In certain circles, it has become fashionable to believe that the Voting Rights Act is an outdated vestige of a crueler time, an unnecessary bit of bureaucracy that imposes its own injustices. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed that view when it threw out one of the act’s more powerful provisions.
Those who believe that the Voting Rights Act is an artifact of a bygone era eagerly point out that the nation has elected its first black president — proof, they say, that racism is dead. In that view, the right to vote is guaranteed and each person is equally represented in the political system of this great democracy.
Eric Holder, the outgoing attorney general, knew better. He understood that the right to vote is under assault, and he did what he could to protect it, starting with a rehabilitation of the Civil Rights Division, which had fallen into dysfunction in the administration of George W. Bush. That may be Holder’s defining accomplishment.
During the Bush era, conservative partisans launched the most insidious onslaught against minority voting rights since the 1960s: the voter ID movement. Claiming, falsely, that the ballot needs more protection against fraud, they promoted restrictive voting laws in state legislatures around the country. Those partisans had their own agents within the Civil Rights Division, where they worked to ensure that dubious voter ID laws would not undergo any scrutiny.
Their mischief making has largely succeeded, not only in disenfranchising legitimate voters, but also in fooling the public about their intent. Polls show overwhelming support for laws that supposedly protect against fraud.
But make no mistake about it: Voter ID laws have next to nothing to do with protecting the ballot box. Instead, they are a relatively clever assault on the right to vote. As the nation has become browner, the GOP has found that neither its politicians nor its policies are popular among voters of color. So, rather than adopt a more inclusive brand of politics, the party has decided that denying the franchise to even a few hundred Democratic-leaning voters can be useful.
How do they accomplish that? Most of the state legislatures that have enacted such laws — and most of those are dominated by Republicans — have insisted that voters use a driver’s license as proof of identity. Research has shown that poor black and Latino voters, who usually vote for Democrats, are less likely to have automobiles than white voters.
Some elderly voters don’t even have birth certificates because they were born at home in an era when such documents were not required for daily life. In Texas, for example, voting rights groups say some rural residents would have to travel 100 miles to get proper documents.
But isn’t this necessary to prevent voter fraud? In fact, research has also shown that in-person fraud of the sort that voter ID laws are designed to prevent is virtually nonexistent. No matter what you’ve heard about voter fraud, you’ve probably not heard of a case of voter impersonation. In other words, no one shows up at the polls claiming to be John Boehner except John Boehner.
With that in mind, Holder entered the fray, sending Justice Department lawyers to challenge onerous voting requirements, including provisions in some states that sought to roll back conveniences such as early voting. They mounted successful challenges in Texas, South Carolina and Florida.
Even after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, the Justice Department has kept up the good fight. It has filed suit against a restrictive law in North Carolina and joined lawsuits in Ohio and Wisconsin. Ultimately, some of those cases will likely end up before the nation’s highest court — and many civil rights lawyers are predicting the worst. A Supreme Court that doesn’t mind showing its partisan stripes could effectively abolish the Voting Rights Act.
But that will only make the work of the Civil Rights Division more important, not less. Here’s hoping that Holder’s successor is up to the job.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, October 4, 2014
“Ted Cruz’s A.G. Fight Already Misguided”: More So Than Usual, Cruz Has No Idea Of What He’s Talking About
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) does not believe in wasting time. Less than 24 hours have passed since Attorney General Eric Holder announced he’s stepping down, and at this point, no one seems to have any idea when the White House will announce a successor or who he or she will be.
But for Cruz, that just means now is a good time to start drawing battle lines.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) issued a political call to arms for conservatives, saying that outgoing senators should not vote on the nominee during the post-election lame-duck session. “Allowing Democratic senators, many of whom will likely have just been defeated at the polls, to confirm Holder’s successor would be an abuse of power that should not be countenanced,” Cruz said in a statement.
Perhaps more so than usual, Cruz has no idea what he’s talking about.
As Kevin Drum noted in response, “Unless Cruz is suggesting that they should be banned completely, then of course business should be conducted during lame duck sessions. What else is Congress supposed to do during those few weeks?”
Right. Members of the Senate are elected to serve six-year terms. The Constitution, which Cruz usually loves to talk about, is quite explicit on this point. Article I does not say senators’ terms end after 5 years and 10 months, with the final two months designated as goof-off time.
Indeed, if Cruz is still confused, he can look to very recent history to understand that nominating and confirming cabinet officials during a lame-duck session is the exact opposite of “an abuse of power.”
In November 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced he was stepping down at the Pentagon. Almost immediately thereafter, then-President George W. Bush nominated Robert Gates as Rumsfeld’s successor, and during the lame-duck session, the Senate held confirmation hearings, a committee vote, and a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.
Gates was confirmed, 95 to 2, and he was sworn in the week before Christmas 2006. Some of the senators who voted in support of the nominee, to use Cruz’s language, had “just been defeated at the polls,” but it didn’t make a bit of difference.
Why not? Because they were still senators who had a job to do. Indeed, 2006 was an especially important year: the Republican majority in the Senate had just been voted out in a Democratic wave election, in large part because of the Bush administration’s national-security policy. And yet, the Senate still moved quickly and efficiently to consider and confirm a new Pentagon chief.
This wasn’t an “abuse of power.” It was just the American political process working as it’s designed to work.
The same is true now, whether Cruz understands that or not.
Of course, there’s another scenario the far-right Texan may also want to keep in mind: the longer Cruz and his cohorts delay the process, the longer Eric Holder will remain the Attorney General. Indeed, Holder made it quite clear yesterday that he intends to stay on until his successor is ready to step into the office.
Under the circumstances, and given the right’s uncontrollable hatred for the current A.G., shouldn’t Cruz want the Senate to vote on Holder’s replacement during the lame-duck session? Has he really thought his current posturing through?
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 27, 2014
On September 25, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation. He made history as the nation’s first African American attorney general and will most likely be remembered for his vigorous enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws. He deserves equal accolades for his leadership in working to reform the nation’s broken criminal justice system. Since his appointment as attorney general, he has consistently criticized the draconian federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases and has decried the unwarranted racial disparities in the criminal justice system, calling the phenomenon “a civil rights issue … that I’m determined to confront as long as I’m attorney general.” And he certainly kept that promise.
Before becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer, there was no indication that Eric Holder would ultimately become an advocate for poor people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails. After all, Eric Holder spent most of his professional career as a criminal prosecutor. He started out as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section where for 12 years he worked to put away corrupt public officials. During his five years as a judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, he earned a reputation as a tough sentencer, locking up countless young African American men for long periods of time.
Eric Holder left the bench to become the first African American United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. When Holder was appointed to be D.C.’s chief prosecutor, I was the city’s chief defender. As Director of the Public Defender for the District of Columbia, my interactions with Holder’s predecessors were very adversarial. Holder was determined to change that. Soon after his appointment, he visited my office and promised a change in policies and practices. Although he instituted a number of programs in his office, he did not make efforts to reduce the prison population or address racial disparities. He was more polite than his predecessors, but there was absolutely no indication that he would ultimately lead the charge to reverse the nation’s shameful record of incarcerating more of its citizens than any western nation in the world.
In 1997, Holder continued his career as a prosecutor when he became the nation’s first African American deputy attorney general under Janet Reno during the Clinton administration. As second in charge at the Justice Department, Holder supported and championed Reno’s positions on criminal justice issues. At that time, sentencing laws required judges to sentence those in possession of five grams of crack cocaine to a mandatory minimum of five years in prison while that harsh sentence could only be imposed in cases involving powder cocaine when the amount was 500 grams. The enforcement of these laws resulted in much harsher sentences for African Americans. Although Reno was in favor of narrowing the disparity, she strongly opposed eliminating it, and, as her deputy, so did Holder.
At the end of Clinton’s second term, Holder went into private practice before returning to lead the Justice Department that he’d worked in for most of his career. From the beginning of his term as attorney general in 2009, Eric Holder began to champion vigorous reform of the criminal justice system. The vast majority of criminal cases are prosecuted in state courts, and the Attorney General has no supervisory power over state and local cases. However, Holder consistently used his bully pulpit to advocate for criminal justice reform and took direct action to order reforms in the federal system throughout his tenure as attorney general.
As early as June 2009, Holder spoke at a symposium on reforming federal sentencing policy sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. In his remarks, Holder announced that he had ordered a review of the department’s charging and sentencing policies, consideration of alternatives to incarceration, and an examination of other unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing. He stated that “the disparity between crack and powder cocaine must be eliminated and must be addressed by this congress this year.”
The following year, Holder gave remarks at the Justice Department’s National Symposium on Indigent Defense, where he spoke passionately about how the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was not being fulfilled for poor people charged with crimes. He pledged his commitment to improving indigent defense, stating that he had “asked the entire Department of Justice … to focus on indigent defense issues with a sense of urgency and a commitment to developing and implementing the solutions we need.” And he fulfilled that pledge. In October 2013, the Justice Department awarded a total of $6.7 million to state and local criminal and civil legal services organizations that provide defense serves for the poor. Most recently, Holder filed a statement of interest expressing his support for a lawsuit against the state of New York that challenges the deficiencies in New York’s public defender system.
Holder’s most comprehensive criminal justice reform efforts were announced in a speech he gave at the American Bar Association’s Annual meeting in 2013. In these remarks, Holder said, “Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law-enforcement reason.” He also decried the unwarranted racial disparities, stating that “people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. … [b]lack male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable—it is shameful.” Holder then went on to announce sweeping reforms, including ordering federal prosecutors to refrain from charging low level nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences; a compassionate release program to consider the release of nonviolent, elderly, and/or ill prisoners; the increased use of alternatives to incarceration; and the review and reconsideration of statutes and regulations that impose harsh collateral consequences (such as loss of housing and employment) on people with criminal convictions.
We have yet to witness the positive effects of Holder’s criminal justice legacy, and some may suggest that he didn’t go far enough. But few will disagree that his efforts surpass those of any previous attorney general. Did Holder’s views on criminal justice evolve over time? Or did he always believe that the system was broken and in need of reform? Perhaps both statements are true. What matters is that at the end of the day, when he was in a position to effect meaningful change in our criminal justice system, this former prosecutor became a champion of liberty. And for that, this former public defender will forever be grateful.
By: Angela Davis, Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law; The New Republic, September 27, 2014
“Good News, Bad News For Christie”: The Governor And His Allies May Still Not Fully Appreciate The Broader Circumstances
Given all of our previous discussions about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) bridge scandal, it’s only fair to note, as Rachel did last night, new reporting that prosecutors have not yet tied the governor directly to the infamous misdeeds.
The U.S. Justice Department investigation into Gov. Chris Christie’s role in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal has thus far uncovered no evidence indicating that he either knew in advance or directed the closure of traffic lanes on the span, federal officials tell NBC 4 New York.
The September 2013 closures – where several entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee were shut down, causing a traffic nightmare for commuters – has been the subject of several federal and state investigations.
Federal officials caution that the investigation that began nine months ago is ongoing and that no final determination has been made, but say that authorities haven’t uncovered anything that indicates that Christie knew in advance or ordered the closure of traffic lanes.
We don’t yet know the source of this leak or its veracity, but it may very well be entirely true that prosecutors haven’t directly tied Christie personally to the bridge closings. Indeed, as of late yesterday, the governor seemed to be feeling pretty good about his standing, as if this WNBC report exonerated him.
But even if we assume the report is accurate, and we also assume that federal prosecutors never close in on Christie personally in the investigation into this scandal, the governor and his allies may still not fully appreciate the broader circumstances.
The Star Ledger’s editorial board, to its credit, hasn’t forgotten.
Before he finishes this victory lap, a few reminders: No one on the investigative committee has accused him of personally ordering these lane closures. It is hard to believe he would be that stupid.
But what about the cover-up? What about the bogus claim that this was all part of a traffic study? That came from Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee as deputy executive director at the Port Authority, after he was coached for several days by senior members of Christie’s staff. Was Christie so out of touch that he was oblivious to all that? Hard to believe he was that stupid, either.
Part of the problem for Christie from the very beginning is that the governor’s best case scenario – the version of events that are the most favorable to him personally – is that Christie was such an inept and incompetent leader that has no idea that some of the top members of his team conspired to abuse their power in his name.
Under the usual conditions, this might sound like scathing criticism, but in Christie’s case, it’s his best defense. The governor and his supporters eagerly hope the WNBC report is accurate, so they can say Christie’s team deliberately crippled a New Jersey community on purpose, but the governor was too clueless to know what was going on around him.
And to this day, Christie still can’t explain the basics of how and why his handpicked team members abused the power he gave them.
For that matter, let’s also not forget that this isn’t the only Christie scandal that remains ongoing.
So I suppose what we’re left with is a good news/bad news situation for the governor. The good news, he may not personally be charged in the “Bridgeate” scandal. The bad news, the scandal isn’t over, the controversy itself still raises important questions about his competence, and there are other lingering scandals that may do lasting damage to his administration.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 19, 2014
“Color-Blind Or Blinded By Race?”: Steve King Speaks Volumes About Conservative Claims Of Being “Color-Blind”
As events continue to unfold in Ferguson, some very telling reactions are emerging. One of particular importance (via Kyle Mantyla of Right Wing Watch) is from the uninhibited Rep. Steve King of Iowa, which speaks volumes about conservative claims of being “color-blind:”
Rep. Steve King appeared on Newsmax TV yesterday, where host J.D. Hayworth asked him about the rising tensions in Ferguson, Missouri and the call by members of the Congressional Black Caucus for the Department of Justice to conduct an independent investigation because of concerns about a history of racial profiling by the local police department.
King, of course, saw no need for such an investigation, claiming that these members of the CBC are basically “saying don’t enforce the law,” linking the issue to the sporadic looting and vandalism that has taken place by asserting that there is no need to racially profile those responsible for those actions because they are all black.
“This idea of no racial profiling,” King said, “I’ve seen the video. It looks to me like you don’t need to bother with that particular factor because they all appear to be of a single origin, I should say, a continental origin might be the way to phrase that.”
And here’s the inevitable kicker:
“I just reject race-based politics, identity politics” King concluded. “I think we’re all God’s children. We all should be held to the same standards and the same level of behavior.”
So if certain of “God’s children” happen to be prone to behaviors that annoy people like King, then they’re getting what’s coming to them, right? Race has nothing to do with it.
Before anyone objects to me singling out Steve King as an isolated crank, let’s remember this man is vastly influential in the U.S. House of Representatives and the nationally powerful Iowa Republican Party. Would-be presidents regularly and eagerly seek him out and figuratively kiss his ring. I’d love to hear Rand Paul–you know, the Republican leader engaged in all that wonderful African-American “outreach”–asked about King’s comments on Ferguson.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 14, 2014