Judiciary

Specter Says He’ll Support Dawn Johnsen

In what can only be taken as good news for the rule of law, Senator Arlen Specter said today that he’ll support Dawn Johnsen’s nomination to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

UPDATE (3:48 p.m.): A statement from Specter's office: “After voting 'pass' (which means no position) in the Judiciary Committee, I had a second extensive meeting with Ms. Johnsen and have been prepared to support her nomination when it reaches the Senate floor.”

Johnsen has received support from across the political spectrum, but her nomination has so far been blocked in the unprecedented obstruction that we’ve seen from Senate Republicans. Today’s announcement from Senator Specter is a major step forward.

PFAW

Dawn Johnsen’s Year in Review

January 5th might not be circled in red on your calendar (unless, of course, you’re celebrating Twelfth Night) but for some of us it’s become a noteworthy, if not entirely happy, anniversary.

One year ago today, then-President-elect Obama announced that he would nominate Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

OLC doesn’t traditionally grab headlines, but under the Bush Administration leadership of lawyers like John Yoo and Jay Bybee, it was ground zero for creating slipshod legal justifications for torture, rendition and abuses of executive power. So it was a breath of fresh air to hear that Obama had chosen a woman with impeccable qualifications and unimpeachable integrity to restore the reputation of the office.

But now, a year later, Dawn Johnsen is still waiting for a vote in the Senate, and Republicans (who can’t seem to find a nomination they don’t want to obstruct) have gone so far as to use the end of the term to send her nomination back to the White House. She’ll be renominated later this month, but then she’ll have to make yet another trip through the Judiciary Committee.

Dawn Johnsen certainly isn’t the only nominee who’s been caught up in GOP delay, but she’s spent more time in confirmation purgatory than anyone else.

The votes are there to confirm Johnsen and have been for some time. Any more delay is inexcusable. President Obama deserves to have his team in place—especially in an office as important as the OLC.

Take a minute to sign our petition calling on the Senate to confirm Dawn Johnsen.
 

PFAW

Dawn Johnsen and the GOP Obstruction Game

As you may have seen reported, in a perfect exclamation point to the obstruction we've seen all year, when the Senate adjourned last week, the Republicans objected to what is ordinarily a routine request to waive Senate rules and permit pending nominations to remain in the Senate confirmation pipeline. Without what's called "unanimous consent," under Senate rules, pending nominations must be returned to the President, who then has to re-nominate in the next session. In what has become a far too typical exercise by the "Just Say No" party, Republicans objected to three DOJ nominees who have been on the Senate’s calendar awaiting consideration for months: Dawn Johnsen, for the Office of Legal Counsel; Chris Schroeder for the Office of Legal Policy; and Mary Smith, for the Tax Division. They also objected to two pending federal District Court nominees (Edward Chen, for a seat on the Northern District of California and Louis B. Butler for a seat on the Western District of Wisconsin) and to Craig Becker for reappointment as a member of the National Labor Relations Board. 

This is just more of the same unconscionable obstruction by the Republicans that is interfering with the President's ability to assemble the team he needs to serve the American public. And the obstruction is pointless. All the Republicans are doing is slowing down the inevitable -- but as we've seen with any number of issues, anything they can do to gum up the works they treat as a victory. So much for the Republicans' past claims about how elections matter and about the deference owed to the President in filling out his cabinet.

Right now, three of eleven Assistant Attorney General slots in the Justice Department -- more than one quarter of the key leadership slots at DOJ -- are filled by individuals in interim "acting" capacities because the Republicans are playing politics and tying up the nominees. It's nearly one year since Dawn Johnsen's nomination was announced; her nomination has been pending on the Senate calendar for nine months.

We fully expect the President and the Senate to work through this latest round of irresponsible Republican obstruction. The nominees will be sent back to the Senate; the Judiciary Committee will consider them promptly; they'll go back on the Senate Calendar; and, unless cooler and more responsible heads prevail, Senator Reid, unfortunately, will have to file cloture on each and every one of them to put an end to the obstruction. These are exceptionally talented nominees -- and the American people will be well-served when they are finally confirmed. 

PFAW

Senator Leahy Decries Republican Obstruction on Nominees

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy lashed out today at the unprecedented obstruction of judicial and executive branch nominees by the Republican majority. There are currently 12 judicial and 15 executive branch nominees on the Senate Calendar that the Republicans are stalling. Some, like Dawn Johnsen, as Senator Leahy notes, have been awaiting action for more than nine months. The last judicial nominee, whom Republicans delayed for six weeks, was confirmed unanimously by a vote of 97 to zero. Since that vote on December 1st, not a single judicial nominee has been considered by the full Senate. There are now more judicial nominees pending on the Senate calendar than have been confirmed all year.

The Republican agenda of delay and obstruction is clear. The price to the American people is also clear. With the range of critical issues before this Administration, the President needs his team at the Justice Department in place. And, with the 97 current and 23 announced judicial vacancies reaching record proportions, the threats to the administration of justice are serious. As Senator Leahy said, “Justice should not be delayed or denied to any American because of overburdened courts and the lack of Federal judges.”

You can read Senator Leahy’s full statement here. And click here to read PFAW’s recent report on the obstruction of executive branch nominees.
 

PFAW

The Pew and the Bench: A Faith Summit on the Federal Judiciary

Today, there was a panel at the Religious Action Center discussing the role of religious communities in debates over judicial nominees. Joi Orr, program assistant with People for the American Way’s African American Religious Affairs department spoke about the role of the religious vote and what People for the American Way is currently doing around judicial nominations.

Other panelists included: Nancy Zirkin from the Leadership Conference on civil rights, Jim Wimkler from the general board of the United Methodist Church, Holly Hollman from the general counsel of the Baptist joint committee, Sammie Moshenberg from the National Council of Jewish Women, Rick Foltin from the American Jewish Committee and Mark Pelavin from the Religious Action Center.

Panelists briefly discussed how their organizations reach various faith communities, and reiterated the importance of having strong judicial candidates for these lifetime position. Joi summarized the work that the African American Religious Affairs department is accomplishing with regards to judicial nominations.

The ministers programs were founded to act out of the prophetic vein of the Black Church. So I will say, that we do not claim to speak on behalf of the entire black church, because it is not a homogeneous group. We particularly advocate and represent the marginalized, disenfranchised, and outcast. So like the prophet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we advocate with a liberal reading of the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. That’s what the prophetic black church has done throughout history. We rejected the “slaves obey your masters” rhetoric of the New Testament, while embracing the nation’s sacred documents that purport to stand for liberty and justice for all. And I want to underscore the word all. Because the truly prophetic black church is inclusive in its advocacy. That’s why MLK was an integrationist. That’s why as an organization we work on fair public education for all of our children, fair comprehensive immigration reform, and LGBT rights, because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

PFAW

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Uighur Detainees' case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided to hear the case of 13 Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo Bay who are no longer classified as enemy combatants and have been determined to be no threat to the national security of the United States. These detainees - who were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan and have been held by the U.S. since 2001 - were cleared for release by the Pentagon in 2003, but six years later, they have yet to be set free.

After the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene last year that Guantanamo detainees have the right to bring habeas corpus claims in federal court to challenge the legality of their detentions, a federal judge in DC ordered that the Uighur detainees be immediately released into the United States since they cannot return to their own country. As members of a Turkic Muslim minority from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, their release back into their own country would likely result in torture and execution.

In February 2009, a 3-judge panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that order, finding that the federal courts lack the authority to order their release into the U.S. Describing it as an immigration decision, the panel concluded that only the executive branch has such authority and even suggested that the detainees apply for entry into the United States through the Department of Homeland Security pursuant to our immigration laws. In petitioning the Supreme Court for certiorari review, the Uighur detainees argued that stripping the power from the federal courts to order their release into the United States rendered the habeas right recognized by Boumediene meaningless. And indeed, they continue to be held behind chained fences guarded by military men.

Disappointingly, Obama's Solicitor General Elena Kagan urged the Supreme Court not to hear the case, arguing that they have no right to enter the United States. Kagan wrote that "they are free to leave Guantanamo Bay to go to any country that is willing to accept them," but acknowledged that the detainees "understandably do not wish to [return to their home country]." Kagan's brief even attempted to portray the conditions of the Uighurs' imprisonment as not so bad.

In contrast to individuals currently detained as enemies under the laws of war, petitioners are being housed under relatively unrestrictive conditions, given the status of Guantanamo Bay as a United States military base…[They are] in special communal housing with access to all areas of their camp, including an outdoor recreation space and picnic area. . . [They] sleep in an air-conditioned bunk house and have the use of an activity room equipped with various recreational items, including a television with VCR and DVD players, a stereo system, and sports equipment.

Sounds just as good as freedom, doesn't it?

But what if there is no country willing to accept them? That is the case for at least one of the Uighur detainees who has serious mental treatment needs. In that scenario and under these set of circumstances - where they have been found to be no threat to the United States - shouldn't the U.S. take it as a moral imperative to immediately release these people even if they must be released into our borders? Particularly since the media coverage of their wrongful detentions at Guantanamo Bay by the United States is what highlighted the bull's eyes on their backs for the Chinese executioners in the first place?

Let's not be distracted by side arguments by the DC Circuit or our new SG. First, this is not an immigration matter subject to the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security or Congress. These people had no intention or desire to migrate to the United States. They were involuntarily and wrongfully imprisoned by the United States for over eight years. Second, they are not free in any way and are in every sense of the word imprisoned. If relocation to another country is not available, the United States has a moral duty to immediately release these people into the U.S. subject to any parole conditions that may be appropriate. And if the judiciary is the only branch of our government that has the moral compass to do what is right, they should be vested with the power to do so. That is the root of habeas corpus relief which was designed to remedy unlawful government detention. That is why we have our constitutional system of checks and balances.

PFAW

Roberts and Alito Legislating From the Bench

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Maryland v. Shatzer, a case involving the constitutional right to counsel during police questioning. The questions asked by the Justices – even the most conservative of them – exposed one of the great lies the Far Right tells about our nation’s judiciary: that courts should not make policy.

In 1981, the Court held that once you tell the police that you want your lawyer, the questioning must stop either until your lawyer arrives, or you yourself initiate further communication. This rule protects you from being badgered by the police to change your mind before the lawyer shows up.

In 2003, after Michael Blaine Shatzer asked for a lawyer, the police dropped their investigation and released him from their custody. Three years later, new evidence arose in the case. The rule established in 1981 would suggest that the police were still barred from questioning Shatzer. That was the issue before the Court this week. To help them analyze the case, the Justices asked the sorts of hypothetical questions they often ask. The Washington Post reports:

Justices seemed generally supportive … that police should have been allowed to question Shatzer again, but they had a hard time agreeing on how the rule should be changed.

[Chief Justice] Roberts worried that police could repeatedly question and dismiss a suspect who asks for a lawyer. "You know, just sort of catch-and-release, until he finally breaks down and says, 'All right, I'll talk,' " Roberts said. ...

[T]he justices wondered what could be done about a suspect who asks for a lawyer, never actually receives one or is convicted, and then is questioned years later, perhaps for a different crime.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. posed this hypothetical: What if someone was arrested for joy riding in Maryland, invoked his Fifth Amendment protection, and was never convicted? Could police in Montana question him as a murder suspect in Montana 10 years later?

When [Shatzer’s attorney] said no, Alito replied: "And you don't think that's a ridiculous application of the rule?"

[Then] Alito raised the hypothetical ante to a crime committed 40 years later ...

If the police let a suspect go after he asks for a lawyer, does the Constitution prohibit the police from questioning him again half a century later? Should there be limits? What should they be? How do you decide?

The Justices deciding this case are not simply calling balls and strikes, the insulting umpire analogy that Roberts infamously used during his confirmation hearings. Roberts, Alito, and the other Justices are weighing the consequences of different possible interpretations of the 1981 precedent as they apply it to a new and unforeseen situation.

Just as legislators do, they will be making policy. And that's fine. That's what courts are supposed to do. It's inherent in interpreting the law in difficult cases such as this.

So the next time the Washington Post quotes a right wing propagandist condemning progressive judges for making policy or "legislating from the bench," perhaps the Post will do more than collaborate by simply reprinting the accusation. Perhaps the Post will cite its own reporting and point out that all judges weigh policies and make law, but that the Far Right is silent when conservative judges do it.

PFAW

Returning Justice to Justice: Stop the Obstruction

Don't miss today's New York Times article on the steps Attorney General Eric Holder is taking to restore the Civil Rights Division's historic focus on high-impact enforcement against policies that have a discriminatory impact on minorities. Also underway are plans to beef up hiring of career attorneys and an administration-wide effort to enforce regulations that bar those who receive public funds from advancing policies that have a disparate impact on minorities.

Now all the Attorney General needs is for an end to the Republican obstruction that has prevented the confirmation of Tom Perez to head the Civil Rights Division, not to mention Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel and Chris Schroeder to head the Office of Legal Policy. By the time the Senate returns from its August recess, these nominees will have waited nearly 8 months, more than three months, and nearly one and a half months, respectively, for a vote by the full Senate following approval of their nominations by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It's time to stop the obstruction and to give the Attorney General the assistance he needs in returning justice to the Justice Department.

PFAW

Patrick Leahy is fed up ... and he should be

Patrick Leahy is fed up and he should be.

Dawn Johnsen, President Obama's nominee to head the all important Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, has been awaiting action by the full Senate since mid-March.

David Hamilton, President Obama's first judicial nomination, has been waiting since the beginning of June. 

Marisa Demeo, nominated to be an Associate Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia has been waiting since the end of May.

These are just three of the 15 Justice Department and Judicial nominees that Republicans have been stalling for months!
"The Senate has to do better," says
Judiciary Chairman Leahy — and we couldn't agree more.

Click here to read more.

And take action by signing onto our petition urging the Senate to confirm Dawn Johnsen.

PFAW

Today's Confirmation Hearings at a Glance

In case you missed it: here’s a quick – albeit somewhat spliced – recounting of the day’s events.

From the right to choose to gay marriage, TV in the courtroom to yes, the inevitable “wise Latina” comment, Judge Sotomayor held her own, remaining composed and eloquent.

What happens next? The Judiciary Committee continues this evening to hear panels of experts from both sides on Judge Sotomayor’s qualifications for the highest court in the land. And then? A Tuesday committee vote and on to the full Senate.

PFAW

Biased Critiques of Sotomayor's "Judicial Temperament"

Amid questioning concerning her supposed “aggressive” judicial temperament and “bullying” courtroom demeanor, Judge Sotomayor today emerged from the tussle of the hearings a composed and careful speaker, unwilling to let pointed critiques ruffle her feathers.

Senator Lindsey Graham read comments by attorneys -- as collected in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary -- that referred to Judge Sotomayor as “temperamental” and “excitable.” However, Senator Graham’s statements that followed took on a decidedly patronizing tone, as he recommended the judge see the confirmation hearings as a time for self-reflection during which she should reconsider her courtroom behavior.

Would Graham have had the same critique of a male nominee? One whose demeanor was overtly hostile at times?

Says the L.A. Times: “[B]eing tough on advocates is de rigeur for the Supreme Court. Lawyers there often barely begin their presentations before they are interrupted by one of the justices. Being able to survive that sort of intense questioning and still deliver your argument is viewed as a badge of honor. If anyone ever asked Antonin Scalia if he had a temperament problem, he'd probably readily agree -- and be proud of it.”

PFAW

An Interesting Op-Ed Analyzes Republican Outrage at Sotomayor’s “Wise Latina” Remark

The first day of Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings was replete with opening statements from Republican Senators expressing their concerns about her 2001 “wise Latina” remark: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

Conservative commentators have latched onto the statement, but Eugene Robinson’s op-ed in the Washington Post today unpacks what their objections imply.


Republicans' outrage, both real and feigned, at Sotomayor's musings about how her identity as a "wise Latina" might affect her judicial decisions is based on a flawed assumption: that whiteness and maleness are not themselves facets of a distinct identity. Being white and male is seen instead as a neutral condition, the natural order of things. Any "identity" -- black, brown, female, gay, whatever -- has to be judged against this supposedly "objective" standard.


Thus it is irrelevant if Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. talks about the impact of his background as the son of Italian immigrants on his rulings -- as he did at his confirmation hearings -- but unforgivable for Sotomayor to mention that her Puerto Rican family history might be relevant to her work.


It is highly likely that this “wise Latina” remark will be the focal point of questions Judge Sotomayor will face from some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

PFAW

First Day of Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings

Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings began this morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee with the opening statements of Chairperson Leahy and Ranking Member Sessions, followed by each of the remaining members in order of seniority.

Most Senators lauded Judge Sotomayor’s experience on the bench and academic credentials, but Republicans took the opportunity to accuse Sotomayor of being unable to rule impartially.

But Sotomayor's opening statement refuted that, underscoring her “rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to its terms…and hewing faithfully to precedents established by the Supreme Court and by [her] Circuit Court.

Senator Hatch noted that while he will question Judge Sotomayor vigorously, “[T]he Senate owes some deference to the [P]resident's qualified nominees.” Senator Graham followed suit, stating that “President Obama won. And that ought to matter. It does to me.” He went so far as to add that “unless [Judge Sotomayor had] a complete meltdown,” she would be confirmed.

Tomorrow brings one-on-one questioning by Judiciary Committee members broadcast live, beginning at 10 a.m. Stay tuned for updates as the hearings progress.

PFAW

Witness List for Sotomayor Hearing Announced

Today, Senators Leahy and Sessions released the list of witnesses who will testify at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

We’re happy to see that Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel will be among those testifying. He was a big hit at our “Four Years of Forty” panel on the Supreme Court that People For hosted at the DNC in Denver last year.

But the list has some disappointments as well, like Peter Kirsanow, who after 9/11 raised the possibility of internment camps for Arab Americans.

If there's a future terrorist attack in America "and they come from the same ethnic group that attacked the World Trade Center, you can forget about civil rights," commission member Peter Kirsanow said.

The reason, he said, is that "the public would be less concerned about any perceived erosion of civil liberties than they are about protecting their own lives."

Not exactly the kind of person who should be front and center discussing an institution that should be devoted to protecting the rights and liberties of ordinary Americans .
 

PFAW

African American Ministers In Action Participate in Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Hate Crimes

AAMIA Members Revs. Frank Dunn and Joseph Smith attended yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (S.909), where Committee Chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) acknowledged the work of AAMIA toward passage of this critical legislation. Witnesses included Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., Author Janet Langhart Cohen, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary Professor Dr. Mark Achtemeier, US Commission on Civil Rights Commissioner Gail Heriot, The Heritage Foundation’s Brian W. Walsh, and the Anti-Defamation League Washington Counsel Michael Lieberman. You can view the webcast of the hearing here.

AAMIA and PFAW have submitted letters in support of the legislation, along with a fact sheet on the legislation, and myths and facts about hate crimes protections. AAMIA and PFAW have been out in front combating the lies from the right wing that this bill will silence pastors who speak out against homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

While they were at the hearing AAMIA staff and Rev. Joseph Smith caught up with author, playwright and producer Janet Langhart Cohen, a witness before the committee, and learned more about her Anne & Emmett Project, a play about a beyond-the-grave conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till. The play was scheduled to premiere at the US Holocaust Museum the week of the unfortunate tragedy at the museum where Officer Stephen Johns was killed in the line of duty by an avowed white supremacist.
 

PFAW

Good Questions for Jay Bybee

Noting the need to clarify a number of questions surrounding the legal advice provided by the Office of Legal Counsel under Jay Bybee’s leadership, Senator Patrick Leahy, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter today to Bybee inviting him to testify before the committee. In particular, the letter points out press accounts that White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales asked Bybee, who was interested in the seat on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which he now holds, if he would first serve as head of OLC. Leahy offers Bybee the opportunity to “come forward and set the record straight with respect to whether and, if so, how your judicial ambitions related to your participation at OLC.”

Further, noting the contrast between a Washington Post story over the weekend suggesting that Bybee has regrets over the memoranda issued while he headed the Office of Legal Counsel and today’s New York Times story quoting Bybee as saying that he ‘believed at the time, and continue to believe today, that the conclusions were legally correct,’ Leahy offers Bybee the opportunity to clarify what he meant in his public discussion of these issues. Leahy concludes: “There is significant concern about the legal advice provided by OLC while you were in charge, how that advice came to be generated, the considerations that went into it, and the role played by the White House.”

These are excellent questions. The American public deserves to have the answers.

Two August 1, 2002 OLC memos signed by Bybee have been released. One, released in 2004, concludes that to violate U.S. law against torture, conduct must cause pain equivalent to “the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” The second, released earlier this month, authorizes the use of coercive interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah, including extended sleep deprivation and waterboarding.

PFAW

Springtime of Marriage Equality

Spring 2009 continues to be a historic season of equality. Earlier today, the New Hampshire Senate passed a marriage equality bill. The House passed the bill last month. However, because of a small amendment made by the Senate, the bill has to go back to the House.

According to the Manchester Union Leader:

A bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New Hampshire passed the Senate today on a 13-11 vote.

The bill, amended on the Senate floor, draws a distinction between civil and religious marriage, and says that any two individuals have a right to join together in a civil marriage.

Last week Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Deborah Reynolds, D-Reynolds, opposed the bill and voted with a committee majority that it should be killed. She said voters in her district told her they favor the legislation, and urged the Senate to vote for an amendment that was drawn up Tuesday night.

She said the wording “gives everyone in the state the right to seek a civil marriage … This is a compromise that is respectful to both sides in this debate and meets our shared goals of equality in state laws for all the people of New Hampshire. The people of this sate share the core values of equality for all, tolerance and acceptance regardless of our differences”

In neither the House nor the Senate did the bill pass with anything approaching a veto-proof majority. So what will the governor do once the bill reaches his desk?

It’s not clear how Gov. John Lynch will handle the bill. He has he said thinks the word marriage should be reserved for a traditional heterosexual relationship. He has argued that the state’s civil unions law already protects the rights of gay and lesbian couples.

Nothing requires Lynch to sign the bill into law. He can let it take effect without his signature once it arrives on his desk.

If the governor is watching the polls to see what the electorate wants him to do, he should know that most support marriage equality. According to the Advocate:

The New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition has released a poll showing that 55% of New Hampshire voters support marriage for lesbian and gay couples, while 39% are opposed. ...

The poll also found that 63% of Independent and 34% of Republican voters in New Hampshire support marriage for lesbian and gay couples. Only 32% responded yes to a question asking if they would be “bothered” if same-sex couples could get a marriage license.

This comes one day after marriage equality legislation in Maine won a key joint committee vote. The bill now advances to the full House and Senate, which may vote on it as soon as next week.

The history of America is one of constant improvement, as each generation reaches out to some who have been treated as a threatening “other” and at last recognizes “them” as part of “us.” It’s a beautiful thing.

PFAW

NAMUDNO In the Supreme Court

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

PFAW

Victory for the Rule of Law

Great news on the accountability front: Today, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals gave the thumbs-down to the blanket invocation of the pernicious "state secrets" doctrine.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

A federal appeals court rebuffed the Obama administration's assertion of secrecy today and reinstated a lawsuit by five men who say a Bay Area subsidiary of Boeing Co. helped the CIA fly them to foreign countries to be tortured.

A lawyer from President Obama's Justice Department argued to the court in February that the issues surrounding the "extraordinary rendition" program, including government-sanctioned interrogation methods and the company's alleged connection to the CIA, were so sensitive that the very existence of the suit threatened national security.

The Bush administration had taken the same position and persuaded a federal judge in San Jose to dismiss the suit.

In today's ruling, however, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the government and the company could take steps to protect national secrets as the case proceeded. The suit should be dismissed only if secret information is essential for the plaintiffs to prove their case or for the Bay Area company to defend itself, the court said.

"According to the government's theory, the judiciary should effectively cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and limits of the law," Judge Michael Hawkins said in the 3-0 ruling.

Citing last year’s Boumediene Supreme Court case, the court writes that

while security depends upon a sophisticated intelligence apparatus, it subsists, too, in fidelity to freedom’s first principles [including] freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint and the personal liberty that is secured by adherence to the separation of powers. [internal quotations omitted]

So now the lawsuit against the Boeing subsidiary can proceed. Perhaps it will see some light shed on the Bush Administration's frightening "extraordinary renditions" program.

In a nation governed by the rule of law, we cannot allow the government to shield its illegal actions from judicial scrutiny simply by claiming -- with no supporting evidence required -- that allowing a lawsuit will threaten national security. This "state secrets" doctrine was one of the many ways the Bush Administration evaded responsibility for its own lawbreaking, slammed the courthouse doors on victims of injustice, and arrogated extra-constitutional power to the president. Sadly, in the Ninth Circuit case, the Obama Justice Department took the same approach to this as did Bush's.

Those who knowingly sent people abroad to be tortured by foreign governments, just like those who ordered and enabled torture American style, must face the consequences. Otherwise, America will have become a far different nation than the one that I have always loved.

PFAW

UPDATED: Message from Senator Whitehouse: Keep Up the Pressure to Confirm Dawn Johnsen

Today I had the opportunity to moderate a discussion with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on a conference call with PFAW members and activists.

As we’ve mentioned before, Senator Whitehouse has been one of the leading voices in the push to restore the integrity of the Department of Justice and confirm Dawn Johnsen to the Office of Legal Counsel.

Before the conversation, we solicited questions from our participants and got an enthusiastic response. Many of those questions focused on similar themes: What exactly happened at OLC? How can we fix it? And what can individuals do to help move the process forward?

Senator Whitehouse repeatedly emphasized the importance of OLC in providing honest legal advice, and he called on citizens in red and blue states alike to urge their senators to support Dawn Johnsen’s confirmation (and although he didn’t mention it, I’m sure he’d be happy to have you sign our petition as well.)

If you weren’t able to join our call, you can get a taste of what Senator Whitehouse shared with us from his appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show earlier this week.

UPDATED: You can listen to the conference call using the player below, or read the transcript here.
 

 

PFAW