Fair and Just Courts

Supreme Court Upholds Voting Rights in Arizona Proof-of-Citizenship Case

The Supreme Court issued 7-2 ruling in favor of voting rights today, finding that a restrictive Arizona law requiring that voters show proof of citizenship when registering by mail is preempted by federal law. The court upheld Arizonans’ right to register to vote by mail using a federal form created by the 1993 “Motor Voter” law, which allows voters to certify under oath that they are citizens. Arizonans will not have to submit information that the federal form does not require.

PFAW Foundation joined in an amicus brief in the case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of  Arizona, on behalf of its Young People For program.

The Arizona law, which would have required voters to present one of a narrow set of documents proving citizenship in order to register to vote, would have impeded the voting rights of countless Arizonans. As Demos put it:

Many eligible citizens do not possess these narrow forms of documentation required by the law and, of those who do, many  do not carry them while conducting their daily affairs.  Community-based registration efforts overwhelmingly rely on approaching individuals who did not plan in advance to register at that time or location and who are thus unlikely to be carrying a birth certificate, passport, or other documentation.

Even when a potential registrant does happen to be carrying one of the required documents, logistical hurdles—ranging from an inability to copy documents on the spot to an unwillingness to hand over sensitive identification documents to registration drive volunteers—greatly hinder the ability of community-based organizations to register people in Arizona.

The Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision in the other major voting rights case on its docket this term, the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

PFAW

First Lesbian Latina Confirmed as Federal Judge

Judge Nitza Quiñones Alejandro broke an important glass ceiling this week, becoming the first openly lesbian Latina confirmed to a federal judgeship.  The Senate confirmed her by voice vote to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania yesterday. Previously Quiñones served for more than two decades on the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. 

The Washington Blade notes that Quiñones is only the seventh openly LGBT person in our country’s history to be confirmed as a federal judge.

PFAW has advocated for more diversity in the judiciary, applauding President Obama’s push to bring qualified judges from many backgrounds to the federal bench.  Issuing decisions that affect all communities, the federal bench – and all benches – must reflect the diversity of our nation. 

Last year President Obama said he was committed to ensuring that “the judiciary resembles the nation it serves.”  This week’s confirmation is an important step toward that goal. 
 

PFAW

Demand Answers from Judge Edith Jones

Investigate reports of bias and racism from a federal judge.

Why Senate Republican Claims About the D.C. Circuit Don’t Pass the Pinocchio Test

Earlier this week President Obama nominated three unquestionably qualified candidates – appellate attorney Patricia Millet, former civil rights attorney Cornelia Pillard and D.C. District Court judge Robert Wilkins – to the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the country.  Republicans are already fighting hard against these nominations, claiming that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a large enough workload to necessitate filling the vacant seats.  Sen. Chuck Grassley (D-IA) even went as far as to say, “No matter how you slice it, the D.C. Circuit ranks last or almost last in nearly every category that measures workload.”

Not quite.  Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post wrote an article this morning delving deeper into Sen. Grassley’s claims.  Kessler wrote,

“Challenged by Grassley’s claim that the D.C. Circuit is last ‘no matter how you slice it,’ we came up with two other measures that might shed more light on the D.C. Circuit’s workload… One way to measure this is by looking at the data for ‘administrative appeals.’

In 2012, nearly 45 percent of those appeals at the D.C. Circuit involved administrative appeals concerning federal rules and regulations, which many experts say are highly complex and take more time to review.  By contrast, at the other circuits, virtually all of the administrative appeals involve immigration cases. Using the data in Table B-3, we found that in the other circuits, administrative appeals that did not involve immigration matters accounted for less than 3 percent of the appeals. (In some circuits, it was less than 1 percent.)”

In other words, the D.C. Circuit is considering some of the most intricate and far-reaching cases of any court.  The complexity of these types of cases make apples-to-apples comparisons with other circuits difficult. 

Kessler continues:

“Another measure of the complexity of the cases are statistics on written opinions. The raw data suggest that judges on the D.C. Circuit write fewer opinions than judges on other appeals circuits. (This was one stat that Grassley staff sent us.) But Table S-3 shows that the D.C. Circuit produced a greater proportion of written, signed opinions on cases determined on the merits than most other circuits.”

Overall, the Post concludes,

“[T]he certainty in Grassley’s argument is particularly misplaced, given the unusual nature of the D.C. Circuit… you can’t just assert that one appeals filing is equal to another — or that one set of statistics is better than another. Depending on the metrics, the D.C. Circuit could very well be in first place.”

In 2005, Sen. Grassley did not seem to have these workload concerns when he voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas B. Griffith to the tenth and eleventh seats on the D.C. Circuit.  Yet when he and other Republicans cast those votes, the court was handling the same number of cases as it is now.  As President Obama pointed out in his speech announcing the three nominees, this is an overtly political move on the part of Senate Republicans:

“When a Republican was president, 11 judges on the D.C. Circuit Court made complete sense. Now that a Democrat is president, it apparently doesn't – eight is suddenly enough.”

PFAW

President Obama Blasts GOP Obstruction, Nominates Three to Influential Court

Today, President Obama nominated three people – experienced appellate attorney Patricia Millet, Georgetown law professor and former civil rights attorney Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and D.C. District Court judge and former public defender Robert Wilkins – to the influential Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

All three have stellar qualifications. Yet, Senate Republicans were threatening to block all three even before they knew who the nominees would be.

In a Rose Garden speech introducing the nominees, President Obama blasted Republican obstruction and urged the Senate to quickly review and hold votes on all three. “The Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats,” he said. “What I am doing today is my job.  I need the Senate to do its job.”


So one of the most important responsibilities of a President is to nominate qualified men and women to serve as judges on the federal bench. 

And Congress has a responsibility, as well.  The Senate is tasked with providing advice and consent.  They can approve a President’s nominee or they can reject a President’s nominee.  But they have a constitutional duty to promptly consider judicial nominees for confirmation.

Now, throughout my first term as President, the Senate too often failed to do that.  Time and again, congressional Republicans cynically used Senate rules and procedures to delay and even block qualified nominees from coming to a full vote. 

As a result, my judicial nominees have waited three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of my Republican predecessor.  Let me repeat that:  My nominees have taken three times longer to receive confirmation votes than those of my Republican predecessor.  These individuals that I nominate are qualified.  When they were given an up or down vote in the Senate -- when they were finally given an up or down vote in the Senate, every one of them was confirmed.  So this is not about principled opposition.  This is about political obstruction. 

Despite that, some Republicans recently have suggested that by nominating these three individuals, I’m somehow engaging in -- and I’m quoting here -- in “court-packing.”  (Laughter.)  No -- people laugh, but this is an argument I’ve made.  For those of you who are familiar with the history of court-packing, that involved Franklin Delano Roosevelt trying to add additional seats to the Supreme Court in order to water down and get more support for his political agenda.  We’re not adding seats here.  We’re trying to fill seats that are already existing.  Each of the past five Presidents has seen at least three of their nominees confirmed to the D.C. Circuit.  Since I’ve been President, obstruction has slowed that down to one. 

Right now, there are three open seats on a critical court.  I didn’t create these seats.  I didn’t just wake up one day and say, let’s add three seats to the District Court of Appeals.  These are open seats.  And the Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats.  What I am doing today is my job.  I need the Senate to do its job.

For more background on the D.C. Circuit, see PFAW’s Marge Baker’s piece in the Huffington Post yesterday, “Five Things Republicans Don’t Want You to Know About the D.C. Circuit.”

PFAW

More Truthiness From Sen. Grassley on the Courts

When the Senate unanimously confirmed Sri Srinivasan to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last month, Republicans patted themselves on the back for cooperating in a relatively efficient confirmation process. But, by any objective standard, Srinivasan’s confirmation process wasn’t that efficient at all. In fact, Republican obstruction of Srinivasan started when they delayed a hearing on his nomination for ten months, from June 2012 to April of this year.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now pushing an alternate history of this delay on Srinivasan’s nomination. In a floor speech the day Srinivasan was confirmed, Grassley insisted that Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “made no effort to schedule a hearing on this nominee until late last year.”

In a press release this week, Sen. Leahy explained why this argument is just plain false. In fact, he wrote, it was Senate Republicans who kept insisting that Srinivasan’s hearing be pushed back:

By July 19, 2012, I had determined that the paperwork on the Srinivasan nomination was complete and the nominee could be included in a hearing.  It has been my practice as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee to give the minority notice and allow consultation before scheduling a nomination for a hearing.  At that time, the next July hearing had been discussed as one devoted to the nominee to head the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice, a nomination that itself had been delayed and to which there was Republican opposition.  During the August recess, my staff asked Senator Grassley’s about holding the hearing on the Srinivasan nomination in September.  They raised objections and concerns about proceeding with the D.C. Circuit nomination at that time but agreed to proceed with four district nominees and a Court of International Trade nominee.

In November, 2012, after the American people reelected President Obama, we raised the need for a hearing on the D.C. Circuit nomination anew.  Republicans objected, again, in spite of the precedent of holding a hearing for one of President Bush’s D.C. Circuit nominees during a similar lame duck session. Instead, they wanted to proceed only with district court nominees during the lame duck.  Republicans insisted that the Srinivasan hearing be put off until the new Congress and the new year.  In deference to the Republican minority, I held off.  They agreed that he would be included at the first nominations hearing of the 113th Congress.

Then, in early January of this year, when called upon to hold up their end of the bargain, Republicans balked.

This isn’t just a matter of settling a complicated Senate score. Instead, Sen. Leahy is pointing out yet another incident of Sen. Grassley’s twisting the truth about judicial nominees and the judicial nominations process in an attempt to cover for slowing down Senate business and ultimately the business of the federal courts. As Leahy says in his statement:

Those erroneous Record statements have me wondering whether I should be so accommodating to Republican scheduling demands given that they forget their demands in their efforts to avoid responsibility and blame others.   
 

PFAW

Tell the Senate: No More Obstruction; Fill the D.C. Circuit!

BREAKING: President Obama Announces Nominees to Fill Critical Seats on D.C. Circuit. Tell the Senate to CONFIRM Cornelia Pillard, Patricia Ann Millet and Robert Leon Wilkins without delay.

PFAW Applauds Nomination of Three to DC Circuit Court

People For the American Way today applauded President Obama’s announcement that he would nominate Cornelia (Nina) Pillard, Patricia Ann Millett and Robert Leon Wilkins to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Today’s announcement is an important step toward filling the remaining vacancies on one of our nation’s highest courts,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way. “These nominees all have accomplished records. They should receive prompt hearings and votes in the full Senate without delay.

“These nominations are a clear statement by the President that he won’t be held hostage by the relentless obstruction by Senate Republicans,” continued Baker. “Nearly five years after he was elected, President Obama has had only one nominee confirmed to the DC Circuit, but Republicans are insisting that fulfilling his constitutional obligation to nominate individuals to fill open seats on this Court is somehow ‘court packing.’ That’s ridiculous. Republican Senators should stop playing political games with the courts and end their mindless obstruction of President Obama’s nominees.”

###
 

Attacks on Obama's D.C. Circuit Nominations Get More and More Absurd

The New York Times reported this week that President Obama is planning to nominate three judges to fill long-vacant seats on the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. This is hardly unheard of: every president since Jimmy Carter has placed at least three judges on the D.C. Circuit, and Obama only just had his first nominee confirmed to the court.

But Senate Republicans and conservative activists really, really don’t want President Obama to put any more judges on the D.C. Circuit – perhaps because it is currently dominated by Republican nominees who are intent on rolling back things like clean air regulations, cigarette labeling requirements, and National Labor Relations Board rulings.
      
So the Senate GOP is threatening to filibuster anybody Obama names to the court and even trying to push through a law permanently deleting the vacant judgeships in order to prevent Obama from filling them.

What has resulted is one of the more bizarre manifestations of Obama Derangement Syndrome. The talking point that Senate Republicans and their allies have landed on to defend this planned obstruction is that President Obama, in nominating judges to existing judicial vacancies as is required by his job, is in fact “packing” the D.C. Circuit in the style of FDR. (Or, in the words of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board,  like a “king”).

In a column for Breitbart News yesterday the Family Research Council’s Ken Klukowski goes even further, writing that by merely planning to nominate judges to the court – a constitutional requirement of his job fulfilled by every one of his predecessors – Obama has launched an “attack on the independence of the federal courts,” “declared war on judicial independence,” and is “trying to declare law by executive fiat.”

Now that Obama has declared war on judicial independence, Republicans are planning a counter-strategy. There are 13 federal appeals courts. The D.C. Circuit’s caseload is light, while several other circuits are overloaded. Sen. Charles Grassley and Senate Republicans are proposing moving those three seats to courts that could very much use them. Obama would still appoint those three judges, but not to the D.C. Circuit.

It takes legislation to create or move federal judgeships, so this is shaping up as a major part of the battle over courts that are independent of political manipulation.

There are only 80 slots on the Supreme Court’s docket every year. For 20,000 federal appeals each year, whatever the appellate court says is the final word. Obama is hoping that if he can overhaul the judicial balance of the court, his unprecedented claims of federal power might withstand court challenges. From Obamacare to EPA requirements, labor rules, and IRS rules, all these topics and more are going before the D.C. Circuit.

Obama cannot enact major liberal legislation now that he’s lost the House and might also lose the Senate next year. Instead, he’s trying to declare law by executive fiat. Whether he gets away with it likely turns on whether he can change Senate rules and then pack the D.C. Circuit with sympathetic judges.

This attack on the independence of the federal courts should be of concern to all Americans.
 

 

1000-Day Judicial Vacancy in Georgia

Georgia's senators are keeping President Obama's 11th Circuit Court nominee from even having a committee hearing.
PFAW

Susan Collins’ D.C. Circuit Hypocrisy

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins signed on today as a cosponsor of a blatantly political bill meant to deny President Obama, unlike any of his predecessors, the ability to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  

The D.C. Circuit is the second most influential court in the country, behind the Supreme Court. It has the final word on scores of federal laws and regulations, from consumer protections to workers’ rights to environmental protections

For more than 30 years, presidents of both parties have placed numerous judges on the D.C. Circuit:

Senate Republicans prevented President Obama from placing a single nominee on the court during his first term and the first four months of his second, despite the fact that one-third of its active judgeships were vacant. They were so eager to keep the court dominated by Republican-nominated judges that they twice filibustered President Obama’s first nominee to the court, the eminently qualified Caitlin Halligan. Yesterday, after a ten-month delay, the Senate finally confirmed an Obama nominee, Sri Srinivasan, to fill one of the court’s four vacancies. But Republicans are indicating that their cooperation will stop there.

Senate Republicans are not only vowing to block any Obama nominees to the remaining three seats on the D.C. Circuit, they are actually proposing a bill that would eliminate those three seats entirely in order to prevent President Obama from filling them. 

The bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley and cosponsored by every other Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, just gained its first non-committee cosponsor: Sen. Collins.

The bill’s backers claim that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t have a great enough workload to justify filling the remaining three judgeships. However, Sen. Collins’ own voting record provides a perfect refutation of that argument.

Sen. Collins and her allies object to Obama’s filling the 9th, 10th and 11th seats on the D.C. Circuit. However, when George W. Bush was president, Sen. Collins had no such reservations about the need to fill the court's vacancies. In 2006, Collins voted to confirm Bush nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the 10th seat on the D.C. Circuit. In 2005, she voted to confirm Bush nominees Janice Rogers Brown to the 10th seat on the court and Thomas Griffith to the 11th.

Following the Griffith confirmation, which Collins supported,  the D.C. Circuit’s caseload was 119 cases per active judge. If every one of the D.C. Circuit’s 11 seats were filled today --  including the three seats that Sen. Collins wants to eliminate – the court’s caseload would be slightly higher than it was then, at 120 cases per active judge. Sen. Collins evidently thinks that what was a reasonable caseload for the court under President Bush is  somehow wastefully low under President Obama.

Meanwhile, here is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse refuting Sen. Grassley’s absurd claim that President Obama is trying to “pack” the D.C. Circuit by filling its vacancies:

PFAW

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.


 

 

D.C. Circuit Vacancies: One Down, Three to Go

Senate Republicans kept Sri Srinivasan from getting a committee hearing until ten months after his nomination, and even tried to filibuster him before allowing a unanimous vote to confirm him to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
PFAW

PFAW Statement on Confirmation of Sri Srinivasan to D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

WASHINGTON --  People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker issued the following statement on the Senate’s unanimous confirmation of Sri Srinivasan to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit:

“We congratulate Mr. Srinivasan on his confirmation to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

“The fact that Senator Reid was forced to file cloture in order to secure an agreement with Republicans to vote on a nominee whom they enthusiastically support is a sign of how far Senate Republicans have taken their mindless obstruction.

“Unfortunately, the Senate GOP is already looking ahead to further obstruction of this critically important court, one-quarter of whose active judgeships still remain vacant. Having prevented President Obama from filling a single seat on the D.C. Circuit until today, they are now threatening to strip the three remaining vacant seats from this important court rather than allow the president to fill them. This promised obstruction is purely politically motivated and cannot be allowed to succeed.”


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McConnell Bobs and Weaves on Judicial Nominations

McConnell tries & fails to justify filibuster of DC Circuit nominee Srinivasan, and throws a GOP-supported 10th Circuit nominee under the bus in the process.
PFAW

The Wall St. Journal's Bizarre Attack on Potential DC Circuit Nominations

The Journal calls Obama a "king" for planning to make nominations to fill D.C. Circuit judgeships as Congress has mandated.
PFAW

New Nominees Highlight Growing Diversity on the Courts

One of President Obama’s most important long-term achievements has been his concerted effort to bring qualified judicial nominees from a wide variety of backgrounds to the federal bench. 42 percent of President Obama’s confirmed judicial nominees have been women, compared with just 22 percent of those nominated by the second President Bush and 29 percent of those nominated President Clinton. Likewise, 46 percent of his confirmed nominees have been people of color, a dramatic change from the previous administration, in which 82 percent of federal judicial nominees were white. And President Obama has nominated more openly gay people to federal judgeships than all of his predecessors combined. (All of these numbers are available in this pdf from our friends at Alliance For Justice).

The four new judicial nominations that the White House announced last night are perfect examples of this effort to make the courts better reflect the people they serve. One, Judge Carolyn B. McHugh, who has been nominated to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, would be the first woman to sit on a federal appeals court in Utah. Pamela L. Reeves, nominated to the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Elizabeth A. Wolford, nominated to the Western District of New York, would be the first women to serve in their respective districts. And Debra M. Brown, nominated to the Northern District of Mississippi, would be the first African-American federal judge in her district and the first African-American woman to serve as an Article III judge in Mississippi.

Another important type of diversity among federal judges – one where there has been some progress but where there is still room for improvement – is diversity of professional background. Judges who have worked as public interest or legal aid attorneys bring a perspective to the bench that is different from that brought by prosecutors and litigators representing corporate clients. One example of this professional diversity is Iowa’s Jane Kelly, who was recently confirmed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals with unanimous bipartisan support from the Senate. An Associated Press profile yesterday explained the important perspective that Kelly will bring to the federal bench  from her experience as a federal public defender:

The 48-year-old attorney has spent her career as a public defender representing low-income criminal defendants, a rarity in the ranks of appeals court judges who are often former prosecutors and trial judges. She'll become just the second woman in the 122-year history of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in seven states from Arkansas to the Dakotas.

Associates say she is a smart legal thinker who has zealously defended the rights of even the most publicly despised clients, including a notorious mailbox bombing suspect and the biggest white-collar criminal in Iowa history. Even prosecutors who disagreed with her in court praise Kelly, who will take the oath of office privately.

"Her story is compelling all the way around," said Debra Fitzpatrick of the University of Minnesota-based Infinity Project, which advocates for more women on the 8th Circuit. "Her credentials and her background and her career sort of set her up to be the right candidate at the right time."

A long-distance runner, Kelly's life almost ended when she went for a morning jog on the Cedar River Trail in June 2004. She was tackled and beaten by a male stranger, then dragged to a creek and left for dead. Passersby found Kelly in a pool of blood, in and out of consciousness and struggling to call for help. Speculation swirled that the attack was linked to Kelly's legal work, but no one ever was arrested.

Kelly quickly returned to representing criminal defendants after spending months in recovery. Her colleagues gave her the John Adams Award, which recognizes an Iowa lawyer's commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. And hundreds gathered one year later for a "Take Back the Trail" event, where Kelly jogged there again for the first time.

Kelly grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and graduated from Duke University in 1987. She earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand before enrolling at Harvard, where she and Obama were acquaintances but not friends. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota and then for Hansen.

She taught one year at University of Illinois law school before returning to Iowa as one of the first hires for the new public defender's office. She's been a fixture ever since, often representing "not the most popular person in the room," as she put it in her confirmation hearing, including drug dealers, pornographers and con artists.

Other pending nominees with public defender experience include Michael McShane (Oregon), Luis Felipe Restrepo (Pennsylvania), Jeffrey Schmehl (Pennsylvania), Rosemary Márquez (Arizona), and William Thomas (Florida).

PFAW

GOP Obstruction of Judicial Nominees Continues

Republicans have yet to allow votes on all the judicial nominees who were left pending on the floor at the end of the previous Congress.
PFAW

Judicial Nominees Move Forward as GOP Obstruction Talking Points Fall Apart

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved the nomination of Sri Srinivasan to sit on the powerful Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. There are currently four vacancies on the D.C. Circuit – and Senate Republicans have prevented President Obama from filling a single one.

The Senate GOP has been unusually cooperative with Srinivasan’s nomination, but have signaled that they will not be so friendly to future nominees to the court. Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley is actually trying to permanently lower the number of judgeships on the court to prevent President Obama from reversing its far-right, anti-consumer, anti-worker tilt.

The Senate yesterday also confirmed William Orrick to serve on the District Court for the Northern District of California, a seat that had been officially designated a “judicial emergency” because of its overworked courts. The confirmation vote came a full eight months after Orrick was first approved with bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a Senate floor speech Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts discussed the Senate GOP’s extraordinary obstruction of federal judicial nominees, noting the high level of officially-designated “judicial emergencies,” which has risen by 30  percent since the beginning of the year.

The Founders of our Republic gave to the President the task of nominating individuals to serve and gave us the responsibility to advise on and consent to these appointments. For more than 200 years this process has worked. 

Presidents over the years have nominated thousands of qualified men and women who were willing to serve in key executive branch positions.

The Senate has considered nominations in a timely fashion and taken up-or-down votes. Of course, there have been bumps along the way, but we have never seen anything like this. Time and again, Members of this body have resorted to procedural technicalities and flatout obstructionism to block qualified nominees.

At the moment, there are 85 judicial vacancies in the U.S. courts, some of which are classified as ``judicial emergencies.'' That is more than double the number of judicial vacancies at the comparable point during President George W. Bush's second term. Yet right now there are 10 nominees awaiting a vote in the Senate, and they have not gotten one.

Senate Republicans like to blame the judicial vacancy crisis on President Obama, whom they say has not been quick enough to nominate judges. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas ran into the fallacy of this talking point last week, when he was called out for blaming the president for Texas vacancies that Cornyn himself was responsible for. 

The president continued his steady pace of federal judicial nominations last night,  nominating four women to federal judgeships in Utah, Tennessee, New York and Mississippi. 

UPDATE: The White House points out in a blog post today that President Obama has now nominated more district court judges than had President Bush at this point in his presidency.

PFAW

PFAW Statement on Bipartisan Committee Approval of Sri Srinivasan

WASHINGTON – Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, issued the following statement on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s unanimous approval today of Sri Srinivasan to sit on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit:

“The Senate Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan approval of Sri Srinivasan is an important step toward ending the extraordinary vacancy crisis on the nation’s second most influential court.

“The seat on the D.C. Circuit that Srinivasan would fill has been open for nearly five years and is one of an astonishing four vacancies on the 11-member court. Senate Republicans have prevented President Obama from filling even one of those vacancies in an effort to preserve the court’s anti-worker and anti-consumer tilt. Republicans twice filibustered the nomination of the eminently qualified Caitlin Halligan and even delayed a committee hearing on Srinivasan for nearly ten months.

“Senate Republicans cannot hide behind their friendly treatment of Srinivasan as they obstruct future nominees to the D.C. Circuit.  Republicans are pressing the claim that there’s no need to fill any more vacancies on this critically important court. This argument is false, hypocritical, and clearly politically motivated. We fully expect Srinivasan to be promptly confirmed by the full Senate and will continue to push for the nomination and swift confirmation of strong jurists to the remaining seats on the D.C. Circuit.”

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