Constitution

Aren’t Rights a Good Thing?

In her speech last night, Sarah Palin mocked the idea that terrorists would be "read their rights." Well, setting aside the obvious complications that come from prosecuting an international “war on terror,” I’m perturbed by the idea that reading someone his rights would be a bad thing. One of the great selling points for this country is that even bad guys, really bad guys, terrible terrible guys, have rights. After all, sometimes those presumed-guilty people end up being, you know, innocent. In support of my view (and, umm, the Constitution) allow me to trot out the old war horse of this particular argument, A Man For All Seasons.
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
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Fourth Circuit Victory For Religious Liberty

If you read my post back in March after the oral argument before the Fourth Circuit in Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, Virginia, you know that it was quite an honor to have had retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the three-judge panel. And now Justice O’Connor has written the court’s opinion in the case, a July 23 unanimous decision in favor of our client, the Fredericksburg City Council.

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Five Years Later: Decriminalizing Gay People

Many people probably don’t recall much, if anything, about June 26, 2003, but I recall a great deal. That’s because it’s the day on which the Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings in the area of individual rights and human dignity. In Lawrence v. Texas, a sharply divided Court struck down a Texas state law that prohibited consensual, private sex between adults of the same gender, a law that essentially made criminals out of gay men and lesbians. Five justices held that the law was an improper intrusion on the right to liberty guaranteed to everyone by the Constitution, effectively invalidating all state laws that invade the home to prohibit so-called sodomy.

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Five Years After Lawrence: Decriminalizing Gay People

Many people probably don’t recall much, if anything, about June 26, 2003, but I recall a great deal. That’s because it’s the day on which the Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings in the area of individual rights and human dignity. In Lawrence v. Texas, a sharply divided Court struck down a Texas state law that prohibited consensual, private sex between adults of the same gender, a law that essentially made criminals out of gay men and lesbians. Five justices held that the law was an improper intrusion on the right to liberty guaranteed to everyone by the Constitution, effectively invalidating all state laws that invade the home to prohibit so-called sodomy.

Five years later, I can still recall vividly the absolute joy and elation that I felt learning that these pernicious laws were no more. The Court’s ruling meant not only that these laws could no longer be used to intrude into a realm of personal conduct in which government has no place, but also that they could no longer be cited to deny gay people jobs or participation in any other aspect of human endeavor on the ground of criminality.

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was a ringing endorsement of constitutional liberty. According to Justice Kennedy:

Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.

As news of the Court’s decision unfolded, it was equally wonderful to learn that the five-justice majority had also overturned the Court’s 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the Court, by a vote of 5-4, had upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law under which Michael Hardwick had been arrested for having had sex in his own home with another man. Bowers was a strikingly anti-gay decision in substance and language and, like Plessy v. Ferguson, a low point in Supreme Court history and an instance of the Court’s abject failure to protect the constitutional rights of minorities. Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court in Lawrence, soundly declared that Bowers "was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent."

One of my law school classmates was Michael Hardwick’s original attorney. I accompanied her to the Supreme Court that day in March 1986 when Bowers was argued, and I commiserated with her when that terrible ruling came down several months later. She was the first person I called after learning that Bowers had been overturned, and we shared a long-delayed moment of joy.

And so June 26, 2003 is a day that I remember quite well. But as significant as the Lawrence ruling was, I am mindful that four justices did not join Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was part of the majority in Bowers (truly a low point in her judicial career as well), declined to join the majority in overruling that decision. She agreed, however, that the Texas "sodomy" law was unconstitutional, but only because it treated same-sex and opposite-sex couples differently.

Three justices dissented outright from the ruling in Lawrence: then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Scalia and Thomas are still on the bench today. The late Chief Justice Rehnquist has been replaced by the equally ultraconservative John Roberts, while Justice O’Connor has been replaced by the extreme right-wing Samuel Alito.

Counting the numbers, then, it’s very clear that the constitutional protection of the essential human dignity of gay men and lesbians is hanging by a slender thread on the Supreme Court. John McCain has praised Justice Scalia and has also promised to put more justices like Roberts and Alito on the Court, which should be a consideration for any voter who cares about gay rights and the future of the Supreme Court.

Cross-posted on The Huffington Post

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Reflections on Fourth Circuit Oral Argument in Church-State Case

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit does not inform those who argue before it of the identities of the judges on the three-judge panels who will be hearing specific cases until the very morning of the oral argument. And so it was a great surprise — and an even greater honor — to learn yesterday when we walked into the courthouse in Richmond that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would be a member of the panel hearing Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The other panel members were Fourth Circuit Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Dennis Shedd.

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Religious Right Using Lawsuit in Attempt to Undermine Church-State Separation

In 2006, the Rev. Hashmel Turner, a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, took the bizarre step of suing his own City Council. Councilor Turner’s complaint? As an elected government official, he wants the special right to begin City Council meetings by offering a City Council prayer in the name of Jesus — a sectarian, non-inclusive prayer that excludes many Fredericksburg citizens. The City Council, however, following the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent, wisely adopted an inclusive policy requiring that any prayers offered to begin its meetings be nondenominational.

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Supreme Court Hears Detainee Case

The Supreme Court today heard oral argument in Boumediene v. Bush, an important separation of powers case in which detainees at Guantanamo are challenging the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act, which prohibits them from challenging the legality of their detention through habeas corpus review in federal courts. The detainees contend that the preclusion of habeas review violates the Suspension Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus except in cases of "rebellion or invasion." PFAWF has filed an amicus curiae brief in the case in support of the detainees' constitutional claims.

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Countering Time Magazine on the Court's Relevance to Americans

TIME magazine’s cover story this week told Americans they don't need to care about the Supreme Court because its decisions don’t make a difference in most people’s lives. That premise is just wrong, as the letter we submitted to TIME makes clear (see below). It’s also pretty astonishing to have that article appear the very same week that the GOP presidential candidates will appear before right-wing activists and the so-called "Values Voter Summit" and enthusiastically pledge to put more Justices like Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas on the Court — and cement for a generation the right-wing trends that are undermining Americans’ legal rights and protections.

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Today at the Supreme Court: Is New York's Method of Electing Judges Constitutional?

This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in a significant case involving the selection of trial court judges in New York, NY Board of Elections v. Torres. At issue is the constitutionality of New York state's highly controversial system for the election of trial court judges from candidates chosen by party conventions; the delegates to the convention are selected in primary elections. The plaintiffs contend that the system violates the First Amendment political association rights of voters and candidates because the system effectively closes the door to candidates who do not have the support of party bosses, and the lower courts agreed. However, that argument did not appear to gain much sympathy from most of the Justices in the Supreme Court today.

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PFAWF Files Amicus Brief in Church-State Case

People For the American Way Foundation today joined a number of other religious liberty groups, including the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as well as the American Federation of Teachers, in filing an amicus curiae brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Colorado Christian University v. Baker. The University, a private, religious school, has challenged Colorado tuition assistance programs that do not allow the participation of pervasively sectarian schools, consistent with the state Constitution's prohibition on public funding of religious education. The University claims that the Colorado programs violate the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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