Judiciary

Blinded by the Hate: The Real Problem With Judge Cebull's Email

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Earlier this week a Great Falls Tribune reporter found something startling in his inbox: a shockingly racist and misogynistic email forwarded from the most powerful federal judge in Montana, which "joked" that the president of the United States was the product of his mother having sex with a dog. The story soon became national news, with groups like ours calling on Judge Richard Cebull to resign. Cebull quickly apologized to the president and submitted himself to a formal ethics review, somewhat quelling the story. But the story is about more than one judge doing something wildly inappropriate and deeply disturbing. It's about a conservative movement in which the bile and animosity directed at the president -- and even his family -- are so poisonous that even someone who should know better easily confuses political criticism and sick personal attack. Come on: going after the president's late mother? Attempting to explain his email forward, Judge Cebull told the reporter, John S. Adams,

The only reason I can explain it to you is I am not a fan of our president, but this goes beyond not being a fan. I didn't send it as racist, although that's what it is. Is sent it out because it's anti-Obama.

Judge Cebull is hardly alone in using the old "I'm not racist, but..." line. In fact, his email was the result of an entire movement built on "I'm not racist, but..." logic that equates disagreement with and dislike of the president with broad-based, racially charged smears. These smears, tacitly embraced by the GOP establishment, are more than personal shots at the president -- they're attacks on the millions of Americans who make up our growing and changing country. Mainstream conservatives have genuine objections to President Obama's priorities and policies. But since he started running for president, a parallel movement has sprung up trying to paint Obama as an outsider and an imposter -- in unmistakably racially charged terms. Too often, the two movements have intersected. The effort to paint Obama as a threatening foreigner sprung up around the right-wing fringe in the run-up to the 2008 election with the typically muddled conspiracy theory that painted him as both a secret Muslim and a member of an America-hating church. They soon coalesced in the birther movement, which even today is championed by a strong coalition of state legislators and a certain bombastic Arizona sheriff. But the birther movement, the "secret Muslim" meme and the idea that the president of the United States somehow hates his own country are no longer confined to the less visible right-wing fringe. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, until recently a frontrunner in the GOP presidential race, continually hammers on the president's otherness, most notably criticizing his "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior." Rick Santorum flatly claims that Obama does not have the Christian faith that he professes, and eagerly courted the endorsement of birther leader Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And before they dropped out, Rick Perry and Herman Cain couldn't resist flirting with birtherism. But perhaps more than either of these fringe-candidates-turned-frontrunners, Mitt Romney has been catering to the strain of conservatism that deliberately confuses policy disagreements with racially-charged personal animosity. Romney went in front of TV cameras to smilingly accept the endorsement of Donald Trump, whose own failed presidential campaign was based on demanding the president's readily available birth certificate. And Gov. Romney continually attacks Obama -- falsely -- for going around the world "apologizing for America." Judge Cebull needs to take responsibility for his own actions. And if the GOP has any aspirations of providing real leadership to this country, it needs to jettison the deeply personal vitriol being direct against Barack Obama and start talking about real issues. When a federal judge has seen so much racially-charged propaganda against the president of the United States that he can claim not to know the difference between genuine disagreement and offensive personal smears, something in our discourse has gone terribly awry.

PFAW

No Dent in the Nominations Backlog

November appears to be another month of Republican obstruction of qualified mainstream judicial nominees. So far this month, despite the substantial backlog of pending nominations, the Senate has voted to confirm only three judges. In the same period of time, the Senate Judiciary Committee has forwarded five qualified nominees to the floor, and more are on the way.

The backlog on the floor is growing due to the needlessly slow confirmation rate.

There are currently 24 qualified nominees waiting for a floor vote, 20 of whom received no opposition at all in committee. Many of the consensus nominees have been waiting for a vote since the summer. Eight of the pending nominees are judicial emergencies.

Without judges, the judicial branch cannot function, and the American people's access to justice is delayed or even denied. There are 102 total vacancies, 31 of which are judicial emergencies.

Yet Senate Republicans refuse to consent to timely floor votes on consensus nominees, even when they are strongly supported by their home-state Republican senators. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy spoke out against the obstruction on the Senate floor yesterday:

During President Bush's first 4 years, the Senate confirmed a total of 205 Federal circuit and district court judges. As of today, we would need another 90 confirmations over the next 12 months to match that total. That means a faster confirmation rate for the next 12 months than in any 12 months of the Obama administration to date. That would require Senate Republicans to abandon their delaying tactics.

Yesterday, voters in various parts of the country demonstrated that they want their elected officials to work for, not against, the American people. Ending the sabotage of the judicial branch of the United States government would be one way to show that Republicans are listening.

PFAW

Republican-Appointed Former Judge: Speed Up Judicial Confirmations

Timothy K. Lewis, a George H.W. Bush nominee who served on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals from 1992 through 1999, offers some perspective on how judicial confirmations were handled before they became mired in hyper-partisan gridlock:

Nineteen years ago, in the fall of 1992, I was nominated by President George H. W. Bush for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. My confirmation hearing lasted one hour. In fact, I had no time to prepare for it. As a federal district judge, I was in the courtroom, charging a jury, when my secretary burst in with the news that my Senate hearing was to be the very next day. That is how much notice I had. When the vote was called only a few days later, I was unanimously confirmed.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not to celebrate me. It is to reflect on a better time for our politics and ask how things went so wrong. Among the 192 Article III judges confirmed during the elder Bush’s presidency, only David Souter and Clarence Thomas faced confirmation battles (with Thomas undergoing a very difficult confirmation battle). But, of course, they were under consideration for the Supreme Court.
 

Compare that now with the Obama administration. The president has had only 96 Article III nominations confirmed and 55 others remain in limbo, awaiting Senate action. They are stuck in a process that should by all constitutional standards remain rigorous, but shouldn’t it also be productive? In the same period of time, George W. Bush had 322 confirmed nominees and Bill Clinton had 372 confirmed.

The Obama administration was slow out of the gate on this one – nominations trickled forth in the early days of the administration when the President’s team should have been well-prepared with the names of nominees. But a considerable amount of the fault for this also has to be laid at the feet of Republicans who have made it a badge of honor to frustrate this President, himself a man of the law, from shaping the federal courts he inherited from George W. Bush. If you doubt this conclusion, reflect for a moment on the Senate minority leader’s comment shortly before the 2010 mid-term election when he said that the top – top — political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office. Really, Senator? So where on the priority list do we put conducting the Senate’s constitutional business?

The gridlock in judicial nominations has been one of the less-noticed bits of collateral damage from the congressional GOP’s scorched-earth policy. But it has caused very real harm to Americans seeking justice in courts around the country -- there are currently 37 judicial emergencies in the federal courts in areas where the sitting judges are too overworked to provide prompt access to justice. Last week, Senate Republicans made an exception to their gridlock rule to fill the most publicized of those emergencies: the seat of Arizona Judge John Roll, who was murdered in the Phoenix shooting that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Roll had stopped by the Giffords event to tell the congresswoman about the urgent need to fill vacancies on the court.

Senate Republicans’ commitment to delay was made particularly clear when they refused to allow a floor vote on 20 pending nominees, most of whom had advanced with no opposition. The Senate GOP’s foot-dragging on judicial nominees is clearly meant to hobble the president’s attempts at basic governance and preserve the dominance of conservative George W. Bush-appointed judges. But it also amounts to the shirking of a basic duty of the Senate: to fill the judiciary with capable, non-politically-motivated judges.
 

PFAW

Senate Republicans Only Delayed Four of Five New Nominees Today!

This morning, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee did something they have done only a handful of times: They exercised their discretion NOT to obstruct one of President Obama's judicial nominees.

The Committee was scheduled to vote on ten nominations this morning. With only four exceptions during the entirety of Obama's presidency, Republicans have exercised their prerogative to delay a committee vote for judicial nominees, even when those nominees are unopposed and are desperately needed to address burgeoning judicial emergencies. It is part of their larger strategy to throw sand in the wheels of the confirmation process in every way possible.

This morning, they did not request a delay for Jennifer Guerin Zipps, who has been nominated to be a district judge in Arizona. What makes Guerin Zipps different? The seat is a judicial emergency, but that has not mattered before. The nominee is unopposed, but even nominees without opposition and with the strong support of their Republican home-state senators have seen their votes delayed.

Only one thing makes this nomination different: Republicans know that the American people are paying attention, because this is to fill the seat that was held by Judge John Roll, who was among those killed in Tucson last January when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot. Roll was seeking to meet Giffords to discuss the worsening caseload crisis overwhelming the area's federal judges. Americans were appalled by the violence, which brings this particular vacancy far more public attention than usual.

Knowing the American people are somberly watching, Senate Republicans declined to play political games with this nomination.

Not surprisingly, for all the other nominations that were scheduled for a committee vote for the first time this morning, they demanded a needless delay.

PFAW

Justice Ginsburg Mourns Breakdown of Judicial Nominations Process

At a speech yesterday at Southern Methodist University, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg touched upon the depressing state of our nation's judicial nominations process. As reported by the Associated Press:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Monday that the confirmation process has become much more partisan and that she probably never would have made it to the high court under the current climate.

"I wish we could wave a magic wand and go back to the days when the process was bipartisan," Ginsburg told the crowd of about 2,000 as she spoke as part of a lecture series for Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

While most of us cannot wave such a magic wand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can. With one word he could stop many of the GOP obstruction tactics against President Obama's judicial nominees. It was just such obstruction that prevented the Senate from voting to confirm twenty pending nominees before it left town several weeks ago, 17 of whom got through committee with no recorded opposition.

As ThinkProgress reported, Justice Ginsburg also noted the hostility felt by some senators toward the ACLU: "Today, my ACLU connection would probably disqualify me."

Unfortunately, she may be right. Late last year, Senator Jeff Sessions – then the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee – railed against judicial nominees who had worked with or been a member of the ACLU, specifically targeting William Martinez, Edward Chen, Goodwin Liu, Jack McConnell, Amy Totenberg, Robert Wilkins, and Michael Simon. He concluded his tirade with the following warning to President Obama:

I do believe the administration needs to understand that this is going to be a more contentious matter if we keep seeing the ACLU chromosome as part of this process.

Republican hostility to the ACLU – and to the constitutional rights it regularly protects – is extremely disturbing. At the same time, the blocking of even unopposed nominees suggests that the GOP's main problems with President Obama's nominees is that they are President Obama's nominees.

PFAW

Ongoing Focus on GOP Obstruction of Judicial Nominations

Since President Obama took office, Republican obstruction of his judicial nominees has been multifaceted, unstinting, highly partisan, hypocritical, and unprecedented in scope. When the Senate left town at the start of the month, Republican leaders prevented the Democrats from scheduling a vote on 20 extremely qualified nominees who had cleared the Judiciary Committee.

Yesterday, the White House Blog called attention to the obstruction and to the highly qualified and diverse federal bench that the president is working to build:

[T]he President's nominations for federal judges embody an unprecedented commitment to expanding the racial, gender and experiential diversity of the men and women who enforce our laws and deliver justice.

Unfortunately, the delays these nominees are encountering on Capitol Hill are equally unprecedented: earlier this month, the Senate left for its August recess without considering 20 eminently qualified candidates, 16 of whom had passed through the bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee completely unopposed, a development the Washington Post called "not only frustrating but also destructive" in an editorial published yesterday.

As the Republicans know, their intransigence is exacerbating a destructive vacancy crisis in federal courtrooms, one that is making it harder and harder for Americans to secure their rights:

The victims of these delays, of course, are the American citizens who are being denied the fair and timely judicial proceedings they deserve because of the chronic shortage of federal judges on the bench. Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association, told Senate leaders in a recent letter that the abundance of vacant federal judgeships "create strains that will inevitably reduce the quality of our justice system and erode public confidence in the ability of the courts to vindicate constitutional rights or render fair and timely decisions."

Click here to see the White House's infographic highlighting the obstruction and its consequences for families and businesses. It shows that:

  • The average wait time between committee approval and confirmation has leapt from 29 days for George W. Bush's circuit court nominees to an incredible 151 days for President Obama's.
  • For district court nominees, a 20-day wait for Bush's nominees has become a 103-day wait for Obama's.
  • Judicial vacancies have grown from 55 in 2009 to 91 today.
  • People are forced to wait an average of more than two years for a civil jury trial.
PFAW

ACLU DNA, Lead Paint, and the Judges who Made it Through GOP Obstruction

As we like to remind anyone who will listen, the current GOP senate has been shameless in its enthusiasm for obstructing judicial nominees just for the sake of obstruction. For instance, a PFAW memo on August 2 reported that of 24 nominees then waiting for confirmation votes, 21 had been voted through the Senate Judiciary Committee with no recorded opposition. Instead of sending through at least the unopposed nominees in a voice vote and moving on with its business, the Senate decided to keep these potential jurists off the bench for as long as possible – despite the pressing problem of unfilled judicial seats leading to slowed down justice. Ultimately, 4 of those nominees were confirmed by the Senate before it left for its August recess, and 20 remain waiting. (The Washington Post this morning lamented that such “gamesmanship is not only frustrating but also destructive”)

This sort of thing is a clear example of obstruction for obstruction’s sake. But what about the nominees who do face some GOP opposition? Last week, The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen took an in-depth look at some of President Obama’s nominees who were ultimately confirmed by the Senate, but who received more than 25 “no” votes. The reason? Most were opposed because of a record fighting for civil liberties or against big corporations. Here are a few of Cohen’s examples:

7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hamilton (Votes 59-39). Even though his local Federalist Society endorsed this nephew of former Congressional leader Lee Hamilton, Senate Republicans mostly didn't because, as a trial judge, Hamilton had issued this 2005 ruling which had infuriated the religious right. Citing Supreme Court precedent, Judge Hamilton had ruled that Indiana's legislative prayer before each session could no longer be "sectarian" and regularly invoke the name of Jesus Christ.


Northern District of Ohio Judge Benita Y. Pearson (Votes 56-39). The first black female federal jurist in Ohio almost didn't get the gig. The precise reasons why are unclear. The People for the American Way suggested that she was a member of an animal rights group and thus earned the wrath of those in the cattle industries -- although 39 "no" votes is quite a lot of beef to have against a pioneering jurist.


District of Colorado Judge William J. Martinez
(Votes 58-37). By contrast, it is not hard to understand why this Mexico-born nominee roused so much Republican opposition on the floor of the Senate. Before he was nominated, Martinez advised the Americans with Civil Liberties Union and was a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (just like Clarence Thomas before him, only Justice Thomas' EEOC experience evidently was a boon for his nomination). Of nominee Martinez, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said: "It seems that if you've got the ACLU DNA you've got a pretty good leg up to being nominated by this president."


District of Rhode Island Judge John J. McConnell (Votes 50-44). It's also fairly clear why Judge McConnell almost didn't make it onto the bench. Senate Republicans didn't like him because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn't like him because, as a lawyer, McConnell had successfully sued Big Tobacco and fought for those harmed by lead paint. Evidently that's five Republican votes more serious in the Senate than ticking off Big Beef.


Northern District of California Judge Edward M. Chen
(Votes 56-42). Like Judge Martinez, Edward Chen evidently was touched with the "ACLU gene," which rendered him objectionable to Senate Republicans. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), whose state's Asian population is nearly three times lower than the American average, voted against Chen because he thought the well-respected former magistrate judge employed the "empathy standard" of judging.


District of Oregon Judge Michael H. Simon
(Votes 64-35). Harvard educated? Check. Prior government experience with the Justice Department? Check. So why 35 "no" votes? Because Simon had worked for the ACLU. The seat he took on the federal bench, reported the Oregonian, had been vacant for 664 days, two months short of two years. How would you like to have been a litigant in Oregon during that time?


All of these nominees were ultimately confirmed – but not after plenty of stalling and debate over the value of “ACLU DNA” or of holding big corporations accountable for their actions. When we talk about the many nominees who are unopposed yet unaccountably stalled, it’s important to remember that the few nominees who do face GOP opposition don’t always face that opposition for the most convincing of reasons.
 

PFAW

The Slow Pace of Diversity in the Courts

NPR reports today on President Obama’s unprecedented efforts to bring diversity to the federal bench:

The White House says almost half of the 97 candidates who have won confirmation during Obama's presidency are women; about a quarter are black. And Obama has nominated four openly gay people, more than any other president. He's also doubled the number of Asian-American judges on the bench.

Obama continued that pattern earlier this week when he nominated Adalberto Jose Jordan to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and Miranda Du, an Asian American who lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia for almost a year as a child before coming to the U.S., for the district court in Nevada.

But that strategy may have a cost, says Caroline Fredrickson, who leads the American Constitution Society and has been following the judge nominees closely.

"Obama is nominating many more diverse nominees than his predecessors ... strikingly so," Fredrickson says. "But the nominees are not getting confirmed with the same kind of success."

Some of the longest waiting nominees, Louis Butler of Wisconsin, Charles Bernard Day of Maryland and Edward Dumont of Washington happen to be black or openly gay.

"For women and minorities, it's just been a bigger hill to climb before they actually get a vote," Fredrickson says. "And so for whatever the reasons, the facts speak for themselves."

Yes, the facts do speak for themselves. PFAW, in a memo released Tuesday, calculated that so far, the president’s women and minority nominees have waited on average 22 percent longer for a Senate confirmation vote than white men.

But the Senate’s slow pace confirming women and minority nominees has fed into a larger, equal opportunity obstruction agenda. As of Tuesday, there were 89 open seats on the federal judiciary, 37 of which had been designated as “judicial emergencies.” Pending on the Senate floor were 24 nominees who the Senate could easily have voted on, 21 of whom had no recorded opposition whatsoever in committee. Yet Republicans allowed a vote on only four of them. Twenty are still waiting for votes allowing them to take their posts.
 

PFAW

Taking it Back to 1987, Mitt Romney Teams Up with Judge Bork

Mitt Romney yesterday announced the members of his campaign’s legal advisory team, which will be led by none other than Robert Bork.

This is interesting because Judge Bork’s views of the law and Constitution were so extreme that his 1987 Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate.

Here’s the TV spot People For the American Way aired about Bork at the time:

Among the reasons PFAW, the United States Senate, and the American people concluded that Bork was not suitable for a seat on the nation’s highest court:

  • Bork rejected the idea of a constitutional right to privacy – the basis for our freedom to use contraception, choose whether to have an abortion, and engage in private consensual sexual activity – putting him far to the right of most sitting Supreme Court justices.
  • He regularly interpreted the law to favor the powerful, to the particular detriment of women and people of color, including opposing the Civil Rights Act and claiming that the Equal Protection Clause does not apply to women.

As another Massachusetts political leader, Sen. Edward Kennedy famously put it:

Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.

America is a better and freer nation than Robert Bork thinks.

And in the years after his failed Supreme Court nomination, Bork kept on reminding us of why he would have been a disastrous Supreme Court Justice. From a 2002 PFAW report:

Robert Bork has carved out a niche for himself as an acerbic commentator on the Supreme Court, as well as various cultural issues. In fact, to Bork the two topics are closely related and the Supreme Court’s “illegitimacy” and its departure from the Constitution are in many ways responsible for our growing “cultural depravity.”

According to Bork, we are rapidly becoming a fragmented society that has totally lost its nerve and is now either unwilling or unable “to suppress public obscenity, punish crime, reform welfare, attach stigma to the bearing of illegitimate children, resist the demands of self-proclaimed victim groups for preferential treatment, or maintain standards of reason and scholarship.” Abortion, technology, affluence, hedonism, and modern liberalism are gradually ruining our culture and everywhere you look “the rot is spreading.”

Bork has denounced the public education system that “all too often teaches moral relativism and depravity.” He considers sensitivity training to be little more than “America’s version of Maoist re-education camps.” He has shared his fear that recognition of gay marriage would lead to accommodation of “man-boy associations, polygamists and so forth.” And he has criticized the feminist movement for “intimidat[ing] officials in ways that are destructive of family, hostile to masculinity, damaging to the military and disastrous for much education.”

It appears as if almost everything within contemporary culture possesses the capacity to offend Bork. He attacks movies for featuring “sex, violence and vile language.” He faults television for taking “a neutral attitude toward adultery, prostitution, and pornography” and for portraying homosexuals as “social victims.” As for the art world, most of what is produced is “meaningless, uninspired, untalented or perverse.” He frets that the “pornographic video industry is now doing billions of dollars worth of business” and the invention of the Internet will merely result in the further indulgence of “salacious and perverted tastes.” When it comes to music, “rock and rap are utterly impoverished … emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually.”

More to the point, Bork is not content merely to criticize; he wants the government to do something about it. “Sooner or later,” he claims “censorship is going to have to be considered as popular culture continues plunging to ever more sickening lows.” So committed is he to this cause that he dedicated an entire chapter in his 1996 book Slouching Toward Gomorrah to making “The Case for Censorship.” In it, he advocates censoring “the most violent and sexually explicit material now on offer, starting with obscene prose and pictures available on the Internet, motion pictures that are mere rhapsodies to violence, and the more degenerate lyrics of rap music.”

When asked by Christianity Today about how he would decide what should and should not be censored, Bork announced: “I don’t make any fine distinctions; I’m just advocating censorship.” He went on to argue that the United States has a long history of censorship, and that such censorship “didn’t suppress any good art, it didn’t eliminate any ideas.” He goes on to state that, were individuals to decry such censorship as inhibiting their individual liberty or right to express themselves, he would reply “… yes, that is precisely what we are after.”

In choosing Bork to head his legal team, Mitt Romney is sending a clear message to the farthest right of the Right Wing... \and reminding us all that our 2012 vote for president is also a vote for the Supreme Court for the next generation.

PFAW

Help build support for comprehensive immigration reform

Last month, Sen. Menendez introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011. Drawing on provisions from the AgJOBS, DREAM, and Uniting American Families Acts, this piece of legislation seeks to establish a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Countless families have been torn apart, young people’s dreams of a bright future crushed, and communities brought to a halt because of harsh and unfair immigration laws. Menendez’s legislation, however, will make changes that allow undocumented workers, students, and families a chance at the American dream.

This legislation would be a powerful step not only towards making our nation a more humane place, but also towards making all of us safer. Undocumented workers would have to meet stringent requirements before being considered for citizenship, but creating a pathway to citizenship recognizes the hardwork of many undocumented immigrants and the numerous contributions they have made to American society.

Currently, the bill awaits further action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are currently 9 cosponsors of the legislation, but it will need much more support in order to pass. Please contact your senators and urge them to cosponsor the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Immigrants throughout our history have transformed us into a strong country, and the immigrants of today will help build upon this legacy to keep this nation great.

PFAW

Republicans Continue to Block Consensus Nominees

The U.S. Constitution establishes a federal court system that empowers ordinary individuals to hold accountable even the most powerful people and corporations. But when people's access to courts is choked off, ordinary people lose and the already-powerful benefit. One of the most devious ways to impede access to courts is to ensure there aren't enough judges to hear cases, and that is just what Senate Republicans continue to do through their unprecedented obstruction of President Obama's judicial nominees.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reports that there are currently 38 judicial emergencies in the United States. That is an administrative designation for courts where there are so many vacancies that the remaining judges cannot effectively do their jobs. The Senate could significantly reduce that number without delay by finally having floor votes on the 25 nominees who have been reported by the Judiciary Committee.

Most of these have been pending since at least May, yet Republicans, abusing their minority position, stubbornly refuse to allow a confirmation vote. You might not guess from the GOP's insistence on delay that all of these nominees except one enjoyed strong bipartisan support in committee. In fact, 22 of the 25 were approved without recorded opposition. There is simply no good reason not to hold an immediate vote on these consensus nominees.

Thirteen of these consensus nominees would fill judicial emergencies, immediately reducing by a third the number of urgently overstressed courts.

But as long as Senate Republicans continue to sabotage the judicial branch of the United States government, more and more Americans will find themselves unable to have their day in court. That's bad for America, but good for giant corporations seeking to avoid being held accountable.

It is clear which of these two Senate Republicans are looking out for.

PFAW

How Exactly Does Focus on the Family Plan to Help the Gay Couples Whose Marriages They Are Trying To Invalidate?

Yesterday’s Senate hearing on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act was a case study in the contrasts between pro-marriage equality and anti-marriage equality arguments. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee called as witnesses gay citizens who had been actively hurt by DOMA, including two widowers who were left with no federal protections when their husbands died. Republicans, presumably unable to come up with any straight couples to testify that their marriages had been helped by DOMA, instead called a number of “experts” from right-wing think tanks to tell the gay witnesses that their second-class status is actually for the best.

This made for some jarring exchanges, most notably this one:

Ron Wallen, a 77-year-old Californian told the heartwrenching story of nursing his husband and partner of 58 years through leukemia…only to be left when he died in both emotional and financial turmoil. Because of DOMA, Wallen was unable to receive the protections that the federal government provides to widowed spouses, including Social Security survivor benefits. Because he does not have access to the financial safety net provided to all other widows, he is being forced to sell his home “even while I am still answering the condolence cards that come in the mail.”

The Survivor’s Benefit would have done for me what it does for every other surviving spouse in America -- ease the pain of the loss, help during a very difficult transition, and allow time to make decisions and plan for my future alone. It is devastating to know that any married couple in the U.S. regardless of how long they were married, can depend on the Survivor’s Benefit. Yet, I could not --after 58 years with my spouse-- simply because we were two married men. This is unfair and unjust.

After a lifetime of being a productive citizen, I am now facing financial chaos. Tom and I worked hard, and together we tried to live out our own version of the American dream. We served our country; we paid our taxes; we volunteered in the community; we bought a home and maintained it properly; and got married as soon as we were legally able to do so. And yet, as I face a future alone without my spouse of 58 years, it is hard to believe that it is the American government that is throwing me out of my family home.

Wallen’s heartfelt testimony was immediately followed by that of DOMA proponent Thomas Minnery of Focus on the Family, who, recognizing that his anti-equality testimony might seem callous coming directly after Wallen’s story, decided to try to save face by offering Wallen his organization’s help:

Mr. Wallen, my heart goes out to you. My organization is very large and we do a lot of counseling of families to help them thrive in a difficult and complex society, and we have resources for couples to build healthy marriages that reflect God’s design and for parents to raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles….Mr. Wallen, we have resources that I believe will help you even in your current situation, and if you’d permit us, we’d love to try to be helpful to you.

Minnery’s offer came off as slightly less than sincere when it was followed by five minutes of testimony about how giving Wallen’s marriage full federal benefits would lead to the destruction of American society.

The Advocate caught up with Wallen after the hearing, and asked him if he planned on taking Minnery up on his offer. Wallen responded: “I was shocked when he offered condolences, and was in disbelief when he was offering his services. If I were looking for help, his [organization] would be the last place I would go to.”

Someone should have told Minnery that it’s really hard to truly show your love for someone while you’re simultaneously lobbying for a law that’s specifically designed to hurt them.

 

 

PFAW

Empowering LGBT youth: Stephen Colbert, “It gets better”

Stephen Colbert, an actor, comedian, and host of the political satire show, The Colbert Report, dropped his usual sarcastic persona to speak candidly about the problems of teen bullying.

In this video for the “It Gets Better Project,” Colbert discusses his own experience with being harassed at school, as well as a lesson he learned after one his own friends courageously stood up to a bully after being called a “queer”.

If you don’t give power to the words that people throw at you, to hurt you, they don’t hurt you anymore—and you actually have power over those people.

      

Colbert adds another voice to the over ten thousand people who have contributed messages of hope and support to LGBT youth, including President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, numerous senators, and several celebrities.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that LGBT youth deserve support. People For the American Way has been tracking right-wing activists who have been intervening in the problem of teen bullying…by supporting the bullies.

PFAW

Senate holds historic hearing on DOMA repeal

Today, Sen. Patrick Leahy convened the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold the body's first ever hearing on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages, was signed into law in 1996, and since then has had a tremendous impact on the lives of thousands of married gay and lesbian couples and their families.

In March, Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the discriminatory policies of DOMA and provide the same federal rights and benefits to same-sex married couples as their opposite-sex counterparts.

The three-panel hearing began with powerful and profound testimony from Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the Civil Rights movement. Calling DOMA a “stain on our democracy,” Lewis reaffirmed his continued commitment to fighting for the civil rights of all people, including gays and lesbians.

Representative Nadler echoed much of Lewis’ testimony, adding that DOMA hurts same-sex couples, especially those with children, because of the financial burdens that it places on them. Many of the witnesses in the second panel told stories of how the discriminatory law has been both a psychological and financial hardships for them and their spouses.

Because only two DOMA-supporting senators, Orin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, were willing to show up at the hearing, the task of arguing against the legislations repeal was left to some of the witnesses.

Edward Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center claimed that the fight for marriage equality and repeal of DOMA is part of the left’s plan to “path the way for polygamy and other polyamorous relationships,” ignoring the fact that no state to legalize marriage equality has seen any organized movement to legalize polygamy.

Thomas Minnery of Focus on the Family claimed research shows children raised in households headed by a same-sex couple were worse off than those in a “traditional family,” ignoring, well, just about every scrap of objective research on the subject. The research he was citing, however, was a study done by the Department of Health and Human Services, which in fact suggests children are better off with two parents regardless of their gender.

Watch Sen. Al Franken question Minnery’s misuse of the study below: 

The Senators asked the witnesses important questions about the very real and powerful harms DOMA has caused same-sex couples and their families. Many of their stories were heartbreaking and show the necessity for repealing this discriminatory law.

Contact your representative and senators and urge them to support the Respect for Marriage Act. All Americans deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity, and the Respect of Marriage Act would ensure that all Americans have access to the protections that only marriage can afford.

PFAW

More Than 50 Legal Academics Blast Obstruction of 7th Circuit Nomination

More and more Americans are fed up with freshman Senator Ron Johnson's single-handedly blocking the Senate from even considering the nomination of Victoria Nourse to Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that:

Johnson's decision to block the judicial nomination of a University of Wisconsin law professor has drawn a pointed letter of protest from a group of legal academics around the country.

Johnson has singlehandedly held up consideration of Victoria Nourse for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews federal cases from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

"For a single senator from one state within the Circuit to assert a hold, months after the nomination was complete, undermines Wisconsin's merit-based selection system, blocking highly qualified nominees from a hearing and a vote," reads the letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and the panel's top Republican, Charles Grassley of Iowa. "The effect is an unbreakable one-person filibuster."

The professors say a "a nominee of sterling credentials who has served under both Republicans and Democrats" should not be subject to "unending delay." You can click here to see the letter and its 53 signatories, some of whom served under Republican presidents.

Indeed, the letter shows Nourse's support across the ideological spectrum. In addition to progressive legal scholars, signers also include conservatives like Randy Barnett (a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who has challenged the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law) and David Bernstein (author of Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform). The signers also include ten scholars from Wisconsin law schools. All agree that Nourse would make an excellent judge.

Nourse was originally nominated by President Obama more than a year ago after consultation with Wisconsin's two senators. Unfortunately, because of the unprecedented obstruction of qualified judicial nominees by Senate Republicans, Nourse was among the dozens of nominees who the Senate was prevented from considering before 2010 came to an end. President Obama renominated her in January, with the new Congress that now includes newly elected Senator Ron Johnson.

Johnson complains he should have been consulted before the renomination even though the appropriate consultation with Wisconsin's senators occurred when Nourse was originally nominated. Other states with new Republican senators have faced the same situation with the re-nominations of judicial nominees who were originally nominated last year. In every case but Wisconsin, the new Republican senator has allowed the nomination to go forward. Only Senator Johnson has refused.

PFAW

A Milestone for Diversity on the Federal Bench

Today, the Senate confirmed J. Paul Oetken to be a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. He is the first openly gay man to be confirmed as an Article III judge (one with lifetime tenure).

In order for the federal judiciary to effectively protect our constitutional rights, the bench must reflect the diversity of America. That is not to say that demography determines how a judge will rule. But it is true that a person's background can give them insight into the effect of a law that others might miss. Ignorance of a law's actual impact can lead to a serious misanalysis of its constitutionality.

Some of the most notorious Supreme Court cases in history rest on such misunderstandings and show the results of a non-diverse bench. For instance, Plessey v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that upheld racial segregation, reflected the thinking of an advantaged class who had no real idea of how Jim Crow laws affected real people. The majority rejected out of hand

the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

Similarly, Justice Scalia made headlines in 2009 when he angrily challenged the assertion that non-Christians might not see a Christian cross as a symbol of respect. While they may not have changed his mind, it was good that he had non-Christian colleagues who could have given him a sense of how people different from him are affected by the law. And perhaps the notorious 5-4 Bowers v. Hardwick opinion might have been different had there been an openly gay Justice there to tell his colleagues that their assumptions about "practicing homosexuals" were simply incorrect. Surely discussions of laws impacting women are improved by actually having women on hand to offer the benefit of their experience. And judges who have been stopped for "driving while black" may recognize the real-world impact of certain police practices that might seem relatively benign to others.

A richly diverse judiciary makes it more likely that judges will understand how their decisions will affect ordinary people, and that laws protecting individuals will actually be enforced as intended. President Obama's nomination of J. Paul Oetken is part of his overall efforts to significantly increase the diversity of the bench, an effort that has, unfortunately, been met with stubborn resistance by Senate Republicans.

PFAW

Will California’s LGBT-inclusive curricula promote safer schools?

California's Governor Jerry Brown signed the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act (FAIR Act) today, a landmark piece of legislation requiring the state’s public schools to include LGBT history in their curricula. This major step forward is not only a sign of a significant societal shift, but is also proof lawmakers, activists, and everyday people are working to make things better for LGBT youth.

This exciting news comes at a time when we too frequently hear about numerous LGBT students suffering constant—and sometimes violent—bullying and harassment by their peers and even teachers. Though the FAIR Act is by no means a solution to the bullying problem by itself, its impact will hopefully help foster an environment of tolerance and respect in California’s public schools.

While states such as California continue to make important strides towards equality and inclusiveness, it is important that we continue tackling the bullying problem head on by supporting federal legislation such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Act.

To learn more about these important pieces of legislation, please see our fact sheet on safe school and find out what you can do to support this effort.

PFAW

Judiciary Committee Republicans: More and More Delay

As People For the American Way has noted before, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans have exercised their prerogative to delay committee consideration of every single one of President Obama's judicial nominees by at least one week, with only four exceptions. More than seventy of these nominees were confirmed without opposition.

Republicans have no good explanation for this. They are doing this simply to obstruct. The routine use of this hold, without cause and almost without exception, is unprecedented. It is part of a larger set of procedural roadblocks the Senate GOP uses to obstruct confirmation of qualified nominees whose only "fault" is that they were nominated by a Democratic president.

This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on the nominations of eleven judicial nominees, five of whom were scheduled for the first time. To the surprise of no one, they, too, fell victim to this form of partisan obstruction.

There is no reason that Republicans should have delayed committee consideration of Second Circuit Court nominee Christopher Droney or district court nominees Robert D. Mariani, Cathy Bissoon, Mark R. Hornak, and Robert N. Scola, Jr. All five appeared before the committee last month to answer questions. However, of the eight Republican members of the committee, only Ranking Member Grassley showed up for the hearing, where he spent just a few minutes asking questions of each nominee. Although all committee senators had an opportunity to ask follow-up questions in writing, no Republican but Senator Grassley did so.

So there really is no good reason for Senate Republicans to have exercised their prerogative to hold the vote over by a week for any of these nominees. But Republican obstructionism has become the rule: Highly qualified judicial nominees are blocked solely because they were nominated by a Democratic president.

Committee Republicans should be asked what exactly they need to learn about these nominees that they don't know already ... and, if they have questions, why they chose not to avail themselves of the many opportunities they have had to ask them.

More importantly, they should be asked why they are actively sabotaging the confirmation process when there are judicial crises all around the country. Americans need access to the courts, not partisan mudfights.

PFAW

Supreme Court Shows Ideological Biases, Is It Still Nonpartisan?

The New York Times posted a must-read editorial highlighting activities by Supreme Court justices, that, particularly in light of the Court’s recent 5-4 decisions favoring corporate special interests over the rights of individuals, create a compelling case for an ethical code of conduct for Supreme Court Justices.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito Jr., for example, appeared at political events. That kind of activity makes it less likely that the court’s decisions will be accepted as nonpartisan judgments. Part of the problem is that the justices are not bound by an ethics code. At the very least, the court should make itself subject to the code of conduct that applies to the rest of the federal judiciary.

So many of the Supreme Court’s decisions this term have worked in favor of powerful corporate interests that it’s becoming almost impossible to ignore the ideological biases of the justices. The editorial discusses some of these worrisome rulings, including making it harder “for private lawsuits to succeed against mutual fund malefactors, even when they have admitted to lying and cheating,” and making it “more difficult for class-action suits in all manner of cases to move forward.” in the recent Wal-Mart case.

The federal judiciary was set up to put space between the legal system and political sphere, but it seems more and more that some justices have brought an intense ideological agenda to the bench. If the American people are to trust in the impartiality of the Supreme Court, its justices are going to have to be held to the very highest of ethical standards.

PFAW

Today's Supreme Court: Not Since the Gilded Age

There was once a Monty Python sketch about Dennis Moore, a confused Robin Hood wannabe who steals from the poor and gives to the rich. Minus the laugh track, that more and more seems to be the mission of the Corporate Court. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne has a terrific column on this: "The Supreme Court's Continuing Defense of the Powerful."

The United States Supreme Court now sees its central task as comforting the already comfortable and afflicting those already afflicted.

If you are a large corporation or a political candidate backed by lots of private money, be assured that the court's conservative majority will be there for you, solicitous of your needs and ready to swat away those pesky little people who dare to contest your power.

After discussing some of the outrages of the arch-conservative majority, Dionne writes:

[P]ay heed to how this conservative court majority bristles at nearly every effort to give the less wealthy and less powerful an opportunity to prevail, whether at the ballot box or in the courtroom. Not since the Gilded Age has a Supreme Court been so determined to strengthen the hand of corporations and the wealthy.

People For the American Way Foundation recently submitted testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee analyzing the ominous pro-corporate tilt of the Roberts Court in the term that just ended.

PFAW