December 2011

  • December 30, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The year included some high-profile discussion, thanks to the Wall Street protests, of the nation's growing gap between the super wealthy and everyone else, and rightly so with study after study showing a clear trend of wealth redistribution to the top 1 percent of earners. (Though apparently large numbers of Americans are unaware or unconcerned about the hard truth.)

    But the year also included a heated debate much more recognizable to Americans – over ongoing religious-fueled controversies. Yet one probably wonders does it matter. Does religious strife, serious or superfluous, ever subside? More importantly, however, are the questions and concerns that have yet to be clearly resolved over the parameters of the Constitution's religious liberty clauses. 

    For example, as highlighted by Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, some Catholic bishops are dumping certain tax-payer supported charities instead of complying with the federal government’s requirement that such programs be operated in a manner that does not discriminate against groups of people, such as lesbians and gay men. The bishops argue that their religious groups’ First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is being subverted by the government’s demand that they provide adoption services to same-sex couples.

    Civil liberties groups, however, believe that the free exercise of religion does not mean that religious groups have an absolute right to trump the federal government’s power to enforce civil rights laws.

    The First Amendment Center’s Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project Charles Haynes highlights another strand of controversy, proclaiming anti-Muslim bigotry is the “religion story of the year.

    Haynes cites a recent decision by Lowe’s, a Home Depot competitor, to yank advertising from a “reality” television show, “All-American Muslim.” Lowe's pulled its ads at the behest of a “conservative Christian group called the Florida Family Association.” But Haynes notes this is just one controversy in a number of actions that have unfolded nationwide that expose a “growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States.” Haynes has noted anti-Mosque protests, and the efforts of state lawmakers to pass anti-Shariah legislation.

    Haynes notes, however, that supporters of religious freedom for all believers are pushing back in the face of an obstinate movement. (He reports that an array of religious groups is banding together to protest the decision by Lowe’s.)

  • December 29, 2011
    Video Interview

    by Jonathan Arogeti

    While a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice has received wide publicity for spotlighting new state laws that have the potential to suppress access to the polls,  the report also highlights the perennial issue of felon disfranchisement. “Many people don’t know that when it comes to voting, your rights are not automatically restored if you’re a felon,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, the director and counsel of the center’s D.C. office during a video interview with ACSblog.

    To combat this disenfranchisement, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, which would immediately restore voting rights in federal elections for individuals who have served their time in prison for a felony.

    Austin-Hillery points to two states, Florida and Iowa, whose felon voting law have “retrogress[ed].” The same day Republican Gov. Terry Branstad assumed office, he rescinded a law that automatically restores voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. In 2005, then-Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack issued the opposite order.

    Two months after assuming his office, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced new rules that required a Clemency Board to review all applications and revoked the automatic restoration of voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences.

    Austin-Hillery also points to Kentucky and Virginia, two states where former felons practically “never get [their] right to vote restored.” The Commonwealth of Virginia required many “draconian, cumbersome steps” to restore the rights to vote, including individually petitioning the Governor. It “really goes against the tenets of democracy,” laments Austin-Hillery.

    Watch the full interview with Austin-Hillery below.

  • December 28, 2011
    Video Interview

    by Jonathan Arogeti

    The Asian American Justice Center’s Terry M. Ao recently spoke with ACSblog about how the Voting Rights Act, which protects American voters generally from disenfranchisement, specifically bolsters the franchise for Asian Americans.

    Ao, the director of Census and Voting Programs at AAJC, said that for Asian Americans, “one of the largest hurdles that voters face is the language barrier.” Section 203 of the VRA extends protections to members of language minority communities in jurisdictions with significant language minority populations. “Where it has been properly implemented,” she said, “we’ve seen increased voter participations and it’s really done a lot to help break down these language barriers for the Asian Americans.”

    The Voting Rights Act requires the Census Bureau to determine political jurisdictions that are subject to minority language assistance provisions. Following the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau determined that Section 203 covers 43 Asian American populations in 22 jurisdictions (counties, boroughs, census areas or cities) in 11 states. Furthermore, the provisions cover eight language groups, an increase from five from the last determination in 2002.

    “Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires language assistance for voters, for the covered languages in covered jurisdictions,” said Ao, “but that really means that the assistance has to occur throughout the voting process; so that’s both pre-Election Day as well as on Election Day.”

    Increasing voting participation in Asian American communities requires a coordinated public education effort aimed at voters, poll workers and public officials. Ao said, “It includes things like written materials--translated written materials as well as oral assistance at the polls -- and publicity of the availability of language assistance to the covered language groups.”

    Watch the full interview with Ao below.

  • December 27, 2011
    Video Interview

    by Jonathan Arogeti

    A new rule adopted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will simplify elections to form unions and delay the appeals process until after those elections. The board said the changes are slated to take effect on April 30, 2012, The Blog of Legal Times reports.

    “This rule is about giving all employees who have petitioned for an election the right to vote in a timely manner and without the impediment of needless litigation,” said NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce.

    These changes are part of a more comprehensive rules reform proposal put forth by the board in July. In a release announcing the changes, the NLRB said it would hold for further review the most debate-generating proposals, but that they would push forward with these “less controversial” ones.

    AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (pictured) hailed the move, saying, “It's good news that the NLRB has taken this modest but important step to help ensure that workers who want to vote to form a union at their workplace get a fair opportunity to do so.” He warned, though, “Many more improvements are needed to protect workers' rights. We hope the Board will quickly move to adopt the rest of its proposed reforms to modernize and streamline the election process.”

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce immediately moved to counter the rule change, filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

    Meanwhile, similar future decisions by the NLRB are in jeopardy, as the Board is slated to lose its necessary quorum at the end of the month. Currently, only three of the five seats are filled; that number will go down to two when Craig Becker’s recess appointment expires Dec. 31. The Supreme Court held last year in New Process Steel v. NLRB that the NLRB could not legally operate with less than three members, and voided more than 400 NLRB rulings made by only two members. 

     Victor Williams, a professor at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, writes in Jurist that the Republican obstruction of two pending confirmations to the board amounts to “nullification” and urges president Obama to use his power make recess appointments. Williams argues that senators’ attempt to block recess appointments by holding sessions every three days during the holiday break is without legal authority.

    He writes:

  • December 23, 2011
    The president continued nominating candidates to the federal bench, putting forth Judge John Thomas Fowlkes, Jr. of the Shelby County Criminal Court as a nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee and Newark litigator Kevin McNulty as a nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.
    On the Senate’s last official day of business for the year, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that he would block 21 judicial nominees waiting for floor votes. The Senate subsequently returned eight others to the president. They are:
    • Caitlin Joan Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
    • Michael Green to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York
    • Victoria Frances Nourse to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
    • Louis B. Butler, Jr., to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin
    • V. Natasha Perdew Silas to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia
    • Linda T. Walker to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia
    • Arvo Mikkanen to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma
    • Steve Six to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
    The White House announced that it would not renominate Green; the seat for which the president nominated him has been vacant since March 2009.