Judicial

Fast and more furious: The case for contempt

On December 15th, 2010, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed while on patrol in Arizona. This brave man gave his life in service to our country and was murdered with guns that, for all practical purposes, were handed to Mexican cartels by the very government he died serving.

Today, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failure to produce documents relating to Operation Fast and Furious - an effort approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2009, authorizing the transfer of thousands of weapons to Mexican drug cartels in order to build a case against drug smugglers.

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The need to restrict prolonged solitary confinement

Today, we will join hundreds of people of faith across the nation to fast for 23 hours, symbolizing the 23 hours per day that tens of thousands of prisoners, inmates, and detainees, are warehoused in solitary confinement. As we have seen in recent prisoner hunger strikes in California and Virginia, refusing food is one of the few means prisoners have to protest their conditions in solitary confinement. We will fast and pray for divine intervention that “drives out fear.” It is fear, rather than evidence-based best practices, that has led to an explosion in America’s use of solitary confinement over the past several decades.

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Filling the Ninth Circuit vacancies

On May 21, the Senate finally approved superb attorney Paul Watford for the Ninth Circuit three months after his Judiciary Committee vote. However, the countryʼs biggest circuit still has two openings. Accordingly, the Senate must confirm Arizona Supreme Court Justice Andrew Hurwitz, the excellent committee-approved nominee, this week, while President Barack Obama must expeditiously nominate another prospect.

The Ninth Circuit has as many openings as each of twelve regional circuits except D.C. Its judges have twice their caseload, a backlog of 14,000 pending appeals and the slowest disposition time. These dockets make both vacancies “judicial emergencies” and undermine justice in the Ninth Circuit, the court of last resort for 99 percent of appeals from the West. In October 2010, Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote chamber leaders to stress the tribunalʼs “desperate need for judges,” urging action “on judicial vacancies without delay” because they mean the “public will suffer.” This month, he added: “If we don’t get more judges confirmed, delay in deciding cases will continue to increase.”

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Indigent defense given short shrift in federal justice grants

A recently released federal report confirms what most observers have known for a long time—when it comes to federal funding, those who represent the poor in the criminal justice system are largely left out in the cold.  The new study, which members of Congress asked the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct, examines how state, local and tribal governments use critical criminal justice grants – such as the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (Byrne JAG) and Byrne Competitive grant programs – they receive from the federal government.
   
The GAO found that legal assistance for defendants unable to afford it on their own consistently comprised the smallest percentage of state, local and tribal spending of federal grants. Based on survey responses, the GAO estimated states only allocated seven-tenths of one percent of Byrne JAG money to indigent legal defense over a five-year period, while prosecutors and law enforcement received about 38 percent. The imbalance is even starker at the local level, where indigent defense received a paltry one-tenth of one percent of the money, compared with law enforcement and prosecutors who receive 54 percent. In total, over those five years, police received $1.8 billion, prosecutors and courts nearly $300 million, and indigent defense only $22 million.  Clearly, when it comes to achieving fairness and parity in criminal justice funding, government at every level is simply falling short.

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DREAM Act: Yes you can, Mr. President

Over the past months, undocumented youth, top advocates, former immigration officials, and members of Congress of both parties have urged the President to exercise executive authority to stop the deportations of DREAM Act-eligible youth. In response, the president and his top advisors repeatedly indicated that he did not have the authority to do so. This, however, has been a political excuse as the president does have the authority. Just a few days ago, leading legal scholars on immigration and citizenship law propounded, in a letter to the White House, that “there is clear executive authority for several forms of administrative relief for DREAM Act beneficiaries.”

At Obama's fingertips are three devices: Deferred Action, parole-in-place and deferred enforced departure. These forms of relief essentially would allow DREAM Act-eligible youth to remain in the country without the threat of deportation.

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Cleaning house at OPA: A Congressional investigation is needed

On the surface, Presidents Bush and Obama have shown little interest in exercising their extraordinary presidential authority to issue pardons and commute sentences.  Many of us who support a robust exercise of executive clemency have been disappointed and disturbed by this inaction. But thanks to Monday’s Washington Post-ProPublica story, we now know that a significant part of the problem stems from a grossly inept Office of Pardon Attorney (OPA) at the U.S. Justice Department. Congress must investigate this vitally important taxpayer-funded office immediately.
 
According to the Post-ProPublica story, the Bush administration was interested in finding deserving candidates for pardons or sentence commutations. Bush had campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” and questioned the practice of sending nonviolent drug offenders to prison for long terms. Clarence Aaron seemed the perfect candidate for a second chance, having been sentenced to life in prison for his first offense, a non-violent drug charge. The missing pieces holding back Aaron’s plea for mercy fell into place when the U.S. Attorney’s office that prosecuted him and the judge who sentenced him both told the Pardon Attorney’s office that they supported Aaron’s request for a reduced sentence.

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People's Rights Amendment is a very bad idea

A group of House Democrats has introduced a remarkably misnamed “People’s Rights Amendment” that, if adopted, would undercut the rights of Americans and transform our society beyond recognition, and deliver an unprecedented body blow to the American economy. This ill-considered proposal would limit application of constitutional rights to “natural persons,” eliminating such rights for all corporate entities. It reveals a stunning disrespect for the established constitutional architecture that has served this country well for over 200 years.

Corporations are, of course, the bugbear of the left wing and a target of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Poor economic performance is blamed on corporate greed — rather than the business cycle and deleterious impacts of ever more onerous federal regulations — and tax incentives offered to companies as inducements to investment are “corporate welfare.”

The truth is that corporations, large and small, are the foundation of our economy and the building blocks of our society. Before the law recognized, around 400 years ago, business corporations as entities with rights separate and apart from their owners or managers, anyone going into business risked everything. A failure could mean personal ruin, with creditors seizing not merely “business” property but anything the entrepreneur owned, and even imprisonment for debt.

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Judicial nominees continue to languish in the Senate

On Monday, the Senate confirmed Paul Watford's nomination to the 7th seat on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The nomination seemed vulnerable to a filibuster but eventually succeeded by a vote of 61-34.

Yet Watford’s confirmation is unfortunately the exception that proves the rule.

The 5th seat on that same court has been vacant for 2699 days, or since 2004. Obstructionist tactics increasingly prevent a vast number of critical judicial and other presidentially appointed positions from being confirmed—so much so that many potential nominees refuse even to subject themselves to the process.

The most powerful of these obstructionist tactics is the filibuster, which is used by the minority to force the majority to reach a 60-vote cloture threshold. Often, the simple threat of the filibuster stymies a nomination from proceeding.

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VAWA: Standing up for all women

Prior to adjourning in April, the Senate reauthorized the pivotal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which for many of us who work in women’s health should have been a no-brainer. We urge the House to swiftly pass this version of the reauthorization as well.  Let’s face it: few congressional bills have delivered so greatly on their promises. Since its passage in the mid-1990s, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), incidences of domestic violence are down by more than 50 percent.

But VAWA, once a bill with bipartisan support, was threatened this year by political agendas and stigmatizing politicking. Opponents sought to arbitrarily limit the number of immigrant women who can seek relief from violence, impose substantial barriers when the victim is Native American but her abuser is not, and ignore violence against gay, lesbian, and transgender victims. These approaches further stigmatize campaigns aimed at particular populations, and they do nothing to help women get the counseling and shelter they need to escape abusive relationships.

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Strong VAWA protections are win-win for crime victims and law enforcement

Ending violence against women and protecting victims of crime and labor exploitation shouldn’t be controversial to anyone. These goals are so universally shared that when Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, in 1994, and reauthorized it every six years thereafter, no one batted an eyelash. But this year, the well-worn tradition of reauthorizing this essential legislation has turned into an opportunity to attack women and endanger victims of crime.
 
Although the Senate has passed a bipartisan bill reauthorizing VAWA and strengthening protections for victims of crime, House Republicans have introduced H.R. 4970, which drastically undercuts existing protections.

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