Florida fight over felon voting rights playing out at US Supreme Court

From the South Florida Sun-Sentiel:

A battle over voting rights in Florida is playing out at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the ability of hundreds of thousands of felons to cast ballots in this year’s elections at stake.

Attorneys for the state and voting-rights groups filed briefs this week at the Supreme Court as they continue wrangling over a challenge to a 2019 state law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines, costs and restitution — to be eligible to vote. Voting-rights groups argue that linking voting rights and finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

The state law was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”

The voting-rights groups went to the Supreme Court last week after an Atlanta-based appeals court put on hold a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who said the state cannot deny voting rights to felons who cannot afford to pay court-ordered financial obligations associated with their convictions.

The plaintiffs are challenging the hold, saying it would block felons from voting in the August primary elections and could prevent them from casting ballots in November.

But in a response filed Tuesday at the Supreme Court, lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis said the stay on Hinkle’s decision issued July 1 by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should remain intact.

Hinkle’s May decision, which said that depriving poor felons of the right to vote is unconstitutional wealth-based discrimination, laid out a process for state elections officials to use to determine voters’ eligibility. Under the procedure, hundreds of thousands of felons who have served their time behind bars would be able to register and vote in the Aug. 18 and Nov. 3 elections without taking any additional action.

Read the complete article here.

Supreme Court ruling allows plan for religious limits to Obamacare contraceptive coverage

From today’s NBC News Online:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for the Trump administration to give the nation’s employers more leeway in refusing to provide free birth control for their workers under the Affordable Care Act.

The ruling is a victory for the administration’s plan to greatly expand the kinds of employers who can cite religious or moral objections in declining to include contraceptives in their health care plans. Up to 126,000 women nationwide would lose birth control coverage under President Donald Trump’s plan, the government estimated. Planned Parenthood said nearly nine in 10 women seek contraceptive care of some kind during their lifetimes.

The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, gives the government authority to create the religious and moral objections, said Justice Clarence Thomas for the court’s 7-2 majority. The Department of Health and Human Services “has virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings,” and that same authority “leaves its discretion equally unchecked in other areas, including the ability to identify and create exemptions from its own guidelines,” he said.

In dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said the court in the past has struck a balance in religious freedom cases, so that the beliefs of some do not overwhelm the rights of others.

“Today for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree” and “leaves women workers to fend for themselves” in seeking contraceptive services, they said.

Women’s groups condemned the ruling. The National Women’s Law Center said more than 61 million women get birth control coverage through Obamacare.

“The Supreme Court’s decision will leave their ability to receive this critical coverage at the whim of their employers and universities,” the group said. “This decision will disproportionately harm low-wage workers, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who already face barriers to care.”

Read the complete article here.

The Supreme Court just handed down some truly awful news for voting rights

From today’s Vox News Online:

The Supreme Court handed down two briefunsigned orders on Friday concerning what restrictions states may place on absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Though neither order is a final judgment — one grants a temporary stay of a lower court decision, the other denies expedited review of an important voting rights case — the practical impact of both orders is that voters in Alabama and Texas will find it harder to cast a ballot during the pandemic.

The Texas order is particularly ominous because it suggests that Texas will be able to apply election rules that ensure older, Republican-leaning voters have an easy time casting a ballot — while younger voters could be forced to risk infection in order to vote.

The Alabama case

The Alabama case is Merrill v. People First of Alabama. Alabama law allows anyone to cast an absentee ballot during the pandemic, but it also imposes certain restrictions on those voters. Among other things, absentee voters must provide a copy of their photo ID, and their ballot must be signed by either two witnesses or one notary public.

A lower court blocked these restrictions “for voters who cannot safely obtain the signatures of two witnesses or a notary public due to the COVID-19 pandemic” and “for absentee voters who are over the age of 65 or disabled and who cannot safely obtain a copy of their photo ID due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” But the Supreme Court stayed that lower court decision — ensuring that, at the very least, the restrictions will be in place for Alabama’s July 14 runoff primary election.

Notably, the Supreme Court’s order in Merrill was joined only by the Court’s five Republicans. All four Democratic appointees dissented. Neither side explained why they voted the way they did.

The Texas case

The Texas case, meanwhile, is Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott, and the stakes in that case are simply enormous.

Texas law permits voters over the age of 65 to request absentee ballots without difficulty. But most voters under the age of 65 are not allowed to vote absentee. During a pandemic election, that means older voters — a demographic that has historically favored Republicans over Democrats — will have a fairly easy time participating in the November election. But younger voters will likely have to risk infection at an in-person polling site if they wish to cast a ballot.

This arrangement is difficult to square with the 26th Amendment, which provides that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”

The Court’s order in Texas Democratic Party is subtle, but it most likely means that Texas will be able to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of age, at least during the November election.

Last month, the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit blocked a trial judge’s order that would have allowed younger Texans to vote absentee. Although this Fifth Circuit order is not the appeals court’s last word on this case, it is quite unlikely that the plaintiffs in Texas Democratic Party will prevail before the Fifth Circuit, which is among the most conservative courts in the country.

So those plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to hear their case on an expedited basis. On Friday, the Supreme Court denied that request. As a practical matter, writes SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe, this refusal to expedite the Texas Democratic Party case “all but eliminated the prospect that the justices will weigh in on the merits of that dispute before the 2020 election in November.”

Thus, even if the Supreme Court ultimately does decide that Texas’s age discrimination violates the 26th Amendment, that decision will almost certainly come too late to benefit anyone in November.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS could upend consumer financial protection as we know it

From today’s CNBC News Online:

A case before the Supreme Court has the power dramatically to reshape how the U.S. government polices financial fraud and other misdeeds against consumers — which many experts fear would weaken existing protections and expose the public to more harm.

The case, which concerns the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, ultimately could lead to the dissolution of the agency, which lawmakers created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and was bestowed with broad powers to issue and enforce consumer-protection rules in areas such as banking, student loans, credit reporting, mortgages, payday loans and debt collection.

Depending on their verdict, Supreme Court justices could also diminish states’ power to investigate and punish financial wrongdoing.

“It would be effectively a big rollback in the consumer protection enforcement authorities,” said Christopher Peterson, the director of financial services and a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group. “There would be fewer deterrents [for financial institutions] to use tricks and traps” to ensnare the American public, he said.

Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010 when it passed the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, giving it a mission to protect Americans from unfair, deceptive and abusive financial practices. At the time, families were grappling with the effects of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, perpetuated by irresponsible lending practices that reverberated across the U.S. and global economies.

Oversight of consumer finance was previously “scattered across government” and laws “escaped regular federal oversight,” according to the CFPB website. The CFPB has collected billions of dollars in penalties from financial companies for wrongdoing. Its largest, for $2.13 billion in 2013, was levied against mortgage servicing firm Ocwen Financial Corp. and a subsidiary for allegedly putting thousands of people at risk for losing their homes.

The agency has recovered more than $12 billion for consumers to date, according to a Consumer Federation of America report published in March last year. The agency’s activity has dropped off under the Trump administration, the report says.

Read the complete article here.

Trump Appointee Gorsuch Plays Coy In LGBTQ Employment Rights Case

From today’s NPR News Online:

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy loomed large over arguments at the court Tuesday in a set of cases testing whether employers are free to fire gay and transgender employees. Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, was the author of every major gay rights decision for more than two decades. His absence, and the presence of two new Trump appointees, could very well determine how these cases are decided, who wins, and who loses.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who replaced Kennedy, asked only one question during two hours of argument Tuesday. Instead, it was Justice Neil Gorsuch, the other Trump appointee, who was the focal point.

Gorsuch, an adamant advocate for reading the text of a statute literally, admitted to a bit of a conundrum. Addressing ACLU lawyer David Cole, he said, “Assume for the moment … I’m with you on the textual evidence,” but “it’s close … very close.” The words of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bar employment discrimination “because of sex,” or “based on sex.”

Gorsuch seemed to be agreeing that language would appear to cover gay and transgender employees. But, he then asked whether a justice should “take into consideration the massive social upheaval that would” ensue from such a decision. Wouldn’t it be better to let Congress do it?

Cole replied that federal courts have been finding it illegal to discriminate against transgender employees for 20 years, and “there’s been no upheaval.” Dress codes and sex-segregated restrooms “have not fallen,” he observed, adding there has been no tumult.

Read the complete article here.

We Talked to the Lawyer Fighting for the Right to Be Trans at Work

From today’s Vice Media:

At this point, many Americans are familiar with what happened to Aimee Stephens: For years, she was a valued employee at a funeral home. Then, in 2013, she came out as trans and began presenting as a woman for the first time. That’s when she was fired.

Stephens decided to sue her former employer, Michigan’s R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, for discrimination. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear her case—creating the first opportunity for the justices to directly consider the rights of transgender people.

Those rights have only recently become a mainstream political issue, so many people are unaware that there are now decades of U.S. case law underpinning most of the policies that politicians are currently debating. When SCOTUS hears Stephens’ case in October, all of those lower-court decisions affirming the right of trans people to be included in sex-based nondiscrimination law will be under threat.

At the heart of the fight is a 1989 SCOTUS precedent, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a caseinvolving a butch woman who was denied promotions when she failed to conform to feminine beauty and personality stereotypes. Ultimately, the court ruled that employment decisions cannot be based on sex stereotypes. It’s been a key ruling not only for cisgender women throughout the U.S., but also for those of us in the trans community.

After successfully arguing Stephens’ case in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, John Knight of the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project will present her argument to the highest court in the nation this fall. Over the years, he has been central to arguing key trans-related cases all over the midwest.

We asked Knight why this case is so important for not only transgender people, but everyone, and what to look out for this October.

Read the complete interview here.

Supreme Court decides federal judges cannot block gerrymandering

From today’s CNBC Online:

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal courts may not block gerrymandering in a 5-4 decision that fell along partisan lines.

The court also ruled, in a separate high-profile case decided Thursday, that the Trump administration’s reasoning for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census was insufficient, effectively blocking the question for now.

On the final day of decisions before the court’s summer recess, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinions of the court in both cases.

The closely watched case on a charged political matter comes in the midst of the 2020 presidential election. The decision was met with scorn by some Democrats running for president, including former vice president Joe Biden, and a sharp dissent from the liberal justices.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote in the redistricting case. He said those asking the top court to block gerrymandered districts effectively sought “an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” he wrote.

The court’s decision prompted a fierce reply from its liberal wing. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” Kagan wrote. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

Read the complete article here.

Clarence Thomas Voted With Liberals in a Big Consumer Rights Case. Why?

From today’s Slate Magazine:

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a surprising 5–4 decision in Home Depot v. Jacksonthat progressive advocates view as a win for consumers and class actions. The lineup in Home Depot was unusual: Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, joined only by the liberals; the other conservatives dissented. Home Depot marked the second time this term that Public Justice, a public interest advocacy firm, has triumphed at SCOTUS. Earlier this year, the firm won a unanimous victory in New Prime v. Oliveira, an important labor rights case. How did it nab Thomas’ vote this time around?

The story of Home Depot is a tale of greed, grift, and civil procedure. It centers on a scheme that involved three companies: Home Depot, Citibank, and Carolina Water Systems Inc. Here’s how it allegedly worked. Representatives from Home Depot or CWS called homeowners and claimed that “contaminants” were found in nearby tap water. They urged homeowners to let them perform a test for “contaminants,” which was really just a test for water hardness; almost all tap water tested positive, even if it was perfectly safe. But CWS told homeowners the positive result proved their water was unsafe and required a $9,000 water purification system that other companies sell for $1,400. The company then told homeowners they had been approved for a Home Depot–branded Citibank credit card, which they could use to pay for the system with deferred interest.

George Jackson got suckered into this alleged scam and, like many others, couldn’t afford to pay off the charges he put on the credit card to pay for the overpriced water purification system. A company representative allegedly told Jackson the Citibank card had zero interest for two years—but in fact, the interest rate jumped to 25.99 percent after one year. Jackson couldn’t afford to pay, so Citibank sued him in state court to collect the debt. Eventually, he secured the representation of consumer protection lawyers who filed a counterclaim against Citibank, as well as class-action claims against Home Depot and CWS on behalf of about 290 other homeowners targeted by the alleged scam. He claimed that the companies, working together, had violated North Carolina laws prohibiting unfair and deceptive trade practices.

Home Depot promptly tried to move the case from North Carolina court to federal court—a typical corporate tactic, since federal courts are widely considered to be more business-friendly than state courts. F. Paul Bland, the executive director of Public Justice who argued Home Depot at the Supreme Court, told me that there’s a strong perception among most corporations that “federal courts are more hostile to consumer class action.” Federal judges “are overwhelmingly former prosecutors, corporate lawyers, and law professors,” and “very few ever represented a consumer or worker against a corporation.” By comparison, “about 40 percent of state court judges were plaintiffs’ lawyers.” State courts, as a result, are considered much friendlier to consumer class actions, hence Home Depot’s desire to get the case before a federal judge instead.

Republican lawmakers also think state courts are too favorable toward class actions, which is why the GOP-controlled Congress passed the Class Action Fairness Act in 2005. CAFA was designed to expand the kinds of class actions that corporations could move from state to federal court. It has, Bland said, “been a great boon to corporate America.” And predictably, in response to Jackson’s claims, Home Depot argued that CAFA allowed it to move the entire case out of North Carolina court and get it before a federal judge.

But Home Depot had a problem. Under a long line of cases going back to the 1940s, only a defendant can move a case from state to federal court. And a defendant is defined as the party sued by the original plaintiff. Here, Jackson is the defendant; remember, Citibank sued him to collect the debt he owed—that’s how the whole case started. Under the usual rules, then, Home Depot can’t escape North Carolina court.

Read the complete article here.

Kavanaugh Seems Conflicted About Gerrymandering at SCOTUS Arguments

From today’s NPR News Online:

The Supreme Court appeared sharply divided on the question of whether there’s any limit on what the courts can impose on partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the newest member of the court, appearing at least somewhat conflicted.

“I took some of your argument in the briefs and the amicus briefs to be that extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem for our democracy,” Kavanaugh told the lawyers arguing the case, “and I’m not going to dispute that.”

On Tuesday, the court considered challenges to congressional district maps in North Carolina, drawn by Republicans, and in Maryland, drawn by Democrats.

The question of how political boundaries are drawn has taken on increasing importance for both parties over the past decade.

After the 2010 midterms, Republicans used their control of many state legislatures to draw favorable congressional maps for the GOP. An analysis this month by the Associated Press found that Republicans very likely won about 16 more House seats last fall than they would have been expected to based on their share of the vote owing to those lines. Still, Democrats did win control of the House.

Read the complete article here.

Trump’s SCOTUS nominee favors corporations over working Americans

Today’s Press Release from the AFL-CIO:

Working people expect the Supreme Court to be the most fair and independent branch of government in America, yet recent decisions have protected the privileged and powerful at the expense of working people. Decisions by the Court, often by the narrowest of margins, have a dramatic impact on our lives as we recently saw in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 and reinforce the importance of choosing who sits on the Court.

Share this graphic and reject Judge Brett Kavanaugh because we simply cannot have another Justice on the Court who sides with corporations over America’s working families.

We have thoroughly reviewed the record of Judge Kavanaugh on cases of importance to working families and are compelled to oppose his nomination.

Judge Kavanaugh routinely rules against working families, regularly rejects the right of employees to receive employer-provided health care in the workplace, too often sides with employers in denying employees relief from discrimination in the workplace and promotes overturning well-established U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Any Supreme Court nominee must be fair, independent and committed to protecting the rights, freedoms and legal safeguards that protect every one of us. Judge Kavanaugh does not meet this standard.The next justice confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the Court will play a pivotal role in new cases addressing health care, worker safety issues and collective bargaining rights for generations to come.

This current Supreme Court has shown that it will side with greedy corporations over working people whenever given the chance, and this nominee will only skew that further. The Senate should reject this nomination and demand a nominee who will protect the rights of working people and uphold our constitutional values of liberty, equality and justice for all.

Across the country, working people are organizing and taking collective action as we haven’t seen in years and won’t stand for any politician who supports justices who put our rights at risk.

Share this graphic and reject Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Our fight for better wages and benefits and a voice on the job will continue on. The rich and powerful won’t dictate the American story. We will pave our own path, populate the halls of power with allies of working people and secure a brighter economic future.

In Solidarity,

Richard Trumka

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Richard Trumka

President, AFL-CIO