People For Blog

PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Ginsburg Calls Out the Roberts Court's Empowering of the Powerful

The Supreme Court issued a ruling today in another of its series of arbitration cases.  Yet again, the Court upheld the ability of a powerful corporation to force consumers to agree to arbitration and sign away their right to engage in class action should the company violate their legal rights.  Class actions are a vital mechanism to hold large businesses accountable.  We’ve been writing about this trend for the past several years in cases like AT&T v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant.

Unlike the other cases, today's ruling in DIRECTV v. Imburgia was not 5-4 in the predictable lineup.  Instead, it was 6-3, with Justice Breyer writing the opinion, joined by Justices Kagan, Scalia, Alito, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts.  Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justice Sotomayor) dissented, while Justice Thomas had a separate dissent.

Ginsburg’s dissent opened up with clear description of how the Roberts Court has empowered corporations and weakened consumers:

It has become routine, in a large part due to this Court’s decisions, for powerful economic enterprises to write into their form contracts with consumers and employees no-class-action arbitration clauses.  …  Acknowledging the precedent so far set by the Court, I would take no further step to disarm consumers, leaving them without effective access to justice.

Americans have long been able to count on strong consumer protection laws to protect them for being victimized by predatory corporations.  Those laws, including the right to class actions, have been essential in letting ordinary people stand as equals to giant corporations and hold those businesses accountable.  Ginsburg is correct to say that the line of 5-4 arbitration cases has left us “disarmed,” because giant corporations are increasingly empowered to change the relationship between buyer and seller into one between predator and prey.

We are, indeed, disarmed and without effective access to justice … despite laws designed to protect us.

In closing, Ginsburg wrote that the Court is:

further degrading the rights of consumers and further insulating already powerful economic entities from liability for unlawful acts.

We deserve better from our nation’s Supreme Court.

PFAW Foundation

Senate GOP Floats Plan to Politicize Judges Even More

Yesterday, Senate Republicans – who have allowed only 11 judicial confirmation votes the entire year – at long last agreed to schedule a vote for consensus Third Circuit nominee L. Felipe Restrepo.  The agreement came five months after he cleared the Judiciary Committee unanimously.  As if that needless wait weren’t already evidence of partisan obstruction, Republicans agreed to the vote only if it could be delayed by more than another month, until January 11.

And today, Roll Call is reporting on GOP plans to ramp up partisanship in judicial nominations even more:

Yet there is a decent chance Congress will go home for the year without [confirming anyone].  That would be a signal the process of confirming judges, already at its slowest pace in more than half a century, is grinding to a halt earlier than ever in the life cycle of a modern two-term president.

It remains likelier that, before adjourning next week, the majority Republicans will agree to create a handful of new judges — but perhaps only [Tennessee nominee Waverly Crenshaw] and four more who would also join U.S. District Courts in states represented by two GOP senators.

Currently, there are 13 circuit and district judicial nominees who have been waiting for a confirmation vote, some since as long ago as July.  When Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally schedules a vote on such a nominee, it has usually been in the order that they came out of the Judiciary Committee (and, when nominees advance on the same day, the order that they are listed on the Senate Executive Calendar).  Below is the list of nominees, in order, including the date they were approved by the Judiciary Committee and became eligible for a confirmation vote.  All but Restrepo would serve on district courts.  The list is color coded by partisanship of home state senators (with Restrepo the only one represented by both a Republican and a Democrat).

  1. L. Felipe Restrepo (PA, Third Circuit) – July 9
  2. Waverly Crenshaw (TN) – July 9
  3. Wilhelmina “Mimi” Wright (MN) – September 17
  4. John Vazquez (NJ) – September 17
  5. Paula Xinis (MD) – September 17
  6. Brian Martinotti (NJ) – October 29
  7. Robert Rossiter (NE) – October 29
  8. Edward Stanton (TN) – October 29
  9. Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger (IA) – November 5
  10. Leonard Strand (IA) – November 5
  11. Julien Neals (NJ) – November 5
  12. Gary Brown (NY) – November 5
  13. Mark Young (CA) – November 5

Under the scheme being floated by Senate Republicans, “their” nominees would skip over four district court nominees who come from states with Democratic senators, even though the blue-state nominees have been waiting longer for a vote.  Individuals and businesses in Minnesota, New Jersey, and Maryland would be punished by Mitch McConnell for electing the “wrong” senators, yet another escalation by the GOP in their politicization of the judicial confirmation process.

Every nominee waiting for a vote has been fully vetted by the Judiciary Committee and advanced without opposition to the full Senate.  Each should have a vote before senators go home.  It is bad enough that Restrepo has been needlessly put off to January.  Gaming the list to disfavor certain nominees based on which party their state’s senators belong to would add insult to injury.

PFAW

Republicans Created Trump; They Must Stand Up To Him

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Donald Trump made one of the most stunning political statements in recent memory yesterday when he called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." 

Campaign spokespeople quickly clarified that Trump was referring not only to a blanket ban on Muslim immigrants, but also to preventing Muslims from coming to the U.S. as tourists and possibly even preventing American citizens who are traveling or living abroad from returning home. (He generously made an exception for Muslim members of the military.)

Trump continues to be the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary. It's time for party officials to reckon with what they have created.

Trump is the product of a party that has for decades thrived on stirring up fears of a scary "other" -- from the Southern Strategy to Willie Horton to the persistent rumors that President Obama is a secret Muslim or Kenyan or both. The Republican establishment has for years tolerated its candidates rubbing shoulders with the most extreme elements of its base, whether it's the white nationalists who have spoken at CPAC or the parade of extremists at each year's Values Voter Summit. 

But there are certain things leading Republicans have largely been careful not to say out loud. Until now.

Trump, building off the Right's campaign to paint undocumented immigrants as dangerous invaders, launched his campaign by announcing that Mexican immigrants were rapists, drug dealers and other criminals. Then, when the news cycle shifted, he shifted his bigotry. He has spent the last several weeks repeating the objectively untrue claim that "thousands and thousands" of Muslim Americans in New Jersey took to the streets to celebrate the 9/11 attacks. He suggested shutting down some mosques and refused to rule out the possibility of a national database of American Muslims

Trump's relentless stream of bigotry isn't turning away the far-right base of the GOP. Instead, he remains at the top of Republican presidential polls. 

It's not enough for Trump's rivals and the party's leadership to say they disagree with his absurd plan to bar Muslims from the country. They must reckon with what their party has become and, if they don't like it, speak out forcefully on behalf of the American values of freedom, liberty and pluralism. It's not enough for them to reject one outrageous plan. They must speak out against bigotry and prejudice. And they must make clear that even if Trump were to become the party's nominee, he would be on his own.

The Republican Party created Trump. Now it's time for them to take responsibility and, if they don't like what Trump is saying, take a strong stand for what is right.

PFAW

Charles Koch To Support Candidates Who Support His “Right” to Buy Elections

In an interview released last week with Susan Peters of KAKE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Wichita, Kansas, Charles Koch shared his top factor in supporting 2016 candidates:

Koch said, “The number one thing I would look at in supporting anyone in politics: Are they for the first amendment? Are they for freedom of speech?”

“So, do you consider your donations freedom of speech?” [Peters] asked.

“Absolutely, they are,” he said.

That the number one criteria of a man whose network plans to spend hundreds of millions on next year’s elections is whether they are “for the First Amendment” – that is, a radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment to prohibit Americans from effectively addressing the corrosive effect of money on our democracy – speaks volumes about the way the power of those already on top is preserved and expanded in our country. Koch, one of the wealthiest people in the country, already holds unparalleled influence in politics through the extraordinary sums of money flooding our elections from the Koch-led network, Koch Industries, and the Kochs themselves. And now, Koch’s top priority for whether he will bankroll future candidates is, in effect, whether they support his ability to continue to spend unlimited sums of money to buy elections.

This exchange is Exhibit A on the extent to which our campaign finance system is utterly broken. With our lawmakers unable to set commonsense limits on money in elections in the wake of decisions like Citizens United, Charles Koch is free to pour unlimited amounts of cash into our democracy. And he’s free to make a condition of his financial support a commitment to perpetuating that broken system.

It’s no wonder that 85 percent of Americans think we need a complete overhaul of our country’s campaign finance system. Without it, a handful of billionaires can continue to set the agenda for all of us – even when it’s an agenda targeting the rights and interests of most Americans.

PFAW

Standing United Against Harmful Policy Riders

Eight days out from the December 11 government shutdown deadline, clean budget advocates are standing united against harmful policy riders that advance ideological agendas rather than fund must-needed programs and services for the American people.

In the House, newly minted Speaker Ryan offered a Republican proposal chock-full of sneaky provisions that help special interests exert outsized influence over the political process. It was swiftly rejected by Democrats and rebuked by the White House.

The White House on Wednesday accused Republicans of threatening a government shutdown by attaching dozens of controversial riders to a must-pass spending bill.

“Congressional Republicans are whistling past the graveyard of a government shutdown,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

Earnest slammed GOP lawmakers for what he said is an effort to “lard the bill up with ideological riders” in order “to compensate for their pretty sorry legislative record thus far this year.”

House Democrats have warned for some time that such ploys are wholly unacceptable.

Unfortunately, nearly all of the appropriations bills approved this year have included deeply divisive policy riders that-if attached to an omnibus spending package-could lead to yet another unnecessary political impasse or even a damaging government shutdown. To avoid these harmful outcomes, we strongly urge you to bring forward legislation to fund the federal government that is free of poison-pill provisions.

Senate Democrats too are outraged at the GOP's unrelenting prioritization of political gamesmanship in the face of budget catastrophe. Senators Bill Nelson, Jack Reed, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeff Merkley took to the floor Wednesday to decry riders that would gut the sweeping financial reform package that passed in 2010, which included the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

People For the American Way proudly stands with them and is an active member of the nearly 200-strong anti-riders coalition.

We urge Members of Congress and Senators to oppose flawed funding proposals . . . if they come to the floor attached to the omnibus funding package. We further urge the administration in the strongest possible terms to oppose any funding package that includes these or any other dangerous legislative proposals. If included in a final package, any ideological policy riders would undo key safeguards and protections for Main Street.

PFAW is also among women's health advocates pushing back against riders.

As Congress continues its attacks on Planned Parenthood, which provides critical, high-quality health care services to millions of women, men, and young people, the undersigned organizations write to strongly oppose any consideration in year-end funding legislation of ideological policy riders that are harmful to women’s health and to support efforts towards a budget deal that stops sequestration and raises the spending caps that continue to harm women’s health.

Opponents of women’s health have used the appropriations process to undermine women’s access to comprehensive reproductive care, including access to safe and legal abortion. We continue to strongly oppose policy riders that deny insurance coverage of abortion for women enrolled in Medicaid, women who work for the federal government, women who live in the District of Columbia, and others.

Please join us by signing our clean budget petition:

Republicans in Congress have introduced a budget bill jammed with ideological party riders that undermine our rights, our health, and our democracy. These riders could strip funding for women's health services, environmental protections, campaign finance regulations, and more.

Our budget shouldn't be used by lawmakers to push extreme agendas and do favors for special interests.

PFAW

In Time of Crisis, Too Many Politicians Feed Fear and Scapegoating

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

In the somber days since ISIS terrorists killed 130 people in coordinated attacks on Paris, elected leaders from around the world have been searching for solutions. But far too many American politicians have fallen back, instead, on that old standby in times of crisis: Stirring up fear and finding someone, anyone, to scapegoat, no matter how unconnected the scapegoated person is with the problem at hand.

Sadly, in Congress that took the form of a House vote to in essence stop the U.S. resettlement of refugees from Iraq and Syria by imposing nearly impossible bureaucratic requirements on what is already the toughest vetting system for anyone seeking entry into the U.S. This bill was scapegoating in its purest form, framing as terrorists people who are fleeing the very violence that this bill was supposedly trying to prevent. 

The House vote -- in which 47 Democrats joined nearly every Republican -- was the culmination of a week of cowardice and bigotry sweeping the political landscape.

There was the Missouri state legislator who urged his governor to watch out for "all flavors" of Muslims and the mayor of Roanoke who invoked the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a positive model for how to treat American Muslims. 

And there were the 31 governors who declared that their states would turn away Syrian refugees who go through the U.S. refugee resettlement program. 

Not wanting to miss out on the action, of course, Republican presidential candidates have been tripping over themselves to outdo one another. Donald Trump hasspeculated that refugees from Syria "could be one of the great Trojan horses." Mike Huckabee, in what can't even be described as a dog-whistle, has told Americans to "wake up and smell the falafel" when it comes to Syrian refugees. Chris Christie saidhe'd get tough on Syrian orphans. Ted Cruz has suggested that the U.S. only admit Christian refugees from Syria, although how he plans on testing people's religious faith is unclear. Jeb Bush has hinted at the same thing, saying he would back refugees who can "prove" that they're Christian, which shows what this is all about. If you have a system that's strong enough to "prove" someone's true religion, don't you think it could also properly vet people for national security purposes? Jeb Bush was supposed to be the mature establishment candidate. So much for that.

These politicians are feeding what a new Public Religion Research Institute pollreports is an "increased xenophobic streak in the American public." It's no coincidence that threats against American Muslims have been reported across the country in the days since the Paris attacks.

It is of course reasonable to ask that refugees be vetted -- they already are -- but if security were the real issue, our current debate wouldn't be about refugees at all. In fact, if someone were intent on sneaking into America to cause harm, exploiting the refugee resettlement program with its intensive and lengthy screening processes would be the hardest way to do it. No, what is behind the anti-refugee campaign of the Right is not reasonable concerns about security, but something much uglier.

The candidates who are now spewing cynical anti-refugee rhetoric are often the same ones who claim that their opponents don't believe in "American exceptionalism," and the movement so willing to embrace explicit anti-Muslim bigotry is the same one constantly telling us that religious freedom is under attack. They seem to have forgotten the vibrant pluralism and commitment to shared values that make us exceptional, and a beacon of freedom to the persecuted, in the first place. Looking back on the history of our country, our best days have been when we opened ourselves to people facing persecution, not the times we turned them away and demonized them. Let's not let this become the American Way.

PFAW

PFAW Telebriefing: The Future Of Voting Rights

Last week, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing for members to review the recent attacks on voting rights and illustrate PFAW’s vision for the future of voting rights in America. PFAW Communications Director Drew Courtney moderated the discussion with PFAW’s Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks, Executive Vice President Marge Baker, and resident Supreme Court and judicial nomination expert Paul Gordon joining the call.

Drew began the call with an introduction to the consequences of the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The decision has resulted in many states passing new legislation that results in voter suppression. Diallo explained that 36 states have passed new restrictions on early voting and more strict voter identification laws, which disproportionately affect people of color, low-income citizens, and women. Supposedly, these efforts attempt to prevent voter fraud. However, voter fraud is not documented as a widespread, or even small-scale, problem anywhere in the country. Marge later elaborated that there is evidence that true intention of passing these laws is to suppress the vote; many right-wing organizations have acknowledged that conservative leverage in elections goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Many members called in with pertinent questions, including one about how members can be more involved in the fight for voting rights. Diallo described how People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers network has been active on the ground helping folks understand their local laws so that they can obtain the correct identification and register successfully. He also suggested people get involved in local groups that do similar work.

Marge detailed how people can get involved in PFAW’s efforts to fight for fair and just courts, which have an enormous impact on voting rights. The winner of the 2016 election will have the opportunity to nominate as many as four Supreme Court justices, and therefore have influence over critical voting rights cases following Shelby County v. Holder. The Supreme Court is not the only place where the fight is occurring. Marge described court challenges to voter suppression laws in numerous lower federal courts and in state courts, further highlighting the importance of courts in the progress for voting rights.

Diallo ended the call on a positive note, describing recent municipal and state-level expansions to early voting and motor voter laws, which allow citizens to automatically register to vote when they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Listen to the full briefing here:

PFAW

Clean Elections Win in Connecticut Shows Power of Movement to Fight Big Money

Following an outcry from a range of local and national leaders, including PFAW president Michael Keegan, Connecticut legislators withdrew a plan yesterday that would have cut funding for the state’s clean elections law.

Connecticut’s landmark program is a model for the country, one that has allowed people to run for office and become elected officials even if they don’t have access to special interest money or wealthy backers. When the proposed attack on clean elections was announced, the pushback was swift. A cohort of young Connecticut lawmakers, many of whom are members of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, spoke out against the proposal in a letter. They highlighted the clean election program’s success in allowing young people to compete in the state’s elections “based on policy positions and ideas” rather than “who has access to the biggest donors.” PFAW members in Connecticut made calls to their state legislators and asked them to reject any plan to undermine clean elections. State groups like Common Cause Connecticut and ConnPIRG rallied against it, and former Gov. Jodi Rell, who signed the landmark reform into law, spoke out against attempts to “turn aside” the program “many of us worked so hard to put in place to prevent political corruption scandals.”

That the proposal was withdrawn after just three days is a win not only for the state of Connecticut, but for the national movement to fight big money in politics. From clean elections victories in Seattle and Maine earlier this month to yesterday’s win in Connecticut, it’s clear that policies to help lessen the influence of big money in politics are popular, valued, and people will fight for them.

PFAW

Will Nebraska's Senators Help Our Federal Courts?

Nebraska has a judicial vacancy that has been open for more than a year, leaving fewer judges available to handle the state’s relatively heavy caseload.  Fortunately, there is a fully vetted nominee with strong bipartisan support who could fill that slot today.  Unfortunately, Robert Rossiter is stuck in the middle of a bottleneck deliberately engineered by Senate Republicans.  The question is whether Senators Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, both Republicans, will exercise their influence with party leadership to clear up that bottleneck for the benefit of their fellow Nebraskans and the rest of the country.

At Rossiter’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Fischer spoke about urgency of filling the vacancy as soon as possible:

[Nebraska has] the most per-judgeship weighted filings among the eight states that have only three authorized judgeships and a single federal district.  With a small bench and a full docket, it is important that this federal district court is operating at full capacity.  Despite this fact, however, the judgeship that Bob has been nominated for has been vacant for more than a year.  [T]his court must be provided with the necessary resources to work efficiently[.] … I urge my colleagues to support Bob Rossiter’s nomination quickly so that he can put his outstanding intellect, skill, and judgement to work for the American people.

However, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has needlessly forced all of President Obama’s nominees to wait for floor votes far longer than necessary, creating a bottleneck that delays everyone.  He has allowed only ten judicial confirmation votes so far this year, an absurdly small number that has caused judicial vacancies and judicial emergencies to skyrocket since Republicans took over the Senate.

When McConnell finally schedules a vote on a circuit or district court nominee, it has been in the order that they came out of the Judiciary Committee (and, when nominees advance on the same day, the order that they are listed on the Senate Executive Calendar).  Rossiter has many nominees ahead of him in the list of circuit and district court nominees currently waiting for a floor vote:

  1. L. Felipe Restrepo (PA, Third Circuit) – July 9
  2. Travis McDonough (TN) – July 9
  3. Waverly Crenshaw (TN) – July 9
  4. Wilhelmina “Mimi” Wright (MN) – September 17
  5. John Vazquez (NJ) – September 17
  6. Paula Xinis (MD) – September 17
  7. Brian Martinotti (NJ) – October 29
  8. Robert Rossiter (NE) – October 29
  9. Edward Stanton (TN) – October 29
  10. Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger (IA) – November 5
  11. Leonard Strand (IA) – November 5
  12. Julien Neals (NJ) – November 5
  13. Gary Brown (NY) – November 5
  14. Mark Young (CA) – November 5

So if Sens. Fischer and Sasse want to get help to the overburdened Nebraska federal court as soon as possible, they need to do more than just press McConnell to schedule a confirmation vote for Rossiter.  If they want to help their constituents in Nebraska, they need to press McConnell to immediately allow votes on all those judicial nominees ahead of Rossiter.  Like all 14 pending nominees, they have been fully vetted and face no opposition.  In fact, all 14 could and should be confirmed immediately.

There is no good reason that Fischer and Sasse can’t make sure Rossiter is confirmed by the time they go home for Thanksgiving.

PFAW

Latinos Vote! Dolores Huerta’s Four-State Tour with PFAW

Over a two-week span, People For the American Way (PFAW) staff and volunteers joined PFAW board member Dolores Huerta for a four-state tour to get out the vote in Latino communities and push back against anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric and policies of Republican presidential candidates.

Huerta attended the last two Republican debates, spreading the message that all of the Republican candidates stand firmly against the priorities of working families and Latino communities. At the start of our tour, leading up to the debate in Colorado at the end of October, Huerta joined Colorado Latino leaders and voters to discuss how the Republican candidates are out of line with Colorado Latinos.

latin life denver

latin life denver

Huerta also spoke at a rally that thousands attended. As Suzanne Gamboa at NBC News reported:

“Huerta planned to participate in an event with other Latino leaders Wednesday afternoon to launch a voter registration campaign and protest rhetoric of the campaign and some proposals she considered to be anti-Latino.

[…]"The Republican candidates are not really reflecting or even addressing the needs of the Latino community or American families," Huerta said in an phone interview with NBC News.

After Colorado, Huerta traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina to get out the vote leading up to municipal elections and to call out North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory for signing the severely anti-immigrant HB 318.

After her third radio interview of the morning – which also happened to be the day before Halloween – Huerta posed with the radio hosts of Charlotte’s La Raza 106.1.

la raza

Huerta joined Charlotte voters and activists to deliver an “award” to Gov. McCrory for his ability to disguise himself as a friend of immigrants and then to turn his back on the community.

charlotte

After Charlotte, Huerta joined PFAW staff and volunteers to get out the vote in Virginia. PFAW had already begun laying the groundwork in Virginia with Spanish-language ads encouraging voters to head to the polls on Election Day.

The Washington Post’s write-up of the ad included this explanation from PFAW’s Carlos A. Sanchez:

“By highlighting in Spanish how local and national Republican politicians from [former Virginia gubernatorial candidate] Ken Cuccinelli to Donald Trump have demonized immigrants, our ad urges voters to stand up against them by going to the polls."

While on the ground, Huerta mobilized voters and volunteers in State Senate District 29 to support Democrat Jeremy McPike.

Our efforts paid off, as McPike won his race!

To wrap up our four-state tour, Huerta traveled to Wisconsin leading up to the Republican debate there. PFAW joined with Voces de la Frontera Action to shed light on the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino policies of all the Republican candidates.

dolores press conf

Huerta also joined with allies for a Fight for $15 rally urging politicians to support a $15 minimum wage. Watch Huerta discuss her efforts on local CBS.

The 4-state tour is a part of PFAW’s Latinos Vote! program. Stay tuned for more updates on our work!

PFAW

Justice Scalia's Ironic Comments About Democracy

Justice Antonin Scalia had some interesting things to say at a speech yesterday to Georgetown University law students.  The Washington Post reports on Scalia’s response to a question about minority rights:

But a question about whether courts have a responsibility to protect minorities that cannot win rights through the democratic process — the issue that animated the court’s landmark decision this year on same-sex marriage — brought a caustic response.

“You either believe in a democracy or you don’t,” Scalia said. “You talk about minorities — what minorities deserve protection?”

Religious minorities are protected by the First Amendment, Scalia said, and so are political minorities. But beyond that, he asked rhetorically, what empowers Supreme Court justices to expand the list.

“It’s up to me to decide deserving minorities?” Scalia asked. “What about pederasts? What about child abusers? So should I on the Supreme Court [say] this is a deserving minority. Nobody loves them.”

“No, if you believe in democracy, you should put it to the people,” he said.

No, Justice Scalia, if you believe in democracy governed by the Bill of Rights, people have rights that cannot be violated by majorities.  The majesty of the Equal Protection Clause is that it was intentionally written broadly, rather than being limited to certain people.  And it doesn’t have a clause saying “except for gay people.”

In addition, given Scalia’s caustic dissents in cases recognizing the constitutional equality and basic humanity of gay people, it is hardly a surprise that he answered a question implicating LGBT equality by dragging in pederasts and child abusers.  From a legal perspective, can he really not see any difference between protecting innocent but unpopular people who aren’t harming anyone, and policies designed to prevent adults from committing acts of violence against unwilling children?

Legal comparisons aside, why bring up child molesters at all?  For far too long, far right extremists have long peddled the pernicious lie that gay people are inherently a threat to children.  Why did Scalia’s mind go there?  Surely there are other categories of people he could have mentioned to make the same point.

Scalia’s comment about believing in a democracy also has to be taken in context: He voted with the 5-4 majorities in Citizens United (opening up our elections to unlimited corporate and special-interest money) and Shelby County (gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act and empowering those who seek to win elections by disenfranchising Americans who might vote against them).  And, of course, he was with the 5-4 majority in the ultimate judicial middle finger to democracy, Bush v. Gore.

At the heart of our democracy is the right to vote in free and fair elections.  That means elections without barriers designed to keep the “wrong” people from voting, and elections where the voices of ordinary people are not drowned out by a tiny sliver of phenomenally wealthy and powerful interests.  That is what a healthy democracy looks like, and it makes Scalia’s comments quite ironic.

PFAW Foundation

On Judges, GOP Senate Finally Breaks Into Double Digits

The Senate is scheduled to vote to confirm New York district court nominee LaShann DeArcy Hall late this afternoon.  She will only be the tenth judge confirmed this year, even though it’s already the week before Thanksgiving.

What explains this ridiculously low number?

It isn’t because this is the first year of a new administration, so that nominations weren’t made until several months into the year.  In fact, when the Senate convened this year, the Judiciary Committee immediately had eleven circuit and district court nominees from last year to consider, one of them being DeArcy Hall.  She isn’t the only 2014 nominee who still hasn’t been confirmed: Third Circuit nominee L. Felipe Restrepo is still waiting for a confirmation vote.

The low number of judicial confirmations also isn’t because the nominees are controversial.  Almost all of them faced no opposition whatsoever in the Judiciary Committee or on the Senate floor.  But that didn’t stop Republicans from slow-walking them at every step of the way.

Take Restrepo, for instance: He has the support of both his home state senators, one a Democrat and the other a Republican.  He had been unanimously confirmed to a district court judgeship in 2013, so the Senate had already done a thorough and recent vetting of his background.  Yet Senator Pat Toomey and Chairman Chuck Grassley collaborated to delay Restrepo’s committee hearing until seven months after his nomination.  He impressed the members of the Judiciary Committee and demonstrated to each one of them that he was highly qualified to serve on the Third Circuit, yet Grassley delayed a committee vote for two weeks without an explanation.  And for the more than four months since then, day after day after day, GOP leadership has refused to schedule a confirmation vote to let an unquestionably qualified jurist fill a vacancy that has been formally designated a judicial emergency.  Now more than a year has gone by since his nomination.

The low number of judicial confirmations also can’t be explained by a lack of need for judges.  Restrepo is hardly the only slow-walked nominee this year who would fill a judicial emergency.  In fact, the number of judicial emergencies nationwide has skyrocketed from 12 at the beginning of the year to 29 today (after DeArcy Hall is confirmed).  Similarly, the number of circuit and district court vacancies has risen dramatically, from 40 at the beginning of the year to 62 after today’s confirmation.

Even if every vacancy were to be filled tomorrow, there would still not be enough judges to ensure every American’s opportunity to have their day in court.  Judges are so overwhelmed that the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended in March of 2015 that Congress create five new circuit court seats and 68 new district court seats (as well as make permanent nine district court seats that are now temporary).  So filling vacancies is a priority.

Or at least it should be, if you value having an effectively functioning federal court system with fair, independent, and unbiased judges ensuring that everyone’s rights are protected.

But the Republicans’ strategy since President Obama took office has been to gum up the works as much as possible, to make the confirmation process as slow as they can get away with in order to maximize the number of vacancies available for the next (Republican) president to fill.  This has damaged our courts and coarsened our politics.

In addition to DeArcy Hall, there are 14 other circuit and district court nominees ready for a vote.  There is no reason not to act on every single one of them before the Thanksgiving recess.

PFAW

Supreme Court Takes Up Most Significant Reproductive Rights Cases in Decades

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

The Supreme Court announced today that it will decide on the constitutionality ofsevere restrictions adopted in Texas that threaten to make it virtually impossible for many women there to obtain safe and legal abortions.

Coupled with the Court's recent decision to hear cases on whether certain employers can effectively deny their female employees the contraceptive coverage they are entitled to receive under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the 2015-16 Supreme Court term could well become the most significant for women's reproductive rights since the Court upheld the right to choose in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 -- and almost as significant as when the Court overturned a law banning contraception 50 years ago in Griswold v. Connecticut.

The Texas case, Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, concerns a law imposing restrictions on clinics so severe that they would reduce the number of clinics that perform abortions in the state from more than 40 a few years ago to just 10, including none at all in the 500 miles between San Antonio and the New Mexico border. The state has claimed that the limits, requiring extensive hospital-like equipment and doctors with hospital admitting privileges even for clinics that offer abortions only through oral medication, are important to protect women's health.

These claims are belied not only by the medical evidence, but also by Texas politicians'; statements, such as Governor Rick Perry's vow to "pass laws to ensure" that abortions are "as rare as possible."

That law clearly violates the 5-4 ruling of the Court in Casey, which upheld the basic right to choose of Roe v. Wade, and held that such laws must truly be important to protect women's health and not impose an "undue burden" on that right. Will the Court uphold and correctly apply Casey and continue to protect reproductive rights? Given the stark divisions on the Court, the answer may well come down to the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the last member of the five-person Casey majority who is still on the Court today.

The Court has also agreed to hear what many are already calling "Hobby Lobby II." Last year, the Court ruled 5-4 that owners of for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby could use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to raise religious objections and exempt themselves from providing contraceptive coverage to female employees as required by the ACA. To do so, the Court suggested that the companies could use the opt-out mechanism available to religiously-affiliated colleges and other nonprofits and inform the government of their religious objections, so the government could arrange for insurers to provide the coverage without cost to the employer.

Now, however, many of these nonprofits are claiming that the opt-out mechanism itself violates RFRA. In other words, they want to not just refuse to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, they also want to make sure the government cannot make other arrangements, so that the women will be deprived of contraceptive coverage guaranteed by the ACA.

Seven out of eight lower federal appeals courts have rejected these claims, ruling that simply telling the government of their objections and the identity of their insurer is not a "substantial burden" on nonprofits' religious free exercise under RFRA and that the government has a compelling interest in providing contraceptive coverage.

Justice Kennedy, who provided the fifth vote in Hobby Lobby, suggested in a concurring opinion that the opt-out was an appropriate accommodation. But if the Court upholds the nonprofits' objections in Zubik v. Burwell, the result will be devastating to the ability of women to get contraceptive coverage, especially since for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby will likely make the same claim that religion allows them also to completely deprive their female employees of contraceptive coverage. Although not as coercive as the Connecticut ban on contraceptives overruled in Griswold, the result could well be even more devastating to reproductive freedom across the country, allowing employers to transform RFRA from a shield to protect religion into a sword to harm reproductive rights.

Both the clinic and the contraceptive cases are highly likely to produce divided 5-4 decisions that will be enormously important to women' reproductive rights. With four of the justices in their 80s during the term of the president elected next year, these cases once again demonstrate the crucial stakes in the 2016 election for reproductive rights, as well as for so many other rights central to our liberty and freedom.

PFAW

Koch Communications Officer Delivers Spin to St. Anselm’s College, Activists Call Out #KochProblem

koch visibility event

It’s not just secret money and front groups for the Koch Brothers this election season. Sometimes, the Kochs are up front in their attempts to sell their toxic agenda — like when they decide to send Koch Industries Chief Communication and Marketing Officer, Steve Lombardo, to St. Anselm’s Institute of Politics to pitch a softer side of Koch.

A group of about 10 activists from People For the American Way and Granite State Progress gathered Tuesday outside the Institute of Politics to hold signs that read “#KOCH PROBLEM” and “PR Stunt” — among other messages.

The event was brazenly titled, “Beyond the Political Spin: How Koch is is Driving Freedom, Fairness and Prosperity."

The Kochs — no strangers to attempting to buy support at college campuses through stipulations about hiring and coursework — are planning on spending up to $900 million in this year’s election cycle through their secretive network of organizations.

When asked if the Kochs will acknowledge that the candidates they back are beholden to them, Lombardo failed to explain a difference between other forms of “crony capitalism” the Kochs like to decry and the political work done by the Koch network.

Question: “In a recent interview with the Wichita Eagle, Charles Koch claimed that politicians are ‘beholden to corporations and cronies who get them re-elected’ and deemed this ‘welfare for the wealthy.’ The Koch network has poured millions of dollars into our political system—do the Kochs agree that the candidates they back are beholden to them?”

Lombardo: “Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m going to answer it the way Charles has recently answered that. And that is – beholden is the wrong word. Charles is frustrated right now, to be honest with you, he’s very frustrated that a lot of the candidates that the network that he’s a part of, along with a lot of other donors, hundreds of donors, thousands…have not done a lot of things that they said they were going to do, okay. And he’s quite frankly very frustrated and we have not at this point in time, supporting any presidential candidate. And Mr. Koch believes- is worried right now that none of them are going to do what they say they’re going to do.  So the folks that we supported in 2014 frankly a lot of them have not lived up to the things that I’ve been talking about in terms of fighting corporate welfare, in terms of supporting criminal justice reform among other things. Beholden is wrong. We all, everybody who votes for someone or contributes money to them, contributes $5 — you’re hoping that they’re gonna do what they said they were gonna do. Now if you call that beholden you can call that beholden, but to me, it’s I give $5 to a candidate because I think — they said they were gonna do something, and I go ‘wow, I agree with that, I want them to do that, I’m giving them $5.’ Now you can call that beholden, or $500 million or whatever it might be…I don’t think it’s the same way but we are expecting them to do the things they say they were gonna do, and frankly a lot of them aren’t.”

The Kochs clearly expect a lot in return for the amount they’re spending on politics — so yes, the candidates that they back are beholden to them, and much more so than they would be to any small donor.  Downplaying their own effectiveness doesn’t change the fact that they are blatantly attempting to buy influence, with their network expected to spend as much as, or more than, either political party.

PFAW

Pat Toomey's Insulting Explanation for Withholding Blue Slips

Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator Pat Toomey has been harshly criticized for collaborating with his party’s efforts to obstruct Third Circuit nominee L. Felipe Restrepo a judicial nominee from Pennsylvania who Toomey says he supports.  The senator now appears to be doing the same thing with several Pennsylvania district court nominees who he himself actually recommended to the White House.

Specifically, he is refusing to submit the “blue slips” for Eastern District nominee John Younge, and for Western District nominees Robert Colville, Susan Paradise Baxter, and Marilyn Horan.  All four were recommended by both Toomey and his Democratic colleague, Bob Casey.  When the White House nominated them back in July, both senators praised them.  However, only one of the senators actually did something to move the nominations: Casey swiftly submitted his “blue slips,” which is how senators signal that they don’t object to the Judiciary Committee considering a judicial nominee from their state.  Blue slips aren’t part of Senate or committee rules; they are simply a courtesy of the chairman, who decides for himself the importance he gives them.  Under current practice, the chairman won’t schedule a hearing until he gets blue slips from both  home state senators.

In the nearly five months since the four Pennsylvanians were nominated upon Toomey’s recommendation, he has refused to submit his blue slips.  When a reporter from the Butler Eagle asked for an explanation, he was told that Toomey was waiting for the committee to complete its background investigation of the nominees.  This is the same line he eventually settled on with Restrepo, an explanation that was full of holes and simply not believable.  Nor is it any more believable now.  From the Butler Eagle:

According to a Toomey staffer, the senator will not submit the blue slip for any judicial candidate until the investigation is done, just to make sure the candidates’ backgrounds are clear. If any problems turn up in the investigation and the blue slip already is turned in, there is nothing to stop a vote on the nominee, the staffer said.

That’s simply false.  Just ask Steve Six, a Tenth Circuit nominee from Kansas in 2011, when Democrats held the Senate majority.  Republicans home state senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran submitted their blue slips, and Six had a confirmation hearing.  But afterward, the senators rescinded their blue slips.  Then-Chairman Patrick Leahy, who supported the nominee, was not at all happy about this.  Nevertheless, he chose to accede to the home-state senators’ modified wishes, and he never held a committee vote for Six, which essentially ended the nomination.

Does Toomey really think the current chairman, who is of his own party, would not show a similar courtesy to Toomey that Democrat Patrick Leahy showed to the Republican senators from Kansas?  Chuck Grassley might not appreciate Toomey’s lack of faith in him.

Or perhaps Toomey is assuming his constituents won’t realize that the story he is peddling makes no sense.

With Restrepo and four district court nominees, Toomey continues to collaborate with Washington, DC party leaders to obstruct judicial nominees he says he supports.  Individuals and businesses in Pennsylvania who rely on a functioning court system are the ones who pay the price.

PFAW