Courts

Chief Justice Roberts Urges Senate to Confirm Judicial Nominees

Chief Justice John Roberts called on Friday for Senate Republicans to stop playing politics with judicial nominees. Referring to “the persistent problem of judicial vacancies,” Roberts urged the president and the Senate to find a way to fill the growing number of vacancies in the federal courts:

“We do not comment on the merits of individual nominees,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote on Friday. “That is as it should be. The judiciary must respect the constitutional prerogatives of the president and Congress in the same way that the judiciary expects respect for its constitutional role.”

But he identified what he called a systemic problem.

“Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes,” he said.

The upshot, he said, was “acute difficulties for some judicial districts.”

The chief justice noted that the Senate recently filled a number of vacancies. Including 19 recently confirmed judges, the Senate has confirmed 62 of Mr. Obama’s nominees. There are 96 federal court vacancies, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

“There remains,” the chief justice wrote, “an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.”

Before the Senate left town for Christmas, it confirmed only 19 of the 38 judicial nominations that had been pending on its calendar. Many of the nominees, easily confirmed once their nominations reached a vote, had been waiting as long as a year just to get a vote from the Senate. Of the 19 nominees left on the calendar, the vast majority had little or no opposition from Republicans on the Judiciary Committee...but they all will start the confirmation process over again in the new year.
 

PFAW

2008’s Court

David Savage of the Los Angeles Times and Adam Liptak of the New York Times both examined this week how president Obama’s two Supreme Court picks are changing the dynamic of the high court. “Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan,” writes Savage, “have joined the fray and reenergized the liberal wing.”

Gone are the mismatches where the Scalia wing overshadowed reserved and soft-spoken liberals like now-retired Justices David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens. Instead, the liberals often take the lead and press attorneys defending the states or corporations.

"They're clearly on a roll," said Washington attorney Lisa S. Blatt, who has argued regularly before the high court. "They are engaged and really active. It just feels like a different place."

That dynamic was on display this fall, when a court that leans conservative on cases of crime and punishment heard California's appeal in a case where a panel of three federal judges had ordered the release of about 40,000 prisoners. The state's lawyer stepped to the lectern with reason to expect a friendly reception.

The order is "extraordinary and unprecedented," Carter G. Phillips began, and "extraordinarily premature" because the state was not given enough time to solve its prison problems.

But Sotomayor soon cut him off.

"Slow down from the rhetoric," she said, launching into a withering discussion of the state's 20-year history of severe prison overcrowding and "the needless deaths" from poor medical care.

Kagan picked up the theme, contending that the state had spent years fighting with the judges but not solving the problem. It's too late now for "us to re-find the facts," Kagan said. The California judges had delved into the details for 20 years, and it was time now to decide whether the remedy was right, she said.

While Kagan, due to her recent role as the administration’s Solicitor General, has had to sit out many of the most contentious cases since she took her seat on the court, Sotomayor has clearly shown herself “alert to the humanity of the people whose cases make their way to the Supreme Court,” writes Liptak. He looks at the three opinions Sotomayor has written commenting on the court’s decision not to hear particular cases:

Justice Sotomayor wrote three of the opinions, more than any other justice, and all concerned the rights of criminal defendants or prisoners. The most telling one involved a Louisiana prisoner infected with H.I.V. No other justice chose to join it.

The prisoner, Anthony C. Pitre, had stopped taking his H.I.V. medicine to protest his transfer from one facility to another. Prison officials responded by forcing him to perform hard labor in 100-degree heat. That punishment twice sent Mr. Pitre to the emergency room.

The lower courts had no sympathy for Mr. Pitre’s complaints, saying he had brought his troubles on himself.

Justice Sotomayor saw things differently.

“Pitre’s decision to refuse medication may have been foolish and likely caused a significant part of his pain,” she wrote. “But that decision does not give prison officials license to exacerbate Pitre’s condition further as a means of punishing or coercing him — just as a prisoner’s disruptive conduct does not permit prison officials to punish the prisoner by handcuffing him to a hitching post.”

In the courtroom, she was no less outraged at the argument in a case concerning prison conditions in California, peppering a lawyer for the state with heated questions.

“When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record?” she asked. “When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state?”

In her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kagan praised her former employer and mentor Justice Thurgood Marshall, saying his “whole life was about seeing the courts take seriously claims that were not taken seriously anyplace else.” Obama’s appointment of two justices who follow vocally in his path may be one of the most profound and lasting results of the 2008 elections.
 

PFAW

Sessions Puts His Lab Coat Back On

Back in September, we wrote about Sen. Jeff Sessions’ discovery of what he called the “ACLU chromosome”—according to the senator, a common genetic defect that disqualifies bearers from the federal judiciary.

Well, Dr. Sessions is back at it. TPM has this video of Sessions ranting yesterday about the supposed prevalence of the “ACLU chromosome” in President Obama’s judicial nominees:

As Sen. Mark Udall later pointed out on the Senate floor, it’s unlikely that Sen. Sessions would have a similar reaction to a “Federalist Society chromosome”. While a few of President Obama’s nominees have had a history working with the ACLU—for instance, Edward Chen of California who worked to prevent discrimination against Asian Americans—President Bush made a point of packing the courts with judges who belonged to the far-right Federalist Society.

It’s absurd arguments like Sessions’ that are keeping qualified, well-respected nominees like Chen from even receiving an up or down vote in the Senate. While reports say that the Senate GOP has finally agreed to vote on 19 judicial nominees who they have been stalling despite little or no opposition to their confirmations, four nominees, including Chen, will be left out to dry without even a vote.

And, for the record, the ACLU had this to say about Sessions’ rant:

"Senator Sessions' reference to 'ACLU DNA' in President Obama's judicial nominees should be greeted as a welcome discovery by all Americans, regardless of party. For 90 years, the ACLU has defended the rights enshrined in the Constitution for everyone, regardless of their political beliefs. While not everyone agrees with us on every issue, Americans have come to rely on the ACLU for its unyielding dedication to principle."

"There is a long record of highly respected ACLU-affiliated lawyers who have been appointed to the federal bench, including luminaries such as Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All have demonstrated their dedication to the Bill of Rights in important decisions supporting freedom of speech, the right to due process and gender and racial equality. There are also dozens of highly regarded district court and appellate court judges who have served or serve now on federal benches throughout the nation. Their ACLU background has helped them bring to the judicial system a steadfast commitment to constitutional values and an understanding of the critical role that the judiciary plays in safeguarding them."

"If you ask us, ACLU chromosomes make for a pretty remarkable gene pool," she added.


 

PFAW

NY Times Analyzes the Corporate Court

As the latest example of the evolving media narrative of the Roberts Court, Sunday's New York Times had an extensive article accurately titled "Justices Offer Receptive Ear to Business Interests." The Times article discusses the successful long-term efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to get the Court to focus on the rights of Big Business, which come at the cost of the rights of consumers, workers, governments elected by the people, and anyone else who tries to hold corporate giants accountable.

Almost 40 years ago, a Virginia lawyer named Lewis F. Powell Jr. warned that the nation's free enterprise system was under attack. He urged the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to assemble "a highly competent staff of lawyers" and retain outside counsel "of national standing and reputation" to appear before the Supreme Court and advance the interests of American business.

"Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court," he wrote, "the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change."

Mr. Powell ... got his wish - and never more so than with the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The Roberts Court's favoritism toward Big Business has become so blatant as to prompt the Times to commission an in-depth study analyzing Supreme Court cases going back more than half a century. The article finds that:

The Roberts court, which has completed five terms, ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and 42 percent by all courts since 1953. ...

In the first five terms of the Roberts court, the corresponding bloc of five more conservative justices voted for the [U.S. Chamber of Commerce's] position 74 percent of the time, and the four more liberal justices 43 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, the "social, economic, and political change" the U.S. Chamber is so actively working for involves snuffing out the rights of everyday Americans. As made clear from the amicus briefs it has filed this term, the Chamber's values include letting businesses fire family members of any employee who dares assert their rights, devastating state-level consumer protections against fraud, and severely restricting states' ability to take action against corporations' dangerous pollutants. Last term, the Chamber supported the activist Citizens United decision, which has had devastating consequences for American democracy and generated unusual criticism from former Justices O'Connor and Stevens.

When activist pro-business Justices regularly give a sympathetic ear to a national Chamber of Commerce that is hostile to basic American values, the resulting tilt in favor of Big Business is not good for our country.

PFAW

Three Discharged Service Members Sue Over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates implored Congress to lift the widely unpopular Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy before it could be lifted by federal courts. A federal judge has already ordered the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military to be lifted, but her order is on hold while the decision is appealed. Now, the Service Members Legal Defense Network has helped three more former service members discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to sue the government over their firings.

A repeal of the policy failed in a procedural debacle on the Senate floor last week, but Sens. Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman have introduced a stand-alone repeal bill in hopes that the Senate will pass it before it leaves for the holidays. Michael Almy, one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, told the Guardian he hoped senators would take a good look at their priorities:

Almy, a decorated officer who was in the Senate chambers last week when Republicans refused to let the repeal measure advance, said he still hopes lawmakers can be persuaded to take up the standalone bill, even if it means postponing their holidays.

Almy is the son of an air force officer who did not know he was gay. He was discharged in 2005 after another member of the air force searched his computer files and found a private email Almy had written to another man when he was in Iraq. His 13-year career ended with him being given a police escort off the base.

"I spent four Christmases deployed in the Middle East," he said. "If we can make that kind of sacrifice for our nation, certainly our senators can give up a Christmas to get this done."
 

PFAW

White House: Judicial Nominations are a Priority for Lame Duck

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday that pushing through stalled judicial nominations would be one of the president’s priorities in the last days of the lame duck session of Congress.

People For released a memo last week detailing why it’s important for the Senate to confirm all 38 stalled nominees immediately:

As the end of the 111th Congress approaches, 38 judicial nominees approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee are waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. Many of the nominees have been waiting for months, while a few have been waiting for almost a year.

Of these nominees:

  • 21 (55%) have been nominated to fill emergency slots.
  • 29(76%) are women or people of color.
  • 29 (76%) came out of committee without opposition and an additional 3 came out of committee with significant bipartisan support.

There’s no question that a majority of senators will vote to confirm every one of these nominees, and it’s unlikely that any of them would fail to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles that the GOP has deployed on virtually every function the Senate has performed since President Obama took office. (This is doubly true considering that many members of the GOP have publicly asserted that filibusters of judicial nominees aren’t just wrong, but actually unconstitutional.)

Now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems to be offering Democrats a devil’s bargain: confirm a number of the nominees that don’t have any opposition at all, but send the rest back to the White House at the end of the Congress. The group being sent back to the White House will almost certainly include four of the eminently qualified – and mainstream -- nominees who have had the misfortune of being tagged as “controversial” by Republicans:

  • Rhode Island nominee John McConnell, who has been opposed by the US Chamber of Commerce for his willingness to represent victims of lead paint poisoning.
  • Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, whose work as a judge irked business interests so much, they spent $1 million to prevent his reelection.
  • U.S. Magistrate Edward Chen, who has been attacked for his work fighting discrimination against Asian Americans for the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • And then, of course, Ninth Circuit Appeals Court nominee Goodwin Liu. As the New York Times editorial page has pointed out, the GOP’s resistance to Liu centers mainly around the fear that he’s so qualified, he might end up on the Supreme Court.

Senator Reid and his colleagues should call Senator McConnell’s bluff and start holding cloture votes on these nominees. The process will take time, but adding time to the calendar is entirely within the Democratic leadership’s purview. By confirming McConnell, Butler, Chen, and Liu, Senators can make clear that they will fight the unprecedented and enormously damaging obstruction of highly qualified judicial nominees. Walking away from these nominees delivers the confirmation process to the GOP: they’ll effectively block confirmable jurists without even having to go on record with their obstruction.

President Bush worked hard to pack the courts with far-right, Federalist Society judges. Confirming Obama’s picks will not only fill vacancies causing judicial emergencies and add much-needed diversity to the federal bench, it will prevent the federal bench from continuing to be dominated by Bush’s far-right appointments.

 

PFAW

Today's Healthcare Ruling: Ideology and Judicial Activism

Today, a Bush-nominated federal district court judge struck down the insurance mandate of the landmark health care bill. This is the bill that Republicans did everything in their power to derail - including creating the breathtaking lie that Democrats wanted to kill voters' grandmothers.

The modern Republican Party has a deep-rooted antipathy toward the federal government (unless they're running it). They have created all sorts of legal theories to reinterpret the Constitution - especially the Commerce Clause - so as to prevent Americans from using government as the founders intended to tackle our most serious nationwide problems. With a federal government made impotent by this revision of the Constitution, corporations will continue to pollute, cheat their consumers, discriminate against their workers, and put out fatally defective products with impunity.

Today, it is health care legislation on the docket. But that is just the opening salvo against a wide variety of government endeavors.

Talking Points Memo observes:

A year ago, no one took seriously the idea that a federal health care mandate was unconstitutional. And the idea that buying health care coverage does not amount to "economic activity" seems preposterous on its face. But the decision that just came down from the federal judgment in Virginia -- that the federal health care mandate is unconstitutional -- is an example that decades of Republicans packing the federal judiciary with activist judges has finally paid off.

Indeed, contrary to conservatives' long-standing anathema to "activist" judges who "legislate from the bench," that is precisely what Judge Hudson appears to be doing in this case.

For instance, on page 38:

However, the bill embraces far more than health care reform. It is laden with provisions and riders patently extraneous to health care - over 400 in all.

These are not the words of a neutral, apolitical judge, but of someone with a policy ax to grind and his own view of what the legislative process should have comprised. The activist ax comes out again on page 39, when discussing whether striking down the insurance mandate section of the bill requires the judge to strike down the entire law:

The final element of the analysis is difficult to apply in this case given the haste with which the final version of the 2,700 page bill was rushed to the floor for a Christmas Eve vote. It would be virtually impossible within the present record to determine whether Congress would have passed this bill, encompassing a wide variety of topics related and unrelated to health care, with Section 1501.

If you didn't know better, you might think this was a talking points document put out by Congressional opponents of health care reform.

PFAW

Evolving Media Narrative of the Roberts Court

More and more Americans have noticed the Roberts Court's habit of twisting the law in order to benefit powerful corporations over the rights of individuals. As recently as a year ago, the national dialogue on the Court rarely touched on this issue. But last January's Citizens United decision was so outrageous that it made people see both the Court's previous decisions and its current work through a new lens. Evolving press coverage reflects the changing paradigm in how Americans view the Supreme Court.

For instance, earlier this week, the Supreme Court announced that it had agreed to hear a case of sex discrimination against Wal-Mart and a separate case involving global climate change. Press coverage recognized the common factor in the Court's decisions to hear these very different and unrelated cases.

The Los Angeles Times wrote:

The Supreme Court announced Monday it will hear two major appeals from corporate America that seek to block mass lawsuits, one involving a huge sex bias claim against Walmart and the other a massive environmental suit that seeks to hold coal-fired power plants liable for causing global warming.

In both cases, the justices agreed to consider stopping these suits before they can move toward a trial.

Monday's move is only the latest sign that the Roberts Court is inclined to rein in big-money lawsuits against business. The conservative justices have been particularly skeptical of sprawling suits that could run on for years and lead to enormous verdicts.

Under a headline reading "Two Supreme Court Cases to Test Corporate Interests," the Washington Post reported:

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear two major challenges brought by corporate interests, ...

In both cases, corporations are challenging decisions by federal appeals courts that the suits can go forward. They come before a court that traditionally has been sympathetic to business interests, but is sensitive about recent criticism from the left that it favors corporations over consumer and environmental groups.

Time wrote:

Two federal courts have ruled that their suit can proceed as a class action on behalf of between 500,000 and 1.5 million women, but on Monday the Supreme Court announced it would review that decision. It looks suspiciously like another case in which the court's conservative majority will twist a procedural rule to prevent victims of discrimination from getting a fair chance at justice

As Jeffrey Toobin observed in the New Yorker this week:

This is the rule in the current Supreme Court. If there is a human being on one side of the "v." and a corporation on the other, the corporation wins.

The Roberts Court is learning that if you look like a duck, walk like a duck, and quack like a duck for long enough, people will eventually realize that you are, indeed, a duck.

PFAW

Gates: “Greatest Fear” is that DADT Repeal Will Be Left to Courts

The Republican opposition to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal has focused on a worry that the military will not be able to handle rolling back the policy in a time of war. Defense Secretary Robert Gates begs to differ:

"My greatest fear is that we have to be told that this law will be overturned by a court and we will be forced to implement it without any time for information or training, or any of the other efforts that need to be undertaken to prepare us for such a change," he said.

The likelihood of DADT being overturned by courts is high—two federal courts have already declared the discriminatory policy unconstitutional. Supporters of DADT aren’t only putting off the inevitable—they’re making it harder for the military to prepare for the inevitable. DADT supporters claim to be listening to the military’s wishes. But, as Gates makes clear, that is exactly the opposite of what they’re doing.
 

PFAW

Court Accepts Global Warming Nuisance Case

This morning, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case affecting whether and how corporate polluters can be held 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. This is federal common law, not tied to any specific federal statutes or regulations. The Second Circuit ruled that the lawsuit could proceed on this theory, and the power companies appealed.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The global warming case will decide whether judges and courts can put limits on carbon emissions on the theory that this pollution is a public nuisance. Eight states, including New York, California and Connecticut, joined with environmentalists and launched a lawsuit against the power producers in the Midwest, arguing that their coal-fired plants were contributing to climate change.

Environmentalists said they took the issue to court because Congress was not likely to take up the climate change issue and set limits on greenhouse gasses. They won a significant preliminary victory when the U.S. appeals court in New York cleared the suit to proceed.

But the power industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Obama administration joined in urging the high court to stop the lawsuit. They argue that the global warming issue and limits on carbon emissions should be decided by Congress and the White House, not by judges acting on lawsuits.

Justice Sotomayor has recused herself, since at the time she was nominated to the Supreme Court, she was a member of the Second Circuit panel considering this case.

PFAW

Where are the Women in the Federal Courts?

An ally just sent along this graph showing the progress of women in the federal judiciary over the past 10 years. What’s alarming about it is that, in terms of numbers, there has been very little progress at all:

President Obama’s judicial nominees have been the most diverse group in history. 44% of his nominees are women—twice as many as were nominated under George W. Bush. And 42% of his nominees are African American, Hispanic, or Asian American. But President Obama’s nominees, as diverse a group as they are, just aren’t making it to the courts. Instead, they’ve run into a concerted Republican effort to block every possible judicial nomination, no matter how uncontroversial. This filibuster campaign is not only creating personnel emergencies in courts across the country—it’s stopping qualified women and minorities from bringing a much-needed diversity of experience to the federal bench.

PFAW

Republican Judges Against Republican Obstruction

Add another set of voices to the growing chorus of Americans fed up with Republican leaders' unprecedented obstruction of judicial nominations: Federal judges nominated by Republican presidents. According to ThinkProgress:

[Last] week, seven Republican-appointed federal judges co-signed a letter warning of the consequences of the GOP's systematic obstruction of President Obama's judges. The letter [is] from the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit, which includes Republican appointees Alex Kozinski, Ralph Beistline, Vaughn Walker, Irma Gonzales, Frances Marie Tydingco-Gatewood, Richard Frank Cebull, [and] Lonny Ray Suko[.]

The letter states:

In order to do our work, and serve the public as Congress expects us to serve it, we need the resources to carry out our mission. While there are many areas of serious need, we write today to emphasize our desperate need for judges. Our need in that regard has been amply documented ... Courts cannot do their work if authorized judicial positions remain vacant.

While we could certainly use more judges, and hope that Congress will soon approve the additional judgeships requested by the Judicial Conference, we would be greatly assisted if our judicial vacancies - some of which have been open for several years and declared "judicial emergencies" - were to be filled promptly. We respectfully request that the Senate act on judicial nominees without delay.

Americans want a government that works. Why don't Senate Republican leaders agree?

PFAW

Bipartisan Agreement Breaks Out at Hearing on Faith Based Initiatives

At today’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, there was one item on which witnesses and Members of Congress from across partisan and ideological divides agreed: the Obama administration is ducking an important and controversial decision on whether religious organizations that take federal money to provide social services can discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring people to provide those services.  The administration further dodged the issue and rankled committee members by declining an invitation to testify.

There is some progress to report: the hearing came one day after the White House issued a long-awaited Executive Order (Subcommittee Chair Jerold Nadler called the pace of reform “glacial”) on the topic of federal funding for faith-based groups.  The Executive Order implements a number of recommendations made by an advisory council the administration had created to review what was called the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives by the Bush Administration and what is now called the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships. Melissa Rogers, Director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest Divinity School and a co-chair of the president’s commission, was among those who testified.
 
Among the elements of the new Executive Order and provisions to: require that beneficiaries who object to a religiously affiliated program have access to a secular alternative; clarify rules requiring that federal money not be used for religious activities like worship or proselytizing; ensure that awards are made on the basis of merit, not religious or political considerations; and require meaningful oversight of grants without excessive entanglement in religious groups’ internal affairs.  These provisions were mostly welcomed across the political spectrum (with some sniping from the Religious Right), though there was disagreement in the advisory council over the issue of social services being provided in rooms where religious art or symbols are displayed (the administration OK’d religious symbols in rooms where secular programs are carried out) and over the question of requiring churches to set up separate nonprofit organizations to receive federal money (the administration decided not to require that step).
 
But the big unresolved issue is one that the Obama White House prevented its own advisory commission from addressing – whether groups can decide to hire only people of a certain faith for social service jobs that are being funded by American taxpayers.
 
People For the American Way, like all the Democrats present at the hearing, believes the Obama administration should overturn the poorly reasoned Bush-era Justice Department memo that misinterpreted the law to allow federally funded discrimination.  During his 2008 campaign, Obama explicitly pledged to do so. But since then the administration has declared that the Justice Department would consider the issue on a case-by-case basis. 
 
Religious Right groups and their political allies want the administration to explicitly embrace the status quo set up during the Bush administration, which allows hiring discrimination.  Progressive groups want the administration to revoke the controversial Bush-era legal memo and return to a bright line standard against taxpayer-funded discrimination.  Pretty much everyone agrees that churches and religious groups can and should be able to make religiously-grounded hiring decisions for jobs that are paid for with privately raised funds.  And everyone agrees that administration’s “case by case” approach makes no sense.
 
Come to think of it, there was one other topic of agreement: Rep. Trent Franks doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Franks, who gained a measure of infamy last year when he denounced President Obama as an “enemy of humanity,” popped into the hearing to assert that the administration’s lack of clarity on the hiring issue was stirring controversy over a principle that the federal courts had settled for 50 years, the right of religious groups to hire based on religion.  After Franks left, there was general consensus in the room that, to be charitable, Franks was confusing the basic issue: the difference between private and taxpayer funds.  Franks wrapped his embarrassing confusion in Religious Right rhetoric about groups that supposedly want to erase religion from public life, or in his memorable words, ensure that “anything in the shadow of the American flag cannot be religious.”
PFAW

People For and Progressive Groups Urge Senate to Break Confirmation Gridlock

This week, People For and 46 other progressive groups sent a letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate urging them to end the backlog of judicial nominees before the end of this session of Congress. Republican obstruction has prevented dozens of nominees from even receiving a vote on the Senate floor, leaving the federal court system with over 100 vacancies and the slowing down the process of bringing more diversity to the federal bench. Read the full letter:

Dear Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell:

The undersigned organizations strongly urge you to end the troubling backlog of judicial nominees that exists to date in the 111th Congress. The obstruction of many of President Obama’s nominees through filibuster threats and anonymous “holds” is hindering the important work of our judicial branch, particularly in the many areas of our nation that now face judicial emergencies due to unfilled vacancies on the bench.

Throughout the 111th Congress, President Obama has worked with the Senate on a bipartisan basis to select extraordinarily well-qualified judicial nominees who could easily be confirmed by wide margins and begin serving the public, if brought to a vote before the full Senate. Yet a troubling number of these nominees, many of whom have been cleared by the Committee on the Judiciary with little or no opposition, have been blocked from up-or-down confirmation votes for reasons that defy explanation. Indeed, many of President Obama’s judicial nominees who have been confirmed, to date, have been confirmed by unanimous votes – but only after languishing for many months on the Senate floor, raising significant doubts about the legitimacy of the ongoing delays in confirmation proceedings.

Due to arcane floor procedures that allow a single member to impede the important business of the Senate, our judicial branch has reached a state of crisis. Out of 872 federal judgeships, 106 are currently vacant, with 50 of those vacancies now characterized as “judicial emergencies” in which courts are being overwhelmed by filings that cannot be considered. As a result, a growing number of Americans, from all walks of life and across all economic strata, are finding it increasingly more difficult to assert their legal rights and to have their fair day in court.

In the meantime, the Senate is badly failing in its constitutionally-mandated role of considering the nominees that President Obama has selected. Prior to entering its pro forma session, the Senate failed to confirm any of the 23 nominees who are currently pending on the Senate floor, 17 of whom advanced through the committee process with no opposition whatsoever. Moreover, 11 of the pending nominees would fill seats designated as judicial emergencies – and more than half of the pending nominees are people of color, while 10 of them are women, who would bring badly-needed and long-overdue diversity to our judicial branch.

We write to you at a time when our nation faces numerous challenges that cry out for bipartisan cooperation, including major economic challenges and continued international threats. We strongly believe that the continued obstruction of nominations will poison the political atmosphere, needlessly heighten partisan tensions, and make it far more difficult for the federal government to serve the public interest in any respect. These consequences are all but certain to continue into the 112th Congress and beyond.

For these reasons, in the remaining weeks of the 111th Congress, we strongly urge you to work together in a bipartisan fashion to proceed with confirmation votes on the two dozen judicial nominees who remain pending on the Senate floor. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

AFL-CIO

Alliance for Justice

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

American Association for Affirmative Action

American Association of People with Disabilities

American Association of University Women

American Federation of Government Employees

American Federation of Teachers

Americans for Democratic Action

Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum

Asian American Justice Center

Common Cause

Constitutional Accountability Center

Equal Justice Society

Families USA Foundation

Feminist Majority

Hispanic National Bar Association

Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary

Human Rights Campaign

Japanese American Citizens League

Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Lambda Legal

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

League of United Latin American Citizens

Legal Momentum

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

NAACP

NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.

National Asian Pacific American Bar Association

National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse

National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum

National Association of Consumer Advocates

National Association of Human Rights Workers

National Association of Social Workers

National Black Justice Coalition

National Congress of Black Women, Inc.

National Council of Jewish Women

National Disability Rights Network

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Fair Housing Alliance

National Partnership for Women & Families

National Urban League

National Women’s Law Center

OCA

People For the American Way

Secular Coalition for America

SEIU

Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

Sikh Coalition

 

PFAW

Paycheck Fairness Act alert – two days left

The Senate is scheduled to take its first votes of the lame duck session this Wednesday. Number 2 on the list – the Paycheck Fairness Act! They’ll consider what’s called a “motion to proceed.” Overcoming this procedural hurdle would allow the bill itself to come to the floor.

In addition to our recent fact sheet, PFAW has just sent its letter to the Senate urging the bill’s passage.

November 15, 2010

United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator:

President Obama’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act formed a strong foundation for pay equity in this country. Now that fair access to the courts has been restored, it is time to build on that foundation. On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of members of People For the American Way, we urge you to support the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 3772) as a clean bill with no amendments.

The Ledbetter v. Goodyear decision was a clear step backward for ending employment discrimination in the workplace, when the Supreme Court held that employees could not challenge ongoing compensation discrimination if the employer’s original discriminatory decision occurred more than 180 days before filing of the claim. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was meant to correct this misinterpretation of the nation’s civil rights laws. It reiterates Congress’ intent to hold employers accountable for discrimination and allows employees a fair chance to fight back.

But they still need the tools to do so. S. 3772 strengthens the remedy, enforcement, and exception provisions of the existing Equal Pay Act. It engages the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Labor in a number areas including technical assistance, data collection and review of existing data, and the provision of wage discrimination training to government employees and individuals seeking their assistance. It supports negotiation skills training for women and girls and general public awareness regarding the means available to eliminate pay discrimination.

S. 3772 sends a clear message: The wage gap is real. No employer should benefit from discriminating against employees like Lilly Ledbetter. Retaliating against employees who fight for equal pay is unacceptable. Pay equity should be the rule, not the exception. What S. 3772 does not do is also clear: It does not eviscerate employers’ legal rights. It does not take away their right to set their own business practices or constrain them in terms of job applicants. It does not create unfair comparisons between jobs performed or where they’re performed. It does not hurt small businesses, and it certainly does not negatively impact women.

In fact, S. 3772 is good for families who are facing daily struggles in this unsteady economy. The last thing they should be worrying about is whether the women who work so hard to support them are being treated fairly in the workplace. Americans know this to be true. According to a June 2010 National Partnership for Women and Families/Lake Research Partners poll(1) regarding the Paycheck Fairness Act, 84% said they supported “a new law that would provide women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace.” 72% expressed strong support. This message resonated with men (81% support/69% strong) and women (87% support/74% strong) and among Democrats (91% support/83% strong), Republicans (77% support/61% strong), and Independents (87% support/70% strong). It also holds up among racial and ethnic groups and across geographic regions.

For these reasons and more, we strongly urge you to support the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 3772) as a clean bill with no amendments.

Sincerely,

Michael B. Keegan
President

Marge Baker
Executive Vice President for Policy and Program

(1) A press release announcing the poll results is available at http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=24776&security=2141&news_iv_ctrl=1741. Visit http://www.nationalpartnership.org/site/DocServer/5-2010_Poll_Data_One_Pager.pdf?docID=6681 for additional information.

We’ll continue urging the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, but your Senators also need to hear from you. Save a few minutes on the national call-in day to dial 877-667-6650. That’s tomorrow – the day before the vote.

It was way back in January 2009 that the House passed the Paycheck Fairness Act. Please join American Association of University Women, American Civil Liberties Union, the National Committee on Pay Equity, National Women’s Law Center, and hundreds of other organizations nationwide in calling on the Senate to do the same and send this important legislation to the President’s desk.

PFAW

DADT repeal approaches critical turning point

With the House and Senate set to reconvene next week, we’re hearing a lot of talk about what will or won’t be considered, especially when it comes to the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill. PFAW and AAMIA have both supported the inclusion of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, which passed as an amendment on the House floor and in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Now is the time – likely the only time for the foreseeable future – to close the deal on the Senate floor and send repeal to the President’s desk.

Senator McCain, who was behind the bill’s filibuster back in September, is waging a very public campaign to convince Chairman Levin to water down his proposal and drop repeal. Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, put the rumors in perspective.

Sarvis told Roll Call that he expects Levin to bring the defense bill to a vote with the repeal in it, and he called it “premature” to speculate on whether Levin will yield to McCain’s pressure. The most important thing for now, he said, is for proponents of the repeal to take the reins in framing the message on the issue.

“There’s no doubt McCain is trying to frame the debate early, even before Senators return for the lame duck,” Sarvis said. “We’re trying to counter where McCain is out there saying the only bill that can move out there is a watered-down bill. That assertion needs to be pushed back on.”

Senators Lieberman, Udall (Mark), and Gillibrand added their own call to action.

The Senate should act immediately to debate and pass a defense authorization bill and repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ during the lame duck session. The Senate has passed a defense bill for forty-eight consecutive years. We should not fail to meet that responsibility now, especially while our nation is at war. We must also act to put an end to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that not only discriminates against but also dishonors the service of gay and lesbian service members.

The National Defense Authorization Act is essential to the safety and well-being of our service members and their families, as well as for the success of military operations around the world. The bill will increase the pay of all service members, authorize needed benefits for our veterans and wounded warriors, and launch military construction projects at bases throughout the country.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates did the same in a recent interview.

I would say that the leaving "don't ask, don't tell" behind us is inevitable. The question is whether it is done by legislation that allows us to do it in a thoughtful and careful way, or whether it is struck down by the courts. Because recent court decisions are certainly pointing in that direction. And we went through a period of two weeks in October where we had four different policy changes in the space of, as I say, two weeks, from striking it down totally, to a stay, to appeal, and so on. So I I think we have the least flexibility. We have the least opportunity to do this intelligently and carefully and with the kind of preparation that is necessary, if the courts take this action as opposed to there being legislation.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal is still very much within our reach. Contact your Senators and Majority Leader Reid, the Department of Defense, and the White House. Thank our supporters and urge them to stand up and speak out. Urge the opposition to change course.

Note that the long-awaited Pentagon study is set to be released on December 1. We have every reason to believe that good news is coming. We must keep fighting.

Click here for more information on the path forward.

PFAW

Supreme Court Considers Class Action Ban

Corporate interests already exercise an inordinate level of control over Americans' daily lives. This morning, in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that threatens to give yet another advantage to powerful corporations over individual Americans. AT&T is essentially asking the Court to take a wrecking ball to state consumer protection laws.

At issue is whether states have the right to protect consumers from contracts that are so unfair as to be unconscionable - where one party has so much bargaining power over the other that the weaker one has little choice but to agree to highly disadvantageous terms.

This case started when AT&T offered phone purchasers a "free" second phone, then charged the consumers for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the "free" phone. AT&T allegedly pulled this scam on thousands of its customers. One of its victims, the Concepcions, brought a class action suit against AT&T. 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 AT&T. 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 without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.

However, the court denied AT&T's motion, determining that the "no class action" contractual provision was unconscionable under California law and, therefore, not enforceable. Moreover, the court rejected AT&T's claim that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts state law in this case, making the contract fully enforceable against the Concepcions. (The Federal Arbitration Act generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.) The Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court decision. However, hoping to get a different result from the corporate-friendly Roberts Court, AT&T appealed.

As countless Americans can attest, it is not at all uncommon for a giant telecommunications service provider to provide extremely complex monthly bills that are nearly impossible for the average person to understand. It is certainly not unheard of for such bills to hide 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 little, 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.

Class actions are a tool that allows the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible a potentially significant financial loss to the company that sets out to defraud its customers. If the Supreme Court rules for AT&T, it will devastate state-level consumer protections and essentially grant a permission slip for rampant corporate fraud against consumers.

As the Alliance For Justice points out in its excellent analysis of this case, it is not only consumer protections that are at risk should AT&T win this case. Class action suits have often been the only way for employees experiencing illegal discrimination to contest it without spending vast amounts of money and risking retaliation. Depending on how the Roberts Court rules, it may enable employers to easily cut off this avenue of anti-discrimination enforcement by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration, with a ban on class action.

As described in People For the American Way Foundation’s Rise of the Corporate Court report, the Roberts Court has not been shy in twisting the law in order to rule in favor of corporations and against average Americans. AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion may turn out to be another gift of power to the already-powerful.

PFAW

Sheldon Whitehouse Analyzes "Judicial Activism"

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has authored a thoughtful piece in the National Law Journal, one that makes an important contribution to our national dialogue on the role of the Supreme Court in Americans' lives. This is a must-read analysis of "judicial activism" - what it means, and how to identify it.

For years, using propaganda like "activist courts" and "legislating from the bench," the Right has demagogued against judges who protect basic American values like church-state separation, equal rights, freedom of speech, and the right to privacy. But the Roberts Court has made clear that the Right doesn't believe their own propaganda about "judicial activism."

Focusing attention on the real meaning of “judicial activism,” rather than simply using the term as an epithet to denigrate decisions one disagrees with, Sen. Whitehouse identifies five key characteristics - the "red flags"- that unmistakably signal judicial activism:

First, an activist court would be less likely to respect the judgments of the American people as expressed through state and federal legislation. ...

Second, an activist court would chafe at unwelcome prior precedents of the court. ...

Third, an activist court, facing the perennial choice between securing a broad consensus and allowing a bare majority to carry the day, would go down the path that allowed it to reach farther in the ideologically satisfactory direction. As a result, an activist court would likely render 5-4 decisions rather than strive to find broader common ground across the court. ...

Fourth, a discernible pattern of results would likely emerge: Whether conservative or liberal, an activist court would issue decisions consistent with its ideological preferences. ...

Fifth, an activist court might be prepared to violate rules and tenets of appellate decision-making that have long guided courts of final appeal. ...

Sen. Whitehouse then analyzes the jurisprudence of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court and demonstrates, step by step, that it raises all five of the red flags of "judicial activism." His objective analysis shows that the conservative justices who are praised by the right wing exemplify the judicial activism that the right claims to oppose.

The centerpiece of a generation’s worth of right-wing propaganda on the courts crumbles.

The article finishes on a hopeful note:

"Judicial activism" is often in the eye of the beholder. If, as I have suggested here, we can identify red flags for judicial activism, the conservative bloc on the current Supreme Court is flying all of those flags. Let's hope that [the 2010-2011] term sees a renewal of the best traditions of the Court, not merely the imposition on our Republic of the ideological or political will of a determined, but bare, majority of the justices.

Indeed, let us hope.

PFAW

Video Game Violence and the First Amendment

Tomorrow at the Supreme Court, the Justices will hear arguments over whether the state can limit minors’ access to extreme depictions of violence.

California law bans the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. In adopting the law, the California legislature considered scientific evidence showing a correlation between playing violent video games and an increase in aggressive thoughts and behavior, antisocial behavior, and desensitization to violence in both minors and adults. The law was designed to give parents greater control over whether their children have access to the most violent video games.

Although the law was enacted several years ago, courts have kept it from going into effect on the basis that it violates the First Amendment.

The law parallels a New York law restricting the sale of non-obscene sexual material to minors that the Court upheld in the 1960s. Specifically, it covers those violent video games where:

  • a reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find that it appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors;
  • it is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors; and
  • it causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

California argues that, for the purposes of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court should apply the same relaxed standard to violent material as it does to sexual material:

[I]t should make no constitutional difference whether the material depicts sex or violence. ... [T]he Act must be upheld so long as it was not irrational for the California legislature to determine that exposure to the material regulated by the statute is harmful to minors.

This would mark a significant change in First Amendment law.

Just the fact that the Court agreed to hear this case is interesting. The Court often takes a case where there is disagreement among circuit courts on how to interpret a particular law. But here, there is no such disagreement: Lower courts have uniformly struck down laws such as this as violating the First Amendment. The fact that the Supreme Court decided to hear the case anyway may signal that the Justices are ready to make the change that California is asking for.

PFAW

The Voter-Fraud Fraud

"I don't want everybody to vote ... our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." - Paul Weyrich, founding father of the conservative movement, 1980.

When news hit last week that Democrats were doing better than expected in early voting turnout, Republican Dick Armey - whose FreedomWorks organization ensures that the Tea party is well funded by Big Business - immediately took to the airwaves with two goals: to delegitimize any potential Election Day victories for Democrats, and to justify this year's efforts by Republicans and their allies to keep people of color from voting. Armey told Fox News viewers that:

Democrats vote early because there's "less ballot security," creating a "great opportunity" for fraud. He also claimed that such fraudulent early voting is "pinpointed to the major urban areas. The inner city."

Of course, the former congressman had no more evidence to support his false and inflammatory claims than Joseph McCarthy had for his. But he does have an echo chamber of Republican and allied supporters all making the same unsupported claims of rampant voter fraud to justify aggressive efforts to keep likely Democratic voters - especially African Americans - out of the voting booth.

First, let there be mo mistake: Analysis after analysis has shown that there is no national problem with voter fraud. For instance, in its report The Truth About Voter Fraud, the Brennan Center for Justice has

analyzed purported fraud cited by state and federal courts; multipartisan and bipartisan federal commissions; political party entities; state and local election officials; and authors, journalists, and bloggers. Usually, only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated - and most of the remainder is either nothing more than speculation or has been conclusively debunked.

Similarly, when the New York Times turned its investigatory resources to the "problem" of voter fraud in 2007, it found that

[f]ive years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department ha[d] turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews.

Nevertheless, the Republicans and their close allies are up to their usual election-time hysterics about voter fraud, especially by nefarious dark-skinned people. They are ginning up fears of stolen elections ... so they can suppress the vote and thereby steal the elections themselves.

Over the past few weeks, as reported in Talking Points Memo and elsewhere:

  • In Illinois, Republican Senate nominee Mark Kirk inadvertently disclosed his plan to send "voter integrity" squads to two predominately African-American neighborhoods of Chicago and two other urban areas of Illinois with significant minority populations "where the other side might be tempted to jigger the numbers somewhat."
  • In Houston, Texas, Tea Party poll watchers claiming to be preventing voter fraud have been accused of "hovering over" voters, "getting into election workers' faces" and blocking or disrupting lines of voters who were waiting to cast their ballots as early voting got underway. The most aggressive poll watching has been at African American and Latino precincts. The Department of Justice is investigating.
  • In Wisconsin, Tea Party groups, the pro-corporate Americans for Prosperity, and the state GOP have been involved in a vote caging operation that seeks to challenge the eligibility of minority and student voters. In addition, dozens of billboards are being put up showing people behind bars with an ominous warning that voter fraud is a felony.
  • The West Virginia Republican Party plans to send "ballot security teams" to all of the state's fifty-five counties in search of "illegal activity" at the polls.
  • In Minnesota, a coalition of Tea Party and other right wing groups is offering a $500 reward for information leading to voter fraud convictions, an inducement that may encourage voter harassment.
  • In Indiana and elsewhere, Republicans and allies are photographing voters at early voting locations.
  • Michelle Malkin went on Fox News to discuss what the far right media outlet described as "reports of voter fraud on a massive scale with the intention of keeping Democrats in office." Malkin poured oil on the fire by claiming that "We are all voter fraud police now," accusing progressives of trying to win elections "by any means necessary."

This isn't new territory for the Right. For instance, in 2006, the Bush Administration fired U.S. Attorneys who refused to press phony voter fraud prosecutions. In 2008, until their plans were exposed, Michigan Republicans planned to use home foreclosure lists to challenge likely Democratic voters at the polls, supposedly to prevent voter fraud. That same year, the Montana Republican Party challenged the eligibility of 6,000 registered voters in the state's Democratic strongholds after matching the statewide voter database with the National Change of Address database to identify voters who aren't living where they are registered to vote. In Ohio, voter caging was used as a prelude to challenge individuals at the voting precinct.

These actions were part of a larger pattern. During the fall of 2008, the Right was setting itself up to challenge the integrity of the election. Across the country, they repeatedly trumped up claims of voter fraud, attacking ACORN and other voter registration efforts and lambasting the Justice Department for its failure to stop this alleged "fraud." However, that effort sputtered when the false claims of voter fraud mushroomed into threats against ACORN workers and vandalism of their offices, which PFAW helped to expose. Last year's doctored "pimp and prostitute" ACORN videos and their aftermath showed the lengths Republicans and their allies are willing to go to demonize and ultimately destroy successful minority voter registration efforts.

Clearly, the Right puts a great deal of energy into tackling a non-existent problem. But while these actions may do nothing to prevent instances of voter fraud that were never going to happen in the first place, they do accomplish something very important, as noted above: They intimidate people, often people of color, into not voting. They also work to paint any election victory by Democrats as illegitimate, thereby seriously destabilizing one of the foundations needed for America's constitutional government to work.

Voting is our assurance that those in power govern only by the consent of the people. The theory of American electoral democracy is that We the People act through government officials who we elect to act on our behalf. However, that assumes that all parties are willing to abide by the results of free and fair elections, win or lose.

Unfortunately, when the most powerful groups in society are willing to ignore democratic principles when it’s convenient - when they are eager to disenfranchise those who are most likely to vote against them - the democratic system fails.

In the past, these forces used poll taxes, literacy tests, and even brute force to keep disfavored Americans from voting, staining the legitimacy of the elected government in the process. Today, far more wary of appearances, they use the false accusation of "voter fraud" to do the same thing, often against the same targets: African Americans and other people of color.

PFAW