“Arizona Versus The Right To Vote”: A Law Whose Sole Purpose Is To Disenfranchise Poor And Minority Voters
As part of a broader anti-immigration initiative in 2004, Arizona passed Proposition 200, a law requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering to vote. One person affected by this law was Jesus Gonzalez, a custodian and naturalized American citizen who twice had his registration rejected by the state. Arizona couldn’t verify his naturalization number and erroneously identified his driver’s license as belonging to a non-citizen. Gonzalez’s case has reached the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments about the constitutionality of Proposition 200 on Monday. The Court should rule that Arizona’s burdensome requirements are inconsistent with federal law and therefore illegal.
The Supreme Court has dealt with Republican legislators’ attempts to suppress voting before. In a highly dubious 2008 decision, the Supreme Court found that an Indiana statute—requiring a show of ID before hitting the ballot box—was not unconstitutional on its face, although it left open the possibility that the statute might be unconstitutional as applied. (The Indiana law was ultimately struck down by the Indiana Court of Appeals.) Because the Arizona law concerns voter registration, it is subject to another form of legal challenge.
In 1993, Congress passed the National Mail Voter Registration (or “Motor Voter”) Act, which among other things created a federal form that would streamline the registration requirements. The law mandates that “each State shall accept and use” the federal form. As the story of Jesus Gonzalez highlights, Prop 200 placed an additional set of requirements on Arizonans before they are able to register. The key question presented by the challenge to Prop 200 is whether the Arizona requirements are inconsistent with federal law. If so, because of the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the Constitution, the Arizona law is “pre-empted” by the Motor Voter Act and is invalid.
The case for pre-emption in this case is clear and persuasive. The statute unequivocally requires states to use the federal form. To permit states to add additional burdens on registration is inconsistent with the text and purpose of the statute, which was designed to create a streamlined and uniform process. Determining qualifications for people voting for federal offices is a clear federal power. Justice Kagan observed at the oral argument that the Arizona law “essentially creates a new set of requirements and a new form.” Prop 200, therefore, is at war with the federal statute whose purpose was to create a clear process for registration. As the Obama administration noted in its amicus brief, to uphold the Arizona law “would thwart the central purpose of [Motor Voter]: to streamline the process of registering to vote for federal office.”
Justice Scalia, while somewhat more restrained than in the previous oral argument dealing with an Arizona law that conflicted with federal authority, was typically candid about his political support for the objectives of the Arizona vote suppression initiative. Leaving little doubt about his sympathy for the Arizona law, he mocked the federal registration requirements, which make it a criminal offense to misrepresent one’s eligibility to vote. “So it’s under oath. Big deal.” Scalia snorted. “If you’re willing to violate the voting laws, I suppose you’re willing to violate the perjury laws.”
Scalia’s arguments are problematic for two reasons. First, whether or not Scalia thinks the federal requirements are sufficient is beside the point—Article I Section IV gives Congress the power to “make or alter” state voting regulations, so the judgment about what requirements are sufficient rests with Congress, not with Arizona or the Supreme Court. And even on its own terms his argument that the threat of a perjury conviction represents an insufficient deterrent is unpersuasive. Arizona provides no evidence that this kind of voter fraud is a problem. The problems of individual voter fraud the bill allegedly addresses are essentially non-existent, and even in theory it is impossible for individual fraudulent voters to alter the course of an election. And, in particular, it is extremely implausible to think that the illegal immigrants the bill targets are likely to risk attracting the attention of federal authorities by committing perjury on a form submitted to the federal government. It is hard to avoid the conclusion of one Arizona legislator that “was never intended to combat voter fraud. It was intended to keep minorities from voting.”
Scalia also mocked the idea that the additional Arizona requirements represented a substantial burden. “Enclosing your driver’s license number is that immense barrier?” he sarcastically asked Patricia Millet, the attorney representing the challengers. But the data proves Scalia is dead wrong to dismiss the extent of vote suppression caused by the initiative. “The district court,” Millet pointed out, “found that 31,550 people were rejected from voting because of Proposition 200.” This is a serious additional burden which shows that the inconsistency with federal law is not merely formal. The vote fraud Scalia and other Republicans are purportedly concerned with is imaginary, but the burdens created by the Arizona law are quite real.
Arizona’s latest attempt to interfere with federal law is particularly problematic given that it concerns the right to vote. Voting is a field in which greater uniformity is a particular virtue. The fact that standards for registration and voting vary not only between states but within states represents “local control” fetishism at its most inane. State and local administration of voting isn’t merely inefficient; the purpose and effect of this decentralization has been to disenfranchise poor and/or minority voters. In this case, Congress appropriately acted to create more uniform and streamlined standards for vote registration. Arizona should not be allowed to contradict federal law and invite other states to similarly disenfranchise voters.
By: Scott Lemieux, The American Prospect, March 19, 2013
“Gideon’s’ Promise Still Unfulfilled”: It Turns Out Poor People’s Justice Is To Justice As Monkey Business Is To Business
“Make me wanna holler, way they do my life.” — Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues”
Karen Houppert has written a book of nightmares.
Houppert, a veteran reporter for, among others, The Washington Post and The New York Times, is the author of Chasing Gideon: the Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice, which comes out this week coincident with the anniversary of a legal milestone. It was 50 years ago Monday that the case of Gideon v. Wainwright was decided.
Clarence Earl Gideon, 51, was arrested in Panama City, FL, in 1961 for burglary. When his case came to trial, Gideon, who was indigent, asked the court to provide him an attorney. The court refused and Gideon, a four-time loser and eighth-grade dropout, had to represent himself. He was found guilty and given five years.
But though he was no scholar, Gideon knew something was wrong with this picture. He wrote a letter — in pencil and with a dropout’s creative spelling and grammar — to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and appointed counsel to represent him. The decision it handed down affirmed the Sixth Amendment promise that every criminal defendant — even an indigent one — shall have “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
It is a right we take for granted now, part of the boilerplate every TV cop rattles off to every suspect. “If you desire and cannot afford an attorney…” and etcetera. It is hard to imagine that such was not always the case. Perhaps you’re grateful to live in a country where even the humble poor are ensured of quality representation when they stand before the bar of justice.
Except that you don’t. Hence, the nightmare.
It turns out there is a gulf between the 1963 promise and the 2013 reality. It turns out one lawyer can be expected to try 400, 500, 600 cases a year. It turns out public defenders are so underfunded and overwhelmed it is not uncommon for a defendant to meet his attorney for the first time in court. It turns out the situation is so dire that in at least one jurisdiction a judge pressed tax attorneys and property lawyers into service in criminal court. It turns out poor people’s justice is to justice as monkey business is to business.
Ask Clarence Jones, who spent over a year in prison just waiting for an attorney — and was still there as the book went to press — on a charge of burglary.
Ask Carol Dee Huneke, a novice lawyer with no experience in criminal law who was hired as a public defender on a Thursday and assigned a case that began Monday. She had never even seen a trial before.
And ask Greg Bright, who spent 27 years in prison on a murder charge he might have easily beaten, writes Houppert, had his court-appointed attorney done even minimal investigation on his behalf. As a later attorney discovered, the single witness the state’s case hinged upon was a mentally-ill heroin addict with a history of hallucinations who physically could not have seen what she claimed she did.
Twenty-seven years. “Make me wanna holler,” indeed.
What is reflected here is not simply incompetence, but disdain; contempt for the rights, lives and humanity of the less fortunate. And perhaps your instinct is to look away, secure in the naive delusion that no one gets arrested unless they’ve “done something.” Truth is, it happens every day.
Taken alongside the failed War on Drugs that has devastated African America, this treatment of indigent defendants depicts a “justice” system that too often produces the exact opposite of what its name suggests, particularly for its most vulnerable constituents. That’s a sad state of affairs 50 years after what was once considered a milestone triumph for the poor.
And it should — we should — send a clear and unambiguous message to lawmakers. The system is broken. Fix it.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., The National Memo, March 18, 2013
“SCOTUS Naive On Super PACs”: Insulated From The Machinations Of Political Campaigns And Campaign Finance Realities
When the Supreme Court paved the way for unlimited independent spending in elections with its Citizens United decision, the justices assumed a key protection to prevent corruption: The expenditures would be truly independent, so it would make it impossible for a candidate and a donor to engage in a quid pro quo. In theory, this makes sense. If there’s no coordination between the independent groups like super PACs and candidates — and coordination remains technically illegal — then donors will fund independent expenditures purely out of their own political beliefs and not in the expectation of getting anything in return.
In practice, however, this distinction completely breaks down because groups are often established to fund a single candidate, as opposed to a broad cause, and there are plenty of ways to communicate intentions or expectations without violating narrow coordination laws.
A new report from Public Citizens shows just how absurd it is to assume that outside groups are truly independent. Of all the major super PACs and 501(c) nonprofit groups that engaged in the 2012 election, about half backed a single candidate exclusively, effectively making themselves auxiliary organs of the candidate’s campaign, the report found. Generally, these groups were “founded, funded or managed by friends, family members, or recent campaign aides of the candidate they supported,” the report adds.
The most obvious examples are Priorities USA, the Obama super PAC founded by a former White House aide, and Restore Our Future, the Romney super PAC founded by the general counsel of Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. These groups allowed wealthy donors who had already maxed out their donations to either candidate’s official committee to give unlimited additional funds to the auxiliary super PAC to support their candidates.
Meanwhile, another 30 percent of spending came from groups designed specifically to aid the parties. For instance, the Democratic-affiliated House Majority PAC acted as an auxiliary to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. All of this is aboveboard.
In total, candidate-specific and party-allied groups accounted for more than 65 percent of all spending by outside groups in the 2012 elections, including seven of the top eight groups, according to the report. Among super PACs alone, that percentage climbs to 74.4 percent.
“The emergence of entities using unlimited contributions to aid candidates and parties with which they have close relationships threatens to gut the anticorruption policy underlying campaign finance laws, which the court claimed it did not intend to weaken,” Taylor Lincoln, the research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, and his co-authors wrote.
In its Citizens United decision, the Court approvingly quoted from an earlier decision, Buckley v. Valeo, observing that in independent expenditures, “The absence of prearrangement and coordination of an expenditure with the candidate or his agent not only undermines the value of the expenditure to the candidate, but also alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given.”
Clearly, if independent expenditures de facto operate as direct contributions, the distinction is meaningless and the supposed protection of independence is destroyed. This was obvious to almost everyone before the decision — except for the justices, apparently. They are insulated from the machinations of political campaigns and campaign finance realities, which is usually a good thing, but it allowed them to base a major overhaul of the nation’s campaign finance laws on a flawed and naive understanding of the world.
None of this is particularly surprising to anyone even vaguely aware of the campaign finance dynamics of the 2012 cycle, but the report adds critical numbers and details.
By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, March 5, 2013
“Racial Entitlement?”: Trust Us Says The South, Just Like The Wifebeater Who Says He Has Seen The Error Of His Ways
One day, many years ago, I was working in my college bookstore when this guy walks in wearing a T-shirt. “White Power,” it said.
I was chatting with a friend, Cathy Duncan, and what happened next was as smooth as if we had rehearsed it. All at once, she’s sitting on my lap or I’m sitting on hers — I can’t remember which — and that white girl gives this black guy a peck on the lips. In a loud voice she asks, “So, what time should I expect you home for dinner, honey?”
Mr. White Power glares malice and retreats. Cathy and I fall over laughing.
Which tells you something about how those of us who came of age in the first post-civil-rights generation tended to view racism; we saw it as something we could dissipate with a laugh, a tired old thing that had bedeviled our parents, yes, but which we were beyond. We thought racism was over.
I’ve spent much of my life since then being disabused of that naivete. Watching media empires built upon appeals to racial resentment, seeing the injustice system wield mass incarceration as a weapon against black men, bearing witness as the first African-American president produced his long-form birth certificate, all helped me understand just how silly we were to believe bigotry was done.
So a chill crawled my spine last week as the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could result in gutting the Voting Rights Act. That landmark 1965 legislation gave the ballot to black voters who had previously been denied it by discriminatory laws, economic threats, violence and by registrars who challenged them with nonsense questions like, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”
One of the act’s key provisions covers nine mostly Southern states and scores of municipalities with histories of such behavior. They must get federal approval before changing their voting procedures. The requirement may be stigmatizing, but it is hardly onerous.
Yet Shelby County, AL seeks the provision’s repeal, pronouncing itself cured of the attitudes that made it necessary. “The children of today’s Alabama are not racist and neither is their government,” wrote Alabama attorney general Luther Strange last week.
It was rather like hearing a wifebeater say he has seen the error of his ways and will no longer smack the missus around. Though you’re glad and all, you still hope the wife’s testimony will carry a little more weight in deciding whether the restraining order should be lifted.
But the Court’s conservatives seemed eager to believe, peppering the law’s defenders with skeptical questions. Indeed, Justice Antonin Scalia branded the law a “racial entitlement.”
Sit with that a moment. A law protecting the voting rights of a historically disenfranchised minority is a “racial entitlement”? Equality is a government program?
Lord, have mercy.
There is historical resonance here. In the 1870s, the South assured the federal government it could behave itself without oversight. The feds agreed to leave the region alone where race was concerned. The result: nearly a century of Jim Crow. Now here comes Shelby County, saying in effect: We’ve changed. Trust us.
It is an appeal that might have seemed persuasive back when I was young and naive, sitting on Cathy’s lap (or she on mine) and thinking race was over. But that was a long time ago.
Yes, the South has changed — largely because of the law Shelby County seeks to gut. Even so, attempts to dilute the black vote have hardly abated. We’ve just traded poll taxes and literacy tests for gerrymandering and Voter ID laws.
So we can ill afford to be as naive as a top Court conservative at the prospect of softening federal protection of African-American voting rights. “Trust us,” says the South. And the whole weight of history demands a simple question in response.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., The National Memo, March 3, 3013
Alabama gave us the Voting Rights Act when it violently suppressed peaceful marches in 1965, dramatizing the need for a strong law guaranteeing every American an equal right to vote regardless of race. Now, less than 50 years later, an Alabama county is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the central provision of that law—Section 5. The court should decline the invitation.
The Voting Rights Act is widely acknowledged as the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. It was passed to make real the promise of political equality in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Section 5 ensures state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination don’t implement new laws or practices that deny Americans the equal right to vote. Unfortunately, it is still sorely needed.
Our nation has made great progress toward racial equality since 1965. But discrimination is still real and distressingly widespread in jurisdictions covered by Section 5.
Leading up to the 2012 election, states passed a wave of restrictive laws that, had they gone into effect, would have made it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. These laws—which ranged from voter ID requirements to registration cutbacks to curbs on early voting —would have fallen most harshly on minorities.
Section 5 was critical in turning back the tide and stopping real discrimination. It blocked a discriminatory photo ID requirement in Texas, which required a kind of ID more than 600,000 eligible voters did not have. It required Florida to restore some early voting hours used especially by minority voters. And it blocked Texas redistricting maps after a federal court found they intentionally discriminated against Latino voters.
But Section 5 did much more: It deterred states from passing discriminatory laws in the first place. In South Carolina, lawmakers rejected a highly-restrictive voter ID requirement because they knew it wouldn’t pass muster. Instead, the state passed a law that was more flexible for the 216,000 registered citizens without driver’s licenses or nondriver’s IDs. A federal court approved the less restrictive version.
The last few years have seen some of the biggest fights over voting in decades. After an election marred by discriminatory voting laws and long lines in which minorities had to wait twice as long as whites, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is needed more than ever. Now is not the time to get rid of America’s most time-honored voting rights protection.
By: Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, U.S. News and World Report, February 27, 2013