“I realize that my calling the United States a ‘colonial’ nation is repugnant to most Americans,” acknowledged Judge Juan R. Torruella of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit at a recent Harvard Law School conference. “[B]ut do you think that the reality of this fact of life is any less repugnant to those of us who find ourselves in the degrading status of second-class citizens, merely because we reside as citizens of the United States in a piece of land that, although belonging to the United States and owing allegiance thereto, has been declared by judicial fiat to be an unequal part of this nation?”
In his keynote remarks, Judge Torruella, who resides in Puerto Rico, expressed frustration and indignance on behalf of the 4 million residents of U.S. territories who remain unjustly bound by the dead hand of the past.
In a series of infamous decisions at the turn of the twentieth century known as the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court established a judicial doctrine recognizing two kinds of territories: incorporated territories, including those acquired before the Spanish-American War, and unincorporated territories, including Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and others. The Court extended only certain rights to residents of unincorporated territories because, as one Yale professor reasoned in 1899, “[it would be unwise] to give … the ignorant and lawless brigands that infest Puerto Rico … the benefit[s] of [the Constitution].”
For more than a century, the Insular Cases have stood as controlling precedent, granting broad congressional authority for governing both kinds of territories and defining their relationship to the Constitution. American Samoa has long borne the brunt of this second-class status; as of 2005, it remains one of only two territories whose residents are labeled as “non-citizen U.S. nationals.” That reality may soon change, however, with a favorable ruling in Tuaua v. United States.
Attorney General Eric Holder this week offered welcome support for ending the practice of felony disenfranchisement. Arguing that “permanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system,” Attorney General Holder called for “clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.”
While the degree of felony disenfranchisement varies by state, eleven states permanently disenfranchise at least some formerly incarcerated persons unless the state’s government approves the restoration of voting rights on an individual basis. Three of those states – Iowa, Florida and Kentucky – permanently disenfranchise all formerly incarcerated persons with felony convictions absent individual rights restoration. An additional 24 deny the right to vote to those who have been released from prison but remain on parole, and 20 of these states disenfranchise those on probation as well.
As a result, approximately 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from voting as a result of felony disenfranchisement laws. These laws have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, with nearly one in 13 African-American adults barred from voting, including one in eight African-American men nationwide and one in five African-Americans in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia.
Controversy is swirling around a number of websites that have been set up by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in recent months. The websites have URLs and headlines that imply support for named Democratic candidates for Congress. The websites also have prominent “donate” buttons. But in less prominent text, the websites indicate opposition to the named candidates and any contributions made via the websites actually go to the NRCC.
The Los Angeles Times has counted 18 such websites so far, with URLs such as AnnKirkpatrick.com, SinemaForCongress.com and RonBarber2014.com. Ann Kirkpatrick, Kyrsten Sinema and Ron Barber are all Democratic Members of Congress running for reelection this year. The headlines at the top of these pages read “KIRKPATRICK FOR CONGRESS,” “Kyrsten Sinema for CONGRESS” and “Ron Barber CONGRESS,” respectively. Time has described these websites as “clearly designed to trick the viewer—at least at first—into thinking they’re on a legitimate campaign website.” But these websites aren’t merely part of the underhanded games that typically accompany political campaigns. They also violate federal law.
For decades, the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the administrative agency charged with enforcing federal campaign finance laws, has been concerned with efforts by noncandidate political committees (such as party committees like the NRCC and its counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) to trick people. Since the late 1970s, federal law, 2 U.S.C. § 432(e)(4), has prohibited any noncandidate political committee from “includ[ing] the name of any candidate in its name.” Initially, the FEC interpreted this statutory prohibition as applying only to the official name a committee registered with the FEC. For example, those who set up independent committees to support Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign were prohibited from using Reagan’s name in their official committee name. Instead, they registered committees with the FEC using names such as “Americans for Change” and “Americans for an Effective Presidency.”
Last week, nearly 60 years after the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc’s (LDF) client, Autherine Lucy, sought to become the first Black student to integrate the University of Alabama, LDF and cooperating Louisiana attorney Ronald L. Wilson filed a federal lawsuit to empower Black voters in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana to elect their candidates of choice for the 32nd Judicial District Court for the first time in the Parish’s history.
The lawsuit, Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP et al. v. Jindal et al., filed on behalf of the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP and several Black voters in Terrebonne, challenges the Parish’s at-large method of electing judges for this state court as a violation of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
For nearly two centuries, Terrebonne Parish has used at-large voting to maintain a racially segregated 32nd Judicial District Court. That system for electing judges has guaranteed that Black voters, in spite of having tried in election after election, cannot elect their judges of choice for this court. As a result, a Black candidate has never been elected as a judge on the 32nd Judicial District Court. Meanwhile, a sitting judge on this parish court has been suspended for wearing blackface, an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, and an afro wig to a Halloween party as part of his offensive parody of a Black prison inmate.
This lawsuit seeks to bring greater inclusion and democratic legitimacy to Terrebonne Parish’s political process through district-based voting. For too long, at-large voting, in combination with racial bloc voting, has functioned as a structural wall of exclusion to this parish court. Although Black voters comprise nearly 20 percent of the Parish’s voting-age population, and consistently vote together in parish-wide elections, the at-large electoral method dilutes their cohesive vote for their preferred candidates of choice.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, released a statement praising the Senate Judiciary Committee for its favorable report of Debo Adegbile to be the Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. In the statement, Ifill says Adegbile “has precisely the type of broad civil rights experience that is required at this pivotal moment in our country.”
Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required federal review of voting laws in states with a history of voter discrimination. Adam Ragusea of NPR reports from Macon, Georgia on the repercussions felt by the city’s minority voters.
Human Rights Watch explores the legal and ethical implications of a growing trend among probation companies to “act more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers.”