Fair and Just Courts

Rubio Should Not Have the Last Word on Florida Nominee

Why did Marco Rubio unfairly attack qualified nominee William Thomas while denying him a chance to correct the record? (VIDEO)
PFAW

Scalia Predicted It: Equal Rights Means Equal Rights

"It has never yet been discovered how to make a man unknow his knowledge, or unthink his thoughts."
--Tom Paine, The Rights of Man

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved--I do not expect the house to fall--but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."
--Abraham Lincoln in his "House Divided Speech"

United States District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby's masterful December 20, 2013 decision striking down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage is headed to the Supreme Court. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which takes cases from Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, refused to stay the decision and nearly 1,000 jubilant gay and lesbian couples have married in the state in just over a week.

The outbreak of marriage equality in conservative Utah is another huge and momentous crack in the crumbling wall of marriage discrimination against gay Americans. So the Attorney General of the state is preparing a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court to turn back the mounting tide of equal rights and freedom.

The state's petition will first reach Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who oversees cases in this group of states. She will be able to either decide the petition herself or refer it to the full Court. If she rejects the petition, as she is likely to do, Utah can appeal to the full Court.

Those people who thought the Court could buy some time after its electrifying 5-4 decision in June striking down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act misunderstand the logic of constitutional freedom. The phony alibis for marriage discrimination have fallen away, and the Court's decision in United States v. Windsor leaves no doubt: gay people have an equal right to marry in the United States of America and the laws standing in the way impose irrational discrimination.

One delicious irony about Judge Shelby's decision is that he freely quoted Justice Antonin Scalia's doleful dissenting opinion in the Windsor case, which repeatedly predicted -- just as Scalia has been warning all along in other gay rights cases, like Lawrence v. Texas (2003) -- that the Court's decision to defend the equal rights of gay Americans would inescapably lead to the downfall of marriage discrimination. Judge Shelby wrote: "The court agrees with Justice Scalia's interpretation of Windsor and finds that the important federalism concerns at issue here are nevertheless insufficient to save a state-law prohibition that denies the Plaintiffs their rights to due process and equal protection under the law."

There should be nothing surprising about either Justice Scalia's gloomy reactionary lament in Windsor or the fact that his words are coming back to haunt him now. As we pointed out several months ago in this PFAW Report, Equal Protection or 'Social Tradition': The Supreme Court's Test in the Marriage Cases," Justice Scalia chastised Justice O'Connor back in 2003 for voting in Lawrence v. Texas to strike down anti-sodomy laws because they do nothing other than legislate "moral disapproval" of other people's private and consenting conduct. Scalia angrily observed that "'preserving the traditional institution of marriage' is just a kinder way of describing the State's moral disapproval of same-sex couples." In other words, if we can't put gay people in jail because we disapprove of their relationships, how will we stop them from marrying? As always, Justice Scalia's intellectual rigor and candor, from the other side of the barricades, have proven to have great predictive power about the unfolding of the law.

Still, it is not entirely clear what will happen on the Court in response to Utah. It requires four Justices to vote to grant a Cert petition and hear a case. Undoubtedly the hard Right of the Court -- Justices Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito -- will feel Utah's pain intensely, and Chief Justice John Roberts is likely to want to join them, although he may count the votes and decide not to test Justice Anthony Kennedy's willingness to vote with the liberals to wipe away the stain of marriage discrimination.

After all, Justice Kennedy's reputation as a thoughtful figure on the Court has essentially been made by authoring the majority opinion in a series of brilliant decisions enunciating the equal rights of gay Americans: Romer v. Evans (1996), Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and most recently United States v. Windsor (2013). In Windsor, Justice Kennedy wrote that the "principal purpose" of the Defense of Marriage Act was "to impose inequality" and to put gay people in "a second-tier marriage," locking them out of hundreds of valuable federal benefits and rights. Significantly, he wrote that this legislation not only "demeans the couple" but "humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples." The table may now be set for another 5-4 gay rights decision that makes Justice Kennedy an historic figure.

If Justice Kennedy and the moderates can indeed count to five on the big question, one or more of them might even provide a vote for cert, on the theory that the country has hit a tipping point, with marriage now available to gay people in 17 states and the District of Columbia and public opinion racing ahead to full equality. It may be time to do what the Court did in Loving v. Virginia (1967), when it told the truth about "white supremacy" and wiped out the anti-miscegenation laws that made it a crime for Richard and Mildred Loving to marry.

Still, 33 states are blocking the courthouse door for gays seeking to wed and Justice Kennedy did sprinkle lots of pro-states' rights language in his dissenting opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013), Windsor's companion decision which punted on the merits of marriage discrimination. So the wheel is still in spin during this go-round.

But, as we stated in the "Equal Protection or 'Social Tradition'" Report, the overall dynamic of freedom and equality has been unleashed for our gay and lesbian citizens, and it will be nearly impossible to rewind the tape. On national marriage equality, it is just a matter of when -- not if. There is no way to get this movement or intelligent jurists to unthink their thoughts about fundamental rights, and ultimately, a country divided over a basic right like marriage for millions of people, can't stand. All signs point to equal rights and liberties for gay people in America.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

PFAW

Breaking: Judge Strikes Down Ban on Same-Sex Marriage in Utah

Adding to this week’s great news on marriage equality, today U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban, which was put into the state constitution by referendum in 2004.

One of the far right’s standard attacks on the increasing number of judicial opinions striking down discriminatory marriage laws is that judges are “redefining marriage” and “usurping the legislature.”  No doubt they will do so again in this case.  Fortunately, Judge Shelby opens his opinion with a brief but important explanation of how the American constitutional system works:

The issue the court must address in this case is therefore not who should define marriage, but the narrow question of whether Utah’s current definition of marriage is permissible under the Constitution.…

[T]he legal issues presented in this lawsuit do not depend on whether Utah’s laws were the result of its legislature or a referendum, or whether the laws passed by the widest or smallest of margins. The question presented here depends instead on the Constitution itself…

In his opinion, Judge Shelby also takes apart the harmful, bogus argument that preventing same-sex couples from marrying somehow “elevate[s] the status of opposite-sex marriage”:

Rather than protecting or supporting the families of opposite-sex couples, Amendment 3 perpetuates inequality by holding that the families and relationships of same-sex couples are not now, nor ever will be, worthy of recognition. Amendment 3 does not thereby elevate the status of opposite-sex marriage; it merely demeans the dignity of same-sex couples. And while the State cites an interest in protecting traditional marriage, it protects that interest by denying one of the most traditional aspects of marriage to thousands of its citizens: the right to form a family that is strengthened by a partnership based on love, intimacy, and shared responsibilities. The Plaintiffs’ desire to publicly declare their vows of commitment and support to each other is a testament to the strength of marriage in society, not a sign that, by opening its doors to all individuals, it is in danger of collapse.  (Emphasis added.)

Congratulations, Utah!

PFAW

Six Ways Senate Republicans Are Still Obstructing Judicial Nominations

In recent weeks, Senate Republicans have found diverse ways to escalate their obstruction of judicial nominations.
PFAW

Escalated GOP Obstruction Provokes Talk of Committee Changes

Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy may reform his "blue slip" policy, which Republicans have abused to torpedo qualified judicial nominees.
PFAW

Senate GOP Living Up to Right Wing Vow to be a "Resistance Movement"

With this week's escalated obstruction of judicial nominees, the Senate GOP is acting more like a "resistance movement" than a responsible political party.
PFAW

GOP Blocks Judiciary Committee From Even Meeting

The Senate GOP has escalated their campaign of obstruction to prevent the Judiciary Committee from even meeting.
PFAW

Roberts Court Leaves Workers and Employers Hanging

A case dismissal leaves intact a damaging lower court opinion whose questionable validity prompted the dismissal.
PFAW Foundation

McConnell to Participate in Recess Appointments Case

The Roberts Court will let the GOP leader participate in oral arguments in a constitutional case that his party's obstruction engendered.
PFAW

Senators Use PFAW Chart to Show Unprecedented Nature of GOP Obstruction

In their press conference following yesterday’s vote to change the Senate rules on filibusters, Democratic senators used a chart provided by PFAW to outline the extremity and unprecedented nature of the GOP’s obstruction of President Obama’s nominees.

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Photos by J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press via The Washington Post

PFAW

They Tried to Break the Federal Government. Now They're Going After the Courts.

The astounding show of Republican recklessness that led to last month's government shutdown made one thing very clear. The new Republican Party -- the one ruled by the Tea Party -- isn't interested in making our government work. They want to break it.

Now, as if shutting down the government of the United States, furloughing hundreds of thousands of government employees, wasting billions of dollars and threatening to wreck America's economy wasn't enough, Republicans in Congress have set their sights on a new target: our justice system.

Yesterday, Senate Republicans took their campaign against our government to a whole new level when they blocked the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is widely considered to be the nation's second-highest court behind the Supreme Court.

Pillard is one of President Obama's three nominees to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, which is currently operating with nearly one-third of its active judgeships vacant. All three nominees have extraordinary professional qualifications. All three have support from across the ideological spectrum. Yet Senate Republicans are vowing to filibuster all three simply because they were nominated by President Obama.

One of the most basic functions of the U.S. Senate is to provide "advice and consent" to the president on his nominations to executive agencies and to the federal courts. For most of our country's history, the Senate has generally taken this constitutional order responsibly, using its power to block only nominees whom senators found unqualified or dangerously far out of the mainstream. That is, until now.

The same party that shut down the government in an attempt to nullify a duly-enacted law that it does not like is now trying to prevent a twice-elected president from filling vacancies on an important court -- a duty entrusted to him by the Constitution.

There's a reason Republican obstructionists have targeted the D.C. Circuit. The court has the last word on important federal laws and administrative rules on issues ranging from clean air regulations to workers' rights to cigarette labeling requirements to presidential recess appointments. Basically, just about any area that we regulate through our federal government is going to be affected by the D.C. Circuit. And it is currently dominated by conservative ideologues: nine of the 14 judges on the court (including "active" judges and senior judges who participate in panel decisions) were nominated by Republican presidents seeking to remake the courts in their ideological image.

Republicans want to keep it this way. President Obama has nominated five people to the court, yet Senate Republicans have allowed only one of these nominees to so much as receive a confirmation vote. By comparison, the Senate confirmed four of George W. Bush's nominees to the court and eight of Ronald Reagan's. In fact, the ninth, tenth, and eleventh seats that Republicans today demand remain vacant are ones that they ensured were filled when George W. Bush was president.

To give you an idea of just how conservative this court is as a result, just this month a George W. Bush nominee and a George H.W. Bush nominee ruled that employers who oppose birth control should be able to deny their employees access to affordable contraception through their insurance plans -- an absurd twisting of the true meaning of religious liberty. A few months ago, the court ruled that a law requiring employers to display a poster listing employees' legal rights violates the free speech rights of the employers. No, really!

Unable to win national elections, Republicans are trying to hold on to what power they still have -- and that includes control of the powerful D.C. Circuit. Just like they couldn't accept that the Affordable Care Act was the law of the land, the Tea Party won't admit that Americans chose President Obama to be the one making picks to the federal courts.

The Tea Party thinks that it has some sort of intellectual property claim on the U.S. Constitution. But sometimes I wonder if its leaders have even read it.

Cross-posted from Huffington Post.

PFAW

Ponnuru Uses Discredited Arguments on DC Circuit

The simple act of making nominations to existing judicial vacancies isn't court-packing, no matter how many times you say it is.
PFAW

Our Country Deserves Better than ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws

The following is a guest post from Elder Jabari Paul, a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers in Action, following last week’s Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Stand Your Ground laws.

My perspective on Stand Your Ground laws (SYG) is shaped by my experience and calling as a young African American clergyman and as a native of Florida, the first state to pass this type of legislation. I believe that these laws raise important questions about the moral values of our country.

The debate around SYG comes during challenging times in America – times when the political landscape is starkly divided and mass slayings in public settings are much too frequent.  These laws have been divisive policies since the first one passed in October 2005 in Florida. Public contentiousness surrounding SYG can be traced back to the choices of many politicians to ignore the will of the majority on SYG laws and to push the agendas of powerful and moneyed interest groups, like the National Rifle Association. SYG has been a wedge issue because politicians, particularly conservatives, have supported such laws to placate their base in spite of a lack of need for these laws.

Stand Your Ground has been championed by its supporters as a type of law that is necessary to prevent crime in urban areas and to protect citizens from the violence of “thugs.” These arguments have clear racial undertones. Words like “urban” and “thug” have been used since America’s post-Reconstruction days to speak in coded language about African Americans and other minorities. SYG tramples upon the civil rights of those perceived to be a threat. The tragedy of these laws is compounded when the person attacked is killed and only their attacker has an opportunity to tell what happened.

As a Christian, minister and an African American male under 35, my views on SYG are shaped by my culture and my religious beliefs. I believe that SYG perpetuates violence in a society that already knows violence too well. Jesus Christ taught the opposite of violence – love. In His renowned “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In these verses, Jesus is stressing that violence should be the last form of recourse in any situation. SYG, on the other hand, justifies and can even facilitate violence.

Our country deserves better than this. The United States of America is called, and no doubt is, the greatest nation in world. It’s time for our elected officials to drastically amend or repeal Stand Your Ground laws.

PFAW