Supreme Court

Republican Senators Make Threats on Judges, Try to Force "Bipartisanship" at Gunpoint

From Poltico:

President Barack Obama should fill vacant spots on the federal bench with former President Bush's judicial nominees to help avoid another huge fight over the judiciary, all 41 Senate Republicans said Monday.

...

"Regretfully, if we are not consulted on, and approve of, a nominee from our states, the Republican Conference will be unable to support moving forward on that nominee," the letter warns. "And we will act to preserve this principle and the rights of our colleagues if it is not."

In other words, Republicans are threatening a filibuster of judges if they're not happy.

The letter talks about "bipartisanship" and, separate from the letter, several Republicans have been warning the president for some time against nominating "far left judges." But for all this talk about "bipartisanship" and throwing terms around like "far-left judges," what do they really mean?

Does bipartisanship mean nominating half right-wing judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and don't believe in the Constitution's promise of equal rights under the law; half who agree that the Constitution makes certain guarantees in terms of people's rights and liberties and that it gives the government the authority and the responsibility to protect those rights, not undermine them?

Or does it mean that all of the president's judicial nominees must be "moderates," and if so, what is their definition of "moderate?" Is a moderate someone who is respectful of fundamental constitutional rights and principles like privacy, equality, the right to choose and checks and balances… as long as they are pro-corporate? We already have a Supreme Court that is overwhelmingly pro-business, much more so than many precious Courts, including the four supposedly "liberal" Justices.

Of course that's probably not the case (not that the president should feel compelled to nominate judges with a corporate-friendly bent anyway, especially now that we are in the middle of the havoc wreaked by corporate greed and excess, but I digress).

When it comes to this issue, what they really care about is pleasing their base. And when it comes to their base, the ONLY judges who are acceptable are extreme right-wing ideologues. So any actual "moderate," mainstream judges of course will be rejected -- and they will be cast as "far-left."

The Right sees the Judicial Branch in very black and white terms. They have accused the Democrats of having a litmus test on judges when it comes to Roe v. Wade. But that was obviously proven wrong by the fact that both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were confirmed even though they both, according to many experts, would vote to overturn Roe. No, it's the Right that has strict litmus tests on everything from Roe v. Wade and gay rights to free speech, the separation of church and state and, yes, how "business-friendly" a judge may be. Their base demands it! And Republican Senators -- even the so-called moderates like Snowe, Collins and Specter -- are unified on this one.

The judicial philosophies of the jurists respected by the Right are defined by extremism -- plain and simple. It's one thing for a judge to find legal exception with the way a certain case was decided (even if that decision protects a fundamental right, like Roe v. Wade), but quite another to subscribe to theories and views that fly in the face of mainstream judicial thought like:

  • "Constitution in Exile," which takes an extreme and limited view of the Commerce Clause and basically states that the regulatory policies of the New Deal were unconstitutional... and a huge number of policies and Supreme Court decisions going back nearly a hundred years, including civil rights protections, are unconstitutional as well. (Opinions expressed by Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia support "restoring the lost constitution.")
     
  • "Unitary Executive Theory," which has been used to justify insanely expansive views of executive power that defy the most commonsense understanding of our founding principles relating to checks and balances and a limited executive (remember, our founders were breaking from a monarchy - they obviously didn't want to create another one). The Bush administration exploited this theory over and over again its now infamous abuses of executive power.; and
     
  • a blatant disregard for the bedrock judicial principle of stare decisis (which Justice Clarence Thomas is said, even by Justice Scalia, to show).  

This is par for the course for right-wing judges. While those of us on the progressive side are not devoid of ideology, and are proud to have our own ideology when it comes to the Constitution and the law, the Right is by far more ideological and Republicans need to be called out for doing the Far Right's bidding once again.
 
President Obama and the Senate Democrats should challenge these Republican Senators to define their terms more specifically -- to tell them and the country EXACTLY what they mean by "bipartisanship" in this case and what they would consider acceptable or "moderate" nominees.  And the president should reject the GOP's attempt to force bipartisanship at gunpoint, by making threats and trying to use coercion to get him to appease their base on judges.

PFAW

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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Remembering Barbara Jordan

Every February, People For the American Way, along with the rest of the country, celebrates Black History Month. And this year, more than ever, it's humbling to see just how far our nation has moved. And how far we still have to go.

I'm proud that People For the American Way can point to its own history to demonstrate why Black History Month is relevant to people of all backgrounds. Barbara Jordan was the first African American woman to serve in the Texas State Senate, the first African American woman to represent a southern state in Congress, and one of the founders of People For the American Way.

In 1981, when U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan joined Norman Lear to form People For the American Way, they understood that the promise of our nation, that all men (and women) are created equal, was not just unrealized, but was under active attack. But instead of focusing on what was wrong with our country, they used their powerful, utterly unique voices to speak for America's highest ideals and to push forward towards a better America.

Rep. Jordan was an energetic advocate of our Constitution's core values of fairness and equality under law. She continues to be an inspiration in our work, and it's not an exaggeration to say that it's because of leaders like Barbara Jordan that we were all able to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama last month.

But still, there are those who are intent on dragging us backwards. While the inauguration was still fresh in our minds, People For was forced to lead an aggressive campaign to help confirm President Obama's Attorney General nominee, Eric Holder -- the first African American to hold the position. After eight years spent undermining the crucial work of the Department of Justice, the Right is fighting hard to prevent the new administration from truly restoring justice at the DOJ. This is why Attorney General Holder's comments about the racism in America ring true to so many of us in this constant battle against those who would turn back the clock on civil rights. And just last week we all got an ugly reminder of this pervasive racism and racial insensitivity in America when the New York Post published an offensive cartoon depicting President Obama as a chimp getting shot by two white police officers. The cartoon literally included several layers of tastelessness: the comparison of our first African American president to an ape, what could be construed as an invitation for violence against the president AND the stirring up of racial issues with law enforcement in a city that has particularly sensitive recent history in that area.

Many have pointed out that the lack of diversity in senior management and on the editorial staff of the Post was a major contributing factor to how a cartoon like that could get published in the first place. That's why I'm proud that People For and our affiliate foundation have taken so seriously our mission to help promote diversity. It can be seen very clearly in People For the American Way Foundation's leadership development programs, the Young Elected Officials Network and Young People For, which are among the most diverse programs of their kind -- ever. And it can be seen in our groundbreaking efforts to promote equality for all, like with People For Foundation's work with African American ministers to combat homophobia in the Black Church.

We're working hard to make sure that civil rights remain a top priority for this administration, and fighting against those who are intent on erecting barriers to the ballot, not to mention advocating for a more just Supreme Court, organizing for marriage equality for all and defending religious liberty by maintaining the separation between church and state.

Barbara Jordan made clear that there are certain principles that are not negotiable, values she called "indigenous to the American idea." Opportunity. Fairness. Equality under law. Those are still the values that bind our community together, and every day we're moving closer to that nation that she envisioned.

PFAW

Justice Stevens moderates panel on Marbury v. Madison

Today, at an event sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Supreme Court Fellows Program Alumni Association, Justice John Paul Stevens, the Senior Associate on the Supreme Court, moderated a discussion with the authors of a new book, The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the Battle for the Supreme Court, Clifford Sloan and David McKean. The Justice gave only a brief introduction before the authors spoke about the book and answered questions. Justice Stevens first spoke about his initial exposure to Marbury v. Madison in law school. He jokingly reminisced about the length of time spent on the case, stating that his teacher spent the first six weeks of a constitutional law class devoted solely to the intricacies of the case. He voiced his admiration for the case, calling it fascinating, and agreeing with the assertions by the panelists that the case is “the cornerstone of the Constitutional system.

He then moved on to an issue that, while he admitted was not directly on topic, was very important, the separation of powers. Marbury solidified the independence of the judiciary as a separate branch of government with its own powers. Stevens strongly believes in this and voiced concern that the wall between the executive and the judiciary is weakening. He recalled that when he was sworn in as a justice, his ceremony was performed in the Supreme Court which he viewed to be strongly symbolic of the separation between the political appointment process and his judicial post. Since that time, however, the practice changed and is now performed in the White House. He has boycotted the past four swearing in ceremonies, as he believes that the judiciary should be strongly separated from the political branches, beginning with the swearing in. Stressing the symbolism of the place and manner of the oath, he voiced hope for a change in this process with the next appointee.

Again focusing on the importance of separating the judicial branch from the political process, Stevens questioned the authors about the impeachment of Justice Chase from the Supreme Court shortly after Marbury was decided. Essentially, the opposition party in the House of Representatives sought to impeach Chase because they did not agree with his decisions politically, and used the impeachment as a retaliation against the Court. Chase was eventually acquitted, establishing the doctrine that judges may not be removed due to a dispute over their political preferences or political disagreement with their decisions.

Those looking to for a discussion focused on Stevens's thoughts on the issue might have been disappointed.  Through out the event Stevens was largely content to listen to the panelists. When he spoke he showed his vast knowledge on the subject area, but remained in the role of moderator and gave much of the spot light to the panelists.

PFAW

The Obstruction Strategy

On Wednesday night, I was thrilled to represent People For the American Way members and activists at a small White House reception. When meeting the President and First Lady, as well as Vice President Biden and his wife Jill, it really sunk in that, finally, progressives are no longer locked out as we were during the Bush administration. People For's seat at the table is the Obama administration's recognition of you and all your efforts, your passion and your activism, and our collective strength.

We will still need to organize and fight to achieve our goals, but so much more is possible now and it's good to know that we have a receptive audience. Our vigilance is needed to help make sure the administration does the right thing, but it's also needed because with this shift that I've just described, the Far Right has amplified its efforts to divide Americans and obstruct a progressive agenda.

Yesterday, People For the American Way released a Right Wing Watch In Focus report exposing the Radical Right's real intentions in their efforts to obstruct confirmation of President Obama's Department of Justice nominees:

"The rhetoric used in the attacks, documented extensively on RightWingWatch.org, suggests that the campaign may be less about actually stopping any of these nominees and more about getting right-wing activists, pundits, and lawmakers warmed up for similar attacks on eventual Obama nominees to the federal judiciary, and in particular to the U.S. Supreme Court."

This is more than just "playing politics." The DOJ is a vital branch of the government and these positions are critical to fill. Americans need to be able to put the past eight years of politicization and cronyism at the Department behind us and once again rely on the DOJ as a protector of our rights and values.

As I write this, the Justice Department is at the center of some serious legal matters pertaining to fundamental checks and balances. The Bush administration pushed most people's understanding of executive power to the limit and went significantly beyond. Some members of Congress did not take it lying down, asserting their constitutional authority and acting on their duty to check the president's power and cut through the extreme secrecy. But the process will be a long and intense one and we need a full team in place at Justice to help do the job.

The Senate must not delay in confirming all of the president's nominees, and first up, due to be voted on in committee next week, is Deputy Attorney General nominee David Ogden.

Ogden is incredibly well qualified, but the Right has attacked him because of his representation of American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and, yes, Playboy and Penthouse in First Amendment cases. They also went after him for arguing vigorously on behalf of a woman's right to choose and advocating that the U.S. follow the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child -- something that only the most fringe elements on the Right oppose.

But most of all, the Far Right is flexing its muscle in advance of judicial confirmation battles to come.

The Family Research Council has generated thousands of calls to the Senate in opposition to Ogden as a show of strength. It is absolutely necessary that senators not only hear from their side. Every senator needs to see that progressive activists are willing to stand up for constitutional values and weigh in on these fights. And they need to see it well in advance of Obama's first judicial nominations.

Please take a moment now to send an e-mail to your senators urging the swift confirmation of David Ogden as Deputy Attorney General.

Whether you live in a red state or a blue state, your senators need to hear from you. Even the most right-wing senators need to know that people in their states are spreading a counter message and are ready to hold them accountable.

Help Ogden achieve speedy confirmation for the sake of the DOJ AND to show senators that it's not only the Right that's strong.

PFAW

Hardly the End of DOMA.

Late last week, you may have seen headlines about a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit who ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. For anyone in favor of equal justice under law (and opposed to DOMA) this was good news. Unfortunately, the ruling is extremely limited. For your convenience, we’ve answers a few of the questions we've heard about the decision.

Q: What happened?

A: The case involved Brad Levenson, a public defender in the federal court system whose employer -- the Office of the Federal Public Defender -- denied his husband spousal health insurance benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Rather than simply accepting this state of affairs, Levenson filed a complaint with his employer -- the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit heard the case and issued a ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional, finding no rational basis to deny benefits to some legally married spouses and not to others.

Q: So does that mean DOMA is no longer in effect, at least within the states comprising the Ninth Circuit?

A: No, DOMA is still in effect there and everywhere else throughout the country.

Q: Why is that? Doesn't a circuit court opinion bind all federal courts within that circuit?

A: Yes, a circuit court opinion usually does just that. Normally, a circuit court opinion comes either from a three-judge panel or from all of the circuit judges. But this opinion came from just one judge, and it was more like an internal, administrative employment dispute resolution opinion.

Q: Why isn't it a regular court opinion?

A: Because the married couple claiming discrimination did not go to court and sue the federal government for the spousal benefits. Instead, Levenson, in his status as an aggrieved employee of the Office of the Federal Public Defender, filed an administrative complaint with his employer.

So Judge Reinhardt did not issue his opinion in his role as a federal appellate judge deciding the appeal of a lower court's legal holding in a conflict between two parties. Instead, he was acting in his capacity as the designated administrative decision-maker for the Ninth Circuit's Standing Committee on Federal Public Defenders.

Q: Circuit Court opinions are binding on lower courts in that circuit. Who is bound by Judge Reinhardt's decision on DOMA?

A: This is an internal administrative ruling by an employer about one employee's benefits. It certainly helps Brad Levenson and his husband. But in his capacity as the administrative decision-maker who was designated to hear Levenson's case, Judge Reinhardt doesn't hold a hierarchically superior position over the next decision-maker in the next employment dispute in the Office of the Federal Public Defenders within the Ninth Circuit.

Q: There was another case last month where a Ninth Circuit judge ordered the government to provide benefits to a same-sex spouse. Will that have more of an impact?

A: Not at all. It was another case where the judge was acting as the decision-maker in an employment dispute resolution. It involved a Ninth Circuit employee covered by the employment dispute resolution plan specifically applicable to Ninth Circuit employees, as opposed to the one applicable to members of the Federal Public Defender system.

In fact, when Judge Reinhardt issued his decision last week, he explicitly said that he was not bound by the January ruling, because two different employee dispute plans were involved. That shows how these decisions have little to no value as binding precedent.

Q: Is either case going to be appealed to the Supreme Court?

A: No, because these employment dispute resolutions are not regular Circuit Court opinions released as part of a criminal or civil judicial proceeding.

Q: Has anything changed for the widow who is denied her late wife's Social Security pension benefits, or for the American man whose non-citizen husband is threatened with deportation?

A: No. DOMA still denies gays and lesbians the more than one thousand federal rights and responsibilities that come with marriage. Last week’s news doesn't change that.

Q: What about a legislative remedy instead of a judicial one? Can Congress repeal DOMA?

A: Yes, definitely. President Obama is already on board and has called for repeal of this hateful law. We all need to work hard as hard as ever to get Congress to act.

PFAW

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

New Rasmussen Supreme Court Poll: Garbage In, Garbage Out

This week, right-wing polling firm Rasmussen Reports heralded a new poll which supposedly revealed that 64% of Americans think that "Supreme Court decisions should be based on what is written in the Constitution," whereas only 27% think the decisions "should be guided by fairness and justice." Yes, you heard that right, Rasmussen conducted a poll which pitted "fairness and justice" against "what is written in the Constitution" and then blasted out a press release about their amazing findings.

The media all too often treats pollsters like they're interchangeable, and that's a shame. Rasmussen is infamous among pollsters for its automated polling method – computers, not people, ask the questions – which is frowned upon by mainstream practitioners. And sometimes I have to wonder whether the computers are doing more than just asking the questions. It's almost as if they're writing the poll questions and sending out the press releases too.

But back to this week's poll. Focus on the Family quickly chimed in to say it "reveals that the American people are much more conservative regarding judges than our president is or any of the liberals in Congress." This is laughable, but we can't just laugh it off.

The Right has convinced millions of Americans that the Constitution is inherently conservative and that woolly-headed liberal judges disregard the Constitution and our laws in order to reach their desired outcomes. But these are just myths they've created to help prevent what we, and the overwhelming majority of Americans, really want: a Supreme Court that interprets the Constitution in a fair and just way. There is no need to choose between "fairness and justice" and "what is written in the Constitution." We want both.

And as for Rasmussen, it's clear enough to see the game they're playing. If you ask people ridiculous questions they're going to give you ridiculous responses. You don't need a poll and a press release to tell us that.

Kathryn Kolbert is president of People For the American Way Foundation

PFAW

Gay but Equal?

By MARY FRANCES BERRY

(From the January 16, 2009 edition of the New York Times)

AS the country prepares to enter the Obama era, anxiety over the legal status and rights of gays and lesbians is growing. Barack Obama's invitation to the Rev. Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor who opposes same-sex marriage, to give the invocation at his inauguration comes just as the hit movie "Milk" reminds us of the gay rights activism of the 1970s. Supporters of gay rights wonder if the California Supreme Court might soon confirm the legitimacy of Proposition 8, passed by state voters in November, which declares same-sex marriage illegal -- leaving them no alternative but to take to the streets.

To help resolve the issue of gay rights, President-elect Obama should abolish the now moribund Commission on Civil Rights and replace it with a new commission that would address the rights of many groups, including gays.

The fault lines beneath the debate over gay rights are jagged and deep. Federal Social Security and tax benefits from marriage that straight people take for granted are denied to most gays in committed relationships. And because Congress has failed to enact a federal employment nondiscrimination act, bias against gays in the workplace remains a constant threat.

Click here to read more (login may be required).

PFAW

It's Our Moment, Let's Make the Most of It!

This Tuesday marks what I hope will be the beginning of a dramatic new direction for our country. The relevance of President-elect Obama's inauguration falling one day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not lost on any of us. The swearing in of the first African American president will be one of the great moments in America's history and a massive leap toward the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream, not only because of Obama's race, but because the movement that swept him into office was born of the American people's desire to pursue a more just path as a nation. That in itself is something that Dr. King would have been proud to have witnessed.

I said that I "hope" this will be the beginning of a big change in direction because it's up to all of us to make sure that change actually happens, to make sure the new administration corrects the last president's worst mistakes in a timely fashion. And it's not just the Obama administration that needs to feel constant pressure from us, it's Congress as well. I've seen reports of senators and representatives showing some reluctance to make many of the bold changes we need. And as expected, we're seeing the resurgence of the Far Right as a backlash to new progressive power. The Radical Right is not only in a position to strengthen its grip on power in the Republican Party, it's ready to pounce on any anti-government sentiment that may bubble up in the coming months and years, especially -- and ironically -- as a result of the economic hard times their very policies have left us with. Long story short: People For the American Way is more needed than ever, and we need your support and your vigilance in the months and years to come.

When a group of activists confronted him shortly after his first inauguration seeking a list of specific reforms, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it." That is what grassroots democracy is all about -- making our leaders do what's right. January 20 is the end of our eight-year national nightmare, but it's just the beginning of a new chapter in which we must all do our part.

In the first two weeks of 2009, People For's been fighting the good fight -- our long-term efforts on two pay equity bills are paying off and the legislation has passed the House and is making its way through the Senate. And we've been answering the Right's attacks against Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder, whose Senate confirmation hearing I attended yesterday. Let me say that it was VERY gratifying to hear Holder clearly state that he believes waterboarding is torture, that renditions to countries where there reason to believe they will torture is wrong and that he is committed to restoring the DOJ's Civil Rights Division to a position of prominence and effectiveness). After this week's release of the Inspector General's report on politicization in the Justice Department, it's even more apparent that confirming Holder will be a great beginning to undoing that damage.

On the legal front, the Supreme Court handed People For the American Way Foundation (and the First Amendment) a victory by upholding the policy of the Fredericksburg, Virginia, City Council requiring that the official prayers recited at the beginning of its meetings be non-sectarian. Accepting one of the most important cases of the term, it also chose to hear an appeal of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey, in which People For the American Way is defending the constitutionality of an important provision of the Voting Rights Act.

We couldn't do any of our important work without your steadfast support. And with your continued support, People For the American Way will continue to carry the progressive flag and advocate your values on Capitol Hill.

Right now is a time to celebrate. Have an amazing Inaugural weekend, MLK Day and Inauguration Day. Congratulations to Barack Obama and congratulations, America!

PFAW

Breaking News: Two Pay Equity Bills Pass the House

 

Workers seeking to bring pay discrimination lawsuits against corporations scored a huge victory today as the House of Representatives passed two key pay equity bills: the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Paycheck Fairness Act. 
 
Lilly Ledbetter received an anonymous tip late in her career with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. that she had been consistently paid much less than her male coworkers.  Ledbetter sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects workers against pay discrimination, a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against her 5-4 in Ledbetter v. Goodyear. The Court's ruling, written by right-wing Justice Samuel Alito, said that Lilly should have filed a complaint within 180 days of the time her supervisors gave her discriminatory evaluations that resulted in her being paid less than her male coworkers.  Today’s vote in the House puts works like Lilly Ledbetter one step closer to justice.  Now on to the Senate!
 
Read more on Lilly Ledbetter at People For’s CorrectTheCourt.org

 

PFAW

Beyond the Sigh of Relief...

Earlier this week, People For the American Way Foundation hosted -- and I moderated -- a panel at the National Press Club to discuss what the election of Barack Obama means for the future of the Supreme Court and what kind of justices we should be fighting for. The event's title, "Beyond the Sigh of Relief," says a lot in itself, and it's fantastic that our conversation could focus on the prospects for a return to justice on the High Court rather than strategizing about how to forestall complete disaster.

I hope to have video of the full discussion to share with you in a week or two. The next day, Maryland State Senator and Constitutional Law Professor Jamin Raskin (who was on the panel) and I were on Pacifica Radio in a very substantive joint interview on the same topic. You can listen to that segment here.

Sen. Raskin is also the director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project and shares my passion for civic education -- I've known and worked with him for years, going back to my time at Justice Talking. The other phenomenal panelists were: Julius Chambers, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and founder of Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter PA; John Payton, President, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and one of the finest Court journalists out there, Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor of Slate.

Any conversation about the future of the Court needs to start with acknowledging the voter mandate Obama received on Election Day to appoint judges with a strong commitment to constitutional rights and values. Redefining the conventional wisdom that the Supreme Court is an issue that only the Right Wing cares about, this time it was Obama voters who said that the Court was extremely important to them.

Here were a few quick highlights from the rest of the event:

  • Julius Chambers made some great points about the Court's role in protecting the poor. It's not just disputes over civil rights for minorities, workers rights and environmental protections on which the Court must sometimes weigh in when the government or companies violate constitutional rights. The poor deserve to be protected by the Constitution like we all do, and too often, they certainly do not receive equal justice under the law.

  • There was much discussion about promoting racial and gender diversity on the Court and there was a consensus among us that race, religion, gender and even sexual orientation could be important considerations because they can bring different perspectives to the Court. John Payton in particular stressed just how vital this diversity of perspectives is in having a Court that functions for the best benefit of the people and the law. We also speculated on the pedigrees and career tracks of recent and not so recent nominees -- why should they all come from the corporate world or the major law firms? There are tremendous lawyers working to advance justice at places like nonprofit organizations and unions.

  • Dahlia Lithwick stressed that we need to make sure people know that the judicial philosophies we believe in are based on rigorous interpretation and a sincere love of the Constitution. The public debate over judicial philosophies has too often bought into the Right's claims that so-called "strict constructionism" is the only rigorous approach to the Constitution. But the ideals embodied in both the main articles of the Constitution and the amendments are what John Payton referred to as "aspirational" -- and it's that aspirational view of the law and justice that we subscribe to and that we think President-elect Obama does as well. It's an understanding that the Constitution is a guardian of rights and opportunity for all Americans, including those without much power in our society.

The stimulating conversation left me feeling optimistic about advancing the constitutional principles that have been under attack from right-wing organizations and the Bush administration. After eight years of seeing right-wing ideologues nominated to the federal bench, there is immense opportunity to restore constitutional values. The only thing standing in our way is the Right and the senators who are already gearing up to fight good nominees -- senators like John Kyl (R-AZ), who promised a filibuster of any Court nominee he deemed too liberal... only three days after the election.

People For the American Way will be ready for Sen. Kyl, other right-wing senators and the Right's media echo chamber. Together, we'll make sure President Obama fulfills his mandate to give Americans the Supreme Court justices they deserve.

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Kathryn Kolbert Discusses Obama and the Supreme Court on Pacifica Radio

People For President Kathryn Kolbert joined American University law professor Jamin Raskin on Tuesday to discuss Barack Obama and the Supreme Court on Pacifica's What's at Stake. Among other things, Kolbert and Raskin discussed what progressives should look for in an Obama nominee to the Court.

Click below to listen to the interview:

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Supreme Court Says No to Obama Citizenship Challenge

The Supreme Court just rejected an appeal in a case challenging the validity of President-elect Obama's birth certificate, his citizenship and, in effect, his constitutional eligibility to assume the office of President. The fact that it took more than one split second to reject this preposterous, paranoid, conspiracy theory-based case is a little disturbing. A similar case had been thrown out this fall, but that did not stop Justice Clarence Thomas from circulating the appeal papers to his colleagues for consideration.

Read more here:

http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/08/supreme-court-rejects-appeal-over-obamas-citizenship/?hp

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Bush Against the Constitution. Again.

When Bill Clinton left the White House, the right wing message machine started pushing they myth that his staff had trashed the place on the way out.

President Bush seems to be doing something similar, but instead of pulling the W’s (or O’s?) off the keyboards, he’s trashing the Constitution.

Among the many midnight regulations that Bush has put in place, is this one which denies thousands of federal employees collective bargaining rights.  These kinds of regulations are usually lumped in the anti-worker category, but the Supreme Court has made clear that the right to free association is implicit in the First Amendment.  And what's a union if not a peaceable assembly of workers exercising their right to free speech?  In the case of federal employees, they're even assembling to petition the government.  A triple whammy!

So, yes, you should be angry that Bush took a shot at the labor movement on the way out the door, but he also found one more opportunity to thumb his nose at the Bill of Rights.

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New Senate Can Deliver Some Quick Victories

A Washington Post article today points out that even not counting the two yet-undecided Senate contests in MN and GA, the Democrats could have the filibuster-proof 60 votes to move several key pieces of legislation by picking up a few Republicans. The article highlights several possible bills - two of which are civil rights bills of particular interest to People For the American Way.

First up: DC Voting Rights. The right of voters to be fully represented in Congress is paramount to the health of our democracy. Shamefully, the institutional disenfranchisement of Americans is probably most egregious in our nation’s capital, where 600,000 taxpayers have a congressional representative with no voting power.

Voting rights in Congress for the District of Columbia is another example. Legislation to expand the House of Representatives from 435 to 437 seats by giving the District and Utah an additional vote each were three votes shy of the 60 needed to end a filibuster in September 2007. Eight Republicans voted with the Democratic majority, which is 51 to 49 and includes two independents.

In addition, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - for which People For the American Way was far out front in leading the fight - could have the support it needs to correct a terrible Supreme Court decision (a decision supported by both of President Bush's right-wing Supreme Court nominees, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito).

In April, 50 Democrats and six Republicans supported legislation that would have amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act by allowing more time for workers to file discrimination complaints. Five new Democrats will be replacing Republicans who opposed the legislation named after Lilly Ledbetter, the female employee who lost her suit against Goodyear Tire and Rubber over discrimination claims. The Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter should have filed her claim within six months of the alleged incidents.

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Vibrations at the Supreme Court

The nature of jurisprudence is that big issues can be settled over small fights. Hence, at the Supreme Court today, the tiny Summum Church was arguing about whether religious monuments in public parks constitute private or government speech.

Adam Liptak at The New York Times covered the case earlier this week, and Nina Totenberg had a story on NPR this morning.

Although not at question in the case, one of the most interesting aspects is the Summum religion itself.

Su Menu, the church’s president, agreed. “If you look at them side by side,” Ms. Menu said of the two monuments, “they really are saying similar things.”

The Third Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

The Third Aphorism: “Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates.”

Now that’s religious diversity.

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Change Doesn't Just Happen

With just over a week to go until the election, things are popping at People For. I want to let you know how we're using your support to make an impact on many fronts.

The Voters Alliance: Building Progressive Power

People For the American Way's federal political action committee is helping build a progressive majority in Congress. We were thrilled that an extremely successful online contest run by the Voters Alliance raised more than $130,000 for 24 progressive House candidates. And now the Voters Alliance is working with Oscar-winning director Errol Morris and volunteers from the award-winning advertising firm Chiat Day (of Apple fame) to create short but powerful online profiles of moderate voters who have decided that Obama has earned their vote. The spots are being digitally filmed and edited this week in time for a final pre-election push. I'll let you know when they're ready to watch online and forward to your friends.

Sounding the Alarm: The Court is at Stake

People For the American Way has succeeded in getting media and progressive candidates talking about the importance of the Supreme Court in this election. Now we're kicking it up a notch, with TV spots for Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Oregon, reminding voters that senators have hurt their interests by backing Bush's extreme judges. People For the American Way Action Fund has been running radio ads holding John McCain and other senators accountable for voting to confirm Bush's worst judicial nominees.

Confronting Homophobia and Anti-Gay Discrimination

In California, where the Right has stirred a vicious backlash against a state Supreme Court ruling protecting marriage equality, People For the American Way Foundation's African American Ministers Leadership Council has launched a radio ad campaign calling on African Americans to reject anti-gay discrimination. Check out the ads here. This work is part of a long-term effort to engage clergy and challenge homophobia in the Black Church and in African American communities. Rev. Kenneth Samuel, the courageous and inspiring head of AAMLC's Equal Justice Task Force, is on the ground in California now, and he'll be leading this groundbreaking effort to create social change in the months and years ahead.

Calling out the Promoters of Fear and Hatred

We're also challenging campaign tactics that are stirring up a dangerous brew of fear and bigotry. For example, when John McCain falsely accused a progressive voter registration group of trying to steal the election, its offices were barraged with hateful and threatening messages. We made it impossible to ignore this hostility and bigotry by posting images and audio of the actual messages online for the world to see. And with a full-page ad in the New York Times and other media outreach we have worked hard to help people understand that bogus charges of voter fraud are meant to give cover to the real threat to the election from right-wing voter suppression. Our Right Wing Watch blog has been all over the Religious Right's bigotry and fearmongering.

Overcoming Voter Suppression

People For the American Way Foundation's Democracy Campaign staff have been traveling the country training community organizers who are running election protection efforts and distributing in-depth, state-specific voter protection toolkits. With the help of SEIU, NAACP, NEA, Unity 08, Democracia Ahora and other partners, our Foundation has distributed more than 180,000 palm cards in key states to help voters understand and protect their rights. The Foundation is working with allies to recruit poll workers where they're sorely needed and will be distributing inexpensive video cameras to members who will document what happens on Election Day. There's no way to stop all the dirty tricks that the Right has in store, but People For Foundation has been working hard to put protections in place, and after the election it will work hard to figure out what went wrong this time, and fight for legal and regulatory fixes. Two New York Times editorials in the past week have confirmed that voter fraud is a myth and affirmed the importance of the Election Protection work the Foundation is doing to help voters understand and assert their rights.

Change is in the air, but as you know, it doesn't just happen. We all need to make it happen. With your help, we and our allies are going to change the country! Thanks so much for making it all possible.

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The Choice Is Clear

If you haven't already gotten a chance, be sure to read Joan Biskupic's article on the Supreme Court in today's USA Today, a good primer on the choice that voters face on Election Day.

The appointment of life-tenured judges can be an administration's most consequential legacy, as Obama and McCain observed in last week's debate. Five of the nine Supreme Court justices are age 70 or older, so a new president might have to make multiple appointments.

Because the court is tightly split over issues such as abortion rights, race-based policies and the handling of Guantanamo Bay detainees, even a change of one justice could alter the law across the nation for decades to come.

The article does contain one line of very generous understatement.

[Palin] has invoked God on public occasions and suggested she does not believe in a high wall to separate church and state.

I think that's a pretty safe inference.

The website also offers a fun little SCOTUS quiz.  (I don't mean to brag, but I aced it.)

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Obama Endorsements and the Court

As the Editor & Publisher reported yesterday, Barack Obama is winning the race for newspaper endorsements in a landslide, 112-39.  Especially notable is the fact that at least 25 papers that supported Bush in 2004 have endorsed Obama this time around.

The Supreme Court consistently appears as one of the foremost concerns.

The Kansas City Star, a key swing state paper, touts a prospective Obama administration as a “safeguard for liberties”:

Obama wants judges who won’t favor the strong at the expense of the weak. He offers hope for a Supreme Court that would reject excessive executive power and protect precious freedoms.

The Santa Fe New Mexican writes:

At least as important is that we can also trust him to restore the credibility of our judiciary as vacancies occur at district and appellate levels, as well as at the Supreme Court. Civil liberties in particular, and justice in general, have suffered enormously in recent years.

Obama endorsers understand that the Supreme Court is on the ballot November 4th, and they understand the importance of repairing the damage done to the federal court system by the Bush administration.  Obama, if elected, will have a mandate to do just that.

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