During a week when many groups and individuals are celebrating the signing of the U.S. Constitution -- September 17 is Constitution Day -- it is appropriate to take note of how far we have fallen short of fulfilling certain fundamental rights promised in our governing document.
As Dean Erwin Chemerinsky noted in this ACSblog post, we are not just celebrating the signing of a parchment, we are actually taking note of how the Constitution has "been interpreted and implemented over the course of American history."
There are examples of where the judiciary has misinterpreted the broad language of the Constitution or where states have faltered or failed in implementation of constitutional mandates, but let's take one example that provides a stark picture of a nation failing to live up to a promise of genuine equality before the law. Let's look at the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel.
Fifty years ago this year, in a landmark opinion, Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel means that people in danger of losing liberty have a right to counsel, even if they cannot afford it. In his majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black observed, "The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him."
ACS President Caroline Fredrickson provided context to the discussion over Senate Republicans’ efforts to scuttle President Obama’s judicial nominations, in particular focusing on the three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
During a June 2 segment on MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry” show, Fredrickson said Americans should understand that a “vast majority” of high-profile and constitutional weighty cases have to be heard by the D.C. Circuit.
“Major cases involving regulations” of our health care system, environment, and workers’ rights are heard by the Court, as well as major national security cases and voting rights cases. The majority of such cases are “required to go to the D.C. Circuit,” meaning the Court is one of the more powerful in the country, she said. And as noted on this blog frequently Senate Republicans, especially Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), are bent on keeping the president from making a lasting imprint on the D.C. Circuit. For instance, Grassley is pushing a bill to cut the 11-member court to eight seats thereby preventing Obama from placing any more judges on that court. (Recently the Senate confirmed Obama’s nomination of Sri Srinivasan to a seat on the D.C. Circuit, after twice blocking the president’s initial nomination to the Court.)
Fredrickson noted that when George W. Bush was president Grassley had no complaints about the number of seats on the D.C. Circuit, instead strongly supporting the president’s constitutional duty to fill vacancies on the federal bench. Fredrickson noted that Grassley and other Republicans “fought like hell to get George Bush’s nominees on the D.C. Circuit when the caseload was not only lower, but they wanted to go right up to the 11th seat and now they say eight is plenty.”
Fredrickson and the other panelists, including the Alliance for Justice’s Nan Aron, also touched upon discussion in the Senate to alter the filibuster to make it more transparent and a bit more difficult for the obstructionists to abuse. Part of the reason for renewed interest in reforming the filibuster is that Senate Republicans are showing no signs of making it any easier for the president to fill judicial vacancies and some executive branch vacancies.
Though the Senate finally confirmed Judge Patty Shwartz to a seat on the federal appellate court bench, one should hardly take that as a sign that the Republican-led band of obstructionists is ready to alter its agenda of delaying judicial nominations.
Shwartz was confirmed to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit by a vote of 64 – 34. She was re-nominated earlier this year by President Obama. As Judging The Environment notes, Shwartz was originally nominated by Obama in fall 2011.
ACS President Caroline Fredrickson, while applauding the confirmation of Shwartz, a federal magistrate judge in Newark, N.J., said the process was “all too typical for the president’s judicial nominee, and that must change.” She continued, “Filling our benches must become and remain a priority for the Senate so people can have faith in our system to guarantee every American fair and swift justice.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also noted the snails’ pace of confirmation for judges. Shwartz “should not have been delayed for more than a year,” he said in a statement. “Sadly, this is not an isolated case but one in a steady pattern of obstruction.”
Carney said, “After her expected confirmation, there will still be 14 other judicial nominees awaiting floor votes. Of these 14, 13 were approved by the Judiciary Committee unanimously, and the five nominees would fill judicial emergencies. They have been waiting on the Senate floor for an average of 67 days for a vote. That’s nearly twice as long as President’s Bush’s judicial nominees.”
Senate Republicans bent on obstructing the Obama administration’s efforts to fill vacancies on the federal bench may be feeling a bit of pressure to back off their political agenda for the sake of one of the nation’s most powerful appeals courts.
Last month Republicans filibustered the president’s nomination of Caitlin Halligan to fill one of the four vacancies on the 11-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The president had tried numerous times to place Halligan, the general counsel for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, on the Court, but Senate Republicans refused to allow an up-or-down vote citing flimsy claims that she is a left-wing ideologue unfit to serve. Not long after the latest filibuster, Halligan withdrew her nomination. As NPR’s Carrie Johnson reports the appeals court, which hears of range of weighty constitutional matters, has more vacancies than any other appeals court circuit. (ACS President Caroline Fredrickson in an interview with NPR noted the partisan leaning of the D.C. appeals court and its importance in handling challenges to federal regulations. “The clean air that we breathe, we hope to breathe, the clean water that we’d like to drink [and] all the EPA regulations around climate change are subject to this court’s review. And this court has shown itself extraordinarily hostile to efforts to protect people from environmental dangers.”)
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to conduct an April 10 hearing to consider another Obama nominee to the D.C. appeals court circuit, Sri Srinivasan, the principal deputy solicitor general. Srinivasan was nominated to the D.C. Circuit nearly a year ago, but like Halligan, his nomination has faced Republican opposition. Srinivasan, born in India and raised in the U.S., has not been attacked as an ideologue for a seat on the federal bench, instead Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Ranking Member, has demanded information from the Department of Justice to determine whether Srinivasan was involved in the settlement of case involving city officials in St. Paul, Minn. (Grassley has suggested that city officials agreed to settle a case that could have resulted in a ruling weakening an enforcement provision of the Fair Housing Act in return for the DOJ’s agreement not to pursue and unrelated case. As The Blog of Legal Timesreported earlier this year that Grassley has not suggested that Srinivasan “did anything inappropriate or improper,” but he wants to see more documentation to determine what, if any, role Srinivasan played.) If confirmed to the seat, Srinivasan would be the first South Asian to sit on the appeals court bench.
It has to do with "our dignity," being able to be who we are openly. That's what Edith S. Windsor the woman challenging the cramped definition of marriage embedded in the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) said in a documentary about her longtime relationship with Thea Spyer. The two were married in Canada, a country that does not exclude lesbians and gay men from marriage, after more than 40 years together and not long before Spyer died of complications related to multiple sclerosis.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case lodged by Windsor and in another case challenging California's ant-gay law, Proposition 8, which stripped lesbians and gay men of the right to wed in that state. It's difficult to predict how the Court will rule based solely on oral argument. But a consensus is building among many court-watchers that the justices appeared likely to move only incrementally on marriage equality.
In the Prop 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, the justices dwelled heavily on a threshold question - is a handful of Prop 8 proponents the right group to defend the law before the Court. If the justices toss the case on procedural grounds, it likely means that lesbians and gay men can resume obtaining marriage licenses in that state, but would have no effect elsewhere. In the DOMA case, U.S. v. Windsor, the justices also focused heavily on standing, but when they turned to the substance of the case - a constitutional challenge to the federal government's narrow definition of marriage - several of the justices seemed far more concerned about the law's impact on federalism than on equal protection. Thus a majority of justices may be ready to invalidate DOMA's central provision, but on very narrow grounds. So in both cases the Court could provide very little progress on a core question - should laws that classify lesbians and gay men for unequal treatment be subjected to a much tougher constitutional test?
Supporters of marriage equality in both cases urged the justices to find that laws targeting gay men and lesbians should be subjected to a heightened scrutiny when challenged in court. In other words, the government would have to show a compelling interest in enforcing a discriminatory law - a very difficult test to meet. The high court, however, can avoid that declaration and questioning during oral argument in both cases suggested that may be what occurs. On marriage alone, however, it is unlikely - regardless of how the Court rules -- that the robust movement for marriage equality will stall. These cases have made the question over marriage an easier one for many Americans to answer.