Courts

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

Perhaps No Winners Yet in Supreme Court Pension Case

Last fall, we blogged about the case of CIGNA v. Amara, in which the Supreme Court was being asked to make it harder for employees to hold their employers accountable for providing inaccurate summaries of major changes in their pensions plans. (See our November blog post for more background.) This week, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case, ruling for CIGNA 8-0 (with Justice Sotomayor recused), with Justices Scalia and Thomas concurring in the judgment.

Several years ago, CIGNA gave its employees an intentionally misleading summary of a change in its pension plan, one that did not reveal some of its financial disadvantages. Citing a particular provision of ERISA (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act), the 27,000 employees in this pension plan sued. The trial court ruled in their favor and reformed the pension plan to the employees' benefit, a ruling that was upheld by the circuit court. CIGNA appealed to the Supreme Court, positing a legal theory that would have made it significantly harder for wronged employees to recover.

Yesterday, the Court unanimously agreed that the provision of ERISA that the employees were suing under did not authorize the relief granted by the lower courts. Justices Scalia and Thomas would have ended the inquiry there, handing a complete defeat to the workers. However, the majority, in an opinion written by Justice Breyer, ruled that employees may be able to rely on another part of ERISA, a general catch-all provision allowing plaintiffs “to obtain other appropriate equitable relief” for violations of ERISA. The Court remanded the case to the lower court to determine what that relief might be.

The Court also disagreed with CIGNA's extreme view that each individual employee must show that they actually relied on the summary to their detriment – in other words, that they (1) actually read the summary document all those years ago; (2) had no knowledge of plan terms contradicting the summary; and (3) relied on the summary to make a detrimental employment or retirement decision that they would not otherwise have made (e.g., prove that they would have moved to a company with better retirement benefits but for the misleading summary).

Since we don't really know if corporations will ultimately be held responsible to any meaningful degree if they provide misleading summaries of pension plans, whether the opinion was a win for employees or employers depends on who you ask. Bloomberg characterized it as a "partial win" for CIGNA.

Reuters reported:

A U.S. Supreme Court sent an important reminder to retirees this week: you can't necessarily rely on your employer for an accurate description of your pension benefits. ...

Legal experts differed yesterday on whether the ruling was a win for Cigna and other plan sponsors, or for the beneficiaries — although pension advocates were confident the decision ultimately will produce a victory for employees when the lower court ultimately rules.

And as reported in Life and Health Insurance News:

"CIGNA is pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the lower court to reconsider its initial decision and undertake further proceedings in the case," CIGNA says in a statement about the ruling.

Ellen Doyle, a Pittsburgh lawyer who helped represent the plan participants in the class-action lawsuit, called the ruling a "significant loss for employees."

PFAW

It's Time to Confirm Goodwin Liu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

The Unwelcome Return of the Newt

After more than a dozen years out of office, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jumped into the GOP presidential campaign this week, rolling out his candidacy via social media and a friendly interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity. Gingrich thinks he's just what is needed to save America from itself and its flirtation with Barack Obama and the rest of the evil of what he calls the "secular-socialist machine."

Much of the media attention of Gingrich's candidacy has centered around his role in the 1995 government shutdown, which Gingrich alone seems to think was a great success for the GOP, and his more recent urging of congressional Republicans not to fear a repeat. The implication seems to be that if you're the kind of voter who wants a more combative conservative willing to take down the federal government in order to bring down deficits, Newt may be your guy. But that kind of discussion -- and the crazily early poll-watching "which tier is he in?" stories -- miss something more important. Let's remind ourselves what kind of person Newt Gingrich is, and what kind of impact he has had on our public life.

Gingrich hasn't exactly been in hiding. In fact, he is at the center of his own machine, a 24/7 festival of self-promotion that includes an emailed "Newt and Callista Weekly Recap" courtesy of Gingrich Productions. If self-promotion were the top trait Americans were looking for in a president, Gingrich would be a shoo-in. But the job requires a bit more than that. People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch, Mother Jones and Media Matters have already posted compilations of Newtonian 'wisdom' from a long and dishonorable career. Once you start to consider characteristics like honesty and integrity, it becomes clear that Gingrich is unfit to lead our country.

The Newt McCarthyism

Gingrich is an enthusiastic participant in the right wing's divisive and destructive McCarthyism, portraying his political opponents as enemies of America's very existence. In To Save America, Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, he warns, "America as we know it is now facing a mortal threat... The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did... It's up to those of us who love our country to save America from the destructive, irreversible transformation that the Left have in store for us." In Real Change: The Fight for America's Future, he claims that the Obama administration (that would be the Faith-Based Initiative-continuing, National Prayer Day-celebrating, Easter Breakfast-sponsoring Obama administration) "has shown an unprecedented hostility to Christianity." He promotes ridiculous Religious Right claims about religious persecution in America, saying that Christians are threatened by "gay and secular fascism."

Gingrich spoke this spring at the Texas church led by John Hagee, whose support proved too controversial for John McCain in 2008. Newt combined two of his favorite threats, secularists and Islamists, into one memorable, if intellectually incoherent, sentence, declaring that he feared that his grandchildren could grow up "in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." He told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, "In a sense, our Judeo-Christian civilization is under attack from two fronts. On one front, you have a secular, atheist, elitism. And on the other front, you have radical Islamists. And both groups would like to eliminate our civilization if they could. For different reasons, but with equal passion."

Newt is also placing himself at the forefront of the concerted conservative campaign to turn "American exceptionalism" into an attack on the patriotism of their political opponents. Candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio made American exceptionalism into a campaign theme in 2010, and hope to continue to smear Democrats as unbelievers in America's divinely-blessed founding and mission in the world. Gingrich has teamed up with Citizens United's David Bossie for a new "documentary" on American exceptionalism, A City Upon a Hill, The Spirit of American Exceptionalism, which features, among others, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Andrew Breitbart and Phyllis Schlafly.

Gingrich, an old hand at politics-by-smear, is responsible for much of the venomous state of our politics. In the mid-1990s, his GOPAC distributed to Republican lawmakers a memo titled "Language: a Key Mechanism of Control." The memo urged Republicans to use a set of denigrating words to describe their opponents and the Democratic Party: "decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, 'compassion' is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor...) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage."

Religious Liberty: Hypocrisy and Bad History

Gingrich, like other Religious Right political figures, postures as a defender of Americans' religious liberty against a deeply hostile elite, the "secular-socialist machine." Yet he joined with gusto the opponents of the proposed Park51 Islamic community center in Manhattan, which right-wing activists vilified as the "Ground Zero Mosque," saying, "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." In his book, Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich declared, "A steadfast commitment to religious freedom is the very cornerstone of American liberty." Regarding the Islamic center in New York, he said, "No mosque. No self-deception. No surrender."

Gingrich, like other Religious Right leaders, justifies his attacks on Islam by suggesting that it is not really a religion, saying radical Islam "is a comprehensive political, economic, and religious movement that seeks to impose sharia -- Islamic law -- upon all aspects of global society... Radical Islamists see politics and religion as inseparable in a way it is difficult for Americans to understand. Radical Islamists assert sharia's supremacy over the freely legislated laws and values of the countries they live in and see it as their sacred duty to achieve this totalitarian supremacy in practice." Yet while Gingrich decries radical Islamists' goal of achieving "totalitarian supremacy," one of his own organizations, Renewing American Leadership, is run by an advocate of the 7 Mountains Mandate, a dominionist theology that argues that Christians are meant to control the levers of power in every aspect of government and society.

Gingrich is ideologically joined at the hip to "Christian nation" pseudo-historian David Barton. In Barton's worldview, the First Amendment is not about protecting religious pluralism, but was only meant to keep the federal government from siding with one group of Christians over another. Barton believes the First Amendment should not apply at all to the states, but that states should be free to pose religious tests for office, and local religious majorities should be free to use public schools for proselytizing prayer. On Barton's radio show, Gingrich promised that if he ran, he would be calling on Barton for help, presumably the way Barton helped turn out evangelical voters for the Republican Party during George W. Bush's reelection campaign. It seems to be a mutual admiration society. When Barton and other right-wing activists were pushing for changes in Texas textbooks, they urged that Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall be dropped, but that Newt be added.

Gingrich shares Barton's view of the federal courts as evil usurpers of the founding fathers' religious intentions. "There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular Left's relentless effort to drive God out of America's public square," Gingrich wrote in Rediscovering God in America. In a recent speech to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Gingrich said the courts have been "especially powerful engines of coerced secularization," and that "From the 1962 school prayer decision on, there has been a decisive break with the essentially religious nature of historic American civilization." While in Congress, Gingrich promoted the Religious Right's false claims that courts had somehow banned students from praying, and repeatedly supported efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to return organized prayer to public schools.

Politics over Principle

In addition to intellectual arrogance, a shameless lack of principle may be Gingrich's most identifying characteristic. When the popular uprisings in the Middle East spread to Libya, Gingrich denounced President Obama for not immediately imposing a no-fly zone: "We don't need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening." Less than two weeks later, when the U.S. joined other nations in imposing a no-fly zone, Gingrich attacked Obama, saying "I would not have intervened" and declaring that "it is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity." Newt clearly knows a thing or two about opportunism and publicity-seeking; getting some coverage for an attack on Obama was clearly more important to him than questions of U.S. policy in Libya.

Hubris

For all the far-right's charges that President Obama harbors anti-democratic tendencies -- Gingrich vowed to Hannity that he would abolish all the White House "czar" positions by executive order -- Gingrich's own behavior has made it clear that he sees himself as so superior to others, such an essential treasure for the nation, that the rules he would apply to others should not apply to him. When his second wife asked Newt how he could give a speech about the importance of family values just days after he admitted that he was having an affair, he reportedly told her, "It doesn't matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live." That is a breathtaking level of hubris, even by presidential candidate standards. And when the CBN's Brody lobbed him the fluffiest of softballs by asking him to talk about his affairs in the context of his experience of God's forgiveness, Newt blew it by blaming his cheating on his love of country: "There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

So Right and So Wrong

Gingrich's policy positions are pretty much standard fare in today's far-right Republican Party, including anti-worker, pro-corporate economic policies and support for criminalizing abortion. He has demonstrated his new-found commitment to the sacred nature of marriage by trying to buy the support of Religious Right activists in presidentially important Iowa, where he funneled about $200,000 into an unfortunately successful campaign to punish and purge three state Supreme Court justices who had voted to end marriage discrimination against same-sex couples in the state.

America is grappling with a set of deeply serious challenges at home and abroad. Americans would benefit from a substantive discussion of those problems and the policy choices that face them. What they're most likely to get from Newt Gingrich is toxic McCarthyism, petty and unprincipled partisanship, and preening self-promotion. Thanks but no thanks.

Cross posted on The Huffington Post

PFAW

The Corporate Court Strikes Again: By 5-4, Supreme Court Undermines Class Action Consumer Protection Suits

Yesterday at the Supreme Court, the five conservative Justices on the Corporate Court handed corporate interests even greater control than before over Americans' daily lives. In AT&T v. Concepcion, a narrow 5-4 majority used a federal arbitration law in a way wholly alien to its intent: to undermine state consumer protection laws across the country. Even worse, under yesterday’s precedent, employers may now be able to easily cut off anti-discrimination enforcement through class action lawsuits – often the only way to address employment discrimination – by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration clauses that contain a ban on class action.

This case started when AT&T allegedly scammed thousands of customers by offering a "free" second phone, then charging them for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the phone. One of its victims brought a class action suit against the company. However, AT&T had a service contract where consumers had to agree to resolve any future claims against the cell phone company through arbitration, rather than the courts. In addition, customers had to agree not to participate in any class action against the telecommunications giant. So AT&T asked the court to enforce the agreement it had imposed upon the Concepcions by throwing out the class action suit and forcing them into arbitration, one lone family against AT&T suing for a few dollars without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.

Under California law, the contractual prohibition against class action is so outrageous as to be illegal. California recognizes that such provisions effectively protect companies from being held liable for their transgressions and that they are able to force them upon consumers only because of the corporations’ vastly superior bargaining position.

But the Roberts Court said this state protection of consumers is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.

Many of us have gotten incomprehensible bills from giant telecom companies with relatively small charges for services never ordered, or mysterious taxes or fees that the company should not be charging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are cheated in these situations don't even realize it. Moreover, because the amounts at issue are relatively small, there is little incentive for consumers to undertake the significant expenses of recovering their loss. Even when the company pays out to the tiny percentage of defrauded customers who go to the trouble to engage in lone arbitration against the company, the overall scheme remains profitable.

That is why class actions are so important. They allow the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible the deterrent effect of a potentially significant financial loss to the deceptive corporation. In ruling for AT&T, the Roberts Court has devastated state-level consumer protections like California’s and essentially given corporations an instruction manual on how to commit rampant fraud against consumers. Beyond that, using the same interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act, employers may be able to evade class-action discrimination lawsuits as well, putting all workers at risk.

Fortunately, unlike Citizens United, this Corporate Court gift to Big Business rests on an interpretation of a statute, not the Constitution. In other words, Congress can fix this problem with a simple bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has already called on Congress to do just that.

PFAW

Supreme Court Seems Likely to Throw Out Global Warming Case

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a high-profile global-warming case: American Electric Power v. Connecticut. At issue is whether and how courts can hold corporate polluters accountable for the planetary climate damage they are causing.

Several states have sued power producers on the basis that they are creating a public nuisance. Instead of being tied to a specific federal statute or regulation, their claim is based on the common law of nuisance, which has been part of our legal system for centuries. (Common law is law developed over time by the courts in the absence of specific legislation or executive rules.) The Second Circuit ruled that the lawsuit could proceed on this theory, and the power companies appealed. However, as the Wall Street Journals reports:

The Supreme Court appeared deeply skeptical Tuesday about allowing states to sue electric utilities to force cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Both conservative and liberal justices questioned whether a federal judge could deal with the complex issue of global warming, a topic they suggested is better left to Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency.

An additional factor arising since the lawsuit began several years ago is a change in the EPA’s stance. When the lawsuit began, the EPA claimed it lacked the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Now, having been corrected by the Supreme Court, the agency is deciding whether to adopt rules affecting facilities like the ones at issue in this case. Such regulations would, if adopted, trump the common law.

Why let the lawsuit go forward, when "the agency is engaged in it right now?" said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The lawyer representing the states acknowledged that the case was before the high court at a "peculiar moment," but said the court should block the lawsuit only if the EPA actually issues regulations. ...

Lawyers for the companies and the administration focused on the enormity of the climate change issue to argue against the lawsuit.

"You have never heard a case like this before," Neal Katyal, the acting U.S. Solicitor General, said. The term global warming, Katyal said, "tells you all you need to know."

The Justices seem likely to rule that the legislative and executive branches should address the issues raised in this case. That will serve the interests of giant corporations with a financial stake in the status quo, who, due to Citizens United, have an undue and growing influence over who populates those branches.

PFAW

NOM’s Gallagher Invited to Share Anti-Equality Myths with House Committee

This morning, Rep. Trent Franks, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, called a hearing on “Defending Marriage” to examine the Obama Administration’s decision to stop defending the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in courts.

Franks is pretty, um, far to the right, so it’s no surprise that one of the three witnesses he called to the hearing was Maggie Gallagher, chair of the National Organization for Marriage.

As Justin wrote earlier, Gallagher hit a bunch of the big themes of the Religious Right’s anti-gay activism, but she also dwelled on one argument peculiar to the anti-marriage equality crowd: that marriage exists solely as a structure for procreation:

If we accept, as DOMA explicitly does, that this is a core purpose of marriage, then treating same-sex unions as marriages makes little sense. If marriage as a public and legal institution is oriented towards protecting children by increasing the likelihood they are born to and raised by the man and the woman whose union made them, then same-sex couples do not fit. If same-sex couples “fit” the public definition of marriage, then marriage is no longer about responsible procreation. Same-sex marriage cuts marriage as a public idea off from these deep roots in the natural family. Over time the law will re-educate the next generation that these ancient and honorable ideals underlying marriage no longer apply. Gay marriage, as Judge Walker ruled in wrongly striking down Prop 8, is based on the idea that neither biology nor gender matters to children. Same-sex marriage repudiates the public’s interest in trying to see that children are, to the extent possible, raised by the man and woman whose bodies made them in a loving single family.

The argument that marriage exists solely for having children is, needless to say, flimsy – and has been pretty well demolished in a few marriage equality trials. I’m just going to share this extended exchange from last year’s Proposition 8 trial, in which Judge Vaughn Walker reduces the lawyer defending Prop 8 into babbling incoherence as he tries to defend the marriage-is-only-for-procreation argument:

THE COURT: And my point was that there are a number of heterosexual couples who do not naturally procreate, who require the intervention of some third party or some medical assistance of some kind.

MR. COOPER: Yes, your Honor. And it is not those opposite-sex couples either that the state is concerned about in terms of -- in terms of the threats to society and the natural concerns that society has from irresponsible procreation.

THE COURT: What's the threat to society of people choosing to have medical assistance in order to conceive children?

MR. COOPER: There isn't one there, your Honor. I mean, it's -- it is the -- again, it's irresponsible procreation. The procreation that comes about casually. And often again, as the Eighth Circuit put it, often by accident, unintentionally, unintentionally. The opposite-sex couple where one of the partners is infertile, for example, or the same-sex couple can't unintentionally procreate, but for reasons that we discussed earlier with respect to the opposite sex but infertile couple, allowing them to marry isn't something that is inconsistent with the purposes of -- the core procreative purposes of marriage and, in fact, in certain respects it advances those purposes and it would just not be possible or realistic, as case after case has said, for the state to try to implement its policy on a more narrow or fitted basis.

And, your Honor, with respect to -- and you asked a question about this in your written questions. Even with respect to the opposite-sex couple where one of the partners is infertile, encouraging that couple to get married, trying to channel that couple into marriage furthers the procreative purposes and policies underlying the traditional definition of marriage in the sense that if that couple gets married, then it -- then all of the social norms that come with marriage to encourage that couple to stay together and to be faithful to one another operate to society's benefit in the sense that the fertile member of that couple will be less likely to engage in sexual relationships with third parties and raise anew a threat of some type of unintentional or what I have been referring to previously as irresponsible procreation.

THE COURT: Why don't those same values, which are values to society that you have described, apply to lesbian couples and gay couples? Coming together, supporting one another, taking care of one another, looking out for one another, being an economic unit, being a social unit, providing love, comfort and support for one another, why don't all of those considerations apply just as much to the plaintiffs here as they apply to John and Jane Doe, to use the names that Reverend Tam used.

MR. COOPER: Those purposes, your Honor, are – we haven't suggested there is a distinction among gay and opposite-sex couples with respect to those considerations. There is a distinction, however, with respect to the fundamental procreative purpose, responsible procreative purpose of marriage; and that is that the gay couple, unlike the opposite-sex couple where one of the partners may be infertile, doesn't represent -- neither partner in the – with respect to the same-sex couple is -- again, assuming homosexual sexual orientation -- represents a concern about irresponsible procreation with a third party.

To summarize, Cooper, when pressed on the issue, ended up arguing that opposite-sex couples should get married so they don’t go around “irresponsibly procreating” with people they aren’t married to…but same-sex couples aren’t in danger of irresponsibly procreating, so they don’t need to get married….and that somehow, if gay couples were to get married, they would drive heterosexuals away from marriage, resulting in them having babies out of wedlock.

To be clear, this is the primary argument that opponents of marriage equality have in their toolkit.
 

PFAW

Roberts Court Leaves State’s Church/State Money Laundering Scheme Intact

A closely divided Supreme Court issued a seriously flawed decision today in Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn, using constitutional sleight of hand to get around the Establishment Clause's prohibition against the use of public funds for religious purposes and to frustrate Americans' ability to go to court when the constitutional guarantee of church-state separation is violated.

Here's the background to the case, which involves the state of Arizona's program to support religious schools.

States are constitutionally prohibited from directly supporting religious education. So Arizona figured out a way to try to get around that inconvenient First Amendment by setting up a system where that money goes to the religious organization before it gets to the treasury.

Arizona has a program where taxpayers get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for money they give to "school tuition organizations" (STOs), nonprofit organizations that award private school scholarships to children. Many of the STO awards actually require parents to send their children to religious schools as a condition of receipt.

So an Arizonan can take a certain amount of money that he owes in taxes and instead give it to a religious STO to pay for someone's religious education. As Justice Kagan said during oral arguments, Arizona established the program so STOs, acting as state intermediaries, could "make distinctions that the state itself cannot make."

Essentially, the state has set up a money laundering scheme to get around the Establishment Clause.

However, before the Court could address the program's constitutionality, it first had to determine if the taxpayer plaintiffs have standing to sue. The Constitution prohibits federal courts from hearing a case unless the plaintiff has a personal stake in the outcome. Simply being a taxpayer generally does not give you such a personal stake. However, in the Flast v. Cohen decision of 1968, the Supreme Court recognized that federal taxpayers do have such a stake when they challenge Congressional spending.

The Roberts Court today ignored common sense and the reasoning of Flast and concluded that Arizona state taxpayers don't have standing to bring this case to federal court. As they did in the 2007 Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation case, the five conservatives acted to prevent courts from enforcing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

According to the Roberts Court, there is no government spending here to contest. Instead, it is simply a series of independent spending decisions made by private citizens who are spending their own money, not the government's.

This is constitutional sleight of hand at its worst, which Justice Kagan pointed out in dissent. As she noted, the majority is making an arbitrary distinction between cash grants and targeted tax breaks for the purposes of standing: Either way, the government has financed religious activity, so either way, taxpayers should be able to challenge the subsidy.

Since there are times when no one other than taxpayers has suffered the injury necessary to challenge government sponsorship of religion, the majority opinion "will diminish the Establishment Clause's force and meaning." The dissent continued:

"The Court opinion thus offers a roadmap – more truly, just a one-step instruction – to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge. Structure the funding as a tax expenditure, and Flast will not stand in the way. No taxpayer will have standing to object. However blatantly the government may violate the Establishment Clause, taxpayers cannot gain access to the federal courts."

It is a good day for the religious right, and a bad one for the United States Constitution and the rule of law.

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

Wisconsin Republicans Challenge The Rule Of Law To Push Anti-Union Agenda

After the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature rushed-through Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting legislation, the District Attorney of Dane County, which covers the state capital, sued to block the law’s implementation. According to the District Attorney, the legislature violated the state’s open meetings law by failing to give the public 24 hours notice before meeting about the bill, resulting with a judge issuing a temporary restraining order on the bill’s implementation. But the GOP leaders of the legislature decided to publish the bill despite the judge’s ruling, creating immense confusion about whether the anti-union legislation is the law or not. While the judge did not explicitly bar the Legislative Reference Bureau from publishing the law, the clear intent of the judge’s order was to prevent the law from being implemented.

CNN reports on the ensuing legal crisis and the reactions of labor organizers and State Senator Chris Larson, a member of PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, who are leading the charge against the GOP’s latest power grab:

The litigious and contentious battle in Wisconsin over collective bargaining rights has a new twist -- the publishing of the law despite a judge's order against such a move.

That left lawmakers and observers wondering Saturday whether the law had taken effect.

This latest drama started Friday afternoon when the state's Legislative Reference Bureau published the controversial act that curbs the collective bargaining rights of most employees.



The Wisconsin State Employees Union Council 24 blasted the publishing of the law.

"By attempting to unilaterally publish their bill eliminating the rights of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites, (Gov.) Walker and his cronies have unquestionably violated the laws of this state to further their extreme overreach for absolute power over our state's people."

Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson said, "The courts are going to step in again and say, 'No, you have to follow the letter of the law' and again they broke it. ... I think it's pretty shameless of Walker and the Republicans."

Update: Gov. Walker has announced that he will begin implementing the anti-union law despite the legal uncertainties. In response, state Democratic chair Mike Tate said:

"Are there any laws that yet bind Scott Walker and the Republicans? With the arrogance of the zealot, they act as if they were laws unto themselves. Ultimately, our Constitution and our courts will protect us from their warped ideologies, but in the meantime, our democracy in Wisconsin is being flayed."

Update 2: (AP) MADISON, Wis. (3/30):

A Wisconsin judge has ruled that there should be no further implementation of a law taking away nearly all collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi said Tuesday that her earlier restraining order saying the law shouldn't be enacted had either been ignored or misinterpreted.

Sumi stopped short of saying the law was not already in effect. She says she will take more testimony on that issue.

The Legislative Reference Bureau posted the law on a legislative website Friday, leading Gov. Scott Walker's administration to declare the law was in effect.

Sumi revised her original March temporary restraining order blocking the secretary of state from publishing the law, which is typically the last step before it becomes effective.

PFAW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

Encouraged by Citizens United, Right-Wing Groups Demand Even More Corporate Influence in Politics

While the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United overturned decades of precedent by granting corporations the right to spend money from their corporate treasuries to help elect or defeat candidates, many pro-corporate activists believe that the ruling didn’t go far enough and seek to eviscerate even more restrictions on corporate money in elections. Opponents of campaign finance reform are spearheading efforts to allow corporations to contribute directly to candidates for office, permit political groups to keep the identity of their donors a secret, and loosen restrictions on foreigners contributing to candidates. The Supreme Court is also set to consider a major case on the constitutionality of Arizona’s clean elections laws that provide public financing for qualifying candidates. Politico reports on the Right’s “sustained assault” on campaign laws:

Not satisfied by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to corporate-sponsored election ads, conservative opponents of campaign finance regulations have opened up a series of new legal fronts in their effort to eliminate the remaining laws restricting the flow of money into politics.

They have taken to Congress, state legislatures and the lower courts to target almost every type of regulation on the books: disclosure requirements, bans on foreign and corporate contributions and – in a pair of cases the Supreme Court will consider this month – party spending limits and public financing of campaigns.

The sustained assault, combined with the Supreme Court’s rightward tilt on the issue, has some advocates for reducing the role of money in politics fretting about the possibility of an irreversible shift in the way campaigns are regulated and funded that would favor Republicans and corporate interests in the 2012 presidential race and beyond.



“Depending on its scope, an adverse ruling from the high court could undermine public financing systems across the country and increase still further the grossly disproportionate voice given to corporations and unions in our elections,” warns a memo by Gerry Hebert and Tara Malloy, lawyers at the pro-regulation Campaign Legal Center, which filed a brief defending the Arizona law.

“Just a year after the controversial decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the Court is once again poised to issue a ruling that could make it harder for ordinary citizens to compete with big money in our democracy,” their memo predicted.

Opponents of campaign rules argue that removing restrictions allows more voices to compete in the political marketplace. And they have a slew of other suits pending that could dramatically alter the political money landscape, including one challenging a rule that limited how much the Republican National Committee could spend supporting the unsuccessful 2010 reelection campaign of former Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.).

The Supreme Court is set to decide on Friday whether to hear the case which is being handled by Jim Bopp, a Republican lawyer and leading opponent of campaign restrictions. The impact of the Cao case “could be real big,” if the court overturns the so-called coordination limits at issue, predicted Bopp, who has dozens of cases pending in courts around the country.

One seeks to advance the Citizens United ruling by challenging an Iowa law banning direct corporate contributions to state candidates, while a pair of others dispute whether non-profit groups called the Committee for Truth in Politics and The Real Truth About Obama that aired ads critical of then-candidate Barack Obama had to disclose their donors or activity.
PFAW

Government Shutdown Would Close Courts, with “Dire Consequences”

As if the current judicial vacancy crisis wasn’t enough, now a group of federal judges is warning that a government shutdown over budget issues could lead to courts closing, accused criminals going free, and Americans waiting even longer for access to justice. Judge David Sentelle, chairman of the 27-member Executive Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference, told reporters that a government shutdown could have “potentially dire consequences” for the courts:

Federal judges would still get paid because under the Constitution, judges’ pay cannot be decreased, Sentelle said. But no other federal employees in the courthouses, like clerks, stenographers, bailiffs and security guards, would get paychecks, making it difficult if not impossible to hear cases, he said.

Also, jury trials would have to end because there would be no money to pay jurors to compensate for them missing work, he said.

If the government shuts down, Sentelle said they would ask essential personnel to work anyway and get their money after a budget is approved. “We’ve been there before and it’s not something you want to ask your employees to do,” Sentelle said.

Without personnel to hear cases, some suspected criminals could be released from prison because their case was not heard before a judge within a required deadline.

A government shutdown would be a one-two punch to the federal courts, which are already severely hampered by a vacancy crisis caused by politically motivated gridlock in the Senate confirmation process. As of March 8, there were almost 100 seats open on the federal bench, 41 of which have been declared “judicial emergencies” by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Too often the courts are forced to be a pawn in political maneuvering in Washington—in this case, with “dire consequences” for ordinary Americans seeking justice.

PFAW

Another View of the Judicial Vacancy Crisis

The Los Angeles Times today highlights the judicial vacancy crisis by spotlighting the senior judges who have already retired, but who are still needed to hear cases due to the lack of new judges being confirmed.

As federal courts stagger under the weight of mounting caseloads and vacant judgeships go unfilled for years, senior judges like [Betty] Fletcher have come to the rescue, especially in the 9th Circuit, where they shoulder a third of the legal load.

"It's kind of a double whammy," Fletcher said of the courts that have had no new judgeships added in 21 years and that have declining numbers of active judges because of partisan posturing in Congress. Nearly 11% of the nation's 875 lifetime positions are empty.

Senior judges, working overtime to keep the wheels of justice turning, earn the gratitude of their overwhelmed colleagues. But they do not earn a penny more for continuing to work, many of them almost full time, than they would if they were to hang up their robes and head for the golf course.

Of course, as another judge points out, the real victims of the Senate’s inaction on judicial nominees aren’t the judges themselves, but the ordinary people who need their cases to be heard.

"I feel a responsibility to the litigants," said [Judge Dorothy] Nelson, 82. "The courts are not for the judges, and they are not for the lawyers. They are for the people who have real grievances that need to be heard."

In recent weeks, the rate of confirmations in the Senate has risen slightly, but it’s still nowhere near fast enough.

Americans deserve a judicial system that works. Thanks to the obstruction and delay caused by Senate Republicans, that’s not what we’re getting.

PFAW

Supreme Court Decision Exposes Religious Right Deceit on Hate Crimes Laws

When Congress debated and ultimately passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, detractors unfairly criticized the law as a threat to free speech and religious freedom. Opponents, especially from the Religious Right, tried to cover up their animus by maintaining that efforts to protect people against violent crime were really attempts to ban “hate speech,” and consequently “criminalize religion."

Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, writes about how the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Snyder v. Phelps yet again exposes the dishonesty of the Religious Right’s arguments:

There has been no end of discussion about this church and its antics. Today I want to focus on an overlooked aspect of the controversy: For years, we’ve been hearing Religious Right leaders claim that their freedom to speak out on issues like homosexuality and abortion is at risk. To hear them tell it, “hate speech” laws are just around the corner, and Pastor Bob is only one step away from being tossed in the hoosegow if he dares to read from the Book of Leviticus in the pulpit.

It’s hard to imagine speech more hateful than that put forth by Westboro Baptist’s members. They think God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality, so they hoist signs reading, “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for IEDs” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.”

This is some seriously hateful stuff – and by an 8-1 vote the Supreme Court said in Snyder v. Phelps that it is protected speech. If Westboro Baptist can claim the mantle of the First Amendment to unleash this stuff, I don’t think Pastor Bob has to worry about his pulpit criticisms of same-sex marriage. W

henever cases like this come up, the term “hate speech” is thrown around a lot in the media. Although this term appears in common parlance, it’s not something the courts have adopted. Sure, a lot of speech can be termed “hateful” – and it’s also protected speech. The First Amendment does not require that speech be polite, rational or popular. After all, the First Amendment wouldn’t be very useful if all it did was protect your right to say something everyone agrees with.



The claim that “hate speech” laws are going to shut down fundamentalist churches and gag conservative pastors is, to put it politely, bunk. It was never a persuasive argument, and in light of Wednesday’s ruling stands in shreds. I’m hoping Religious Right leaders will have the decency to stop saying it – but I won’t hold my breath.
PFAW

President Obama Calls DOMA Unconstitutional

Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the Department of Justice will no longer defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in court because it is unconstitutional. This is the provision prohibiting federal recognition of the marriages of gay or lesbian couples. As if that wasn't big enough news by itself, DoJ has concluded that legal classifications based on sexual orientation, like those based on race, sex, national origin, and religion, should be subject to a higher level of judicial scrutiny.

While the Department has previously defended DOMA against legal challenges involving legally married same-sex couples, recent lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of DOMA Section 3 have caused the President and the Department to conduct a new examination of the defense of this provision. In particular, in November 2010, plaintiffs filed two new lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA in jurisdictions without precedent on whether sexual-orientation classifications are subject to rational basis review or whether they must satisfy some form of heightened scrutiny. Windsor v. United States, No. 1:10-cv-8435 (S.D.N.Y.); Pedersen v. OPM, No. 3:10-cv-1750 (D. Conn.). Previously, the Administration has defended Section 3 in jurisdictions where circuit courts have already held that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject to rational basis review, and it has advanced arguments to defend DOMA Section 3 under the binding standard that has applied in those cases.

These new lawsuits, by contrast, will require the Department to take an affirmative position on the level of scrutiny that should be applied to DOMA Section 3 in a circuit without binding precedent on the issue. As described more fully below, the President and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny and that, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under state law, Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.

This is the first recognition by the United States government that gays and lesbians have suffered a long history of discrimination so bad that it makes suspect any laws that treat people differently based on sexual orientation.  Moreover, that discrimination continues today and limits their political influence.

[T]he adoption of laws like those at issue in Romer v. Evans [prohibiting the state from passing civil rights protections for gay people] and Lawrence [laws making their private sexual conduct a crime], the longstanding ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and the absence of federal protection for employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation show the group to have limited political power and "ability to attract the [favorable] attention of the lawmakers." Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 445. And while the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act and pending repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell indicate that the political process is not closed entirely to gay and lesbian people, that is not the standard by which the Court has judged "political powerlessness." Indeed, when the Court ruled that gender-based classifications were subject to heightened scrutiny, women already had won major political victories such as the Nineteenth Amendment (right to vote) and protection under Title VII (employment discrimination).

The Attorney General's announcement notes that it will continue to enforce DOMA until it is repealed by Congress or struck down definitively by the courts. In addition, it will work to ensure that Congress, should it wish, has the opportunity to defend the law in court since the Administration cannot in good conscience do so. (This would presumably avoid a situation like the one in California, where the state refused to pursue an appeal of the district court ruling against Proposition 8, leaving in doubt whether anyone has standing to do so.)

PFAW

Arizona Effort to End Constitutional Citizenship Faces Backlash

Two bills proposed by Republican legislators in Arizona that would revoke constitutional citizenship are running into trouble in the State Senate. State Senate President Russell Pearce, a key force behind the state’s draconian SB-1070 anti-immigration law, is leading efforts to deny citizenship to US-born children of undocumented parents, rescinding a right plainly guaranteed by the Constitution's 14th Amendment.

The Arizona Daily Star reports that the bills were unlikely to win the approval of the Judiciary Committee, and now Pearce may bring the legislation to a more sympathetic committee. Children of undocumented parents, immigration activists, and members of the business community spoke out against what they called an unpopular, confusing, and dangerous attempt to undermine the Constitution:

A bid to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants faltered Monday when proponents could not get the votes of a Senate panel.

After more than three hours of testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, yanked the two measures.

Gould said he lacked the backing of four other members of the Republican-controlled panel, which he chairs. Gould said he will keep trying to secure votes. And Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said, if necessary, he will reassign the proposal to a more friendly committee.



Even before any testimony, Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, said the proposal, based on that idea of Arizona citizenship, raises a host of unanswered questions.

"I don't understand how you become an Arizona citizen if you move to Arizona, what the bureaucratic model would be," he said. "Do you then need to bring your own birth certificate and both of your parents' birth certificates?"

There were also several children who spoke against the bill, including 12-year-old Heide Portugal who said she was born in this country but her parents were not and that a measure like this, had it been in effect, would have denied her citizenship.

The proposals also drew opposition from the business community.

Kevin Sandler, president of Exhibit One, said he worried about the message adopting such a law would send.

Sandler said his firm, which provides audiovisual equipment to courts across the nation, had to lay off six employees after some out-of-state firms boycotted Arizona businesses after lawmakers adopted SB 1070 last year. That measure gives police more power to detain illegal immigrants.

"We've created a toxic environment," he told lawmakers. "Businesses don't want to move here."

He said companies looking to relocate pay attention to the political climate in a state.

"What we've really done is create a not-open-for-business environment here."



Jennifer Allen, executive director of the Border Action Network, said denying citizenship to children born in this country based on a parent's citizenship would create "a permanent underclass" of people in the state.
PFAW

Senate Confirms Three Judges…But What About the 99 Vacancies Left?

Last night, the Senate struck an agreement to confirm three of President Obama’s non-controversial judicial nominees. That’s great—but, as of this morning, it leaves 99 seats on the federal judiciary left to fill. And, as the long road to last night’s three easy confirmations shows, if the Senate’s behavior with judicial nominations doesn’t change, that number is not going to dwindle fast.

The stories behind the three nominees confirmed last night clearly illustrate the Senate dysfunction that has led to one in nine seats on the federal judiciary being vacant. Marco Hernandez, an Oregon judge, was first nominated to the federal district court in 2008…by George W. Bush. When President Obama renominated him July, 2010, he did not receive a vote in the Senate. When his nomination finally went to a vote yesterday, after three years and three nominations, he was confirmed unanimously.

Attorney Paul Kinloch Holmes was nominated for the federal bench in Arkansas in April, 2010. His nomination stalled all last year in the Senate, and President Obama renominated him last month. He was confirmed without a single dissenting vote. Diana Saldana of Texas, also confirmed without dissent last night, had also been nominated twice and seen her nomination languish on the Senate floor for almost a year.

The Washington Post today reports on the crisis in the federal judiciary created by the Senate’s failure to confirm judges at the rate that they’re retiring:

The crisis is most acute along the southwestern border, where immigration and drug cases have overwhelmed court officials. Arizona recently declared a judicial emergency, extending the deadline to put defendants on trial. The three judges in Tucson, the site of last month's shooting rampage, are handling about 1,200 criminal cases apiece.

"It's a dire situation," said Roslyn O. Silver, the state's chief judge.

In central Illinois, three of the four judgeships remain vacant after two of President Obama's nominees did not get a vote on the Senate floor.

Chief Judge Michael McCuskey said he is commuting 90 miles between Urbana and Springfield and relying on two 81-year-old "senior" judges to fill the gap. "I had a heart attack six years ago, and my cardiologist told me recently, 'You need to reduce your stress,' '' he said. "I told him only the U.S. Senate can reduce my stress.''

As we’ve pointed out here before, the judicial crisis is about far more than the health of overworked judges. Overworked courts mean slower access to justice for citizens:

The effect is most visible in civil cases, with delays of up to three years in resolving discrimination claims, corporate disputes and other lawsuits.

"Ultimately, I think people will lose faith in the rule of law,'' said Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California. "We as a nation believe that if you have a dispute, you go to court and within a reasonable period of time, you get a decision.''

Ultimately, it’s ordinary citizens who pay for the Senate’s failure to perform one of its simplest and most essential tasks—ensuring the fairness and functioning of the federal judiciary.
 

PFAW

White House Counsel Calls for End to Judicial Gridlock

The Obama Administration is making another call for the Senate to stop its unprecedented holdup of the president’s judicial nominations. White House Counsel Bob Bauer said today that it’s time for the Senate to end its “cold war” over judicial nominees, reports TPM:

"We will do what it take to try to break through gridlock over some of these nominations," Bauer said at an American Constitution Society panel. He said the judicial crisis creates "egregious delays for Americans seeking their day in court around the country."

Bauer said there has been a disturbing lack of urgency in the political class about the crisis in the judicial system, but said he didn't want to get into the typical finger-pointing about who is responsible for the crisis.

"The facts speak for themselves," Bauer said, noting that the confirmation rate is perilously low and that the problem has been developing for a long time.

Numbers compiled by Senate Democrats in December said that the Senate saw the slowest pace of judicial staffing in a generation, with just 39.8 percent of Obama's judges being confirmed.

But however the process got to this point, Bauer said that there is a growing recognition that "we can not in good conscious" allow it to continue.

"Republicans as well as Democrats increasingly acknowledge -- some privately, some publicly -- that we are witnessing something profoundly troubling," Bauer said.

The slow pace of judicial confirmations has begun to have a real impact on the federal courts and their ability to provide swift access to justice. 49 vacancies on the federal bench have been labeled “judicial emergencies,” resulting in long delays for citizens waiting for their day in court. In all, there are over 100 empty seats in the federal courts.
 

PFAW

In Overcrowded Courts, Justice Delayed

We write a lot about “judicial emergencies”—situations where slow-downs in the judicial nominations process have led court systems to be woefully understaffed. These cases are not emergencies because judges have to work harder—they’re emergencies because when courts are overworked, access to justice is delayed.

Last week, Politics Daily’s Andrew Cohen explained what is happening in Arizona, where Chief District Court Judge John Roll was murdered when he stopped by an event with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to talk with her about the overcrowded courts. Roll had been planning to request that Arizona be labeled a “judicial emergency” in order to loosen restrictions on speedy trials:

Roll did not live to see his request granted. But on Tuesday, less than three weeks after he was shot by accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner, Roll's successor finally did declare a "judicial emergency" in the state after consulting with the 9th Circuit's Judicial Council. The move by Chief U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver allows federal judges in the state to wait for as long as 180 days between the time of the indictment or complaint and the time of trial, even if a criminal defendant wants to go to trial more quickly.

The administrative move could delay the Loughner case itself, depending upon whether the 22-year-old defendant's attorneys try to change the trial venue from Arizona to another state or if federal prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty against Loughner. Most federal murder cases do not go to trial quickly anyway, in large part because of the significant pre-trial work it typically takes for lawyers to prepare their cases. The government has not yet charged Loughner with a capital crime. The next hearing in the case is set for March 9.

The extraordinary action by Silver was taken because of the sheer volume of cases. According to the 9th Circuit: "The Arizona federal court has the third highest criminal caseload in the nation, driven by illegal immigration and drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. Criminal cases have increased 65 percent since 2008, when the federal government greatly expanded its law enforcement efforts along the border. The bulk of the criminal caseload is assigned to the court's Tucson division, where three judges currently handle approximately 1,200 cases each" (emphasis added).

There are currently 101 empty seats in the federal courts, 49 of which have been labeled as judicial emergencies [pdf]. Chief Justice John Roberts recently pleaded with the Senate to stop holding up judicial nominees, saying their stalling had resulted in “acute difficulties for some judicial districts.” Justice Anthony Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times, “It's important for the public to understand that the excellence of the federal judiciary is at risk.”

In an editorial memo last week, PFAW outlined the Senate obstruction that has been largely responsible for the slow pace of filling judicial vacancies in the Obama administration:

On the occasions when it has confirmed nominees to the bench, the Senate has slowed down the process to the point of absurdity. During the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, District Court nominees were confirmed in an average of 25 days. Under President Obama, the wait has averaged 104 days. For Circuit Court judges, the time has increased six-fold, from 26 days to 163 days on average.

Senators need only to look to Arizona to see the real impact that playing politics with judicial nominations has on the ability of citizens to get prompt access to justice.
 

PFAW