Tag Archives: courts

Women’s History Month 2013: Justice Sonia Sotomayor

20 Mar

JusticeSotomayorToday we honor and celebrate a woman dedicated to justice who is working hard to restore integrity to our nation’s highest court — quite the ambitious task while Scalia is on the bench. Sonia Sotomayor was born in the Bronx in 1954 to parents who had recently moved to New York from Puerto Rico. Her mother and grandmother stressed the importance of education, and she worked hard in school, initially hoping to be a detective (inspired by Nancy Drew). A Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis at age seven led her family and doctors to recommend a less strenuous career choice, so she decided she wanted to be a judge–I wonder if her parents detected the irony here?

She attended Princeton, where she was a distinct minority both as a woman and a Latina. She received her undergraduate degree in History, winning numerous scholastic prizes in her final year and graduating summa cum laude. She immediately started law school at Yale, where she was once again in the distinct minority. Attending on a scholarship, she was stunned when a major law firm suggested during a recruitment dinner that she was at Yale solely because she was Latina. She terminated the interview and filed a formal complaint, resulting in a favorable ruling from a campus tribunal and a formal apology from the firm.  Brava, Justice Sotomayor!

After receiving her J.D. and passing the New York Bar, she began work as an assistant district attorney, focusing on crimes against persons and police brutality. She developed a reputation for going wherever she needed to go to get evidence, regardless of the neighborhood. After a few years she went into private practice and was appointed to a number of Boards and task forces by New York governors and New York City mayors. She expanded her reputation as a strong advocate for the marginalized–a voice for social justice!

In 1991 she realized her childhood dream and became a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the first Hispanic federal judge in the state. Six years later she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District. She faced a brutal confirmation hearing, with Senate Republicans stalling for months and grilling her on her decisions favoring gay rights and due process. Once seated, she expanded her reputation as a strong, fair judge interested in protecting the rights of the most vulnerable; imagine that, a judge working for civil rights for all?

Sonia Sotomayor became a Supreme Court Justice in 2009. She settled in quickly and works hard to ensure that the loud, conservative voices on the Court don’t dominate when cases come forward. She made news recently for harshly criticizing  a Texas prosecutor whose argument relied on racist stereotyping. During hearings on a case regarding the Voting Rights Act, she refused to allow an Alabama attorney to hide his county’s racist history.

Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?

When Justices Scalia and Alito tried to bail the attorney out with far-fetched hypotheticals, she weighed in again.

The problem with those hypotheticals is obvious […] it’s a real record as to what Alabama has done to earn its place on the list. Discrimination is discrimination, and what Congress said is it continues.

Thank you, Justice Sotomayor, for standing up for those who most need it. May your time on the Court be long and productive!

Defense of Marriage Act Gets Even More Indefensible

22 Oct

Chief Judge Jacobs insists on Heightened Scrutiny

This week yet another court rejected the horrific “Defense” of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA. Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled Thursday that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. That’s the section that forbids the Federal government from providing benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in their state of residence.

There are a couple of remarkable things about this ruling. The first is Chief Judge Jacobs himself. He is an extremely conservative judge, first appointed to the federal bench by George H.W. Bush, not known for his prowess in appointing judges, a la Clarence Thomas. His rulings over the years are aggressively pro-business and have little regard for marginalized populations. His opinions are often in the mode of people like Antonin Scalia.

Even more remarkable, Jacobs is the second judge in a few weeks not just to strike down DOMA, but to do so by invoking “heightened scrutiny” for LGBT Americans. This is a particularly strong ruling, requiring that laws negatively impacting the gay community must pass several tests relating to government interests before even being considered constitutional. It’s the same level of scrutiny required when looking at laws that impact people based on their race. In all four factors in Windsor v. United States, Jacobs finds that the matter requires heightened scrutiny.

A) homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; B) homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; C) homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and D) the class remains a politically weakened minority.

This is the fourth case this year to strike down one or more parts of DOMA. Three have been decided by fairly conservative justices, using rationale that relies on states rights and other principles tied to conservative jurisprudence. All four are bound for appeals to the Supreme Court. Given the way things have been set up, there’s a reasonable chance that at least one of the conservative justices would uphold the ruling(s), gutting or overturning DOMA. It’s not over ’til the fat justice sings, but something significant is bound to happen during this SCOTUS year.

As the country grows increasingly supportive of marriage equality, the Republican tactics of marginalization look more vicious and archaic than ever. John Boehner’s House has spent nearly $1.5 MILLION in taxpayer funds to defend DOMA. He’s lost every time and has just about expended the whole amount budgeted for bigotry. Will he try to authorize more to argue his case before the Supreme Court?  To add to further to the tragedy that is Boehner, we have Presidential candidate Romney running on a platform to strip people of civil rights, specifically women, the LGBT community, and anyone that might fall into the sad 47%.

Checks and Balances In Action: Two Reassuring Court Decisions

2 May

Oh, right, THAT'S how it works!

One of the pillars of the United States model of government is that of checks and balances. Each of the three branches of government has discrete, clear powers that complement and control the powers of the other branches. (Well…ideally, anyway.) Given the many attacks on individual rights pursued by far-right legislatures citizen groups — especially directed at women and other minorities — the role of the courts to restrict that over-reach is critical to a functioning democracy.

This week we have good news in two different cases, both related to the War on Women. Courts in Oklahoma and Texas — the bright red Southwest — have blocked two right-wing actions that were clearly unconstitutional or in violation of Federal law.

In Oklahoma, the issue was the so-called “personhood” movement that would give every fertilized egg all the rights of a person under state law. Even though this effort has so far failed everywhere it’s been tried (even in Mississippi), anti-choice forces still pursue it as a favorite tactic to restrict women’s choices. These misogynists were attempting to put a personhood amendment to the Oklahoma constitution before voters. On Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously shot down initiative, declaring the effort to be a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. Referring to a twenty-year-old Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the justices rejected this absurd effort in very clear language:

The mandate of Casey is as binding on this Court today as it was twenty years ago. Initiative Petition No. 395 conflicts with Casey and is void on its face and it is hereby ordered stricken.

Also on Monday, a Federal judge in Texas blocked implementation of a recently signed rule that targeted funding for Planned Parenthood. The Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner implemented the rule which said that the Texas Women’s Health Program (which uses Federal Medicaid money), would not fund services at Planned Parenthood or any other “affiliates of abortion providers.” So, even though the services being funded are NOT abortions and are critical health services for low-income women (over 130,000 in Texas!), the Texas government wants to block service to punish one provider. Lovely. U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel was just as clear and succinct as his colleagues in Oklahoma:

Medicaid law is very clear; a state may not restrict patients’ choice of providers of services like mammograms and other cancer screenings, if those providers are qualified to deliver care covered by Medicaid.

Getting typically whiny, Texas officials are now threatening to cancel the entire health program rather than follow Federal law and support the health of the citizens they were elected to serve.

It should just be a few days before the Insupportable Rage Machine (TM) on the right starts screaming “activist judges!” The Oklahoma justices may even face an orchestrated attack like the one mounted against the Iowa Supreme Court for simply doing their jobs. We should thank all these officers of the court for doing what they were elected and appointed to do: uphold the law. Now let’s hope the Fecal Five can avoid making the wrong decision about the Affordable Care Act…

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