Fair and Just Courts

A Sleazy or Principled Approach to Judicial Confirmations?

Several days ago, USA Today reported on some comments made by Senator Patrick Leahy about the Senate GOP’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley has fallen in line behind the order of his boss, Mitch McConnell, and the demands of far-right extremist groups like the Judicial Crisis Network, who make wildly untrue claims about Judge Garland’s record.  GOP senators’ decision to hide behind those outside attacks and refuse to give Judge Garland a chance to defend himself is “sleazy,” Leahy said.  He also urged Grassley to show some independence from partisan interests, as Leahy did when he chaired the Judiciary Committee in parts of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Conservative Ed Whelan challenged Leahy’s positive characterization of his chairmanship on the National Review website in a piece he called “Patrick Leahy (D-Sleaze).”  Whelan criticized then-Chairman Leahy for not holding hearings on a number of Bush’s nominees.  One might think the committee was letting vacancies pile up around the country: that Leahy was fiddling while the American court system burned.  In fact, at this point in Bush’s last two years, the Democratic-controlled Senate had already confirmed 45 circuit and district court nominees, while the current Senate has confirmed a mere 17.  During the entire two years of the 110th Congress, the Senate confirmed 68 judges, a number that Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell show no interest in even trying to match.

In fact, it is Grassley and McConnell who are fiddling.  When the current Congress began, there were 40 circuit and district court vacancies, a number that has increased to 74 due to GOP inaction.  (If you include the Court of International Trade, the increase is from 43 to 78.)  In the same period, judicial emergencies have nearly tripled, jumping from 12 to 34 on April 14 (a change in how the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts weights cases went into effect the next day, affecting the number of emergencies and thereby complicating comparisons after that date).  In contrast, vacancies and emergencies went down in 2007-2008 because Democrats processed judicial nominations in a responsible manner.  Leahy also chaired the committee for 17 months in 2001-2002, during which the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed 100 of Bush’s judicial nominees.  Circuit and district court vacancies went down during that period from 109 to 60.  When it comes to taking seriously their constitutional responsibility to make sure our federal judiciary is sufficiently staffed, the difference between the two parties could hardly be starker.

The contrast is not limited to the confirmation of judicial nominees.  In Bush’s last two years, Sen. Leahy held 22 nominations hearings, including one as late as September 23, 2008 … just a few weeks before the presidential election to replace the term-limited George Bush.  Chairman Grassley has scheduled a confirmation hearing for April 20, the first since January, only the 13th of the current Congress, and he has suggested that he may shut the process down in July.

With 33 circuit and district court nominees in committee, and only five of them having had a hearing (but not until April 20), talk of such an early shutdown is obscene.  Seven of the nominees who have yet to be granted a hearing are circuit court nominees, most of them nominated more than two months ago.  Three of the circuit court nominees already have their “blue slips” from their home state senators.  The fact that this is an election year should not prevent a hearing for these circuit court nominees:  When President Bush nominated Steven Agee to the Fourth Circuit in March of 2008, Sen. Leahy scheduled a hearing seven weeks later, and a committee vote just two weeks after that.

And certainly no one could believably question Leahy’s fairness.  When President Obama took office, Chairman Leahy maintained the same rules and practices he had used with Bush’s nominees.  For instance, as under Bush, he opted to require the “blue slip” approval of both home-state senators before holding a hearing on a nominee, something not in the committee rules but rather a prerogative of the chair.  This led to a number of highly qualified Obama nominees being denied a chance to publicly respond to the often unfair and inaccurate attacks being made against them by GOP senators.  Other times, the Republican senators gave no public reason for their opposition, yet still used Leahy's blue slip  practices  to deny hearings to targeted nominees.  He even allowed Kansas’s GOP senators to change their mind after a hearing and, at their request, did not allow a scheduled committee vote on Tenth Circuit nominee Steve Six to take place.  The committee records are filled with Leahy’s sharp criticism of how qualified nominees were being denied hearings this way, including ones strongly supported by their one Democratic home state senator, including then-Majority Leader Harry Reid.  Nevertheless, he did not change his blue slip practice as he could have done unilaterally.

Whelan also criticizes Senator Leahy as “sleazy” for not getting controversial Fifth Circuit nominee Leslie Southwick confirmed quickly enough and then for opposing his nomination altogether.  As chairman, Sen. Leahy could have simply chosen not to give him a hearing.  In fact, at the confirmation hearing, Sen. Hatch specifically thanked Chairman Leahy for scheduling it over the criticism from “far left groups.”  Giving a nominee an opportunity to address senators’ concerns and defend their record in a public forum is not “sleazy.”

As Sen. Leahy pointed out last week, what’s “sleazy” is the way that the Republican-controlled Senate is mistreating the president’s Supreme Court nominee.  And while well-financed far-right groups are working overtime to keep GOP senators in line, two thirds of Americans are rejecting that position and support a hearing for Chief Judge Garland.  Chairman Grassley would do well to listen to the American people.

PFAW

PFAW Hosts Member Telebriefing on the Democracy Awakening

As thousands of activists from around the country head to Washington, DC for the Democracy Awakening, a weekend of marches, rallies, workshops, lobby visits, and – for some – nonviolent civil disobedience, PFAW hosted a member telebriefing Thursday about the upcoming mobilization. Through the Democracy Awakening, Americans are demanding that Congress take action to fix our democracy, from protecting voting rights to getting big money out of politics to giving the president’s Supreme Court nominee fair consideration.

“These are all connected issues,” PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker said on the call. She emphasized that auctioning off democracy “to the highest bidder,” suppressing the vote, or obstructing justice through Republican senators’ “absurd and totally indefensible” position that President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee shouldn’t be given fair consideration are all threats to our democracy.

“We have to take back the engines of our government for the American people,” Baker said.

PFAW Government By the People Campaign Manager Rio Tazewell outlined the schedule for the weekend and noted that even people who can’t travel to DC can still take action in their own towns through letters to the editor, contacting elected representatives, and taking action on social media.

You can listen to the full telebriefing below, and visit www.democracyawakening.org for more information:

PFAW

On Senate Floor, Sen. Reid Slams GOP Senators for Backtracking on Supreme Court Vacancy

In recent weeks, two Republican senators who had previously expressed their support for the Senate giving fair consideration to the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, have now both backtracked from their initial positions.

In February, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) was the first Republican senator to support hearings for the president’s nominee, but did an about-face just days later. Similarly, after Sen. Jerry Moran (Kansas) said in late March “I have my job to do” and that “the process ought to go forward,” he faced a hostile response from extremist right wing groups and obediently reversed his position. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that after Moran’s initial comments,

The Judicial Crisis Network announced it was putting the finishing touches on an advertising campaign bashing Moran, and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund said it was considering backing a primary challenger.

On the Senate floor today, Minority Leader Harry Reid slammed the GOP senators for reversing course.

“Senator Moran’s backtracking is especially alarming because it appears to be the result of a multi-million dollar campaign urging the Senator to reverse his support for a hearing for Judge Garland,” Reid said. “Senator Moran was for meeting with Merrick Garland and holding confirmation hearings until the Judicial Crisis Network and the Tea Party Patriots threatened him. It will surprise no one to learn that the Koch brothers and their dark money help fund both of these radical organizations.”

The conservative, moneyed backlash came all because Sen. Moran “dared to do his job,” Reid said, asking if the GOP had become “a party dictated by menace and intimidation.”

Sen. Reid wrapped up his remarks by noting that he hopes other GOP senators will not follow suit: “Instead of caving to the Republican leader and the Koch brothers, it’s time for Republican senators to take a stand.” The American people, Reid said, want Republican senators to stop “cowering” and simply do their jobs.

Indeed, polling shows that Americans across the political spectrum want GOP senators to give Judge Garland fair consideration. A national Monmouth University poll last month found that nearly seven in ten Americans want the Senate to hold hearings, including 56 percent of Republicans. Perhaps even more revealing: 62 percent of Republicans believe that GOP leadership’s obstructionist stance is “mainly a political ploy.”

PFAW

Supreme Court Rules that Everyone Deserves Representation

Justice Ginsburg writes for a six-justice majority, rejecting an assertion that states must count only eligible voters when drawing legislative districts.
PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court Obstruction is Continuation of GOP’s Disrespect for First African American President

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

From the right-wing obsession with President Obama’s birth certificate to a GOP Representative interrupting one of his speeches by yelling “you lie,” our nation’s firstAfrican American president has endured an unprecedented level of disrespect throughout his time in office. The current blockade against considering President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court is the latest example of this trend, and it stems from the same racist efforts to paint his presidency as illegitimate.

The Republican anti-Obama crusade began on day one, with GOP leaders meeting on the evening of his inauguration to strategize about how to block the president’s agenda at every turn. That campaign has only grown uglier since then, with many Republicans taking every opportunity to demean President Obama, paint him as a suspicious outsider, and accuse him of overstepping his authority. It is a flawed strategy and a failed campaign that has run its course.

It was disrespectful when Texas Representative Randy Weber, for example, called the president a “socialistic dictator” and asked whether he is “intent on bringing America down.” It was a show of disdain for 2016 GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to tell Pat Robertson that “deep inside of” President Obama “there is a sense in which he doesn’t want America to be [a] superpower.” It was with absolute contempt that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who has long questioned President Obama’s birthplace, suggested that his birth certificate might say “he is a Muslim” and floated the idea that maybe the president “doesn’t want to get rid of the problem” of terrorism. It was an absence of professional courtesy when former presidential candidate Rick Santorum failed to correct or disagree with an audience member who called President Obama an “avowed Muslim” with “no legal right to be calling himself president.” While President Obama is not a Muslim, I am certain there is no place in the position description that says a Muslim American, if elected, could not serve in this country’s highest office.

I cannot recall any other president facing this kind of treatment. The current obstruction campaign blocking the president’s Supreme Court nominee may not feature the same brand of name-calling and wild accusations as previous anti-Obama campaigns. However, let’s not be naïve at their attempt to use language that may appear more palatable; the grounding is still in the same racist assumptions that his presidency, elected not only once but twice, is somehow not valid.It causes me to wonder what they truly think of democracy and Americans who exercise their right to vote.

A Senate majority has never refused to consider a president’s nominee to the Supreme Court. It is an unprecedented rebuke of the president’s constitutionally-guaranteed authority to nominate justices. Refusing to meet with, hold hearings on, or give a simple up-or-down vote to Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s exceptionally qualified nominee, is an insult to Judge Garland, the president,and the American people. But the truth is that Republican leadership was already bent on categorically rejecting any nominee he put forward no matter how qualified they were. North Carolina Representative G.K. Butterfield, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, was right when he told the New York Times that “if this was any other president who was not African-American, it would not have been handled this way.”

The Constitution makes clear that it is President Obama’s right, and his duty, to make a nomination, and that it is the Senate’s job to provide advice and consent. That GOP senators are ignoring their constitutional responsibilities and refusing to consider President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court isn’t just politics as usual. It’s one of the most outrageous examples yet of the Republican Party treating the president, a man of color, an American of African ancestry, a Black man, like he didn’t really earn that job. Not only did he earn it, but he is doing it quite well – and that is why this obstructionist Senate should follow his lead and stop the obstruction, stop the racially motivated disrespect, and do their job.

PFAW

A Baseless Attack Against Garland on ACA Cases

The new attacks are not based on anything Chief Judge Garland has actually written or addressed on the merits.
PFAW

Meet President Obama's Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland

On March 16, President Obama nominated Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to fill the vacant seat on the US Supreme Court. His background and record, and the bipartisan acclaim he has previously received, make clear that he is an extremely well qualified jurist who would ably serve as a Supreme Court justice, and that there is absolutely no basis but pure politics for the refusal of most Republican senators to even consider his nomination.

Garland, 63, was born in Chicago. His father ran a small advertising firm out of the family’s home and his mother coordinated volunteer services for Chicago’s Council for Jewish Elderly. His grandparents were refugees from anti-semitism in Russia. After graduating with honors from Harvard College and Law School, Garland went on to clerk for appellate court judge Henry Friendly and noted Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. He then worked briefly as special assistant to Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti during the Carter Administration and then as an associate and a partner at the Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter, where he specialized in corporate litigation. In 1989 he became an Assistant US Attorney in Washington and, after a brief return to Arnold & Porter, joined the Clinton Administration as deputy assistant attorney general in the criminal division of the Justice Department and then as principal assistant deputy attorney general. In that capacity, he supervised the investigation and prosecution of a number of key domestic terrorism cases, including the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber case.

Garland became a judge on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997, winning bipartisan praise from lawyers, judges, and senators ranging from Edward Kennedy to Orrin Hatch. During most of the 19 years he has been on the bench, Garland has also tutored poor children at a DC elementary school. He became chief judge in 2013.

Garland has continued to win bipartisan and both liberal and conservative praise during his service on the court of appeals. Most of his opinions are for unanimous three-judge panels, bringing together both conservative and liberal judges. As now-Chief Justice Roberts has commented, however, when Judge Garland disagrees with you as a judge, “you know you’re in a difficult area.” (In the particular case Roberts was referring to, Garland dissented from a ruling by Roberts that limited the ability of whistleblowers to bring lawsuits to vindicate fraud against the government.) Garland is a clear and careful writer, who is appropriately deferential to Congressional statutes, agency rules, and past precedent. Although he has a reputation for tending to favor the government in criminal law and terrorism cases, he has not hesitated to rule against the government where it oversteps its authority in such matters. For example, he ruled in one case (In re Sealed Case) that a lower court made a mistake and had to order the prosecution to look for and disclose to a defendant any evidence that would tend to show innocence. In another (Parhart v Gates), he ruled that the Combatant Status Review tribunal had improperly relied on hearsay evidence to indefinitely detain someone as an enemy combatant. He has a generally positive record in such areas as labor law, environmental law, and individual civil rights. Overall, Garland has more federal court experience than any Supreme Court nominee in history.

Despite Judge Garland’s stellar record, Republican leadership has continued to insist that his nomination should not be considered, reviewed, and voted on at all by the Senate, with Republican Majority Leader McConnell refusing even to meet with Judge Garland. Even conservative columnist George Will has recognized that the only reason for this obstuctionist blockade is political, with the hope that a Republican president elected in November (Donald Trump?) will be able to fill the vacancy. Despite claims to the contrary, Democrats have not stooped to such political gamesmanship, as is best shown by their decision to confirm Reagan Supreme Court nominee Anthony Kennedy when they controlled the Senate in presidential election year 1988. No, Judge Garland won’t be the far-right conservative that Republicans hope to get from a President Trump or Cruz, but that is simply no reason for Republican senators to refuse to do their job and at least act on the nomination. Cracks have already begun to appear in the Republican blockade, with Sen. Mark Kirk stating that Garland should receive a hearing and a vote. With continued pressure from Americans across the country, Judge Garland will hopefully receive the hearing and the vote that the Senate owes to him, the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the American people.

PFAW

PFAW Hosts Telebriefing on the President's Supreme Court Nominee

One day after President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, PFAW held a telebriefing for members about the extraordinarily qualified nominee and the GOP’s unprecedented obstruction campaign aimed at bringing the process of filling the vacancy to a halt.

PFAW’s Michael Keegan, Marge Baker, Elliot Mincberg, Drew Courtney, and Brian Tashman discussed the Republican blockade, Garland’s record as a judge, and what’s at stake in the confirmation fight for our constitutional rights and liberties.

“This nominee, when confirmed, will shift the balance” of a Supreme Court that has been one of the “most conservative Courts in decades,” Baker said. PFAW released a report last year, “Judgment Day 2016,” reviewing many of the 5-4 decisions that have had an enormous impact on the daily lives of Americans and highlighting how the composition of the Court is a key issue in 2016 and beyond.

Speakers outlined why it’s critical that Senate Republicans do their jobs and give Judge Garland the fair consideration that he deserves. Tashman noted that the Right’s encouragement of the GOP obstruction is nothing more than an “effort to delegitimize the president and play politics with the Court.”

You can listen to the full telebriefing here:

PFAW

A Circuit Court Nominee for Mitch McConnell to Consider

President Obama continues to work to fill our nation's judicial vacancies, this time with a Sixth Circuit nominee from Kentucky.
PFAW

GOP's Newest Defense of SCOTUS Obstruction Falls Apart

The GOP's talking points keep changing as they are refuted, and the latest ones are really easy to refute.
PFAW

Some People Are Still Doing Their Job on Judges

Senate Republicans need to do their job and give 3rd Circuit nominee Rebecca Haywood timely and fair consideration.
PFAW

Ron Johnson's Revisionist History

Johnson's explanation for why he wanted to delay work on filling the 7th Circuit vacancy isn't consistent with the historical record.
PFAW

PFAW Hosts Telebriefing on Women’s Health Cases at the Supreme Court

Two days after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case about laws that use unnecessary regulations to shut down abortion clinics, PFAW held a member telebriefing on the two cases that may be the most significant for women’s reproductive rights in decades. The second case, which is about access to birth control and is being called “Hobby Lobby Part Two,” will be argued at the Supreme Court later this month.

On the call, actress and advocate Kathleen Turner, PFAW’s Marge Baker, Elliot Mincberg, and Drew Courtney, and the Center for Reproductive Rights’ Kelly Baden discussed what’s at stake in these cases – Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt and Zubik v. Burwell – as well as the future of women’s reproductive rights.

Turner pointed out that these cases underscore the importance of our courts in keeping unconstitutional attacks in check and protecting women’s liberty and bodily autonomy. Baden went on to highlight the ways in which these attacks harm low-income and rural women in particular, who are least able to travel long distances and pay high price tags for abortion care.

You can listen to the full telebriefing here:

PFAW

PFAW Hosts Telebriefing on Emergency Supreme Court Vacancy Campaign

As President Obama prepares to put forward a nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, GOP senators have taken a stance of unprecedented obstruction – refusing to even consider any nominee, regardless of their qualifications.

Yesterday People For the American Way hosted a member telebriefing calling out the ways in which Senate Republicans are irresponsibly abandoning their constitutional obligations to give fair consideration to Supreme Court nominees. Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg discussed the crisis of constitutional proportions that Senate Republicans are leading us towards, and what activists can do to push senators to stop playing political games and do their jobs.

Listen to the telebriefing here:

PFAW

Will Grassley Quit as Judiciary Chair?

Here's what we'd see if Senate Republicans applied to themselves their professed rationale for refusing to consider any Supreme Court nominee by President Obama.
PFAW

Unlike Senate GOP, Obama Continues to Do His Job on Judges

The White House continues to make judicial nominations that Senate Republicans should responsibly consider and vote on.
PFAW

PFAW Kicks Off Emergency Campaign to Fill the Supreme Court's Vacancy

Senate Republicans took their partisan obstructionism to an unprecedented, wildly irresponsible level this month – they are flat out refusing to even consider any Supreme Court nominee put forth by President Obama. It’s a blatantly political move that the GOP is trying to justify with nonsense explanations, like “we’ve never confirmed a Supreme Court justice in an election year before” (false), and “the American people should have a say in the selection of the next justice” (they did, when they re-elected President Obama in 2012). As much as they might want to pretend otherwise, Republicans are refusing to do their jobs – and threatening to keep a seat on our nation’s highest court empty until 2017!

But we're not about to let them get away with it. That's why we've launched an emergency campaign to counter the GOP's blockade and fill the Supreme Court's vacancy. PFAW is uniquely qualified to lead this fight. Since the 1980s we've been the national leader in fighting the Right's efforts to pack the courts with extreme right-wing ideologues. And that's exactly what they're trying to do now, by keeping a vacancy on the Court for an entire year and playing politics with our federal judiciary. Republicans are shirking their constitutional responsibility to give fair consideration to a Supreme Court nominee and they must be held accountable. We have a long, tough road ahead of us, but we're not backing down, and we're so grateful to have PFAW members like you on board with us for this historic fight.

SCOTUS rally

Just hours after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Republicans made their intentions known: no fair consideration of any nominee put forward by President Obama. So we leapt into action that weekend, mobilizing supporters and activists for an impromptu rally outside of the Supreme Court that has already become the image of the movement, appearing in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, the Atlantic, and more. We also held a campaign kickoff telebriefing this month for PFAW members across the country, to discuss our strategy for pushing the GOP to back off their unprecedented obstructionism

We're also fighting back by turning up the pressure on Senate Republicans. We teamed up with partner organizations to deliver over 500,000 petition signatures calling for fair consideration of a nominee to Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Kentucky office. And this week we delivered one million signatures to the U.S. Senate! Americans want to see this Supreme Court vacancy filled, and we're making sure Republicans know that by refusing to consider a nominee, they're going against their constituents.

GOP senators’ refusal to even consider any Supreme Court nominee isn’t just a violation of their constitutional responsibility – it’s also not what their constituents want! Recent polls have shown that a majority of Americans support filling the Supreme Court vacancy, and for some Republican senators, the blockade is already hurting them with voters. We’re working to identify those Senators, and hit them where it hurts: with their constituents. In a robocall we released in Wisconsin this month, activists heard from Martin Sheen about Sen. Ron Johnson’s obstruction of President Obama’s nominee. Sheen asked Wisconsinites to call Sen. Johnson and tell him to put his constitutional duties first, and give fair consideration to whoever President Obama nominates. The robocalls received immediate media attention – exactly what Sen. Johnson doesn’t want. We’re strategizing similar actions for other states where Republican senators are facing tough re-election battles.

PFAW

New Poll Shows Obstructionist Stance on Supreme Court Vacancy is Hurting Toomey and Portman With Voters

Note to senators in tough reelection battles: putting your Washington DC party bosses over the Constitution by standing in the way of filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court is not only the wrong thing to do for our country, it’s also making voters less likely to support you.

New Public Policy Polling surveys released today show that large majorities of voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Senators Pat Toomey and Rob Portman are running for reelection, want the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death to be filled this year. According to the polling memo:

  • Strong majorities of voters – 58/35 in Ohio and 57/40 in Pennsylvania – think that the vacant seat on the Supreme Court should be filled this year. What’s particularly noteworthy about those numbers – and concerning for Portman and Toomey – is how emphatic the support for approving a replacement is among independent voters. In Ohio they think a new Justice should be named this year 70/24 and in Pennsylvania it’s 60/37.
  • …Voters are particularly angry about Senators taking the stance that they’re not going to approve anyone before even knowing who President Obama decides to put forward. By a 76/20 spread in Pennsylvania and a 74/18 one in Ohio, voters think the Senate should wait to see who is nominated to the Court before deciding whether or not to confirm that person. Toomey and Portman are out of line even with their own party base on that one – Republicans in Pennsylvania think 67/27 and in Ohio think 63/32 that the Senate should at least give President Obama’s choice a chance before deciding whether or not to confirm them. [emphasis added]

Perhaps most notable for the senators, more than half of voters (52 percent in both states) say they would be less likely to vote for Toomey or Portman if they “refused to confirm a replacement for Justice Scalia this year no matter who it was.” Among independents, the numbers were even higher.

Senators Toomey and Portman would be wise to take heed of their constituents, and of the Constitution, and stop refusing to even consider any Supreme Court nominee, regardless of his or her credentials. Any nominee must be treated fairly and honestly. The Supreme Court is far too important to be held hostage to the overtly political obstruction of GOP senators.

PFAW

GOP vs. the Integrity of the American Judicial System

Intentionally crippling the Supreme Court for two consecutive terms would be the height of irresponsibility.
PFAW Foundation