Guest Post

  • October 17, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Eric J. Segall, the Kathy and Lawrence Ashe Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law

    Prior to the oral arguments in the 2013 same-sex marriage cases involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, Supreme Court commentators committed to marriage equality debated just how fast the Court should act. On this blog, I urged the Court to strike down DOMA in the Windsor case but deny standing to the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 litigation in the hope that the logic of Windsor would lead lower federal courts to strike down state laws banning same-sex marriage. I advocated that approach fearful of the political backlash that would result from the Court creating a national rule imposing same-sex marriage on reluctant states in one bold strike.

    Those who wanted the Court to act quickly had two substantial objections. First, the Court’s job is to decide cases “under the law” not to make political predictions and calculations about the effects of those decisions. Second, gays and lesbians should not have been forced to wait one more day before achieving the marriage equality they deserve.

    Now that events have unfolded, it is important to address both of those objections (albeit with hindsight) because the arguments for and against the Court acting quickly on same-sex marriage shed important light on the appropriate role of the Supreme Court in our political system and how the Court should force important social change in the future.

  • October 9, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Paul Bland, Executive Director of Public Justice. 

    *This post originally appeared on the Public Justice blog. 

    The Alliance for Justice has just released an extremely powerful documentary, “Lost in the Fine Print,” which you can view here. Narrated by former Labor Secretary and genuine American hero Robert Reich, it provides both a big picture overview of what’s unfair with forced arbitration, and three examples of the human impact of its unfairness. Unfortunately, as incredibly unfair as each of the three examples is, they are not at all uncommon stories. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the people who speaks in the film, which I consider a great honor.)

    As the film explores, forced arbitration is slipped by the vast majority of Americans – whether as consumers, workers, or small-business people – in ways that almost none of them will notice or recognize. The system is designed by the stronger parties to disputes – generally huge corporations – to favor them in disputes. Forced arbitration’s rapid spread has been aided by a series of 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that would never have been anticipated by the framers of our Constitution. 

    The film describes an employment case in which a U.S. Army Reservist was illegally fired from her job because her employer didn’t like her taking two weeks away from work to fulfill her military obligation. But an arbitrator selected by a corporation selected by her employer rejected her case out of hand, ignoring the clear legal rules applicable to the case. This is a fairly familiar situation in America.

  • October 8, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Alex J. Luchenitser, Associate Legal Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    The Supreme Court this week heard arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, a challenge to a prison’s refusal to let an inmate grow a half-inch beard to comply with his Islamic religious beliefs. Most church-state cases that reach the Court are deeply divisive. In Holt, on the other hand, there appears to be a broad consensus among religious-freedom advocacy groups, as well as the justices themselves, that the prisoner should prevail.

    Groups that are typically at odds in church-state cases, such as my organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, supported the prisoner’s claims. And from the questions posed by the justices, it appears that the prisoner will win unanimously or nearly so.

    The prisoner, Gregory Holt (who now goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad), brought his claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is known by the difficult-to-pronounce acronym RLUIPA. RLUIPA prohibits a prison from substantially burdening an inmate’s religious exercise unless the prison is furthering a compelling governmental interest through the least restrictive means of doing so.       

    More than forty states, as well as the federal prison system, allow beards of the length that inmate Holt requested. Yet the defendant Arkansas prison system advanced two justifications for its denial of the beard: First, Arkansas argued, prisoners could hide contraband even in short beards.  Second, according to Arkansas, allowing prisoners to have facial hair could make it difficult to identify inmates within the prison.

    Justices who often hold diametrically opposing views on church-state and other hot-button issues were united in being deeply skeptical of these assertions.

    Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A. Alito noted that it would be much easier to hide objects in a head of hair, pointing out that Arkansas prisons allow inmates to have voluminous locks. Justice Alito also pointed out that even if it were possible to hide contraband in a half-inch beard, prison guards could easily expose such contraband by simply making the inmates comb their beards so that anything hidden falls out.

  • October 3, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Rob Boston, the Director of Communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia captured headlines recently by declaring that nothing in the Constitution prevents the government from favoring religion over non-religion.

    “I think the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over non-religion,” Scalia told a crowd at Colorado Christian University Oct. 1.

    “We do Him [God] honor in our Pledge of Allegiance, in all our public ceremonies,” he added. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It is in the best of American traditions, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I think we have to fight that tendency of the secularists to impose it on all of us through the Constitution.”

    It’s not the first time Scalia has made such comments. In 2009, he told an Orthodox Jewish newspaper published in Brooklyn, “It has not been our American constitutional tradition, nor our social or legal tradition, to exclude religion from the public sphere. Whatever the Establishment Clause means, it certainly does not mean that government cannot accommodate religion, and indeed favor religion. My court has a series of opinions that say that the Constitution requires neutrality on the part of the government, not just between denominations, not just between Protestants, Jews and Catholics, but neutrality between religion and non-religion. I do not believe that. That is not the American tradition.”

    The “American tradition” that Scalia refers to doesn’t have much of a history. “Under God” was slipped into the Pledge in 1954 as a slap at godless Communism. “In God We Trust” wasn’t codified for use on paper money until 1956 – again, it was a Cold War-era slam at the Soviets. (The use of the phrase on coins is older. It was a desperate ploy by the North to curry favor with the deity during the early months of the Civil War.)

  • October 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Kareem U. Crayton, associate professor of law, the University of North Carolina School of Law

    Voting has been described by the Supreme Court as “preservative of other basic civil and political rights.” So when law and policy leave voting insecure, the core project of governance itself faces grave risk. 

    During oral arguments preceding the June 2013 decision to invalidate a key feature of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Justice Anthony Kennedy dismissed concerns that voting would become less secure for racial minorities. Even absent Section 5’s preclearance oversight for states with egregious histories of discrimination, Kennedy asserted, Section 2 of the law would allow citizens to use traditional litigation to block discriminatory laws. A year into the post-Shelby County era, we have initial evidence of how this litigation has fared in practice.

    One test of Section 2 is playing out in North Carolina, where this week the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the North Carolina NAACP and allied groups in their challenge of a state law that is widely recognized as the nation’s most restrictive. The Court’s decision ordered a preliminary injunction for two provisions of the law – the elimination of same-day registration, and the prohibition of out-of-precinct ballots from being counted. The decision means that these rules will not apply in the November election, contrary to an earlier decision by a U.S. District Court to deny this preliminary injunction. A full trial regarding the merits of the law will go to court next July.

    According to the 4th Circuit, “The district court got the law plainly wrong in several crucial respects" in assessing whether North Carolina’s measure, known as H.B. 589, was likely in violation of Section 2. They continued, "When the applicable law is properly understood and applied to the facts as the district court portrayed them, it becomes clear that the district court abused its discretion in denying plaintiffs a preliminary injunction and not preventing certain provisions of House Bill 589 from taking effect while the parties fight over the bill's legality."

    North Carolina’s H.B. 589 enacts multiple changes to the state’s election system. It eliminates same-day voter registration, prohibits out-of-precinct ballots from being counted, shortens the early voting period by a week, eliminates a successful pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year-olds, prohibits counties from extending Election Day poll hours to account extraordinary circumstances (such as long lines), permits poll observers to challenge voters, and implements a strict photo ID requirement.