Voting Rights

NH and OH Reject Voter-Disenfranchisement Bills

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch vetoed a proposed voter-ID law that would have required voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot. In rejecting the proposal, Gov. Lynch called out the law for what it was – an expensive, anti-democratic solution for a problem that doesn’t exist:

The right to vote is a fundamental right that is guaranteed to all citizens of this State under the United States and New Hampshire Constitutions. An eligible voter who goes to the polls to vote on Election Day should be able to have his or her vote count on Election Day. SB 129 creates a real risk that New Hampshire voters will be denied their right to vote.

Voter turnout in New Hampshire is among the highest in the nation, election after election. There is no voter fraud problem in New Hampshire. We already have strong elections laws that are effective in regulating our elections.

Just yesterday, the Ohio Senate adjourned without voting on a similar bill, lacking the necessary votes to move it forward. Voter ID laws are being pushed in at least 36 states, according to a report by the Voting Rights Institute, at a potential cost of $828 million – quite a staggering sum for the allegedly budget-conscious Republicans who have proposed all of these bills. These bills highlight a cynical desire to disenfranchise certain groups of people – primarily minorities, students and the elderly – who don’t necessarily tend to vote the “right” way.

PFAW

PFAW Foundation Honors Young, Progressive Elected Officials

Saint Paul City Councilman Melvin Carter and Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson

Last weekend, about 200 young, progressive elected officials gathered in Washington at the sixth annual convening of PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network. The Network, which includes over 600 state and local elected officials from across the country, honored five of its own who have done exceptional work in their communities over the past year.

City Councilman Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minnesota was awarded the YEO Network’s Barbara Jordan Leadership Award. The award, named after PFAW Foundation co-founder Barbara Jordan, honors “a young elected official who has shown dedication and support to the YEO Network and has a distinguished record of public service to their community and the progressive movement at large.”

Carter, who is now the YEO Network’s Minnesota state director, became involved in politics after his brother was turned away from a Florida polling place in the 2000 elections. As an elected official, he has continued to work for voting rights and for equal rights and opportunity in his community. In 2009, Carter founded the Frogtown/Summit-University Community Investment Campus, a partnership between city, county, school, and community leaders to support high quality education outcomes for all children. Another priority of his is transit equity: he’s working to create opportunities for local businesses and affordable housing along a planned light rail line in St. Paul.

PFAW Foundation’s president, Michael Keegan, presented the Presidential Award of Distinction to Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson, one of the state senators who left the state this winter to try to prevent a union-busting law from being passed. Larson has been a strong voice for working people in Wisconsin and around the country.

South Dakota State Senator Angie Buhl was awarded the YEO Network Leadership Award for her deep commitment to the YEO Network and People For the American Way Foundation. Sen. Buhl, who is the youngest member of South Dakota’s legislature, is a graduate of both of PFAW Foundation’s youth leadership programs, Young People For and the Front Line Leaders Academy.

Florida State Representative Dwight Bullard was awarded the YEO Progressive Leadership Award for his commitment to fighting for justice and opportunity in the Florida legislature. Representative Bullard is a fierce advocate for both education and immigration reform.

Massachusetts State Representative Sean Garballey was awarded the YEO Community Service Award for his commitment to servant leadership. In 2009, Rep. Garballey donated his share of a pay increase to state legislators to charity, because he did not believe it was fair for his pay to increase while the staff that works tirelessly to support him was being forced to take furloughs. He has also been active in supporting recovery efforts in Haiti after last year’s devastating earthquake.

PFAW

Republicans Across the Country Work to Disenfranchise Voters

In the buildup to the 2012 election, Republican legislatures across the nation are implementing a tactic many hoped would die with the signing of the Voting Right Act of 1965 -- silencing the voices of those who disagree with them by simply not allowing them to vote. GOP legislators in at least 20 states are working hard to push through restrictive voter-ID laws that all but disenfranchise large, traditionally Democratic segments of the electorate. These laws would require voters to show a government issued photo ID at the polling place, something 11% of US citizens currently lack.

The facts are firmly against such laws. Voters are more likely to be struck by lightening than to commit fraud, and the Bush Justice Department’s five-year “War on Voter Fraud” resulted in only 86 convictions out of nearly 200 million votes cast (a rate of .0000004%). Furthermore, these laws are expensive to implement, wasting millions of dollars in a time when most states are under severe budgetary restraints. So why would Republicans advocate for such an obviously unnecessary law?

Politics, of course.

While 11% of the general population lack government issued photo ID, the number jumps dramatically when looking at traditionally Democratic segments of the population. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice notes that 15% of low-income citizens, 18% of young eligible voters, and 25% of black voters lack identification that would allow them to vote under these new laws. In addition, such ID is more difficult to obtain for these parties, many of whom can’t drive to the DMV to get an ID or lack the supporting documents, such as a birth certificate, necessary to receive an ID.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker just signed a bill that will require voters to show photo identification at the polls. This bill has provoked outrage amongst Wisconsin Democrats, with Stephanie Findley, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party Black Caucus, declaring:

Our proud tradition of open elections and high voter turnout will suffer. And with a stroke of the pen, thousands of African-American citizens will no longer be able to vote, solely because of their lack of identification. We now return to the days before the Voting Rights Act, where literacy tests and poll taxes were the rule.

This is backed up by the numbers. Fewer than half of African Americans in Milwaukee County hold ID that would be accepted at the polls, as compared to 83% of whites.

Florida already had a photo identification law in place, but Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bill that goes even further, making it more difficult for third-party voter registration organizations to operate. Some such organizations, such as the non-partisan League of Women Voters, are pulling out of Florida all together, claiming the law will make it impossible to operate within the state.

In addition to making life difficult for voter-registration organizations, the new law also stops voters from making out-of-county address changes at the polls, making it more difficult for college students to vote, and shortens the early voting window from 14 days to eight. Five counties in Florida governed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act are declining to implement the new law, waiting for Justice Department approval before making any changes.

Early voting in also being targeted by Republican officials in North Carolina, who are studying how it helped Barack Obama win that state in 2008.

PFAW

It's Time to Confirm Goodwin Liu

The Senate is currently debating the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu is a phenomenally well qualified legal scholar who has support across the political spectrum, as well as among a majority of U.S. Senators. However, because Senate Republican leaders are putting politics over all else, they are set on stymieing the majority and filibustering the nomination. A cloture vote to end this stalling tactic may occur as soon as tomorrow morning.

People For the American Way supports the nomination. We sent a letter this morning that says much of what we have been saying in person on the Hill for over a year. Among other things, the letter states:

Perhaps the most powerful testament to Professor Liu's superb qualifications is the extensive support his nomination has garnered from across the ideological spectrum. It is not only progressive and moderate legal thinkers who admire his work: He has received endorsements from conservatives such as Ken Starr, Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan; Richard Painter, the chief ethics counsel for President George W. Bush; and Clint Bolick, Director of the conservative Goldwater Institute.

When a judicial nominee attracts such strong support independent of political ideology, you can be confident that he is exactly the kind of mainstream, talented, and fair jurist we need on the federal bench.

Although Liu has the support of a majority of senators, his opponents are working to block his nomination from receiving an up or down vote. Their claim is that Liu's nomination constitutes one of those rare "extraordinary circumstances" warranting a filibuster, under the benchmark developed by the Gang of 14 during the George W. Bush Administration.

By no measure can this nomination be considered to even approach "extraordinary circumstances." Even a cursory look at President Bush's nominees who were approved using that test – those whose nominations were not considered to constitute "extraordinary circumstances" – makes clear that Liu's nomination must be permitted to go forward.

  • Pricilla Owen's dissenting positions on the Texas Supreme Court were so extreme that even her fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court in different cases described them with phrases like "an unconscionable act of judicial activism," "disregard of the procedural elements the Legislature established," "def[ying] the Legislature's clear and express limits on our jurisdiction," and "inflammatory rhetoric." Her nomination was not considered extraordinary, and the Senate afforded her an up-or-down vote for a seat on the Fifth Circuit, where she is now serving.
  • Thomas Griffith pushed to severely curtail laws ending discrimination against women and girls' participation in school athletic programs, declaring "illegal" a test upheld by all eight of the nation's Circuit Courts of Appeals that had considered the issue. He was also suspended from the DC Bar for failure to pay mandatory Bar dues yet continued to practice law in the District during that time. Published reports and an examination of Utah law indicated that he had been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Utah for the four years prior to his nomination. Nevertheless, the Senate did not consider Griffith's nomination extraordinary, and he received an up-or-down vote confirming him to a seat on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Janice Rogers Brown criticized opposition to the Lochner decision, which began the period when the Supreme Court issued its most pro-corporate rulings—rulings that struck down laws requiring minimum wages, regulating working hours and conditions, and banning improper business practices. In addition, despite several Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, she explicitly suggested that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional. Despite this record, her nomination was not considered an "extraordinary circumstance," and the Senate was allowed to cast an up-or-down vote, confirming her to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • William Pryor called Roe v. Wade "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history" and urged Congress to consider repealing or amending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the significant opposition that these and other extreme positions garnered, his nomination was not filibustered, and he was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Each of these nominees attracted substantial controversy and was opposed by numerous civil rights and civil liberties groups, but not one was found to constitute "extraordinary circumstances."

The claim that Goodwin Liu is out of the mainstream as compared to any of these nominees simply does not bear scrutiny. In fact, a fair reading of his work makes clear that Liu is well within the judicial mainstream.

By any standard articulated by either party, Goodwin Liu's nomination deserves a vote on the Senate floor, and he should be confirmed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tomorrow, we will learn which Republican senators are willing to toss logic, consistency, principles, and the good of the nation's court system out the window in order to score political points against a Democratic president.

PFAW

States’ Rights! Smaller Federal Government! But Not for DC

We should have known what was coming in January when the House GOP, in one of its first acts in the majority, took away the limited floor voting rights of the District of Columbia’s one delegate in Congress. The move was depressingly ironic coming from a party that had swept to power on a movement that claimed to echo the spirit of the American Revolution and its call for “no taxation without representation.” But the irony was lost on most of the GOP, and, it seems, hasn’t been found yet.

Today, the House will vote on whether to spend $100 million of federal tax dollars over five years to impose a school voucher program in the District that doesn’t work and that the local government doesn’t even want. The voucher program, which funnels federal money to religious schools, is a pet project of House Speaker John Boehner, who has shown no qualms about cutting other education programs—including Head Start and Title I grants for low-income school districts.

A similar program was eliminated in 2009 after it was found to be ineffective in increasing student achievement, and DC’s mayor and non-voting congressional delegate both oppose reinstating it.

The voucher bill, expected to pass in the House, is the latest in a string of House GOP efforts to use DC as a pawn in the culture wars. The GOP’s radical anti-choice bill, HR 3, includes a provision that would prevent DC from using its own, locally raised tax dollars to provide abortion services. And now, Rep. Jim Jordan, leader of the 176-member Republican Study Group, is pushing for a bill that would overturn the District’s law allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.

And this is on top of efforts to overturn DC’s local decisions on gun control and its needle exchange program.

Just to be clear, an elected body in which DC residents have no voting representation has decided to spend its time imposing programs the city doesn’t want, overturning its laws, and deciding how it can spend its own local tax dollars. Somebody call the Tea Party – I bet they’ll be furious.

PFAW

DC Voting Rights: First Test for Newly Elected Tea Partiers

Many of the new members of Congress campaigned under the Tea Party banner, loudly warning their future constituents about the grave dangers of tyranny.

As one of the very first acts they will take as members of Congress, they will be asked by party leaders to eliminate the already-limited representation that residents of Washington DC have on the floor of the House. These taxpaying American citizens will have to comply with the laws this new Congress passes, yet their right to be represented in that body may be taken away completely.

Some might say this is the very definition of tyranny.

It's unquestionably an anathema to the principles of the American Revolution, which the Tea Party claims to support.

So this will be an educational opportunity for the entire country. Will the Tea Party members of Congress be true to the principles they claim to hold? Or, now that they are comfortably ensconced in power, will they abandon those principles when directed to by their Party leaders?

PFAW

Alabama County Brings the Voting Rights Act to Court

An 87% white county in Alabama is arguing that some of the anti-discrimination protections in the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary…and its case might end up in the Supreme Court.

Shelby County is protesting Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires counties with a history of discriminatory election practices to run new election rules by the Justice Department.

"For Congress to continue to interfere with Shelby County's electoral autonomy in 2010 based on conditions that existed in 1965 is both arbitrary and without constitutional justification," according to one of the county's written arguments in the case.

Shelby County's complaint is that Section 5 of the law -- which says the Justice Department has to make sure election-related changes don't discriminate against minority voters -- is no longer necessary and that complying with the law is a significant legal expense for county taxpayers.

The county, however, does not provide any details about the "taxpayer dollars, time and energy" it has spent over the years asking the federal government to pre-approve things like new district lines or polling place changes. The U.S. Justice Department, the defendant in the lawsuit, argues the claim about expenses is vague and unsupported by evidence.

A number of African American residents of Shelby County disagree that voter discrimination is an outdated problem, and have tried to stop the county’s suit from going forward. They have some concrete examples to back them up. Just in 2008, a redistricting plan for one city in Shelby didn’t pass Justice Department muster because it eliminated the city’s one majority-black council district.

Shelby County’s argument recalls some of the right-wing objections to the 2006 renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland said of the 1965 bill, "It was set up to be temporary, just to get things to where they should be," he said. "And if you look at the results we have here in Georgia, I think you can see that it's worked. Its time has passed."

If only it had.
 

PFAW

Justice delayed is justice denied

I recently reported that an agreement had been reached to move forward on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act. Four days later came word that this was no longer the case. The fight is not over, but DC’s centuries-long wait to have a voting voice in Congress will continue.

The right-wing forced an agreement with which nobody was happy. And in the end it turns out to have not been an agreement at all but a way for the right-wing to delay their inevitable counterpunch. DC can’t keep fighting these intrusions without a meaningful way to say “aye” or “no” when those infamous bells ring calling members to the House floor.

I cannot speak for Dorothy Height on the events of the last week. But I want to honor her for her commitment to DC voting rights. I remember her arrival at a hearing on a previous iteration of the bill. Without saying a word, her entry alone commanded respect.

I’m not sure if this photo was taken that same day, but Life noted one such occasion on which Dr. Height visited the Hill to champion our cause.

PFAW

Senator Sessions Plays the “Judicial Activism” Card

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, Senator Jeff Sessions said that that Goodwin Liu’s writings represent “liberal judicial activism.” And he doesn’t like it!

But what Sessions apparently does like is conservative judicial activism. Overturn more than a century of settled campaign finance law? Limit women’s ability to recover for being discriminated against on their jobs? Hand billions of dollars to Exxon? Rewrite the Voting Rights Act? That’s a-ok! “Liberal judicial activism,” (by which I assume he means opposing those decisions)? Bad.

Senator Sessions’s ability to keep a straight face while delivering such patently farcical attack is impressive. His stale talking points aren’t.
 

PFAW

DC voting rights bill expected to move next week

DC has waited over 200 years to have a voting voice in Congress. Today the nation’s capital may be as close as it’s ever come to making that dream a reality.

On Wednesday afternoon came the breaking news that an agreement had been reached to move forward on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, which would give DC a full Representative with the same voting power as other House members. Just this morning, I joined a room full of concerned citizens and activists for a briefing lead by DC Vote and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. We then took to the halls of Congress in support of the Delegate’s tireless efforts on this issue.

Nobody is happy that this agreement comes at the price of right-wing interference in local affairs. But to go any longer without voting rights is an even higher price to pay. DC can’t keep fighting these intrusions without a meaningful way to say “aye” or “no” when those infamous bells ring calling members to the House floor. As Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights put it:

The civil rights community recognizes that it must be prepared to accept some setbacks in the name of long-term progress. Virtually every major piece of civil rights legislation, from 1957 onwards, has involved difficult and often painful tradeoffs. In this case, given the fundamental importance of gaining a vote in Congress, we are prepared to move forward with the voting rights bill.

People For the American Way believes that the right-wing should stay away from this bill. But we also believe it’s a tragedy that our Democracy has allowed DC residents to live without voting representation for over 200 years. Any citizen who pays taxes, and is otherwise legally eligible to vote, should be able to vote. And certainly no member of the armed services should be robbed of the right to vote simply because of where they live.

The fight will not be over even when DC can cast a House vote. It is high time the nation’s capital be given both House and Senate representation, with voting power in both chambers.

PFAW

Bob McDonnell vs. the Right to Vote

Mere days after rewriting the history of the Civil War - turning it into a war for independence with nothing to do with slavery - Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has done it again. But this time, instead of denying people's humanity, he's "just" making it a lot harder for them to vote.

According to the Washington Post, McDonnell plans to place a significant new burden in front of non-violent felons seeking to have their voting rights restored:

McDonnell will require the offenders to submit an essay outlining their contributions to society since their release, turning a nearly automatic process into a subjective one that some say may prevent the poor and less-educated from being allowed to vote. ...

McDonnell's administration said the essay requirement is designed to put a human face on each applicant and to help staff members better understand each person's situation.

And if you can't read and write well? Or if you're intimidated by things like essays? Or if you just can't express yourself well in writing? You're out of luck.

Even worse, restoration of the right to vote will not be based on a set of objective criteria, but will instead be based on whether McDonnell or some designated official thinks the applicant is worthy of the right to vote:

In coming weeks, McDonnell will start requiring nonviolent offenders to write a letter to him explaining the circumstances of their arrest; their efforts to get a job, seek an education and participate in church and community activities; and why they believe their rights should be restored. Some applicants already have been notified that letters will be required.

In a democracy, the right to vote should never depend on whether the governor finds you worthy of that right. It is not the place of government to make sure that only the "right" type of people vote.

It seems that every day, Virginia is becoming a more and more frightening place to live.

PFAW

Marriage Equality in DC

It took a while, and opponents of equality still insist they'll fight it, but marriage equality legislation finally took effect this morning in Washington, DC.

Washington, D.C., became the nation’s sixth jurisdiction to allow same-sex marriage Wednesday when it opened its marriage license application process to gay and lesbian couples.

More than one dozen couples lined up outside the D.C. Superior Court building — some arriving even before sunrise — to become the first same-sex pairs to obtain their applications to wed. Couples alternately smiled and wept as emotion swept the crowd.

“Love has won out over fear,” said Rev. Dennis Wiley, co-pastor at Covenant Baptist Church and co-chair of DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality. “Equality has won out over prejudice. Faith has won out over despair.”

Congratulations to the happy couples, and congratulations to everyone who contributed to this victory.  The DC community produced a vibrant, diverse coalition in support of equality, and it has paid enormous dividends.

Next up: voting rights.

PFAW

Voter ID Battles on the Horizon

The fight to protect voting rights celebrated a victory last fall in the Indiana State Court of Appeals. There, the court struck down what has become known as the strictest voter identification law in the country.

But it’s an election year again, and, as Tova Wang points out at TPM, it's not over in the Hoosier state.

An Indiana state court recently struck down the state's voter ID law, the most restrictive ID law in the country, and the Indiana State Supreme Court has just announced it will hear arguments on appeal March 4.

And that's not the only place voter ID laws are cropping up:

At least nine states and a city in Massachusetts (of all places!) are considering bills introduced in January 2010 that make identification requirements for voting more strict and/or require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. As usual, the debates are partisan. This is particularly true in South Carolina where it is estimated that 178,000 South Carolinians do not have the photo identification they would need to vote under the proposal.

There has yet to be any proof of significant voter fraud, but it seems to be political concerns, not principle, pushing these initiatives forward.

Instead of working to suppress the votes of American citizens, perhaps these legislators could help fix the real problems in the nation’s flawed voter and electoral systems--systems that are integral to our democracy.

PFAW

New GAO Report Exposes More About Politicization of Department of Justice Under Bush

With a new Government Accountability Office report on the activities of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice between 2001-2007, we are learning even more about a department that had been politicized to a dangerous degree under the Bush Administration. Instead of representing the best interests of the American people, the DOJ had been turned into a political machine. The report, obtained by The New York Times, found:

When compared with the Clinton administration, its findings show a significant drop in the enforcement of several major antidiscrimination and voting rights laws. For example, lawsuits brought by the division to enforce laws prohibiting race or sex discrimination in employment fell from about 11 per year under President Bill Clinton to about 6 per year under President George W. Bush.

The report also found that recommendations of career DOJ lawyers to pursue voter intimidation and other cases were inexplicably rejected, with the supervisors leaving no information explaining why the cases had been closed.

The office also found that case files often had no information explaining why supervisors had decided to close cases, sometimes against the recommendation of career officials. In a companion report, it also found that six years of internal audits about the division’s case-tracking system were missing.

People For the American Way followed the politicization of the DOJ during the Bush Administration, calling for the resignation of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others who played a part in the department’s politicization. We reported on the U.S. attorneys scandal, in which career attorneys at the department were instructed to follow the lead of the White House, not the rule of law, to smear Democratic candidates, protect GOP candidates, and suppress voter turnout through overzealous pursuit of baseless voter fraud claims. We responded to the Inspector General’s report which confirmed the inappropriate actions surrounding their firing.

PFAW

DOJ Won’t Prosecute Schlozman

In a disappointing move, Attorney General Eric Holder has decided not to prosecute former head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division and interim U.S. Attorney Bradley Schlozman for lying to Congress, instead giving deference to the decision of the Bush Administration.  Operatives like Schlozman led to the massive politicization of the Justice Department during the years of the Bush Administration and created an atmosphere of distrust by the very citizens the DOJ was meant to protect. 

During Schlozman’s testimony to the Senate in 2007, he repeatedly evaded questions regarding his actions, including hiring practices during his tenure.  Furthermore, Schlozman repeatedly refused to take responsibility for the Civil Rights Division’s failure to fully investigate thousands of claims of disenfranchisement during elections, instead choosing to pursue unmeritorious claims of voter fraud in key battleground states.

Because of such politicization by operatives like Schlozman, People For the American Way Foundation and numerous other civil rights and voting rights organizations were forced to defend the rights of voters across the country and protect them from disenfranchising tactics such as voter ID laws and overly stringent registration policies.  Fortunately, massive mobilization efforts like the Election Protection program were able to help meet this challenge, but it should not have to been our responsibility to protect voters from their own Department of Justice. 

While we understand the desire of Attorney General Holder to move forward and applaud his steps to reinvigorate the Civil Rights Division and eliminate the tarnish left by the previous Administration, we should not allow bad acts to go unpunished.  It is clear that Schlozman perjured himself during his testimony to the Senate, as concluded by the Office of Professional Responsibility’s internal report.  The American people deserve justice and we had hoped that bad actors such as Schlozman would be prosecuted as a testament to the American public that the DOJ will no longer play politics with justice.     

PFAW

Rosen on Roberts

Jeffrey Rosen’s op ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend, The Trial of John Roberts, echoes a theme noted by a number of commentators, one on which I posted last week: that the Supreme Court’s decision to open up long-settled law with respect to regulating corporate expenditures in candidate elections in the recently argued Citizens United case is a quintessential exercise in judicial activism. And it’s the kind of judicial activism that then nominee John Roberts pretended to foreswear through his claims to be an umpire, simply calling balls and strikes.  

Where I part company from Rosen, however, is in his analysis that Chief Justice Roberts “deserves credit for trying” to forge a broader consensus on narrower grounds, citing, in particular, last term’s Voting Rights Act case.  The cynic in me says that the decision was 8-1 to uphold Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and not 5-4 to overturn it, because the Chief Justice simply did not yet have the votes to do so. And Rosen’s reliance on greater unanimity on the Court with respect to upholding business interests – according to the Chamber 79% of these cases decided on margins of 7-2 better – is not, in my view, a reflection of Chief Justice Roberts’ forging consensus on narrow grounds. It’s a reflection of how conservative this Court really is, why the judicial philosophy of the next nominee to the Supreme Court really matters, and why it’s important to begin having that discussion now.

PFAW

Does the Anti-Gay Movement in DC think that Congress should run the District?

As a supporter of marriage equality for all people, I'm thrilled at the almost-unanimous vote of the DC City Council to recognize marriages of same-sex couples performed elsewhere.

As a supporter of marriage equality for all people and voting rights for the residents of DC (myself included,) I'm a little concerned about the response from the anti-marriage forces on the right.

Another protester, C.T. Riley, added: "This is not over. We are going to the Hill with this issue."

. . .

Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, who opposes gay marriage, said opponents are developing a "political and legal strategy" to block same-sex marriage in the District.

Does this imply that right wing activists are going to attempt to ignore the decision of the elected representatives of the District of Columbia by asking a body in which District residents have no representation to overrule the decision?

I look forward to discovering how this jives with the right's opposition to pro-gay rulings from "unelected judges" and allegations that it's the pro-gay rights community which is "usurping" the legacy of civil rights movement.

PFAW

Don’t Believe the Right’s Propaganda on the Supreme Court

With everyone talking about the retirement of Justice David Souter, the Radical Right’s propaganda machine is set to max.

Right Wing Watch is reporting on the Right’s reaction.  One of the more laughable claims comes from Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network:

The current Supreme Court is a liberal, judicial activist court.  Obama could make it even more of a far-left judicial activist court, for a long time to come …

Calling the current Court liberal is like calling Mitt Romney consistent – you can’t say it with a straight face.  In fact, no less an authority than Justice John Paul Stevens has pointed out that “every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell has been more conservative than his or her predecessor,” with the possible exception of Justice Ginsburg.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s review some of the highlights of the current “liberal” Supreme Court.

In order to achieve their desired ideological results, the Far Right justices have recklessly toppled precedents, or even ignored them while pretending not to, with alarming frequency.  For example, the restrictive federal abortion ban upheld by the Roberts Court was essentially identical to one the Court had struck down before Roberts and Alito joined the bench.  Unfortunately, extreme Right Wing ideology trumped the rule of law.

Voting rights have also come under attack.  The Roberts Court upheld the constitutionality of the most restrictive voter ID law in the country, an Indiana law requiring people to present a currently valid, government-issued photo ID in order to vote.  This imposes a substantial burden on the elderly who don’t drive, college students, and the poor who don’t own cars.  Indiana was unable to identify a single case of in-person voter fraud occurring in its history.  That didn’t stop the Roberts Court from upholding a restriction that kept many Americans from being able to go to the polls on Election Day and cast a vote.

Even our very access to the courts has come under attack from the “liberal” Supreme Court.

Lilly Ledbetter was a victim of sex discrimination effectively barred from the courthouse.  Late in her career, she learned that she had, over the years, been subjected to salary discrimination on the basis of her sex, and she sued.  A jury found that she had been illegally discriminated against.  Yet a 5-4 Right Wing majority held that she should have sued within 180 days of the initial discriminatory conduct—even though she didn’t learn that she was being discriminated against for more than a decade.

The Court also closed the courthouse door in Riegel v. Medtronic, holding that patients injured by a defective medical device cannot sue for damages for violations of state common law if it was approved for marketing by the Food and Drug Administration and made to the agency’s specifications.  To reach this result, the Court had to interpret a federal law in a manner directly contrary to how its Senate sponsor said it was intended.

Keith Bowles was yet another victim denied his day in court.  After Bowles was denied relief in federal district court, the judge informed him that he had 17 days to file an appeal.  Unbeknownst to him, the rules really gave him only 14 days.  So when Bowles, relying on the federal judge, filed on day 16, a narrow 5-4 Supreme Court majority said that he had filed too late.  In so doing, the Court majority overruled clear and principled precedent that protected people in his situation.  In dissent, Justice Souter correctly wrote that “it is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way, and there is not even a technical justification for this bait and switch.”

The danger from right-wing justices was clear in Boumediene v. Bush, a case related to the then-President’s claim of virtually unlimited executive powers to conduct the war on terror.  The case involved the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which eliminated federal court jurisdiction over habeas corpus claims by certain foreign detainees.  The Court rebuked President Bush’s vision of the presidency as an office of limitless power and declared that the president of a free nation cannot simply lock people up and throw away the key like some third-world dictator.  Chillingly, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissenting, the case was decided by a single vote, 5-4.  One more hard-right justice on the Court, and the decision would likely have gone the other way.

That’s why it’s crucial to have justices who are committed to our core constitutional values of justice and equality under the law.

It is of the utmost importance that Justice Souter be replaced by a powerful advocate for our Constitution—a justice in the mold of great jurists like Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan.  Our nation cannot afford anything less.

PFAW

Virginia Foxx Calls Matthew Shepard's Murder a "Hoax"

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) claimed on the House Floor yesterday that Matthew Shepard, whom the Hate Crimes bill is named after, was killed "in the commitment of robbery," not because he was gay. Rep. Foxx went on to say, "the hate crimes bill was named for him, but it's, it's really a hoax, that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills."  

Even more reprehensible, she said all of this while directly across from Judy Shepard, the mother of the Matthew Shepard. 

Un-be-lievable.

A quick look at her voting record, and you can see she marches in lockstep with Rush Limbaugh and the far right base of the party. She earned a 100% rating by the Naitonal Right to Life Committee for her pro-life stance; a 0% rating by the Human Right Campaign for her anti-equality votes; and 19% rating by the NAACP for her anti-affirmative-action votes. In September 2005, Foxx was one of 11 members of Congress to vote against the $51 billion aid package to victims of Hurricane Katrina. In July 2006, she joined 32 of her Republican colleagues to vote against the extension of the landmark Voting Rights Act championed by Dr. King.

She earned every bit of Keith Olbermann's designation for her as yesterday's "Worst Person in the World." North Carolinians deserve much better.

Find out the truth about hate crimes here.

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NAMUDNO In the Supreme Court

This morning the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Eric Holder, a case involving a small municipal district in Austin, Texas seeking to invalidate a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - one of the most important civil rights laws in American history.

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Congress finally acted to prevent discriminatory tactics designed to prevent minorities from exercising their fundamental right to vote. Section 5, in particular, is the centerpiece of the Act, and requires certain covered jurisdictions where voting discrimination has been the most flagrant to seek a preclearance from the Justice Department or a three-judge panel of the federal court in DC for any voting related changes. According to the statute, preclearance will be given as long as the proposed change does not have the purpose or the effect of denying or infringing on the right to vote because of one’s race or color.

In this case, the party seeking to invalidate Section 5 is a municipal utility district in Travis County, Texas, that conducts elections to select the members of its board of directors. Because the State of Texas is a covered jurisdiction, the district is subject to the preclearance requirements of Section 5, and sought relief under the Act’s bailout provision in federal court in the days following the reauthorization of the Act in 2006. Alternatively, the utility district sought to invalidate the provision if it could not bailout from its requirements. It failed on both counts in the courts below.

Today’s arguments confirm that Justice Kennedy again holds the deciding vote on whether the Court will weaken or invalidate a provision upheld by the very same Court four times in the past.

To those who argue that Section 5 is no longer needed because racial discrimination no longer exists, as evidenced by the election of the country’s first African American president, look at the facts. Because of Section 5’s sunset provisions, Congress was required to re-examine whether the statute is needed and last conducted an examination of this type in 2006. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a combined 21 hearings over 10 months and received testimony from over 90 witnesses, including state and federal officials, experts and private citizens. And although they concluded that significant progress had been made, they recognized that “[d]iscrimination today is more subtle than the visible methods used in 1965” and concluded that discrimination continues to result in “a diminishing of the minority community’s ability to fully participate in the electoral process and to elect their preferred candidates of choice.” Congress voted 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate that, among other things, Section 5 was still necessary.

We hope that Justice Kennedy will remember the extensive record finding Congress performed in 2006 and remember his words earlier this year when he wrote in Bartlett v. Strickland, “Still, racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history. Much remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all races have equal opportunity to share and participate in our democratic processes and traditions. . .”


Deborah Liu is General Counsel to People For the American Way, which is a defendant-intervenor in the case.

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