Federal appeals court blocks felons from voting in Florida who owe fines and fees

From today’s Washington Post:

A federal appeals court on Friday ruled that hundreds of thousands of felons in Florida who still owe fines and fees may not register to vote, making it unlikely that they will be able to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta agreed with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that the payment of fines and fees by ex-felons is part of their “terms of sentence” and must be satisfied before they can vote.

The decision comes less than a month before the presidential swing state’s Oct. 5 deadline to register to vote for November’s general election.

“This is a deeply disappointing decision,” said Paul Smith, vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups that had sued over the rule. “Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”

The groups that filed suit say they are still deciding whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this summer, the high court declined to overturn a lower-court decision that also went against felons seeking to register.

A spokesman for DeSantis lauded the decision. “Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive,” Fred Piccolo said in a statement Friday.

The decision in the populous swing state could have implications for the presidential election. In 2016, Donald Trump won Florida by about 1.3 percentage points, or fewer than 120,000 votes, and a recent NBC-Marist poll found that Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are neck-and-neck in the state, each at 48 percent.

About 28 percent of the felons affected by the issue in Florida are Black. Expanding voting rights to historically disenfranchised groups is typically believed to benefit Democrats, but there is no statewide partisan breakdown of which party the newly registered felons selected, if any. Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, said on Fox News last year that “we’ve had more ex-felons register as Republicans than Democrats,” but the research is unclear on that.

The legal fight stems from a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by Florida voters in 2018 that allowed most felons to register to vote. The amendment overturned decades of practice in Florida, where felons had to petition the governor to have their rights restored.

Read the complete article here.

Civil Rights Groups Push TX To Expand Absentee Voting In Face of COVID-19

From Houston Public Media/NPR Online:

Hundreds of civil rights organizations are calling on state governments to expand absentee voting in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. In Texas, that may require an act of the governor.

Anthony Gutierrez, executive director with Common Cause Texas, said allowing widespread use of mail-in balloting is necessary to protect voters, who may fear to show up at the polls in large numbers and risk catching COVID-19.

But he said that’s not the only reason.

“I’m worried that election workers are simply not going to show up,” Gutierrez said, “because the vast majority of people who are working at our poll sites right now in Texas, and everywhere in America for that matter, they tend to be older Americans. They fall into that pool of people who are most at risk during this pandemic. Obviously if election workers don’t show up, poll sites don’t open. There’s nobody to operate the machines and check in voters.” 

Under Texas law, residents have to meet one of four conditions to vote absentee. They have to be over 65, overseas, in jail, or disabled. Gutierrez said that by itself should not provide a legal barrier to expanding the use of mail-in ballots.

“The Secretary of State can issue an advisory simply stating that any Texan who wants to vote by mail because of COVID-19 concerns is allowed to do so by just checking the disabled box on the form,” he said.

It’s the legislature, not the Secretary of State, that sets the criteria for eligibility for mail-in ballots. But Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, said Governor Abbott has a lot of leeway on how to interpret that eligibility.

“This is an unprecedented emergency, and the governor has so far shown that he’s willing to extend a little executive muscle to make sure that people are safe,” Rottinghaus said. Abbott last week issued a proclamation allowing local governments to postpone scheduled May 2 elections to Nov. 3.

Read the complete article here.

Groups slam new Trump rule allowing federal contractors to bar LGBT workers

From today’s CBS News Online:

In its latest rollback of key safeguards for LGBTQ civil rights, the Trump administration intends to remove nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people by adding religious exemptions to an Obama-era 2014 executive order that prohibited discrimination in hiring on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. Advocacy groups have decried the new rule as just the latest attack on the LGBTQ community, slamming it as “taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion.”

The proposal, which goes public on Thursday at the direction of the U.S. Department of Labor, comes as a stark reversal in administration policy after President Trump vowed to maintain the Obama executive order during his first month in office. 

“President Donald J. Trump is determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community. President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election,” the White House said at the time. 

But the new rule appears to let government contractors terminate workers who are LGBTQ, based on the employers’ personal religious views. Under the Labor Department guidelines, any organization — be it a church, school or major corporation — could prove it serves a religious purpose by claiming it is “guided by faith,” according to the 46-page long draft of the rule. 

“The contractor must be organized for a religious purpose, meaning that it was conceived with a self-identified religious purpose. This need not be the contractor’s only purpose,” the document reads. 

The move is the latest in a string of policy reversals that impede on the rights of the LGBTQ community. Most recently, the Trump administration changed regulationsunder the Affordable Care Act to allow health care providers to refuse treatment to LGBTQ people on the basis of their religious beliefs. It’s also consistent with the administration’s controversial push over the past two years to include more federal protections in the name of “religious freedom.”

Read the complete article here.

Abrams: We Cannot Resign Ourselves to Dismay and Disenfranchisement

From today’s New York Times:

In the mid-1960s, when my father was a teenager, he was arrested. His crime? Registering black voters in Mississippi. He and my mother had joined the civil rights movement well before they were even old enough to vote themselves.

They braved this dangerous work, which all too often created martyrs of marchers. In doing so, my parents ingrained in their six children a deep and permanent reverence for the franchise. We were taught that the right to vote undergirds all other rights, that free and fair elections are necessary for social progress.

That is why I am determined to end voter suppression and empower all people to participate in our democracy.

True voter access means that every person has the right to register, cast a ballot and have that ballot counted — without undue hardship. Unfortunately, the forces my parents battled 50 years ago continue to stifle democracy.

My home state, Georgia, for example, suffered a vicious blend of electoral malfeasance, misfeasance and mismanagement during my race for governor last fall. But Georgia is not alone.

Local and state officials across the country, emboldened by the Supreme Court effectively neutering the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, are shamelessly weakening voter registration, ballot access and ballot-counting procedures.

Read the complete article here.

Cleaning up DOMA’s constitutional mess?

Last Week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama Administration would no longer defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA was passed in 1996 by a Republican majority in Congress and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in response to a wave of culture wars and anti-gay sentiment fostered by right-wing conservatives and the Republican Party.

At the time there were no states with laws protecting civil marriage between gay or lesbian couples. Although it was widely believed that a state supreme court case in Hawaii (Baehr v. Miike) would lead to that state legalizing same-sex marriage, it was not until 2003 that the first state legalized same-sex marriage after the Massachusetts State Supreme Court (Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health) ruled that denying same-sex couples marriage licenses violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution. Since then California, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, and the District of Columbia have followed reached the same conclusion, and more states are following this constitutional trend with civil marriage or civil unions.

Holder’s announcement comes as a surprise and a controversy for two reasons. First, the Obama Administration has been defending the constitutionality of DOMA the past two years in numerous cases challenging the constitutionality of that law. Second, there is a constitutional tradition for the Executive to defend laws passed by Congress in order to let the courts decide the constitutionality of those cases. This constitutional tradition is apparent in the doctrines of the “separation of powers” and “checks and balances,” the idea that each branch of government has specific constitutional duties to make laws (Legislative), enforce laws (Executive), and interpret laws (Judicial). Although there is no specific law requiring the Attorney General to defend the constitutionality of laws in the courts, this principle is generally respected as part of this tradition in order to keep political differences from eroding constitutional duties.

The announcement was made, According to Holder, the decision to stop defending Section 3 of DOMA after President Obama and the Justice Department conducted a thorough review of the law’s constitutionality, and reached the conclusion that it cannot continue to defend that part of the law, which holds that the federal government may not recognize same-sex marriages anywhere, including states where they are legally permitted.

Last Friday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) quietly announced the formation of an “advisory group” comprised of congressional members who would step in to defend this part of the law in the courts either by asking them to appoint it as a party in the case or filing briefs as an interested observer. These legal maneuvers and political posturing raise an interesting question. Who is responsible for cleaning up this constitutional mess?

Conservatives, Republicans, and even some Democrats are crying foul, claiming that Obama’s decision is a breach of constitutional responsibilities, and that it is for the courts to decide the constitutionality of DOMA. Never mind that when the California State Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 8 violated the equal protection clause of its state constitution, conservatives and Republicans alike cried foul, claiming that “activist” courts were overriding the will of the people. The reaction to Obama’s decision in DOMA is therefore more hypocrisy from conservatives and their Republican supporters who do not care about the constitutional issues on their own merits. The only thing they care about is whether the constitution serves their bigotry and homophobia, and they will use and misuse constitutional principles in any way they see fit as long as their religious and personal agendas are satisfied. If there is a constitutional mess then Obama’s decision brings clarity to it, because it is Republicans and their religious agenda that made it in the first place. They are the ones who chose to pursue a legislative agenda that is so clearly unconstitutional in the first place. American constitutional history can be summed up in one phrase:  majority rules with minority rights. In this respect, the shameless attempt to deny gay and lesbian citizens equal protection of the law by encouraging and permitting majorities to legislate their civil rights away has never been and will never be consistent with the constitutional principles on which this country is founded.

Of course, there is a principled argument that the Executive has a constitutional duty to uphold the law of the land whether it agrees with the law or not. This is certainly a legitimate expectation and one that should be encouraged, especially in this deeply divisive period of partisan politics where zero-sum mentalities have prevailed over the common good. However, every rule admits of exceptions, and in this case the stakes are extraordinary. The issue of civil and political equality for gays and lesbians is a political hot-potato for every branch of government that none will take responsibility for. Anti-constitutional majorities will not voluntarily set aside their homophobia to recognize the principle of equal protection, elected officials are happy to appease them, and courts are reluctant to intervene and encourage the perception of judicial activism. The social, economic, and political consequences of this constitutional stalemate means, in effect, that the dominant majority in the country accepts a hierarchy of citizenship in which gays and lesbians are second-class citizens. This is wrong.

President Obama’s decision not to defend Section 3 of DOMA is entirely reasonable when viewed in this wider frame, but even in the details his decision is less controversial than the media hype and soundbites admit. Consider the difference between Sections II and III of the law. There is at once a constitutional contradiction evident in the intent and text of the law, while Obama’s decision is a deft compromise intended to deflate that contradiction so that the Justice Department can fulfill its duty to enforce the law. The relevant parts of DOMA read as follows:

Section 2. Powers reserved to the states

No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.

Section 3. Definition of marriage

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.

Section II of DOMA defers to the constitutional principle of states rights, allowing individual states to determine whether they will acknowledge the legal standing of same-sex marriages from other states. This part of the law raises direct and complicated issues about the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution, which traditionally plays a role in resolving disputes between states over the similarity and continuity of laws. Without this form of adjudication, for example, all those couples descending on Vegas to be married in Sin City would have to get remarried in their own respective states, and couple married in one state would have to remarry in other states in which they lived. However, in the rush to serve this anti-constitutional agenda many states have amended their state constitutions either to recognize “marriage” only between a man and woman or to prohibit the recognition of marriages and civil unions of same-sex couples from other states. (Currently, 29 states have constitutional amendments defining marriage between a man and woman.) The courts will therefore have to resolve disputes between states where the legal standing of same-sex marriages is in question, and Obama has wisely chosen to continue defending this part of the law.

Section III of DOMA denies this principle of states rights, however, by refusing to allow the federal government to recognize even the legitimate marriages of same-sex couples from states where they have legal standing. In addition, DOMA places the federal government in new legal territory because marriage and family law has almost always been left to the purview of states.

By enacting Section III of this law, the intent of the legislators is made apparent:  to deny same-sex couples any constitutional standing whatsoever, even in states where there marriage is legally recognized. This creates a legal limbo for gay and lesbian citizens, as well as those states who have rightly chosen to recognize the equal protection of marriage rights for their gay and lesbian citizens. The law places the federal government in the position of denying both equal protection of the law to gay and lesbian citizens who are legally married, as well as denying the principle of states right to those states that permit same-sex marriage.

Rather than refusing to defend DOMA in its entirety, which would amount to gross negligence of constitutional duty, the Obama administration correctly anticipates that this part of the law is prima facie unconstitutional. Moreover, this decision has legal precedent in its favor. In a federal district court in Boston in 2010, Judge Joseph Tauro has already ruled in two cases (Gill v. OPM and Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of HHS) that Section III of DOMA violates the equal protection of the law found in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, as well as violates the Tenth Amendment, supposedly because it exceeds the authority of Congress under the Spending Clause.

The legal issues are technical but the writing of history is on the wall. Laws that deny gay and lesbian citizens equal protection, whether passed by homophobic majorities, anti-constitutional legislators, or written into state constitutions, cannot and will not pass constitutional muster. One only has to read Romer v Evans (1996) and Lawrence v Texas (2003), which struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2 and all state laws criminalizing sodomy, to reach this conclusion. President Obama’s decision not to defend Section III of DOMA is therefore consistent with both law and tradition. Anti-gay laws and amendments are deeply, uncontroversially, and politically motivated attempts to deny gay and lesbian citizens equal protection under the law, and they encourage a long-standing and heinous animus against gays and lesbians. This is an animus that motivates much of this constitutional mess and continues to motivate many citizens, elected officials, and judges from upholding their sworn duties to preserve and protect the Constitution. It is an animus that is contrary to the Constitution, and therefore cannot be constitutionally defended.