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PEOPLE FOR BLOG

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

Two days after nominating Rebecca Haywood to the Third Circuit, and one day after nominating Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, President Obama today continued to work to make sure that our nation’s appellate vacancies are filled with qualified judges.  Specifically, he has nominated Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes to the Sixth Circuit, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.  Upon confirmation, she would become the first woman from Kentucky on the 6th Circuit.

This seat has been vacant since Judge Boyce Martin retired back in 2013.  The court’s caseload is so heavy that the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has officially designated the vacancy as a judicial emergency.

This nomination comes after long and extensive consultations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, the nominee’s two home state senators.  In fact, press reports from more than two years ago noted that Justice Hughes was being vetted by the White House.  No one can credibly claim that the president didn’t engage in adequate consultation.

For six years as Minority Leader and now as Majority Leader, McConnell has done everything he can do obstruct President Obama’s judicial nominees.  Even as Minority Leader, he was able to needlessly block votes on highly qualified consensus nominees for months.  As Majority Leader, it is even easier to cause needless delay in floor votes, and McConnell’s Senate confirmed only 11 judges last year, the lowest number since 1960 (when there were hundreds fewer judgeships to fill).

McConnell has already led his party to say they will refuse to consider Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, a position so absurd and so widely unpopular that several cracks have already appeared in the party’s wall of obstruction.  We certainly hope that McConnell doesn’t show similar partisanship with Justice Hughes’s nomination.  There is a judicial emergency that needs to be filled, and a qualified nominee stands ready to fill it.

PFAW

GOP's Newest Defense of SCOTUS Obstruction Falls Apart

GOP talking points have continued to fall apart upon even minimal reflection and scrutiny, only to be revised and discredited yet again.  That is not a surprise, since they were so hastily thrown together as a post-hoc justification for a political decision Mitch McConnell made with unseemly haste as soon as he heard that Justice Scalia had passed away.

Now Republicans are trying out some new iterations in a desperate attempt to find some rationale to justify their decision to not do their job and consider – or even meet with – the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

For instance, Sen. Orrin Hatch says:

although in recent years it’s become customary to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominations, for the first 130 years of our nation’s history the Senate never held a hearing on any Supreme Court nominee

They didn’t have hearings, but that doesn’t mean the Judiciary Committee and Senate simply ignored the nomination.  It just means the Judiciary Committee and full Senate did their job and fully considered the merits of the nominations without feeling there was a need for hearings at the beginning of the process.  That is a far cry from today, when not having committee hearings means the Senate not taking any actions whatsoever to consider the nomination.  The senator’s argument is so pitifully irrelevant as to show that the GOP is desperate to trick the American people into thinking there is some principle behind their decision.

Hatch also says:

And a justice has never died in office this late in a term-limited President’s last year, when voting on the President’s successor has already begun.

As GOP talking points are repeatedly refuted by fact, they keep modifying them.  Before, they were suggesting there was no precedent for SCOTUS confirmations in an election year.  As Justice Kennedy can attest, that simply is not true.  Now they add more detail – when the vacancy is due to death, this late in an election year, but only an election year where the president is term-limited.  Of course, presidents were not term limited until the 22nd Amendment was adopted in 1951 (when Sen. Hatch was 16), so as a historical example, it conveniently ignores the vast majority of American history.

It also implicitly refutes the GOP’s own previous suggestion that they were acting in conformity with tradition.  If their newest TP is that this is a situation that has never arisen before (given their narrowing of the conditions), then they are also admitting that their decision to do their job is without historical precedent.  And they are right, as Lindsey Graham has candidly acknowledged.

Hatch also picks out a completely irrelevant historical example to justify inaction on the part of Senate Republicans:

In one case, Congress even abolished a Supreme Court seat rather than confirm the President’s nominee.

He is referring to a nomination by Andrew Johnson, where one house of Congress had already passed the bill eliminating the seat before the nomination was even made.  Eliminating a seat is action, not inaction.  Republicans are not talking about exercising congressional authority to establish the number of seats on the Supreme Court.  To the contrary, they are talking about eliminating the president’s constitutional authority to make nominations to fill the seats that Congress has established.  They want to keep the seat in existence, but just have it occupied by a justice selected by someone other than the person Americans already elected to fill it.

While Senate Republicans continue to throw out new post-hoc justifications in the hopes that something will stick, President Obama is doing his job.  Today, he is nominating someone to the Supreme Court.  Now the Senate needs to do their job and give the nominee timely consideration.

PFAW

Some People Are Still Doing Their Job on Judges

President Obama has nominated Rebecca Haywood of Pennsylvania to fill a vacancy on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that opened last July.  She would bring to the bench her many years of experience with the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Western District of Pennsylvania, where she is now Chief of the Appellate Division.  If confirmed, she would be the first woman of color to ever serve on the Third Circuit.

“If confirmed.”  It’s up to the Senate to thoroughly vet the nominee and vote on whether to confirm her.  Yet Senate Republicans who are refusing to #DoYourJob with any Supreme Court nomination have also been bottling up President Obama’s lower court nominees, as well.  There are already five other circuit court nominees who have yet to be granted hearings before the Judiciary; some have been waiting for more than two months already.

The bottleneck must end.  The president continues to do his job by nominating qualified jurists to serve on our nation’s courts.  Haywood and all of the other judicial nominees should receive the timely and fair consideration contemplated by the Constitution.

PFAW

Ron Johnson's Revisionist History

There’s good news and bad news regarding Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and the longtime effort to fill that state’s vacancy on the Seventh Circuit, which has been empty for more than six years.

The good news is that, almost two months after Donald Schott’s nomination, Johnson has at last said he has signed his “blue slip” of approval to the Judiciary Committee.  Under current committee practice, both home state senators must give their approval for the committee to process a circuit or district court nomination.  Since Sen. Tammy Baldwin had already submitted hers, there should be no more obstacles to finally letting Schott have a hearing.

The bad news is that Johnson’s statement announcing this is also a needless attack against any number of Democrats, including Baldwin.  He also offers a surprising explanation for why it took so long for their nominations commission to get around to seeking qualified individuals for this seat:

“The bipartisan compact worked beautifully, filling the Western District vacancy as well as a vacancy that opened on Wisconsin's Eastern Federal District Court.

“Our commissioners then began working on the appeals court vacancy. We worked on this last because it was not a judicial emergency and we knew there would be a smaller pool of applicants”  [emphasis added]

Sen. Johnson may not have wanted the commission to work on the circuit vacancy, but he is apparently not being accurate when he says what his reasons were. That’s because the Seventh Circuit seat was a judicial emergency when the commission began its work and all through the time that it was considering potential district court nominees.  Here is the chronology:

Johnson’s proffered reason for putting off work on filling the circuit seat for as long as possible certainly does not appear to be completely accurate.  Perhaps he should tell his constituents the real reason.

In the meantime, he could do Wisconsinites a great favor by pressing his fellow Republican, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, to hold Schott’s confirmation hearing as soon as possible.  This seat has been vacant for far too long.

PFAW

“Hobby Lobby II” Distorts the Principle of Religious Freedom

The following is a guest blog by Rev. Faye London, a member of the VASHTI Women’s Initiative within People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.

The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell case – which has now been consolidated with similar cases under the name Zubik v. Burwell – is a continuation of a strategy by the Right to gut the Affordable Care Act since they have been unable to repeal it. All of these cases are framed as "religious freedom" cases, yet trying to limit women’s reproductive freedom is based on a twisted understanding of what the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was meant to address.

Congress passed RFRA more than 20 years ago when the Supreme Court refused to protect native and indigenous individuals from being denied government benefits because of drug tests detecting peyote, a substance that was used in their religious ceremonies. RFRA was passed to protect people from having their free exercise of religion violated by the government.

Like so many others, this law has become a victim of targeted reinterpretation. In 2014, the Hobby Lobby decision made it legal for a corporation to act as an individual with regard to religious freedom. It also redefined religious freedom, so that people and corporations could use RFRA to avoid obeying laws that offend their religious beliefs, but don’t actually limit their free exercise of religion. Several states also considered laws intended to make it legal for any person or business to cite religion in order to ignore laws prohibiting discrimination against same gender loving people. And while that aspect of the debate was all over the news, the threat to women’s health posed by laws like this grew quietly in the background.

The case now at the Supreme Court attacks a vital piece of the puzzle by which ACA protects women's health by requiring health insurance to include contraception coverage without charge. There is an accommodation already in the law that sets an alternative route to coverage for women who work for nonprofit religious organizations that disapprove of contraception. All the organization has to do is fill out a very short and simple form or write a letter stating that as an organization they do not want to provide contraception, and they are relieved from that responsibility and the government takes over, directing the insurance company to pay for the contraception rather than the religious nonprofit. The Little Sisters of the Poor organization and others are saying that signing a one-page form is an "undue burden" on them morally, as it still constitutes participation in opening the way for women to access "sinful" contraceptive care.

This new trend is just another way to strip rights from poor people who depend on these services for survival. It is not about religious freedom. The accommodation is sufficient to protect the Little Sisters' religious freedom. This is about controlling women's bodies (and particularly poor women's bodies, since women of means can afford to pay out of pocket), in order to make space for those who would relieve themselves of any responsibility for ethical treatment of their employees or the public.

PFAW Foundation

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

Who’s Driving The GOP’s Supreme Court Blockade?

Almost immediately after the news broke of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last month, Republican senators started vowing to block the nomination of whomever President Obama appoints to succeed the conservative jurist. They were egged on in this kneejerk obstructionism by outside conservative groups who quickly circled the wagons in an effort to shut down any Supreme Court confirmation process.

Now, a few key conservative groups are leading the effort to pressure Republican senators to stay in line and to make it politically difficult for vulnerable Democrats to cooperate in a confirmation process. These groups have unified around a message that “the American people should decide” who the next Supreme Court justice is by waiting until the next president can nominate him or her — never mind that Americans did decide who they wanted picking Supreme Court justices when they reelected Obama in 2012.

This “let the people decide” message belies the true goals of the groups pushing it — not some idealistic belief in good governance, but an effort to shape a Supreme Court that favors business interests at the expense of workers and consumers and that helps to turn back the clock on women, LGBT people  and religious minorities.

A new report from People For the American Way looks at four of the conservative groups driving this strategy, outlining their history and their goals for the federal judiciary. It includes:

  • The Judicial Crisis Network was founded during the George W. Bush administration as the Judicial Confirmation Network with the goal of pushing through the nominations and confirmations of far-right judges to the federal bench.
  • The American Center for Law & Justice, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, often acts as a legal arm for the Religious Right’s attempts to deny liberties to LGBT people, Muslim Americans and others.
  • The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action have become forces for obstructionism as they pressure Republicans to abandon any attempt at bipartisan cooperation or simple governance.
  • The Family Research Council is working to turn back the clock on social advances for women, LGBT people and religious minorities — something that it hopes a friendly Supreme Court will accelerate.

Read the full report here.

PFAW

The Cruel Irony Of The Anti-Choice Movement’s TRAP Strategy

The Supreme Court heard arguments today in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which could be the most influential abortion rights case in decades. Whole Woman’s Health, which addresses a Texas law that aims to close abortion clinics by saddling them with expensive and unnecessary regulations, puts to the test the anti-choice movement’s long-term strategy of passing targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws meant to squeeze abortion providers out of existence.

As early as 1990, attorney Walter Dellinger, who went on to serve in the Clinton administration, was warning that the emerging strategy of setting up obstacles to abortion access would push women to obtain abortions later in their pregnancies, a more expensive and less safe procedure. These supposed “compromise” measures, he noted, were at the same time sometimes coupled with calls to cut off legal abortion during the second trimester of pregnancy. Dellinger wrote in The American Prospect:

To enact in the United States laws that simply prohibit abortions after twelve or eighteen weeks would constitute a strange and cruel response to the issue of late abortions. In this country, legislative deadlines for abortion would co-exist with access regulations designed to prevent women from being able to meet the deadline. No state truly concerned about either the increased maternal health risks or the moral implications of late abortions should consider the coercive step of prohibiting second trimester abortions while simultaneously pursuing policies that cause abortion to be delayed. … Bans on funding for abortions, shutting off access to public hospitals, parental consent/ judicial bypass laws, and testing requirements all fall into this category. Legislators who are troubled in principle by late abortions should support instead measures ensuring that every woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy can do so as early and as safely as possible.

Fast forward to late last year, when a study showed that exactly that had happened after Texas implemented its restrictive new law:

A new report released by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project — a research group based at the University of Texas at Austin that’s been tracking the state’s reproductive health policy over the past four years — finds that recent clinic shutdowns have greatly limited access to timely abortions statewide. In some cases, women had to wait nearly a month to be seen. In others, clinics had to turn women away, since they had no available appointment slots open.

As wait time to get an abortion increases, the estimated proportion of abortions performed in the second trimester increases. These later surgical abortions, although safe, are associated with a higher risk of complications and are significantly more costly to women than an earlier medical abortion. And even staunch abortion opponents are more opposed to late-term abortions compared to earlier procedures, citing the scientifically disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks gestation.

At today’s arguments in Whole Women’s health, Justice Anthony Kennedy hinted at this issue, according to the Wall Street Journal’s early reports:

Justice Kennedy ends the string of questions from the women justices.

He notes that drug-induced abortions are up nationwide, but down in Texas, where the number of surgical abortions is up since the state enacted its law. He wondered whether such an impact was “medically wise.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg similarly called out Texas’ solicitor general for undermining his own claim that the state’s regulations were meant to protect women’s health:

Justice Ginsburg asks: How many women will be located more than 100 miles from a clinic? Mr. Keller makes reference to a 25% number, but says that number is high because it doesn’t take into account some women close to clinics in New Mexico.

That’s odd, Justice Ginsburg says. She wonders why Texas would consider those New Mexico clinics an option, given that they wouldn’t meet the standards set forth in the state law. If your argument is right, New Mexico is “not a way out” for Texas, the justice tells Mr. Keller.

Even as the anti-choice movement is pushing restrictive regulations that, as the Texas study showed, drive women to seek abortions later in their pregnancy, it is championing measures at the state and federal level that would cut off legal abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy, partway through the second trimester.

Of course, the anti-choice movement is focusing on these two strategies because they believe they can pass muster in the courts and in public opinion in a way that the ultimate goal — an outright ban on abortion — would not. But what is left is not a regime that protects women’s health, as proponents of Texas’ law claim, but one that makes it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for women to obtain an abortion, which has been their ultimate goal all along.

 

PFAW

Donald Trump's Horrifying Anti-Immigrant Message Is Anything But New

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Donald Trump has horrifyingly shot to the top of the Republican presidential primary in part by presenting a belligerent "us vs. them" message -- with "them" usually being immigrants. It's no surprise that Trump's rhetoric has been appealing to white nationalists. In calling for the mass deportation of Latino immigrants and for barring Muslims from the country, he paints a picture of a country of and for white people.

Many Republicans have feigned shock and some, though not nearly enough have spoken out against Trump's bigotry. But while Trump has certainly helped to take the vitriol of the immigration debate to new levels, calling Mexican immigrants "rapists" and drug dealers and promising a "great wall" at the southern border, the sentiments he's expressing and policies he's pushing are nothing new. Trump and his fellow Republican presidential contenders are working out of a playbook that has been guiding the anti-immigrant movement on the ground and in Congress for a very long time. 

The current anti-immigrant movement centers around three groups -- the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA that all grew out of the vision of one activist who, like Trump, has unapologetically depicted America as a country of and for white people. While even some on the right are horrified by Trump's racism, these groups have long enjoyed a friendly reception on Capitol Hill as they have helped to sink any meaningful attempt at immigration reform. In fact, when it comes to policy, these groups are in many ways more extreme than Trump. NumbersUSA, which gives grades to candidates based on their immigration views, even docked Trump's grade over the summer, not because of his offensive remarks about immigrants but because he had put forward a muddled plan for a "merit-based system" for some undocumented immigrants.

A new report from People For the American Way explores the history and the influence of these three groups at the center of the opposition to immigration reform. 

John Tanton, the founder of all three groups, made his view of America clear when he wrote in 1993, "I have come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist, it requires an European-American majority and a clear one at that." At other times, he worried about a "Latin onslaught" on the United States and of immigrants "defecating and creating garbage and looking for jobs."

These views have been echoed by some in leadership positions of Tanton's organizations, including FAIR president Dan Stein, who once wondered, "How can we preserve America if it becomes 50 percent Latin American?" One member of FAIR's board of advisors once suggested giving "shoot-to-kill orders" to troops positioned on the southern border.

Tanton and some of his allies in this network of anti-immigration groups have also promoted extreme "population control" measures that should be troubling to anyone no matter if they're pro-life, pro-choice or anywhere in between. Tanton has praised China's one-child policy and regretted that India did not impose similar measures, and expressed his concern about "less intelligent" people having children. When asked about a former FAIR board member espousing similar viewpoints, Stein responded, "Yeah, so what? What is your problem with that?"

Those views were reflected years later when the conservative behemoth Heritage Foundation released a report estimating that immigration reform would cost the U.S. $6.3 trillion. The report essentially made the incorrect assumption that immigrants and their descendants would not be upwardly mobile. It was hardly surprising, then, when it turned out that one of the report's authors had previously written a dissertation positing that immigrants have lower IQs than native-born white Americans.

The anti-immigrant demagoguery we're hearing from Trump and others has a long history that precedes even Tanton and his network of advocacy groups. But understanding the forces behind today's immigration debate helps to put Trump in perspective. Trump talks a big, hateful, game, but his views are disturbingly close to those that have too long been met with a warm welcome --or at least a blind eye -- in Washington.

Read PFAW's new report, "The Anti-Immigrant Lobby: The White Nationalist Roots of the Organizations Fighting Immigration."

PFAW

‘School Choice’ Just Part of DeVos Family’s Far Right Agenda

Members of the DeVos family, which made billions with the Amway direct marketing company, have long been funders of far-right causes and Republican politicians. Over the years, they’ve appeared in PFAW and PFAW Foundation reports like Buying a Movement and Predatory Privatization. This week Inside Philanthropy has taken a  look at DeVos funding, which has been instrumental in driving anti-public education efforts all across the country.

The story’s author, Rick Docksai, writes that the DeVos family’s success at pushing “school choice” reflects its “remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes and putting it to work to shift voters’ and lawmakers’ mindsets in a rightward direction.”

Among the right-wing groups DeVos has funded are the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Federalist Society, Council for National Policy, Traditional Values Coalition, the Acton Institute, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. But education policy is a top priority.

Betsy DeVos is quite the political ringleader in her own right. She formerly chaired the Michigan Republican Party. And she's been called "the four-star general of the voucher movement," for her activism on this issue, which includes her present-day gigs as a board member of Advocates for School Choice and as head of All Children Matter, a group that has been pumping contributions into state elections since its inception in 2003. Conservative education reforms—school vouchers, in particular—are its rallying cause, and the organization claims a "win/loss record" of 121 to 60...

Docksai contrasts the DeVos family’s commitment to Religious Right and and social conservative causes with the Koch brothers’ more libertarian leanings. But, he notes, the DeVos family is just as far-right as the Kochs on economic policy:

DeVos' influence helped turn Michigan into a "right-to-work" state (e.g., no company in the state can obligate its employees to pay dues for union representation), for example. And they firmly back opponents of affirmative action: The Center for Individual Rights received funding from Dick and Betsy DeVos in 2001 after it challenged the University of Michigan's race-based admissions process in court, a lengthy legal fight that resulted in new court-imposed restrictions on the use of race as an admissions factor.

Inside Philanthropy says that Jeb Bush’s failed presidential campaign got “a significant share of its funding from Richard DeVos,” but says that’s a departure from the DeVos’s political win-loss record: “The family has been a major shaper of policymaking at the state and national levels and will surely remain so for years to come.”  

PFAW

Discriminatory "Religious Freedom" Bill is Bad for Our State

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

I am one who believes that we must be vigilant about protecting true religious liberty, which has been a guiding principle throughout our country's history. As the First Amendment makes clear, all people have a right to practice, or not to practice, any religion they choose. Laws that truly protect individuals' exercise of religion prevent the government from infringing on our rights.

But the state legislature is considering a bill (HB 757) that, though framed in the language of protecting First Amendment religious freedom, at its core is about one thing: discrimination. HB 757 was recently amended and passed by the state Senate and is now being considered by the House. As Americans United explains it, the bill would allow "any individual or 'faith-based' business, non-profit entity, or taxpayer-funded organization to ignore any law that conflicts with their religious beliefs about marriage." In other words, businesses and organizations could cite religion in order to refuse service to certain groups of people.

This bill could lead to any number of nightmare situations. Restaurant owners who refuse to serve same-sex or interracial couples. Domestic violence shelters that turn away unmarried mothers and their children. Adoption agencies that refuse to place a child with parents of different faiths.

It's not the first time Georgia has considered passing a "right to discriminate" bill. Why are our state representatives wasting time, again and again, pushing legislation that would harm Georgians and threaten to drive businesses out of the state? The bill's sponsor even admitted last week that the legislation could protect the Ku Klux Klan as a "faith-based" organization. This bill is too extreme for Georgia, plain and simple. 

While the new title of part II of HB 757, "the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia," may sound like it's about true religious protection, the bill is actually a cynical attempt to turn the idea of religious liberty into a sword to attack other people's rights, rather than to truly shield their own religious practices from improper government interference. That's not what religious liberty is about. Moreover, using religion as a tool to harm others is an idea that a strong majority of Georgians reject. According to new data from the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of Georgians oppose allowing small businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds.

Many faiths, including my own, teach that we should fight for the oppressed. Disguising a push for a "right to discriminate" under the mantle of First Amendment religious freedom is an insult to those moral principles. It's an insult to people of faith who take seriously the call to walk with, and fight for, the most vulnerable among us. 

As a Baptist pastor and as a Georgian, I urge our legislators to do the right thing by rejecting HB 757. On the senate floor, Sen. Nan Orrock said, "Be able to tell your grandchildren that you didn't vote for state-sanctioned discrimination." To that, I say: Amen.

Rev. Timothy McDonald III is Senior Pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and Co-Chair of People For the American Way's African American Ministers In Action.

PFAW Foundation

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