Guest Post

  • August 3, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Stacey Dembo, Law Offices of Stacey J. Dembo

    This summer will mark two important milestones for public benefit programs in the United States. The Social Security Act will be celebrating its 80th anniversary on August 14th‒President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on that date in 1935. And last week marked the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the amendments that expanded the Social Security Act to establish the Medicare and Medicaid programs. This 50th anniversary provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the vital lifelines Medicare and Medicaid provide for our nation’s most vulnerable.

    It’s hard to believe that before 1966 roughly half of all people 65 and over and many people with disabilities, children, pregnant women and low-income working Americans were unable to afford the medical care they needed. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the amendments creating Medicare and Medicaid, he said the programs would correct “the injustice which denies the miracle of healing to the old and to the poor.”

    Now 50 years later, Medicare and Medicaid together cover over 100 million people, or about 1 in 3 Americans. Medicare covers almost all elderly Americans and some younger adults who are disabled. Medicare Part A, which covers hospital stays, nursing home care and hospice, is financed by the payroll taxes workers and employers pay. Medicare Part B, which covers doctors’ visits, surgeries and medical devices like wheelchairs, is paid for by Medicare recipients through income-based premiums. Medicaid, on the other hand, is financed via federal and state funds. It covers low-income adults, people with disabilities, half of all low-income children and pregnant women.

  • July 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Michael Waterstone, J. Howard Ziemann Fellow and Professor of Law, Loyola Law School Los Angeles 

    This week is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, government programs and services, and privately owned places of accommodation.  It was and remains an ambitious law, requiring employers and business owners to make reasonable accommodations, at their own expense, to be more accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.  And although there is still a long way to go, the ADA should be celebrated for its role in moving people with disabilities into the mainstream of society.

    Both the ADA and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (passed in 2008) passed with remarkable bipartisan support.  Disability has never entered the culture wars, and in many ways disability rights have transcended traditional political commitments.  But while legislative political elites in both parties have been very comfortable taking pro-disability rights positions, the public at large is less aware of and sometimes hostile to the ideals and goals of the disability rights movements.  Everyone likes and identifies with a feel good story about athletes who “overcome” disability.  But how many business owners have welcomed the idea of making physical or programmatic changes to accommodate difference?

    Although the ADA has a constitutional basis, it is primarily celebrated as a legislative success.  Lawyers and advocates who bring disability law cases are reluctant to engage constitutional law as a source of relief for people with disabilities.  And they have good reasons to be wary.  The ADA offers ample protections, moving deep into the private sphere in a way constitutional law could not.  And the doctrinal resting place of disability constitutional law is a bad one – under Cleburne, government classifications on the basis of disability are only entitled to rational basis scrutiny. Lawyers in the disability rights movement know how to count to five and have reasoned that the Supreme Court is an inhospitable place for equality claims generally.

    At this important milestone in the disability rights movement, I want to suggest that the next 25 years should include more of an engagement with disability constitutional law.  I take this position for several reasons.  First, there is a lot that is unclear, and potentially up for grabs, about equality law.  Cases like Windsor and Obergefell do not fit neatly into conventional tiered Equal Protection Clause analysis, instead looking at some mix of the nature of the interest protected and the legislative classification.  Simply accepting that Cleburne closed the constitutional canon on all disability claims does not sufficiently engage these evolving notions of equality.

  • July 21, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Reuben Guttman, partner, Guttman, Buschner & Brooks, PLLC; Guttman is a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

    In the suffocating heat of a Washington, DC July, my thoughts drift back 30 years to a sweltering Beaumont, Texas summer. A fried fish sandwich and a milkshake at the “Pig Stand,” the smell of hydrocarbons wafting from nearby petrochemical plants, and talk of football – at any level – was Beaumont back then. 84 years after Beaumont’s 1901 Spindletop gusher gave rise to the formation of Gulf Oil and Texaco, it seemed that nothing in Beaumont had moved it forward to a new identity. It was a city stuck in time.

    The biggest event in Beaumont during that summer of 1985 was the strike by several hundred black women at the A.W. Schlesinger Geriatric Center. The strikers, ranging from cooks to nursing staff, were fighting over an attempt to roll back the average wage from $4.10 to $3.90 an hour. Fresh out of law school, I had been assigned by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to assist the strikers. Our office was a wooden structure with two small offices and a multipurpose room used for union meetings, press briefings, and cooking gumbo. It was in that office that I first met Cecile Richards and Kirk Adams who were SEIU’s organizers on the ground. All of us were in our 20s. Cecile, of course, would later become president of Planned Parenthood and speak at the Democratic National Convention. Kirk rose to become an International Executive Vice President of the SEIU.

    Although I had worked with SEIU though law school, the summer of 1985 was for me a crash course in the working person. In this case the workers cleaned bed pans and cooked food for the elderly; they set work aside for Sunday church services and rose to the occasion as organizers and press spokesmen during the Schlesinger labor dispute. I learned that dignity, intelligence, and perseverance are not traits reserved for those who wear a suit and tie. As the strike turned into a lockout and dragged through the heat of the summer, from that small union hall I learned to view things from the lens of workers, not just from the technical vantage point of a labor and employment lawyer whose analysis of case law is akin to dancing on the head of a pin. I learned for myself – but of course had to explain to others – that justice under the law and fundamental fairness are not necessarily the same thing. At the end of the day, neither Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act nor the National Labor Relations Act offered any relief for the Beaumont strikers. There was law but no rights under it.

  • July 17, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Margaret Love, former U.S. Pardon Attorney (1990-1997); and author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Reinvigorating the Federal Pardon Process: What the President Can Learn From the States.”

    *This post first appeared on The Crime Report

    On Monday, President Obama announced in a video address that he had commuted the sentences of 46 people sentenced to long prison terms for drug offenses.  His counsel, Neil Eggleston, stated that, “While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.“

    Mr. Eggleston added that “the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.” However, judging from the President's speech to the NAACP the next day, clemency is the only one of those tools that is calculated to result in any more prison releases.

    The President has now issued 89 commutations, the most since Lyndon Johnson. But even if the President ends up granting triple that number or more, it will hardly make a dent in the number of those in prison potentially eligible for relief under the announced standards of the Administration’s clemency initiative.  As Douglas Berman observed recently in his Sentencing Law and Policy blog, if the President one week were to commute as many as 80 federal drug prisoners, “this would still not be as substantively consequential for the federal prison population as the 400-plus drug defendants who will be sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms the very same week!”

    Meanwhile, the system for administering the clemency initiative is reportedly having difficulty gaining traction.  On July 4, The New York Times reported in a front page story that more than 30,000 federal prisoners have filed applications for commutation of sentence with Clemency Project 2014, the consortium of private organizations formed last year to assist the Justice Department in identifying worthy cases, but that a “cumbersome review process” has allowed only “a small fraction” of them to reach the President’s desk.

    A press release issued by Clemency Project 2014 shortly after the grants were announced conceded that only four of the 46 cases had been submitted under its auspices, and a review of the recipients of clemency reveals that several did not satisfy the Justice Department’s declared eligibility requirement of ten years already spent in prison.  Some prisoners have now expressed concern that perhaps the blessing of this Project was not the “fast track” to relief they had imagined.

    There is a growing sense of urgency among those who are responsible for organizing the clemency effort, in the Department of Justice and in the private bar.  In a recent training of volunteer counsel representing clemency applicants, Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff urged them not to delay in getting their clients’ petitions filed.

    "If there is one message I want you to take away today, it's this: Sooner is better," Leff said.

    Some federal public defender offices have been urged by Clemency Project 2014 to identify worthy applicants from among their client base and submit petitions for them prior to January 20, 2017, since it may take as much as a year for the Administration to review them.

    But even with the extraordinary resources that have been devoted to identifying prisoners who meet the Justice Department’s eligibility criteria, it seems unlikely that this task can be given more than a lick and a promise before the clock runs out on President Obama’s term.

  • July 16, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service, George Washington University Law School

    *This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

    When most people propose changes in our electoral system, they generally do so in order to achieve a political end, not because the change conforms to a platonic ideal of what elections should be like. So it is with the plaintiffs in Evenwel v. Abbott, No. 14-940, which the Supreme Court will hear this fall. Their claim is that, when states draw their legislative districts, the Equal Protection Clause requires that they use the numbers of voters, instead of the number of people, as the basis for allocating seats within the states.

    The Supreme Court has ended the most blatant forms of gerrymandering and required legislative districts at both the state and federal level to be equal in composition within each state. The Court's rulings have been labeled "one person, one-vote," and the general assumption has been that, in dividing up each house by districts, the denominator has been the total population of the state.

    Evenwel challenges that assumption and argues that, because the goal of one person, one vote is to have each person's vote count the same as every other person's, the denominator should be total voters and not total population. If this were the law, the main groups that would no longer be counted are children, illegal immigrants, those not registered to vote, and felons who are precluded from voting. Until the actual lines are drawn for all the districts in a state, the results are not certain. But we do know that the backer of this lawsuit (Edward Blum) also supports Fisher v. University of Texas, which seeks the elimination of affirmative action in university admission. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that he believes that the change would have an adverse impact on minorities and their Democratic supporters, or at least it has that potential in some states, including Texas where the case was brought.