Senate Judiciary Committee

PFAW Memo: Senate Needs to Confirm Pending Judicial Nominees

To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People For the American Way
Date: September 15, 2014
Subject: Senate Needs to Confirm Pending Judicial Nominees

There is probably little more than a week before the Senate goes out on recess until after the election. One of the most important – and undoubtedly quickest and easiest – things it can do before then is confirm 16 judicial nominees, most of whom have overwhelming bipartisan support.
                                                                                      
One of the most important responsibilities of the United States Senate is to maintain a functioning federal court system. District courts are the backbone of the American judicial system. They are where people turn when they feel their rights have been violated. “Having your day in court” is an essential part of the American ideal. But that ideal cannot be met if we don’t have enough judges to make it happen. Even if every vacancy in the country were filled tomorrow, it wouldn’t be enough: The Judicial Conference of the United States – the entity responsible for assessing the federal courts’ ability to effectively manage their caseloads – has urged Congress to create an additional 85 district court judgeships. So when an existing vacancy can be filled with a qualified nominee, it ought to be done with dispatch.

Right now, nominees for 16 such vacancies can be confirmed within the next few days. Seven of these were fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee and have been waiting for a floor vote since June or July. Of these seven, all but one of them advanced without any opposition. Four alone are from Georgia: nominees who have the unanimous support of the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic and Republican senators. There are no more questions to ask of these nominees, except when they will be allowed to take up their judicial responsibilities and fill empty courtrooms in Georgia, New York, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

The remaining nine were scheduled for a committee vote last week, having had their confirmation hearings back in July. They have been nominated for judgeships in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Four of them – nearly half – would serve in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a state with so many vacancies that it alone accounts for 15% of the nation’s total, but Chairman Leahy was forced by the GOP to delay the vote. Republicans gave no reason for the delay, but they rarely do: Since President Obama took office, Republicans have exercised the right of the minority party to have a committee vote “held over” (delayed) by at least a week without cause for nearly all of his judicial nominees, part of their overall mechanism of obstruction. Fortunately, they are expected to get their overdue committee approval later this week.

There remains plenty of time to confirm all 16 nominees before the Senate goes out for its pre-election recess next week.

The fact that we are heading into an election is no reason not to hold these confirmation votes. In fact, in September of 2008, a presidential election year – and the twilight of George W. Bush’s presidency, no less – Democrats rushed several of his nominees through to make sure they got confirmed before recess (and before his presidency ended). Ten of Bush’s district court nominees were confirmed just one day after being approved by the Judiciary Committee. All ten had had their committee hearings earlier that same month – in some cases, during that same week. The confirmation votes took hardly any time at all, since all ten were considered and confirmed as a bloc by unanimous consent.

Interestingly, three of those 2008 nominees were from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where four of the current 16 nominees could be serving by next week, if given the chance.

Republicans still have a chance to demonstrate that they can prioritize the functioning of the U.S. court system over their own partisan interests. But it seems unlikely. Since last year, the GOP has insisted that no judicial nominee, despite their bipartisan support, advance on the Senate floor without time-consuming cloture votes and roll-call confirmation votes. And it isn’t just the roll-call votes that take time (although each one can take nearly an hour). Without unanimous consent to waive the chamber’s time requirements, cloture votes cannot be held until two days after cloture petitions are filed, and each confirmation vote requires at least an hour of needless “post-cloture debate” even after the filibuster is broken.

If Republicans successfully prevent votes this month, the earliest the courtrooms will see some relief will be in a potential lame duck session.  That means another two month wait until clearly qualified nominees are  able to take their seats in courtrooms around the country.  There is simply no good reason for such delay.
 

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Failing to Defend the Right to Vote Is Simply Not an Option

As we work to ensure not only that President Obama receives legislation without undue delay, but also that whatever language he signs protects as many voters as possible from discrimination, it is important to remember those who died a half century ago fighting for this very cause.
PFAW

PFAW Calls Senate Hearing on VRA Legislation an “Important Step"

WASHINGTON –Chairman Patrick Leahy announced yesterday that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on June 25 on the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA), legislation intended to repair damage done by the Supreme Court last year in Shelby County v. Holder. People For the American Way's Executive Vice President Marge Baker released the following statement:

“Chairman Leahy and the Judiciary Committee should be commended for taking an important step toward correcting the damage done by last year’s Shelby decision. The right to vote is the most fundamental right in our democracy, which is why we need a modern, effective Voting Rights Act to protect it. We urge the Senate to move quickly on this, and the House to follow suit. With another national election looming, now is the time to move forward to protect the right to vote for all.”

The day of the Senate hearing will mark one year since the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby decision. While a bipartisan group of House members joined Chairman Leahy to introduce the VRAA in January, the House Judiciary Committee has yet to schedule a hearing.

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Money in Politics Takes Top Billing on Congress.Gov

Congress.gov saw so many views of S.J. Res. 19 because Americans across the country are interested in creating an America that does not allow corporations to use their money to cozy up with politicians.
PFAW

PFAW and Allies Deliver to Senate Hearing Two Million Petitions for an Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

Before yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a proposed campaign finance constitutional amendment had even begun, advocates from People For the American Way and partner organizations had already delivered a powerful message from the American people. Carrying signs saying “Restore the First Amendment” and “Amend the Constitution to #GetMoneyOut,” activists rolled in stacked boxes of more than two million petitions in support of an amendment to get big money out of politics.

 

In his opening remarks, Sen. Patrick Leahy noted that these petitions serve as a “tangible reminder that Americans are calling on Congress to act.”

In an rare move that underscored the importance of the proposed amendment, both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell testified at the hearing. Sen. Reid issued a call to action for the amendment, urging Americans to work together to restore the basic principle of one American, one vote. “Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances,” he said.

Sen. McConnell, on the other hand, used the platform to claim that the proposed amendment is about shutting people up, calling it the “latest proposal to weaken the First Amendment.” Later, Sen. Ted Cruz continued to push the false claim that the amendment would “repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment” and “muzzle” Americans.

But other witnesses were quick to debunk this myth, including constitutional law expert Jamie Raskin, who is also a senior fellow at People For the American Way. In his testimony, Raskin noted:

[E]ven as our huge majorities of Americans support reclaiming our democracy, opponents of the Amendment are waving the flag of the First Amendment, as if political democracy and free speech are enemies. But the Citizens United era has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with plutocratic power. Citizens United did not increase the rights of a single citizen to express his or her views with speech or with money. Before the decision, all citizens, including CEOs, could express themselves freely, make contributions, and spend all the money they had to promote their politics. They could band together with the help of the corporation and form a PAC. All Citizens United did was confer a power on CEOs to write corporate treasury checks for political expenditures, without a vote of the shareholders, prior consultation or even disclosure.

In terms of real world consequences, Raskin went on to note, these damaging Supreme Court decisions did not “expand the political freedom of citizens but… reduce[d] the political power of citizens.”

North Carolina State Senator Floyd McKissick described some of those real world effects, noting that he can divide his time in the state legislature into two distinct periods: “before Citizens United, and after”:

Suddenly, no matter what the race was, money came flooding in. Even elected officials who had been in office for decades told me they’d never seen anything like it. We were barraged by television ads that were uglier and less honest than I would have thought possible. And they all seemed to be coming from groups with names we had never even heard of. But it was clear that corporations and individuals who could write giant checks had a new level of power in the state.

PFAW

PFAW Applauds Confirmation of David Barron

The Senate today voted to approve the nomination of David Barron to First Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 53 to 45.

Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way issued the following statement:

“The Senate should be applauded today not just for confirming a well-qualified nominee, but for taking another important step towards addressing the persistent issue of vacancies on our nation’s circuit courts. For years, Republicans have blocked, delayed, and obstructed the confirmation of judges to our circuit courts at every opportunity. In recent months, Majority Leader Reid and the Democratic Caucus have been making real strides in processing the backlog of nominees.

“We need to continue to push hard to make sure Americans find fair-minded judges waiting for them when they turn to the federal courts to protect their rights.”

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PFAW Opposes Nomination of Michael Boggs to be Federal Judge

Federal district court nominee Michael Boggs of Georgia had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The hearing was his opportunity to address the many serious concerns we and others have had about his record. When he first ran for office as a state judge, he assured voters that they could know where he stood by looking at his legislative record, including his opposition to marriage equality. But judges aren’t supposed to let their personal political beliefs determine how they rule on cases. In addition, the legislative record he cited is deeply disturbing.

Unfortunately, his testimony in response to senators’ questions only deepened our concerns. So in a letter Wednesday to members of the Senate, People For the American Way expressed strong opposition to this confirmation. PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon delineated the reasoning behind the organization’s opposition to Boggs’ confirmation.

“[Boggs’] record makes clear that senators should not confirm him to a lifetime position as a United States judge,” the letter states. “…we do not believe Michael Boggs has demonstrated that he would be able to bring to his service as a lifetime judge on the federal courts the requisite impartiality necessary for such a position.”

The five page letter discusses the problems around Boggs’ ability to perform in the role of judge and his actions relating to LGBT equality, reproductive rights, and government promotion of religion. It also discusses the controversy around his support for the inclusion of Confederate imagery in the Georgia state flag, as well as his candor before the Judiciary Committee. You can read the full text of the letter here.
 

PFAW

As Immigration Bill Advances, Common Sense Faces off with Extremism

Last night the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 to advance immigration legislation that creates a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.  It is expected to come to the Senate floor for debate in June. 

As the bill moves forward, Republicans in Congress will have to make a choice between casting their lot with the majority of their party and country in supporting common-sense reform or with anti-immigrant extremists attempting to stand in the way of progress.  As Right Wing Watch has documented, right-wing activists continue to push damaging, outrageous lies about immigrant communities.  Maria Espinoza, director of a project linked to the nativist Numbers USA, proclaimed that “no one is immune to the illegal who drives wildly drunk, or the wanna-be gang-banger who needs to machete innocent citizens to gain entry and respect into the Latino or other gangs.” Center for Immigration Studies director Mark Krikorian has called GOP immigration reform supporters “useful idiots” and claimed that “Native-born Hispanic Americans, who make up most Hispanic voters, have a majority of the children that are born to them are illegitimate, very high rates of welfare use.”

As the GOP works to change their party’s image for Latino voters, they face a choice between standing with those on the far-right fringe such as Krikorian and Espinoza or standing with the bipartisan majority pushing for much-needed change.

PFAW

PFAW Applauds Senate Judiciary Committee Approval of 13 Nominees, Including D.C. Circuit Court Nominee Caitlin Halligan

This morning the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve Caitlin Halligan to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the D.C. Circuit and Patty Shwartz to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Third Circuit.  The Committee also approved nine District Court nominees and two nominees for the U.S. Court of International Trade.

Since 2003 Shwartz has served as a Magistrate Judge on the New Jersey U.S. District Court and includes among her supporters New Jersey governor Chris Christie.   Halligan, an accomplished appellate litigator who has practiced in front of the Supreme Court, is currently General Counsel of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and has strong support from the law enforcement community in New York and around the country.  She was first nominated for the seat on the D.C. Circuit in 2010 and has faced ongoing Republican obstruction despite the Court’s pressing vacancies.  The D.C. Circuit Court, the nation’s second most important court, currently has four vacancies (out of only eleven judgeships).  This has serious ramifications for the caseloads for each of the remaining active judges, which have continued to rise steeply in recent years.

“The need to fill vacancies has never been more pressing,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way.  “We are heartened that two highly qualified women have been approved by the Committee for the Circuit Courts.  Halligan and Shwartz both deserve prompt votes.”

Of the thirteen judicial nominees voted on this morning, eight are women, six are minorities, and one is openly gay.

“These highly capable nominees come from diverse backgrounds,” Baker continued.  “It is encouraging to see a list of judicial nominees who look like America.”

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PFAW Commends Senate Hearing on Citizens United and Voting Rights

Washington, DC – People For the American Way today commended the Senate Judiciary Committee for holding an important hearing on the tremendous impact the Supreme Court will have on whether the American people will be allowed to retain control of our own democracy. Today’s hearing will focus on the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC and the role of the courts in preserving individual citizens’ voting rights.

Citizens United has profoundly reshaped our elections, opening them up to limitless corporate cash, secret money, and risk of corruption,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “Citizens United has given corporations and the very wealthy unprecedented control over the public debate preceding our elections. At the same time, new threats are arising to the right to even cast a ballot, as individual citizens are seeing their voting rights taken away by suppressive laws targeted at traditionally disenfranchised communities – especially those who corporate interests fear will vote ‘the wrong way’.

“Our federal courts have an important role in ensuring that the rights of Americans to control our own democracy are preserved. It’s encouraging that the Judiciary Committee is giving these issues the attention they deserve.”

Earlier this year, People For the American Way and allied groups delivered 1.9 million petitions to congressional leaders urging them to move forward on amending the constitution to overturn Citizens United.


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For Judicial Nominees, The Hidden Obstruction Continues

Ongoing Republican abuse of committee procedures is keeping our nation's courtrooms empty.
PFAW

GOP Boycotts Judiciary Committee

Are Senate Republicans Finding New Ways to Keep Our Nation's Courtrooms Empty?
PFAW

PFAW's Peter Montgomery: Republicans Using 'Religious Liberty' to Attack Obama, Women's Health

Attacking President Obama for his supposed “hostility” to religious liberty is the tactic du jour for congressional Republicans, according to a new piece in the Huffington Post by PFAW Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery.

After a widely-mocked hearing before the House Oversight Committee on contraceptive coverage, conservatives testifying before the Judiciary Committee continued to claim that the Obama Administration’s compromise on contraceptive coverage is not sufficient – and even if were, the Administration couldn’t be trusted to actually carry it out.

But many of their arguments relied on narrow definitions of the beginning of life that are at odds with medical standards and even with the rest of the religious community:

The arguments from Republican members and their witnesses boiled down to three main claims: the regulations requiring contraception coverage are unconstitutional burdens on religious organizations; the compromise to prevent religious organizations from having to pay for contraceptive coverage is only "an accounting gimmick" that does not resolve any of the moral or religious liberty issues; and the Obama administration has proven itself hostile to religious liberty and cannot be trusted to follow through on its promised accommodation.

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Several Democratic members pointedly noted that Lori was not speaking for all Catholic leaders, placing into the record positive statements about the proposed compromise from the Catholic Health Association, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and other Catholic groups. Meanwhile, outside the hearing, other Catholic voices challenged the credibility of the bishops' religious liberty alarmism.

Others cited fallacious examples to attempt to bolster their claim of lacking religious accomodation.

Also on hand: more nonsensical analogies to join Bishop Lori's previous testimony that the regulations were akin to forcing a Jewish deli to serve pork. Committee Chair Lamar Smith asked whether the government could force people to drink red wine for its health benefits. (As Rep. Zoe Lofgren noted, no one is being forced to use birth control.) Religious Right favorite Rep. Steve King lamented that in the past Christians had "submitted" to Supreme Court decision on prayer in schools and the Griswold decision and the right to privacy "manufactured" by the Supreme Court.

The piece goes on to discuss how religious liberty does require some accommodation of religious beliefs, and striking an appropriate balance is a delicate task. But whatever the outcome, Montgomery notes, the courts will evaluate the regulation of competing interests, and “religious liberty in America will survive.” You can read the entire article here.

PFAW

Senate Hearing Examines Indefinite Detention of Americans

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “The Due Process Guarantee Act: Banning Indefinite Detention of Americans,” which shed light on controversial provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA).

That act, signed into law on December 31, 2011, codified some of the most extreme abuses of civil liberties that have been pursued following the initiation of the ‘War on Terror,’ the actions of which, under the current administration, are now engaged under the title, ‘Overseas Contingency Operations.’ The most striking provision of the NDAA affirmed a broad interpretation of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (2001) and stated that the executive has the power to detain anyone “who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities … without trial, until the end of the hostilities authorized by the [AUMF 2001],” which many interpret would permit even the indefinite detention of American citizens.

Although the current executive branch has pledged to not act upon these powers with respect to American citizens – President Obama signed the law with an adjoining statement, declaring, “my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens” – the potential for future administrations to engage in such clearly unconstitutional behavior, or for the Obama Administration to simply change its mind, is a danger that all Americans should be wary of.

Troubled by these possibilities, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the ‘Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011’ just hours after the final version of the NDAA was approved by the Senate. The bill seeks to amend the United States Code affected by the NDAA, effectively barring the executive from utilizing indefinite detention on American citizens without express approval from Congress to do so.

The hearing today regarded this remedial act; and there were fireworks to say the least.

Senator Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and is the author of the bill, repeatedly called into question the effectiveness of the provisions in question. Alluding to her past experiences on the Intelligence Committee, Feinstein echoed the concerns of leaders of intelligence and domestic crime fighting agencies who have expressed their disagreement with the infringement of the Armed Forces into domestic security concerns.

Senator Patrick Leahy, before passing the gavel to Senator Feinstein to chair the session, spoke more broadly about the practice of indefinite detention in his opening statement, stating, “A regime of indefinite detention degrades the credibility of this great Nation around the globe, particularly when we criticize other governments for engaging in such conduct.”

The most heated portion of the hearing arose when Senator Al Franken objected to the testimony of Steven G. Bradbury, a former Bush Administration appointee invited by Senate Republicans to testify in favor of the indefinite detention provisions. Franken alluded to the ‘enhanced interrogation’ memos (more accurately called torture memos) that Bradbury authored – which were the subject of a Justice Department probe that concluded by seriously questioning the legal work of Bradbury and others - and stated, “it’s very difficult for me, frankly, to rely on your legal opinion today.”

To ensure that future generations of Americans are not subject to indefinite detention without charge or trial, which was deemed unconstitutional by the Hamdi Supreme Court decision in 2004, please contact your local Representative and Senators to express your opposition to the NDAA, and encourage them to co-sponsor legislation to make sure the law reflects our Constitution’s most essential values. ( H.R. 36702 in the House; S. 2003 in the Senate).

PFAW

PFAW Commends Movement on DOMA Repeal

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced today that he intends to bring the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), before his committee for a vote in November.
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