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“It’s A Sad State Of Affairs”: Is This Who We Want Driving Our Democracy?

On Tuesday, the Center for Media and Democracy released documents showing that mega-donor Charles Koch was a member of the far-right John Birch Society from 1961 to 1968, when the organization’s work opposing the civil rights movement was reaching a fever pitch.

From publishing materials calling the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King the “biggest” “liar in the country” and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery a “sham and farce” to promoting pieces railing against the racial integration of schools, the 1960s saw the John Birch Society leading abhorrent attacks on the civil rights movement. According to The Progressive, Charles Koch was not simply a member of the society in name. He funded the organization’s campaigns, helped it promote right-wing radio programs, and supported its bookstore in Wichita.

Sound familiar? Though Charles resigned from the John Birch Society in 1968, he and his brother David are still using their wealth to support right-wing efforts — now through a complicated and secretive web of conservative groups. Put together, the groups in the Koch-backed network raised over $400 million in 2012 and have dumped heaps of cash into campaigns and projects to promote an anti-government and anti-worker agenda.

Unfortunately, today’s campaign finance landscape makes it easy for billionaires, corporations, and special interests to try and bend our political system to their will. In 2010, the Supreme Court infamously ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations can give unlimited sums of money to independently influence elections. This year, the High Court made things even worse when they ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that wealthy individuals can give significantly more money directly to candidates, parties, and committees than they could before, upwards of $3.5 million per election cycle.

It’s a sad state of affairs. But as the leader of a national network of progressive African American ministers, many of whom are working hard to raise awareness about the dangers of money in politics, I often remind people: Democracy is for all of us. Though it can feel like democracy in America today is only for the few — the elite donor class who can bankroll the candidates of their choice — I have faith that this is not how things will always be.

There’s an important proposal moving forward across the country and in Congress that would help shift the power in our political system away from people like the Koch brothers and towards everyday Americans. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizen United. Introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, the 28th Amendment would restore legislators’ ability to set commonsense limits on money in elections. While amending our nation’s guiding text is a weighty proposal, our country has a proud history of amending the Constitution, when necessary, to expand democracy and fix damaging Supreme Court decisions.

With the voices of everyday Americans increasingly being drowned out by the likes of the Koch brothers, fixing our democracy can’t wait.

 

By:Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, The Huffington Post Blog, July 9, 2014

 

 

July 10, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Koch Brothers | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fundamentalist Constitutionalism”: Punctuation Marks, Antonin Scalia, And The Farce Of “Originalism”

I have no idea whether Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is heading to the beach this summer now that he has made America safe for religious employers to discriminate against their female employees. Nor do I have any idea whether Danielle Allen’s new book “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality” is on his beach-reading list. But it should be.

You have probably heard about the book and its assertion that there is a significant typo smack in the middle of the Declaration’s most famous part. We read the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with a “.” at the end. It’s not there in the original, according to Prof. Allen. It was added in later versions, as a mistake or perhaps even as a small spot of errant ink. The result, Allen asserts, is a dramatically different meaning to the entire document.

Historians will debate the conclusions Allen has drawn from her detective work, but those conclusions aren’t the reason Scalia ought to read the book. Rather, it is that starting premise about the punctuation that should give him pause (I know, it won’t) because it succinctly puts the lie to the entire enterprise of Constitutional “originalism” upon which Scalia has built his career.

Originalism, briefly put, is a jurisprudence resting on the following wobbly assumptions: the Constitution only has one meaning; that meaning can be known without ambiguity (by those smart enough to read it); all laws ought to be judged against that singular, unchanging meaning. Not too long ago originalism resided on the lunatic fringe of legal thinking, sort of like Ayn Randian economics. Over the last generation it has entered the mainstream, sort of like Ayn Randian economics, and no one has been more responsible for that than Antonin Scalia.

Opponents of originalism have often argued instead that the Constitution needs to be a “living” document, adaptable to a changing society. That view became prominent a century ago as legal thinkers, among them Woodrow Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, tried to reckon with a rapidly changing industrial society. And to these Scalia and his comrades have said that the Constitution is resolutely dead and should be read historically, not in light of contemporary society.

But as the business of the pesky punctuation in the Declaration of Independence reminds us, words can mean different things and can be read in different ways. and even small changes in a sentence can yield different ideas. We know what Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy says, but any high school junior can tell you that it might have any of several meanings. Or all of them. Or none of them.

Pretending that reading a document like the Constitution is a simple, transparent and an entirely objective and neutral task is naïve at best, intellectually dishonest at worst. All acts of reading are necessarily acts of interpretation, and as a consequence there are no objective truths nor single meanings. The most we can do is achieve a best consensus, recognizing that it might change in the future.

Scalia knows all of this, I suspect. I don’t think even in his extraordinary arrogance and self-regard he believes he can know exactly and perfectly what was in the minds of all the delegates who wrote the Constitution. And indeed, whatever one thinks of Scalia as a jurist, his track-record as a historian is shoddy, filled with cherry-picked examples, incomplete understandings and downright risible conclusions. The history Scalia presented as part of his majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller wouldn’t pass muster in my undergraduate seminar.

Scalia’s real goal in promoting “originalism” is to remove Constitutional issues from the realm of political debate altogether and treat them instead as theological dogma.

“Originalists” like Scalia read the Constitution in much the same way that fundamentalist Christians read the Bible. In the world of those conservative Christians, the Bible says what it says, there is no room for any interpretation of it, and the Bible is inerrant. In fact, we might coin a new term, “fundamentalist Constitutionalists,” since there is now a small but growing number of people convinced that the Constitution, like the Bible, may have been written by men but was actually inspired by God.

While this kind of reading may be intellectually indefensible – or downright silly – it does have the advantage of bestowing extraordinary power on those who can claim to possess The Truth, whether huckstering evangelical, tyrannical bishop, or snarky Supreme Court justice.

Ironically, of course, we will look back on “originalism,” or “fundamentalist Constitutionalism,” as being entirely of its political and cultural moment. One hundred years from now, we will see it as engineered by revanchists like Scalia who recoiled at the dramatic social changes of the recent past – civil rights, feminism, gay rights, and more – and thought they could use the Constitution to retreat into a past largely of their own invention. Future scholars might even debate what, exactly, Antonin Scalia meant as they parse his body of writing, and might find that his very words could be subject to multiple readings. That would be the final, most delicious and fitting irony for “originalism.”

 

By: Steven Conn, Author/Professor, Ohio State; The Huffington Post Blog, July 7, 2014

 

 

July 8, 2014 Posted by | Antonin Scalia, Constitution, Declaration Of Independence | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It Will Be Ugly, And It Will Escalate”: Buffer Zones, Clinic Escorting, And The Myth Of The Quiet Sidewalk Counselors

The Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts “buffer zone” law — which barred antiabortion protests immediately outside clinics. Justice Scalia portrayed the law as hindering ‘sidewalk counselors’ who lovingly entreated women to consider alternatives. This portrayal, embodied by the grandmotherly petitioner, allowed some to view the decision as protecting gentle civility. Referencing one particular Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, this “quiet counseling” was seen as well-intentioned, and, more importantly, constitutional.

It is also a myth — or at least a dramatic euphemism that applies to very few at the Boston site. I should know. I was there.

For four years, I volunteered as an escort on Saturday mornings. The scene described in the court — like a delusional game of telephone — was drastically different from reality.

Our mornings were mostly spent scanning the streets, attempting to spot patients before they approached the zealous spectacle. We’d tactfully ask if they were looking for the clinic, and walk them through the crowd.

Saturdays were favored by protesters, so escorts arrived in the early morning. Wearing identifying vests, we flanked the entrance and greeted patients outside the zone. Two would rotate to the back to watch the garage entrance, where only the more tenacious protestors wandered. We’d accompany patients up the long walk to the front, usually trailed by someone asking if Satan sent us. (He didn’t.)

During the freezing New England winters, we would briefly warm up inside, but were mostly left to stomp our feet and count how many toes we could feel. Once a month, a Christian band would show up, surreally, and hold a concert.

We knew the “quiet counseling” well. “Just like Auschwitz,” one would say, “you’re delivering them right into the furnace.” This particular protester would speak right into her ear — until he approached the painted line on the ground.

Sometimes, a male accompanying a patient would lose his cool. He could have been her boyfriend or brother. We didn’t know and never asked. Once they entered, the doors could burst back open and he would charge whichever protestor called his companion a whore. We would intervene.

Justice Alito felt the law represented “viewpoint discrimination” — constitutionally, one message can’t be favored over another. But as an escort, I never talked about abortion, even outside the zone. When guiding patients, I would detail what they could expect. I didn’t offer my perspective, or even criticize the protestors. My goal was to provide a calming presence seconds before what would be one of the more trying moments of their lives. I explained how to access the clinic, and maintained a low patter to distract them from strangers calling them beasts and murderers. If they were confused by the protestors’ Boston Police hats, we cleared that up too.

If the patient was African-American, the protestors said they were “lynching” their child. If the protestor was crying, they said the tears would never stop, even in hell. If a patient was with her mother, they thanked the mother — for not killing her own baby.

Surprisingly, those Saturdays were not without their lighter moments. For a group dedicated to attacking Planned Parenthood — a multi-purpose clinic — they seemed stunned when someone wasn’t seeking an abortion. “You’ll never be the same. You’ll always be a dirty killer,” one would say. A startled patient would respond, “Why would a Pap smear make me a dirty killer?” Many others sought birth control — though they didn’t approve of that either.

This is not to paint all protesters as unhinged. I still remember one young priest who didn’t condemn me and chose instead to make small talk — which we continued periodically. Another time, upon news of the Columbia shuttle deteriorating upon reentry, we all shared a collective moment of humanity.

Being in a college area, there were counter-protestors (also kept out of the buffer zone) — who promoted pro-choice politics through direct and shocking slogans. Many of us didn’t care for them either. We just wanted calm in an atmosphere of invective and hysteria.

The desire for calm stemmed, in part, from the 1994 Brookline shootings. The victims were known by some of my fellow volunteers. This very real risk led the police to call for a buffer zone. One of the victims, a 25-year-old receptionist, was not just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The murder was premeditated; her killer focused on her.

Even when I was there, clinic staff driving up would be greeted with protestors filming them and, not so subtly, stating the staffer’s home address. Those were the more chilling moments.

It is difficult (though not impossible) to argue that a unanimous Supreme Court case was wrongly decided. After all, it is a broad law. But that is not my goal. Instead, I’m writing to dispel the myth painted of Good Samaritans softly offering a helping hand. In the public relations war over whether the affected individuals were compassionate counselors or marauding bullies, many justices seemed to accept the former characterization.

The law was overturned as an overreaching infringement on free speech. Is this a free speech issue? Yes, of course it is. But as others have pointed out, buffer zones exist elsewhere, including outside the Supreme Court. Favoring free speech, the Court famously allowed Nazis to march in Illinois and, more recently, the Phelps church to picket funerals (at a distance). But parades and funerals eventually end. Here, the Court risks turning clinic entrances into permanently hostile environments — inciting those who have spent weeks agonizing over their decision. They overturned the express wishes of an elected legislature — including pro-life lawmakers who supported the measure in the interest of public safety.

Similar zones were upheld by the court in 2000, a ruling which was not overturned. Clinic entrances still cannot be blocked, and injunctions are allowed against particularly worrisome parties. Chief Justice Roberts even suggested other mechanisms the state can use in lieu of the zone. But it’s an ever-changing landscape, and those remaining precautions have become the next targets of these quiet counselors. Because, to those that brought the case, speech alone is not the goal.

The grueling decision of whether to have an abortion should never be taken lightly, and there is no shortage of advocates for either side that fill our collective eardrums. But that debate stops a few feet outside the clinic. Just like politicking outside voting booths, these last ditch efforts lose the veneer of debate and become akin to intimidation — which can easily morph into confrontation or devastating anguish. Anyone who wants to stop and chat can do so. But once patients decide to cross the line, they should be left alone. The Court noted that the environment is currently more peaceful than it once was. There’s a reason for that.

None of this is to say that this isn’t a legitimate debate. It is. But those who favor stripping the buffer zone away — what small help it is — shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking that a flood of polite conversation will follow. It will be ugly, and it will escalate.

 

By: Brian Giacometti, Field-based NGO Program Manager for Governance and Rule of Law; The Huffington Post Blog, July 7, 2014

 

 

July 8, 2014 Posted by | Buffer Zones, Public Safety, SCOTUS, Uncategorized, Women's Health | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Fight To Protect Voting Rights, One Year Later”: The Key Barrier Is Finding Republican Support

As of yesterday, it’s been exactly a year since conservatives on the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, gutted the Voting Rights Act. The ruling, however, was open-ended in a way – the Republican-appointed justices didn’t say which part of the Constitution the VRA violated, and it invited Congress to “fix” the law (though the justices didn’t say how).

With this in mind, a bipartisan and bicameral group of lawmakers got to work, and in January they unveiled the Voting Rights Amendment Act, a reform bill intended to address the Supreme Court’s concerns. Zachary Roth reported yesterday that proponents haven’t given up the fight.

Civil rights advocates pressed lawmakers Wednesday at a contentious Senate hearing to advance a bill that would strengthen the Voting Rights Act, saying a failure to do so would represent a historic betrayal of African-American aspirations for political equality. But Republicans appeared unmoved.

“If the Voting Rights Act is not modernized, then you are effectively ending the second Reconstruction of the United States,” Rev. Francys Johnson, the president of the Georgia NAACP, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

At this point, the key barrier is finding Republican support. When Congress last considered the VRA, support for the law was nearly unanimous – and in the Senate, it was literally unanimous – but in the wake of the high court ruling, GOP support has evaporated. Indeed, as Roth’s report noted, at yesterday’s hearing, the Republican senators and the conservatives witnesses “acknowledged that race bias in voting still exists”; they just don’t intend to support any new measures to prevent voting discrimination.

As of this afternoon, the Voting Rights Amendment Act has zero Republican co-sponsors.

All of which leads us to a gentleman by the name of Thad Cochran.

Cochran, of course, is the senior senator from Mississippi, and just this week, he survived a very competitive Republican primary thanks in large part to support from African-American Democrats who saw the incumbent’s challenger as vastly more offensive.

I suggested yesterday that Cochran, as a gesture of goodwill and gratitude, can repay the favor by – you guessed it – throwing his support to the new Voting Rights Act. He’d already voted for the old one so it’s really a fairly modest request.

I’m hardly the only one who thought of this.

In an interview with HuffPost Live, Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, said that Cochran could thank black voters by supporting efforts to re-establish protections in the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down last year.

“Our advocacy towards his office is to support amending the Voting Rights Act, free of any conditions such as voter ID,” Johnson said. “I think this is an opportunity for him to show some reciprocity for African-Americans providing a strong level of support for him.”

The editorial board of the New York Times is on board, too.

The prospect of electing an intemperate Tea Party candidate who was openly nostalgic for Confederate days was so repellent to many black voters in Mississippi that they did a remarkable thing on Tuesday, crossing party lines to help give the Republican Senate nomination to Thad Cochran, in office for 36 years. Now it’s time for Mr. Cochran to return the favor by supporting a stronger Voting Rights Act and actively working to reduce his party’s extreme antigovernment policies.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but Cochran is positioned to keep his job because black voters showed up to save his skin. Why not return the favor by showing some leadership on voting rights?

In practical terms, Cochran’s support wouldn’t necessary help get the bill passed into law – House Republicans will almost certainly kill the Voting Rights Amendment Act anyway – so there’s no real harm in the senator doing the right thing.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 26, 2014

June 27, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Supreme Court, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Early Voting Under Attack In Wisconsin”: Republicans Putting Up Even More Obstacles To Civic Participation

It may soon get a lot harder to vote in Wisconsin.

State and federal courts are currently deliberating the outcome of Wisconsin’s enjoined strict photo ID law. Governor Scott Walker this week said he would call a special legislative session to modify the law if it’s struck down, so voter ID could be in effect for the November 2014 election. And, this Wednesday, Senate leadership muscled through a bill, SB 324, which would cut back on early in-person absentee voting in that state. The measure passed 17-16, with one lone Republican joining the state’s Democratic Senators in casting nay votes. If the vote in the Assembly falls along party lines like it did in the Senate, the rollbacks could very well become law. Governor Walker has stated that he is open to instituting cutbacks on early voting if the measure reaches his desk.

In Wisconsin, all voters who apply may vote absentee in advance of Election Day, either by mail or in-person at the local municipal clerk’s office. Early in-person absentee voting starts the third Monday before the election, and is available through the Friday preceding Election Day. The bill passed by the Senate would eliminate early voting on weekends, and require that all early voting during the week conclude no later than 7 p.m. The bill also proposes a 45-hour weekly cap on early voting. Under the current law, which has no such restrictions, two communities that are home to nearly 15 percent of the state’s total population and nearly half of the state’s non-white population, Milwaukee and Madison, offer extended hours to serve more voters.

Cutting back on early voting puts up obstacles to civic participation. Voters like it, and they use it. When people can choose to vote on a day and time that does not conflict with work, family care, or other obligations, they are more able to wait in lines and undertake the other administrative costs involved in voting. Over the last three presidential elections, an average of 14 percent of voters in Wisconsin cast early ballots. Despite what some lawmakers are doing to make it harder to vote, citizens around the country support increasing access to the ballot. For example, a recent Iowa poll found that people there overwhelming believe that ensuring every eligible voter gets to cast a ballot outweighs concerns over ineligible voters. And, as the Brennan Center found in its comprehensive 2013 study of early voting, it’s also popular with the people who administer elections, because it reduces stress on the voting system on Election Day, leads to shorter lines, and allows for more opportunity to discover and correct problems before the polls close.

In producing our report, we looked into which jurisdictions have most successfully implemented early in-person voting, and were able to distill a set of seven best practices. Wisconsin does begin its early voting period a full two weeks before Election Day, which is one of the identified best practices for administering early voting. Another is to offer early voting on weekends, including the last weekend before the election. In fact, in eight of the nine states with the highest early voting turnout in recent elections, jurisdictions are required by law to offer early voting on at least one weekend. Not only does current Wisconsin law not mandate any weekend hours—instead leaving that decision up to the individual jurisdictions—but under the proposed changes weekend voting would be actively prohibited. A third best practice is to offer extended early voting hours during the week outside of business hours. The bill approved by the Wisconsin Senate, conversely, limits how many early voting hours may be offered each week, and likewise prohibits evening early voting after a certain hour.

Given the popularity of early voting among those who vote and those who administer elections, it’s hard to understand why Wisconsin lawmakers are intent on limiting early voting systems and throwing up more and more obstacles to the franchise. Their efforts would be better spent making elections more free, fair, and accessible for their constituents.

 

By: Jennifer L. Clark, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, March 14, 2014

March 17, 2014 Posted by | Scott Walker, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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