Sen. Patrick Leahy

  • September 24, 2013

    by Nicandro Iannacci

    As the adage goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which convened a hearing last week to consider mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The meeting came on the heels of recent announcements from Attorney General Eric Holder that signaled change in the executive enforcement of sentencing laws. The reigning congressional climate of polarization, clouded in recent weeks by impending fiscal fights, made all the more compelling the general agreement across ideological divides that change is needed, now.

    Competing legislation introduced this year is evidence of that consensus, even if the parties involved don’t totally agree on specifics. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was introduced in March; the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was announced just last month. The bills have much in common, though the Leahy-Paul proposal goes further than its counterpart by eliminating entirely mandatory sentences for selected non-drug crimes.

    Nevertheless, the sponsors of both bills were short on comparison and long on unison as they addressed the issue before a packed hearing room featuring numerous family members of loved ones serving mandatory sentences. Sen. Leahy, chairman of the committee, called the current system “unsustainable,” noting that the U.S. prison population has risen 700 percent since 1970, paralleling a rise in cost to $6.4 billion per year. “Fiscal responsibility demands it,” he said of reform. “Justice demands it.” Sen. Durbin asked a simple question of the sentencing laws: “Is America safer?” Answering in the negative, he said Congress is “doing everything we can to sensibly reduce the level of incarceration in this country.”

    From across the aisle, Sen. Paul kicked off the agenda with a scathing condemnation of the impact sentencing laws have on minority groups. “If I told you that one out of three African American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “One out of three African-American males are forbidden from voting because of the War on Drugs.” (His comments echoed the work of OSU Prof. Michelle Alexander in her important book, The New Jim Crow, featured on ACS BookTalk.)

  • September 19, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Along a party-line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee today approved the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The nomination must still be considered by the entire Senate.

    Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) voted against the nomination, again noting his wobbly claim that the 11-member D.C. Circuit, one of the most powerful appellate courts in the land, does not need the vacancies filled. Grassley has been pushing a bill that aims to cut seats from the D.C. Circuit, effectively leaving its right-wing tilt in place.

    Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) lauded today’s vote, saying “Pillard’s character and qualifications are unassailable.” A press release from Leahy’s office also noted that Pillard, a professor of law at Georgetown University, has argued “nine cases before the Supreme Court as well as drafted the government’s successful argument in the landmark Supreme Court case, United States v. Virginia, which opened the doors to the Virginia Military Institute for female cadets.”

    Despite efforts by some right-wing pundits to distort Pillard’s legal work and career, she has received support of Republicans, former law enforcement and military officials, conservatives, and many leading members of the Supreme Court bar from both parties.

    Several public interest groups lauded today’s Senate Committee action and called for a swift floor-vote of Pillard’s nomination.

    Leslie Proll, director of LDF’s Washington Office said, “We trust the Senate will recognize that Nina is a tremendously qualified nominee, who would be an incredible asset to the D.C. Circuit.”

    National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) Co-President Marcia Greenberger, noted that Pillard’s “impressive legal career includes two tours in the U.S. Department of Justice and 15 years teaching at the Georgetown University Law Center. In addition, she currently brings her legal acumen and expertise to her role as Co-Director of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute, which prepares lawyers for oral argument before the Supreme Court on a pro bono basis. She is a legal superstar who would bring extraordinary skills to the Court, including her deep background on legal protections for women.”

    There are more than 90 vacancies on the federal bench and for most of President Obama’s time in office vacancies have hovered near 80. Today the president announced 8 more judicial nominations, including Diane J. Humetawa to the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. If confirmed, Humetawa would become the first Native American female judge in the nation’s history.

    The National Native American Bar Association lauded Humetawa’s nomination, calling it “historic.”

    For information on federal court vacancies and nominations see JudicialNominations.org.

  • July 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Even after reaching a deal to move along some executive branch nominations, a gaggle of Republican senators is showing how far it is from giving up on obstructing President Obama’s nominations for long-standing vacancies on the federal bench.

    Yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to consider the nomination of Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to one of the three vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has drawn quick attention from reporters, scholars and activists for some of the accusations lobbed at Pillard, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center with a varied and deep legal career. (And Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) kept insisting the D.C. Circuit, which hears some of the most complex and time-consuming legal matters of all the appeals court circuits doesn’t need any more judges. But Patricia M. Wald, who served for 20 years on the D.C. Circuit, five of them as its chief judge, provides reality here.)

    But Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tried mightily to paint Pillard as unfit to serve on the federal bench. Pillard (pictured) has a widely respected legal career, including varied scholarship, and extensive work as an attorney for the federal government, including the Solicitor General and the Office of Legal Counsel; for mainstream boards seeking to provide services to multinational corporations, such as the American Arbitration Association, and for the long-respected civil rights group, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But in their questions Lee and Cruz seemed to misstate or misrepresent what Pillard had said in writings and briefs she had authored years before. 

    Pillard has not only taught law, she’s practiced law representing the federal government and individuals seeking to enforce Congress's civil rights laws. But Lee and Cruz during the Senate committee hearing labored to create a far different picture. Specifically they focused on a short symposium article she wrote more than a decade ago that sought common ground on the divisive issue of reproductive choice, and an amicus brief she wrote in support of lower court decisions that had held Operation Rescue accountable for physically blocking women's access to family planning facilities. 

    But Lee and Cruz seemed either to misunderstand or misrepresent Pillard's own words. For example, Cruz claimed that Pillard had once written that abstinence-only education was constitutionally suspect. She did not and tried to explain it to the senator. Pillard pointed out that her article merely argued that such programs should not be bound by stereotypes. Instead she explained that abstinence-only education should be taught without promulgating stereotypes. Moreover that article was intended for policymakers offering ways to bridge a gap between anti-abortion activists and women’s rights advocates by identifying initiatives both sides could agree upon that would reduce the incidence of abortion.

    Cruz and Lee continued their misrepresentation of Pillard's legal work, claiming that in an amicus or friend-of-the-court brief that she equated anti-abortion activists to violent white supremacists, like the KKK. Again, the senators either did not read the brief or they shamelessly took parts of it out of context to tar Pillard. In reality Pillard argued that a civil rights law was aimed at private groups that interfered with or ‘hindered’ the police’s ability to protect people’s rights, no matter who the private groups were. In no way could the brief be read to say that a moral equivalency exists between anti-abortion activists and violent groups like the KKK.

    Pillard in fact has a stellar record reflecting moderate views, and has received the support of Republicans, former law enforcement and military officials, conservatives, and many leading members of the Supreme Court bar from both parties.

    Sen. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) noted that Pillard “has had a distinguished career as a practitioner, as an academic … she’s argued nine cases before the Supreme Court … spent her legal career in public service … and for the past 13 years, she’s worked as a professor of my alma mater, Georgetown University Law Center.”

  • June 27, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    While the Senate’s passage of a comprehensive immigration bill may or may not be historic, it’s certainly remarkable. In an era of hyper-partisanship, it is far easier for the Senate to block action -- unless it’s approval of secret surveillance measures -- than it is to pass meaningful legislation or save the nation from outrageous cuts to social safety net and educational programs.

    But for today 14 Republican senators joined 54 Democrats to pass the expansive measure that provides a 13-year long path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people in the country, provided stringent enforcement mechanisms are in place. The New York Times provides some highlights of the Senate measure that was approved 68 – 32 late this afternoon. Tens of millions are allotted for enforcement measures, such as 20,000 more Border Patrol agents and “700 miles of fencing along the southern border.” Only after the enforcement measures are in place will undocumented immigrants be allowed to start on the lengthy path to citizenship.

    Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) lauded the immigration bill, saying it honors “our American values.” He said the immigration measure would help “address a complex problem that is hurting our families, stifling our economy and threatening our security.”

    The National Council of La Raza also praised the Senate measure and called today’s vote a “milestone.” But the group’s President and CEO Janet Murguia also noted that like many compromise measures this one “included painful concessions and certainly puts our enforcement-heavy immigration policy into overdrive. But it finally acknowledges that restoring the rule of law requires a legal immigration system that takes the legitimate traffic out of the black market, allows immigrants to arrive with visas rather than with smugglers and enables immigrants who are working and raising families in the U.S. to come forward, go through criminal background checks, get in the system and get on the books.”

    But the bill is nowhere near President Obama’s desk. The House of Representatives controlled by a Republican Party devoted largely to gridlock is unlikely to prove helpful. Reporting for TPM, Brian Beutler noted that House Speaker John Boehner said the House has no interest in passing a comprehensive measure, let alone the one the Senate just approved. “The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” Boehner said. “We’re going to do our own bill through regular order, and there’ll be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people. For any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House, it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members.”

  • June 18, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As some Senate Republicans continue to argue for removal of judgeships from the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Sen. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is pushing forward for consideration of President Obama’s recent nominations to fill three vacancies on the Court.

    Sen. Leahy announced yesterday that he is planning for a July 10 hearing before the Committee to consider one of the president’s nominees Patricia Ann Millett, a longtime appellate attorney who has earned the ABA’s highest rating. In announcing the hearing, Leahy took on Republicans’ claims that the D.C. Circuit has a light caseload and that the three current vacancies do not need to be filled. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has introduced a bill to strip judgeships from the D.C. Circuit and move them to other federal appeals court circuits. As the Constitutional Accountability Center has noted, Grassley’s measure has nothing to do with careful restructuring of the federal appeals court bench, and everything to do with obstructionism.

    Leahy’s June 17 statement noted that some of the same Republicans now calling for judgeships to be stripped from the D.C. Circuit argued during George W. Bush’s administration the Circuit “should have 11 judgeships” and they voted to confirm his nominees for the “ninth, tenth, and eleventh seats ….” Leahy then ticked off a number of judicial nominations to other federal appeals courts that Republicans slow-walked, showing no concern about caseloads for those courts.

    “The American people are not fooled,” Leahy said. “Senate Republicans are playing by different rules. In the past 30 years, Republican presidents have appointed 15 of the last 19 judges named to the D.C. Circuit. Now that these three vacancies exist during a Democratic presidency, Senate Republicans are trying to use legislation to lock in their partisan advantage.”

    That advantage has served the interests of the Republican Party. As the D.C. Circuit is currently situated, it has a decisively right-wing tilt and has issued opinions harmful to workers’ rights, the environment and one widely panned opinion on the president’s power to use recess appointments to fill judicial and executive branch vacancies. That opinion, in Noel Canning v. NLRB, has been appealed by the administration.