Guest Post

  • December 9, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Rob BostonDirector of Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

    The December holidays took an unusual turn at the State Capitol Building in Tallahassee, Fla., this year: A display sponsored by a group called The Satanic Temple is coming to the rotunda.

    How did this come about? Ironically, a series of actions by state officials led to this unorthodox display. A few years ago, Florida officials decided it would be nice to have a nativity scene in the capitol rotunda in December. They were aware that they couldn’t put one up themselves. A Supreme Court decision from 1989 called County of Allegheny v. ACLU bars governments from erecting purely religious symbols in public spaces.

    But a private group could do it – as long as the area in question was deemed an open forum for free speech. Lo and behold, the rotunda was declared an open forum, and the crèche came in.

    Of course, an open forum for free speech means just that – open to all kinds of free speech. So in 2013 the nativity scene wasn’t alone. An atheist group erected a banner offering people a happy Winter Solstice. One Floridian erected a “Festivus pole” made of empty beer cans. And “Pastafarians” put up a depiction of their beloved Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  • December 5, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Paul Bland, Executive Director, Public Justice.

    *This post originally appeared on the blog for Public Justice.

    I regularly hear consumer and workers’-rights advocates say this crazy thing to me: “the cases on forced arbitration are so bad, they can’t get any worse.” Um, wrong. A Missouri Court of Appeals recently issued a decision that bears me out on this point, in Johnson v. Rent-A-Center.

    In this case,an 88-year-old “neighborhood staple”, Kenny Johnson, rents a refrigerator from Rent-A-Center.  A guy from Rent-A-Center comes out to the consumer’s house twice to service the refrigerator. Then, the guy came a third time, the plaintiff alleges, wearing a Rent-A-Center uniform. And, according to the lawsuit and news reports, the Rent-A-Center guy, Eric Patton, seriously beat the man with gashes to his head and robbed him. He wasn’t discovered for three days. The assailant has been criminally charged.

    So in the mouse print of the “agreement” the consumer had to sign to rent the refrigerator was a forced arbitration provision. The forced arbitration provision says that the arbitrator, not a court, will decide when the arbitration clause applies to some dispute. But in this case, the consumer makes a pretty strong point: he went to Rent-A-Center to get a refrigerator, he didn’t go there requesting that they send a guy to his house to beat him up and rob him.

    Too bad, the court says. Listing some very pro-corporation U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Missouri court holds that it has to enforce the arbitration clause, and let the arbitrator decide whether the dispute over the guy beating up the consumer is covered by the consumer’s contract about renting the refrigerator.  In fairness to the Missouri Court of Appeal, it directly stated that it was bound to follow a U.S. Supreme Court decision, “regardless of whether we agree with the reasoning expressed therein.”

  • December 4, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Neil Kinkopf, Professor of Law, Georgia State University. He also serves on the Georgia Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors.

    The predictable calls for impeachment went up after President Obama announced his actions on immigration last week. To the surprise of no one, the calls issued exclusively from the president’s Republican detractors. Such partisan calls for impeachment are easily dismissed. In a recent New York Times op-ed, however, Professor Peter Schuck of the Yale Law School lent credibility to the legal basis for these claims, arguing that the president’s action satisfies the constitutional predicate for impeachment (though he advocates that Congress exercise its discretion to decline impeachment).  His argument is worthy of attention, though it fails utterly. 

    The Constitution sets forth the grounds for impeachment:  “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  Nowhere in the document, however, is the phrase “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” defined. This absence of a legal definition has led some to conclude that the House of Representatives may impeach for any reason at all. Then-Congressman Gerald Ford gave this idea its most famous articulation:  “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history ….”  Professor Schuck falls squarely in this camp, declaring “it is pretty much up to Congress to define and apply ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’” 

    This Nietzschean view (Law is dead, therefore all is permitted) is deeply flawed. Most significantly, it is at odds with the original understanding of the impeachment power. The framers adopted the language “high crimes and misdemeanors” precisely to avoid leaving it “pretty much up to Congress” to decide for itself what constitutes an impeachable offense. During the drafting convention, George Mason suggested that the president be impeachable for “maladministration.” James Madison objected to this formulation on the grounds that it would undermine the independence of the president: “[s]o vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.” The constitutional convention then settled on the familiar “high crimes and misdemeanors” language as a way of making sure the standard for impeachment would not be infinitely malleable. 

  • December 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Nancy Leong, Associate Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Follow her on Twitter @NancyLeong.

    Scott Panetti is scheduled for execution in Texas tomorrow, Wednesday, December 3.

    Mr. Panetti has suffered from schizophrenia and other mental illness for over thirty years. He first exhibited signs of a psychotic disorder as a teenager. Between 1978 and 1992, he was hospitalized for mental illness fifteen times. He developed a delusion that he was engaged in spiritual warfare with Satan. He tried to exorcize his home by burying furniture in the backyard because, he claimed, the devil was in it.

    In 1992, Mr. Panetti went off his medication, shaved his head, and dressed in camouflage fatigues. He went to his in-laws house and murdered his mother and father-in-law in front of his wife and daughter. After turning himself in, Mr. Panetti blamed the crime on “Sarge,” one of his recurring hallucinations. He explained that God had ensured that his victims had not suffered.

    A trial judge allowed Mr. Panetti to represent himself at the subsequent trial and sentencing, even disregarding the concerns of the prosecutor.  Predictably, the proceedings were, in the words of Mr. Panetti’s stand-by attorney, “truly a judicial farce.” Mr. Panetti wore a cowboy costume and a purple bandana to court. He attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy, the Pope, Jesus Christ, and his own alter ego, “Sarge,” among 200 others. His statements were rambling and incoherent. He fell asleep during trial. While describing the shooting, he assumed the personality of “Sarge” and narrated the events in the third person. He pointed an imaginary rifle at jurors, visibly frightening them. And he rejected a plea bargain that could have saved his life.

  • December 1, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Emily J. Martin, National Women's Law Center. She is the Vice President and General Counsel of the NWLC.

    “Come back when you’re not pregnant.”  That’s what Peggy Young testifies her supervisor told her after her medical provider advised that she avoid lifting more than 20 pounds for the remainder of her pregnancy.  Young, a UPS driver from Landover, Maryland, was forced out onto unpaid leave without company health benefits. On December 3, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in her pregnancy discrimination case, Young v. UPS.  The case marks the first time the Court will hear a case critical to both women’s health and economic security since the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision in June, when five Justices held that Hobby Lobby and other companies could ignore the legal requirement that they include coverage of birth control in their health insurance plans if they had religious objections to contraception.  The Young case will be an important test of whether a majority of the Supreme Court continues to have a “blind spot” where women’s issues are concerned. The stakes are high for women and their families.

    Peggy Young was a UPS driver, delivering mostly light air mail packages.  When she became pregnant and was given a lifting restriction, she told UPS she was willing to continue to do her regular job, as it was rare that she had to lift anything heavy, or take a light duty assignment—the sort of reassignment that UPS routinely provided to employees who had disabilities as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and those with on-the-job injuries and those who had lost their commercial drivers' licenses, whether because of health problems or issues such as DUI convictions.  But UPS said that because of her lifting restriction, it would not permit her to continue to do her regular job.  And it also refused to reassign her, despite the accommodations it provided to other workers with medical restrictions and despite the command of the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act that employers treat pregnant workers as well as they treat those who are “similar in ability or inability to work.”  Her family’s financial security was threatened at the moment they needed it the most.