December 2011

  • December 7, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Some national lawmakers, including the president, are ratcheting up their rhetoric challenging economic policies based largely on advancing tax breaks for the wealthiest and deregulation as the only methods to expanding economic opportunities for most Americans.  

    As noted by TPM’s Brian Beutler, Sen. Patty Murray, former co-chair of the so-called Super Committee, in prepared floor remarks, directly takes on the conservative’s mantra that lower taxes for the richest Americans means more jobs for everyone else.

    Murray’s statement, in part, reads:

    Republicans seem to be operating under the backwards economic principle that only tax cuts for the richest Americans and biggest corporations are worth fighting for. In fact, they have a name for this group of people: they call them ‘job creators.’ They believe the only ones who create jobs in America are the rich – and they claim that the tax cuts and loopholes they fight for that benefit the wealthy will somehow trickle down to ordinary families. Mr. President – we know this is wrong. We know this Republican economic policy has failed us. It was this kind of thinking that turned a surplus into a deficit, that brought the economy to its knees, that failed the middle class – and that allowed the wealthiest Americans to amass record fortunes paying the lowest tax rates in decades.

    A growing chorus of economists has recognized that right-wing economic policies have greatly exacerbated a wealth gap, one that has helped, in part, to galvanize Occupy Wall Street protests. Columbia University Business School Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote earlier this year for Vanity Fair, “While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. All the growth in recent decades – and more – has gone to those at the top.” In the same article, Stiglitz said the nation’s top 1 percent exert great influence on the government to keep right-wing economic policies in place. In a recent piece for Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson wrote, “Since Republicans rededicated themselves to slashing taxes for the wealthy in 1997, the average annual income of the 400 richest Americans has more than tripled, to $345 million –while there share of the tax burden has plunged by 40 percent.”

  • December 6, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    The Senate voted today to block a confirmation vote on Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, prompting a sharp rebuke from President Obama and outrage from a host of legal leaders and commentators.

    “Today’s vote dramatically lowers the bar used to justify a filibuster, which had required ‘extraordinary circumstances.’  The only extraordinary things about Ms. Halligan are her qualifications and her intellect,” said President Obama following the vote.

    “Those senators who voted against cloture are ushering in an unfortunate era of unprecedented obstructionism,” said American Constitution Society President Caroline Fredrickson.

    The Senate voted 54-45 on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s motion to invoke cloture, falling six votes short of the 60 needed to force an up-or-down vote on Halligan’s nomination. 

    In 2005, a group of senators known as the “Gang of 14” determined that all judicial nominees should receive an up-or-down vote absent “extraordinary circumstances.”

    As Senator Lindsey Graham explained the agreement at the time, “ideological attacks are not an ‘extraordinary circumstance.’ To me, it would have to be a character problem, an ethics problem, some allegation about the qualifications of a person, not an ideological bent.”

    But today, Graham voted against holding an up-or-down vote on Halligan’s confirmation, even though she had been unanimously rated well qualified by the American Bar Association, and had the broad support of law enforcement officials in New York State, where she served as solicitor general.

    Graham and the three other Republican members of the “Gang of 14” who remain in the Senate, -- Sens. John McCain, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe -- also voted to filibuster Goodwin Liu, another nominee whose credentials were widely praised as "sterling" and who had the support of legal leaders from across the ideological spectrum.

    In a recent ACS Issue Brief, “Extraordinary Circumstances: The Gang of 14 and a Proposal for Judicial Nominations Reform," law professors Richard Painter and Michael Gerhardt explain senators' betrayal of their 2005 agreement:

  • December 6, 2011
    by Jonathan Arogeti
    The Supreme Court heard oral arguments earlier today on a case that could have a “major effect” on criminal proceedings, says Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law in an article for ABA Journal.
    Commentators say that in Williams v. Illinois, the Court will for at least the fourth time in the last decade seek to balance the constitutional principle for an accused “to be confronted with the witness against him” and the statutory principle on expert testimony.
    During the ACS Supreme Court Preview, Professor Cynthia Jones of American University Washington College of Law highlighted the case, saying, “The Confrontation Clause and the rules on expert testimony clash in … Williams v. Illinois. That gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to tweak the Confrontation Clause analysis in light of its rules on expert evidence under rule 703.”
    In a preview for SCOTUSblog, Supreme Court litigator Tom Goldstein gives context for the case, writing, “An expert testified about the results of a DNA test conducted by an analyst, but the DNA test was not admitted.  The Supreme Court of Illinois held that there was no constitutional violation. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a conflict in the lower courts over the Confrontation Clause’s application in these circumstances.”
    The Court held in Crawford v. Washington that testimonial statement cannot come from unavailable witnesses. In subsequent cases --  Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts and Bullcoming v. New Mexico -- the Court followed the precedent set in Crawford and sided with the respective petitioners to strike down the lower court decisions because the expert did not testify.
    But what if the expert was unavailable to testify?
  • December 6, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A growing number of states appear bent on making it far more difficult for African Americans and Latinos to vote in next year’s general election, and a Dec. 5 report issued jointly by the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund delves into the states’ desire to limit the franchise.

    The NAACP says, “The report, Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America, details a plethora of voter suppression initiatives, most of them pushed in states with large African-American populations and where voting turnout has surged.”

    NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said:

    It’s been more than a century since we’ve seen such a tidal wave of assaults on the right to vote. Historically, when voting rights are attacked, it’s done to facilitate attacks on other rights. It is no mistake that the groups who are behind this are simultaneously attacking very basic women’s rights, environmental protections, labor rights, and educational access for working people and minorities. Voting rights attacks are the flip side of buying a democracy. First you buy all the leaders you can, then you suppress as many votes as possible of the people who might object.

    See the organizations’ full report here.

    More than 35 states have instituted new highly restrictive voting requirements. The Brennan Center for Justice issued a report concluding the new restrictions “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” 

    In early November, a group of Democratic lawmakers in the House sent a letter to many of the state officials urging them to “oppose new state measures adopted over the last year that would make it harder for eligible voters to register to vote.” House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), among other lawmakers, also recently urged the House Judiciary Committee to conduct a hearing on the restrictive new measures.

    In an article for Slate, Risa L. Goluboff and Dahlia Lithwick blasted the new onerous measures, which include barring same-day registration or calling for more forms of identification, though excluding student IDs, and for sending out letters warning voters that creditors and police officers would check would-be voters at the polls. The two said the excessive restrictions are a yet another coordinated effort to keep blacks, the youth, the poor and other minorities from voting.

    During a recent ACS symposium on states redistricting efforts and some of the new restrictive state voting regulations, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez said that it “is regrettably true that unlawful discrimination in voting persists, just as does in workplace and schools and in so many parts of our lives. And this is why are voting section is as busy as it’s ever been.” 

    NAACP’s Jealous, during a press call on the report, said the state’s new restrictions on voting would “weaken the electoral strength of communities of color, students and the poor.”

  • December 6, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundations and Convener of The Justice Roundtable

    Celebrities have a major impact on causes they embrace. I first witnessed this while working in the Free South Africa movement during the early 1980s, when tennis giant Arthur Ashe and legendary singer Harry Belafonte led a successful cultural boycott of South Africa. The campaign garnered international attention that helped catalyze the movement that ultimately led to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the dismantlement of apartheid. Later efforts by celebrities like pop-music icon Michael Jackson and the rock star Bono have helped transform issues like hunger, poverty, and HIV and AIDS into campaigns that have captured the public’s imagination and ignited change.

    So when former model/actress Maria McDonald approached me at a forum on mandatory minimum sentences during last year’s Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend, my ears perked up. I thought to myself, why would someone who has graced the covers and pages of Essence, Vogue and Bazaar, been in movies with Denzel Washington, and appeared on Miami Vice, One Life to Live, and Saturday Night Live be interested in mandatory minimum sentences? The answer came as no surprise.

    Maria was recently stunned by the discovery that an old friend of hers, William Underwood, had been incarcerated for over 20 years on federal mandatory minimum drug conspiracy charges. She described him as an extraordinary person in the music industry, responsible for discovering, promoting, and managing the careers of several artists during the 1980s. When she discussed Underwood’s plight with her girlfriends in the fashion world, she found that many of them also had loved ones warehoused in prisons under excessively harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws. Shortly after we met, Maria introduced me to William’s son, Anthony, who provided the inspiration and drive to get celebrities to challenge a common but under-acknowledged crisis occurring in their own backyard.  

    In less than a month, Anthony galvanized over 100 people connected to the music and entertainment industry who knew and loved his father before his incarceration, and requested that they lend their names to a new national campaign –  Celebrities for Justice — initiated by a Washington-based policy coalition, the Justice Roundtable

    Internationally known superstar rapper/dancer M.C. Hammer (pictured) was one of the first to respond. “We are confident,” he stated, “that celebrity attention to cases such as Underwood’s will result in not only his release from a severe life sentence, but also the abolition of senseless sentencing schemes as a whole.”

    Underwood has explained his involvement with drugs as one of the only opportunities that he and other young people had to earn money to relieve the crushing deprivation of their Harlem neighborhood. What originally became a way out of poverty unfortunately became a one-way ticket to prison.