Judiciary

Arizona Effort to End Constitutional Citizenship Faces Backlash

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

The proposals also drew opposition from the business community.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

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

Lamar Smith Needs to Get His Facts Straight on the 14th Amendment

Rep. Lamar Smith, the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is introducing himself to the American people. Someone should have told him to get his facts straight before talking about important issues affecting the lives of millions of people.

Smith had a letter published in the LA Times earlier this week, saying:

Congress should act to end birth citizenship for three reasons. ... [T]hird, during the debate on the 14th Amendment in 1866, a senator who helped draft the amendment said it would "not of course include persons born in the United States who are foreigners."

Actually, as Media Matters pointed out long ago, that quotation cuts out the rest of the sentence, a change that completely alters its meaning. The actual quote is:

[The amendment would] not, of course, include persons born in the United States who are foreigners, aliens, who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers accredited to the Government of the United States, but will include every other class of persons. (emphasis added)

So, contrary to Smith's assertion, the quote was limited to children born to diplomats.

Changing the comma to a period and eliminating the most important part of the sentence may serve the far right's anti-constitutional agenda, but it doesn't serve the cause of truth or civil debate, and it doesn't help Rep. Smith gain the trust of the American people. On a matter as central to American liberty as the Fourteenth Amendment, he needs to get his facts straight.

PFAW

The Tea Party’s Constitution

The new House GOP majority is planning to read the entire Constitution aloud on the House floor tomorrow. We can’t argue with that—our elected representatives can always use a brush-up on what’s in the document. But what’s troubling about the GOP’s planned Constitution-reading is that the new far-right class of House Republicans is trying to paint themselves as the sole defenders of our nation’s laws.

In fact, as PFAW’s Jamie Raskin examines in a new report, the Tea Party movement and the elected officials it empowered are in fact fighting against selected values in the Constitution. Raskin writes of the Tea Party’s relationship with the Fourteenth Amendment:

By railing against the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, the Tea Party makes clear that it is not at peace with our written Constitution, and its hostility to democratic constitutional purposes runs even further back than its opposition to Populist and Progressive-era amendments. The Tea Party has problems with the Fourteenth Amendment’s fundamental protection of equal civil rights, the very anchor of modern democratic constitutionalism. Tea Party activists may dress themselves up in colonial garb and swear their devotion to the Constitution. But the Constitution they revere is not the real one, but only a projection of their own reactionary desires.

Tea Party leaders have a tortured relationship with the Fourteenth Amendment. They have been attacking its very first sentence, which grants citizenship to all people born in the United States: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” This sentence overturned the Dred Scott decision, which had determined that descendants of slaves could never be citizens of the United States with equal rights. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex,.) and other activists have been calling for a constitutional amendment to repeal this language in order to solve the crisis they perceive in the advent of Americans they call “anchor babies,” babies born in the United States to undocumented immigrants. At the same time, other conservative activists without the intellectual honesty of Rep. Paul and the constitutional repealers are claiming that this language does not establish birthright citizenship at all, despite the fact that it has always been understood that way. Ignoring the plain text, they contend that Congress can deny citizenship to the “anchor babies” through a simple bill, and they have proposed to do just that in the Birthright Citizenship Act, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

This difference in opinion on whether to repeal this provision of the Fourteenth Amendment or simply deny its existence and legislate over it is a tactical skirmish, yet both sides essentially agree that it is time to subtract a long-standing and fundamental liberty from the Constitution. The last time we tried this was with Prohibition and we could expect similar chaos and division resulting from this kind of repressive effort if it succeeds today.

Beyond the first sentence, the Tea Party has even bigger fish to fry when it comes to the Fourteenth Amendment, which its leaders see, paradoxically, not as the legitimate and authoritative constitutional source for the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, but rather as the illegitimate pretext for a massive assault on the civil rights and liberties of private business owners ever since then. This extraordinary controversy over the meaning and uses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Reconstruction effort that gave rise to it, and the Civil War that made it possible, tells us everything we need to know about the boastful and ubiquitous claim that the Tea Party speaks for liberty and freedom.

Raskin’s report, Corporate Infusion: What the Tea Party’s Really Serving America, also tackles the Tea Party’s complicated relationship with populism, libertarianism, and the original Tea Party of the American Revolution.

You can read the whole thing here.

 

PFAW

Justice Scalia and Sex Discrimination

Justice Antonin Scalia is in the news again, having pronounced yet again that the United States Constitution does not prohibit the government from discriminating against women. The Huffington Post reports on a newly-published interview with the legal magazine California Lawyer:

[Interviewer:] In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don't think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we've gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?

[Scalia:] Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. ... But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that's fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don't need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box.

The Huffington Post notes:

Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women's Law Center, called the justice's comments "shocking" and said he was essentially saying that if the government sanctions discrimination against women, the judiciary offers no recourse.

Although you might not know it from what Scalia says, there is nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment that puts women outside its scope. The text is quite plain on that regard: "No state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws" (emphasis added). The last anyone checked, women are people.

Scalia has previously discussed with legal audiences his opposition to constitutional equality for women. In fact, he wrote a lone dissent 15 years ago in United States v. Virginia making his view clear: He believes that the landmark 1971 Supreme Court case ruling that the government cannot discriminate against women simply because they are women was wrongly decided. (Then-litigator Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped write the brief arguing for equality in that case.)

When it comes to the rights of women, Scalia’s Constitution is a stiff, brittle document, relegating women to the limited rights they were allowed to have in 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted.

Interestingly, his approach is far more flexible for corporations, as we saw in Citizens United, when he concluded that mega-corporations have the same First Amendment rights as people for the purposes of election law.

Perhaps if a woman wants to have full constitutional protection from Justice Scalia, she needs to incorporate.

PFAW

Chief Justice Roberts Urges Senate to Confirm Judicial Nominees

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

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

But he identified what he called a systemic problem.

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

2008’s Court

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

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

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

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

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

But Sotomayor soon cut him off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice Sotomayor saw things differently.

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

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

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

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

PFAW

Sessions Puts His Lab Coat Back On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

PFAW

NY Times Analyzes the Corporate Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

White House: Judicial Nominations are a Priority for Lame Duck

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

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

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

Of these nominees:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PFAW

Today's Healthcare Ruling: Ideology and Judicial Activism

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

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

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

Talking Points Memo observes:

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

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

For instance, on page 38:

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

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

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

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

PFAW

The Long Term Cost of GOP Obstruction

Usually when we talk about Republican obstruction, it’s to explain the immediate problems that need to be fixed, but can’t because Republican Senators won’t let the solutions come up for a vote—an understaffed Department of Justice, empty seats languishing on the federal judiciary, an impending budget deadline, etc.

Currently, for example, there are 34 judicial nominees pending on the Senate floor, the vast majority of which are to fill vacancies deemed “judicial emergencies.” 26 of those nominees have faced no Republican opposition; one received only one negative vote - but all of them are held up anyway, waiting endlessly to start their new jobs.

But perhaps the most damaging effect of this delay won’t become apparent for years. Delaying simple confirmation votes forces nominees to put their lives on hold for months or even years, for a job with longer hours and less pay than they could find elsewhere. The excruciatingly long confirmation process is making it harder and harder to recruit qualified candidates to fill critical government positions.

Already, some nominees have decided that they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, deal with the ugly process any longer.

Dawn Johnsen, President Obama’s pick to head the Office of Legal Counsel, eventually withdrew her name because Republican senators so politicized her nomination that they undermined her primary goal of depoliticizing the OLC itself. Mary Smith, nominated to head the Tax Division of the Justice Department, asked for her name to be withdrawn when she concluded GOP obstruction would drag on for months longer. And any number of judicial nominees have displayed borderline heroism by sitting by silently as their reputations are smeared by critics playing fast and loose with the truth.

After seeing the treatment that even exceedingly well qualified nominees receive from the Senate, should it be any surprise if well qualified individuals in the future just decide that they don’t want the trouble?

Of course, if you’re in the business of attacking the Obama Administration at all costs, maybe scaring off qualified government officials isn’t a problem, it’s the goal.

 

PFAW

Where are the Women in the Federal Courts?

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

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

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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.

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Bipartisan Agreement Breaks Out at Hearing on Faith Based Initiatives

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

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

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

Dear Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

AFL-CIO

Alliance for Justice

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

American Association for Affirmative Action

American Association of People with Disabilities

American Association of University Women

American Federation of Government Employees

American Federation of Teachers

Americans for Democratic Action

Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum

Asian American Justice Center

Common Cause

Constitutional Accountability Center

Equal Justice Society

Families USA Foundation

Feminist Majority

Hispanic National Bar Association

Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary

Human Rights Campaign

Japanese American Citizens League

Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Lambda Legal

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

League of United Latin American Citizens

Legal Momentum

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

NAACP

NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.

National Asian Pacific American Bar Association

National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse

National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum

National Association of Consumer Advocates

National Association of Human Rights Workers

National Association of Social Workers

National Black Justice Coalition

National Congress of Black Women, Inc.

National Council of Jewish Women

National Disability Rights Network

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Fair Housing Alliance

National Partnership for Women & Families

National Urban League

National Women’s Law Center

OCA

People For the American Way

Secular Coalition for America

SEIU

Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

Sikh Coalition

 

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Former Bush Lawyer: Stop Partisan Bickering and Confirm Liu

The Blog of the Legal Times is reporting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning to call Senate Republicans on their obstruction of judicial nominees and break the gridlock that has kept four of these nominees pending, in some cases for over a year. Reid will attempt to stop the Republican filibuster of Ninth Circuit nominees Goodwin Liu and Edward Chen, Rhode Island District Court nominee John McConnell, and Wisconsin District nominee Louis Butler. 

This is a critical moment for these nominees, who despite support from their home-state senators and endorsements across the ideological spectrum, have for various reasons been branded as “too extreme” by obstructionist Republicans in the Senate. McConnell has been up against an expensive lobbying campaign from the Chamber of Commerce, which objects to his work as a public interest lawyer representing victims of lead paint poisoning. Butler has been up against business interests who don’t think he was friendly enough to them when he was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Chen was accused by Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee of having an apparently disqualifying “ACLU chromosome.”

Liu’s nomination has been the subject of the most partisan squabbling. Liu’s main obstacle, it seems, has been his own brilliance: some on the Right worry that if he makes it on to the bench, he could eventually become a Supreme Court nominee. But Liu’s nomination is backed by legal luminaries from across the ideological spectrum, including former Bush White House lawyer Richard Painter, who today wrote another plea for the Senate GOP to break the judicial gridlock and at least take a vote on Liu’s nomination:

In any event, nominees who should not be controversial, including Goodwin Liu (I have made previous posts here on his nomination), are described as radical activists, the same tactic that advocacy groups deployed to mischaracterize many of President Bush’s nominees.

Public opinion of Members of Congress (both parties) these days is lower, far lower, than it was in the days when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge used just the right term to describe what he saw going on when Senators filibustered legislation. Those of us who care about the future of the judiciary should make it clear that the delay must stop.

This does not mean the Senators should vote "yes". They can vote "no". But they should vote.

Specific nominations aside, the federal judicial system in general has taken a drubbing under the Senate GOP’s refusal to confirm nominees. A new report from the Alliance for Justice has found that the number of vacancies in the federal judiciary has nearly doubled since President Obama took office, and that the number of open seats designated as “judicial emergencies” has risen from 20 to 50, affecting 30 states.

Confirmation votes will become much more difficult next year, with Democrats hanging on to a much slimmer majority in the Senate. Now’s the time to push through the nominees whom the GOP has been the most eager to obstruct.
 

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Survey Shows Obstacles to Justice in U.S. Courts

Dan Froomkin is reporting on a depressing new report that paints a frightening picture of just how difficult it is for ordinary Americans to receive justice in our courts. He discusses:

the finding[s] of a world-wide survey unveiled Thursday morning that ranks the United States lowest among 11 developed nations when it comes to providing access to justice to its citizens -- and lower than some third-world nations in some categories.

The results are from the World Justice Project's new "Rule of Law Index", which assesses how laws are implemented and enforced in practice around the globe. Countries are rated on such factors as whether government officials are accountable, whether legal institutions protect fundamental rights, and how ordinary people fare in the system. ...

But the most striking findings related to access to justice for ordinary people. ...

[The study] found a significant gap between the rich and the poor in terms of their use and satisfaction with the civil courts system.

Froomkin quotes from a World Justice Project news release:

[O]nly 40% of low-income respondents who used the court system in the past three years reported that the process was fair, compared to 71% of wealthy respondents. This 31% gap between poor and rich litigants in the USA is the widest among all developed countries sampled. In France this gap is only 5%, in South Korea it is 4% and in Spain it is nonexistent.

Unfortunately, it is no surprise that the wealthy and powerful are happier with our court system than are the rest of the American people. This is consistent with the analysis contained in a People For the American Way Foundation report released earlier this year. Citing Citizens United and numerous other cases, The Rise of the Corporate Court: How the Supreme Court is Putting Business First exposed the undue deference the Supreme Court has too often paid to corporations at the expense of the legal rights of individuals.

Making it even harder for average Americans victimized by powerful corporations to seek justice, one in eight seats on the federal bench is vacant. In fact, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared judicial emergencies in numerous circuits and districts where the vacancies have reached the crisis point. Yet Senate Republicans refuse to allow floor votes on qualified and unopposed judicial nominees to help relieve the overburdened federal judiciary.

The integrity of the entire judicial branch of the United States government is at risk.

PFAW

Why Are Republicans Opposing a Judiciary That Looks Like America?

With Republican Senators refusing to allow votes even on nominees who they do not oppose, they are depriving courts across the nation of the judges needed to ensure justice for all. In fact, the Senate recessed last week without confirming a single one of the 23 pending nominees approved by committee and ready for a floor vote. Eleven of these nominees – half the total – would fill vacancies officially designated as "judicial emergencies."

Amazingly, 17 of these 23 nominees advanced through committee without opposition, so it's not like there is any principled reason behind the Republican obstruction.

This slate of highly qualified nominees is a testament to the great diversity of our nation. Indeed, more than half of them are people of color, with six African Americans, three Latinos, and four Asian Americans among them. Ten of the 23 are women. Among the nominees needed to resolve judicial emergencies, two-thirds are people of color.

For much of our nation's history, judges were uniformly white men. When women argued for equality under the law, they were repudiated with sexist arguments that only men could have come up with. African Americans were told that separate can be equal. Native Americans were told that they never really owned the land they had been on for centuries, but were only in temporary possession of it until Europeans arrived.

A judiciary that looks nothing like America is far less likely to understand how the law affects other people, a misunderstanding that has often led to great injustice. As Republicans exacerbate judicial emergencies, their obstruction is preventing us from having a judiciary that looks more like America.

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