Rule of Law

Kathleen Turner Speaks Out for Dawn Johnsen

People For the American Way Foundation board member Kathleen Turner posted a piece today on the Huffington Post making a forceful case for confirming Dawn Johnsen as the head of Office of Legal Counsel.

To restore integrity and respect for the rule of law to the Department, President Obama has nominated an inordinately qualified individual - Dawn Johnsen - who is now being attacked by Republicans and her right-wing allies for having the nerve to criticize Bush administration excesses. They're faulting her for criticizing OLC opinions that the Bush administration itself repudiated. In other words, she's being pilloried for having the very integrity and respect for the rule of law that the Bush OLC so clearly lacked.

If you want to speak out to support Dawn Johnsen’s confirmation, don’t forget to sign the petition.
 

PFAW

The Audacity of Blackmail

According to the Daily Beast, the GOP is threatening to filibuster President Obama’s legal nominees if he moves to release the infamous “torture memos” that came out of the John Yoo-era Office of Legal Counsel:

A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principal reason for the Obama administration’s abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents. A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward.

It was bad enough that George W. Bush spent the last eight years politicizing the Department of Justice and degrading the rule of law. Now, instead of working with the new administration to clean up the DOJ, Republican Senators are apparently doubling down and desperately attempting to cover up the Bush Administration’s misdeeds and their own complicity.

As several of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said during the Committee’s vote on Dawn Johnsen’s nomination: bring it on. If the GOP wants a public debate about what’s been going in on the Justice Department, that’s the kind of debate the American people will understand.

In the mean time, now would be a good time to remind every member of the U.S. Senate, Democrat and Republican alike, that it’s time to confirm Dawn Johnsen and clean up the DOJ.

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Torturing the Rule of Law

Newsweek is reporting:

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify—and publicly release—three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees. The memos, written by Justice Department lawyers in May 2005, provide the legal rationale for waterboarding, head slapping and other rough tactics used by the CIA. One senior Obama official, who like others interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the memos were "ugly" and could embarrass the CIA. Other officials predicted they would fuel demands for a "truth commission" on torture.

Torture and the other illegal activities approved at the very highest levels of the Bush Administration must be exposed to the public for a simple reason: sweeping officially-sanctioned lawbreaking under the rug is dangerously corrosive to the rule of law.  After all, if one president can get away with illegal behavior without any consequences, what’s to prevent another president from doing the same?

America will have more presidents, good and bad, and letting the malefactors of the Bush Administration off the hook can only encourage future criminal abuses of authority.

We must have full accountability for what happened during the Bush era.
 

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Truth Telling in the Senate Judiciary Committee

President Obama’s choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel moved out of the Judiciary Committee today on a not-quite party line vote of 11-7. All the Democrats on the Committee supported her nomination, and all the Republicans opposed it, except for Arlen Specter, who passed.

Today’s vote is important because now the nomination of this extraordinarily qualified woman to head the Office of Legal Counsel will go forward to the floor, where—hopefully—she will get a vote by the full Senate.

But today’s session was also important because of the truth telling by a number of members, including Senators Leahy, Durbin, and Whitehouse, about the central role the Office of Legal Counsel played during the Bush Administration in undermining the rule of law and advancing some of its "most horrendous practices." As Senator Whitehouse said it was the "leading contender for the most rotten place during the Bush Administration.” 

The Senators made the case for how qualified Dawn Johnsen is to head this office—her record of previous service as a Deputy Attorney General; her intellectual honesty and exceptionally good judgment; her extremely constructive role, in response to the Bush Administration excesses, in pulling together nineteen former OLC attorneys to craft a statement of principles to guide the Office of Legal Counsel that has won bipartisan praise. And they told their colleagues on the other side of the aisle that when this nomination comes to the floor, if they want to debate the past role of the Office of Legal Counsel, if they want to debate the role that John Yoo among others played in undermining the rule of law, then bring it on. That’s the kind of debate the American people will understand!

This was a good day for the American people, and for the rule of law.  Let’s hope it continues.

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On Fair Courts and Big Coal

Today in the Supreme Court, a case was argued that makes a pretty compelling case for a fair and independent judiciary. Robert Barnes at the Washington Post did a good overview yesterday.

Caperton and his little coal company sued a huge coal company on claims that it unlawfully drove him out of business, and a jury agreed, awarding him $50 million.

That company's chief executive vowed an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court -- but first, he spent an unprecedented $3 million to persuade voters to get rid of a justice he didn't like and elect one he did.

Today during arguments the Court was (no surprise) divided. But the real principle may be bigger than simply campaign donations.

The Constitution sets up the judiciary as the branch of government dedicated to ensuring that the rule of law applies equally to all people. When it's broken – or perceived to be broken, -- there's scant reason for citizens to put their full faith in the government. And yet over the last years, President Bush has systematically flooded the courts with jurists who put political ideology over our most basic constitutional principles.

No longer fearing the worst when it comes to judicial appointments is, well, a big sigh of relief, but this case makes very clear how crucial it is that we repair the damage eight years of George Bush has done.

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Court Rejects State Secrets Claim in Wiretapping Suit

There was good news today from the federal court of appeals in San Francisco today:

The Obama administration has lost its argument that a potential threat to national security is a good enough reason to stop a lawsuit challenging the government's warrantless wiretapping program.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco on Friday rejected the Justice Department's request for an emergency stay. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, cited the so-called state secrets privilege as its defense. The government claimed national security would be compromised if a lawsuit brought by the U.S. chapter of an Islamic charity was allowed to proceed.

You may remember that we were more than a little disappointed when the Obama Administration decided to assert its state secrets privilege earlier this month.  Today's ruling was a good sign our third branch of government is standing up for the rule of law.

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The GOP as the Party of No

I just came back from an executive meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee where once again the Republicans are demonstrating a reflexive and not very wise strategy of just saying NO. Senator Leahy, chair of the Committee was trying to move the nominations of two key Justice Department nominees, Elena Kagan, who will be the first woman to be confirmed as the Solicitor General of the United States, and Tom Perrelli, who will be the third-most senior official at the Justice Department, but Republicans on the committee refused to permit a vote. 

It’s not that they’re not entitled to do this – they have the procedural right under the Committee’s rules to hold the votes over until the next meeting of the Committee. My concern is that the Republicans didn’t appear to have any good reasons for delaying the votes other than “because we can.” That shouldn’t be acceptable, particularly where, as here, the delay denies Attorney General Holder and President Obama the senior leadership team they need to address the enormous task of restoring public confidence in the Department’s commitment to the rule of law.

Senator Leahy has bent over backwards to accommodate the Committee Republicans, in much the same way that President Obama has tried to reach across the aisle on a range of issues. But the response is obstructionism and delay. Saying NO just because you can is not sound policy and is not good for the American people.

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Restoring Justice, Step by Step

On Monday, Eric Holder was confirmed as Attorney General. Big news ... and good news for Americans who depend on the Justice Department to defend their rights. A bit more under the radar, Monday also saw another important piece of news at the DOJ. Leslie Hagen, a Justice Department attorney who was fired by Monica Goodling because of rumors that she was a lesbian, was rehired to her previous job at the Department.

This is just one step in cleaning up the appalling mess at the DOJ left by egregious politicization during the Bush administration. Monica Goodling, senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was by all objective standards unqualified for such a high post. Her only "qualifications" -- the only ones that mattered in the Gonzales DOJ -- were that she was a partisan ideologue who graduated from Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School and was committed to reshaping the Justice Department to operate on a right-wing agenda.

Even though the politicization of the DOJ under President Bush was shameful (and possibly criminal), some senators apparently think it should continue and are taking their marching orders from the Radical Right. The next targets of their witch hunt? Three more of the president's eminently qualified DOJ nominees: David Ogden, Thomas Perrelli and Dawn Johnsen.

Dawn Johnson, for example, has been tapped to head the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) -- the office that, under the Bush administration, produced the memos that served as its guidelines for detainee treatment and executive overreaching. Johnsen has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration's legal justifications for its policies. And, in her extremely impressive legal career, she spent several years at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Already some senators like Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- who earlier this week assailed the Johnsen nomination on the Senate floor -- are suggesting that, in their view, pro-choice bona fides should be an instant disqualifier.

Quickly confirming the rest of President Obama's Justice Department team will be one more important step, but there's still much more to be done to repair what was so damaged during the Bush years.

Let's look back at just a few of the disasters born out of DOJ's right-wing politicization:

  • political firings of U.S. attorneys;
  • political firings of staff attorneys, especially in the Civil Rights Division;
  • refusal to properly enforce civil rights laws, particularly those protecting voting rights;
  • Department approval and justification of unconstitutional policies from warrantless domestic spying to the denial of habeas corpus and torture.

People For the American Way will be pushing for investigations into these wrongdoings. I know how important this issue is to our activists -- you've pitched in time and again over the last eight years as we've pushed for accountability and the rule of law at the DOJ, and hundreds of you wrote me impassioned emails last week about just how critical it is to keep pushing.

Karl Rove and others who are subpoenaed to testify or provide documents must comply and cooperate not just with Justice Department probes into these matters, but also with any and all congressional investigations. Congressional action is what's needed to get to the bottom of what happened, hold those responsible accountable and prevent similar abuses of power from happening in the future.

Making sure investigations happen and proceed effectively and making sure President Obama's other Justice Department nominees are confirmed smoothly are just two things we'll be working hard for in the coming weeks, and there will be much more.

I'd also like to take a moment to ackowledge Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who is in the hospital recovering from surgery. She's a true defender of our constitutional values and I know you'll join me and the rest of the staff of People For in wishing her a speedy recovery.

PFAW

Mark Gitenstein for Office of Legal Policy

I’ve seen some concerns expressed about the possible nomination of Mark Gitenstein to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, including questions about whether he’s sufficiently committed to protecting the rule of law to serve in the position at Justice involved in selecting and vetting potential federal judicial nominees. I want to weigh in on this conversation because I know Mark well.

I worked very closely with him when he was serving as Senator Biden’s Chief Counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and I was counsel to Senator Howard Metzenbaum. If you’re looking for someone committed to the rule of law, no need to look further. Mark can claim a lifetime of service to advancing the cause of civil rights and civil liberties in this country. As chief counsel to Senator Biden, Mark fought against the confirmation of federal judicial nominees who were not committed to protecting the civil rights and individual liberties of all Americans. He worked tirelessly in his position with Senator Biden to help protect the Civil Rights Commission and to extend the Voting Rights Act.

As counsel on the Senate Intelligence Committee he played a leadership role in the oversight investigation of the FBI abuses in the illegal surveillance and intimidation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights and anti-war activists. He played a key role in the development of FISA, which grew out of that investigation.

As an advisor to Senator and presidential candidate Biden, Mark helped focus on the plight of the shrinking middle class advancing measures such as reforming health care to permit middle class and disadvantaged families to buy into the same health care insurance program available to members of Congress and expanding the availability of health insurance for children and expanding employer based retirement programs.

Mark has the smarts, integrity and values that we need in someone heading this critical office.

PFAW

Executive privilege for Rove?

This was an exciting week. Our efforts to prevent the Right from building Senate opposition against Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder paid off and his nomination was approved by a 17-2 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. And yesterday President Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. I was at the bill signing ceremony and it was amazing to see the leaders of our government, up to the President of the United States, so invested in enacting a law to protect civil rights.

We are not "the opposition" anymore, but we still have a vital role in passing progressive policy and making the change we need as a country happen. Many progressives have differing opinions on how best to move forward. The Bush administration was a common enemy. Its every move was predictable, motivated by its allegiance to a set of radical ideologies and ideologues. Now we are faced with the challenge of cleaning up the past administration's messes and moving our country forward. A legitimate question to ask is, how much of that effort should include holding Bush administration officials accountable for their trespasses against the Constitution and our nation's values?

Rep. John Conyers, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has subpoenaed Karl Rove to testify before the Committee on Monday about his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys and some other matters like the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. Rove along with other Bush administration officials had hidden behind "executive privilege," evading testimony by essentially ignoring congressional subpoenas. And now, even with the Bush administration out of office, it looks like he's at it again!

Through his lawyers, four days before his term was up, former President Bush informed Rove that he was continuing to assert executive privilege over any testimony by Rove -- even after he leaves office -- and instructed him not to cooperate with congressional inquiries.

People For the American Way was a leader in the fight for Bush administration accountability, helping to get Congress to pass contempt citations against other Bush officials who hid behind executive privilege. Even though a new administration has taken over, if the law was broken, if the Constitution was violated, those who are guilty should be held accountable in order to preserve the rule of law and send the message to future generations and presidents that violating the law and people's rights will not go unanswered.

Getting to the bottom of the U.S. Attorney scandal and the politicization of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division is essential to cleaning up the Justice Department and putting it back to work for the American people. And I know we would all rather see Rove squirming in a congressional hot seat than as a talking head on cable news networks.

People For the American Way will not take this affront to justice sitting down. Expect us to be out front with a strong response if Rove chooses to be a no show on Monday. We'll also let you know what you can do to weigh in and make sure Rove and others in the Bush administration are held accountable and justice is served.

PFAW

Obama’s Civil Rights Agenda: LGBT Equality

With George Bush and Dick Cheney finally out of power, our country is returning to its ideals so quickly and in so many ways that it’s dizzying. 

Recognizing the rule of law? Check.  Following the Constitution? Check.  Keeping politics out of law enforcement? Check.  Recognizing our right to know what our own government is doing?  Check. 

What about LGBT equality?  George Bush worked to enshrine discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans into the United States Constitution, supported laws that put gay and lesbian couples in prison for the crime of having sex in their own home, and fought to continue to allow workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans. 

And President Obama?  The White House website spells out President Obama’s agenda for LGBT equality, and it’s pretty terrific.  He: 

  • Opposes a constitutional amendment to prevent gays and lesbians from marrying
  • Supports expanded hate-crime legislation
  • Supports a transgender-inclusive ENDA
  • Supports civil unions (He’s still not with us all the way on full marriage equality, but we’ll keep pushing him on this one)
  • Supports eliminating the heinous Defense of Marriage Act
  • Supports legislation to ensure that same-sex couples have the same federal rights and benefits that opposite-sex married couples have

 But it’s not just the substance of the agenda that’s important:  Where it’s placed on the website tells us a lot. 

Rather than cravenly avoiding LGBT rights altogether or putting them in a category like “social issues” or “cultural issues,” as a number of others do, the White House places them exactly where they belong: as part of our nation’s civil rights agenda.  The Obama Administration is framing LGBT issues in a way that helps progressives set the terms of the conversation. 

The Radical Right dishonestly paints their anti-equality positions as pro-family, pro-values, and pro-religion, a dangerously deceptive framing that the mainstream media tends to blindly accept.  Thus, the Right has long set the terms of the national conversation. 

No more.  Using the bully pulpit of the White House, President Obama can make it clear that LGBT equality is nothing less than a civil rights issue. 

And that framing allows us to more effectively pin the Radical Right down by asking the threshold question:  What specific legal rights that you have should be denied to people who are gay, lesbian, or transgender?

PFAW

Department of Justice Will Actually Uphold the Law!

After 8 years of the Bush Administration, it’s amazing how low our collective standards have fallen. For instance, the idea that Barack Obama has appointed people to the Department of Justice who will uphold the rule of law -- as opposed to wantonly ignoring it for political purposes -- struck me almost too good to be true.

But by any standards the team he’s put together looks top notch. Elena Kagan is clearly the big news, but there’s a lot of depth in the slate of nominees. TAPPED points out:

One particular point of interest: Johns[e]n, the new head of the Office of Legal Counsel, has recently written articles entitled Faithfully Executing the Laws: Internal Legal Constraints on Executive Power and What's a President to Do? Interpreting the Constitution in the Wake of the Bush Administration's Abuses. Given that OLC was a hotbed of torture-justifying and illegal-surveillance-allowing during the last administration, it's nice to see that the new boss has a different set of ideas.

Be still my beating heart!

PFAW

Where Is Today’s Deep Throat?

Mark Felt - better known as the anonymous source Deep Throat - died yesterday at the age of 95.  The deputy director of the FBI in the early 1970s, Felt secretly led Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to the information that eventually toppled the lawless presidency of Richard Nixon.

Felt was hardly a liberal: He had supported several violations of civil liberties perpetrated by the FBI during the 1960s-1970s.  Nevertheless, Nixon’s full-scale assault against the Constitution and the rule of law during Watergate compelled Felt to put his country first and talk to the press about what he knew, albeit anonymously.

Today, we are nearing the end of another presidency that has engaged in a full scale assault against the Constitution and the rule of law.  But unlike a generation ago, the current president’s allies in Congress put partisanship above patriotism and prevented genuine investigations of the administration.

Mark Felt’s death reminds me of another key difference between the era of Watergate and today: Back then, because someone talked, those in power were held accountable.  Today, we are still waiting for people to talk – to tell us what they know and to provide us with the documents shedding light on illegal domestic spying, the outsourcing of torture, the illegal sabotage of Democratic GOTV efforts in 2002, the suppression of voting rights, the politicization of the Department of Justice, Bush’s unlawful signing statements, the arrests of peaceful anti-administration protesters … the list goes on.

The outrages committed by George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others did not happen in a vacuum.  Their illegal policies were carried out by public employees scattered across the government, from the highest levels on down.  There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who know where the bodies are buried.

For the sake of our country, it is time for them to talk.

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Letter to Obama from Feingold: "Concrete Steps" to Restore Rule of Law

Following up on my previous post about Sen. Feingold....

My main man Russ yesterday sent a letter to the President-elect "urging President-elect Barack Obama to take 'concrete steps' to restore the rule of law after the eight-year assault by the Bush Administration on the Constitution. In a letter to the President-elect, Feingold offered recommendations for action in four key areas – the separation of powers, excessive government secrecy, detention and interrogation policy, and domestic surveillance and privacy."

Read it. It's good.

http://feingold.senate.gov/releases/08/12/20081210.html

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Bill Moyers Journal: Russ Feingold On The Rule Of Law

Senator Russ Feingold, one of Washington's leading voices for civil liberties and constitutional rights, was on Bill Moyers Journal over the weekend discussing some of the steps he hopes the incoming Obama administration will take to restore the rule of law.

Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars has a video, transcript and Sen. Feingold's Daily Kos post on the issue. Read more and check out the video.

Russ Feingold on Moyers screen cap

PFAW

Putting the Justice back in the DOJ

In Washington, we're hearing rumblings that the Right may be looking to start a fight over Attorney General nominee Eric Holder, whose confirmation hearing will be in early January. It's tough to imagine the kind of audacity it would take to challenge Holder's nomination after Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales.

After eight years of being dominated by politicization, cronyism and extremism, the Department of Justice is in desperate need of a good housecleaning. The Department, like the Attorney General, is supposed to defend the rule of law and Americans' constitutional rights. But under the Bush administration, the DOJ has been used as a weapon against constitutional values, used to fight the administration's ideological and political battles.

In the wake of 9/11, John Ashcroft's Justice Department led the Bush administration's relentless assault on civil liberties. The DOJ was on the forefront of the draconian expansion of surveillance and police powers, and contributed heavily to post-9/11 era of extreme government secrecy. Career lawyers at the DOJ were subtly -- and not so subtly -- pushed out in favor of attorneys more politically and ideologically aligned with the administration. The Civil Rights Division was completely politicized and instead of using its resources to protect voters' rights (by enforcing the Voting Rights Act among other things), the DOJ waged an attack on voting rights by supporting disenfranchising policies like Georgia's restrictive voter ID law. The Department also exploited the 'widespread voter fraud' myth for politically motivated witch hunts -- part of a larger trend of selectively targeting political and ideological opponents for investigation and prosecution.

And how can we forget the Gonzales era at the DOJ! The Attorney General is supposed to be the people's lawyer, but Gonzales was more the president's bag man. The problems that existed under Ashcroft continued or got worse. As more and more news came out about the NSA's illegal warrantless spying on Americans, the torture of U.S. detainees, legally questionable military tribunals and other subversions of the rule of law, we found out that the DOJ had expressly signed off on these administration policies and in some cases even supplied the legal and intellectual underpinning out of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). And when a scandal broke over the firing of U.S. attorneys, it became clear exactly how politically motivated hiring and firing practices had been at the DOJ, which evidently was staffed with a disproportionate number of graduates of Pat Robertson's law school (including one of the people tasked with the hiring/firing)!

Attorney General Mukasey has been arguably better than his two predecessors, but following the records of Ashcroft and Gonzales, that's not very hard. Eric Holder is a stellar choice: smart, capable and able to lead the DOJ in a new direction. But he will have his work cut out for him and he'll need help from people like you and me. First, we need to make sure he's confirmed, and that could mean a campaign to defeat whatever attacks right-wing senators throw at him. Then, because of the politically skewed hiring practices, he's going to need the support of the people to make dramatic changes at one of the government's most important agencies.

For eight years, the Department of Justice -- a government agency with a rich history of enforcing civil rights and the rule of law -- has served the worst ideological and partisan impulses of the Bush administration. The era of overzealous ideologues and partisans like Ashcroft and Gonzales is coming to an end.

Thank goodness.

But now it's time to dig in our heels and do our part to put the justice back in the Department of Justice. I hope you don't mind if I call on you for help in the coming months.

PFAW

Palin Takes Page from Bush-Cheney Abuse of Power Manual

Here's some more evidence of just how well Sarah Palin would have fit in with the Bush-Cheney style of governing, where the executive claims all the power with no accountability. It's a pretty astonishing article about how Palin's attorney general - an under-qualified person she appointed for the job - is thwarting the law by telling state employees not to comply with legislative subpoenas in the Troopergate affair. There is no legal justification, only the political claims by the governor, who has "strongly stated that the subpoenas issued by your committee are of questionable validity." It looks like what she's most likely to "shake up" if she comes to Washington is the rule of law.

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The Muppets Take Philadelphia

Happy Fourth of July! After a busy week traveling to Pittsburgh and San Francisco, talking to activists about the Supreme Court and to donors about People For's work, I'm using the long weekend to spend some much needed time with my family. I hope you too will have a happy and healthy Fourth of July! I heard from many of you in the last week in response to my Friday Note about George Carlin and Big Bird. Your ideas about how best to use culture to bring change to America were wonderful. I hope that in the coming months I will have the opportunity to talk with you more about the direction of our country and what People For can do to create an America that values religious liberty and free speech, a democracy where all our voices and votes count.
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