Republicans call a witness from the Obama Administration, Issa declared, that witness would be docked from the total number allowed to the committee’s Democrats….even if Democrats never wanted that witness in the first place.

Given that our democratic government is built on the idea that minority viewpoints still can get a voice, this change of rules was not happily met with by some of the more reasonable members of the committee.

Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly gave a heated response, saying he would advise the administration not to send any witnesses to the committee until the rules were reversed: “But the minority has rights, and if the majority wishes to actually join on this issue and dare to tell us who our witnesses will be, and to designate administration witnesses as our witnesses against our wishes, then we're going to advise that administration to not cooperate with the members of the majority until our rights are recognized and respected.” Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the committee agreed.

This prompted Issa’s staff to send a note to reporters with Connolly’s remarks asking, “If Committee Democrats are encouraging the Administration to decline all witnesses, how does obstruction advance legitimate government oversight?”

Better questions to ask might be: “If a committee’s chair is busy making politically-motivated rules changes, how much time is he actually spending on legitimate government oversight?” or “Do we really want to be giving government oversight power to a man who doesn’t believe in the basic democratic principle of the rights of political minorities?”

 

PFAW

Harry Jackson Says MLK Would Oppose Marriage Equality

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed the House Armed Services Committee Authorization bill, which included three amendments designed to delay the repeal of the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

With the Senate taking up the bill, Rep. Randy Forbes, along with Bishop Harry Jackson and a group of right-wing pastors, held a press conference to encourage the Senate to pass the pro-DADT amendments.

Attempting to seem semi-reasonable, Jackson began the conference by claiming that amendments intending to make the repeal of DADT more difficult and time-consuming weren’t about DADT itself, but instead about “clarity.”

That line of reasoning lasted all of 15 minutes. By the time Q&A rolled around, Jackson and the Religious Right figures that had joined him used all of the same tired arguments that have been used against DADT in the past. When asked if the repeal of DADT would hurt recruitment, Bishop John Neal claimed that he wasn’t sure, but what he was really worried about was the “close quarters” that soldiers have to share, and what would happen when there was “only one spout” on the shower.

This again?

Multiple speakers claimed that “no one should be marginalized for their religious beliefs,” but they all seem to believe that marginalizing people for their sexual orientation is perfectly acceptable. One of the speakers, John Neil, went so far as to claim that the military discriminates all the time, by not allowing, for example, extraordinarily tall people to pilot cramped fighter jets. Because that’s exactly the same situation.

Despite their claims to be promoting the rights of chaplains, this group showed that their real goal was restricting the rights of the LGBT community, going so far as to assert that Martin Luther King Jr. would disapprove of same-sex marriage:


 

Jackson: There were members of his family who were for gay marriage, others were against. I know this: King basically spoke from two vantage points that he thought were very, very sacred within the American culture - one was the Bible and the other was the Constitution. And I think what we're dealing with here is that from a biblical perspective, King no doubt would have been with us biblically. And I think, again, the lines of what is exactly the right of an American to do, I've got a hard time believing that "the pursuit of happiness" crosses into some of these areas. So I think that King would be with us, as a preacher first.

Question: Just to clarify: you're saying Dr. King would be against gay marriage?

Jackson: Yes. Very specifically, yes. Because it's against what is clearly written in Scripture. And if you listen to any of his messages, that clarion call to scriptural accountability even to the point when his own house was firebombed and folks came up in Montgomery armed and ready to go fight folks, he said "no, no, no, we will turn the other cheek." So there was not just a tacit biblical acceptance or kind of whitewashing, if I can use that phrase, certain kinds of behaviors and say this is Christian, this is not. I think there was an inherent commitment to those issues in our social culture.
PFAW

It's Time to Confirm Goodwin Liu

The Senate is currently debating the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu is a phenomenally well qualified legal scholar who has support across the political spectrum, as well as among a majority of U.S. Senators. However, because Senate Republican leaders are putting politics over all else, they are set on stymieing the majority and filibustering the nomination. A cloture vote to end this stalling tactic may occur as soon as tomorrow morning.

People For the American Way supports the nomination. We sent a letter this morning that says much of what we have been saying in person on the Hill for over a year. Among other things, the letter states:

Perhaps the most powerful testament to Professor Liu's superb qualifications is the extensive support his nomination has garnered from across the ideological spectrum. It is not only progressive and moderate legal thinkers who admire his work: He has received endorsements from conservatives such as Ken Starr, Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan; Richard Painter, the chief ethics counsel for President George W. Bush; and Clint Bolick, Director of the conservative Goldwater Institute.

When a judicial nominee attracts such strong support independent of political ideology, you can be confident that he is exactly the kind of mainstream, talented, and fair jurist we need on the federal bench.

Although Liu has the support of a majority of senators, his opponents are working to block his nomination from receiving an up or down vote. Their claim is that Liu's nomination constitutes one of those rare "extraordinary circumstances" warranting a filibuster, under the benchmark developed by the Gang of 14 during the George W. Bush Administration.

By no measure can this nomination be considered to even approach "extraordinary circumstances." Even a cursory look at President Bush's nominees who were approved using that test – those whose nominations were not considered to constitute "extraordinary circumstances" – makes clear that Liu's nomination must be permitted to go forward.

  • Pricilla Owen's dissenting positions on the Texas Supreme Court were so extreme that even her fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court in different cases described them with phrases like "an unconscionable act of judicial activism," "disregard of the procedural elements the Legislature established," "def[ying] the Legislature's clear and express limits on our jurisdiction," and "inflammatory rhetoric." Her nomination was not considered extraordinary, and the Senate afforded her an up-or-down vote for a seat on the Fifth Circuit, where she is now serving.
  • Thomas Griffith pushed to severely curtail laws ending discrimination against women and girls' participation in school athletic programs, declaring "illegal" a test upheld by all eight of the nation's Circuit Courts of Appeals that had considered the issue. He was also suspended from the DC Bar for failure to pay mandatory Bar dues yet continued to practice law in the District during that time. Published reports and an examination of Utah law indicated that he had been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Utah for the four years prior to his nomination. Nevertheless, the Senate did not consider Griffith's nomination extraordinary, and he received an up-or-down vote confirming him to a seat on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Janice Rogers Brown criticized opposition to the Lochner decision, which began the period when the Supreme Court issued its most pro-corporate rulings—rulings that struck down laws requiring minimum wages, regulating working hours and conditions, and banning improper business practices. In addition, despite several Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, she explicitly suggested that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional. Despite this record, her nomination was not considered an "extraordinary circumstance," and the Senate was allowed to cast an up-or-down vote, confirming her to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • William Pryor called Roe v. Wade "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history" and urged Congress to consider repealing or amending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the significant opposition that these and other extreme positions garnered, his nomination was not filibustered, and he was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Each of these nominees attracted substantial controversy and was opposed by numerous civil rights and civil liberties groups, but not one was found to constitute "extraordinary circumstances."

The claim that Goodwin Liu is out of the mainstream as compared to any of these nominees simply does not bear scrutiny. In fact, a fair reading of his work makes clear that Liu is well within the judicial mainstream.

By any standard articulated by either party, Goodwin Liu's nomination deserves a vote on the Senate floor, and he should be confirmed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tomorrow, we will learn which Republican senators are willing to toss logic, consistency, principles, and the good of the nation's court system out the window in order to score political points against a Democratic president.

PFAW

Maddow Takes on South Dakota Anti-Choice Bill

Remember that draconian anti-choice bill that South Dakota’s governor signed into law in March? The one that mercifully didn’t include a proposed provision to legalize the killing of abortion providers, but did include some of the most restrictive waiting period requirements in the country?

Rachel Maddow has done some digging into how the enforcement of such an over-the-top law is going to play out. Basically, nobody seems to really know:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

 

For more on South Dakota’s law and other extreme anti-choice bills advancing in the states, take a look at our report: The GOP Takes Its War on Women to the States.

PFAW

Religious Right Groups And Chamber of Commerce Fail To Block District Court Nominee

Cross-posted on Right Wing Watch

Religious Right and pro-corporate groups failed today to block President Obama’s nominee for U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, John McConnell, from receiving an up-or-down vote in the Senate. The Senate invoked cloture on McConnell’s nomination in a 63-33 vote, defeating the filibuster against McConnell. Filibusters against district court judges are extremely rare—only a handful of District Court nominees have ever faced cloture votes, and none have ever been blocked—and many Republicans previously vowed they would never filibuster a judicial nominee.

Today’s vote came after a long wait for McConnell: according to The Providence Journal, the delay caused by the concerted right-wing effort to block McConnell forced Rhode Island’s chief federal judge to “take the unusual step of reassigning more than two dozen civil cases to judges in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

Why the tough fight? McConnell faced virulent opposition from the Chamber of Commerce over his role fighting big tobacco companies and lead paint manufacturers. The Chamber and other groups that oppose corporate accountability found allies in the Religious Right groups that decided to fight McConnell as well.

The Conservative Action Project made McConnell a top target of their efforts. The group includes pro-corporate organizations like the 60 Plus Association, National Taxpayers Union, Americans for Limited Government, Citizens United, and American Tax Reform, along with social conservatives such as the Family Research Council, Traditional Values Coalition, Heritage Action, American Values, Liberty Counsel Action, and Eagle Forum. The Conservative Action Project’s Memo to the Movement [PDF] claimed McConnell was unqualified to serve in the judiciary because he was a trial lawyer with a history of challenging big business.

Eagle Forum derided him as a “pro-choice, anti-business, pro-judicial activism nominee” who “has made numerous anti-business statements.” The Family Research Council slammed McConnell for his ties to the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the country’s most prominent civil rights organizations, and Phillip Jauregui’s Judicial Action Group said that his link to the SPLC and the American Constitution Society shows he “supports organizations who support homosexual marriage and oppose conservative politicians.”

While the Corporate Right and the Religious Right filibuster of the McConnell nomination failed, many of these organizations will continue to work together to block other qualified judicial nominees and aggravate the country’s burgeoning judicial vacancy crisis.

PFAW

Independents Align More Closely With Democrats on Social Issues

Conventional wisdom tells us that Independents swing elections. Logic tells us that the two major parties should be trying to court as many Independents as possible. So why are Republicans emphasizing a legislative agenda that falls out of synch with the priorities of most independent voters?

According to recent polling data compiled by CQ Weekly, the views of Independents align more closely with Democrats than with Republicans on social issues such as funding Planned Parenthood. Interestingly, Republicans are pretty evenly split on the issue, and independent voters are in favor of continuing funding. The majority of Independents also believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to legally marry and that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Why, then, are Republicans actively alienating Independents by threatening to shut down the government over issues that they oppose? As noted in the CQ article, One House, Two Agendas [paywall], even Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who manages communications strategy for Senate Republicans, fears the consequences of this shift in priorities:
 

“Our focus needs to be on reducing spending,” Alexander said. “We can’t preach the whole Bible in one sermon, so sometimes we have to take it one step at a time.”

Alexander’s views are reflected in the opinions of more libertarian-minded tea party groups. Last November, several tea party leaders and gay conservatives sent a letter to lawmakers asking them not to become distracted by the concerns of social conservatives.

“The tea party movement is a non-partisan movement, focused on issues of economic freedom and limited government,” they wrote. “We urge you to stay focused on the issues that got you and your colleagues elected and to resist the urge to run down any social issue rabbit holes in order to appease the special interests.”

In a recent essay describing a growing coalition between fiscal and social conservatives, PFAW Foundation’s Peter Montgomery explains how the Tea Party, supposedly concerned only about the size and scope of the federal government, is being co-opted by the Religious Right:

Now effectively in the employ of the libertarian David Koch, who founded Americans for Prosperity and chairs the board of its foundation, [Koch political operative Tom Phillips] has deep ties to the evangelical Right, most notably with Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, who now heads a new entity, the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Reed and Phillips go way back; the two were partners in Century Strategies, the political consulting group through which Reed played a role in the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. Now, it seems Phillips is partnered with Reed and other Religious Right leaders in a much greater conquest: a merger of the Religious Right and the ostensibly secular Tea Party movement to create an electoral juggernaut that will determine the outcome of the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

Republicans continue to force extreme social issues on the American people, and independent voters are finding it less and less palatable. Hopefully, they’ll get the message.

 

PFAW

Honoring King By Following in his Footsteps

The day after the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, a group of undocumented youth in Atlanta honored him by applying his message of peaceful protest against injustice. Supported by civil rights leaders like Rev. Timothy McDonald – a PFAW Board member, the founder of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, and the chair of African American Ministers In Action – they engaged in civil disobedience and highlighted the injustice of laws effectively barring them from higher education because of their parents' immigration decisions. As reported in the Washington Post:

Eight young illegal immigrants were arrested Tuesday for sitting in the middle of a busy street in front of the Georgia Capitol, protesting their lack of access to higher education in a scene reminiscent of civil rights demonstrations decades ago.

The group, made up of mostly students, believe their plight is similar to movement the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led, and they met with former activists from the 1960s to hash out their civil disobedience plan. As the foreign-born youngsters sat in the road, at times holding hands, hundreds of supporters lined the street and cheered in support as the illegal immigrants were led away in handcuffs.

Before the sit-in the youngsters, their voices trembling, each stood before the crowd, took a microphone and announced: "I am undocumented, and I am unafraid." ...

The Rev. Timothy McDonald was one of the activists who met with the students at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the room where King and other preachers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that led the movement for equality and justice for blacks.

"We felt the connection," McDonald said. "We pointed out that there has never been a successful movement of any kind without young people, and that was especially true of the civil rights movement. It was the students who filled up the jails, not the preachers."

As these young people show, part of the strength and beauty of King's message is its universality

PFAW

Women versus Wal-Mart at the Supreme Court Today

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Dukes v. Wal-Mart, a gender discrimination case brought by female workers of Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer. The workplace discrimination case is a complicated piece of litigation and has already been in the courts for a decade.

The women suing Wal-Mart won an important victory in 2004 when a district court ruled that they could pursue their case as a “class,” representing all similarly situated women working for Wal-Mart.

Class action cases are permitted under very limited circumstances but they serve as important vehicles for groups of plaintiffs who may not have the means or resources to individually take on a deep-pocketed defendant in court. Because without a class action case, most of the plaintiffs wouldn’t be willing to go through the difficult process of filing a suit, class actions mean that corporations are forced to deal with cases they could otherwise ignore. In addition, class actions raise the possibility that a company will have to pay an enormous monetary award and even punitive damages—a powerful incentive to settle out of court.

So it’s no surprise that Wal-Mart appealed the district court’s decision to let this case proceed. The company’s appeal resulted in two split decisions by three-judge panels and a later 6-5 decision from the full 9th Circuit which, among other things, ultimately upheld the district court’s decision as to certification of the class. Wal-Mart appealed to the Supreme Court.

Wal-Mart is arguing that the women suing shouldn’t be designated a class for a number of reasons. The company claims that that the representative plaintiffs do not have claims typical of the whole class—a group which could involve from 500,000 to 1.5 million women with varying jobs and circumstances. Wal-Mart also argued that allowing the district court’s decision to stand would make the trial so unmanageable that it would violate Wal-Mart’s federal and constitutional rights.

The women pushing the suit point to company-wide practices that they claimed resulted in a culture of gender discrimination, including sexist nicknames, managers who held meetings at Hooters restaurants, and other disparaging conduct directed at women. They also point out that only a class action approach would work against a giant corporation like Wal-Mart. Individual claims of $1,100 per worker would do nothing towards ending the company’s discriminatory practices.

PFAW Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the female class along with 33 other civil rights organizations, including the ACLU and the National Women’s Law Center. The brief emphasizes that sex discrimination in the workplace remains a very serious problem in the United States and the systemic barriers to individual actions reinforce the need for a class action to address the kind of discrimination alleged in the case against Wal-Mart. Not surprisingly, corporate America and its many powerful trade associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, came out in full force in support of Wal-Mart, filing amicus briefs to protect their corporate interests.

While the outcome of the case remains unclear, it can be certain that there remains a pro-corporate bloc of the Court that will be sympathetic to Wal-Mart’s claims. Justice Scalia tipped his hand at his skeptical view of class actions last year in another case, suggesting that there was “national concern over abuse of the class action device.” The Court is also considering a case this term that would weaken the ability to bring class action lawsuits in the context of state consumer protection laws.

We’ll keep you posted as the case moves forward.

 

PFAW

Will the Supreme Court Close the Door to Civil Rights Lawsuits?

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing hear oral arguments in Fox v. Vice, a case that threatens to choke off future civil rights litigation. People For the American Way Foundation has joined an amicus brief protecting the right of people to sue to protect their basic rights.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit, where the government or a government official is being sued, a trial court can sometimes order the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal fees. The law allows this if (1) the defendant is the prevailing party and (2) the plaintiff's case was frivolous. In Fox v. Vice, the Supreme Court is being asked to interpret this law. The potential exposure to paying a defendant's legal fees serves as an obvious deterrent to bringing suit, and it's important, therefore that it be narrowly construed in order not to violate Congress's intent to empower people to vindicate their rights in the courts.

In this case, Ricky Fox sued the local chief of police, Billy Ray Vice, based on two incidents that took place after both men had announced their competing candidacies for the police chief job. Fox claimed that Vice, the incumbent, sent him an "anonymous" letter attempting to blackmail him into not running for office. The next month, Vice allegedly encouraged someone to file a false police report about Fox.

Fox claimed that these acts violated both federal civil rights laws and state tort laws. The case was before a federal court, and Fox eventually acknowledged that he had no valid federal claim. So the trial court judge dismissed the federal claims and remanded the state civil claims to state court for future adjudication. The judge also ruled that the federal claims had been frivolous, and he ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal fees related to the frivolous claims.

However, because the frivolous and non-frivolous claims were all based on the same set of facts, it was nearly impossible to disentangle legal fees for one from legal fees for the other. So the district court judge classified them all as being for the frivolous federal claims and ordered the plaintiff to pay the entire legal bill. Fox ended up paying the legal fees that will be used by the defendant to oppose Fox's own non-frivolous state court claims still to be litigated. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

If the Supreme Court affirms this decision, it could severely chill civil rights lawsuits. It sets up a standard where plaintiffs risk having to pay all of the defendant's legal fees even if only one of their claims is judged frivolous. To make matters worse, it is very hard to predict what a judge will consider frivolous. Even judges hearing the same case at the same time may differ wildly as to whether it is frivolous. The standard adopted by the lower court would discourage civil rights plaintiffs from pursuing novel legal theories and create a powerful disincentive against filing valid civil rights suits in the first place.

In considering the case, the Supreme Court should be consistent with Congress's intent to encourage meritorious suits and discourage frivolous ones. It should rule that legal fees should not be awarded in federal civil rights cases when a plaintiff's "frivolous" claim is factually intertwined with non-frivolous claims.

The Roberts Court has devised numerous ways to close the courthouse door to innocent people seeking to vindicate their rights. By the end of the Court's term, we will learn whether Fox v. Vice will join cases like Ledbetter v. Goodyear in the Roberts Court's Hall of Shame.

PFAW

Help “Welcome” the Wisconsin GOP to DC this Afternoon!

A bunch of us from the PFAW office will be heading downtown this afternoon to show our support for Wisconsin’s workers, and to tell the state’s GOP legislators what we think of their union busting—in person. Join us! Here’s some info about the rally, in front of the Republican lobbying firm BGR:

Angry about the Republican shenanigans in Wisconsin? Well, now you have the chance to let them know in person!

TODAY (Wednesday), at 5pm, labor, environmental, consumer and civil rights groups will gather for a protest outside a corporate lobbyist fundraiser being held for Wisconsin Republican state and federal lawmakers by the Washington, D.C.-based firm BGR Group.

Please join us there!

What: Protest/speakers outside Wisconsin Republican fundraiser

When: Wednesday, March 16th at 5:00 p.m.

Where: 601 13th Street NW, Washington, D.C.

Last week, Wisconsin Republicans stripped middle class workers of their basic rights under the guise of fixing their state's budget. This week, they are in Washington to receive campaign donations from corporate lobbyists and donors. Wisconsin state Republican lawmakers, including the Senate and House leaders, are expected to attend. Wisconsin's federal delegation was also invited. BGR clients include foreign corporations and governments, health insurers, energy companies and others.

The fundraiser starts at 5:30, so we want to make sure we amass our numbers by 5 and catch some of the legislators on their way in. The event is rain or shine, so please be prepared to take your umbrella if needed.

Hope to see you there!
 

PFAW