Immigration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

In Overcrowded Courts, Justice Delayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

In State of the Union, Obama Calls for Immigration Reform and DREAM ACT

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama made a common-sense plea for comprehensive immigration reform, including a reference to the DREAM ACT, the popular measure that would provide a path to citizenship for young adults who, through no fault of their own, were brought into the country illegally as children, provided they graduate from high school with a commitment to go to college or join the military. The DREAM Act was blocked by Senate Republicans at the end of last year.

One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.

Opposition to the DREAM Act and to comprehensive reform has been based largely on reactionary anti-immigrant politics—politics that, as Obama said, shouldn’t trump human decency and economic sense.
 

PFAW

Congress Moves Closer to Passage of DREAM Act

Yesterday, in a 216-198 vote, the House passed the DREAM Act, a measure that lays out a path to citizenship for young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children, and who graduate from high school with the commitment to attend college or join the military. Today, the Senate took a procedural vote that temporarily delayed action on the measure in order to build more support for its consideration in the coming week.

Michael B. Keegan, President of People For the American Way, issued the following statement:

Until the DREAM Act becomes law, tens of thousands of young Americans will continue to be treated as criminals in the only homes they know. The Senate must follow the House’s example and work quickly to eliminate what is a fundamental injustice in American law. We support Senator Reid’s efforts to gather enough votes to pass DREAM, and urge fair-minded senators to throw aside divisive anti-immigrant politics and act with common sense and compassion.

Calls are still needed to the Senate: 866-996-5161. Here are some talking points from the National Immigration Forum.

Why should your Senators support the DREAM Act?

•    Because the public supports it—70%, according to a recent poll by First Focus.

•    Because the military wants it.  Secretary of Defense Bill Gates recently wrote a letter to the DREAM Act’s sponsor in the Senate in support of the DREAM Act.  Retired Gen. Colin Powell has also spoken publicly in favor of the DREAM Act.  The DREAM Act will help the military meet recruitment goals, because one of the ways students will qualify is to serve in the military.

•    Because taxpayers deserve a return on their investment.  Allowing immigrant students to continue their education and achieve their potential will translate into better jobs and higher tax revenue when these promising young people enter the workforce.  A single-minded focus on enforcement, as proposed by anti-immigrant Members of Congress would deny taxpayers this return on investment, and result in higher deficits, cuts in other programs, or higher taxes to pay to deport these immigrant youth.

Also from the National Immigration Forum, the story behind today’s Senate action.

The Senate vote on a motion to table the DREAM cloture vote, which took place moments ago, reflected a strategic decision to buy time to build more support for the DREAM Act.

If you were watching the vote or saw a headline about it, you may have been puzzled as to why Senate Leader Reid made a motion to table his own cloture motion, and why so many Democrats voted for it.  Why did this happen?

It’s complicated.  Republicans have vowed to block every bill in the Senate until the issues of tax cuts and funding of the government for the current fiscal year are resolved.  Democratic leadership decided they would push back the DREAM vote until these other issues are resolved.  Once the tax cuts and government funding are dealt with, Republicans will not be able to use them as excuses to oppose the DREAM Act.

However: Senator Reid needed “Unanimous Consent” to withdraw his cloture motion and push back the vote.  He did not get it, forcing him to offer a motion to table the cloture vote. 

Procedural trick: By tabling the cloture vote, Democrats will be able to bring the DREAM Act up again in the coming days when the other issues have been resolved.

Bottom line: Our allies in the Senate know that DREAM supporters have momentum coming out of the House victory yesterday.  They want to take the additional time, remove excuses now being made by Republicans, and cultivate more support for DREAM in the Senate.

A real vote on DREAM in the Senate will be scheduled later.  Please continue to contact your Senators and tell them to support the Dream Act.

Here again is the phone number you can call to be patched through to your Senators offices: 866-996-5161.

We will keep you posted as more information becomes available on the schedule for a Senate vote on the DREAM Act.
PFAW

DREAM Act up today in the House and Senate, DOD/DADT looming

We are now certain that today is the day for the DREAM Act in both the House and Senate. Please keep calling! 866-967-6018 for the House. 866-996-5161 for the Senate.

To assist you in your calls, here are some talking points from the National Immigration Forum.

Why should your Representative support the DREAM Act?

•    Because the public supports it—70%, according to a recent poll by First Focus.

•    Because the military wants it.  Secretary of Defense Bill Gates recently wrote a letter to the DREAM Act’s sponsor in the Senate in support of the DREAM Act.  Retired Gen. Colin Powell has also spoken publicly in favor of the DREAM Act.  The DREAM Act will help the military meet recruitment goals, because one of the ways students will qualify is to serve in the military.

•    Because taxpayers deserve a return on their investment.  Allowing immigrant students to continue their education and achieve their potential will translate into better jobs and higher tax revenue when these promising young people enter the workforce.  A single-minded focus on enforcement, as proposed by anti-immigrant Members of Congress would deny taxpayers this return on investment, and result in higher deficits, cuts in other programs, or higher taxes to pay to deport these immigrant youth.

After the Senate completes its afternoon votes, depending on the outcome, it’s possible that Majority Leader Reid could go back to the FY11 Defense authorization bill. As he has pledged:

We are also going to repeal the discriminatory don't ask, don't tell rule. We are going to match our policy with our principles and finally say that in America everyone who steps up to serve our country should be welcomed.

Republicans know they do not have the votes to take this repeal out of the Defense authorization bill, so they are holding up the whole bill. But when they refuse to debate it, they also hold up a well-deserved raise for our troops, better health care for our troops and their families, equipment such as MRAP vehicles that keep our troops safe, and other critical wartime efforts in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts around the world.

We’ve been waiting 17 years for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But our troops are also waiting. Click here to contact your Senators, and here for information about this Friday’s rally at the Capitol.

PFAW

Arizona, Immigration, and the Supreme Court

Stepping into the increasingly volatile and contentious debate over immigration, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow on how far the state of Arizona can go to prevent employers from hiring undocumented aliens. The case is Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting.

The case involves a 2007 Arizona law that punishes employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens by suspending or revoking most of their state licenses. The Chamber of Commerce argues that the law is preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

IRCA prohibits the hiring of undocumented aliens and sets forth procedures employers must follow before hiring someone and the sanctions they will incur for violating the law. Most importantly, IRCA expressly preempts local and state laws creating sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws).

It is the "licensing and similar laws" clause that is crucial in this case, because the draconian punishment set forth in the Arizona law is the suspension and revocation of "licenses," a term defined so broadly in the statute that it even includes a company's articles of incorporation.

The Court will also decide whether Arizona can lawfully require employers in the state to use a federally-administered electronic employment verification database called E-Verify - a database that federal law expressly makes voluntary.

Agreeing with the Chamber that the Arizona law is unconstitutional are the Obama Administration and an array of civil rights groups (such as the National Council of La Raza and the Anti-Defamation League).

When the Court issues its ruling next year, it may give clues on how it might rule on Arizona's more recent "your papers please" law, which has yet to work its way up to the Court.

PFAW

Action Alert: Keep making calls on the DREAM Act

The House vote on the DREAM Act is now expected next week. Please keep calling! 866-967-6018

To assist you in your call, here is the action alert from the National Immigration Forum.

The DREAM Act is moving closer to a vote in the House, and anti-immigrant Members of Congress are getting ready.  They are circulating their familiar talking points referring to the DREAM Act as a “mass amnesty,” and claiming that it would result in the “crowding out” of U.S. citizens from U.S. public universities.

We need you to call your representatives to push back on anti-immigrant falsehoods.

Please call your Representative TODAY.
  Use this number: 866-967-6018, and your call will be directed to the office of your Representative.  Ask your Representative to support a vote on the DREAM Act and to vote for passage of the Act.

Briefly, the DREAM Act would give legal status to immigrant youth who were brought here by their parents and who subsequently grew up here, went to school here and now want to go to college or serve in our military.  They are American in every way except their paperwork.

Why should your Representative support the DREAM Act?

•    Because the public supports it—70%, according to a recent poll by First Focus.

•    Because the military wants it.  Secretary of Defense Bill Gates recently wrote a letter to the DREAM Act’s sponsor in the Senate in support of the DREAM Act.  Retired Gen. Colin Powell has also spoken publicly in favor of the DREAM Act.  The DREAM Act will help the military meet recruitment goals, because one of the ways students will qualify is to serve in the military.

•    Because taxpayers deserve a return on their investment.  Allowing immigrant students to continue their education and achieve their potential will translate into better jobs and higher tax revenue when these promising young people enter the workforce.  A single-minded focus on enforcement, as proposed by anti-immigrant Members of Congress would deny taxpayers this return on investment, and result in higher deficits, cuts in other programs, or higher taxes to pay to deport these immigrant youth.

Call your Representative TODAY and ask him or her to support the DREAM Act.  Call 866-967-6018.

For more information, go here.

A vote is also looming in the Senate. Contact info for your Senators is available here.

PFAW

Action Alert: A House vote on the DREAM Act is expected tomorrow morning

A House vote on the DREAM Act is expected tomorrow morning. Call 866-967-6018 now to be connected to your Representative.

To assist you in your call, here is the action alert from the National Immigration Forum.

The DREAM Act is moving closer to a vote in the House, and anti-immigrant Members of Congress are getting ready.  They are circulating their familiar talking points referring to the DREAM Act as a “mass amnesty,” and claiming that it would result in the “crowding out” of U.S. citizens from U.S. public universities.

We need you to call your representatives to push back on anti-immigrant falsehoods.

Please call your Representative TODAY.
  Use this number: 866-967-6018, and your call will be directed to the office of your Representative.  Ask your Representative to support a vote on the DREAM Act and to vote for passage of the Act.

Briefly, the DREAM Act would give legal status to immigrant youth who were brought here by their parents and who subsequently grew up here, went to school here and now want to go to college or serve in our military.  They are American in every way except their paperwork.

Why should your Representative support the DREAM Act?

•    Because the public supports it—70%, according to a recent poll by First Focus.

•    Because the military wants it.  Secretary of Defense Bill Gates recently wrote a letter to the DREAM Act’s sponsor in the Senate in support of the DREAM Act.  Retired Gen. Colin Powell has also spoken publicly in favor of the DREAM Act.  The DREAM Act will help the military meet recruitment goals, because one of the ways students will qualify is to serve in the military.

•    Because taxpayers deserve a return on their investment.  Allowing immigrant students to continue their education and achieve their potential will translate into better jobs and higher tax revenue when these promising young people enter the workforce.  A single-minded focus on enforcement, as proposed by anti-immigrant Members of Congress would deny taxpayers this return on investment, and result in higher deficits, cuts in other programs, or higher taxes to pay to deport these immigrant youth.

Call your Representative TODAY and ask him or her to support the DREAM Act.  Call 866-967-6018.

For more information, go here.

A vote is also looming in the Senate. Contact info for your Senators is available here.

PFAW

Empowered GOP Seeks to Sink Immigrant Rights

The Republican Party’s virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are far from mere political tactics, as GOP members of Congress usher in a radical agenda to rollback the rights of immigrants and their families. Iowa Rep. Steve King, who has appeared with violent vigilante groups and has referred to undocumented immigration as both a “slow-motion Holocaust” and a “slow-motion terrorist attack,” is set to chair the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration. Members of the House Republican Freshman Class, including Pennsylvania’s Tom Marino and Florida’s Allen West, frequently used immigrant-bashing in their campaigns, and Louisiana Senator David Vitter made demonizing immigrants the cornerstone of his reelection campaign.

Two new reports today demonstrate how extreme the Republican Party is moving to not only oppose immigration reform but also to undermine one of the most important protections guaranteed by the US Constitution:

GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees immigration, is expected to push a bill that would deny "birthright citizenship" to such children.

The measure, assailed by critics as unconstitutional, is an indication of how the new majority intends to flex its muscles on the volatile issue of illegal immigration.

The idea has a growing list of supporters, including Republican Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and Dan Lungren of Gold River, but it has aroused intense opposition, as well.

"I don't like it," said Chad Silva, statewide policy analyst for the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. "It's been something that's been a part of America for a very long time. … For us, it sort of flies in the face of what America is about."

Republicans are also gearing up to defeat the DREAM Act, which would allow students and military servicemembers who came into the country illegally as children and have a clean criminal record to gain a pathway to citizenship. Even though the DREAM Act has historically garnered bipartisan support, Politico reports that Republicans on the Hill are trying to deceptively tar the bill as amnesty for criminals:

Already, GOP staffers have begun circulating to senators and conservative groups a white paper outlining what they see as the social and financial costs of passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.

“In addition to immediately putting an estimated 2.1 million illegal immigrants (including certain criminal aliens) on a path to citizenship, the DREAM Act would give them access to in-state tuition rates at public universities, federal student loans and federal work-study programs,” said the research paper, being distributed by Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.



The bill’s backers, though, say it outlines a “rigorous and lengthy process” for legalization, hardly the amnesty plan that opponents have depicted.

Eligible immigrants must have entered the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country for at least five consecutive years before the bill’s enactment and been at least under age 35 at the time of enactment; been admitted to a college or earned a high-school diploma or GED certificate; and have no serious criminal record.

A recent Rasmussen poll found that a majority of Americans believe that “children brought to the U.S. illegally should get a chance at citizenship if they complete two years of college or participate in the military,” and military leaders have called on Congress to pass the DREAM Act as a way to strengthen the country’s armed forces. A study by UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center states that the DREAM Act both “offers a moral solution to the trap of being a young, motivated, undocumented immigrant in the U.S.” and is “an economically sensible piece of legislation that advances the interests of U.S. society as a whole.”

However, the extreme anti-immigrant sentiment that is pervasive within the GOP stands in the way of reasonable efforts at reform, and even leads to radical legislation that challenges the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

PFAW

The Most Outrageous Ads of the Election

This election cycle has experienced a massive flood of political spending following the dramatic weakening of campaign finance laws in cases such as Citizens United and SpeechNow. According to Political Correction, between August 1st and October 29th, the ten biggest right-wing groups, many of which are backed by contributions by corporations and don’t publicly disclose their donors, have spent about $100 million to air 109,826 ads. Many of the conservative candidates and organizations have been employing false claims and polarizing smears in their ads meant to foment cultural divisions and discredit progressive legislation. Here are just a handful of the most outrageous and irresponsible ads used this election year:

Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

The Right Wing has used the Park51 Community Center as a way to provoke fear, stoke divisions, and promote intolerance. The debate surrounding the community center has been riddled with attacks on religious freedom and baseless claims that the project’s organizers have ties to extremist groups, and the right has attempted to make the community center in Lower Manhattan an election issue in places like Iowa and North Carolina.

American Future Fund:

Renee Ellmers (Republican nominee, NC-02)

Anti-Health Care Reform

The recently passed health care reform law has been hammered by outside groups and conservative politicians with numerous dishonest and misleading attacks. Independent fact checkers have confirmed that the law does not use taxpayer funds to pay for abortion or drugs like Viagra for sex offenders. Other false and deceptive claims include allegations that the reform law establishes death panels, creates an army of IRS agents to arrest people without coverage, cuts Medicare benefits, and leads to the government takeover of the health care system.

American Action Network:

Susan B. Anthony List & CitizenLink (Focus on the Family Action):

Anti-Immigrant Extremism

Conservative politicians are taking cues from the Right Wing Playbook on Immigration Reform by attempting to portray Latinos in America as violent criminals who threaten White Americans. While smearing Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the DREAM Act, such anti-immigrant ads unfairly depict Latinos as invaders, gangsters, and welfare-beneficiaries. Even Sharron Angle tried to distance herself from her campaign’s ads by claiming that they are not Latinos but could actually be “terrorists” from Canada.

Sharron Angle (Republican nominee, NV-SEN):

Sen. David Vitter (Republican nominee, LA-SEN):

PFAW

Right-Wing Group to Nevada Latinos: “Don’t Vote”

Republican-affiliated groups have been getting less and less subtle in their attempts to prevent those likely to be Democrats from voting. There was the voter-caging operation in Wisconsin that sought to scare young and minority voters away from the polls in the name of preventing the proven non-problem of “voter fraud.” There was Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk suggesting that poll watchers be sent to predominantly black districts, “where the other side might be tempted to jigger the numbers.” But enough of the dog whistle. A Republican-affiliated group called “Latinos For Reform” has made an ad simply telling Latinos in Nevada: “Don’t Vote." Here's the English transalation:

 The organization’s president, conservative Unavision pundit Robert Desposada, has acknowledged that Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle would do nothing to advance immigration reform. "I can't ask people to support a Republican candidate who has taken a completely irresponsible and bordering on racist position on immigration," he told Politico.

For someone who thinks Angle’s positions are “irresponsible” and “bordering on racist,” he seems awfully interested in getting her elected.

Update: Univision has refused to air the ad.

PFAW

Members of PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network Honored in Time’s “40 Under 40”

Four members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network have been included in Time Magazine’s “40 Under 40” list of “the rising stars of American politics”.

At 36, Julián Castro, Mayor of San Antonio, is the youngest mayor of a Top 50 American city. He’s been a member of the YEO Network since it’s founding, when he was a city councilman—he was elected mayor last year. In his first year in office, among other accomplishments, he sealed a multimillion dollar deal for alternative energy research in the city. You can read more about Julián in a lengthy New York Times Magazine profile from May.

Hannah Pingree, 33, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, was also one of the original members of the YEO Network. Here’s what she had to say to Time about why she’s in politics:

"I love politics. Even in these times, politics is hard, the word 'politics' isn't popular, and politicians aren't the most poplar people. But being able to serve in the stage legislature, where a lot of the work we do is bipartisan, there are decent people on both sides of the aisle. You can make a difference. I've been able to pass a lot of bills or make an impact on the people I grew up with: fishermen in my district, people who need good housing, environmental policy that impacts kids' health. If I hadn't been able to do that in politics, I would have given up a long time ago. All the challenges and, sometimes, meanness and frustration you encounter in politics is worth it, if you can make good things happen."

Bakari Sellers became the youngest member of the South Carolina General Assembly at the age of 22. Now 26, he’s earned a law degree and continues to be a voice in the legislature for the ‘have-nots’ in his community. He told BET last year, "My goals again are relatively simple, representing a very poor and rural district. I want to ensure all South Carolinians access to a first-class education and ensure access to quality health care.”

Kyrsten Sinema, 34, is a member of PFAW Foundation’s Board of Directors as well as the YEO Network. A member of the Arizona House of Representatives, she’s running for a seat in the State Senate this fall. Kyrsten’s been a leader in Arizona on gay rights, responsible immigration policy, and economic development. Here’s her debate with Sherriff Joe Arpaio about Arizona’s draconian immigration law in April:
 

PFAW

Santorum Slamming JFK, Secularism

Fifty years ago, the man who would become America’s first Catholic president delivered a historic speech that helped reduce anti-Catholic prejudice in our public life. Five decades later, a man who would like to be the nation’s second Catholic president celebrated the occasion by slamming Kennedy. It’s a remarkable reversal. 

Former Senator Rick Santorum has been using the anniversary of then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s famous address on church-state separation to decry the destructive forces of secularism that he says Kennedy unleashed. (People For the American Way is among Santorum’s targets.)
 
Santorum’s attack deserves attention, especially at a time when religious and political leaders, Santorum among them, are eagerly fanning the flames of religious intolerance. Much of Santorum’s recent speech – delivered in Houston on September 9 and reprised since then at events like Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference – is given over to repeated claims that Kennedy emboldened secularists who want a public square “cleansed of all religious wisdom and the voice of religious people of all faiths.” He says Kennedy’s speech launched a movement that is “repressing or banishing people of faith from having a say in government.”
 
These inflammatory claims are regularly advanced by Religious Right leaders who portray supporters of church-state separation as hostile to faith and religious liberty. But how can they be taken seriously?
 
Choose any topic that is being debated in the public square, and you’ll find people of faith advancing their values, probably on both sides of the issue – and not just on abortion and gay rights.  Religious Right activists spouted Tea Party arguments about the evils of government while progressive religious leaders worked hard to promote health care reform. The Catholic hierarchy is among the religious organizations working to deny gay couples legal recognition while other religious groups like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are working for full marriage equality.  At the same time, the two groups are both lobbying for humane immigration reform.
 
It’s a complicated scene, and it’s a noisy one. Who has been silenced? Not Ralph Reed, who is bragging that he’s planning to mobilize conservative evangelical voters to turn Election Day into a historic rout for Democrats.  And certainly not conservative Catholics like Santorum.  At Reed’s Faith and Freedom conference, a panel included leaders of two groups organized to promote conservative Catholic values in the public arena – Catholic Advocate and Faithful Catholic Citizens.
 
There are situations that bring constitutional values into tension. America, via the Supreme Court and civil rights legislation, has decided (Rand Paul notwithstanding) that a business owner’s desire to discriminate against racial minorities does not trump other individuals’ right to equal access to public accommodations, even if the desire to discriminate was based on sincerely held religious beliefs.  Courts and legislatures are wrangling with similar situations that consider religious beliefs about homosexuality, abortion, and contraception alongside LGBT Americans’ right to legal equality, and all Americans’ access to medical care.
 
But the fact that some court cases have gone against those seeking a religious exemption to a generally applied law is no grounds for claiming that religious people have been silenced, or no longer have the right to make their case in the public square. What Santorum seems to want is a kind of double standard: religious conservatives can take part in public debate but should be shielded from criticism. They can engage in legal and political advocacy, but if they lose they can claim the process has been stacked against them by sinister anti-religious forces.
 
Santorum argues that the secularist forces unleashed by Kennedy threaten peaceful coexistence and even put American civilization at risk. He says the founders believed that “if they fostered religion and the Judeo-Christian moral code we would achieve something that was never before seen in a country with so many competing faiths - a truly tolerant, democratic and harmonious public square.”
 
But Santorum himself is actively undermining the possibility for a “tolerant, democratic and harmonious” public square. He seeks political gain by branding his opponents as enemies of religious liberty. And he has played a significant role in inflaming an ugly anti-Islamic wave of public opinion that has resulted in fatal violence and could leave communities damaged and divided for years.
 
Santorum portrays himself as heroic, telling audiences, “I have been criticized in the media for daring to speak out on these sensitive moral issues.”  That’s not true.  Santorum is criticized not for “daring to speak out” but for saying things many people disagree with. Santorum has every right to denigrate the loving relationships of same-sex couples by comparing them to man-on-dog sex. But just as surely others have the right to criticize and even ridicule him for those statements.  
 
The First Amendment is a two-way street. But that seems to be one truth that Santorum and his allies refuse to acknowledge.
PFAW

First Monday in October

Today, as the Supreme Court opens its new term, the major news concerns a decision from last term: the solid rebuke of Citizens United by a bipartisan group of more than 50 legal scholars and public officials. The impact of that decision is poisoning election campaigns around the country and, through the Congress that will be elected as a result, will doubtless impact the lives of every American.

This term, the Court will be deciding at least one new corporate personhood case, as well as other cases affecting our most important rights, including freedom of speech, church-state separation, and due process. Some of the ones we'll be looking at:

Corporate Personhood & Privacy: AT&T v. FCC. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) generally requires federal agencies to disclose records to the public upon request. There are numerous exceptions, such as records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes whose disclosure could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of "personal privacy." The Supreme Court will decide if "personal privacy" applies to corporations, as well as to people.

Free Speech: Snyder v. Phelps. Fred Phelps and his fellow fanatics from the Westboro Baptist Church are infamous for picketing the funerals of military personnel with messages such as "God Hates Fags." According to Phelps, the deaths of U.S. servicemembers are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The Supreme Court will determine whether Phelps' funeral-picketing activities are protected by the First Amendment. The case will be argued Wednesday.

Free Speech: Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association. The Supreme Court will address whether a California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors violates the free speech protections of the First Amendment. California argues that states can restrict minors' access to violent material just as they can with sexual material. During oral arguments in November, we may get a sense as to whether the Supreme Court agrees.

Church-State Separation: Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn. Arizona has a program that gives parents tax credits for tuition at private schools. Most parents use these credits toward tuition at religious schools. A group of taxpayers sued, arguing that this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Before the Supreme Court can decide that issue, it must first determine if the plaintiffs have standing to sue. In 2007, the Roberts Court limited the circumstances in which taxpayers can challenge government expenditures that violate the Establishment Clause, and they may do so again in this case.

State Secrets Privilege: General Dynamics v. U.S. and Boeing v. U.S. These cases are actually not about the most infamous uses of the states secret privilege, which notoriously has been used to shut down lawsuits against the government alleging U.S. complicity in torture and other illegal activities. This time, it's the federal government that has initiated the lawsuit, which raises interesting Due Process issues. These consolidated cases address whether the United States can sue two defense contractors for failing to fulfill their contractual obligations, while at the same time using the state secrets privilege to prevent the companies from presenting a defense.

Employment of Immigrants: Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Whiting. In 2007, Arizona passed a law targeting employers who hire undocumented immigrants by revoking their licenses to operate in the state. The state law also requires employers to participate in a federal electronic employment verification system that federal law specifically makes voluntary. The Supreme Court will decide whether federal immigration legislation preempts Arizona's laws.

Preemption - Right to Sue Drug Manufacturers: Bruesewitz v. Wyeth. The federal Vaccine Act preempts certain design defect lawsuits in state court against child vaccine manufacturers "if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings." The Bruesewitz family argues that their lawsuit isn't preempted because the side effects were not unavoidable: A safer, alternative vaccine was available. The Supreme Court will decide if the Vaccine Act preempts the family's suit.

Preemption - Right to Sue Car Manufacturers: Williamson v. Mazda. An accident victim sued Mazda in state court for negligently choosing to install a lap-only seatbelt in the back center seat instead of a safer lap/shoulder belt. However, federal car safety regulations at the time specifically allowed lap-only seatbelts. The Supreme Court will decide if Congress intended the federal safety regulations to preempt such state lawsuits.

PFAW

It gets better

It’s not often that a web site like Gawker makes me stop and think, but staff writer Brian Moylan did just that in a moving post about anti-gay bullying.

If we can't save these kids' lives, then all of our struggles for civil rights and marriage equality aren't worth anything.

Brian’s right. Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Health benefits and housing. Immigration rights. Relationship recognition. Marriage equality. If we don’t save the next generation, what we’re fighting for today won’t mean anything tomorrow.

These days we can’t seem to escape the stories of lives ruined, or even ended, by bullying based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. Tyler Clementi has dominated the news this week. We’ve also heard about Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, and Asher Brown. One death is too many. Five in such a short period of time is unconscionable. This must stop.

Columnist Dan Savage makes a simple plea to those who think they have nowhere to turn: It gets better.
 


 

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has a similar message: Things will get easier. People’s minds will change. And you should be alive to see it.
 


 

LGBT youth, just like all students, should feel safe and secure when they enter the schoolhouse doors. We can change the end of this story.

For more information, please click here. And be sure to check out the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

PFAW

Menendez introduces LGBT-inclusive immigration reform

Senator Menendez has sent a strong message that same-sex couples and their families deserve equal rights under immigration law. On Wednesday, he joined with Senator Leahy to introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill that is LGBT-inclusive. Both men support the Uniting American Families Act.

Immigration Equality Action Fund hailed this important step forward.

It is simply unconscionable that our immigration laws tear families apart . . . Senator Menendez’s legislation, which is a truly comprehensive bill, would provide LGBT families with important opportunities to keep their families together. The bill’s introduction is welcome news not just for lesbian and gay Americans, but also their extended families, their communities and our country. The Immigration Equality Action Fund is committed to working for its passage.

PFAW welcomes an immigration debate that provides equality to same-sex couples so that they can keep their families together. They need to be able to begin the immigration process more quickly and efficiently, and with fewer limitations. Gay men and lesbians whose partners are US citizens or legal permanent residents should have the right to apply for family-based visas and green cards.

As the 111th Congress draws to a close, and the 112th begins, we urge both the House and Senate to make inclusive reform a priority.

PFAW

Right Wing Watch In Focus: "Rogues' Gallery"

Today, People For the American Way released our latest Right Wing Watch In Focus report examining the slate of extremist GOP Senate candidates running for office this year.

Entitled "The Rogues' Gallery: Right-Wing Candidates Have A Dangerous Agenda for America and Could Turn the Senate," the report examines the radical agendas and views held by Joe Miller, Carly Fiorina, Ken Buck, Christine O'Donnell, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Roy Blunt, Sharron Angle, Kelly Ayotte, Richard Burr, Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, and Dino Rossi, plus the role that Sen. Jim DeMint has played in dragging the GOP further and further to the right.

Here is the introduction:

Republicans in the U.S. Senate have already broken all records for unprincipled partisan obstructionism, preventing the administration from putting people into key positions in the executive branch, blocking judicial confirmations, and delaying and preventing Congress from dealing with important issues facing the nation, from financial reform to immigration. Now a bumper crop of far-right GOP candidates threatens to turn the "deliberative body"into a haven for extremists who view much of the federal government as unconstitutional and who are itching to shut it down.

Fueled by the unlimited deep pockets of billionaire anti-government ideologues, various Tea Party and corporate-interest groups have poured money into primary elections this year. They and conservative voters angry about the actions of the Obama administration have replaced even very conservative senators and candidates backed by the national Republican establishment with others who embrace a range of radically right-wing views on the Constitution, the role of government, the protection of individual freedoms, and the separation of church and state.

Recently, Religious Right leaders have been grousing that Republican candidates arent talking enough about abortion and same-sex marriage. But this report indicates that anti-gay and anti-choice activists have little to worry about, as the right-wing candidates profiled here share those anti-freedom positions even if theyre talking more about shutting down federal agencies, privatizing Social Security, and eliminating most of the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans. A number of these candidates oppose legal abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina is helping to lead the charge with his Senate Conservatives Fund. DeMint, an absolute favorite of both the Tea Party and Religious Right political movements for his uncompromising extremism on both economic and social issues, is at the far right fringe of the Republican Party and has committed himself to helping elect more like-minded colleagues. Sarah Palin, also popular among both Tea Party and Religious Right activists, has also injected her high-profile name, busy Twitter fingers, and PAC cash into numerous Senate races.

Among the right-wing insurgents who defeated candidates backed by national party leadership are Christine ODonnell of Delaware, Joe Miller of Alaska, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sharron Angle of Nevada, Ken Buck of Colorado, and Mike Lee of Utah. Others, like Carly Fiorina of California, came through crowded primaries where right-wing leaders split their endorsements, but have now coalesced around her candidacy.

And thanks to the conservative Supreme Courts ruling in the Citizens United case, which said corporations have the same rights as citizens to make independent expenditures in elections, right-wing candidates across the board will be benefitting from a massive infusion of corporate money designed to elect candidates who will oppose governmental efforts to hold them accountable, for example environmental protections and government regulation of the financial industry practices that led the nation into a deep recession.

This In Focus provides an introduction to a select group of right-wing candidates who hope to ride a wave of toxic Tea Party anger into the U.S. Senate. The potential impact of a Senate with even half of these DeMint-Palin acolytes would be devastating to the Senates ability to function and the federal governments ability to protect the safety and well-being of American citizens.

Be sure to read the whole thing.
 

PFAW

PFAW Sends Letters to GOP Leaders Urging them to Denounce Fischer, Skip Values Voter Summit

People For's President, Michael Keegan, sent the following letter today to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, all of whom are scheduled to appear this weekend at the Values Voter Summit, alongside the virulently anti-Muslim and anti-gay Bryan Fischer.

Dear ________:

I am writing to express my concern about your appearance this weekend at the upcoming Values Voter Summit. Among the participants this weekend will be Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. We urge you to publically denounce Fischer’s record of hate speech and extremism, and reconsider appearing beside him this weekend.

People For’s RightWingWatch.org blog has tracked Fischer’s career over the past several years. His long and prolific record of hate speech and extremism includes the following recent statements. Just in the past year, Fischer has:

I am attaching the names of over 6,500 concerned citizens who have signed the following letter regarding your participation in the summit:

Values Voter Summit Participants:

Reasonable people can, and do, have reasonable differences of opinion. Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, is not a reasonable person.

By sharing a stage with Fischer at this year's Values Voter Summit, public figures acknowledge the credibility of his shameless anti-Muslim and anti-gay propaganda. Any candidate thinking seriously of running for president in 2012 should think twice about standing alongside a man who has called for the deportation of all Muslims in America; insulted Muslim servicemembers; claimed that brave Americans died in vain because Iraq was not converted to Christianity; and called gay people deviants, felons, pedophiles and terrorists. Bryan Fischer is no mainstream conservative. And neither is any person who shares a platform with him while refusing to denounce his hate-filled propaganda.

We urge you to denounce Fischer's extremism and separate yourself from his comments.

For more background on Fischer’s extreme rhetoric, please click here.

Fischer’s appearance with conservative leaders such as yourself lends his extreme hate speech credibility. We urge you to publicly denounce Fischer’s record and to think twice about sharing the stage with him.

Sincerely,

Michael B. Keegan
President, People For the American Way

 

PFAW

Important votes next week on DADT, DREAM, and secret holds

It could be a big week next week for the Senate. When Majority Leader Reid brings the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill to the floor, we are likely to see consideration of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the DREAM Act, and secret holds.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. According to PFAW’s Michael B. Keegan and Marge Baker, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell runs counter to the honesty and integrity we associate with the armed forces, not to mention the values of equality and freedom of expression espoused by our Constitution.” AAMIA’s Reverend Timothy McDonald, III and Reverend Dr. Robert P. Shine agree that LGBT individuals “share in the sacrifices made by their family, friends, and neighbors. They deserve to serve honestly and openly with dignity.” Conditional repeal passed as an amendment to the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill on the House floor and in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Now that the bill is coming to the Senate floor, repeal opponents may get a chance to modify that language or remove it entirely. We want to make sure that the current language remains intact as the bill goes into conference and eventually heads to the President’s desk.

The DREAM Act. Earlier this year, PFAW urged the Senate to take action on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). And we urged both chambers to recognize LGBT families in their work. We have also been longtime supporters of the DREAM Act, a bill that would grant children of undocumented immigrants the opportunity to earn legal permanent resident status in the US. It may now see light of day as an amendment to the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill. Senators should take this opportunity to send a clear message that expanding access to higher education for these children – and for anyone – benefits them, benefits our economy, and benefits our country.

Secret holds. PFAW has been a staunch defender of Senate rules and procedure against unprecedented obstruction. Senator Wyden has also taken up this cause. He joined with Senators Grassley, McCaskill, Murray, and Sherrod Brown to introduce the Secret Holds Elimination Act, a bill that would require public disclosure of all objections. Attempts were made this summer to push such disclosure, and another is expected within the FY 2011 Defense authorization bill. No single Senator should be able to stop legislation or nominations without at least some measure of transparency and accountability.

These are not the only issues we’ll be monitoring next week, but they are three on which we expect votes. Please contact your Senators now.

PFAW

Appeals Court Strikes Down Hazleton, PA Immigration Law

Hazleton, Pennsylvania in many ways pioneered the trend of sweeping, discriminatory, and impractical state and local immigration enforcement laws.

And, like the recent Arizona law that followed in its ideological footsteps, Hazleton’s law requiring businesses and landlords to act as immigration enforcement officials hasn’t been too popular with the courts.

Today, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the large part of a lower court ruling that struck down the law, holding that Hazleton was interfering with the federal government’s exclusive responsibility to enforce immigration laws.

In July, a federal judge blocked portions of Arizona’s new draconian anti-immigrant law from taking effect because of similar concerns about the state government trying to take on the federal government’s role.

The question of whose jurisdiction immigration enforcement practices fall under isn’t purely technical. The 3rd Circuit decision offered up the example [PDF] of Hazleton’s requirement that landlords check the immigration status of tenants before renting to them:


Although the federal government does not intend for aliens here unlawfully to be harbored, it has never evidenced an intent for them to go homeless…Common sense, of course, suggests that Hazleton has absolutely no interest in reducing aliens without legal status to homelessness either. No municipality would benefit from forcing any group of residents (“legal” or “illegal”) onto its streets. Rather, it appears plain that the purpose of these housing provisions is to ensure that aliens lacking legal immigration status reside somewhere other than Hazleton. It is this power to effectively prohibit residency based on immigration status that is so clearly within the exclusive domain of the federal government.

Laws like Hazleton’s and Arizona’s make those places as hostile as possible to immigrants both legal and illegal—their ultimate goal isn’t to solve the nation’s immigration challenge, but to be able to ignore
 

PFAW