Fair and Just Courts

Sequestering Justice

Two senior judges spell out the damage sequestration would do to our nation's courts.
PFAW

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.”

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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.

Sotomayor Calls Out Prosecutor’s Attempt to ‘Substitute Racial Stereotype for Evidence’

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement today in connection with the denial of a cert petition for a case from Texas. She agreed with the decision not to hear the appeal, but she recognized the need to also release a statement condemning the offensive, racially charged remarks of a federal prosecutor during a drug-focused trial.  During the cross-examination of a man who testified that he was not part of and did not know about friends’ plan to buy illegal drugs, the prosecutor asked:

“You've got African-Americans, you've got Hispanics, you've got a bag full of money. Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn't go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”

Sotomayor called the prosecutor’s comment “pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason.” She went on:

“It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”

Sotomayor’s powerful response highlights the critical importance of diversity in our court system.  As Justice Sotomayor noted in 2001, “our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.”  During her confirmation, People For the American Way Foundation documented the far right’s vitriolic reactions to Sotomayor’s insightful discussion of the ways in which her life experiences as a Latina woman inform her view of the law. 

But today’s statement is one example of what that looks like in practice.  It highlights what it looks like when a woman of color on our nation’s highest court has the power to call out blatant racism in the judicial system. 
 

PFAW Foundation

Senate at Last Confirms Bacharach, Example of GOP’s Extreme Obstruction

WASHINGTON – In a 93-0 vote today, the Senate confirmed Robert Bacharach of Oklahoma to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, almost nine months after the Judiciary Committee first sent his nomination to the full Senate. His nomination faced extraordinary delays despite public support from his homestate Republican senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn.

People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker released the following statement:

“Robert Bacharach’s confirmation to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is good news for residents of Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, who will now see their justice system move a little more smoothly. Circuit courts have a tremendous influence on Americans’ pursuit of justice and the shape of American law, since the only higher court – the Supreme Court – hears so few cases. But the extraordinary delay in confirming Bacharach is a stark symbol of the dysfunction that Senate Republicans have brought to the judicial confirmations process.

“When President Obama nominated Bacharach in January 2012, his nomination was greeted enthusiastically by Sens. Inhofe and Coburn. In June, his nomination passed smoothly through the Judiciary Committee, where it was approved with broad bipartisan support. Then, Senate Republicans proceeded to stall his nomination on the Senate floor for no apparent reason. At the end of July, Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to hold a vote on Bacharach’s nomination, but was met with a purposeless GOP filibuster. Sen. Coburn had said such sabotage of his state’s nominee would be ‘stupid,’ but he and Sen. Inhofe ended up cooperating with their party’s leadership and refusing to help break the filibuster.

“I hope that today’s long-overdue confirmation of Bacharach signals a new willingness from the Senate GOP to work to quickly consider and vote on the president’s nominees. They have a lot of work to do. Three additional federal circuit court judges are awaiting votes from the full Senate: Caitlin Halligan, President Obama’s nominee to fill one of four vacancies on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, who was first approved by the Judiciary Committee in 2011; Third Circuit nominee Patty Shwartz, who has been on the Senate calendar for a year; and Federal Circuit nominee Richard Taranto, who has waited 11 months for a Senate vote.

“Last term, President Obama’s confirmed federal judicial nominees waited an average of three times as long between committee approval and confirmation as did President Bush’s first-term nominees. As the nation suffers the consequences of a federal courts vacancy crisis that it the Senate GOP has helped to perpetuate, Republicans can and must do better.”

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When the Judicial Nominations Process Works

The filling of an 8th Circuit vacancy is proceeding apace due to commitment and cooperation among the White House and both of Iowa's senators.
PFAW

Supreme Court to Consider Allowing Even More Money into Campaigns

The Roberts Court says it will consider a case challenging aggregate campaign contribution caps.
PFAW Foundation

Washington State Moving Forward With First Steps to Overturn Citizens United

Earlier this month, a group of state legislators, led by Sen. Adam Kline and Rep. Jamie Pedersen introduced companion bills requesting that Congress pass a constitutional amendment to return the authority to regulate election spending to Congress and state legislatures.
PFAW

Caitlin Halligan Belongs on the DC Circuit

Caitlin Halligan has excelled throughout her career and clearly understands how the law affects everyday people.
PFAW

Orrin Hatch Votes Present: Obstruction By Another Name

Orrin Hatch is exhibit A in the abuse of Senate rules to block President Obama’s nominees.
PFAW

White House Speaks Out for Judicial Nominees

After committee approval of several judicial nominees, including for the DC Circuit, the Obama Administration urges Senate action on judges.
PFAW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More Vacancies Mean More Work for DC Circuit Judges

The number of pending cases per active DC Circuit judge is far higher now than when Bush's nominees were confirmed.
PFAW

Hearing for a Diverse Group of Judicial Nominees

The nominees at today's Judiciary Committee hearing exemplify Obama's commitment to increasing personal and professional diversity in the federal judiciary.
PFAW

Senate Holds First Vote On Circuit Court Nominee in Eight Months

Today the Senate held its first vote on a judicial nominee for a Circuit Court since June 2012.  William J. Kayatta, Jr. of Maine was confirmed as U.S. Circuit Judge for the First Circuit Court of Appeals by an 88-12 vote during today’s session.  Despite broad bipartisan support and the support of his state’s senators in both the 112th and 113th Congresses, Kayatta faced ten months of unnecessary delays.

“We applaud Majority Leader Reid for his leadership in pressing for today’s vote,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “We hope that this will be a turning point signaling a shift toward more timely confirmations for judicial nominees.  This needless stalling – and during a time of unprecedented judicial vacancies – has gone on for far too long.  The bottom line is that Americans need a functioning system of justice. They have grown weary with reckless obstruction.”
 

The D.C. Circuit Court's Fourth Vacancy

It is essential to fill the growing number of vacancies on the nation's second most important court.
PFAW
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