Supreme Court

Rededicating Ourselves to Human Dignity

I'm writing to you today from San Francisco, where it's been an energizing, thought-provoking week. Last night, Ambassador James Hormel, a member of People For's board, hosted an event at his home to help me get acquainted with some friends and People For supporters. Jim's commitment to public service has benefited San Francisco and the country in many ways, and he is an incredible asset to People For. Joining me was Rev. Kenneth Samuel, who is helping lead People For the American Way Foundation's efforts in California this year to create constructive conversation in black churches around discrimination and marriage equality.
PFAW

Fourth Circuit Victory For Religious Liberty

If you read my post back in March after the oral argument before the Fourth Circuit in Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, Virginia, you know that it was quite an honor to have had retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the three-judge panel. And now Justice O’Connor has written the court’s opinion in the case, a July 23 unanimous decision in favor of our client, the Fredericksburg City Council.

PFAW

The Muppets Take Philadelphia

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

The Power of Culture

What do seven dirty words, Big Bird and Archie Bunker have in common? George Carlin, the envelope-pushing, line-crossing comedian was probably most famous for "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." That routine provoked countless conversations about censorship and the First Amendment, both before and after the Supreme Court upheld a Federal Communications Commission order against his "indecency." I didn't remember until reading his obituary that he had actually been arrested several times for delivering "Seven Words" in a show.
PFAW

Five Years Later: Decriminalizing Gay People

Many people probably don’t recall much, if anything, about June 26, 2003, but I recall a great deal. That’s because it’s the day on which the Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings in the area of individual rights and human dignity. In Lawrence v. Texas, a sharply divided Court struck down a Texas state law that prohibited consensual, private sex between adults of the same gender, a law that essentially made criminals out of gay men and lesbians. Five justices held that the law was an improper intrusion on the right to liberty guaranteed to everyone by the Constitution, effectively invalidating all state laws that invade the home to prohibit so-called sodomy.

PFAW

Five Years After Lawrence: Decriminalizing Gay People

Many people probably don’t recall much, if anything, about June 26, 2003, but I recall a great deal. That’s because it’s the day on which the Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings in the area of individual rights and human dignity. In Lawrence v. Texas, a sharply divided Court struck down a Texas state law that prohibited consensual, private sex between adults of the same gender, a law that essentially made criminals out of gay men and lesbians. Five justices held that the law was an improper intrusion on the right to liberty guaranteed to everyone by the Constitution, effectively invalidating all state laws that invade the home to prohibit so-called sodomy.

Five years later, I can still recall vividly the absolute joy and elation that I felt learning that these pernicious laws were no more. The Court’s ruling meant not only that these laws could no longer be used to intrude into a realm of personal conduct in which government has no place, but also that they could no longer be cited to deny gay people jobs or participation in any other aspect of human endeavor on the ground of criminality.

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was a ringing endorsement of constitutional liberty. According to Justice Kennedy:

Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.

As news of the Court’s decision unfolded, it was equally wonderful to learn that the five-justice majority had also overturned the Court’s 1986 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the Court, by a vote of 5-4, had upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law under which Michael Hardwick had been arrested for having had sex in his own home with another man. Bowers was a strikingly anti-gay decision in substance and language and, like Plessy v. Ferguson, a low point in Supreme Court history and an instance of the Court’s abject failure to protect the constitutional rights of minorities. Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court in Lawrence, soundly declared that Bowers "was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent."

One of my law school classmates was Michael Hardwick’s original attorney. I accompanied her to the Supreme Court that day in March 1986 when Bowers was argued, and I commiserated with her when that terrible ruling came down several months later. She was the first person I called after learning that Bowers had been overturned, and we shared a long-delayed moment of joy.

And so June 26, 2003 is a day that I remember quite well. But as significant as the Lawrence ruling was, I am mindful that four justices did not join Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was part of the majority in Bowers (truly a low point in her judicial career as well), declined to join the majority in overruling that decision. She agreed, however, that the Texas "sodomy" law was unconstitutional, but only because it treated same-sex and opposite-sex couples differently.

Three justices dissented outright from the ruling in Lawrence: then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Scalia and Thomas are still on the bench today. The late Chief Justice Rehnquist has been replaced by the equally ultraconservative John Roberts, while Justice O’Connor has been replaced by the extreme right-wing Samuel Alito.

Counting the numbers, then, it’s very clear that the constitutional protection of the essential human dignity of gay men and lesbians is hanging by a slender thread on the Supreme Court. John McCain has praised Justice Scalia and has also promised to put more justices like Roberts and Alito on the Court, which should be a consideration for any voter who cares about gay rights and the future of the Supreme Court.

Cross-posted on The Huffington Post

PFAW

97-Year-Old Arizona Woman Disenfranchised by Voter ID Law

Shirley Preiss was born in Kentucky in 1910 — a full 10 years before American women gained the right to vote. She first voted in a presidential election in 1932, for FDR. She’s voted in every presidential election since, but that’s all about to change due to Arizona’s draconian voter ID law.

As Art Levine reported, Shirley effectively lost her right to vote when she moved to Arizona:

After living in Arizona for two years, she was eagerly looking forward to casting her ballot in the February primary for the first major woman candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. But lacking a birth certificate or even elementary school records to prove she’s a native-born American citizen, the state of Arizona’s bureaucrats determined that this former school-teacher who taught generations of Americans shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

The state’s voter ID law, passed in 2004, requires voters to show ID at the polling place and to provide proof of citizenship in order to register. But birth certificates weren’t issued in 1910 in Shirley’s birthplace of Clinton, KY, and her elementary school no longer exists.

Shirley appeared on the local news Monday night in Phoenix to tell her story:

 

 

She’s far from the only victim of this law. The Arizona Advocacy Network reports that nearly 40,000 voter registration forms have been rejected due to inadequate proof of citizenship. And it’s getting to be a national problem.

The Supreme Court gave Indiana the green light last month on its restrictive voter ID law, and other states have already or are in the process of passing similar laws. Everywhere such laws are enacted, the voting rights of thousands of Americans - especially among the poor, elderly, and minorities - are put at risk. Fortunately many other states have fended off voter ID laws, and I’m proud that People For the American Way’s Democracy Campaign played a role in many of those fights. Nothing short of a concerted effort by the progressive movement over the coming years will succeed in safeguarding the right to vote.

Cross-posted on CrooksAndLiars.com

PFAW

Supreme Court Narrows Protections for Public Employees

In a 6-3 ruling on June 9, the Supreme Court made it harder for public employees who are victims of arbitrary or malicious firings to obtain justice. In doing so, the Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, rejected an approach followed by nine federal appellate courts that had allowed a public employee who is arbitrarily treated differently from other similarly situated employees to bring an equal protection claim under the 14th Amendment, even if that employee had not been discriminated against because of membership in a particular class (e.g., African Americans or women).

PFAW

Ledbetter v. Goodyear and Fair Pay, One Year Later

As a Senator, John McCain has helped George W. Bush pack the federal courts with right wing judges, judges who serve for life and who will extend the legacy of President Bush for decades to come. In fact, it seems that Senator McCain has never met a bad Bush judicial nominee he didn’t like, including John Roberts and Samuel Alito. With McCain’s help, Roberts is now the Chief Justice of the United States, and Alito is right by his side on the Supreme Court.

And with McCain continuing to heap praise on Roberts and Alito, it’s only fitting, as we approach the first anniversary of one of the most harmful rulings in which Roberts and Alito have participated, to take a look at the damage done in that one decision alone.

PFAW

Brown v. Board of Education: a 54th Anniversary Reminder of the Importance of the Supreme Court

As George Orwell might put it, all Supreme Court decisions are important, but some are more important than others. And in the history of our country, there can be little doubt that one of the Court’s most important decisions was its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, decided 54 years ago this May 17th. Overturning the shameful “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and striking down school segregation laws, the ruling in Brown gave substance to the Constitution’s promise of equality for all. Without question, May 17, 1954 saw the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, at its very best.

PFAW

Reflections on Mildred Jeter Loving, an American Hero, and the Importance of the Supreme Court

A very heroic woman died yesterday. She probably never wanted to be a hero. She did want to be a wife, though. But back in Virginia in the late 1950s, when Mildred Jeter, a black woman, fell in love with Richard Loving, a white man, and they decided to marry, that was indeed a heroic act. Not only because of society's prejudices, but also because it was a crime — a felony punishable by one to five years in prison.

PFAW

The Supreme Court Makes It Harder To Vote

The state of Indiana has the most restrictive voter I.D. law in the country. Show up at the polls without a currently valid, government-issued photo I.D., and you can’t vote. I realize that to many Americans, that doesn’t sound like much of a burden. And for many Americans, it isn’t.

But it is a very substantial burden for many groups of eligible voters, including the elderly who don’t drive, college students, and the poor who don’t own cars. There’s a great deal of overlap between those who are unduly burdened by this law and Democratic voting constituencies. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that support for Indiana’s restrictive law came from Republicans in the state legislature.

PFAW

The Supreme Court: What a Difference an Election Makes

April 18, 2007 is the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling upholding a federal ban on certain abortion procedures even though the law did not include an exception to protect a woman’s health. And that ruling, which significantly chips away at women's reproductive freedom, upheld the federal ban even though the Court had struck down a virtually identical state law several years ago.

PFAW

Court Allows FedEx Age Discrimination Case to Go Forward

In a 7-2 decision today, the Supreme Court held that current and former employees of FedEx who had sued the company claiming age discrimination could proceed with their lawsuit. At issue before the Court was whether one of the employees had filed a "charge" of discrimination with the EEOC — a prerequisite to being able to file suit under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act — when the form that she had submitted to the EEOC was not a "charge" form but rather an "intake questionnaire."

PFAW

Reflections on Fourth Circuit Oral Argument in Church-State Case

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit does not inform those who argue before it of the identities of the judges on the three-judge panels who will be hearing specific cases until the very morning of the oral argument. And so it was a great surprise — and an even greater honor — to learn yesterday when we walked into the courthouse in Richmond that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would be a member of the panel hearing Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The other panel members were Fourth Circuit Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Dennis Shedd.

PFAW

Religious Right Using Lawsuit in Attempt to Undermine Church-State Separation

In 2006, the Rev. Hashmel Turner, a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, took the bizarre step of suing his own City Council. Councilor Turner’s complaint? As an elected government official, he wants the special right to begin City Council meetings by offering a City Council prayer in the name of Jesus — a sectarian, non-inclusive prayer that excludes many Fredericksburg citizens. The City Council, however, following the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent, wisely adopted an inclusive policy requiring that any prayers offered to begin its meetings be nondenominational.

PFAW

Marriage Back in Court — Another Chance for California to Make History

Sixty years ago, the California Supreme Court courageously became the first in the country to strike down a law that prohibited interracial marriage — a full twenty years before the United States Supreme Court effectively wiped such laws off the books nationwide. Tomorrow, the California Supreme Court will once again confront marriage discrimination as it hears oral arguments in the consolidated lawsuits challenging the state's refusal to allow same-sex couples to marry. Although the California legislature passed a bill that would have ended this discrimination , it was vetoed by the Governator, and it is now once again up to the state Supreme Court to ensure that, in California at least, equality under the law is a reality for all.

PFAW

Supreme Court Rules on Sprint Age Discrimination Case

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion today by Justice Thomas in Sprint v. Mendelsohn, an employment discrimination case in which PFAWF had joined eleven other civil rights groups in filing an amicus curiae brief in support of the plaintiff-employee, as earlier discussed on Court Watch here.

PFAW

The State of the Judiciary and the Bush Legacy

Individual Rights, Access to Justice Threatened
President Bush's final State of the Union address will in part be an effort to shape the public view of his presidency. But here's something he won't say: a long-lasting part of his legacy will be the weakening of Americans' rights and legal protections due to the dangerous state of the federal judiciary created by judges he has placed on the federal bench.

PFAW

Roe v. Wade at 35: Up For Grabs in the Next Election

January 22, 2008 is the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision recognizing that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy includes the right to choose to end a pregnancy. Without question, Roe is one of the leading examples, and certainly one of the most famous, of the Court’s vital role in protecting Americans’ individual rights and freedoms.

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