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PEOPLE FOR BLOG

PSSST -- Rand Paul Calls for End Run Around Roe v. Wade, Is Just Another Extremist

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Sen. Rand Paul is urging his supporters to push for passage of the Life at Conception Act, which he says will “overturn Roe v. Wade.” The bill “declares unborn children ‘persons’ as defined by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, entitled to legal protection.

This is something that every progressive and every American who cares about women’s equality and reproductive freedom needs to remember in the next couple of years, as Sen. Paul continues to position himself for a presidential run.

Paul

Rand Paul’s election to the Senate was among the very first high-profile victories for the Tea Party movement. He thanked the Tea Party in his Election Night victory speech. And he’s remained an iconic figure in the movement.

As a member of Congress, Paul has carved out his own lane as an iconoclast by embracing some ostensibly Libertarian positions in defiance of Republican Party – and even Tea Party – orthodoxy. He has been extremely vocal against NSA spying on Americans, leading a class-action lawsuit against the Agency. At times, he has been similarly out-front in arguing against the use of drones, draconian Drug War policies and aggressive military action. A sharp departure from the modern Republican Party’s commitment to blaming President Obama for everything bad that happens in the world, on Meet the Press, Paul said, “What’s going on now [in Iraq] -- I don’t blame on President Obama,” and instead pointed the finger at “those who supported the Iraq War.”

Some of these ostensibly “anti-war” or “civil libertarian” positions are popular with independents and a great many on the political Left. And Sen. Paul has even been a recent critic of his party’s unwillingness to reach out to minority voters and address their interests. Indeed, he seems like a “different kind of Republican” than we’ve seen these last few years, and he certainly seems to have his finger on the pulse of the American public.

Paul is uniquely situated to use his credibility as a “Tea Party original” to buck right-wing positions on certain issues (“only Nixon could have gone to China”). But despite his masterful ability to read the zeitgeist, beneath the façade one finds the same hypocrisy and extremism that have come to define the modern GOP.

  • For all of Sen. Paul’s big talk on “civil liberties,” his purported commitment to individual freedoms stops well short of support for LGBT people to be guaranteed equal rights or enter into marriage, or for women to have control over their own reproductive choices – as evidenced by his crusade against Roe v. Wade.
  • While Sen. Paul is acknowledging the need – and touting his ability – to reach out to minority voters and meet their concerns, he remains in favor of the voter ID laws that keep minorities from the polls … and let’s not forget his troubling past with the Civil Rights Act.
  • He takes a softer tone on immigration than the hardline nativists  who comprise one of the Tea Party’s most vocal constituencies, acknowledging the need for reform but refusing to advocate for a path to citizenship -- instead promoting the banal “secure the border, and provide more work visas” line (something to satisfy both the Minutemen and corporations looking for cheap labor).
  • He sheds crocodile tears over the corrupting influence of money in politics but is completely on board with Citizens United.
  • And, of course: guns, guns, guns, guns.

 

PFAW

Judicial Vacancies Wreaking Havoc In U.S. Courts

Judicial vacancies slow down courts’ work, drive up litigation costs, cause evidence to go stale, make it harder to settle civil cases, and even pressure defendants into pleading guilty, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center. The report cites example after example of how not having enough judges erodes our nation’s system of justice. Everyone counts on having their day in court, a fundamentally American principle that is threatened by persistent vacancies. The report quotes Chief Judge William Skretny of New York’s Western District:

We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.

Heavier caseloads and backlog created by vacancies also take a toll on judges, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on each case.

Chief Judge [Leonard] Davis in the Eastern District of Texas described the situation in his district as “simple math.” With more cases “you have less time to give to [an individual] case,” he explained. “It affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quantity of work you can complete,” he added.

[Judge Davis] also highlighted the impact of the Sherman vacancy on the timing of sentencing. “It’s a hardship for the litigants,” he explained. “Due to the backlog and [the] vacancy [in Sherman], we have a very high population of criminal defendants, about 200, sitting in county jails, having pled guilty and waiting for sentences. They can’t get their cases processed.” He noted that inmates are typically housed in a county jail because there are no federal facilities available, which is more costly for the government and leaves inmates with fewer work and educational opportunities. “That’s not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities,” he said.

As the report makes clear, vacancies have real impacts for all citizens. This is why PFAW supports the speedy confirmation of qualified judicial nominees to federal courts. Filling judicial vacancies with quality judges will reduce backlogs and costs while allowing the judicial system to better serve all Americans. Maintaining the third branch is one of the most important constitutional functions that the Senate performs.

PFAW

David Perdue: Too Extreme for Georgia

On Tuesday, David Perdue triumphed over longtime representative Jack Kingston in the Republican runoff for Saxby Chambliss’ U.S. Senate seat. The former Dollar General CEO has never run for political office, a distinction he has made the central theme of his campaign. Perdue has boasted that he is a “different kind of candidate,” but we’ve seen a candidate like him before: 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The similarities between Romney and Perdue are striking: both CEOs, both millionaires, and both completely out of touch. Romney, however, was accused by right-wingers of being one thing Perdue clearly isn’t: moderate. Perdue has made no attempt to seem even relatively moderate and has dragged his extremist ideals as far to the right as he can. Make no mistake: he will not represent Georgia. Instead, he’ll represent those like him: wealthy, anti-immigrant and anti-equality.

Perdue already has proven that he is wrong for Georgia. He signed the FAIR Pledge, a pledge created by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) Task Force, vowing to oppose not only a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students but also any increase in work visas for legal immigrants. He is also anti-choice and anti-equality. With nearly 10 percent of Georgia’s population identifying as Latino and over 260,000 Georgians identifying as LGBTQ, Perdue would have a duty to represent all of his constituents—and that is a duty he won’t fulfill.

David Perdue has made it clear that he does not understand needs of Georgia’s diverse, changing population, which is why PFAW will help to make it clear that he is not the right choice for Georgia.
 

PFAW

What Hobby Lobby Shows Us About the Supreme Court and Civil Rights Laws: Winners and Losers in the Roberts Court

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This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

In its recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the conservative 5-4 majority -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy -- did something that may appear very unusual. In divided cases, these five justices have the reputation for interpreting very narrowly laws passed by Congress to protect civil rights. So why did they interpret so broadly the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law passed by Congress to protect the important civil right of religious freedom? The answer, unfortunately, is all too clear. Comparing Hobby Lobby with the two rulings in civil rights law cases issued by the Court over the last year, the key factor that explains how the conservative majority ruled is not precedent, the language of the statute, or congressional intent, but who wins and who loses.

Let's start with last year's rulings, both of which concerned Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bans employment discrimination. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the majority ruled very narrowly in interpreting Title VII, deciding that the only way that employees can prevail on a claim that they have been fired in retaliation for raising job bias claims is to prove that they would not have been discharged "but for" the retaliatory motive. This was despite the fact that in order to strengthen Title VII, Congress added language to the law in 1991 to make clear that plaintiffs should prevail if they show that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in a job decision. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissecting Justice Alito's attempt for the majority to draw a distinction between retaliation and other claims under Title VII, the net effect of the majority's ruling was to make it harder to prove a Title VII retaliation claim than before the 1991 law and with respect to other civil rights statutes that don't explicitly mention retaliation. The 5-4 majority had "seized on a provision adopted by Congress as part of an endeavor to strengthen Title VII," she concluded, "and turned it into a measure reducing the force of the ban on retaliation."

In Nassar, in ruling against a doctor of Middle Eastern descent in a case also involving egregious ethnic and national origin discrimination, Alito disregarded clear legislative history and language showing Congress' broad intent, as well as the interpretation of the law by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Interestingly, towards the end of his opinion, Alito appeared to reveal a key consideration behind the majority's decision. The ruling was important, he explained, to "the fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation systems." After all, he pointed out, retaliation claims "are being made with ever-increasing frequency," although he did not even consider how many have been proven meritorious. Agreeing with the EEOC and the plaintiff on the "motivating factor" standard, he wrote instead, "could also contribute to the filing of frivolous claims." As Justice Ginsburg put it, the majority "appears driven by zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims against employers."

The other 2013 Title VII ruling also reflected an extremely narrow reading of the law. Vance v. Ball State University concerned a complaint by an African-American woman that she had been subjected to racial harassment and a racially hostile work environment. Under prior Title VII Court rulings agreed to by both conservative and moderate justices, the employer itself is often liable for such harassment claims when the harassment is committed by an employee's supervisor. But in Vance, in an opinion by Justice Alito, the familiar 5-4 Court majority significantly narrowed Title VII. It ruled that such vicarious employer liability applies only when the harassment is committed by a manager who can fire or reduce the pay or grade of the victim, not when it is committed by a manager who does not have that power but does control the day-to-day schedules, assignments, and working environment of the victim.

As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, the majority's holding again contradicted guidance issued by the EEOC as well as Congress' broad purpose to eliminate workplace discrimination. In fact, she pointed out, not even the university defendant in Vance itself "has advanced the restrictive definition the Court adopts." But again, Alito's opinion betrayed part of the majority's true motives. Its narrow interpretation would be "workable" and "readily applied," Alito explained. And it would promote "the limitation of employer liability in certain circumstances."

Something very different happened in the next Supreme Court case interpreting a Congressional civil rights statute: 2014's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

In that case, the same 5-4 majority that narrowly interpreted Title VII in Vance and Nassar adopted a very broad interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). All nine justices agreed that RFRA was enacted by Congress in response to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which restricted the protection of religious liberty by the Court under the First Amendment. But the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby ruled that RFRA provides "very broad protection for religious liberty" - "even broader protection than was available" under the First Amendment in pre-Smith decisions. As Justice Ginsburg put it in dissent, the majority interpreted RFRA "as a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence." She explained further that this broad interpretation contradicted the language of the statute, its legislative history, and a statement by the Court in a unanimous ruling in 2006 that in RFRA, Congress "adopt[ed] a statutory rule comparable to the constitutional rule rejected in Smith."

This difference in statutory interpretation was critical to the majority's ruling in Hobby Lobby -- that for-profit corporations whose owners had religious objections to contraceptives could invoke RFRA to refuse to obey the Affordable Care Act's mandate that they provide their employees with health plans under which contraceptives are available to female employees. As Justice Ginsburg explained, no previous Court decision under RFRA or the First Amendment had ever "recognized a for-profit corporation's qualification for a religious exemption" and such a ruling "surely is not grounded in the pre-Smith precedent Congress sought to preserve." The 5-4 majority's broad interpretation that RFRA applies to for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby was obviously crucial to its holding.

In addition, however, the 5-4 majority went beyond pre-Smith case law in another crucial respect. Before a person can claim an exemption from a generally applicable law under RFRA, he or she must prove that the law "substantially burden[s] a person's exercise of religion." According to the majority, the corporations in Hobby Lobby met that standard by demonstrating that the use of certain contraceptives that could be purchased by their employees under their health plans would seriously offend the deeply held religious beliefs of their owners. As Justice Ginsburg explained, however, that ruling conflicted with pre-Smith case law on what must be shown to prove a "substantial burden." In several pre-Smith cases, the Court had ruled that there was no "substantial burden" created by, for example, the government's use of a social security number to administer benefit programs or its requirement that social security taxes be paid, despite the genuine and sincere offense that these actions caused to some religious beliefs. As Justice Ginsburg stated, such religious "beliefs, however deeply held, do not suffice to sustain a RFRA claim," except under the extremely broad interpretation of RFRA by the 5-4 Court majority.

As in the Title VII cases, Justice Alito's opinion for the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby was revealing about some of the majority's underlying concerns. In explaining the majority's decision to interpret RFRA as applying to for-profit corporations, Justice Alito noted that "[w]hen rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people" - in this case "the humans who own and control those companies" in the Hobby Lobby case. As Justice Ginsburg observed, the 5-4 majority paid little attention to the Court's pronouncement in a pre-Smith case that permitting a religious exemption to a general law for a corporation would "operate[e] to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" of the corporation.

Even though the Supreme Court's 2013-14 rulings that interpreted civil rights laws passed by Congress may seem different, a common theme animates them all. Whether the 5-4 majority interpreted the statutes broadly or narrowly, the losers in all of them were women, minorities, and working people, and the winners were employers and corporations. In the majority's own words, the result is the "limitation of employer liability" under laws like Title VII designed to protect workers and the "protecting" of the "humans who own and control" corporations under RFRA.

Since all these rulings interpret Congressional statutes, not the Constitution, Congress clearly has the authority to reverse them. In fact, Congress has done exactly that with respect to other 5-4 rulings by the Court that misinterpreted civil rights statutes to harm women and minority workers and benefit their corporate employers. As recently as 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reversed a flawed 5-4 ruling that severely restricted workers' ability to file equal pay claims under Title VII. Congress is already considering legislation to reverse many of the effects of Hobby Lobby, a corrective effort that Senate Republicans have blocked by a filibuster to prevent the full Senate from even considering it. In our currently divided Congress, immediate prospects for the passage of such remedial legislation may not appear promising. But it is important to recognize the current 5-4 majority's pattern of favoring corporations and harming workers in its decisions interpreting federal civil rights laws, and to recognize and act on the ability to reverse these harmful rulings.

PFAW Foundation

Senate Holds Hearing on Need for Disclosing Money in Federal Elections

If sunlight is the best disinfectant, our system of funding elections could use a whole lot more of it. This morning a Senate committee is holding a hearing on the DISCLOSE Act and the need for increased transparency surrounding money in federal elections.

Disclosure of political spending is key to the functioning of a democracy, allowing voters to understand who is behind political information and what the funder’s agenda may be. Even in the Supreme Court’s damaging Citizens United decision that opened the door to unlimited corporate political spending, eight of the nine justices supported disclosure laws.

Unfortunately, as Rep. Chris Van Hollen recently noted in an op-ed, “the floodgates were opened to outside spending, but the disclosure has yet to follow.” He wrote:

At the time, many were concerned that corporations would be pressured to open up their corporate coffers for the purpose of making political expenditures but would prefer to do so anonymously to avoid the backlash from their customers or shareholders. Four years later, in light of experiencing the two most expensive elections in history since the decision, it appears that these fears were well-founded. Outside money has poured into campaigns and it has done so under the cover of darkness, as a cottage industry has emerged to funnel money from corporations and others, into federal elections through non-profit groups that are not required to disclose their donors.

The current influx of dark money into our democracy threatens the integrity of our political system, and Americans know it. Click on our graphic below below to share it on Facebook and show your support for increased transparency of political money:

 

PFAW

The Right Wing's Inflammatory Reaction to the Border Crisis

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As we’re dealing with the refugee crisis on the southern border, right-wing elected officials have amped up their inappropriate, inflammatory rhetoric to dehumanize immigrants and attack immigration reform:

  • Sen. Ted Cruz announced last week that his new “top priority”  in Washington is to end President Obama’s deferred action program for DREAMers and deport undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. While trying to soften his appearance by bringing teddy bears and soccer balls to children at the southern border, he proclaimed that “as long as that promise of amnesty is there, more and more children will come... We need to eliminate the promise of amnesty.”
  • Rep. Louie Gohmert claims children being held are a problem because “we don’t even know what all diseases they have” and added that our healthcare system “can’t withstand the influx,” which, he believes was orchestrated by President Obama to recruit millions of people to cast fraudulent ballots for Democrats.
  • Sen. David Vitter has “had it with undocumented immigrants,” and tweeted on Friday that “enough is enough.” To deal with the crisis, he introduced a bill that would “require mandatory detention for anyone” that is in the U.S. illegally, in order to get “illegal aliens on the next plane home.” (Mother Jones calculated that this effort would require more than 64,000 planes to actually work.)
  • Rep. Tom Tancredo shared a similar plan when he said that President Obama should “sign an executive order saying all these people ought to be returned. Put them on buses or planes, send them back to the countries from which they came and have the governments there take care of it.”
  • Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, claimed that these unaccompanied minors from Central America are probably “gangbangers” and questioned why they are being sent to this county in the first place.

Of course, elected extremists aren’t the only ones making outrageous statements:

  • The Minuteman Project’s Jim Gilchrist said this crisis is “part of a concerted effort to transfer populations of Central America and Mexico into the United States using minor children, illegal immigrants under the age of 18, as human shields… to detour our ability to enforce our immigration laws.”
  • The American Family Association’s Sandy Rios suggested the child refugees should be quarantined like lepers used to be, harking back to “biblical times” when the “lepers were separated” because it was “understood that leprosy was so contagious.” Rios' fretted that these children are transported in the “same planes that you and I fly in… How do we know about lice and disease before they get on public transportation?”
  • Jody Hice, running to replace Georgia Rep. Paul Broun in the U.S. House, suggested that people take up arms in response to “a government that refuses to secure our borders” because “that is the reason we have a Second Amendment.”

The Right Wing's inflammatory rhetoric distorts the reality of the crisis, causing more conflict and damage.

PFAW

Fourth Circuit Unanimously Upholds Obamacare Subsidies

In stark contrast to this morning's split DC Circuit ruling, a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit today upheld the ACA's subsidies for Americans buying health insurance on federally-created exchanges. Judge Andre Davis (an Obama nominee) wrote a powerful concurring opinion blasting the illogical premise and blatantly political nature of the lawsuit:

Appellants' approach would effectively destroy the statute by promulgating a new rule that makes premium tax credits unavailable to consumers who purchased health coverage on federal Exchanges. But of course, as their counsel largely conceded at oral argument, that is their not so transparent purpose.

Appellants, citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia, do not wish to buy health insurance. Most assuredly, they have the right, but not the unfettered right to decline to do so. They have a clear choice, one afforded by the admittedly less-than-perfect representative process ordained by our constitutional structure: they can either pay the relatively minimal amounts needed to obtain health care insurance as provided by the Act, or they can refuse to pay and run the risk of incurring a tiny tax penalty. What they may not do is rely on our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear. (internal citations removed)

Ouch.

PFAW Foundation

D.C. Circuit Old Guard Strikes Down Key Obamacare Subsidies Provision

A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit this morning struck down a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that allows subsidies for millions of people purchasing health insurance on government-run exchanges. The case is one of four cases on the same issue, strategically planted in various places around the country (Washington DC, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Indiana). The intent is apparently to get a split in circuit court opinions, so the Supreme Court will be more likely to take the case and, the proponents hope, deliver a crippling blow to Obamacare. (Unlike the millions of Americans who would be the real victims if this scheme succeeds, its proponents presumably have access to health insurance.) Today's ruling is the first among the four circuits.

Opponents of healthcare have an argument that might look appealing on the surface but doesn't pass the smell test. Section 1311 of the ACA says states should set up insurance exchanges. Section 1321 of the Act says the federal government can set one up if a state doesn't. The statute also says how to calculate the amount of a subsidy available for less well-off people getting health insurance through an exchange. It's based on the amount the person pays for the insurance s/he is enrolled in through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. It's on the "by the state" language that the ACA's opponents hang their hat.

The anti-ACA people say the text is clear: The subsidy is unavailable to those who are getting their insurance in states where the federal government has set up the exchange. Judge Thomas Griffith and Senior Judge Raymond Randolph (nominated by Bush-43 and Bush-41, respectively) grabbed on to this argument, striking down subsidies for Americans living in states where politicians have chosen not to set up their own state exchanges.

Senior Judge Harry Edwards (a Carter nominee) dissented, pointing out that this was clearly not the intent of Congress. He explained the case quite plainly:

This case is about Appellants' not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("ACA").

...

Appellants' proffered construction of the statute would permit States to exempt many people from the individual mandate and thereby thwart a central element of the ACA. As Appellants' amici candidly acknowledge, if subsidies are unavailable to taxpayers in States with HHS-created Exchanges, "the structure of the ACA will crumble." It is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to "crumble." [emphasis added, internal citation removed]

Judge Edwards continues, shattering the majority's argument that their interpretation fits with congressional intent:

Apparently recognizing the weakness of a claim that rests solely on [one particular section of the Affordable Care Act], divorced from the rest of the ACA, Appellants attempt to fortify their position with the extraordinary argument that Congress tied the availability of subsidies to the existence of State-established Exchanges [rather than federal ones] to encourage States to establish their own Exchanges. This claim is nonsense, made up out of whole cloth. There is no credible evidence in the record that Congress intended to condition subsidies on whether a State, as opposed to HHS, established the Exchange. Nor is there credible evidence that any State even considered the possibility that its taxpayers would be denied subsidies if the State opted to allow HHS to establish an Exchange on its behalf.

The majority opinion ignores the obvious ambiguity in the statute and claims to rest on plain meaning where there is none to be found. In so doing, the majority misapplies the applicable standard of review, refuses to give deference to the IRS's and HHS's permissible constructions of the ACA, and issues a judgment that portends disastrous consequences.

Those disastrous consequences are not the intent of Congress, but they are the intent of far right zealots.

The Justice Department has already said it will seek an en banc review by all eleven judges of the D.C. Circuit, where President Obama's opponents have less likelihood of winning than would have been the case a year ago. In case you were wondering why Senate Republicans pulled out all the stops last year and declared they would not allow President Obama to fill any of the three then-existing vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, cases like this are why. The last thing they wanted was a balanced, non-ideological court.

For anyone who cares about healthcare, courts matter.

PFAW

PFAW and Allies Host Young Political Leaders Event at Netroots Nation in Detroit

As Netroots Nation wrapped up its visit to the Motor City on Saturday, PFAW partnered with LaunchProgress and the Michigan Democratic Party’s Youth Caucus to celebrate a strong slate of young progressive candidates running for office in the state.

The Young Political Leaders Happy Hour featured many of Michigan’s young progressive candidates and staff, who came together to network and talk politics following the closing session at Netroots Nation. In June PFAW announced its Michgan slate of Young Elected Progressives (YEP) program endorsees, some of whom were able to join the party at the end of a long day of knocking on doors in their districts.  

Thanks to all who joined us in Detroit!

PFAW

President Obama Signs Executive Order Protecting LGBT Workers

Today President Obama signed an executive order protecting LGBT employees of federal contractors from workplace discrimination. In remarks this morning, the president said that our government “will become just a little bit fairer” today.

President Obama pointed out that many Americans go to work every day with the fear that they could lose their job because of who they are. It’s time to “address this injustice for every American,” he said, urging Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). While today’s executive order expands protections to millions of LGBT people who work for federal contractors, we still lack a nationwide law to protect LGBT workers across the board. In many states, you can still be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Following the Obama administration’s announcement that an executive order was in the works, People For the American Way joined nearly 100 other organizations, including many faith groups, in a letter urging the president to reject a call for an additional religious exemption — which ultimately was not included. The letter noted:

Religious freedom is one of our most cherished values, a fundamental and defining feature of our national character. It guarantees us the freedom to hold any belief we choose and the right to act on our religious beliefs within certain limits. It does not, however, provide organizations the right to discriminate using taxpayer dollars. When a religiously affiliated organization makes the decision to request a taxpayer-funded contract with the federal government, it must play by the same rules as every other federal contractor. [emphasis added]

Jonathan Capehart from the Washington Post reports that in the past few weeks, there have been “extraordinary meetings” in the White House among LGBT and religious communities about both the necessity of protecting workers from discrimination and religious liberty. As Capehart writes, “The president’s action today shows the two are not mutually exclusive.”

PFAW

Diversity Milestone for Obama's Judicial Nominees

Last week's confirmation of Ronnie White was a milestone, and not just because the Senate corrected a 15-year old injustice. It was also a diversity milestone: Ronnie White is the 100th person of color that President Obama has made a federal circuit or district court judge.

That is more than twice the number at the same point in the George W. Bush Administration, and far exceeds Bush's total for his entire eight years in office. In fact, President Obama has had more minority judges confirmed than any other president.

One of the hallmarks of President Obama's judicial nominations has been his commitment to a federal bench that is not only highly qualified, but also reflective of the great diversity of the American people. And he has succeeded on that score, despite unprecedented obstruction from Senate Republicans.

With last week's confirmation of Ronnie White, President Obama reached a milestone in correcting an injustice that goes back not just 15 years, but all the way back to the nation's founding: the systematic exclusion of people of color from the federal bench.

PFAW

National Candidates Share Their Views on Money in Politics in the 2014 Elections

Most Americans recognize money in politics to be a pressing issue, but no one understands it quite like the candidates running for office to try and change our campaign finance system.

In a candidate forum yesterday at Netroots Nation​, moderator and People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker led panelists – Maine U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows, South Dakota U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland, Wisconsin U.S. House of Representatives candidate Kelly Westlund, and former California Secretary of State candidate Derek Cressman – in a lively discussion of the role of money in politics in the 2014 elections.

Baker kicked off the discussion by noting both the magnitude of outside money flooding into the 2014 elections as compared to earlier elections, as well as the public will to quell this tide. She pointed out that nine in ten voters want to see their elected officials take action to fix our country’s money in politics problem.

The candidates began by telling the audience why they were inspired to make money in politics a central issue for their campaigns. Shenna Bellows, who said that her father was a carpenter and that her family did not have electricity or running water during her childhood, noted that “people like me” – those not from wealthy backgrounds – don’t often run for public office. This fact, she pointed out, contributes to the creation of laws tilted in favor of big business. Rick Weiland echoed that idea, and said that he believes money in politics is the number one issuing facing our country. For Kelly Westlund, the full weight of our country’s money in politics problem hit home for her when she approached her party about running for office and was asked whether she would be able to raise a quarter of a million dollars in three weeks. And Derek Cressman said that he was drawn to the opportunity of using the bully pulpit of a political office like secretary of state (or as Baker added, the platform of a being a candidate for that political office) to get support for measures like Proposition 49, a ballot initiative in California asking Congress to amend the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United that will now be on the ballot in the state in November.

Panelists also talked about fighting the cynicism and despair that can surround the issue of big money in politics for voters. Cressman said that while Americans already understand that this is a major problem, they are also eager to support solutions. He underscored the overwhelming grassroots energy around the issue. A number of panelists highlighted the importance of “connecting the dots” between money and policy – drawing the links for voters between progress on the issues they care most about and the creation of a political system not dominated by corporations and the super-rich. Multiple panelists also shared stories of the power of small dollar donors. For Bellows, a full half of the contributions her campaign receives are $6 or less. She lifted up the example of former senator and progressive hero Paul Wellstone, who she noted was outraised seven-to-one but still won his race.

As the panel wrapped up, panelists underscored the importance of pushing for a range of complimentary solutions to our money in politics problem, from the constitutional amendment now moving through the Senate to disclosure legislation to small-donor financing initiatives. As Westlund put it, it’s not enough to recognize the problems. We have to fight for solutions and get the right people at the table so that we can change the system and make sure the government’s policies reflect the will of the people.

Watch a video of the panel here:

PFAW

Will Anti-Gay Groups Learn from Florida Court Ruling for Marriage Equality?

A Florida state court today became the latest in recent months to rule that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying violates the U.S. Constitution. (As Freedom to Marry notes, the ruling applies only in Monroe County.)

One interesting part of the Equal Protection portion of the ruling discusses whether proponents of Florida's ban have anti-gay animus. Circuit Judge Luis Garcia discusses the arguments of two parties who had submitted amicus briefs in support of the ban: Florida Family Action (which is affiliated with the Florida Family Policy Council) and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality. Perhaps not surprisingly, he finds the animus in the types of arguments they choose to make:

The court finds that despite the Amici Curiae assertion that there is no evidence of animus towards homosexuals by the proponents of the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment (FMPA), there is ample evidence not only historically but within the very memorandum of law filed by the Amici Curiae. ... [It] paints a picture of homosexuals as HIV infected, alcohol and drug abusers, who are promiscuous and psychologically damaged and incapable of long term relationships or of raising children. They contend, "the personal, social and financial costs of these homosexual-specific health problems concern not just those who engage in homosexual activity, but also the larger community of citizens who help provide services and who must bear part of the burden imposed by the health challenges. It is eminently rational for the voters of Florida to seek to minimize the deleterious effect of these conditions on public health, safety and welfare by affirming that marriage in Florida remains the union of one man and one woman."

The judge concluded that there was animus behind the Florida ban, such that the law is subject to a somewhat higher level of scrutiny than the ordinary law for Equal Protection purposes. Not surprisingly, the ban fails that scrutiny.

It is not a good day for right-wing groups that peddle in vicious anti-gay stereotypes.

PFAW Foundation

Grassley's Hypocrisy Comes Out in the Ronnie White Debate

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, tried today to demonstrate why Ronnie White should not be confirmed as a federal judge in Missouri. But in so doing, Grassley succeeded only in demonstrating his own partisan hypocrisy.

On the Senate floor, Grassley said:

Discussing his judicial philosophy, [Ronnie White] said in 2005 that he thinks it's appropriate for judges to let their opinions be “shaped by their own life experiences.”

I think the personal characteristics of the judge – what this nominee calls his “own life experiences” – should play no role whatsoever in the process of judicial decision making.

"No role whatsoever," Grassley says. Yet when a far-right Bush judicial nominee made a similar statement, Grassley had no problem with it. At his confirmation hearing, Samuel Alito, then a circuit judge, told senators how his judicial opinions were shaped by his family's life experiences. For instance:

When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.

Neither White nor Alito was saying they would base their judicial opinions on their own personal political ideologies (although it turns out that is exactly what Alito has done). But Grassley is a conservative with a mission to populate the federal bench with more people like Sam Alito and fewer people like the ones President Obama nominates.

Grassley's power to shape the bench will be greatly augmented should Republicans take over the Senate this fall, as he would then become chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

PFAW

Senate Corrects a 15-Year Old Injustice and Confirms Ronnie White

This afternoon, the Senate confirmed a federal judge for the Eastern District of Missouri. While the confirmation of a district court judge is not usually cause for headlines, this is an exception. In confirming Ronnie White, the Senate is finally correcting a 15-year-old injustice.

In 1997, White was nominated by President Clinton to the same judgeship. However, White's nomination was successfully and unfairly targeted by then-Sen. John Ashcroft. Ashcroft delayed the nomination for two years, and in 1999 he spearheaded a party-line fight to defeat White's confirmation. Ashcroft's distortion of White's record was widely criticized at the time, as well as later when he was nominated to become Attorney General.

The first African American to sit on the Missouri Supreme Court, Ronnie White was then – and remains now – supremely qualified to be a federal judge. He brings to the bench years of experience in both private practice and public service. He began his long and successful career as a public defender, then was elected three times to the state legislature. He was appointed to a state judgeship, and later served for twelve years on the Missouri Supreme Court, including as its Chief Justice. He has spent the past seven years as a partner in a major law firm. His career encapsulates in one person the broad professional diversity that so strengthens our federal courts.

Sen. Claire McCaskill is to be commended for recommending White to the president and giving the Senate a chance to do what it should have done 15 years ago: confirm Judge Ronnie White to the federal bench.

PFAW