Supreme Court

Victory for the Rule of Law

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

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

More Good News from Iowa

While national Religious Right leaders have reacted with predictably apocalyptic venom to the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruling upholding marriage equality, there's more good news from the state's political leaders. According to the national Stonewall Democrats, the Iowa Democratic Party has long been on record supporting marriage equality, with a position clearly and unequivocally written in the state party platform.

And while state Religious Right leaders are demanding that the legislature begin the process of amending the state constitution, legislative leaders instead praised the Supreme Court's decision. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy issued a strong statement. Here's an excerpt:

Thanks to today's decision, Iowa continues to be a leader in guaranteeing all of our citizens' equal rights.

The court has ruled today that when two Iowans promise to share their lives together, state law will respect that commitment, regardless of whether the couple is gay or straight.

When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today's events will be why it took us so long. It is a tough question to answer because treating everyone fairly is really a matter of Iowa common sense and Iowa common decency.

Marriage equality is a done deal in the state for now. Even if legislative leaders were eager to amend the state constitution, it's a long and complicated process that requires action by both houses in two consecutive general assemblies to put an amendment before the voters. According to the Des Moines Register, Iowa Family Policy Center President Chuck Hurley "acknowledged that until a constitutional amendment could be placed on the ballot, there's nothing gay-marriage opponents can do to stop gay couples from marrying in Iowa. The soonest such a vote could take place would be 2012."

Congratulations and thanks, Iowa. Next up: Vermont, where marriage equality has passed both houses with large majorities in spite of a veto threat from the governor. The vote to override is expected to be a close one.

PFAW

Iowa Marriage Decision Recognizes Religious-Civil Distinction

People For the American Way Foundation's recent Right Wing Watch In Focus report documented the deceptive ways that Religious Right leaders blur the distinction between civil and religious marriage in order to convince Americans that marriage equality is a threat to religious liberty. Today's thrilling unanimous Iowa Supreme Court decision that it is unconstitutional to deny marriage to same-sex couples in the state included a powerful and respectful section on the same topic. Here's how it concludes:

In the final analysis, we give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage—religious or otherwise—by giving respect to our constitutional principles. These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage. Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle of law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views. A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution.

The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.

PFAW

If You Care About the Environment . . .

You should also care about the Supreme Court.

In a setback for environmentalists, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that federal regulators may consider costs when deciding whether to order the operators of power plants to install protections for fish.

By 6 to 3, the court overturned a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan, which had ruled that the Clean Water Act barred the Environmental Protection Agency from engaging in the kind of cost-benefit analysis that it had proposed.

The recent narrow-but-good decision in Massachusetts v. EPA shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking that the Supreme Court is a particularly green institution at the moment, and today’s 6-3 decision (Justice Breyer wrote a concurrence) should be a reminder that the “liberal” wing of the Court is far from uniform. There’s a big difference between a good Justice and a great one, especially when it comes to environmental issues.
 

PFAW

More Nonsense from the Right on Hamilton

Late last week several leaders of the Right, including Tony Perkins, Edwin Meese, and Alfred Regnery issued a statement opposing the nomination of David Hamilton (currently the Chief Judge of the Southern District of Indiana) to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Among other things the statement recycles the screed working its way through the right wing blogoshpere that treats Hamilton's one-month job as a canvasser for ACORN thirty years ago when he was twenty two as if it constitutes a major portion of his career.  And it repeats the gross mischaracterization of a decision by Hamilton that police shouldn’t be allowed to violate “the privacy and sanctity of family relations” by directing a school social worker to interrogate a nine-year old student to get evidence against her mother.

And, now, for the first time as far as I’m aware, the statement levels charges that Hamilton ruled that prayers to Jesus Christ offered at the beginning of state legislative sessions were impermissible, but that prayers to Allah were not.

Of course, that’s not an accurate reading of Hamilton’s opinion. Rather, he concluded, as the Supreme Court has said, that “any official prayers [must] be inclusive and non-sectarian and not advance one particular religion.” And he found, based on an in-depth analysis of the record, that the official prayers being offered in the Indiana House in fact “repeatedly and consistently” advanced the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, and as such, were impermissible. He also said that Muslim prayers that similarly advanced the Muslim faith were also impermissible, but that the one and only instance of a prayer being offered by a Muslim imam “was inclusive and was not identifiable as distinctly Muslim from its content.”

A debate on the merits of judicial nominees is perfectly appropriate. But let’s at least get the facts straight.

PFAW

Justice O’Connor Speaks Out. Kinda.

The New York Times has a short interview of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and it’s interesting to see all the topics she doesn’t want to talk about.

Whom did you vote for in the presidential election?

Come on, is this about my Web site?

She dodges a question about Harriet Miers and declines to call herself a feminist, but one thing O’Connor doesn’t hold back on is her desire to see another woman appointed to the Court.

It was better for me when I was joined at the court by a second woman. When I was there alone, there was too much media focus on the one woman, and the minute we got another woman, that changed.

Makes sense.

Diversity on the Court—in all its many forms—was a big topic at our recent Beyond the Sigh of Relief panel. Take a look if you haven’t already.

PFAW

Obama's First Judicial Nomination: A Good Start

News reports state that David Hamilton, a federal district court judge in Indiana, will be President Obama’s first judicial nominee. He will apparently be nominated to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

I am just learning about Judge Hamilton. In 2005, according to the New York Times, "he made news by ruling that the legislature was prohibited from beginning its sessions with overtly Christian prayers. The decision drew widespread criticism in the legislature and across the state."

I can only imagine.

The overwhelming majority of Indianans are Christian. I’d venture to guess that very few of them have ever lived in a society where theirs was a minority religion, and where the government officially promoted a religion that condemned theirs. The experience of their lives is one where they are comfortably in the majority.

As a Jew who grew up in conservative Texas, my experience is different. I know how it felt in elementary school when public school teachers imposed their Christianity upon the classroom. Officially-sanctioned Christianity regularly made it clear that I was an outsider in my own society: I did not belong.

That is but one of the many excellent reasons that the Founders wisely adopted the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of religion by government. But it’s the one that first occurred to me as I read about the Indiana legislative prayer case.

It is important that judges as a group reflect the diversity of America, so the bench is filled with jurists with a wide variety of life experiences, ranging from the top to the bottom of the social ladder. But that does not excuse the individual judge from being able to step outside their own life experience and recognize that what is not a problem for them can be a severe problem for someone whose life has been different. That is an essential quality for a judge. It’s what made the Brown v. Board of Education decision so different from Plessey v. Ferguson, even though both cases were decided by all-white Courts. Similarly, it’s what made 1976’s Craig v. Boren (establishing a higher level of scrutiny for legal sex-based classifications) so different from 1872’s Bradwell v. Illinois (upholding the state’s prohibition against women attorneys), even though both cases were decided by an all-male Court.

Perhaps Judge Hamilton’s ability to step outside his own experiences helped him decide the legislative prayer case. Either way, he clearly was willing to enforce the First Amendment and clear Supreme Court precedent in a case where he knew that he would be condemned by many people in his state. He put the law over ideology. That’s another quality needed in a judge.

This is an encouraging first judicial nomination from President Obama.

PFAW

Do elephants really never forget?

From today's Politico:

McConnell said that Coleman’s team seems to have been laying the groundwork for a federal appeals challenge by citing the 2000 Supreme Court case in Bush v. Gore, which ended the Florida recount. McConnell argued that the equal protection clause of the Constitution ensures that each county should use similar standards in counting its ballots, which the Coleman campaign asserts was not done in Minnesota.

"We all remember Bush v. Gore," McConnell said.

I am not sure Senator McConnell remembers.

It's interesting that McConnell is willing to let an election -- which has already had a recount -- hang in the air for two months. After all, less than a month after the 2000 election, McConnell was already demanding that Al Gore concede to George W. Bush. McConnell's comments to the Lexington Herald-Leader on Nov. 27, 2000:

We've had a count, we've had a recount, we've had a recount of the recount. It's been three weeks since the election and it's time for Gore to be a statesman and give it up.

But do not worry, others have not forgotten, Senator McConnell.

PFAW

Supreme Court Chips Away at Voting Rights Protections

Twenty four hours after thousands celebrated “Bloody Sunday” earlier this week – a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery where civil rights marchers including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) were attacked and brutally beaten by Alabama state and local police, but ultimately led to the historic passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the Supreme Court undermined some of the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act.

I was troubled, in particular by this reference in a NY Times article about Richard Pildes, an expert whose views the Justices relied on in Mondays’ decision, who, according to the Times, “said that current events, including the fact that both major political parties are led by African-Americans, had complicated the legal landscape, creating ‘tremendous pressure on a statute that was primarily structured for an earlier era in which blacks were completely excluded from office.’ “

There’s no disputing the fact that much progress has been made, but even today, we’re a far cry from the post-racial world that MLK described in his famous I Have a Dream speech. To it's credit, even the Supreme Court recognized that racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. This issue is not simply about having an African American President or leader in the Republican Party. This is a larger issue of opportunity for all citizens and one federal election has not summarily changed the reality existing in this country still. There’s no African American representing an overwhelmingly white district in the House, and no African American governors representing a Southern state (there’s only been one in history – Douglas Wilder of Virginia).

I recognize that there’s been much progress, but there’s more work to be done and vital protections such as those in the VRA are still necessary.
 

PFAW

Supreme Court Dismisses Al-Marri Case

Today, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal by Ali al-Marri, who has been in federal custody in South Carolina since January 2002 when Bush designated him as an enemy combatant, claiming that he was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent. The order was in response to the Obama administration’s important move last week in filing criminal charges against al-Marri after 9 long years of detention without review by Bush, a move which transformed al-Marri’s detention to a criminal matter that will be heard in the normal course through the federal courts. He’ll now have the right to a speedy trial, be able to confront his accusers, the right to the effective assistance of counsel – the whole shebang.

The Obama administration’s decision to take this bold step shouldn’t go unnoticed to those of us who have been staring in paralytic shock over the last 8 years during which the Bush administration did whatever it wanted to foreign nationals and citizens alike in its “war against terror”. Bush even deemed as unpatriotic the notion that a federal court could ever review what the president does or why during a time of war – however, unconventional that war may be – thereby delivering a one-two punch to the constitutional principles of freedom of speech and separation of powers. Both of these, by the way, were swiftly decimated by Bush lawyers as revealed in the recently disclosed OLC memos.

In this case, the new administration correctly did what some have been saying all along – if there is evidence of wrongdoing, charge the individual with a crime and allow him to be tried in a civilian criminal court. The government has the tools to prosecute suspected terrorists and has done so in the past. It is clear that our courts can address the real concerns of national security, even during times of war, without reversing decades of due process jurisprudence. 

PFAW

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.

PFAW

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