Legal

An economic historian debunks the originalist rhetoric of Citizens United

Justin Fox, on his Harvard Business Review blog, has an interesting take on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. He interviews Brian Murphy, a history professor at Baruch College who studies the economics and politics of early America. The original laws of incorporation, Murphy says, were developed to organize civic organizations and municipal governments, and later were applied to economic enterprises, partly as a way to dilute their growing influence. “The intent of these laws is therefore the opposite of what the Court asserted in Citizens United,” he says.

Let me put it this way: the Founders did not confuse Boston's Sons of Liberty with the British East India Company. They could distinguish among different varieties of association — and they understood that corporate personhood was a legal fiction that was limited to a courtroom. It wasn't literal. Corporations could not vote or hold office. They held property, and to enable a shifting group of shareholders to hold that property over time and to sue and be sued in court, they were granted this fictive personhood in a limited legal context.

Early Americans had a far more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of corporations than the Court gives them credit for. They were much more comfortable with retaining pre-Revolutionary city or school charters than with creating new corporations that would concentrate economic and political power in potentially unaccountable institutions. When you read Madison in particular, you see that he wasn't blindly hostile to banks during his fight with Alexander Hamilton over the Bank of the United States. Instead, he's worried about the unchecked power of accumulations of capital that come with creating a class of bankers.

The view of corporations as “persons” was meant for legal convenience and economic risk reduction, Murphy argues, and it was the courts, not lawmakers, who started blurring the distinction between the rights of individuals and corporations.

Given the public’s overwhelmingly negative reaction to Citizens United, it seems that Americans continue to understand the difference between corporations and individuals, their purpose in society, and their rights. Americans haven’t grown out of touch with the fundamental values of the Constitution—the Court has.


 

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Supreme Court Gets Chance to Remove Roadblocks Keeping Disabled Veterans from Benefits

This spring, the Supreme Court will get another chance to show whether it values the rights of individuals to receive fair treatment from the American legal system.



The New York Times reports on a case before the Supreme Court that could allow the justices to roll back the most perverse consequences of their 2008 decision in Bowles v. Russell, which held that there is no excuse for missing certain court filing deadlines—even if you’ve been given the wrong information by a judge.


That decision is now being used to withhold benefits from disabled veterans like David L. Henderson, whose disability was the cause of his inability to meet a court deadline to file his notice of appeal. Henderson has been caught up for nearly a decade in what three federal appeals court judges have called a “Kafkaesque adjudicatory process.”



The Supreme Court will soon consider whether to hear an appeal from David L. Henderson, who was discharged from the military in 1952 after receiving a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He sought additional government help for his condition in 2001, and he was turned down in 2004.

Mr. Henderson, who served on the front lines in the Korean War, had 120 days to file an appeal, but it took him 135 days. He had a pretty good excuse.

His psychiatrist has said under oath that he is “incapable of rational thought or deliberate decision-making.” As a consequence, the psychiatrist added, “Mr. Henderson has been incapable of understanding and meeting deadlines.”


Bowles, the case that created the precedent for Henderson’s nightmarish treatment, split the Supreme Court 5-4. The court, if it hears Henderson’s case, has the chance with this case to stop the extreme consequences of its earlier decision and show that it is willing to protect the rights of individual Americans.
 

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Former DOJ Official Discusses Impact of GOP Obstruction

On Tuesday, former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden spoke publicly for the first time since leaving the Justice Department.

Among other pressing issues, Ogden addressed the ongoing obstruction of key Obama nominees to the department, including Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel and Chris Schroeder to head the Office of Legal Policy.
 
In Ogden’s words, “it causes problems for the department not to have key” positions filled.
 
Johnsen, whom Ogden called a “brilliant” lawyer, has been waiting for over a year for an up-down vote in the Senate. “It would make a big difference to have her in there,” said Ogden. “It’s just not right that it’s been held up so long.”
 
Johnsen was approved by the Judiciary Committee for a second time on March 4th and could be brought to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.
 
Click here to learn more about Johnsen’s outstanding qualifications and broad base of support. And click here to call on Senators to finally confirm her and let her get to work on the many pressing issues at Justice Department.
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A Committee Meeting Worth Sitting Through

Today, well over a year after she was originally nominated, the Senate Judiciary Committee once again approved the nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

As with any Judiciary Committee meeting, there was the requisite huffing and puffing by Republican Senators who never met a nominee they didn't want to obstruct.  But anyone willing to sit through their tirades was treated to an energetic showing by Democrats who seem to have had enough of the delay and the baseless attacks.

A personal favorite is the remarks by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who showcased the bipartisan support that Johnsen has received and thoroughly demolished the ridiculous claims that the recent OPR report somehow vindicated the Bush Administration OLC.

 

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GOP Obstructionism Is No Surprise

The good news is that the Senate Judiciary Committee voted this morning to approve - again - Dawn Johnsen's nomination to head the Office of Legal Counsel. The bad news is that this was yet another party-line vote where the Republicans opposed an unquestionably qualified candidate solely because she was nominated by President Obama.

People For the American Way has carefully documented the unprecedented behavior of Congressional Republicans, as they have done everything in their power to stymie President Obama's nominations and administration-supported initiatives even if they have overwhelming support within their own caucus. Just this week, for instance, Republicans filibustered the nomination of Judge Barbara Keenan to the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, after every Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee had voted in support of her nomination. When the filibuster was broken, she was confirmed 99-0. 99-0!

How do you explain a party whose position on more and more issues is determined simply on whether they can hurt President Obama, even when they agree with him?

If you consider today's GOP as a traditional political party in the mold of other political parties throughout American history, their behavior is surprising. But this is the party that impeached President Clinton, shut down the 2000 Florida recount, and launched vast voter disenfranchisement campaigns around the country.

So just what is today's GOP? Just six weeks after President Obama's inauguration, our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation foresaw the next step in the party's devolution in a powerful and prescient Right Wing Watch In Focus report: Dragged along by its most extreme base, today's Republican Party does not see itself as the minority party in a democracy. Instead, they increasingly see themselves as a resistance movement, a mindset appropriate for fighting a dictatorship, but not for working with a democracy's freely elected government.

No one who read that report has been at all surprised by the GOP efforts to sabotage the workings of the federal government. They made it clear over a year ago how they envision themselves in a nation that rejected them at the ballot box. Their behavior since has been consistent.

It's sad that the party of Abraham Lincoln has sunk so low.

And it's outrageous that qualified nominees are being blocked by the GOP's obstructionist tactics. Help put a stop to it here.

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Judiciary Committee Hearing on OPR Report

On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the recently-released report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).  The Office had been tasked with assessing whether lawyers in the Bush Office of Legal Counsel had acted unethically in crafting legal memoranda justifying torture.

Although the OPR report concluded that John Yoo and Jay Bybee had demonstrated “professional misconduct,” their recommendation for sanctions was overruled by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who acknowledged that it was a close question but concluded that the two had exercised “poor judgment.

As we pointed out, regardless of the final recommendation, the detailed reports absolutely affirm that embattled nominee Dawn Johnsen, who has been waiting for more than a year to be confirmed to head OLC under Attorney General Eric Holder, was correct in her criticisms of the “torture memos” issued by the Bush OLC. 

Rather than being pilloried for her legitimate criticisms of the Bush OLC’s failure to respect the rule of law, Johnsen should be celebrated for extraordinarily valuable process she led with 19 former OLC lawyers in fashioning principles to guide OLC’s work going forward.

Those principles, by the way, have garnered support across the political spectrum, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Timothy Elliott Flanigan (nominated by Bush to be Deputy Attorney General), and former OLC head Steven Bradbury.

At the hearings, Senator Leahy noted that Attorney General Holder has been hampered in fully reforming OLC as Johnsen’s confirmation continues to be obstructed by Republicans. She should be confirmed without further delay.

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Despite the Right's Objections, Maryland To Recognize Same-Sex Marriages from Other States

This morning, the Maryland Attorney General released a well-reasoned opinion that firmly establishes that the state may recognize same-sex marriages from other states (and countries). The Far Right, of course, wanted an opinion stating that Maryland would not recognize out-of-state marriages. Unfortunately for them, the law just wasn't on their side, and the Attorney General was not willing to twist it for their purposes.

Maryland law specifically prohibits same-sex marriage. But as the AG writes in detail, Maryland has a long history of recognizing out of state marriages that cannot be performed within the state. The only exception: During the dark era of Jim Crow, Maryland found out-of-state interracial marriages so repugnant to its public policy that its high court stated that they would not be recognized within the state.

As the AG opinion points out, Maryland has numerous laws that protect and respect the rights of same-sex couples. Gays and lesbians do not face a virulent and violent foe in the form of the state, as African Americans once did. So you'd have to bend legal precedent beyond the breaking point to say that Maryland cannot recognize the out-of-state marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

The Far Right will likely not be happy with this opinion, claiming that it violates the right of Maryland to decide this issue by itself, rather than have other states decide for it. But an opinion doing what they want would be based on animus, not principle.

Every day in this country, state officials choose to recognize lawful out-of-state marriages of the type that their own state legislatures have explicitly rejected.

For instance, fully one half of the states - twenty-five - prohibit marriages between first cousins, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nevertheless, cousins who marry in one of the other 25 states don't go from married to unmarried and back to married again every time they cross state lines. That's because across America, states recognize marriages performed in their sister states even if they themselves would not allow the marriage.

Yet we do not hear screeds from the Far Right on how this violates the people's [or state legislatures'] right to define marriage in their own states.

So don't be fooled by the Far Right's claimed fealty to respect for the rule of law or state sovereignty. That's not what this is about.

Do the Far Right groups demand that states revoke recognition of all out-of-state marriages that could not be performed within the state?

Of course not. Because this has nothing to do with state sovereignty. It has everything to do with animus against gays and lesbians. Statements against the AG's opinion should be recognized – and condemned – as such.

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John Yoo versus Reality

Via The San Francisco Chronicle, it seems that the latest filing by John Yoo's lawyer— in a case brought by a prisoner who was illegally detained and tortured based on Yoo’s advice—has all the hallmarks of one of Yoo’s own briefs: it’s slipshod, morally questionable and utterly unsupported by the facts.

Take this assertion, for instance:

[Miguel Estrada, Yoo’s lawyer] also cited the Justice Department's report last week concluding that Yoo committed no professional misconduct in his memos.

As the Chronicle points out, Estrada failed to mention that that the Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that Yoo (along with now-Federal Judge Jay Bybee) demonstrated “professional misconduct” and ignored legal precedents.  Even the memo prepared by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who ultimately attributed Yoo’s and Bybee’s actions to “poor judgment,” is “far from a vindication for John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee's shamefully narrow interpretations of laws against torture” according to the Los Angeles Times.  Margolis, while ruling out the harshest punishment for Yoo, says that debate over whether “Yoo intentionally or recklessly provided misleading advice to his client” is a “close question.”  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

In fact, anyone who has actually read the report or Margolis’s memo knows that they paint a damning picture of Yoo’s actions.  Estrada’s claim that they exonerate Yoo is wishful thinking at best.

Next up is Estrada’s shot at guidelines drawn by a group of OLC alumni, headed by Dawn Johnsen, to help the Office move forward after the torture memos were made public.

In Friday's filing, Yoo's lawyer, Miguel Estrada, said Johnsen's guidelines reflect "only partisan disagreement with the policies of the previous administration."

How Estrada can deliver such an allegation with a straight face is difficult to fathom.  The idea that only partisans could oppose Yoo’s torture memos simply isn’t borne out by the facts.  First off, Republican Lindsey Graham didn’t seem to be a big fan of Yoo’s opinions, saying:

The guidance that was provided during this period of time, I think will go down in history as some of the most irresponsible and short-sighted legal analysis ever provided to our nation's military and intelligence communities.

Even putting aside Graham’s criticism of Yoo’s memos, Johnsen’s statement of principles was endorsed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Timothy Flanigan, and Acting OLC head Steven Bradbury in testimony to Congress.

But perhaps most galling is Estrada’s claim that Yoo remains a "respected legal scholar."

Honorifics aside, most “respected legal scholars” aren’t being investigated for war crimes by our allies.  Most don’t find their colleagues debating about whether or not ones tenure should be revoked.  And, notwithstanding the Margolis memorandum, the Office of Professional Responsibility doesn’t usually recommend that its findings of misconduct be referred to the state bar disciplinary authorities.

Estrada’s defense of Yoo is logically indefensible and divorced from even a passing resemblance to reality.  In short, it’s a brief only John Yoo could love.

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Leahy Keeps Pushing Forward on Nominations

At a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Dawn Johnsen was set to be sent for a second time to the full Senate—this time on the one year anniversary of her original nomination. True, Washington is almost totally shut down by snow at the moment, but Senator Patrick Leahy (of Vermont, a place used to a few snowstorms) forged ahead and convened the Committee, succeeding in moving four more judicial nominations to the full Senate.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as willing to deal with a little bad weather. Republicans insisted that Johnsen's nomination be held over yet again due to the storm. After all, they wouldn’t want to pass up one more opportunity to try to paint her as “controversial.”

Sure, Johnsen has already served with distinction as acting head of the OLC under President Clinton, received bipartisan support from her home state senators and garnered endorsements from legal experts across the ideological spectrum, but that’s not going to stop the GOP from taking all the pot shots they can.

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Judging, Judges and Prop 8

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, in a piece titled, “Don’t ask, don’t judge?” gave a rhetorical green light to Religious Right activists who have responded to news that federal judge Vaughn Walker is gay by attacking his ability to rule fairly on the constitutional challenge to Prop. 8, the California ballot initiative that stripped same-sex couples of the right to get married.

Although Marcus concludes in the end that Walker, who was randomly assigned to hear the case, was right not to recuse himself simply because he is gay, she does so after a lot of “squirming” like this:

So when Walker considers claims that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law, it's hard to imagine that his sexuality, if he is gay, does not influence his decision-making -- just as the experience of having gay friends or relatives would affect a straight judge.

In the end, Marcus writes,

In this case, I hope the plaintiffs win and that Walker rules that the same-sex marriage ban violates their constitutional rights. At the same time, I've got to acknowledge: If I were on the side supporting the ban and found it struck down by a supposedly gay judge, I'd have some questions about whether the judicial deck had been stacked from the start.

But why wouldn’t the deck be considered “stacked” against gay people if a straight judge were deciding the case? By concluding her column that way, Marcus gives credence to the offensive notion that is already being promoted by right-wing leaders that a gay judge cannot be expected to rule fairly in a case involving the legal rights of gay Americans.

Here’s Matt Barber, director of cultural affairs with Liberty Counsel, responding to news that Judge Walker is, in Barber’s words, “an active practitioner of the homosexual lifestyle.”

“At worst, Judge Walker’s continued involvement with this case presents a textbook conflict of interest. At best, it objectively illustrates the unseemly appearance of a conflict.

"If Judge Walker somehow divines from thin air that the framers of the U.S. Constitution actually intended that Patrick Henry had a ‘constitutional right’ to marry Henry Patrick, then who among us will be surprised?

“Any decision favoring plaintiffs in this case will be permanently marred and universally viewed as stemming from Judge Walker’s personal biases and alleged lifestyle choices.

"For these reasons, and in the interest of justice, Judge Walker should do the honorable thing and immediately recuse himself.”

Barber tries to make a case that he is taking a principled stand by saying, “This is no different than having an avid gun collector preside over a Second Amendment case,” continued Barber, “or a frequent user of medical marijuana deciding the legality of medical marijuana.”

Really, Matt? You expect us to believe that you would advocate that judges who collect guns should recuse themselves from cases involving the Second Amendment? What about avid hunters, like Justice Antonin Scalia? Should anyone who owns a gun be assumed not to be able to rule fairly on legal issues involving guns?

The Post’s Marcus concluded that asking Judge Walker to recuse himself would “invite too many challenges to judicial fairness -- Jewish judges hearing cases about Christmas displays, or judges who once represented unions or management presiding over labor disputes.”

What about Christian judges presiding over Christmas displays? Can you imagine the outrage from Matt Barber and his Religious Right colleagues if someone were to suggest that Christian judges should be barred from hearing cases involving legal and constitutional questions about separation of church and state?

In a diverse and pluralistic nation, it’s important that the federal bench reflect that diversity. But what’s far more important than an individual judge’s race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is his or her judicial philosophy and understanding of the Constitution’s text, history, and role in protecting the rights and opportunities of all Americans.

The unspoken offensive presumption at work here is that people who come to the law with a life experience that is considered “normal” – say, straight white male Christian – are inherently unbiased, or that their life experience somehow gives them a singularly correct way of viewing the law. Others are suspect.

This notion was on ugly display during the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, when her recognition that she would bring her life experience as a Latina to the bench was used to pillory her as a white-male-hating racist. What about all those white male senators, and the white male Supreme Court Justices they had voted to confirm? Samuel Alito’s ethnic pride and empathy were considered valid, while Sotomayor’s was radical and threatening.

Ruth Marcus is no Matt Barber. She is in some ways simply acknowledging the reality that there is still a level of emotional prejudice against gay people that will keep some Americans from believing that a gay judge can be fair. But she is far too sympathetic to the purveyors of that prejudice. Her column validates their bigotry and will encourage more of the kind of divisive rhetoric we see from the likes of Barber.

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A Good Day For Equality in Maryland

The Baltimore Sun is reporting good news on the marriage equality front in Maryland today, where a bill that would have prohibited the state from recognizing out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples was defeated in committee.

The state's Attorney General is currently making a legal determination as to whether Maryland law recognizes such out-of-state marriages. The bill would have short-circuited that determination.

Maryland's long-settled practice is to recognize marriages validly solemnized in other states that could not be solemnized in Maryland. However, the state has in the past made an exception to that rule: Maryland once refused to recognize out-of-state interracial marriages, calling them "repugnant to Maryland's public policy."

Today, legislators were asked to echo that ugly history by treating gays and lesbians' marriages in the same discriminatory way that interracial marriages were treated during the era of Jim Crow. Fortunately, a majority of members of the House Judiciary Committee chose not to go down this path.

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Reproductive rights 37 years later

Roe v. Wade established a constitutional right to privacy and protected a woman's right to make reproductive decisions based on her own life, health, and conscience. Today, on the 37th anniversary of this landmark ruling, we face a new call to action.

People For the American Way shares the widely held view that abortion should be safe, rare, and legal. We believe that healthcare reform can and should uphold these principles. Unfortunately, current legislation would do more to restrict the rights of women than it would to protect them.

In the House, health insurance plans that participate in the new exchange would be prohibited from providing full reproductive health benefits to millions of American women. Senate language sets up an unworkable system in which women are forced to purchase abortion coverage separately from other healthcare needs, which violates privacy and stigmatizes abortion, and also has the potential to dissuade insurance companies from offering abortion coverage in the first place.

While the Senate has not gone as far as the House in its restrictions, neither bill upholds President Obama’s promise that those who are happy with their healthcare before reform will be able to keep it after. It is critical that whatever he is asked to sign is, at the very least, abortion neutral. Now is the time to defend women’s rights – not roll them back.

Please stand up to right-wing activists who want to hold healthcare reform hostage.

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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.

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“Ministerial Exception” in Maryland Court

Today, Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, will hear oral argument in the case of Mary Linklater v. Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.  Its decision will address the application of the “ministerial exception” – a judicially recognized legal doctrine that has been misused by courts to improperly shield religious employers from unlawful employment practices.  The exception says that ministers and other clergy members should be able to make hiring decisions based on religious criteria.  But too often the law is used to shield some clergy members from laws that should obviously apply to all—like laws preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Mary Linklater was in just such a situation, and she sued.  A jury ruled in favor of Linklater and awarded her over a million dollars in damages after she proved that she was unlawfully terminated by the church as its music director after complaining about the pastor’s repeated sexual harassment of her.  

People For Foundation filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that the exception was never intended to relieve religious employers of their obligation to comply with neutral laws of general applicability.  A copy of our brief can be viewed here.

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The GOP and the Courts

If anyone had any doubt that the courts matter, check out this article in today’s Hill about Republicans and allied groups vowing to spend millions on legal challenges to healthcare reform and other parts of the Obama agenda.

Health care, global warming, financial reform, workers rights--you name it.  The courts make a huge difference in the lives of all Americans. Who sits on those courts--and how fully they embrace our core constitutional values--is critical.

That’s why there’s so much urgency about breaking the current nominations impasse created by Republicans’ unprecedented obstruction. And that’s why we need a bold choice to fill any new vacancy on the Court--someone who understands the constitution mandates attention to the interests of all, not just a privileged few.

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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.
 

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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. 

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Sotomayor takes progressive step forward, refers to “undocumented immigrant”

Senator Durbin once referred to America’s immigration crisis as a “crisis of humanity.” Yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed when she referred to immigrants not as “illegal” or “alien” but as “undocumented.” Use of this humanizing term marks both the first ruling of Justice Sotomayor’s high court career, and also the first time such a term has been used by the Court as a whole – ever.

As reported by the New York Times:

"In an otherwise dry opinion, Justice Sotomayor did introduce one new and politically charged term into the Supreme Court lexicon.

Justice Sotomayor’s opinion in the case, Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter, No. 08-678, marked the first use of the term “undocumented immigrant,” according to a legal database. The term “illegal immigrant” has appeared in a dozen decisions."

Undocumented immigrants don’t sacrifice their humanity when they decide to cross the border. Many who come to the United States, including the undocumented, decide to come here in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. What value could be more human that that?

No person is “illegal.” And as far as I know, none of us is “alien.” That Justice Sotomayor recognizes this is a hopeful signal for the future of immigration in the Court’s jurisprudence.

Click here for more information from America’s Voice.

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Supreme Court Takes Church-State Case

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

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

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

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

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

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Not the End of DOMA (Reprise)

This week, there was a new development in a California case where a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in February ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The Los Angeles Times reports the new development:

In a legal end-run around the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a federal judge Wednesday ordered compensation for [Brad Levenson,] a Los Angeles man denied federal employee benefits for his spouse because they are both men. ...

[In February, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen] Reinhardt, who is responsible for resolving employee disputes for public defenders within the 9th Circuit, had ordered the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to process Levenson's application for spousal benefits. But the federal Office of Personnel Management stepped in to derail the enrollment, citing the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal government recognition of same-sex marriage.

Levenson appealed, seeking either an independently contracted benefits package for Sears or compensation for the costs they incurred in the absence of coverage. Reinhardt ordered the latter, based on a back pay provision in the law governing federal defenders' employment.

As reported on this blog back in February, this case is less than it might seem at first blush. DOMA remains the law of the land. Rather than being a traditional court case, this is an internal employee grievance procedure within the office of federal public defenders of the Ninth Circuit. As a result, the judge is not acting in his capacity as a judge. Instead, he is acting in his capacity as the designated administrative decision-maker for the Ninth Circuit's Standing Committee on Federal Public Defenders.

Since it's not a traditional court case, it imposes no binding precedent and is not going to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, the new order does add an important new element to the conversation over DOMA's constitutionality. And coming from a federal circuit court judge, its reasoning has resonance, even if it is not binding precedent.

In the new order, Judge Reinhardt repeats his February analysis of DOMA's constitutional infirmities, rejecting various arguments in its favor. He also addresses a new argument and determines that it, too, fails under the rational basis level of scrutiny, the easiest of standards to meet:

Recently, the government has advanced an additional argument in defense of DOMA: that the statute serves a legitimate governmental interest in maintaining a consistent definition of marriage at the federal level for purposes of distributing federal benefits while individual states consider how to resolve the issue of marriage equality for same-sex couples. ... Even under the more deferential rational basis review, however, this argument fails. DOMA did not preserve the status quo vis-à-vis the relationship between federal and state definitions of marriage; to the contrary, it disrupted the long-standing practice of the federal government deferring to each state's decisions as to the requirements for a valid marriage. ...

Congress thus sided with those states that would limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, and against those states that would recognize the marriages of same-sex couples. Taking that position did not further any government interest in neutrality, if indeed such an interest exists.

And just where did this additional argument come from? From Barack Obama's very own Justice Department.

Equality cannot wait. It's time to dump DOMA.

PFAW