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PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Courts' Vital Role in Protecting Women's Health and Everyone's Rights

This morning, a federal judge in Alabama blocked that state’s efforts to cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood.  Federal law protects Medicaid recipients’ right to choose their own qualified healthcare providers.  As the Montgomery Advertiser reports:

The governor’s office has cited an ‘at-will’ provision for the cancelation of the contract.  [Judge Myron] Thompson disagreed, writing that it “falls well outside the range of grounds germane to the purposes of the Medicaid Act.”

“To conclude otherwise would not only strip the Medicaid Act’s free-choice-of-provider provision of all meaning, but also would contravene clear congressional intent to give Medicaid beneficiaries the right to receive covered services from any qualified and willing provider,” Thompson wrote.

Unfortunately, Alabama is not alone among states where GOP officials have sought to prevent women from accessing healthcare from Planned Parenthood, federal law notwithstanding.  But fortunately, Alabama is not alone among states where federal judges have protected women and the rule of law.  We have seen similar rulings in states like Arkansas, Utah, and Louisiana.

So much of the far right’s agenda flies in the face of the law, often including the U.S. Constitution.  Our system of fair and independent federal courts exists to protect everyone’s legal rights, regardless of political pressure or ideology.  That is why it is so important to make sure that our courts are adequately staffed by highly qualified judges who will live up to the trust we place in them.  Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have spent the last 6½ years making it as hard as possible for President Obama to do that, in the hopes of keeping as many seats as possible vacant so a Republican president can fill them with right-wing ideologues.

We don’t know who the next president will be.  But we do know that it is critically important for President Obama to nominate qualified jurists to the federal bench to fill the growing number of circuit and district court vacancies, and for the Senate to give them fair and timely consideration.

PFAW

Poll Has Ben Carson Now LEADING Trump

A New York Times/CBS News poll has Ben Carson now leading Donald Trump in the GOP presidential contest. Apparently all somebody had to do to edge out Trump was to sink to his level and then keep going, by spewing even more extreme and bigoted positions!

For example, here are just a few of the things Carson has gotten press for over the last few weeks:

  • He compared abortion to slavery -- and women who have abortions to slaveholders -- and reiterated his belief that all abortions should be banned, even in cases of rape and incest.
  • He said he thought someone who is Muslim should not be president because that person’s religious beliefs are not “consistent with the Constitution,” despite the Constitution’s explicit rejection of religious tests for office.
  • He blamed the Holocaust on gun control, saying that if not for Hitler confiscating guns, Germans -- Jews and non-Jews alike --would have fought back against his plans for genocide.
  • He also blamed the victims of the Oregon mass shooting for not attacking the shooter, saying HE “would not just stand there and let him shoot me.”

The reason Carson’s rise amidst these controversial comments is so important is because it shows that the more hateful and detached from reality a candidate appears, the more the far-right base will favor him.

Make no mistake -- the demagogues of the Religious Right and the Tea Party are a problem, but base voters they are so eager to please with wild internet-fueled conspiracy theories and naked bigotry are arguably the bigger problem.

A September poll from Public Policy Polling found that 54 percent of Republican voters believe the president is a Muslim. Let that sink in.

This isn’t just benign wackiness that’s confined to Republican nominating contests, it’s a SIGNIFICANT chunk of the American electorate. And it’s the people who represent those views who are now IN CHARGE of Congress and fighting to get into the White House!

Rep. Paul Ryan looks all set to come in as the new Speaker of the House -- and there’s a faction of House Republicans who are accusing this rigidly anti-choice, Medicare-slashing Ayn Rand fanboy of being “too moderate!”

And whoever the eventually wins the GOP nomination for president, we know he or she will be one of the most right-wing candidates, pursuing one of the most extreme right-wing agendas, ever.

The GOP lives to serve its base. Let’s not forget exactly who is in charge. Ben Carson’s rise is a good reminder.

* * * * *

For much, much more on Ben Carson’s radical views, check out RightWingWatch.org.

Here are some particularly off-the-wall examples:

http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/ben-carson-womens-lib-movement-created-me-generation-helped-lead-ferguson

http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/carson-obamacare-worst-thing-happen-nation-slavery

http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/ben-carson-know-obama-read-mein-kampf

http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/ben-carson-explains-how-gay-marriage-marxist-plot-impose-new-world-order

http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/04/politics/ben-carson-prisons-gay-choice/

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/ben-carson-ap-history-isis

http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/carson-makes-rare-endorsement-war-crimes

PFAW

Why Next Week's Election in Virginia is So, So Important

Next Tuesday, November 3, Virginia will have its state elections and who votes, how they vote, and the work that goes into mobilizing voters in advance of Election Day are all critically important to 2016.

Virginia is more likely than not to be THE deciding swing state in 2016. So we need to lay the groundwork NOW for victory next year, and that means building voter turnout infrastructure, especially for the Latino vote, in key parts of the state.

A recent analysis from Moody’s Analytics projected that (based on current economic and political indicators), Democrats would win the White House by just 2 electoral votes -- which would be the closest margin in U.S. history. Their findings concluded that one state -- Virginia -- would deliver the election for the Democratic nominee.

There are few states that can change the electoral math more than Virginia, and one of the most important factors is the Latino share of the electorate -- a crucial 5% of the vote that will determine who wins and loses in the state.

PFAW is already on the air in Virginia with a Spanish-language ad that’s been getting a lot of press attention – highlighting for Latinos the importance of voting against the party of Donald Trump and its anti-immigrant, anti-working family agenda.

Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión said of our ad (translated):

“It’s the first ad that uses Trump to drive Latino voters to the polls, but it won’t be the last. Its focus on women and on two generations, immigrants and first generation, is innovative.”

And it’s not just 2016 that makes Virginia important on the national level. The upcoming 2015 elections for Virginia’s state legislature matter too.

In a recent court filing, Republicans ADMITTED that the GOP intentionally rigged the state’s congressional districts in order to produce a delegation heavily tilted their way.

It’s the Republican state legislature that has made Virginia one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. In 2012, President Obama won Virginia narrowly, but Republicans still picked up 8 of the state’s 11 congressional seats under the GOP-friendly maps drawn by the state legislature.

Now, party control of the state legislature is up for grabs.

If we can flip control of the State Senate away from right-wing Republicans, it will be a MAJOR DEFEAT for the Radical Right in what was once one of their most reliable strongholds!

Virginia not only housed the capital of the old Confederacy, it's the home of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the Founding Fathers of the modern radical Religious Right -- as well as the foundational institutions of the movement they created, like Robertson's Regent University and Falwell's Liberty University.

It's so sweetly fitting that People For the American Way -- the organization founded to counter their hate that was a constant thorn in their sides -- would be instrumental in finally turning what was once their deep red home state solid blue.

La Opinion Quote

Virginia is an Early Opportunity to Tarnish the GOP Brand


This year’s fight for control of the State Senate in Virginia has emerged as an excellent opportunity to engage Virginia’s Latino community and to further attach the extreme rhetoric and policies of the Republican Presidential candidates to the overall GOP brand. Targeting the Northern Virginia area, with its large Latino population, we’ll have an impact in the Senate District 29 race -- which is likely to determine party control of the state Senate. It will also allow us to connect with the Latino community and deepen the association of radical, anti-immigrant sentiment with the Republican Party at the local, state, and national level.

Building on our previous work and refining it ahead of 2016, PFAW’s 2015 plans include:

  • Radio and digital advertising targeting the Latino community in Northern Virginia, with the message that the state elections are the best way to make their voice heard ahead of 2016.
  • Media strategies to capitalize on the consistent stream of anti-immigrant remarks from national Republican candidates.
  • On the ground events and mobilizing volunteers along with partner organizations and PFAW Board Member Dolores Huerta ahead of Election Day.

Not only will these efforts boost Latino turnout in 2015, they will further damage the Republican brand with Latinos and help increase civic participation -- boosting the “muscle memory” of voting ahead of 2016.

Turn this purple state blue

PFAW’s Proven Track Record of Success


People For the American Way has a demonstrated record of mobilizing Latino voters, especially in Virginia, where our Latinos Vote! campaign has been active since 2012. That year, we made a full investment in Virginia and built a comprehensive program of outreach to the Latino community through TV, radio, digital, and direct mail. In the 2013 Governor’s race, we worked hand-in-hand with the McAuliffe campaign to secure victory over Tea Party darling Ken Cuccinelli and in 2014, we ran targeted digital ads to help secure Senator Warner’s re-election. In each of these races the Latino vote proved decisive in the Democratic candidates’ success. 2015 presents an excellent opportunity to continue to engage the Latino community and to further build the overall narrative about the dangerous policies and ideology that Republican candidates hold.

Is this a plan you can support? If so, please help PFAW fund this work with a donation today>>

PFAW

Senate GOP Deigns to Allow One Judicial Confirmation Vote

Mitch McConnell is allowing the Senate to vote on a judicial nominee later today, only the ninth such vote the majority leader has allowed this year.  The long journey of New York’s Lawrence Vilardo from nomination to confirmation typifies the dramatically different ways Senate Democrats and Republicans regard our nation’s federal judicial system.

In July of 2014, Judge Richard Arcara of Buffalo announced his plans to take senior status early in 2015.  Just three weeks later, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer recommended Vilardo to the White House, which thoroughly vetted him and nominated him on February 4 of this year.  Especially since the last remaining active judge in Buffalo was going to be taking senior status a month later, leaving it without an active federal judge for the first time in more than half a century, needless delay would be particularly harmful.  Unfortunately, although Vilardo could have been confirmed months ago, it is only today that the Senate is acting to fill the vacancy.

First, his hearing was delayed.  Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley holds confirmation hearings infrequently and forces nominees to wait weeks or months longer than necessary for their hearing.  In the first ten months of the year, Grassley has held only seven confirmation hearings for circuit and district court nominees, and they usually could have accommodated more nominees than Grassley allowed.  So it wasn’t until early May that Vilardo had his hearing.

Next, the Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on Vilardo’s nomination on May 21.  However, Grassley delayed the vote for two weeks without explanation.  This actually came as no surprise, since Senate Republicans have made unexplained and unjustified delays of President Obama’s judicial nominations a routine part of the confirmation process.  But after this delay, the committee approved Vilardo by unanimous voice vote on June 4, sending his unopposed nomination to the full Senate.

In the nearly five months since, the nomination has languished, as Senate Republicans have refused to schedule a vote.  Schumer took to the Senate floor to formally request a vote in July, so that this and two other New York vacancies could be filled before the Senate’s extended summer recess.  It only takes one senator to scuttle such a request, and Grassley took to the floor to say no.  Grassley did not claim that senators needed more time to vet the nominees.  Nor did he claim that there were problems with the nominees.  Instead, he said the Senate should not vote on any of the New York nominees because the Senate was planning to vote in September on a Missouri nominee who had been waiting longer.  He also cited the previous confirmation of many of President Obama’s judicial nominees throughout the country as an excuse, as if that were somehow a justification for denying New Yorkers effectively functioning courts even though the Senate was fully prepared to vote.  Grassley's action made clear that even when everyone agrees that particular nominees are highly qualified to fill critically important positions in our nation’s judiciary, the GOP regards allowing our courts to function effectively as a major concession to the Democrats.

The same thing happened in mid-September, this time with Texas Senator John Cornyn instead of Grassley serving as the hatchet man.  Cornyn claimed the Senate should delay voting on the New York nominees because Senate Democrats had held confirmation votes for several judges at the end of last year’s lame duck session – as if that were a legitimate justification.  Further weakening Cornyn’s credibility, he failed to mention that three of those nominees were from Texas, and that he himself had specifically urged the Democrats to confirm them during the lame duck.

At the end of September, the president of the New York State Bar Association condemned the delays and urged the Senate to swiftly vote on Vilardo and all the other pending nominees.

Last week, McConnell allowed the Senate to confirm one of the New York nominees, Ann Donnelly.  And today, he is finally allowing a vote on Vilardo.

As noted above, this is only the ninth judicial confirmation of the year.  In contrast, when Democrats took over the Senate during George W. Bush’s last two years in office, they had let the Senate confirm 34 judicial nominees at this same point.  So while judicial vacancies and judicial emergencies fell during 2007, both have risen significantly in 2015 due to GOP refusal to process nominations in a timely manner.

So Lawrence Vilardo’s confirmation later today is something to celebrate.  But it also begs the question of why Senate Republicans are limiting today’s vote to just one nominee.

PFAW

Don't Like Fracking? #GetMoneyOut

Last week, PFAW’s Government By the People campaign coordinator Rio Tazewell joined Food and Water Watch, along with a dozen partner organizations, in delivering more than 350,000 petitions in support of the Protect Our Public Lands Act. This bill would outlaw the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, commonly known as “fracking”, on federally-owned lands. In his remarks, Tazewell highlighted the importance of connecting the dots between issues like protecting our public lands and the influence of unchecked, unlimited and undisclosed money in our elections, as well as the need for an amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United.

If scientific and public opinion were the driving forces in Congress, this bill would likely be passed with little resistance. But given that big money and corporate interests have rigged the electoral process to gain undue influence on the legislative process, reform organizations have to work even harder to advance commonsense legislation. Passing the Protect Our Public Lands Act would be a significant step toward ensuring a more sustainable country for all Americans to enjoy, present and future.

The groups represented in the petition delivery understand that in order to protect our public lands from the perils of fracking we must also address an underlying problem: too much corporate special interest money flowing into our elections. Fortunately organizations are already mobilizing around a set of solutions to address this issue. First and foremost, we need an amendment to the Constitution to reverse Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United. A monumental effort like amending the Constitution will require extensive cross-issue organizational collaboration, and last week’s petition delivery built on the foundation of what is becoming a broad movement to address the influence of big money in politics. 

PFAW

Why Is Jeb Bush Courting Pat Robertson?

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Jeb Bush, battling slumping poll numbers, will travel to Regent University this Friday for an interview with the school's founder, televangelist Pat Robertson.

Jeb's decision may be mystifying, particularly to millennial voters who knowRobertson mostly as a televised buffoon given to outrageous and embarrassing comments, bad advice, faulty predictions, and personal conversations with God about presidential politics. But while Robertson's influence has diminished over the years, he has had a lasting (and damaging) impact on American culture and politics.

Like the late Jerry Falwell, Robertson was a pioneer in the use of television to build a Christian ministry, and Robertson joined Falwell and other televangelists who teamed up in the late 1970s to create the Religious Right political movement. Falwell was a fundamentalist Baptist and Robertson a charismatic Pentecostal, but they found common ground in promoting a sustained, religion-based attack on separation of church and state, feminism, gay rights, unions, and other enemies of the right-wing political strategists, like Paul Weyrich, who recruited them into politics

Robertson actually ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. He didn't get very far as a candidate, but he built a huge list of supporters. Political operative Ralph Reed turned that list into the Christian Coalition, which at the beginning of the 1990s set itself the goal of taking working control of the Republican Party.

Pat Robertson, in other words, helped create today's polarized politics -- a Republican Party that is much further to the right than Ronald Reagan's and far less willing to engage in the compromises required to govern, and a Religious Right movement that continues to poison our political climate by treating politics as spiritual warfare and political opponents as demonic enemies of faith and freedom.

A memorable example of that attitude came just after the 9/11 attacks, in which Robertson joined Jerry Falwell in blaming the attacks on gays, feminists, defenders of church-state separation, and People For the American Way. But we can hear the same attitude from GOP candidates and right-wing activists every day.

Regent University, where Jeb Bush will speak on Friday, is part of the massive cultural and political infrastructure that Religious Right leaders like Robertson have built in recent decades. Religious Right schools of government and law produce people like Michele Bachmann and former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who see public office as a way to make America conform to their "biblical worldview."

Another part of Robertson's infrastructure is the American Center for Law and Justice, which he created to be a Religious Right counterpart to the ACLU. The ACLJ has undermined church-state separation in the U.S. and promotes global culture war through offices in Europe, Russia, and Africa. While it portrays itself as a champion of religious freedom, the ACLJ fought bitterly against the building of a Muslim community center that was falsely dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque." 

ACLJ founder and chief counsel Jay Sekulow is scheduled to moderate the audience Q&A at Bush's appearance. He may or may not mention that his son Jordan, executive director of the organization, was hired earlier this year as an adviser to Jeb's Right to Rise PAC.

Jordan Sekulow's hiring was seen as a signal that the Bush campaign was serious about competing for conservative evangelical voters who might initially be more excited about other candidates. Bush's pilgrimage to Regent University is another sign that even "establishment" Republican candidates are dependent on the Religious Right activists who make up a big part of the party's base.

And Bush, whose plans to run as the financially dominant above-it-all powerhouse were derailed by Donald Trump, is back to the GOP primary slog. And he's looking for support from Religious Right leaders with their own political agenda, one that threatens the rights of women, LGBT people, religious minorities, and anyone who doesn't meet their definition of a real American.

PFAW

Leapfrog Day at the Judiciary Committee

Progress in moving judicial nominations is always welcome.  But small increments of progress also serve to shine a light on the greater obstruction that is going on.  That happened earlier this week when the Senate held a confirmation vote on one long-waiting nominee, but did nothing on eight additional nominees who were long ago fully vetted and advanced without opposition by the Judiciary Committee.

And it’s happening Wednesday morning, as the Committee holds a hearing for four district court nominees.  It’s good that Chairman Chuck Grassley is holding a hearing for two nominees from Iowa and one apiece from New York and California.  But it begs several questions.  For instance, since there are ten other nominees waiting for their opportunity to appear before the committee, why are there only four nominees at today’s hearing, rather than five or six?  And why has Grassley never held more than one hearing per month?  No wonder there is such a backlog of nominees at the committee stage, most of whom were nominated back in July or earlier.

In fact, all of them were nominated before one of the nominees up today, Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger, who Grassley allowed to leapfrog over all the others since he recommended her to the White House to serve in Iowa’s Southern District.  President Obama nominated Ebinger last month.  So why no hearing for Mary Barzee Flores of Florida, who was nominated way back in February on the recommendation of Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio?  Why no hearing for any of the four nominees for district courts in Pennsylvania, who were nominated in July upon the joint recommendation of Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey?

You shouldn’t have to have been hand-picked by Chuck Grassley to deserve a timely committee hearing.  As chairman, Chuck Grassley should be treating all nominees fairly.  If he wants to be taken seriously in his claims that he is conducting himself responsibly as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he should ensure that each of the remaining ten nominees has a hearing before Thanksgiving.

PFAW

Today's Vote Highlights Senate's Failures on Confirming Judges

Good news:  The Senate held a confirmation vote on a judicial nominee today.  Bad news: The Senate held a confirmation vote on only one judicial nominee today.

Ann Donnelly, set to fill a judicial emergency in the Eastern District of New York, was cleared by a unanimous Judiciary Committee way back on June 4, more than four months ago.  On the same day, the committee also unanimously voted to advance two other New York nominees to the full Senate.  Yet after months of delay, Majority Leader McConnell is finally allowing a vote on only one of the three.  Also being ignored are an additional six judicial nominees from other states who were unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee.  Most of the stalled nominees have been awaiting their floor vote since June or July.  All should have been confirmed by now.

It is hard to fathom a legitimate reason to refuse to schedule a vote on judicial nominees who have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee.  After all, that is one of the most important functions of the United States Senate, one that is specifically tasked to it by the Constitution.  Article III, which established the federal courts, was not some afterthought tossed into the nation’s charter document.  When the Senate abdicates its responsibility to consider judicial nominees, it sabotages the effectiveness of the judicial system that is indispensable in protecting the rights of the American people.

Like President Obama, George W. Bush had a Senate controlled by the opposing party in his last two years in office.  But the disparity in how the Senate carried out its constitutional responsibilities is stark.  While the Democratically-controlled Senate had voted on 33 of Bush’s judges at this point in 2007, New York’s Ann Donnelly will be only the eighth judge voted on this year.  Vacancies nationwide are up by more than 50% since the beginning of the year, and judicial emergencies have more than doubled.

So why are Senate Republicans refusing to hold confirmation votes for New York nominees Lawrence Vilardo and LaShann DeArcy Hall?  Why must individuals and businesses in Tennessee be forced to endure understaffed courts rather than have the Senate vote on nominees Waverly Crenshaw and Travis McDonough?  Why do Senate Republicans refuse to allow votes on Mimi Wright of Minnesota, Paula Xinis of Maryland, and John Vazquez of New Jersey?

Perhaps most egregious is the Senate GOP’s obstinate refusal to grant timely consideration to L. Felipe Restrepo of Pennsylvania, whose nomination to the Third Circuit is nearly a year old.  Nominated with the support of both home state senators – Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey – Restrepo was fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee without opposition.  He would fill a vacancy that has been designated a judicial emergency.  While his nomination has been pending, a second vacancy has opened on the same court, making his confirmation even more vital.  Yet despite his words of support for Restrepo, Toomey has collaborated with his GOP colleagues in making sure that his eventual confirmation be delayed as long as possible.

So today’s confirmation vote for Ann Donnelly is good news.  But the Senate’s refusal to vote on the eight other long-waiting circuit and district court nominees is bad news – bad news for the Senate, bad news for the judiciary, and bad news for the Americans whose access to justice is being sacrificed for partisan reasons.

PFAW

PFAW's Right Wing Watch Riles Up the Far Right

At Right Wing Watch – a project of People For the American Way – we know we’ve done our job when we’ve made the Right Wing really, really mad. So if the coverage we’ve been seeing in the right-wing media is any indication, we’ve been doing our job especially well lately. Here’s a roundup of some recent anti-endorsements:

  • The conservative blog Newsbusters calls Right Wing Watch PFAW’s “hit squad” in an article we couldn’t have written better ourselves. In addition to crediting PFAW with “destroying Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s reputation in the 1980s,” the article touts some of Right Wing Watch’s greatest successes – including its coverage of the anti-choice and anti-gay HGTV stars David and Jason Benham. Newsbusters correctly notes that Right Wing Watch broke the news when then-presidential candidate Scott Walker defended mandatory and medically unnecessary ultrasounds as “a cool thing out there” (though they incorrectly allege that the reporting “twisted” Walker’s words). And while the Newsbusters article fails to achieve its goal of discrediting Right Wing Watch, it does provide many great examples of Right Wing Watch’s reporting appearing in major news outlets like USA Today, MSNBC, Salon, Slate, and the Huffington Post.
  • In an interview with Family Research Council Vice President Jerry Boykin, far-right radio host Rick Wiles suggested that the gunman in the recent mas shooting at Umpqua Community College might have been inspired by reading Right Wing Watch. Boykin went on to accuse Right Wing Watch of using the “exact same tactics as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
  • Despite messianic rabbi Jonathan Cahn’s doomsday prophecy, the United States didn’t experience a cataclysmic disaster this past September, which must have rattled right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson who have spent months anticipating it. Right Wing Watch pointed out that the prophecy didn’t come true -- much to the frustration of WND, a Religious Right news site that Right Wing Watch has been reading and covering for years. WND took specific issue with Right Wing Watch blogger Brian Tashman, who had reported on the Cahn prophecy, for his “slander” and “lack of truthfulness.” It’s not clear how pointing out that the world didn’t end last month qualifies as slanderous, but you can read the rest of WND’s criticism here.
  • Right Wing Watch might consider outlandish criticism from the Radical Right to be a sign of a job well done, but many on the Right feel the same way about a mention on Right Wing Watch. Ann Corcoran, an anti-refugee resettlement advocate, has made several appearances on Right Wing Watch for her xenophobic remarks about Syrian refugees, posted on her blog that she considered the coverage to be “a great honor” and “a goal to work toward” for other right-wing activists.

Right Wing Watch is as committed as ever to monitoring and exposing the activities of the right-wing movement – no matter what they might say about us. Read more Right Wing Watch coverage.

PFAW

Supreme Court Goes Back to Work and Shows Again Why Election Day Is Judgment Day

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

The Supreme Court began its 2015-6 Term earlier in October. Even though it issued no decisions, the critical issues it considered and the stark divisions on the Court illustrate why Election Day 2016 will be Judgment Day for the Supreme Court and our rights and liberties, when America determines the president who will select Supreme Court nominees beginning in 2017.

Three cases in which the Court heard oral argument in October are good examples. As Supreme Court analyst Tony Mauro put it, the importance of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Electric Power Supply Association is "hard to overestimate," since it could involve literally billions of dollars in electricity costs and determine whether the nation's power grid collapses in the case of a future blackout.

The question before the Court is the validity of a FERC rule that would have the economic effect of persuading large electricity users to cut back their demands at peak power usage times. Not surprisingly, conservative justices like Scalia and Roberts seemed to be clearly siding with big power companies, based on a narrow view of federal government authority, while moderates like Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor appeared to agree with the case for federal authority and the FERC rule.

With Justice Alito recusing himself from the case, the question is whether Justice Kennedy will side with the moderates and uphold the rule or vote with extreme conservatives and vote to affirm a lower court decision striking down the rule. A 4-4 tie would result in the lower court ruling being upheld without a controlling opinion. But if a similar issue arises in a year or so, and if Kennedy, Scalia, or Ginsburg have retired from the Court and are replaced by a nominee selected by the next president, the answer will likely depend on who nominates the new justice.

The Court was similarly divided during oral arguments in October in Montgomery v. Louisiana. That case concerns whether the Court's ruling in 2012, that it is unconstitutional to impose life sentences without possibility of parole on people convicted of murder when they were juveniles, applies to people like 70-year old Henry Montgomery, who was convicted for such a crime long before the Court's ruling and has already spent more than 50 years in prison.

Far right justices Scalia and Alito sounded clearly negative on Montgomery's claim, suggesting that the Court did not even have jurisdiction to hear it, while justices like Kagan and Breyer were far more receptive. As occurred in the 2012 ruling, this case is likely to produce a 5-4 decision with the outcome depending on Justice Kennedy. The fate of a thousand or more people convicted for life while juveniles like Henry Montgomery will hang in the balance.

On its last day of oral arguments in October, the Court heard Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, one of several cases this Term that concern efforts by business to prevent consumers and others from using class actions to redress corporate wrongdoing. Conservatives on the Court have generally sided with business in such cases and have already severely limited the use of class actions, and Gomez may well be another example.

The issue in the case is whether a business can prevent a consumer like Jose Gomez from bringing a class action to get large amounts of damages and other relief for many injured consumers by offering to give him personally all the damages he can recover as an individual -- in this case, around $1,500 for violating a federal law on unsolicited telemarketing. This would be a good deal for the company, since as many as 100,000 consumers could be included in a class action because of similar violations.

As in previous class action cases, questions from moderates like Justices Kagan and Ginsburg suggested they are likely to agree with the consumer, while those from conservatives like Scalia and Roberts were in the corporation's favor, and Justice Kennedy is likely to be the deciding vote. Regardless of how this case is decided, other cases to be considered by the Court this Term -- as well as in future years -- are likely to have a significant impact on the ability of consumers and others to band together via class actions to obtain meaningful relief for wrongs committed by corporations.

It is always difficult to predict Court decisions and votes based on comments and questions at oral argument, and the Court may not even reach the merits of all the issues presented in these cases. But the importance of the issues at stake -- billions of dollars in electricity costs, the stability of the nation's power grid, the fate of more than a thousand people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles, and the ability of consumers to effectively seek justice for corporate wrongdoing -- demonstrates the importance of the Supreme Court to the rights and interests of all of us. And the close divisions on the Court on these and other issues, coupled with the fact that four will be over 80 in the next president's first term, show the importance of the 2016 election on the future of the Court -- and why November 8, 2016 truly will be Judgment Day.

If you need more convincing, stay tuned as the Court continues its 2015-16 Term -- the last term before the 2016 election.

PFAW Foundation

Grassley's Leapfrogging Hurts Everyone, Especially Pennsylvanians

Yesterday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley announced a scheduled hearing next week for four district court nominees, three of whom were nominated in July.  Once again, he is skipping over Florida’s Mary Barzee Flores, who was nominated way back in February. But he’s skipping over nine other nominees, as well.

That’s because the fourth nominee at the hearing is from Iowa.  Upon Grassley’s recommendation, President Obama nominated Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger for the Southern District of Iowa on September 15.  Grassley has allowed her to leapfrog over:

  • Mary Barzee Flores (Southern District of Florida), nominated February 26, 2015
  • Inga Bernstein (Massachusetts), nominated July 30
  • John Younge (Eastern District of Pennsylvania), nominated July 30
  • Robert Colville (Western District of Pennsylvania), nominated July 30
  • Susan Baxter (Western District of Pennsylvania), nominated July 30
  • Marilyn Horan (Western District of Pennsylvania), nominated July 30
  • Dax Lopez (Northern District of Georgia), nominated July 30
  • Mary McElroy (Rhode Island), nominated September 8
  • Stephanie Gallagher (Maryland), nominated September 8
  • Clare Connors (Hawaii), nominated September 8

During a press conference at the National Press Club in April, 2015, Chairman Grassley stated that under his chairmanship, the Judiciary Committee would consider judicial nominees in the order they came:

I want you to know we take them up the way they come up to us.  Particularly, that is true of judges, as an example.  So the priority’s set by what we receive from the White House.

Other things being equal, few would complain when a chairman moves quickly to advance a nominee from their home state, within reasonable limits.  Last year, for instance, then-Chairman Patrick Leahy scheduled a hearing for Vermont nominee Geoffrey Crawford ahead of three nominees who had been nominated less than three weeks before him, one of whom was for a circuit court.  (He also skipped over three other nominees for whom their Republican home state senators were refusing to submit blue slips.)  Leahy was also holding two hearings a month, so little time was lost.

But ten nominees are a lot to leapfrog, especially when nine of them were recommended and publicly endorsed by both home state senators, and when most were nominated long before Ebinger.  Also relevant is that Grassley’s chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee has been marked with such partisanship.  For instance, with the collaboration of his fellow Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (who refused to turn in his blue slip for a nominee he'd publicly endorsed on the day he was nominated), Grassley was able to delay a hearing for Third Circuit nominee Phil Restrepo for seven months.

And a quick look at the list of skipped nominees shows that Pennsylvania is bearing the brunt of this delay, as well.  Four of the skipped nominees would serve in that state.  All four were recommended by both Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic Senator Bob Casey, and all were nominated way back in July.  Three of them would serve in the Western District, where these seats have been vacant since 2013.  Casey submitted his blue slip long ago, but Toomey is once again delaying, as he did with Restrepo.

Grassley is playing self-serving and partisan games with our nation’s nonpartisan judiciary, which is a problem for everyone.  And since Toomey is collaborating with Grassley’s obstruction, the people of Pennsylvania are getting particularly hurt.

PFAW

Despite Lack of Questions, Money in Politics a Constant Theme of Democratic Debate

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

When CNN asked for input from the public on topics for last night’s Democratic debate, they were flooded with hundreds, possibly thousands, of questions about getting big money out of politics. But none of the moderators asked a single question about it, either unaware of or indifferent to the groundswell of people who wanted to hear more from the candidates on this issue.

Even without a question posed, money in politics was a pervasive theme throughout the night. Jim Webb kicked off the debate by acknowledging that “people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process” and painting himself as a leader who hasn’t been “coopted” by the system. Bernie Sanders wove the issue throughout his comments, connecting it to everything from climate change to Wall Street regulation. He brought up the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens Uniteddecision more than once, saying that Americans rightly “want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United.”

The candidates are not only right to bring up the big-money takeover of our democracy -- they’re smart to do so.  Polling consistently shows that this is a top issue for voters and that Americans are looking for leaders who will fight for reform. More than nine in ten voters want to see their elected leaders work to lessen big money’s influence in elections.

But we want to hear more from candidates about how they will actually make reform happen. The leading candidates have laid out agendas on money in politics reform that include a range of solutions, from a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United, to disclosure of secret political spending, to small donor empowerment measures. The CNN moderators missed a ripe opportunity to ask the candidates how they would put these plans in place if they become the next president.

At the next debate, it’s time to move from talking about the problem of big money to talking about the solutions.

PFAW

Event Primer: Rubio’s Address to the LIBRE Initiative Forum

On Saturday, Marco Rubio is speaking at a forum sponsored by the Kochs’ LIBRE Initiative. Both the LIBRE Initiative and Marco Rubio have an extensive history of pushing extreme measures that are out of line with the priorities of working families.

The LIBRE Initiative

LIBRE backs anti-immigrant Republicans while claiming to support immigration reform. For example:

  • The group attacked Rep. Pete Gallego (D-TX), a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform whose opponent had indicated that he would oppose reform.
  • LIBRE supported Andy Tobin (R-AZ), who not only opposed comprehensive reform, but also voted for Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant bill S.B. 1070 and hyped unfounded fears that Central American children fleeing to the southern border could be carrying Ebola.

LIBRE promotes conservative policy priorities at odds with the priorities of Latino working families.

  • On immigration, LIBRE has called DACA “pandering” and “dangerous" and opposes the President’s recent actions, DACA+ and DAPA.
  • LIBRE opposes increasing the minimum wage and rallies against clean energy development.
  • Much of LIBRE’s efforts go toward attacking the Affordable Care Act.
  • LIBRE's executive director said he supports voter ID laws, which make it harder for Latinos to vote.

LIBRE is a Koch front group designed to push a far-right agenda.

  • At least half of LIBRE’s revenue in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years came from two other Koch front groups.
  • Although LIBRE is organized as a trust, with executive director Daniel Garza as trustee, a Koch-connected group has the power to fire him at any time.

For an in-depth analysis of the LIBRE Initiative’s funding and tactics, see People For the American Way’s report on the LIBRE Initiative. The report is also available in Spanish here.

Marco Rubio

Presidential candidate Marco Rubio was first elected to the Senate with strong Tea Party support. When he’s not missing votes, he has stood out as one of the most extreme senators. The far-right Heritage Action for America ranks Rubio as the senator who is the 5th most aligned with their priorities. Key pieces of Rubio’s record:

On Immigration

  • Rubio initially backed comprehensive immigration reform, but balked when the far Right started speaking out against him. He now believes his work on the legislation was a mistake.
  • Rubio said he “would love to defund the immigration order” from President Obama that protects DREAMers and families from deportation.
  • Rubio promised that if he were elected president, he would not support citizenship or even legal status for undocumented immigrants during either of his possible terms as president.

On Economic Issues

  • Rubio said, “I don’t think a minimum wage law works.”
  • Rubio’s tax plan gives extensive, undeserved tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
  • Rubio has voted multiple times against making college more affordable, including voting for an amendment that would’ve “stripped out money for Pell Grants and historically black colleges and $2 billion [from] community colleges.”

On Social Issues

  • Rubio warned that marriage equality represents “a real and present danger” to America.
  • Rubio believes abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest.
  • Rubio supports cutting Social Security and ending Medicare in the form that seniors have relied on for decades.

Democracy for Some?

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Fearless is the word that comes to mind after a recent visit to Selma with 60 members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) and African American Ministers In Action (AAMIA). Fearless were those who sat in, marched in, taught, prayed, would not be denied 50 years ago. They established the paradigm for what those of us today, who sadly are still in battles for many rights, but more specifically voting rights, must do.

Republican politicians who claim there is no need to restore the protections we lost two years ago when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) need not look any further than Alabama today to see why they are very wrong.

Alabama has a voter ID law requiring people to show government-issued identification in order to vote. But last week the state announced it was closing 31 driver’s license offices, including offices in all counties where Black residents comprise over three quarters of registered voters. In other words, the state is requiring that voters have ID to cast a ballot, and then taking away the places to get that ID - for Black communities in particular. If that doesn’t show that voting protections are still needed, I don’t know what does.

Despite this appalling development, Jeb Bush said yesterday that he doesn’t support reauthorizing the VRA, suggesting that there’s no longer a need for it.

No longer a need for it? The destructive changes in Alabama are exactly the kind of measures that the VRA was designed to protect against. For years, Alabama was one of the states covered by Section 5 of the Act, which required certain places with a history of voting discrimination to get all changes in voting procedures cleared by the federal government before they could take effect. That law stopped scores of voting changes from being implemented in Alabama before they could do any harm. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, that safeguard is gone. On the very same day the Shelby County Supreme Court ruling eviscerated the VRA, Alabama said it would start enforcing its voter ID law.

The fearless women and men in the same state that serves as a symbol of the advancement of voting rights, those Baby Boomers, must still fight with the Millennials to protect them. Like our tour guide last month, Joanne Bland, who in 1965 was an 11 year old member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, activists’ refusal to be discouraged from praying and marching in 1965 is still encouraging in 2015.  She and others were honored by thousands who marched and prayed this year on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, including President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and countless faith and community leaders and activists. They remain the symbol of intergenerational strategic and sacrificial actions that must be taken still today to address and end ongoing racial discrimination in voting.

But it’s not just Alabama. In Mississippi our AAMLC members are seeing precincts closing in or near African American churches, forcing Black residents to travel to white communities to vote. In Florida, a state representative is talking about Republicans winning elections by maximizing the number of incarcerated African Americans in a district, framing the disenfranchisement of Black Americans as an opportunity for political gain. Since the 2010 elections, a whopping 21 states have put new laws in place that make it harder to vote.

Like those who were fearless in the past, we must be fearless today and make sure that all know the fundamental, inalienable right to cast a ballot is in danger still, especially for people of color. Our political system is built on the promise of democracy for all, not democracy for those who can afford to drive cross-state on a weekday to get an ID. How can GOP leaders and presidential candidates continue to insist with a straight face that there’s no need to restore protections for voters? I wish they could one day walk, march in our shoes, to feel the pain of a promise with unnecessary barriers, to try to register and vote.  In the meantime let’s be fearless!

PFAW Foundation

PFAW Telebriefing: The Future of the Supreme Court

On Monday, the first day of the Supreme Court’s new term, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing for members detailing what’s at stake at the Court over the next year.

PFAW Senior Communications Specialist Layne Amerikaner moderated the call.  Affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon, who recently published an extensive Supreme Court term preview, and PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg, lead author of the new PFAW report, “Judgment Day 2016: The Future of the Supreme Court as a Critical Issue in the 2016 Presidential Election,” were joined by PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker to brief members and answer questions.

Paul kicked off the call by discussing the critical issues on the Court’s docket right now: the rights of working people, equal representation through voting, education opportunities through affirmative action, and more. For example, Paul explained that Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could “severely weaken the ability of workers to form unions” that negotiate salary, benefits, and more. In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court could make it very difficult to “maintain healthy diversity at colleges and universities.”

As Paul explained, the mere fact that these and some other cases are on the docket is disturbing. These cases have been “ginned up to topple precedents that conservatives don’t like.” Affirmative action, union fair share fees to prevent free-riding, one person one vote for equality of representation: these are principles that the Court decided decades ago. It used to be that conservatives couldn’t muster up four justices to take on cases like these, but now that Justices Roberts and Alito have joined the Court, we’re seeing more and more cases and decisions that challenge fundamental rights.

Elliot detailed the importance of the ideological makeup of the Court: There have been more than 80 5-4 decisions in the Supreme Court since Roberts and Alito joined the Court. Most of these cases have been extremely harmful to our rights, in areas like money and politics, voting rights, and reproductive freedom. Some, though, have protected important rights, as Justice Kennedy has at times been unwilling to join the conservatives on the Court. For example, he voted with the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges to make marriage equality the law of the land. But as Elliot reminded members, there will be four justices in their 80s by the end of the next president’s first term, and another conservative justice would be devastating for issues that PFAW and members care deeply about, such as abortion rights, worker protections, and religious liberty, just to name a few.

Both conservative and progressive groups know that the next president could very well shift the makeup of the Court and thus the outcomes of key cases. Questions from members focused on what to do to take action on this issue. Elliot and Marge encouraged members to discuss with their friends and colleagues the critical impact the 2016 election will have on how pressing issues will be decided for decades to come. They also discussed with members the possibility of attending town halls for presidential candidates, who will nominate the next Supreme Court justices, as well as Senate candidates, who must confirm the justices, in order to ask questions about the types of justices they will support.

Listen to the full briefing here:

PFAW