Courts

Federal Judge Gives History Lesson on Anti-Gay Discrimination

The federal court ruling striking down Mississippi’s ban on same-sex couples getting married is worth reading for many reasons. Paul wrote earlier about U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves’s compelling explanation of the role of the courts in protecting Americans’ constitutional rights. The ruling is also filled with rich historical detail about the extent to which the state of Mississippi and the federal government have discriminated against LGBT citizens over the years, as well as the ways in which groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the notorious Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission used anti-gay rhetoric and innuendo in their attacks on African American civil rights leaders and institutions.

This history is an important rebuttal to bogus claims by anti-gay activists that gay people do not need to have their rights protected in law because they have never suffered from discrimination.

Quotes from the opinion, with citations removed for readability:

Any claim that Mississippians quietly accommodated gay and lesbian citizens could no longer be made in the 1960s, when prejudice against homosexuals (and other groups) became more visible during the civil rights movement. Segregationists called their opponents “racial  perverts,” while U.S. Marshals – summoned to enforce civil rights – were labeled “sadists and  perverts.” Klan propaganda tied together “Communists, homosexuals, and Jews, fornicators and liberals and angry blacks – infidels all.”

One Klan photo showed a black man touching the crotch of the white man sitting next to him, attempting to make the link between racial equality and homosexuality explicit.

Civil rights leaders had predicted the attack. In selecting the Freedom Riders, James Farmer had conducted interviews to weed out “Communists, homosexuals, [and] drug addicts.” “We had to screen them very carefully because we knew that if they found anything to throw at us, they would throw it,” he explained.

This reflected society’s notion that homosexuals were “undesirables.” It also placed civil rights leaders in the position of seeking rights for one disenfranchised group while simultaneously seeking to avoid association with another disenfranchised group. Mississippians opposed to integration harassed several civil rights leaders for their homosexuality. Bill Higgs was a prominent gay Mississippi civil rights lawyer. He was targeted for his activism, convicted in absentia of delinquency of a minor, and threatened with “unlimited  jailings” should he ever return to Mississippi.

He never did.

Reeves also discusses the case of Bayard Rustin, the openly gay African American civil rights activist who organized the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

The most interesting part of Rustin’s story, though – and the reason why he merits more discussion here – is that he was subjected to anti-gay discrimination by both white and black people, majority and minority alike. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, a black Democrat, threatened to feed the media a false story that Rustin was having an affair with Martin Luther King, Jr., unless Dr. King canceled a protest at the Democratic National Convention.

Other persons within the civil rights movement were similarly “put off by Rustin’s homosexuality.” Roy Wilkins, an NAACP executive, “was particularly nasty to Bayard Rustin – very hostile,” in part because he “was very nervous about Bayard’s homosexuality.” Dr. King eventually had Rustin resign “because of persistent criticism of Rustin’s homosexuality and Communist ties and because of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell’s threat.”

Rustin reemerged years later as one of the principal organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King wanted Rustin as the march’s chief organizer, but Wilkins pushed back “because [Rustin] was gay . . . something which in particular would offend J. Edgar Hoover.” The group ultimately “decided Randolph would be in charge of the march, that Rustin would be the principal organizer, but that he would stay somewhat in the background.”

The concern about offending Hoover was prescient, as the FBI Director and other top officials soon moved to use Rustin’s homosexuality against him. In August 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and President John F. Kennedy urgently reviewed the transcript of a FBI wiretap in which Dr. King acknowledged Rustin’s homosexuality. A day later, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina “rose in the Senate to denounce Rustin for sexual perversion, vagrancy, and lewdness.” FBI “headquarters badgered the field offices for new details” of Rustin’s sex life for months.

As Reeves makes clear, this kind of persecution was not only reserved for civil rights activists.

Rustin’s story speaks to the long tradition of Americans from all walks of life uniting to discriminate against homosexuals. It did not matter if one was liberal or conservative, segregationist or civil rights leader, Democrat or Republican; homosexuals were “the other.” Being homosexual invited scrutiny and professional consequences.

These consequences befell quite a few Mississippians. Ted Russell, the conductor of the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, lost his job and his Belhaven College faculty position after he was caught in a gay sex sting by the Jackson Police Department. In the early 1980s, Congressman Jon Hinson drew scrutiny for frequenting an X-rated gay movie theater in Washington, D.C., and although he won reelection, he resigned when he returned to Washington and was caught performing gay sex acts in a Capitol Hill bathroom. As early as 1950, the State’s flagship institution of higher learning, the University of Mississippi, “forced three homosexual students and one faculty member to leave the university” because it “did not tolerate homosexuality.” Lesbian instructors at Mississippi University for Women were pushed out of their jobs, while students at other Mississippi public universities were expelled for their homosexuality. A 1979 article on gay Jacksonians said “most” remained closeted because “they fear losing their jobs, friends and families.”

Reeves discusses the anti-gay actions of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was created in 1956 to maintain racial segregation by any means necessary.

Sovereignty Commission “[i]nvestigators and local officials also targeted local blacks and outsiders involved in civil rights activities as being sexually deviant.” They singled out Rust College, a private historically black institution, on reports that instructors there were “homosexuals and racial agitators.”

Those with power took smaller, yet meaningful, actions to discourage gay organizing and association in Mississippi. The State refused to let gay rights organizations incorporate as nonprofits. The newspaper at Mississippi State University – student-led, with an elected editor – refused to print a gay organization’s advertisement notifying gay and lesbian students of an off-campus “Gay Center” offering “counseling, legal aid and a library of homosexual literature. An advisor to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the Jackson Police Department took “a series . . . of maneuvers to harass members of Jackson’s gay community.” “As of 1985 not a single university campus in Mississippi recognized a lesbian and gay student group.”

Reeves’s ruling also makes clear that official discrimination is not only in the state’s past.

In 1990, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a trial judge who declared that a mother, who was a lesbian, could not visit her children in the presence of her female partner. In Weigand v. Houghton, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a trial judge who refused residential custody to a father in large part because he was in a long-term relationship with another man. A dissent complained that the father’s sexuality had impaired the court’s judgment, since the child would now have to live with “the unemployed stepfather [who] is a convicted felon, drinker, drug-taker, adulterer, wife-beater, and child-threatener, and . . . the mother [who] has been transitory, works two jobs, and has limited time with the child.”

 In 2002, one of Mississippi’s justice court judges, frustrated with advances in gay rights in California, Vermont, and Hawaii, “opined that homosexuals belong in mental institutions.” Although he was reprimanded and fined by the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the sanctions. It was more important for gay citizens to know that their judge was biased and seek his recusal than to “forc[e] judges to conceal their prejudice against gays and lesbians,” it wrote. The “Commission urges us to ‘calm the waters’ when, as the guardians of this state’s judicial system, we should be helping our citizens to spot the crocodiles.”

Reeves details a number of recent complaints and lawsuits challenging discriminatory treatment by state and local governments as well as legal inequities such as the fact that Mississippi law permits a single person to adopt a child but not gay or lesbian couples.

This kind of restriction was once supported by pseudoscience. We now recognize that it actually “harms the children, by telling them they don’t have two parents, like other children, and harms the parent who is not the adoptive parent by depriving him or her of the legal status of a parent.”

Reeves concludes the historical section of the ruling this way:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That is as true here as anywhere else. Seven centuries of strong objections to homosexual conduct have resulted in a constellation of State laws that treat gay and lesbian Mississippians as lesser, “other” people. Thus, it is easy to conclude that they have suffered through a long and unfortunate history of discrimination.

PFAW Foundation

Lame Duck Session Confirmations: PFAW Member Telebriefing

As Congress returns for the lame duck session after the midterm elections, People For the American Way hosted a member telebriefing on Monday on the critical work that needs to be completed this session to fill court vacancies. The call was kicked off by PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney who underscored the significant number of judicial and executive nominations the Senate faces, including President Obama’s new Attorney General nominee, Loretta Lynch.

PFAW members were joined on the call by Josh Hsu, Senior Counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who shared Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy’s commitment to moving forward on nominees through the lame duck session. He pointed out that much of the GOP obstruction of judicial nominees occurs under the public radar, but it has an enormous impact.  If the judicial nominees who can be confirmed by year’s end are stalled instead, that will create a substantial and needless backlog in the next Congress that will delay judicial nominees down the line. 

Hsu also gave his thoughts on how Republican control of the Senate may impact judicial nominations. Hsu pointed out that the three most recent two-term presidents all faced opposition Congresses in the final two years of their presidencies, but all continued to move forward on many nominations.

PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon emphasized the importance of local activists keeping up the momentum around judicial nominations, both during the lame duck and over the next two years. Gordon called on PFAW activists to continue contacting their senators and writing to their local papers. When senators hear from constituents on an issue or see articles written in their local newspaper, Gordon said, they pay attention. Grassroots activism is critical to making sure senators get the message on the importance of the courts, and of confirming nominees before the end of the year.

You can listen to the full audio of the telebriefing here:

PFAW

Voting Developments in Ohio and Wisconsin Show, Again, Why #CourtsMatter

The past week held both good news and bad news for voting rights, depending on your part of the country. On Friday in Ohio, an appeals court declined to put on hold a ruling that expands early voting in the state, a win for those of us who believe that voting should be fair and accessible for all people. But on the same day, an appeals court gave the okay to Wisconsin’s voter ID law — a law that had been blocked months ago by a federal judge who noted that it disproportionately affects Latino and black communities.

Commentators have noted that instating the new voter ID law in Wisconsin so close to an election could cause real confusion for voters, and advocates are asking for a re-hearing. As election law expert Rick Hasen said, “It is hard enough to administer an election with set rules — much less to change the rules midstream.”

Beyond the practical implications for voters, it’s also important to connect the dots back to how these decisions happened and who was making them. As The Nation’s Ari Berman wrote on Friday night:

[A] panel of Democrat-appointed judges on the Sixth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction from a Democrat-appointed district court judge striking down Ohio’s cuts to early voting. Two hours earlier, however, a trio of Republican-appointed judges on the Seventh Circuit overturned an injunction from a Democratic judge blocking Wisconsin’s voter ID law.

This is why elections matter. And the courts are increasingly becoming the arbiters of who does and does not get to participate in them. [emphasis added]

PFAW

Barney Frank: This Year’s Midterm Elections Define Our Courts

In an op-ed printed in the Portland Press Herald this weekend, retired congressman Barney Frank offers a sharp critique of the far right Supreme Court under John Roberts. Explicitly noting the importance of the Court in defining law that affects all citizens, Frank makes clear not only that courts matter, but everyday citizens have a hand in how these courts are shaped.

Reviewing the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions — from overturning “more than 100 years of federal and state efforts to regulate the role of money in campaigns” to declaring that corporations have the right to religious freedom under RFRA—Frank states that “the court has ended this term with a barrage against laws it does not like” (emphasis added).

He continues,

…The Supreme Court is now strongly inclined to impose conservative ideology via Constitutional interpretation on a broad range of public policy. It is true that Kennedy and to some extent Roberts occasionally deviate from this, but Justice Samuel Alito has surpassed even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in his ideological purity.

The relevance of this to the next two elections is very clear. Four of the sitting justices are in their late 70s or older. This means that there is a strong possibility that President Obama will have a chance to appoint another justice before his term expires, but his ability to do so will be determined not simply by the health of the justices in question, but by the composition of the U.S. Senate. The increasing partisanship in the Senate, the continued virulent influence of the tea party and recent history strongly suggest that even if a vacancy occurs, Obama will be prevented from filling it (emphasis added).

Frank refers to the unceasing Republican obstructionism and argues courts are critical for defining laws that affect Americans on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of this year’s midterm elections. As he concludes in this piece,

This makes it highly likely that among the issues that will be determined in the next senatorial and presidential election will be the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Voters should act accordingly.

PFAW

A Small, But Important, Step Towards Common Sense in Judicial Confirmation Process

Last week, in advance of a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on six Arizona district court nominees, senior legislative counsel Paul Gordon asked if Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain would be able to convince their Republican colleagues to break what has become their practice of routinely delaying nominees’ votes. Since 2009, only five of President Obama’s judicial nominees had been allowed to have their committee votes cast without delay. Gordon urged the Senators to forgo this obstruction, especially given the enormous caseload in Arizona that is impeding the operation of the Arizona district court that has 6 of its 13 seats vacant. 

Yesterday, in a departure from their practice, the Committee actually voted on the nominees. 91. 5 KJAZZ reported:

“The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way called this a step toward fixing the judicial vacancy rate in Arizona, but noted that there are 28 people awaiting confirmation ahead of these nominees.”

Executive vice president Marge Baker also commented on the turn of events in an interview with Cronkite News:

“It wasn’t sustainable to keep delaying this process, and it seems that Arizona senators finally heeded reason. Arizona has had a terrible judicial vacancy rate. This is an important step towards fixing it.”

This was a relief for the state of Arizona, as well as a nice change of pace for Senate Republicans. But as a judicial vacancy crisis continues in Arizona and across the country, the work is far from over.

PFAW

Virginia Ban on Same-Sex Marriage Struck Down

On Thursday evening a federal judge ruled that Virginia’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen stayed the decision pending appeal, meaning that while the ban has been struck down, the ruling will not immediately take effect.

Close on the heels of a federal judge’s decision earlier this week directing Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, Judge Wright Allen’s decision makes Virginia the first state in the South where a statewide ban has been entirely struck down.

In the South and across the country, it’s clear that Americans increasingly believe it is wrong to block committed couples from the protections and responsibilities that only marriage can provide. As Judge Wright Allen wrote in her decision:

Our nation's uneven but dogged journey toward truer and more meaningful freedoms for our citizens has brought us continually to a deeper understanding of the first three words in our Constitution: we the people. "We the People" have become a broader, more diverse family than once imagined.

PFAW Foundation

Justice Ginsburg Speaks Out Against Citizens United

With little over a month before the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a money in politics case that some are calling the next Citizens United, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke out this week on the damage that Citizens United v. FEC continues to cause to our democracy. 

Discussing the infamous 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for unlimited corporate spending to influence our elections, Ginsburg told Greg Stohr of Bloomberg News:

“You take the limits off and say, ‘You can spend as much as you want,’ and people will spend and spend,” she said. “People are appalled abroad. It’s a question I get asked all the time: Why should elections be determined by how much a candidate can spend and why should candidates spend most of their time these days raising the funds so that they will prevail in the next election?”

It’s a great question, and one with a clear answer – they shouldn’t.

Justice Ginsburg is not alone in her concerns about the damage done to our democratic system.  A 2012 Brennan Center national poll found that nearly seven in ten respondents agree that “new rules that let corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.” 

And this is not the first time Justice Ginsburg has publicly commented on the Citizens United decision. Early last year, Justices Ginsburg and Breyer released a statement in conjunction with a Court order in a campaign finance case out of Montana stating that:

Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”  A petition for certiorari will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.

It is also not the first time she has commented on the Roberts Court more generally.  In an interview with the New York Times this weekend, Ginsburg called the current court “one of the most activist courts in history.”

In October, the high court will hear arguments in a case considering similar issues, McCutcheon v. FEC, for which People For the American Way Foundation submitted an amicus brief.  In this case, the Supreme Court could take the damage of Citizens United one step further by eliminating the caps on how much money an individual can contribute – in total – in each two-year campaign cycle.  It other words, the court would be striking down another protection against wealthy special interests overpowering our political system, allowing even more big money to flow into our elections.

Just what our democracy needs.  PFAW Foundation Executive Vice President Marge Baker noted last month:

Protecting the legitimacy of our political system, and restoring the faith of the American people in that system, is vital to a working democracy.

And as Justice Ginsburg highlighted this week, elections shouldn’t be determined by who has the biggest wallet.
 

PFAW Foundation

Shredding the Constitution in North Carolina

North Carolina legislators introduce a resolution declaring that the state can establish a religion and that federal courts can't declare laws unconstitutional.
PFAW

Sotomayor Calls Out Prosecutor’s Attempt to ‘Substitute Racial Stereotype for Evidence’

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement today in connection with the denial of a cert petition for a case from Texas. She agreed with the decision not to hear the appeal, but she recognized the need to also release a statement condemning the offensive, racially charged remarks of a federal prosecutor during a drug-focused trial.  During the cross-examination of a man who testified that he was not part of and did not know about friends’ plan to buy illegal drugs, the prosecutor asked:

“You've got African-Americans, you've got Hispanics, you've got a bag full of money. Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn't go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”

Sotomayor called the prosecutor’s comment “pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason.” She went on:

“It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”

Sotomayor’s powerful response highlights the critical importance of diversity in our court system.  As Justice Sotomayor noted in 2001, “our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.”  During her confirmation, People For the American Way Foundation documented the far right’s vitriolic reactions to Sotomayor’s insightful discussion of the ways in which her life experiences as a Latina woman inform her view of the law. 

But today’s statement is one example of what that looks like in practice.  It highlights what it looks like when a woman of color on our nation’s highest court has the power to call out blatant racism in the judicial system. 
 

PFAW Foundation

Court Rejects Florida's Efforts to Curtail Early Voting

In an opinion affecting 5 counties, a federal court rules that Florida's curtailed early voting would disproportionately harm African Americans.
PFAW Foundation

PFAW's Jamie Raskin Takes on Right-Wing Rhetoric on the Courts

As the 2012 presidential campaign gears up, PFAW Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin has collected an extensive glossary of the Right Wing’s favorite rhetoric about the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Sen. Raskin's Daily Kos piece explains the coded phrases and euphemisms, such as “federalism,” “legislating from the bench” and “original intent,” that the Right Wing uses to project their political agenda onto the Founding Fathers’ vision for America.

Here’s an excerpt :

“Follow the Law, Not Make the Law” – Right -Wing Usage: What Republican judges and justices do and what Republican judicial nominees will do, e.g., “It’s only a matter of time before our five justices who follow the law and don’t make the law strike down the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and step up the campaign to invalidate jury verdicts and punitive damages in the states.” Preferred Usage: Essentially meaningless campaign rhetoric used to describe judges who toe the right-wing corporate line, e.g., “I hope they follow the law, instead of making it, and cut our jury verdict down to a price that won’t cost us so much freedom of speech.”

You can read the whole glossary here.

PFAW

Court Official - "I Just Don't See an End to Our Backlog"

Tennessee's case backlog is so bad it is now "borrowing" federal judges from Michigan.
PFAW

Fighting For Fair and Just Courts

We may see increased pressure this month to end the obstruction that is keeping so many Americans from having their day in court.
PFAW

Senate GOP - "Ignore What We Said Before"

Senate Republicans used to demand quick confirmation votes for any judicial nominee clearing the Judiciary Committee. Not anymore.
PFAW

Sen. Coons to Senate GOP: Rethink Your Strategy of Obstruction

The Delaware Senator notes that it should not take so long to confirm consensus lower court nominees.
PFAW

Ben Cardin Urges a Vote on a Maryland Judicial Nominee

Among the 19 judicial nominees who Republicans are blocking from a floor vote is an experienced Maryland state judge with bipartisan support.
PFAW

The Judicial Vacancy Crisis in Illinois

Sen. Durbin discusses how the chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois has asked the Senate to fill two vacancies as quickly as possible.
PFAW

Harsh Light of Exposure Makes Senate GOP Crumble

Earlier this week, Senate Republicans were harshly criticized for filibustering a highly qualified Cuban American with no committee opposition nominated for a seat on the Eleventh Circuit. Yesterday, they doubled down and set their sights on an unopposed district court nominee, Jesse Furman of New York. As we noted yesterday, the absurdity of the move cannot be overstated. The Senate GOP wasn’t just moving the goalposts, they were moving the entire football field.

It appears that the barrage of deserved criticism they received for this outrageous escalation in their war against the American judiciary has had an effect: It was just announced that the cloture petition will be vitiated (i.e., withdrawn). More than five months after Furman was approved without opposition by the Senate Judiciary Committee, he will finally get his day on the Senate floor. In turn, assuming he is confirmed, more New Yorkers will get their day in court.

This is a victory for every American who wants to protect our nation’s judicial system.

PFAW