discrimination

Supreme Court Takes Church-State Case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a case with important consequences for church-state separation.

The group, the Christian Legal Society, says it welcomes all students to participate in its activities. But it does not allow students to become voting members or to assume leadership positions unless they affirm what the group calls orthodox Christian beliefs and disavow “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle.” Such a lifestyle, the group says, includes “sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman.”

The law school, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, part of the University of California, allows some 60 recognized student groups to use meeting space, bulletin boards and the like so long as they agree to a policy that forbids discrimination on various grounds, including religion and sexual orientation. The school withdrew recognition from the Christian group after it refused to comply with the policy.

Hastings is a public university, and it has a clear policy requiring all student groups to be open to all comers. So, to make a long story short, the group, CLS sued and the case made its way to the Supreme Court.

At stake is whether or not tax dollars—your tax dollars—should go to fund a group which specifically excludes people based on religion or sexual orientation. The answer, in case you were wondering, is “no.”

PFAW

New GAO Report Exposes More About Politicization of Department of Justice Under Bush

With a new Government Accountability Office report on the activities of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice between 2001-2007, we are learning even more about a department that had been politicized to a dangerous degree under the Bush Administration. Instead of representing the best interests of the American people, the DOJ had been turned into a political machine. The report, obtained by The New York Times, found:

When compared with the Clinton administration, its findings show a significant drop in the enforcement of several major antidiscrimination and voting rights laws. For example, lawsuits brought by the division to enforce laws prohibiting race or sex discrimination in employment fell from about 11 per year under President Bill Clinton to about 6 per year under President George W. Bush.

The report also found that recommendations of career DOJ lawyers to pursue voter intimidation and other cases were inexplicably rejected, with the supervisors leaving no information explaining why the cases had been closed.

The office also found that case files often had no information explaining why supervisors had decided to close cases, sometimes against the recommendation of career officials. In a companion report, it also found that six years of internal audits about the division’s case-tracking system were missing.

People For the American Way followed the politicization of the DOJ during the Bush Administration, calling for the resignation of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others who played a part in the department’s politicization. We reported on the U.S. attorneys scandal, in which career attorneys at the department were instructed to follow the lead of the White House, not the rule of law, to smear Democratic candidates, protect GOP candidates, and suppress voter turnout through overzealous pursuit of baseless voter fraud claims. We responded to the Inspector General’s report which confirmed the inappropriate actions surrounding their firing.

PFAW

Washington Post Publishes One-Sided Feature Story on Bishop Harry Jackson

The Washington Post published a one-sided piece on Bishop Harry Jackson that neglected to mention his ties to right-wing political figures such as James Dobson, Lou Sheldon, Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council.

Bishop Harry Jackson has enthusiastically opposed equality and basic civil rights for gays and lesbians couples, and has worked overtime to make discrimination the law of our land. He has dedicated his life’s work to denying gay and lesbian couples important legal protections that could determine whether couples can be kept apart when one person is sick, or forced out of a home when one dies. The government should not put obstacles in the path of those who are trying to care for their loved ones with a lifetime commitment, and neither should Bishop Harry Jackson.

Nor has Bishop Jackson limited his right-wing activism to opposing rights for LGBT people. Bishop Jackson opposed Barack Obama’s presidential bid, saying during the campaign that an ongoing ‘march of darkness’ would overtake the country if ‘we don’t do the right thing in this campaign.’ In an ad, Jackson argued that if Obama was elected president, the nation would not have ‘chosen God’s best.’ Jackson has worked hard to oppose important initiatives that will help all people, especially the poor – from affordable and accessible health care to quality public education to sensible immigration policies.”

People For the American Way released an in depth report on Bishop Harry Jackson earlier this year, “Point Man for the Wedge Strategy.” Click here to view the report.

PFAW

Quite the 360: The Mormon Church is backing gay rights bill in Salt Lake City

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is publicly supporting two proposed ordinances in Salt Lake City protecting gay and lesbian residents from housing and employment discrimination.

According to Michael Otterson, the managing director of the LDS Church’s public affairs office, “the church supports this ordinance because it is fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage.”

We applaud the church for their stance on this ordinance, but we remember all too well their unfair and unreasonable support of Prop 8 in California:

Last year at the urging of church leaders, Mormons donated tens of millions of dollars to the "Yes on 8" campaign and were among the most vigorous volunteers. The institutional church gave nearly $190,000 to the campaign — contributions now being investigated by California's Fair Political Practices Commission.

PFAW

Obama Honors Shepard and Byrd by Signing Hate Crimes Law

Today marks an historic step forward in the fight for equality. With the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, President Obama sent loud and clear the message that freedom from violence is a right all Americans should enjoy.

As I watched the President put pen to paper, I couldn't help but reflect on my own memories of the tragedies that befell Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. in 1998. How gripped the country was by each man's story. How years later I saw a stage production of Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project. I'll never forget the emotion that overcame one of my friends in the audience. He was struck by the fact that Laramie wasn't so different from his hometown. What happened to Matthew could have happened in his backyard. It could happen just about anywhere without people and a government willing to stand up to fear and hate. Today we stood up.

Enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is all the more remarkable for affirming a positive protection for gender identity - a first in federal law. In showing how far we've come, this action also shows how far we have yet to go. Just two years ago, a battle was fought over whether to include gender identity protections in employment discrimination legislation. ENDA's enactment with gender identity intact will hopefully be the next great achievement for the LGBT community, and for us all.

As the late Senator Kennedy so famously said, "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Click here for today's statement from Reverend Timothy McDonald of African American Ministers in Action and Michael B. Keegan of People For the American Way.

PFAW

Obama Continues to Defend Discrimination

Once more, the Obama Administration is in federal court defending government-mandated discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans. This time, it's Don't Ask Don't Tell, in a case arising in a California federal district court.

Previously, DoJ asked the district court to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the Log Cabin Republicans, arguing that Ninth Circuit precedent already clearly addresses the legal issues in favor of the Administration. The court denied the motion to dismiss and allowed discovery to proceed, and the Log Cabin Republicans filed their request for discovery. (Discovery is the pretrial phase of a lawsuit where each party can compel the other parties to turn over documents and other evidence that may be relevant to the case.)

So on Friday, the Department of Justice filed what's called a motion to certify order for interlocutory appeal (legalese for "we want to appeal the court's decision now, instead of waiting until the end of the trial") to avoid its obligation to respond to the discovery requests. The Administration is arguing that the case will eventually be dismissed. Since the plaintiff's discovery requests are so "burdensome" for the Administration, appealing the court’s decision not to dismiss the case will "materially advance the ultimate termination of this litigation."

If the Administration is concerned about bureaucratic burdens, the President can issue a stop-loss order and freeze the anti-gay machinery that is destroying lives and weakening our armed forces.

And if he wants to "materially advance the ultimate termination of this litigation," there's a better way than an interlocutory appeal. That would be for President Obama to show some leadership on this issue. He ought to give a timeline for repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell and push Congress to act on it.

PFAW

Perez Says Justice Department Will Attack Gay Discrimination

Tom Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, has celebrated the imminent passage of legislation that will allow the Justice Department to prosecute discrimination against the LGBT community.

Pending legislation includes hate crimes legislation that passed the House last week and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

In a speech to his colleagues, Perez said, "We must fight for fairness and basic equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters who so frequently are being left in the shadows [and to] ensure that there's a level playing field in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are judged by the content of their character."

Perez’s announcement is a welcome step forward for ending discrimination against the LGBT community in a division that has traditionally focused little attention on LGBT equality issues.

Perez began his position in the Civil Rights Division only last week after failed attempts by Senate Republicans to block his confirmation. Senate Republicans have continued to block well-qualified nominees like Perez from being confirmed to important offices, especially Dawn Johnsen’s nomination to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

Sign the PFAW petition to confirm Dawn Johnson so that she too can restore justice at the Justice Department.

PFAW

Hate Crimes Legislation One Step Closer to Becoming Law

Last night, in a 178-234 vote, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act moved one step closer to becoming law. This legislation protects victims of hate crimes based on disability, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. 

The vote was taken on what's called a motion to instruct conferees - this one would have instructed those negotiating a final Defense Authorization bill to remove the hate crimes language included by the Senate. In a series of speeches (item 35) fit only for Right Wing Watch, the motion's supporters tried to take down this critical update to "equal protection under the law." Thankfully, their efforts were to no avail, and the Shepard/Byrd bill may soon reach President Obama's desk. A few minor hurdles remain, but we hope to see it signed within the next week.

With the stroke of a pen, the President will have an opportunity to send loud and clear the message that freedom from discrimination is a right all Americans should enjoy. And we cannot forget that this action would affirm - for the first time in federal law - a positive protection for gender identity.

Click here for more information from People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action.

PFAW

Correcting the Court

Exhibit A from last term of the Roberts Court's conservative judicial activism is the Gross age discrimination case where the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reached out to decide an issue that hadn't been briefed and changed the law in a way that will make it much harder for older workers to prove that they were discriminated against in the workplace. Today, three key Democratic leaders, Senators Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy and Rep. George Miller, announced plans to introduce a bill to correct the Court's error. As noted in the coverage of the announcement, this is the second time in a year that Congress has reached out to correct the court, the first being the Lilly Ledbetter legislation, the first measure signed into law by President Obama in January of this year.

PFAW

Marriage Equality Bill Introduced in DC

DC Councilman David Catania introduced a bill on Tuesday that will end discrimination against same sex couples who wish to marry in the nation's capital. The District already recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, but the new proposal will allow the nuptials to take place in the city.

The bill is expected to pass the 13-member city council, and it is supported by DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. In spite of this strong support in the city, outsiders will once again focus on denying marriage equality to DC residents.

Harry Jackson, Bishop of the Hope Christian Church in Maryland, is once again vowing to bring the issue to the ballot. As PFAW has reported, Jackson is an ardent supporter of homophobic ballot initiatives; this time he has the support of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, Colorado-based Focus on the Family, and the National Organization for Marriage.

In addition, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who failed at derailing the marriage recognition bill from over the summer, has expressed interest in overturning DC law again, though he admits it is unlikely that Congressional Republicans will be able to muster enough support to do so.

 

PFAW

Bob McDonnell and the High Cost of Being a Gay Couple

In Virginia, far right gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell has gotten a lot of attention for his belief that it is the duty of government to punish homosexuality. McDonnell came to mind this weekend when I read a sobering article in the New York Times entitled "The High Cost of Being a Gay Couple."

By not recognizing marriages between two men or two women, our federal and state governments treat these couples as legal strangers. The authors of the article calculated the financial burden that results from this discrimination.

We looked at benefits that routinely go to married heterosexual couples but not to gay couples, like certain Social Security payments. We plotted out the cost of health insurance for couples whose employers don't offer it to domestic partners. Even tax preparation can cost more, since gay couples have to file two sets of returns. Still, many couples may come out ahead in one area: they owe less in income taxes because they're not hit with the so-called marriage penalty.

Our goal was to create a hypothetical gay couple whose situation would be similar to a heterosexual couple's. So we gave the couple two children and assumed that one partner would stay home for five years to take care of them. We also considered the taxes in the three states that have the highest estimated gay populations — New York, California and Florida. We gave our couple an income of $140,000, which is about the average income in those three states for unmarried same-sex partners who are college-educated, 30 to 40 years old and raising children under the age of 18.

And what was the result?

In our worst case, the couple’s lifetime cost of being gay was $467,562. But the number fell to $41,196 in the best case for a couple with significantly better health insurance, plus lower taxes and other costs.

Of course, as far as Bob McDonnell is concerned, the government is only doing what it’s supposed to do: punishing homosexuality.

PFAW

Hints for the Obama Agenda in the Coming Supreme Court Term

As discussed in a number of previous posts, the Roberts Court has demonstrated its conservative ideological bent, striking down laws passed by Congress and demonstrating a willingness to ignore long-standing precedent. It reached out last term in the Gross age discrimination case to decide an issue that hadn't been briefed and changed the law in a way that will make it much harder for older workers to prove that they were discriminated against in the workplace. In the Ricci fire fighters case, the Court reached out to decide the case on the merits - even though no employee had actually been injured -- so that it could reach the merits and change the law with respect to proving discrimination in so-called disparate impact cases. And, in the recently argued Citizens United case, the Court re-opened the briefing in the case to re-visit what had been a settled question about whether regulating corporate expenditures in candidate elections is constitutional.

Will this trend continue? And what does this mean for President Obama's initiatives on health insurance reform? Climate change? Financial regulatory reform? Asnoted in Adam Liptak's article in yesterday's New York Times, the Court's docket this term includes a number of cases likely to signal its future willingness to support government intervention to address structural problems in our economy. In Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, a case growing out of the Enron debacle, the Court will consider the scope of Congress' power to delegate regulatory responsibility to independent regulatory boards. The issue in Jones v. Harris Associates, concerns the role of courts in regulating executive compensation for mutual fund investment advisers. And in Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz v. United States, the issue concerns the scope of a federal law concerning lawyers' advice to clients considering bankruptcy. Dry? Perhaps. But what we learn in these cases, may well signal how far the Court is willing to go in supporting or, perhaps more likely, frustrating, efforts by the Administration and Congress to address serious structural problems in our economy.

You think Justices' legal ideology matters? Stay tuned.

PFAW

Business at the Court

It's the first Monday in October, and that means another Supreme Court term is upon us. In addition to cases addressing church-state separation and First Amendment protections, the Court will be hearing a load of cases relating to business and finance that could have broad implications for all Americans.

The justices’ decisions will be closely watched at a time when, constitutional scholars say, Obama administration initiatives are generating fundamental questions about the structure and limits of government power that will, in short order, reach the court.

“There will be major ways in which these interventions will produce legal and constitutional issues,” said Michael W. McConnell, a former federal appeals court judge who is now director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center.

And these aren't even the kinds of business cases we're used to talking about with relation to the Court.

In recent terms, the business docket was studded with cases about employment discrimination, federal pre-emption of injury suits and the environment. With the exception of a single employment case, all of those categories are missing.

In their stead, important questions about bankruptcy, corporate compensation, patents, antitrust and government oversight of the financial system will confront the justices.

PFAW

Judicial Activism and Horne v. Flores

Given all the recent talk from the Right about judicial activism, it was pretty amazing to see Justice Alito's contortions in Thursday's decision in Horne v. Flores that gave the Arizona School Superintendent one more shot at justifying what seems to be a flawed approach to helping its English language learners overcome language obstacles.  The crux of the case, as Justice Breyer noted in his dissent, was that the graduation rate and test scores of English language learners in the Nogales Unified School District were significantly below that of the rest of the student body and the record demonstrated that this was because adequate resources were not being made available to address these students' needs.

Justice Alito thought the lower court was being too protective of the students and that the case should be sent back for a re-do. He was not able to reach this result by concluding that compliance with the more lenient No Child Left Behind Act satisfied the higher standards of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 – because a fair reading of the statutes would not permit such a conclusion. He resorted, therefore, to an in-depth, soup to nuts, re-examination of the detailed lower court findings, substituting his judgment for that of the courts below, without the deference traditionally accorded lower courts in this situation.  He also, as the dissent pointed out, reached out to consider claims not even raised or considered below.  Indeed, one of those claims Justice Breyer characterizes as "[springing] full-grown from the Court's own brow, like Athena from the brow of Zeus."  The result of all this, in Justice Breyer's view:  it will now be far more difficult for federal courts to enforce standards designed to support non-English speaking school children.

This result is troubling. And how the Court got there is equally troubling. Indeed, it’s the same kind of "unabashed display of judicial lawmaking" we saw in last week's decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services.

PFAW

Obama Takes Small Step for LGBT Equality When He Promised a Leap

Since taking office, the American people have seen a flurry of activity from the Obama administration, ranging from increased diplomatic efforts abroad to fixing the economic crisis at home. There is one area, however, where we've seen far too little movement―gay rights.

Last night, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum that will extend certain job benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

Over the past several months, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management and the Secretary of State have conducted internal reviews to determine whether the benefits they administer may be extended to the same-sex partners of federal employees within the confines of existing laws and statutes. Both identified a number of such benefits.

For civil service employees, domestic partners of federal employees can be added to the long-term care insurance program; supervisors can also be required to allow employees to use their sick leave to take care of domestic partners and non-biological, non-adopted children.

For foreign service employees, a number of benefits were identified, including the use of medical facilities at posts abroad, medical evacuation from posts abroad, and inclusion in family size for housing allocations. 

While it is a small step in the right direction, it is hardly the action that Senator Obama spoke of so often on the campaign trail:

I support the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)– a position I have held since before arriving in the U.S. Senate. While some say we should repeal only part of the law, I believe we should get rid of that statute altogether. Federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does. 

It seems that rather than take real action to repeal DOMA, the administration is offering a gesture to the LGBT community, a gesture without much weight behind it.

President Obama promised all of us that he would push to end the discrimination caused by DOMA; Let your voice be heard and tell the Obama administration that you want it repealed. Sign our petition to end DOMA now!

PFAW

Bishop Harry Jackson Challenges DC Board’s Decision to Forego Same-Sex Marriage Referendum

Not that this comes as a surprise to anyone, but Bishop Harry Jackson and other opponents of same-sex marriage have filed a lawsuit here in DC hoping to get a referendum on the ballot on whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

The civil suit against the District's Board of Elections and Ethics asks Judge Judith E. Retchin to overturn an election board ruling Monday that blocked a proposal to put the issue before the voters. Citing a District election law prohibiting votes on matters covered under the 1977 Human Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination against gay men, lesbians and other minority groups, the board said that a referendum would "authorize discrimination."

The plaintiffs asked for an expedited hearing. If the court or Congress does not intervene, recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere will become law early next month, at the end of the required congressional review period.

"We are not going to sit by and allow an unelected board of bureaucrats to deny voters their rightful say on this issue and, by their action, allow the institution of marriage and the entire structure of our society to be radically redefined," said Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and one of seven District residents who are plaintiffs in the suit.

Bishop Harry Jackson is touted in the Washington Post’s article as “one of seven District residents who are plaintiffs in the suit,” but Lou Chibbarro of The Washington Blade has found evidence that suggests otherwise.

For more information about Jackson’s crusade across the country to strip LGBT people of the equal protection under the law, see People For the American Way Foundation’s report Point Man for the Wedge Strategy.


 

PFAW

Maine Becomes Latest State to Make Gay Marriages Legal

Today, Maine became the latest state to affirm the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, joining Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, and Vermont when Gov. John Baldacci signed into law LD 1020, An Act to End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom. People For the American Way applauds Gov. Baldacci for recognizing that this is about fairness and equal protection under the law for all citizens of Maine. In a public statement, Gov. Baldacci said:

“In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions. I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage.

“Article I in the Maine Constitution states that ‘no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor be denied the equal protection of the laws, nor be denied the enjoyment of that person’s civil rights or be discriminated against.’

“This new law does not force any religion to recognize a marriage that falls outside of its beliefs. It does not require the church to perform any ceremony with which it disagrees. Instead, it reaffirms the separation of Church and State.

“It guarantees that Maine citizens will be treated equally under Maine’s civil marriage laws, and that is the responsibility of government.”

This news comes a day after the D.C. Council voted 12-1 to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Congratulations to the Maine Legislature and all those who are working hard to make fairness and equality for same-sex couples in Maine a reality.

PFAW

Don’t Believe the Right’s Propaganda on the Supreme Court

With everyone talking about the retirement of Justice David Souter, the Radical Right’s propaganda machine is set to max.

Right Wing Watch is reporting on the Right’s reaction.  One of the more laughable claims comes from Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network:

The current Supreme Court is a liberal, judicial activist court.  Obama could make it even more of a far-left judicial activist court, for a long time to come …

Calling the current Court liberal is like calling Mitt Romney consistent – you can’t say it with a straight face.  In fact, no less an authority than Justice John Paul Stevens has pointed out that “every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell has been more conservative than his or her predecessor,” with the possible exception of Justice Ginsburg.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s review some of the highlights of the current “liberal” Supreme Court.

In order to achieve their desired ideological results, the Far Right justices have recklessly toppled precedents, or even ignored them while pretending not to, with alarming frequency.  For example, the restrictive federal abortion ban upheld by the Roberts Court was essentially identical to one the Court had struck down before Roberts and Alito joined the bench.  Unfortunately, extreme Right Wing ideology trumped the rule of law.

Voting rights have also come under attack.  The Roberts Court upheld the constitutionality of the most restrictive voter ID law in the country, an Indiana law requiring people to present a currently valid, government-issued photo ID in order to vote.  This imposes a substantial burden on the elderly who don’t drive, college students, and the poor who don’t own cars.  Indiana was unable to identify a single case of in-person voter fraud occurring in its history.  That didn’t stop the Roberts Court from upholding a restriction that kept many Americans from being able to go to the polls on Election Day and cast a vote.

Even our very access to the courts has come under attack from the “liberal” Supreme Court.

Lilly Ledbetter was a victim of sex discrimination effectively barred from the courthouse.  Late in her career, she learned that she had, over the years, been subjected to salary discrimination on the basis of her sex, and she sued.  A jury found that she had been illegally discriminated against.  Yet a 5-4 Right Wing majority held that she should have sued within 180 days of the initial discriminatory conduct—even though she didn’t learn that she was being discriminated against for more than a decade.

The Court also closed the courthouse door in Riegel v. Medtronic, holding that patients injured by a defective medical device cannot sue for damages for violations of state common law if it was approved for marketing by the Food and Drug Administration and made to the agency’s specifications.  To reach this result, the Court had to interpret a federal law in a manner directly contrary to how its Senate sponsor said it was intended.

Keith Bowles was yet another victim denied his day in court.  After Bowles was denied relief in federal district court, the judge informed him that he had 17 days to file an appeal.  Unbeknownst to him, the rules really gave him only 14 days.  So when Bowles, relying on the federal judge, filed on day 16, a narrow 5-4 Supreme Court majority said that he had filed too late.  In so doing, the Court majority overruled clear and principled precedent that protected people in his situation.  In dissent, Justice Souter correctly wrote that “it is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way, and there is not even a technical justification for this bait and switch.”

The danger from right-wing justices was clear in Boumediene v. Bush, a case related to the then-President’s claim of virtually unlimited executive powers to conduct the war on terror.  The case involved the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which eliminated federal court jurisdiction over habeas corpus claims by certain foreign detainees.  The Court rebuked President Bush’s vision of the presidency as an office of limitless power and declared that the president of a free nation cannot simply lock people up and throw away the key like some third-world dictator.  Chillingly, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissenting, the case was decided by a single vote, 5-4.  One more hard-right justice on the Court, and the decision would likely have gone the other way.

That’s why it’s crucial to have justices who are committed to our core constitutional values of justice and equality under the law.

It is of the utmost importance that Justice Souter be replaced by a powerful advocate for our Constitution—a justice in the mold of great jurists like Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan.  Our nation cannot afford anything less.

PFAW

NAMUDNO In the Supreme Court

This morning the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Eric Holder, a case involving a small municipal district in Austin, Texas seeking to invalidate a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - one of the most important civil rights laws in American history.

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Congress finally acted to prevent discriminatory tactics designed to prevent minorities from exercising their fundamental right to vote. Section 5, in particular, is the centerpiece of the Act, and requires certain covered jurisdictions where voting discrimination has been the most flagrant to seek a preclearance from the Justice Department or a three-judge panel of the federal court in DC for any voting related changes. According to the statute, preclearance will be given as long as the proposed change does not have the purpose or the effect of denying or infringing on the right to vote because of one’s race or color.

In this case, the party seeking to invalidate Section 5 is a municipal utility district in Travis County, Texas, that conducts elections to select the members of its board of directors. Because the State of Texas is a covered jurisdiction, the district is subject to the preclearance requirements of Section 5, and sought relief under the Act’s bailout provision in federal court in the days following the reauthorization of the Act in 2006. Alternatively, the utility district sought to invalidate the provision if it could not bailout from its requirements. It failed on both counts in the courts below.

Today’s arguments confirm that Justice Kennedy again holds the deciding vote on whether the Court will weaken or invalidate a provision upheld by the very same Court four times in the past.

To those who argue that Section 5 is no longer needed because racial discrimination no longer exists, as evidenced by the election of the country’s first African American president, look at the facts. Because of Section 5’s sunset provisions, Congress was required to re-examine whether the statute is needed and last conducted an examination of this type in 2006. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a combined 21 hearings over 10 months and received testimony from over 90 witnesses, including state and federal officials, experts and private citizens. And although they concluded that significant progress had been made, they recognized that “[d]iscrimination today is more subtle than the visible methods used in 1965” and concluded that discrimination continues to result in “a diminishing of the minority community’s ability to fully participate in the electoral process and to elect their preferred candidates of choice.” Congress voted 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate that, among other things, Section 5 was still necessary.

We hope that Justice Kennedy will remember the extensive record finding Congress performed in 2006 and remember his words earlier this year when he wrote in Bartlett v. Strickland, “Still, racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions. . .”


Deborah Liu is General Counsel to People For the American Way, which is a defendant-intervenor in the case.

PFAW

Lift the Ban

Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) is a prime issue for LGBT lobbyists and activists nationwide--including here at People For. Freedom from discrimination is a basic right that all Americans should enjoy. Repealing DADT is necessary for our nation to restore its core values, especially the principle of equality for all.

On Friday, March 13th, 2009, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) hosted a lobby day and a "Freedom to Serve Rally" on Capitol Hill, and I was pleased to be able to join them. Lobby groups targeted Representatives and Senators who currently oppose the repeal.

As a supporter of repeal, it was difficult for me to understand how Representatives and Senators could refuse to support ending DADT. It was shocking for me to see how many Congress members were completely uninterested in hearing from our group--even those of us who had served in uniform for our country.

Later, I could not hold back the tears when some of our discharged service members, some after even 25 years of service, shared their stories during the Freedom to Serve Rally. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) was a standout among an impressive lineup of speakers. Rep. Norton declared: "I'm done asking! And I'm telling!" We're not asking for repeal any longer, we're telling Congress and President Obama that the time for repeal is now. And this isn't just about fairness and job discrimination, Rep. Norton noted, but it is also about the strength of our military.

Lifting the ban on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is not only necessary for retaining equality, but it's necessary for ensuring that our armed forces remain the best in the world. It is imperative that we join together to make sure that all Americans can serve honestly and openly in our armed forces. Together, we can and we will lift the ban!

PFAW