Constitutional Rights

Justice Ginsburg Mourns Breakdown of Judicial Nominations Process

At a speech yesterday at Southern Methodist University, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg touched upon the depressing state of our nation's judicial nominations process. As reported by the Associated Press:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday that the confirmation process has become much more partisan and that she probably never would have made it to the high court under the current climate.

"I wish we could wave a magic wand and go back to the days when the process was bipartisan," Ginsburg told the crowd of about 2,000 as she spoke as part of a lecture series for Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

While most of us cannot wave such a magic wand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can. With one word he could stop many of the GOP obstruction tactics against President Obama's judicial nominees. It was just such obstruction that prevented the Senate from voting to confirm twenty pending nominees before it left town several weeks ago, 17 of whom got through committee with no recorded opposition.

As ThinkProgress reported, Justice Ginsburg also noted the hostility felt by some senators toward the ACLU: "Today, my ACLU connection would probably disqualify me."

Unfortunately, she may be right. Late last year, Senator Jeff Sessions – then the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee – railed against judicial nominees who had worked with or been a member of the ACLU, specifically targeting William Martinez, Edward Chen, Goodwin Liu, Jack McConnell, Amy Totenberg, Robert Wilkins, and Michael Simon. He concluded his tirade with the following warning to President Obama:

I do believe the administration needs to understand that this is going to be a more contentious matter if we keep seeing the ACLU chromosome as part of this process.

Republican hostility to the ACLU – and to the constitutional rights it regularly protects – is extremely disturbing. At the same time, the blocking of even unopposed nominees suggests that the GOP's main problems with President Obama's nominees is that they are President Obama's nominees.

PFAW

Ongoing Focus on GOP Obstruction of Judicial Nominations

Since President Obama took office, Republican obstruction of his judicial nominees has been multifaceted, unstinting, highly partisan, hypocritical, and unprecedented in scope. When the Senate left town at the start of the month, Republican leaders prevented the Democrats from scheduling a vote on 20 extremely qualified nominees who had cleared the Judiciary Committee.

Yesterday, the White House Blog called attention to the obstruction and to the highly qualified and diverse federal bench that the president is working to build:

[T]he President's nominations for federal judges embody an unprecedented commitment to expanding the racial, gender and experiential diversity of the men and women who enforce our laws and deliver justice.

Unfortunately, the delays these nominees are encountering on Capitol Hill are equally unprecedented: earlier this month, the Senate left for its August recess without considering 20 eminently qualified candidates, 16 of whom had passed through the bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee completely unopposed, a development the Washington Post called "not only frustrating but also destructive" in an editorial published yesterday.

As the Republicans know, their intransigence is exacerbating a destructive vacancy crisis in federal courtrooms, one that is making it harder and harder for Americans to secure their rights:

The victims of these delays, of course, are the American citizens who are being denied the fair and timely judicial proceedings they deserve because of the chronic shortage of federal judges on the bench. Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association, told Senate leaders in a recent letter that the abundance of vacant federal judgeships "create strains that will inevitably reduce the quality of our justice system and erode public confidence in the ability of the courts to vindicate constitutional rights or render fair and timely decisions."

Click here to see the White House's infographic highlighting the obstruction and its consequences for families and businesses. It shows that:

  • The average wait time between committee approval and confirmation has leapt from 29 days for George W. Bush's circuit court nominees to an incredible 151 days for President Obama's.
  • For district court nominees, a 20-day wait for Bush's nominees has become a 103-day wait for Obama's.
  • Judicial vacancies have grown from 55 in 2009 to 91 today.
  • People are forced to wait an average of more than two years for a civil jury trial.
PFAW

Stephen Colbert Takes On Repressive Voter ID Laws

Earlier this week Omari told us about Stephen Colbert's excellent "It Gets Better" video, in which Colbert dropped his hyper-conservative character and adopted a more serious approach to give teens advice on bullying. Today we have another example of his brilliance in more familiar Colbert style: a blistering take-down of voter ID laws passed by several states this year, which he correctly characterizes as laws designed to "keep the wrong people from voting." 

This segment from his show on Wednesday does a great job of pointing out the ridiculousness of saying there is in any way a significant problem with voter fraud in these states. Colbert cites the case of Ohio, where there were four instances of fraud documented last year, amounting to "a jaw-dropping 44 one-millionths of one percent" of all votes cast. As Colbert puts it, these laws seem to be aimed at "an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere!" Colbert also points out the troubling impact these laws will have on voters: in South Carolina, 178,000 voters do not have the government-issued photo ID now needed to vote.

These laws are an egregious example of the radical right attempting to tip the rules of the game in their favor by violating the rights of citizens, and creating a false narrative of a voter fraud epidemic that simply doesn't exist.

 

PFAW

Empowering LGBT youth: Stephen Colbert, “It gets better”

Stephen Colbert, an actor, comedian, and host of the political satire show, The Colbert Report, dropped his usual sarcastic persona to speak candidly about the problems of teen bullying.

In this video for the “It Gets Better Project,” Colbert discusses his own experience with being harassed at school, as well as a lesson he learned after one his own friends courageously stood up to a bully after being called a “queer”.

If you don’t give power to the words that people throw at you, to hurt you, they don’t hurt you anymore—and you actually have power over those people.

      

Colbert adds another voice to the over ten thousand people who have contributed messages of hope and support to LGBT youth, including President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, numerous senators, and several celebrities.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that LGBT youth deserve support. People For the American Way has been tracking right-wing activists who have been intervening in the problem of teen bullying…by supporting the bullies.

PFAW

A Milestone for Diversity on the Federal Bench

Today, the Senate confirmed J. Paul Oetken to be a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. He is the first openly gay man to be confirmed as an Article III judge (one with lifetime tenure).

In order for the federal judiciary to effectively protect our constitutional rights, the bench must reflect the diversity of America. That is not to say that demography determines how a judge will rule. But it is true that a person's background can give them insight into the effect of a law that others might miss. Ignorance of a law's actual impact can lead to a serious misanalysis of its constitutionality.

Some of the most notorious Supreme Court cases in history rest on such misunderstandings and show the results of a non-diverse bench. For instance, Plessey v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that upheld racial segregation, reflected the thinking of an advantaged class who had no real idea of how Jim Crow laws affected real people. The majority rejected out of hand

the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

Similarly, Justice Scalia made headlines in 2009 when he angrily challenged the assertion that non-Christians might not see a Christian cross as a symbol of respect. While they may not have changed his mind, it was good that he had non-Christian colleagues who could have given him a sense of how people different from him are affected by the law. And perhaps the notorious 5-4 Bowers v. Hardwick opinion might have been different had there been an openly gay Justice there to tell his colleagues that their assumptions about "practicing homosexuals" were simply incorrect. Surely discussions of laws impacting women are improved by actually having women on hand to offer the benefit of their experience. And judges who have been stopped for "driving while black" may recognize the real-world impact of certain police practices that might seem relatively benign to others.

A richly diverse judiciary makes it more likely that judges will understand how their decisions will affect ordinary people, and that laws protecting individuals will actually be enforced as intended. President Obama's nomination of J. Paul Oetken is part of his overall efforts to significantly increase the diversity of the bench, an effort that has, unfortunately, been met with stubborn resistance by Senate Republicans.

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

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

With Liu Gone, GOP Still Twisting his Record

On Wednesday night, Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu wrote to President Obama asking that the his nomination to sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals be withdrawn. Liu’s exit was the culmination of two years of smears, scapegoating and filibustering, in which the nominee never even got an up or down vote from the Senate.

The main gist of Republican opposition to Liu was the claim that he would be an “activist judge” in favor of making up constitutional rights willy-nilly (a claim that Republicans in the Senate have lobbed at any number of highly qualified judicial nominees, including current Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, but interestingly not at Republican nominees who have shown strong streaks of creative legal interpretation).

In an op-ed earlier this week, the New York Times singled out Sen. John Cornyn for his false claim that Liu holds the “ridiculous view that our Constitution somehow guarantees a European-style welfare state.” Yesterday, in a letter to the editor, Cornyn fought back, providing this quote from a 2006 law review article by Liu to back up his claim:

On my account of the Constitution’s citizenship guarantee, federal responsibility logically extends to areas beyond education. ... Beyond a minimal safety net, the legislative agenda of equal citizenship should extend to systems of support and opportunity that, like education, provide a foundation for political and economic autonomy and participation. The main pillars of the agenda would include basic employment supports such as expanded health insurance, child care, transportation subsidies, job training and a robust earned income tax credit.

What is interesting about this quote is that it doesn’t say what Cornyn says it says. At all. Nowhere in the quote -- which Cornyn points to as decisive evidence that Liu wants the courts to turn us into Denmark -- does Liu say that the courts should enforce a social safety net. In fact, Liu is careful to specify that he is discussing the duty of Congress to create a “legislative agenda” that fulfills the highest ideals of the Constitution, rather than a judicial responsibility to enforce that agenda.

Elsewhere in the article [pdf], Liu makes it perfectly clear that he sees it as the duty of Congress, not the courts, to guarantee basic living standards for citizens. He even explicitly states that he intentionally doesn’t use the term “rights” because that would imply “judicial enforceability” of the values that he’s discussing:

In this Article, I do not address whether the Supreme Court or any court should hold that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees an adequate education. Although that question remains open in the case law, my thesis is chiefly directed at Congress, reflecting the historic character of the social citizenship tradition as “a majoritarian tradition, addressing its arguments to lawmakers and citizens, not to courts.” Whatever the scope of judicial enforcement, the Constitution—in particular, the Fourteenth Amendment—speaks directly to Congress and independently binds Congress to its commands. Thus the approach to constitutional meaning I take here is that of a “conscientious legislator” who seeks in good faith to effectuate the core values of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the guarantee of national citizenship.

From this perspective, the language of rights, with its deep undertone of judicial enforceability, seems inapt to probe the full scope of a legislator’s constitutional obligations. As Professor Sager has observed, “[T]he notion that to be legally obligated means to be vulnerable to external enforcement can have only a superficial appeal.” It is more illuminating to ask what positive duties, apart from corresponding rights, the Fourteenth Amendment entails for legislators charged with enforcing its substantive guarantees. Framed this way, the inquiry proceeds from the standpoint that Congress, unlike a court, is neither tasked with doing legal justice in individual cases nor constrained by institutional concerns about political accountability. Instead, “Congress can draw on its distinctive capacity democratically to elicit and articulate the nation’s evolving constitutional aspirations when it enforces the Fourteenth Amendment.” By mediating conflict and marshaling consensus on national priorities, including the imperatives of distributive justice, Congress can give effect to the Constitution in ways the judicial process cannot.

Thus the legislated Constitution, in contrast to the adjudicated Constitution, is not “narrowly legal” but rather dynamic, aspirational, and infused with “national values and commitments.” …

(emphasis is mine)

Cornyn and his pals in the Senate know what was in the article they attacked. Liu even explained it to them in detail in response to written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee [pdf]. But it was easier to willfully misinterpret Liu's writing and paint him as irresponsible than to engage in a substantive debate on his qualifications.

 

PFAW

Focus on the Family Leader Admits that Right is “Losing” Equality Debate

Jim Daly, president of the Religious Right group Focus on the Family conceded to an interviewer last week that anti-gay groups have “probably lost” the debate over marriage equality. It’s a big admission by a prominent figure on the Right, but it’s also an acknowledgement of what has become common sense. Poll after poll shows that for the first time majorities of Americans support marriage equality, with the highest numbers among young people. As anti-gay legislation is fought out in the courts and in statehouses, it is accompanied by a sea change in public opinion that threatens to make it archaic.

After last summer’s federal court decision striking down California’s Proposition 8, PFAW’s Michael Keegan noticed that Religious Right activists were beginning to admit defeat on gay rights:

This parade of apoplectic anger is nothing new--the Right has fought every step toward acceptance of gay people with similar Armageddon-invoking tirades. What is remarkable about the reaction to the Prop 8 decision is that within the anger are the beginnings of admissions of defeat. The Right has won many important battles against gay rights, but they are losing the war...and they know it.

A few days after Judge Walker's decision, the pseudo-historian David Barton, founder and president of the right-wing group WallBuilders, explicitly described the nervousness that has been behind much of the Right's outrage. The case against Proposition 8, Barton argued, could win in the Supreme Court...so opponents of marriage equality should sacrifice California in order to save anti-equality laws in 31 other states.

"Right now the damage is limited to California only," Barton told Tim Wildmon, President of the American Family Association during a radio interview, "but if California appeals this to the US Supreme Court, the US Supreme Court with Kennedy will go for California, which means all 31 states will go down in flames, although right now this decision is limited only to California...the problem is that instead of California losing its amendment, now 31 states lose their amendment. And that won't happen if California doesn't appeal this.

Last week, I went to a talk with the attorneys arguing the Prop 8 case, Ted Olson and David Boies. Olson said he saw their job as having two parts: presenting the Constitutional case against discrimination in the court of law, and presenting it in the “court of public opinion.”

“If we win this case,” Olson said, “we want people to look at it and say, ‘Of course. It’s about time.’”

Constitutional rights should never be decided by the will of the majority – that’s why we have constitutional rights in the first place. But Olson and Boies are building their case in a country where the rights of gays and lesbians are increasingly accepted as a given. The Religious Right isn’t going to give up its fight against equality anytime soon. But its leaders are beginning to see that they are fighting a losing battle in both the court of law and the court of public opinion.

PFAW

Shameful!

Imagine senators of one party filibustering a judicial nominee who has been hailed as one of his generation’s great legal minds by legal experts of both parties and across the ideological spectrum on the grounds that he is *too* qualified.

Well that's exactly what happened today.

In what could be the most egregious example of the GOP’s partisan obstruction of judicial nominations to date, Senate Republicans today blocked Goodwin Liu from receiving an up or down vote. Liu, a law professor and dean at U.C. Berkeley who as a nominee has the American Bar Association’s highest rating, was nominated for a seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by President Obama over a year ago, and has since been approved by the Judiciary Committee three times.

His credentials and grasp of the law and Constitution are impeccable. Liu’s only mistake: being too qualified.

At age 40, his confirmation to the 9th Circuit could put him in position to be the first Asian American Supreme Court nominee. Because of his intellectual heft, his commitment to Americans’ constitutional rights and his commonsense understanding of how the law impacts people’s lives, the prospect of Liu’s future elevation, and even his influence on a Circuit Court of Appeals, terrifies corporate special interests and right-wing ideologues ... the same people calling the shots with Republican senators.

Shame on them. The concocted justifications Republican senators used in their opposition to Liu were based on unbelievable distortions of his record by Radical Right activist groups, as well as Liu’s testimony in opposition to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s confirmation. They rested their opposition on lies because they know that a Liu filibuster makes a mockery of the supposed agreement between parties to employ a filibuster only in “extraordinary circumstances.” Everything about Goodwin Liu’s record and the breadth of his support indicates a legal expert squarely in the mainstream -- the only thing “extraordinary” about him is how good he is, and how deserving he was of confirmation.

Every GOP senator except Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski participated in the filibuster. If one or both of your U.S. senators are Republicans, CALL them right now and let them hear it. Tell them, “shame on you for filibustering Goodwin Liu,” and let them know that you will be working hard to hold them accountable in their state.

Make sure you SIGN our “Stop the Obstruction” petition to the Senate and let senators of both parties know that the continued obstruction of the president’s nominees is hurting our country and will not be tolerated.

We need Republicans to feel the pressure about their judicial obstructions just like they are feeling it about their attacks on Medicare. And Democratic leaders in the Senate need to know that they must be using every tool in their arsenal to combat this obstruction.

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

Judge Finds Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Dismissal Unconstitutional

A district court judge has ruled that the Air Force violated Maj. Margaret Witt’s constitutional rights when it fired her for being a lesbian.

In 2008, a federal appeals court panel ruled in her case that the military can't discharge people for being gay unless it proves their firing furthered military goals.

After a six-day trial, the judge said testimony proved that Witt was an outstanding nurse and that her reinstatement would do nothing to hurt unit morale.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge in California found the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy unconstitutional and ordered that the Obama Administration stop enforcing the policy. The Justice Department, which has to enforce the laws that are on the books, has objected and is pushing forward in the case to keep DADT.


At this point, the GOP’s refusal to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell seems not only embarrassing, but futile. After Senate Republicans blocked DADT repeal earlier this week, I compiled a list of the prominent arguments for and against repeal. I’ll add the Constitution to the “for” column. Again.
 

PFAW

You Can Have Your Freedom of Religion, But You Can’t Exercise It

This afternoon, the “yes, the Constitution grants freedom of religion, but this time you’d better not use it” argument has gained its newest, and most disappointing, adherent.

Under pressure from his ultra right-wing opponent in the Nevada senate race, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid paid lip service to the First Amendment while stating his opposition to the building of a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan:

"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement. "Sen. Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else."

Reid is the most senior Democrat to come out in opposition to the mosque.

It perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that hoards of Republican elected officials who live far from New York have come out against what the Right Wing has branded the “Ground Zero Mosque.” It was, after all, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich who turned what was a New York City zoning issue into a national fit of misinformed intolerance.

But it’s deeply disappointing to realize we’ve reached the point where the most powerful Democrat in the Senate is parroting Right Wing talking points at the expense of defending basic American values and constitutional rights.

The Right’s extremist machine has tried to make intolerance and xenophobia a noisy election year issue. When someone like Reid gives them cover for their cynical ploy, they begin to succeed.


 

PFAW

Judging, Judges and Prop 8

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, in a piece titled, “Don’t ask, don’t judge?” gave a rhetorical green light to Religious Right activists who have responded to news that federal judge Vaughn Walker is gay by attacking his ability to rule fairly on the constitutional challenge to Prop. 8, the California ballot initiative that stripped same-sex couples of the right to get married.

Although Marcus concludes in the end that Walker, who was randomly assigned to hear the case, was right not to recuse himself simply because he is gay, she does so after a lot of “squirming” like this:

So when Walker considers claims that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law, it's hard to imagine that his sexuality, if he is gay, does not influence his decision-making -- just as the experience of having gay friends or relatives would affect a straight judge.

In the end, Marcus writes,

In this case, I hope the plaintiffs win and that Walker rules that the same-sex marriage ban violates their constitutional rights. At the same time, I've got to acknowledge: If I were on the side supporting the ban and found it struck down by a supposedly gay judge, I'd have some questions about whether the judicial deck had been stacked from the start.

But why wouldn’t the deck be considered “stacked” against gay people if a straight judge were deciding the case? By concluding her column that way, Marcus gives credence to the offensive notion that is already being promoted by right-wing leaders that a gay judge cannot be expected to rule fairly in a case involving the legal rights of gay Americans.

Here’s Matt Barber, director of cultural affairs with Liberty Counsel, responding to news that Judge Walker is, in Barber’s words, “an active practitioner of the homosexual lifestyle.”

“At worst, Judge Walker’s continued involvement with this case presents a textbook conflict of interest. At best, it objectively illustrates the unseemly appearance of a conflict.

"If Judge Walker somehow divines from thin air that the framers of the U.S. Constitution actually intended that Patrick Henry had a ‘constitutional right’ to marry Henry Patrick, then who among us will be surprised?

“Any decision favoring plaintiffs in this case will be permanently marred and universally viewed as stemming from Judge Walker’s personal biases and alleged lifestyle choices.

"For these reasons, and in the interest of justice, Judge Walker should do the honorable thing and immediately recuse himself.”

Barber tries to make a case that he is taking a principled stand by saying, “This is no different than having an avid gun collector preside over a Second Amendment case,” continued Barber, “or a frequent user of medical marijuana deciding the legality of medical marijuana.”

Really, Matt? You expect us to believe that you would advocate that judges who collect guns should recuse themselves from cases involving the Second Amendment? What about avid hunters, like Justice Antonin Scalia? Should anyone who owns a gun be assumed not to be able to rule fairly on legal issues involving guns?

The Post’s Marcus concluded that asking Judge Walker to recuse himself would “invite too many challenges to judicial fairness -- Jewish judges hearing cases about Christmas displays, or judges who once represented unions or management presiding over labor disputes.”

What about Christian judges presiding over Christmas displays? Can you imagine the outrage from Matt Barber and his Religious Right colleagues if someone were to suggest that Christian judges should be barred from hearing cases involving legal and constitutional questions about separation of church and state?

In a diverse and pluralistic nation, it’s important that the federal bench reflect that diversity. But what’s far more important than an individual judge’s race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is his or her judicial philosophy and understanding of the Constitution’s text, history, and role in protecting the rights and opportunities of all Americans.

The unspoken offensive presumption at work here is that people who come to the law with a life experience that is considered “normal” – say, straight white male Christian – are inherently unbiased, or that their life experience somehow gives them a singularly correct way of viewing the law. Others are suspect.

This notion was on ugly display during the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, when her recognition that she would bring her life experience as a Latina to the bench was used to pillory her as a white-male-hating racist. What about all those white male senators, and the white male Supreme Court Justices they had voted to confirm? Samuel Alito’s ethnic pride and empathy were considered valid, while Sotomayor’s was radical and threatening.

Ruth Marcus is no Matt Barber. She is in some ways simply acknowledging the reality that there is still a level of emotional prejudice against gay people that will keep some Americans from believing that a gay judge can be fair. But she is far too sympathetic to the purveyors of that prejudice. Her column validates their bigotry and will encourage more of the kind of divisive rhetoric we see from the likes of Barber.

PFAW

Obama DOJ Invokes State Secrets For Second Time

This Washington Post recently had a story on a second instance of the Obama Department of Justice invoking "state secrets" in an effort to shut down a lawsuit challenging violations by the Bush Administration of individuals' constitutional rights.

The first instance, in February, came in the case of Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen, a suit challenging a company's alleged participation in the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries where they suffered torture. At that time, People For the American Way decried the "blow to our much-needed efforts to restore justice." This time the lawsuit involves allegations by the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation that the federal government used warrantless wiretaps to gather information on the charity's board members and attorneys in violation of their due process and free speech rights.

The Post story reports that in addition to invoking the state secrets privilege to terminate the lawsuit -- thereby denying the charity its day in court -- the Justice Department is also threatening to remove the documents from the district court's custody to keep them out of the hands of the charity's lawyers. No doubt there must be a careful balancing of competing interests in these kinds of cases -- legitimate efforts to protect our nation's security versus holding the government accountable for violations of individuals' constitutional rights. But I must say the balancing that appears to be going on in these instances is making me pretty nervous.

PFAW

Republican Senators Make Threats on Judges, Try to Force "Bipartisanship" at Gunpoint

From Poltico:

President Barack Obama should fill vacant spots on the federal bench with former President Bush's judicial nominees to help avoid another huge fight over the judiciary, all 41 Senate Republicans said Monday.

...

"Regretfully, if we are not consulted on, and approve of, a nominee from our states, the Republican Conference will be unable to support moving forward on that nominee," the letter warns. "And we will act to preserve this principle and the rights of our colleagues if it is not."

In other words, Republicans are threatening a filibuster of judges if they're not happy.

The letter talks about "bipartisanship" and, separate from the letter, several Republicans have been warning the president for some time against nominating "far left judges." But for all this talk about "bipartisanship" and throwing terms around like "far-left judges," what do they really mean?

Does bipartisanship mean nominating half right-wing judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and don't believe in the Constitution's promise of equal rights under the law; half who agree that the Constitution makes certain guarantees in terms of people's rights and liberties and that it gives the government the authority and the responsibility to protect those rights, not undermine them?

Or does it mean that all of the president's judicial nominees must be "moderates," and if so, what is their definition of "moderate?" Is a moderate someone who is respectful of fundamental constitutional rights and principles like privacy, equality, the right to choose and checks and balances… as long as they are pro-corporate? We already have a Supreme Court that is overwhelmingly pro-business, much more so than many precious Courts, including the four supposedly "liberal" Justices.

Of course that's probably not the case (not that the president should feel compelled to nominate judges with a corporate-friendly bent anyway, especially now that we are in the middle of the havoc wreaked by corporate greed and excess, but I digress).

When it comes to this issue, what they really care about is pleasing their base. And when it comes to their base, the ONLY judges who are acceptable are extreme right-wing ideologues. So any actual "moderate," mainstream judges of course will be rejected -- and they will be cast as "far-left."

The Right sees the Judicial Branch in very black and white terms. They have accused the Democrats of having a litmus test on judges when it comes to Roe v. Wade. But that was obviously proven wrong by the fact that both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were confirmed even though they both, according to many experts, would vote to overturn Roe. No, it's the Right that has strict litmus tests on everything from Roe v. Wade and gay rights to free speech, the separation of church and state and, yes, how "business-friendly" a judge may be. Their base demands it! And Republican Senators -- even the so-called moderates like Snowe, Collins and Specter -- are unified on this one.

The judicial philosophies of the jurists respected by the Right are defined by extremism -- plain and simple. It's one thing for a judge to find legal exception with the way a certain case was decided (even if that decision protects a fundamental right, like Roe v. Wade), but quite another to subscribe to theories and views that fly in the face of mainstream judicial thought like:

  • "Constitution in Exile," which takes an extreme and limited view of the Commerce Clause and basically states that the regulatory policies of the New Deal were unconstitutional... and a huge number of policies and Supreme Court decisions going back nearly a hundred years, including civil rights protections, are unconstitutional as well. (Opinions expressed by Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia support "restoring the lost constitution.")
     
  • "Unitary Executive Theory," which has been used to justify insanely expansive views of executive power that defy the most commonsense understanding of our founding principles relating to checks and balances and a limited executive (remember, our founders were breaking from a monarchy - they obviously didn't want to create another one). The Bush administration exploited this theory over and over again its now infamous abuses of executive power.; and
     
  • a blatant disregard for the bedrock judicial principle of stare decisis (which Justice Clarence Thomas is said, even by Justice Scalia, to show).  

This is par for the course for right-wing judges. While those of us on the progressive side are not devoid of ideology, and are proud to have our own ideology when it comes to the Constitution and the law, the Right is by far more ideological and Republicans need to be called out for doing the Far Right's bidding once again.
 
President Obama and the Senate Democrats should challenge these Republican Senators to define their terms more specifically -- to tell them and the country EXACTLY what they mean by "bipartisanship" in this case and what they would consider acceptable or "moderate" nominees.  And the president should reject the GOP's attempt to force bipartisanship at gunpoint, by making threats and trying to use coercion to get him to appease their base on judges.

PFAW

Dealing With the Right's Big Lies

We here at People For have been making the case since the November elections that even though the results were devastating for the Republican Party, they actually strengthened the Radical Right and increased its influence within the GOP. Republicans in Congress are now unabashedly taking their marching orders directly from right-wing demagogues and organizations ... even scarier: some Democrats seem to be falling in line as well.

Kyle at Right Wing Watch had two great posts yesterday on the Right's direct manipulation of some of the biggest current debates in Washington. He exposed how the targeting of President Obama's DOJ nominees is really being directed by the Family Research Counsel and other fringe groups and wrote about the outright lie started by Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) that a provision of the stimulus package -- now being debated in the Senate -- is an attack on people of faith.

The ACLJ’s water was carried by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) who actually offered an amendment to the stimulus package which would have stripped the 'controversial' provision -- the provision in question simply prevents the tax dollars being appropriated here from being used to support religion. So we had DeMint and others parroting lies on the Senate floor to support an amendment that had no legitimacy whatsoever.

And the amendment only failed by a close vote of 54-43 ... with several Democrats defecting and voting for DeMint's amendment!

Why did they defect? Well, in part, it's because President Obama's been sending them the wrong message about how to deal with the Religious Right. The other day, the president announced the creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, but very conspicuously did not use the opportunity to rescind the Bush-administration policy making it legal for recipients of faith-based funding to discriminate in providing services.

Equivocation on very fundamental religious liberty issues will not help the country, and it will not help the president move his agenda. President Obama is starting to get angry – and rightly so -- at the people who are trying to derail his stimulus package. Most critics are trying to Republicanize the spending package to kill some very vital spending that would aid recovery and add more tax cuts. The president correctly states that the old supply-side economic policies of Reagan and Bush -- reckless tax cuts, cuts in spending where the economy needs it most, rampant and irresponsible deregulation -- were exactly the same policies that landed us in this economic mess to begin with. But now, some Democratic Senators are being cowed by the Rush Limbaugh-led Right into compromising on key parts of the stimulus plan.

Getting beyond partisanship is a lofty ambition, but when the other side is trying to take the country backwards, firm opposition is what's needed. Our new president would be best served to stick to the principles he campaigned on and stand up to the Right's ideological agenda -- whether it rears its ugly head in the economic debate or in the arena of constitutional rights and the separation of church and state.

President Obama and all the Democrats on the Hill should read People For the American Way's new Right Wing Watch In Focus memo on The Right's "Big Lie" Strategy.

PFAW

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.

PFAW

Bill Moyers Journal: Russ Feingold On The Rule Of Law

Senator Russ Feingold, one of Washington's leading voices for civil liberties and constitutional rights, was on Bill Moyers Journal over the weekend discussing some of the steps he hopes the incoming Obama administration will take to restore the rule of law.

Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars has a video, transcript and Sen. Feingold's Daily Kos post on the issue. Read more and check out the video.

Russ Feingold on Moyers screen cap

PFAW

Putting the Justice back in the DOJ

In Washington, we're hearing rumblings that the Right may be looking to start a fight over Attorney General nominee Eric Holder, whose confirmation hearing will be in early January. It's tough to imagine the kind of audacity it would take to challenge Holder's nomination after Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales.

After eight years of being dominated by politicization, cronyism and extremism, the Department of Justice is in desperate need of a good housecleaning. The Department, like the Attorney General, is supposed to defend the rule of law and Americans' constitutional rights. But under the Bush administration, the DOJ has been used as a weapon against constitutional values, used to fight the administration's ideological and political battles.

In the wake of 9/11, John Ashcroft's Justice Department led the Bush administration's relentless assault on civil liberties. The DOJ was on the forefront of the draconian expansion of surveillance and police powers, and contributed heavily to post-9/11 era of extreme government secrecy. Career lawyers at the DOJ were subtly -- and not so subtly -- pushed out in favor of attorneys more politically and ideologically aligned with the administration. The Civil Rights Division was completely politicized and instead of using its resources to protect voters' rights (by enforcing the Voting Rights Act among other things), the DOJ waged an attack on voting rights by supporting disenfranchising policies like Georgia's restrictive voter ID law. The Department also exploited the 'widespread voter fraud' myth for politically motivated witch hunts -- part of a larger trend of selectively targeting political and ideological opponents for investigation and prosecution.

And how can we forget the Gonzales era at the DOJ! The Attorney General is supposed to be the people's lawyer, but Gonzales was more the president's bag man. The problems that existed under Ashcroft continued or got worse. As more and more news came out about the NSA's illegal warrantless spying on Americans, the torture of U.S. detainees, legally questionable military tribunals and other subversions of the rule of law, we found out that the DOJ had expressly signed off on these administration policies and in some cases even supplied the legal and intellectual underpinning out of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). And when a scandal broke over the firing of U.S. attorneys, it became clear exactly how politically motivated hiring and firing practices had been at the DOJ, which evidently was staffed with a disproportionate number of graduates of Pat Robertson's law school (including one of the people tasked with the hiring/firing)!

Attorney General Mukasey has been arguably better than his two predecessors, but following the records of Ashcroft and Gonzales, that's not very hard. Eric Holder is a stellar choice: smart, capable and able to lead the DOJ in a new direction. But he will have his work cut out for him and he'll need help from people like you and me. First, we need to make sure he's confirmed, and that could mean a campaign to defeat whatever attacks right-wing senators throw at him. Then, because of the politically skewed hiring practices, he's going to need the support of the people to make dramatic changes at one of the government's most important agencies.

For eight years, the Department of Justice -- a government agency with a rich history of enforcing civil rights and the rule of law -- has served the worst ideological and partisan impulses of the Bush administration. The era of overzealous ideologues and partisans like Ashcroft and Gonzales is coming to an end.

Thank goodness.

But now it's time to dig in our heels and do our part to put the justice back in the Department of Justice. I hope you don't mind if I call on you for help in the coming months.

PFAW