Shelby County v. Holder

PFAW Edit Memo: Striking Progress on Judicial Nominations

To: Interested Parties
From: Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel
Re: Striking Progress on Judicial Nominations
Date: September 22, 2014

So far, 2014 has been a banner year for effectively pushing back against the Republican obstruction of judicial nominees that we have seen since the moment Barack Obama took office. The past few months have shown just how much progress America can make in ending the deliberate sabotage of the third branch of government so that our nation’s federal court system can do what the Founders intended it to do: Protect every person’s rights and ensure that everyone can have their day in court.

Background

Since the day that George W. Bush left office, Republicans have sought to leave as many judgeships as possible vacant for as long as possible, apparently in the hopes of maximizing the next (Republican) president’s opportunities to nominate his or her own judges and impose a right-wing ideology on America’s federal courts. With that goal they have simply blocked confirmation votes, regardless of the nominee. The result has been long backlogs in courts across the country and serious delay in providing justice for many Americans.

Under Senate rules, unanimous consent is needed to schedule a confirmation vote for a judicial nominee – something that used to be regularly granted to nominees with strong bipartisan support, as most lower court judges have had. But for the first time, Republicans under President Obama have routinely refused to allow timely votes on nearly every nominee – even the vast majority who have little or no Republican opposition – effectively but invisibly filibustering just about every one of them. Only after months of delay would Republicans finally consent to a vote. In all other cases, the only way to break the logjam has been for Democrats to file a cloture motion to end the filibuster, a burdensome and time-consuming practice, and (until recently) one requiring a supermajority of 60 votes. So for the first five years of the Obama presidency, confirmations were regularly delayed for no reason, usually out of public view, for months longer than necessary. For instance, Richard Taranto was confirmed to the Federal Circuit unanimously, but the Senate was not allowed to hold a vote until 347 days after his committee approval; Republicans never publicly explained why they would not allow him a vote earlier.

Overcoming Obstruction in 2014

This year, things have changed. By late 2013, five years of unprecedented obstruction had climaxed in a declaration by GOP senators that they would filibuster any nominee for the critically important and understaffed District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, no matter who the nominee might be, Senate Democrats concluded that the Senate and the nation would be significantly damaged if this were allowed to continue. The chamber responded to the exceptional obstruction by reforming its procedural rules. Going forward, cloture votes to end filibusters of executive and judicial nominees (with the exception of those to the Supreme Court) would require a majority of senators voting, rather than 60 votes.

Now, when Republicans refuse to consent to a vote, Majority Leader Reid files a cloture petition and sets a vote. Taking advantage of the change in Senate rules, Democrats have been able to defeat the GOP filibusters with a simple majority vote. While Republicans have not consented to even one judicial confirmation vote in 2014, they also have not been able to stop the Senate from voting on any of them. And despite the significant time that Republicans force the Senate to spend on each confirmation – drawn-out roll-call cloture votes, post-cloture time for debate of 30 hours for circuit court nominees and two hours for district court nominees (a debate that usually does not occur despite the time set aside for it), then time-consuming roll-call confirmation votes – Reid and the Democrats have persevered. Rather than wait for months longer than needed after committee approval before having a floor vote, the Senate has been able to act in a more timely – and appropriate – manner.

One of the basic and most important responsibilities of the U.S. Senate under the Constitution is to vote whether to confirm judges and keep the federal judiciary functioning. As of 2014, the Senate has no longer been blocked from doing that.

The figure below shows the dramatic drop in how long the average nominee has had to wait for a confirmation vote after approval by the Judiciary Committee as a result of the rules change:

With the Senate freed to do its job, the number of confirmation votes has grown significantly.

This has ameliorated the intentionally generated vacancy crisis that has hobbled our courts since President Obama took office. There were 54 vacancies when Obama was inaugurated in 2009. With the Senate blocked from holding timely confirmation votes, that number went to historic highs, skyrocketing to 100 by the end of the year. When the 111th Congress ended in December of 2010, Republicans blocked confirmation votes for 19 qualified nominees who had been approved by the Judiciary Committee, the overwhelming majority of whom had been approved unanimously or with almost unanimous support. As a result, 2011 opened with 95 vacancies – and with a needless bottleneck of nominations that delayed confirmation votes for all nominees down the line. With Republicans preventing the Senate from confirming even consensus nominees, it counted as a major accomplishment if the number of vacancies dipped into the low 80s, or even the 70s, as it sometimes did.

As a result, at the beginning of this year, our federal court system was suffering from 92 vacancies. And now? As of September 21, we’re down to 57 circuit and district court vacancies, just a few more than when Obama took office. This is a dramatic and long overdue drop.

Supreme Court and Circuit Courts:
Undoing the Damage of the Bush Years

Our Constitution and our laws protect our right to vote, to have a workplace free of discrimination, to get married, to make our own reproductive decisions, to hold corporations accountable when they unlawfully injure or cheat us, and to have a voice in our democracy. But those rights don’t mean anything if we don’t have effective courts – and judges – to vindicate them when they are impinged.

Knowing the important role federal courts play in shaping our laws and guaranteeing – or frustrating – our basic rights, President Bush and his supporters set out to put as many far right ideologues on the federal appellate courts as possible. The most controversial of his court nominees are busy re-making law across the land.

Most notoriously, John Roberts and Samuel Alito have joined with Reagan and Bush-41 nominees Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy to give hard-right ideologues a frequent 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. They have regularly bent the law and confounded logic in order to rule in favor of the powerful in case after the case, rewriting our Constitution and federal laws. Citizens United, Shelby County, and Hobby Lobby are just a few of the growing number of cases where they have used the federal bench as a platform to transform the country to fit their personal political ideologies, notwithstanding what the Constitution and our laws actually say.

While the Supreme Court is extremely important and well known, it only hears around 75 cases a year. Most Americans in federal courts have their cases decided at the district or circuit level. Circuit court rulings have an enormous impact on the law, and only a tiny portion of them are reconsidered at the Supreme Court. That is why George W. Bush and his partisans spent so much effort to confirm ideologues like Janice Rogers Brown, who now holds a lifetime position on the D.C. Circuit. She wrote a 2012 opinion holding that graphic warnings on cigarette packages violate the tobacco companies’ free speech rights. She joined a 2013 opinion striking down a National Labor Relations Board rule requiring employers to post workers’ legal rights, framing it as “compelled speech” indistinguishable from forcing schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance or requiring drivers to display a political message (Live Free or Die) on their license plates. She even defended the ideology of the discredited Lochner era in a 2012 concurrence, writing that courts’ deference to everyday economic and business regulations “means property is at the mercy of the pillagers.”

In contrast to ideologues like Brown, President Obama has named judges characterized by their fidelity to the Constitution and our laws, and the impact on ordinary Americans has been enormous. For instance, the full D.C. Circuit, which now has four Obama nominees among its eleven active judges, this month vacated a widely criticized panel ruling by two conservative judges striking down a key subsidies provision of the Affordable Care Act. The legal argument against the subsidies has been widely recognized as weak, with a transparently political motive. On the same day of the DC Circuit’s panel ruling, a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit had upheld the law. Obama nominee Andre Davis accurately described what the far right plaintiffs are seeking judicial allies to do:

[They want] 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.

As that one example illustrates, the D.C. Circuit is hardly the only one of our nation’s 13 federal circuit courts that looks very different today from when Bush left office. Where there was then only one circuit with a majority of its active judges nominated by Democratic presidents, today there are nine.

Especially this year, supported by the Senate rules change, progress has been remarkable. The 113th Congress has confirmed 23 circuit court judges. One would have to go back to the 99th Congress in 1985-1986 to see that many circuit court judges confirmed during a single Congress.

The past year has seen the confirmation of nominees like Michelle Friedland (9th Circuit), Pam Harris (4th Circuit), and Nina Pillard (D.C. Circuit), jurists who understand the impact of the law on everyday Americans, who cherish our constitutional principles of equality and liberty, and who don’t see the federal courts as just another part of government that can be used to enhance corporate power.

Conclusion

If the past few months have shown us anything, it is this: Standing up to bullies works. The White House has made judicial nominations that it can be proud of, and Senate Democrats have overcome years of Republican obstruction to get these nominees confirmed. Despite the GOP’s herculean efforts to prevent President Obama from exercising the powers he was elected – and re-elected – to use, he is successfully restoring balance to the nation’s courts. For the first time, the number of courtroom vacancies is close to where it was when Obama took office, and highly qualified jurists are taking their places on our federal circuit and district courts.

And the progress isn’t over. An additional 16 judicial nominees have been fully vetted and approved by the Judiciary Committee and are currently eligible for a floor vote – a floor vote that could have been held before the Senate left town for the elections. Several more have had hearings and should be ready for consideration by the Committee and the full Senate during the lame duck session that is scheduled to begin on November 12. And the White House just sent additional nominees to the Senate that could easily have hearings and a Committee vote during the lame duck session as well. There is absolutely no excuse for not holding confirmation votes on any of these committee-approved nominees by the end of this Congress.

During the last two years of the Obama Administration and the years that follow, we can be sure of certain things: The courts will remain critically important, and progressives will have to fight hard to protect those courts and keep them functioning effectively, with judges who won’t seek to use their positions to short-circuit our most important rights.

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PFAW and Allies Deliver Half a Million Signatures Calling on Congress to Restore the Voting Rights Act

On Wednesday, PFAW joined representatives from a number of organizations similarly concerned with civil rights and the cornerstone of American democracy – the right to vote – on Capitol Hill to present Speaker John Boehner with the signatures of more than 500,000 Americans demanding that Congress move forward in restoring key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Today, access to the voting booth has become an increasingly imperiled right for many Americans, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Shelby County v. Holder. Across the country, states and localities are making changes to voting laws that make it more complicated and onerous to carry out a fundamental civic duty, especially for ethnic and racial minorities, the elderly, and student voters.

However, the Republican leadership in the House does not seem to share the public’s sense of urgency on compromised voting access. Tellingly, neither Speaker Boehner nor his staff acknowledged the coalition’s attempt to deliver the signatures in-person. The office that he keeps for his congressional district was locked, and knocks went unanswered, shutting out the American people, including his constituents, in the middle of a workday while Congress is in session.

In a press conference following the attempted delivery of the petitions, lawmakers and representatives from the #VRA4Today coalition of more than 50 advocacy groups spoke of the need to strengthen the rights of voters and restore the critical protections of the Voting Rights Act. Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way, said:

Repairing the damage done by the court majority in Shelby is a critical test of whether Congress can put partisanship behind to protect our democracy. The will of the people is clear: we will not tolerate voting discrimination in our country, we will not turn back the clock.

Joining in this sentiment was House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who urged his colleagues to support the rights of Americans to participate in their government. “The right to vote is the most fundamental right in a democracy,” he said. “It is the right to have one’s voice heard.”
 

PFAW

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

New Report Reflects Persistence of Voting Rights Violations

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) took a giant leap toward reducing voting discrimination, a wealth of evidence today shows that discrimination at the polls persists. A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights documents148 separate instances of voting violations since 2000, with each affecting hundreds to thousands of voters.

The report, The Persistent Challenge of Voting Discrimination, came just days before today’s one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the VRA. The litany of voting rights violations detailed therein underscores the need for reform – now.

Key takeaways gleaned from recent examples:

• Racial discrimination in voting remains a significant problem in our democracy. Nearly 50 years after the enactment of the VRA, racial discrimination in voting remains a persistent problem in many places around the country…

• The problem of racial discrimination in voting is not limited to one region of the country. The examples outlined in this report document instances of voting discrimination from 30 states, representing every region of the country…

• Voting discrimination occurs most often in local elections… They often concern the election of city, county or other local elected officials, where many of the contests are nonpartisan.

• Discrimination in voting manifests itself in many ways, and new methods continue to emerge. Voting discrimination occurs today in both overt and subtle forms.

Here are just a handful of the cases in which systematic discrimination threatened to discourage or sideline voters:

• In 2008, the state of Alaska requested preclearance of a plan to remove polling places in multiple Native villages. The state intended to consolidate predominately Alaska Native voting precincts with those of other communities, creating new polling places that were geographically remote and inaccessible by road. Instead of complying with a “More Information Request” by the Department of Justice regarding the proposed changes, Alaska withdrew their submission.

• Between 2004 and 2011, DOJ alleged that five counties and four cities in California had been in violation of Section 203 of the VRA, citing failures to implement bilingual election programs for language-minority voters, as well as failures to translate election-related materials for precincts with large language-minority populations.

• Between 2002 and 2011, multiple school districts and localities in Louisiana proposed redistricting plans that would have eliminated districts in which an African American majority was able to elect the candidate of their choice. 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights notes that because the study was only able to take into account reported cases, the statistics are likely a conservative estimate of the real magnitude of the problem.

Sadly, discrimination in the electoral process still happens. Moving forward on legislation to update and modernize the VRA would help return a voting voice to Americans who are too often, even today, marginalized.

PFAW

Cleaning Up the Supreme Court's Democracy Mess

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

One year ago this week, the Supreme Court's conservative majority struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and took yet another step toward undermining our democracy. Since then, civil rights leaders have been hard at work trying to clean up the Court's mess.

The Shelby decision was a devastating loss, especially for those who fought to see the original Voting Rights Act enacted. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the sole surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington and a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, accused the Supreme Court of "stab[bing] the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart." Civil rights advocates mourned the naïve assumption that Selma had been relegated to ancient history and that racial discrimination in voting went with it. People For the American Way's director of African American religious affairs noted on the day of the decision: "Those who sided with the majority clearly have not been paying attention, reading the paper, attending community meetings, living in America."

Indeed, anyone who has been paying attention knows that voting discrimination is far from ancient history. A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found nearly 150 documented instances of voting rights violations since 2000, with each case affecting between hundreds and tens of thousands of voters.

Happily, reform is finally underway in the Senate. On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on legislation to put the VRA back together again. It's a critically important first step in getting our country's laws back to where they need to be on voting rights protections. But so far House Republican leadership has refused to move forward. Maybe they think that if they pretend a problem doesn't exist, they won't have to fix it.

The push for voting rights protections isn't the only effort underway to clean up the mess the Supreme Court has made of our democracy. With the 2012 election the most expensive in history, this week the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC, the infamous 2010 ruling that paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. Like Shelby, Citizens United was a contentious 5-4 decision with a strong dissent. Also like Shelby, it set our democracy back dramatically. Citizens United let corporate bank accounts overwhelm the voices of everyday Americans. Shelby made it easier for state and local governments to create barriers to voting.

But Americans know that the answer to attacks on our democracy isn't despair -- it's action. Sixteen states and more than 550 cities and towns have called for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics like the one moving forward in the Senate, and that number is growing rapidly.

National leaders are also speaking out. President Obama has expressed his support for an amendment to overturn Citizen United multiple times since the decision. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens are just a handful of other high-profile amendment supporters. And earlier this month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold back her disdain for the recent democracy-harming decisions coming from the Supreme Court's majority: "Like the currently leading campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, I regard Shelby County as an egregiously wrong decision that should not have staying power."

The Supreme Court has made some very bad calls when it comes to protecting the rights of all Americans to participate meaningfully in our political system. But Justice Ginsburg is right: these wrong-headed decisions shouldn't have staying power. And if the American people have anything to do with it, they won't.

PFAW

PFAW Commends Senate Hearing on VRA Legislation, Urges House to Follow Suit

WASHINGTON – Today the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA), legislation that addresses the Supreme Court’s decision one year ago in Shelby County v. Holder. People For the American Way's Executive Vice President Marge Baker released the following statement:

“One year ago today, the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of one of our country’s crowning civil rights triumphs, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee for taking up the important work of repairing the harm done by the Shelby decision. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for House Republican leadership, who have steadfastly refused to act.

“The right to vote is our most precious right as citizens. Failing to defend this right is simply not an option. Will House leadership stand up and act to protect every American’s right to cast a ballot that counts, or will they stand by and allow that right to increasingly come under attack?”

Today People For the American Way and its African American Ministers In Action program submitted letters on behalf of members, activists and a network of faith leaders thanking the Senate for moving forward on the VRAA and urging the House to do the same.

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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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Presidential Commission Issues Report on Election Administration

The PCEA recommendations are indeed a welcome addition to the voting rights debate, helping us move closer to the day when every eligible voter can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts. We must keep in mind, though, that the PCEA isn't the last word on American electoral reform. Nor does the PCEA replace what the Voting Rights Act lost after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
PFAW

PFAW Praises Introduction of VRA Legislation

WASHINGTON – In response to today’s introduction of legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, People For the American Way President Michael Keegan released the following statement:

“In the wake of last year’s damaging Shelby County v. Holder decision that opened the door to an influx of restrictive new laws around the country, we’re heartened that Congress has taken up the important work of replacing what the Voting Rights Act lost.

“This fight isn’t about partisan politics – it’s about the fundamental right to cast a vote that counts. It’s about all people being treated fairly at the polls. We look forward to working with Congress to strengthen one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in our country’s history.”

People For the American Way recently launched a petition urging Congress to restore strength to the Voting Rights Act, and it currently has more than 137,500 signers.

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The Smoking Gun in the Voting Rights Case

Scalia's comments during oral arguments show that he was guided by personal ideology, not the law.
PFAW

PFAW Foundation: Court Conservatives in Shelby County v. Holder Deal Terrible Blow to the Voting Rights Act

WASHINGTON – In response to the Supreme Court’s decision today in Shelby County v. Holder, People For the American Way Foundation President Michael Keegan released the following statement:

“As the Supreme Court swerves further to the right, our constitutional liberties continue to take a beating.  Today, the Supreme Court seriously undermined an important piece of the premier civil rights legislation of the past century – legislation that civil rights heroes gave their lives for.  This decision sends a chilling message to all those Americans who continue to face politically-motivated hurdles on their way to the ballot box.

“In his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts pledged to behave like an umpire—just calling balls and strikes, and staying out of the game. Today that umpire upended decades of civil rights law. His decision substitutes his own opinions for the findings of America’s elected representatives in Congress, who found numerous cases of ongoing, racially-based political gerrymandering and trickery. Moreover, it does so in an area in which the Constitution specifically and intentionally gives Congress wide discretion. Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act received near unanimous support in both houses of Congress just a few years ago, and was signed into law by President Bush. Today’s decision is a blatantly inappropriate exercise in legislating from the bench. Conservatives who have spent decades decrying judicial activism should take note.

“In two separate cases yesterday, Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to fix the damage done by decisions handed down by our nation’s highest court. That need is even greater today. Congress should move quickly to enact a coverage formula under Section 4 to protect voters whose right to participate in our democracy was badly undermined today. The American people deserve no less.”

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Blockbuster Decisions Coming Soon from the Supreme Court . . .Will Conservative Justices Twist the Constitution to Subvert Equal Protection?

MEMO

TO: Reporters and Editors
FROM: Jamie Raskin, Senior Fellow, People for the American Way Foundation
DATE:  May 24, 2013

RE: Blockbuster Decisions Coming Soon from the Supreme Court . . .Will Conservative Justices Twist the Constitution to Subvert Equal Protection?

The Roberts Court will soon release major decisions shaping the future of voting rights protection, affirmative action in university admissions, and the rights of marriage for gay and lesbian Americans. In each case, the promotion of equal rights under law in our society is opposed by a conservative agenda that seeks to enshrine inequality in the name of “federalism,” “color-blindness,” or “social tradition.” What is at stake in these cases is whether America continues its journey towards strong and inclusive multi-racial democracy or accepts conservative arguments that undermine constitutional and social progress.   

Congressional Protection of Voting Rights versus “Federalism Costs”:

The Voting Rights Act on the Chopping Block in Shelby County v. Holder

In Shelby County v. Holder, conservatives seek to dismantle the essential machinery of modern voting rights protection, which is the pre-clearance procedure for voting changes in covered jurisdictions. This procedure is contained in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the monumental statutory achievement of Congress in the last century. Chief Justice Roberts, in a near-miss decision on the same subject in 2009, has already expressed the sentiment of his conservative colleagues that the provision now “raises serious constitutional questions.” At oral argument in Shelby County, Justice Scalia offered his view that the Voting Rights Act has become nothing more than a “racial entitlement.” Despite broad bipartisan support in Congress for the Voting rights Act, including Section 5, the conservative legal movement is mobilized for its destruction.

Section 5 obligates covered states and jurisdictions to “pre-clear” changes affecting voting with the Department of Justice or the federal district courts in Washington. This procedure affects states and counties that were the worst offenders against voting rights and has been in place for nearly a half-century. Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment clearly gives Congress the “power to enforce” voting rights “by appropriate legislation.” The Court has four times—in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966), Georgia v. U.S. (1973), City of Rome v. U.S. (1980), and Lopez v. Monterey County (1999)—rejected invitations by states to declare Section 5 as outside of Congress’ powers under the 14th and 15th Amendments.  Thus, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and later Alaska (along with certain jurisdictions in California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota) have had to prove that proposed changes in election laws do not disadvantage minority voters. While the Justice Departments and the courts routinely approve more than 99 percent of submitted plans, the VRA remains a critical stop against laws meant to disenfranchise racial minorities. Hundreds of state plans and thousands of proposed changes have been rejected under the law, preventing a backslide in the project of building a strong interracial democracy.

But the case against Section 5 today turns on neither constitutional precedent nor text nor the facts of political life on the ground, but rather on the talk-show fallacy that a nation which twice elects an African-American president simply cannot contain any states or counties where minority voters face actual barriers to participation. Backing up this non-sequitur intuition are constitutional myths: that Congress has to treat all states and counties the same and cannot distinguish among them based on their records of committing voting rights violations. and that the pre-clearance mechanism in the Voting Rights Act and its “coverage formula” impose far too high “federalism costs” on covered areas (i.e., it allegedly takes too much power from the states). All of these taking points are supposed to justify the Court’s substituting its judgment for that of Congress and to find that Section 5 is no longer a “congruent” or “proportional” remedy, under either the Fourteenth Amendment or the Fifteenth Amendment, for threats to voting rights.  But the lower courts in this case reviewed more than 15,000 pages of Congressional findings and testimony and were convinced of the continuing need for preclearance to deal with the disingenuous disenfranchising and diluting schemes in the covered areas, including voter photo ID laws, tightening restrictions on registration and at the polls, and racist gerrymanders.  

The arguments against Section 5 appeal to the racial fatigue of Supreme Court arch-conservatives, who are willing to give state legislatures, a majority of which are in conservative Republican hands today, the freedom to restrict voting rights. The pre-clearance procedures of Section 5 are the major obstacle to this goal because they mean that all of the traditional hijinks of Jim Crow politics must be submitted in advance to federal judges or DOJ civil rights lawyers for approval. Rather than placing the burden on African-Americans and other minority voters to find lawyers and make the case against repressive practices after they go into effect, the covered jurisdictions have to affirmatively show that their innovations are not discriminatory or “retrogressive” before the damage is done. As the Supreme Court put it approvingly in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, “After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment,” Congress chose “to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims.”

The word “federalism” does not appear in the Constitution, nor does the opaque and mysterious phrase “federalism costs,” which has become the key mantra for the conservatives.  At least four Justices—and we’ll see about Justice Anthony Kennedy—appear poised to use these malleable concepts to override the clear enforcement powers that the Constitution explicitly assigns to Congress through Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment. Thus, the Supreme Court is on the brink of usurping Congressional power plainly granted by the Constitution by thwarting Congressional decisions to enforce the equal rights of Americans to vote and participate in the political process. 

Racial Integration, Inclusion and Diversity versus “Color-Blindness”:

Affirmative Action Walks the Plank in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

The ceaseless attack on affirmative action returns again this Term with Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a sweeping challenge to a modest use of race and ethnicity in UT’s admissions process that was adopted to correct for continuing weakness in the numbers of minority students on campus. The twist here is that most UT students are admitted through a policy guaranteeing admission to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their public high school classes. About one-fifth of the class is admitted outside of that race-neutral policy, and affirmative action plays a role in this small part of the process.   

Most people thought that the lawfulness of such a policy was settled for at least 25 years in 2003, when the Court decided Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, cases testing the constitutionality of affirmative action programs as practiced, respectively, at the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Michigan’s undergraduate program. The majority upheld the Law School’s “holistic” use of race and ethnicity in the process to promote diversity in the educational experience because all consideration of applicants remained individualized and there were no quotas and no numerical targets used in the selection process. (The University of Texas modeled its law school’s affirmative action program after that upheld in Grutter in 2003.) Meanwhile, the majority invalidated the undergraduate plan because racial or ethnic minority status was quantified and treated as adding bonus points in a rigid numerical weighing system, a process that the Court said leaned towards being a quota system. While rejecting the college plan as a blunt instrument, Justice O’Connor found that the kind of diffuse and holistic use of minority status embodied in the law school program was permissible. She thought such affirmative action would be warranted for a period of what she predicted to be another quarter-century. Given that most public universities remained segregated through the 1950s and 1960s, this seemed like a sensible time-line.

The Grutter decision reaffirmed and updated Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 high Court decision which struck down numerical quotas for minority admission but approved the generalized use of race in the admissions process to promote the compelling interest in having a diverse student body. Grutter was met with relief and enthusiasm throughout American academia, in the business sector, by the armed services, and across American society.

Now, once again, conservatives hope to turn the Constitution against the project of equal rights and equal opportunities.  The key move is to claim that Equal Protection mandates absolute “color-blindness” and therefore forecloses any conscious efforts to build diversity and inclusion into the educational experience of students. But the history of the Equal Protection Clause demonstrates that its Framers clearly contemplated that government would seek to take account of the racial implications of official discrimination in the past to fashion consciously inclusionary policies going forward.   

Equal Protection of the Rights of all Citizens in Marriage versus “Social Tradition”:

United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry

Two significant cases raise the important issue of whether gay and lesbian Americans enjoy an equal right to marry and to enjoy all the rights of marriage. Here, straightforward understandings of Equal Protection clash with an extra-constitutional commitment to the “social tradition” of discrimination against gay people.

One case, United States v. Windsor, deals with the constitutionality of Section 3 of “DOMA,” the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which provides that the word “marriage” in any federal law or regulation—including the Social Security Act, the Internal Revenue code, immigration law, and more than 1,000 others—shall apply only to the “legal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife.” This sweeping discrimination means that, although hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans have won and exercised the right to marry in twelve states and the District of Columbia, the rights, benefits, and duties that they should receive as married people under federal law are categorically withheld from them. Under federal law, married couples who are gay are treated as legal strangers to one another and as unworthy of the rights enjoyed by other citizens.

This discrimination has dramatic consequences. The respondent in Windsor, Edith Windsor, was forced to pay $363,000 in federal taxes on the estate she inherited after her wife (and life partner of 40 years) died, since DOMA prevents same-sex spouses from inheriting marital property on a tax-free basis, a benefit that heterosexual couples take for granted. Windsor won a clean victory in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which found that discrimination against gay people triggers Equal Protection “intermediate scrutiny” and that Congress could not even demonstrate a valid, much less an important, interest for defining marriage at the federal level so as to exclude from its benefits thousands of married couples in the states.

The other case taken up by the Supreme Court  is Hollingsworth v. Perry, which tests the constitutionality of California’s infamous Proposition 8 ballot measure, which revoked the marriage rights that gays and lesbians had enjoyed in the state under a landmark California Supreme Court decision.  Proposition 8 was voided in a broad pro-marriage decision handed down by California United States District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, a decision that was reaffirmed on narrower grounds by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which essentially found that California had no rational basis for taking away from its gay citizens the marriage rights that it had previously granted. 

Both cases involve government refusing to recognize the equal rights of gay people, either in married couples or couples who want to get married.  With DOMA, Congress denied the same equal rights and benefits to gay married people as it offers to straight married people, and with Proposition 8, California actually revoked the marriage rights of gay people and prohibited the legislature from ever restoring those rights.  The Proposition 8 proponents even sought to use the measure to annul gays’ and lesbians’ existing marriages without their consent.  The discrimination in both cases is plain to see, all of it justified on the grounds of “traditional marriage” and “social tradition.”

The right to get married as a basic civil right has frequently been  addressed by the Supreme Court, but the Court has never addressed whether that right extends to gay and lesbian Americans, and the Court could successfully dodge the underlying issue here. 

One good possibility is that the Court will strike down DOMA as a naked Equal Protection violation, saying that states need not necessarily extend marriage rights to gay and lesbian residents but that, if states do extend equal marriage rights, the federal government may not discriminate against people who avail themselves of those rights. Pro-marriage forces expecting this result place a high burden of hope on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has written excellent majority opinions upholding the equal rights of gay and lesbian Americans in Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003). But Kennedy may instead decide purely on federalism grounds, potentially providing a fifth vote to strike down DOMA but preventing any pro-equality legal rationale from having a majority that would bind lower courts in the future.

In the California Proposition 8 case, the Court could say that states that give all of the state-law rights of marriage to gay and lesbian citizens cannot withhold from them the title of marriage; this would affect eight states in a similar situation as California. Another possibility, more remote, is that Justice Kennedy would agree to join the moderate-liberal faction in simply declaring that gay people have equal rights to marry, which would mean invalidating discriminatory  laws still on the books in the vast majority of states. Conversely, the Court might also say that there is no obligation for California to protect the right of gay and lesbian citizens to marry at all. Or, finally, it could dismiss the whole case on either standing grounds—the Attorney general of California refused to defend  Proposition 8, leaving that task to anti-marriage advocates who put the initiative on the ballot—or on the grounds that cert was improvidently granted. There are still many ways to escape the basic issue of discrimination, even though all of the momentum in the states is towards marriage equality and the rationales for discrimination have been collapsing everywhere like a giant house of cards. 

Equal Protection versus the Politics of Inequality

As we await the Supreme Court’s decisions in these cases, Americans should not miss the big picture of this constitutional moment.  In a society that disenfranchised African-Americans and other minorities for centuries and discriminated openly against racial minorities and the gay and lesbian population, we are living through giant progressive changes in political democracy and voting rights, educational opportunity, and marriage rights for all. Yet, in politics, as in physics, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction, and a huge ideological undertow has formed on today’s Supreme Court, which has replaced the values of the long-ago Warren Court with commitments to corporate power over government and government power over people. What is at stake in these cases is whether the Supreme Court will interpret the Constitution to be the instrument of equal protection for all or will twist it to make it the guarantor of inequality and injustice.

* * * * * * *
Jamie Raskin, a Senior Fellow at People for the American Way Foundation, is a professor of constitutional law at American University’s Washington College of Law and a State Senator in Maryland.


 

 

Fighting for Voting Rights, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

My family is from Selma, Alabama. My grandmother, aunt and mother (both teenagers at the time) were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, what the history books now record as Bloody Sunday. Due to the terrible violence that occurred, my grandmother, a nurse, was called to the hospital to help treat the numerous people who had been injured, one of them being Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis.

I grew up hearing my family members’ Civil Rights Movement stories, continually in awe of their courage and determination. They had to deal with fire hoses, dogs, and police batons in order to receive what my generation now takes for granted, the right to vote.

Yesterday, nearly 50 years after Bloody Sunday and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, I stood outside the Supreme Court with many others who chanted, sang and rallied to protect the VRA’s Section 5. Yes, the dogs and the cattle prods are gone, but the spirit to oppress some of America’s citizens remains.

It saddens me that we still have to fight for our right to vote, and that there are those who are still trying to deny others their rights at the ballot box. But I was encouraged by the number of people who were outside the Supreme Court yesterday,  people of all races and creeds and ages who are dedicated to and invested in protecting the right to vote! Together we sent a message to the Justices and to the nation that Section 5 is still needed, because while our country has come a long way from that grainy black and white footage of people getting beaten while fighting for their rights, discrimination and attempts to disenfranchise still exist, especially in the states covered by Section 5.

It’s often said that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, but in my case, I am truly a descendant of Civil Rights heroes whose names will never be in the history books. They took a risk, put their lives on the line, not just for themselves but for me, someone who would not be born for another 15 years. When I hear my grandmother at 86 years old say that she will put on her marching shoes if she has to, then I know that I have no choice but to put on mine. I was proud to be at the rally to protect Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act yesterday. I was proud to honor the legacy of my family and anyone else who participated in the Movement. I was proud to continue the fight to ensure that no one is denied the right to vote.

PFAW Foundation

Scalia Completely Rewrites ... Everything

Scalia ignores constitutional text, says Congress didn't really mean to pass the Voting Rights Act, and calls the VRA a "racial entitlement."
PFAW Foundation

African American Ministers Leadership Council Responds to Scalia’s ‘Racial Entitlement’ Comment

In Supreme Court oral arguments on Shelby County vs. Holder today, Justice Antonin Scalia reportedly stated that the renewal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act represents “the perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council, responded:

“Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act doesn’t represent the ‘perpetuation of racial entitlement,’ as Justice Scalia states. Rather, it is one of the most important tools we have for confronting the entitlement of those who believe some people’s votes and voices should matter more than others. Section 5 boldly confronted a reality of American life that still exists today: the routine devaluation of the lives and voices of people of color. Justice Scalia’s statement carries disturbing echoes of the ‘perpetual entitlement’ that has kept bigotry, discrimination, homophobia, disempowerment, sexism, and classism alive in America. I hope that Scalia’s fellow justices will approach this issue more thoughtfully, and with a greater awareness of the reality in their country.”

### 
 

We Can’t Afford to Lose the Voting Rights Act

Tomorrow morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a challenge to a pivotal section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The part of the VRA that’s under attack is Section 5, which requires the Justice Department or a federal court to approve changes to voting laws in states and counties that have a history of racially discriminatory voting practices before those laws can go into effect. The lead-up to last year’s elections, in which state legislatures passed a slew of discriminatory voter suppression measures, showed just how much Section 5 is still needed.

Today, People For the American Way Foundation released a new report from Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin detailing the history and continued need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and what progressives can do to ensure equal voting rights in the years to come. Raskin writes:

A decision against Section 5 preclearance or the Section 4(b) coverage formula would likely spell the political demise of the Voting Rights Act, even if it is theoretically salvageable by an updated coverage formula or an even more relaxed preclearance procedure.  Our paralyzed, deadlocked Congress will never come to terms on how to revive and renovate it if the Court knocks it down or puts it into a tiny little straitjacket.

Win, lose, or draw, progressives should reckon with the prospect that the days of this landmark statute might be numbered.  This means that we need to take up an ambitious democracy and voting rights agenda of our own for the new century, this time with explicitly universalist aims and general terms that deal with the complex suppression of democracy today.  The voting rights struggles of the new century relate not just to old-fashioned racial trickery in Alabama and Texas but new-age vote suppression in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio; they involve not just traditional vote dilution in the South but the increasingly untenable disenfranchisement of 600,000 Americans in Washington, D.C and 3.6 million Americans in Puerto Rico.

Also today, PFAW Foundation’s Director of African American Religious Affairs, Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, wrote in the Huffington Post about the challenges that people of color still face at the ballot box, nearly half a century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act:

In 2011 and 2012 I organized faith leaders from 22 states in combating voter suppression efforts and turning out the vote among specific communities. This election cycle offered many powerful reminders why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still needed. Texas, for example, passed a discriminatory voter ID law that would have required voters to present government-issued photo ID at the polls, which would have especially burdened poor people and people of color. But because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act still stands, this law was defeated and the right to vote was protected. Reverend Simeon L. Queen of Houston, Texas, a comrade in the struggle, reflected: "It is inexcusable that nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, politicians are still trying to make it harder for African Americans in Texas to vote. I wish the Voting Rights Act wasn't still necessary, but thank the Lord it's still there."

Since 1980 I have been fortunate to work with men and women, some who started before I was born, to fight for laws protecting the right to vote. Despite the commitment of those who devoted their lives to voter protections, the right to vote remains fragile for many Americans. From voter ID laws to restrictions on early voting, as a country we cannot allow anyone to say "this isn't a problem anymore" to communities who are experiencing, as others witness, those problems at the polls each election. 

PFAW Foundation

Voting Discrimination: Still an Obstacle to Democracy

This week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Based on a simple idea, one that is enshrined in our Constitution, the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race. It is considered by the Department of Justice to be "the most effective civil rights statute enacted by Congress," prohibiting voting discrimination in order to protect the right to vote for all Americans.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he called the vote "the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice" and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the "foundation stone for political action." I call it a sacred right!

The centerpiece of that Act and the case is Section 5. It requires that all or portions of sixteen states with a history and a contemporary record of voting discrimination seek and gain approval federally before they put any changes in election practices into effect. Preclearance as it is known is intended to stop voter disenfranchisement before it can start.

In 1970 and again in 1975, Congress voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. At that time US Representative Barbara Jordan, my (s)hero and co-founder of People For the American Way, sponsored legislation that broadened the provisions of the Act to include Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.

As recently as 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize Section 5 of the law with some critics then and now misguidedly asserting that it overstepped its boundaries, that voting discrimination really isn't a problem anymore, or that voting discrimination in other parts of the country somehow delegitimizes Section 5. I'd like to invite those critics to hear directly from people across the country who devoted countless hours to ensuring that marginalized communities were able to vote this past election.

In 2011 and 2012 I organized faith leaders from 22 states in combating voter suppression efforts and turning out the vote among specific communities. This election cycle offered many powerful reminders why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still needed. Texas, for example, passed a discriminatory voter ID law that would have required voters to present government-issued photo ID at the polls, which would have especially burdened poor people and people of color. But because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act still stands, this law was defeated and the right to vote was protected. Reverend Simeon L. Queen of Houston, Texas, a comrade in the struggle, reflected: "It is inexcusable that nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, politicians are still trying to make it harder for African Americans in Texas to vote. I wish the Voting Rights Act wasn't still necessary, but thank the Lord it's still there."

Since 1980 I have been fortunate to work with men and women, some who started before I was born, to fight for laws protecting the right to vote. Despite the commitment of those who devoted their lives to voter protections, the right to vote remains fragile for many Americans. From voter ID laws to restrictions on early voting, as a country we cannot allow anyone to say "this isn't a problem anymore" to communities who are experiencing, as others witness, those problems at the polls each election.

President Johnson called the vote "a powerful instrument," Dr. King the "foundation stone," and for me it's a sacred right for breaking down injustice, removing obstacles to democracy and empowering the dis-empowered. When discriminatory laws threaten Americans' fundamental right to vote, we are called to utilize every tool available. Across the country we have seen the importance of courts in successfully fighting back against voter suppression efforts. Section 5 remains a key to protecting communities, my community from future attempts at disenfranchisement. Hopefully, prayerfully, the Supreme Court will realize this.

 This post originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

 

PFAW Foundation

The Right Wing Takes Aim at Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is under attack this week in the Supreme Court by Shelby County, Alabama, backed by much of the legal infrastructure of the Right.

Supreme Court to Review Voting Rights Act

A lynchpin of protecting the right to vote may fall before the altar of "states' rights."
PFAW Foundation
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