Donald Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department didn’t start when he decided to enter the political arena. In 1973 when he was just 27 years old and fresh out of business school, he held a press conference (yes, he used to do those) outside a hotel in Manhattan and referred to what he called the government’s “outrageous lies”.
These comments were in response to a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division against Trump Management Company run by Trump’s father, Fred. The organization was being charged with racial discrimination in renting and managing some 39 buildings it owned, thus violating the Fair Housing Act.
One former employee alleged that Fred Trump told him not to rent to blacks, and that Trump clearly knew this was against the law. The same employee claimed that the elder Trump wanted to “get rid of blacks” who were in his building by telling them they could get cheaper housing elsewhere and offered to pay the down payments himself. Another allegation by the anonymous employee was that codes were used on rental applications to distinguish between blacks and whites. The employee was eventually fired.
In true Trumpian style the Trump Management Co. countersued the government for $100 million in damages. (The lawyer representing the Trump’s was none other than Roy Cohn.) The suit never went to court with both parties entering into a consent decree. The Trump’s admitted no wrong-doing but from that point on were required to advertise that they offered equal opportunity in housing.
Let’s take a brief look at the history of the Fair Housing Act the Trump’s were accused of violating, because it’s relevant to some recent activity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under Secretary Ben Carson.
The Fair Housing Act, formally known as The Civil Rights Act of 1968, was intended to provide for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, religion, or national origin. The Act, which saw serious pushback for years (It was the most filibustered legislation in U.S. history up to that point.) was finally signed into law by President Johnson just one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The following forms of discrimination are banned by the law:
In 2012 HUD’s office of Fair Housing and Opportunity prohibited LGBT discrimination in federally assisted housing programs. In regard to non-federal housing, sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t protected under the Fair Housing Act, but 22 states have passed such legislation. Pennsylvania isn’t one of them. (Numerous municipalities in PA have signed their own non-discrimination ordinances. See our post from September, “Location, Location, Location”.)
Although the Fair Housing Act made significant strides in combating discrimination, there were aspects of the legislation that were underdeveloped. The Obama administration sought to make several improvements that would advance the law further.
Then 2016 happened. Julian Castro was out as HUD Secretary and Ben Carson was in, and he decided it was time to rearrange the furniture.
Carson attempted to delay for two years implementation of the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFM), which is designed to give Section 8 housing voucher recipients more choice in where to live. In yet another reminder of why the courts are so important, the district court of Washington, D.C. ruled last month that HUD must enforce the Obama-era anti-segregation measure beginning January 1st, 2018 as originally scheduled.
Not only would the SAFM rule give recipients more choice, they would also be protected from price gouging. HUD calculates “fair market rent” by averaging rents across a metro area. The subsidy is capped at the fair market rent value. The vouchers often fall short of the amount needed to cover the rent unless the recipient lives in a low-income or impoverished area. Because many voucher recipients are people of color, one could argue that the program was actually reinforcing segregation. The Obama-era SAFM rule made a small but important change-fair market rent would be calculated by averaging a nearby zip code rather than across an entire are, allowing the value of the voucher to rise.
SAFM was vetted for a number of years, and Carson gave little explanation for wanting to delay it. It is yet to be seen whether Carson will appeal the district court’s ruling.
But there’s more than one way to breach the castle walls. If starving the inhabitants doesn’t succeed, this administration will surely man the catapults. On Friday, HUD announced it will delay enforcement of a second Obama-era rule, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule that would have required communities to address patterns of racial segregation.
Under AFFH communities must review their housing policies in regard to segregation and submit a plan known as an Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) to address any abuses. Failure to submit a plan could cause communities to lose block grants and aid from the government. Carson didn’t repeal the rule outright, but again is trying to delay further implementation.
Based on his history, Carson’s delaying tactics are likely intended to undermine anti-segregation efforts and HUD itself. In 2015, he wrote an op-ed calling the AFFH rule “an experiment in failed socialism. Carson’s activity at HUD is part of a broader pattern by the Trump administration to undo anything Obama accomplished. And Trump’s actions in general certainly give credence to the old adage-Like father, like son.
posted by Amy Levengood
Vetting doesn’t seem to be Donald Trump’s forte. One has to look no further than his 2016 campaign team to know this isn’t an alternative fact. Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, and George Papadopoulos turned out to be less than savory characters. Michael Flynn, Seb Gorka, Tom Price, and “The Mooch” shouldn’t have made it past the first interview. And let’s not even get into HUD regional appointee Lynne Patton. Her resume’s a beaut! Trump tapped the former wedding planner and event coordinator to manage the nation’s largest Section 8 program along with its billion dollar budget.
Given this track record, you would think the Senate would certainly scrutinize the administration’s nominees with laser-like precision, especially when said nominees have the potential of influencing policy for decades to come. But we now live in the Trump era where up is down and left is right and norms are left on the mat like an unfinished game of Twister.
On December 12th in a narrow 50-48 party-line vote, the Senate confirmed Leonard Steven Grasz to serve on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Grasz was Nebraska’s chief deputy attorney general for more than eleven years and served as general counsel to the Nebraska Republican Party. “What’s the problem?” you may ask.
Even if Trump didn’t go over this particular nominee with a fine tooth comb, Republican Senators who gave the nod to Grasz can’t claim ignorance. Prior to confirmation proceedings, Grasz was given a rare and unanimous “not qualified” rating by the American Bar Association (ABA). In assigning the rating, the ABA cited concerns which were raised in confidential interviews with Grasz’s colleagues that he wouldn’t be able to set aside his conservative ideological beliefs. Both Nebraska Senators, Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer, recommended Grasz for the position and defended him during the process. Other Republicans have dismissed the ABA as partisan and called its rating a “hit job”.
The “concerns” of Grasz’s colleagues are shared by Democrats and liberal advocacy groups, but what are they? Grasz once referred to the legacy of Roe v. Wade as a “moral bankruptcy”. In another opinion he wrote, he said it was a “grave danger” for Nebraska’s Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and that legislation refusing to recognize such marriages could be defended against unconstitutionality.
Grasz is only the third nominee since 1989 to have been given a “not qualified” rating by the ABA, but he’s got company in the current administration. Brett Talley, who Trump chose to serve as district judge in Alabama, has also received a unanimous “not qualified” rating. In fact Talley has never even tried a case in court.
To put things in perspective, in less than a year in office, the Trump administration has seen 12 of its appellate court nominees confirmed. President Obama had 3 with none of his nominees receiving the ABA’s “not qualified” rating.
Democrats are not only questioning the quality of Trump’s nominees, but also the speed at which they’re being pushed through the confirmation process. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is worried that the Judiciary Committee’s ability to properly vet these nominees appointed to lifetime positions is being compromised. “I’m concerned our role is becoming diminished,” Feinstein said on Nov. 30. “Our committee has never been a rubber stamp for any president’s nominee, and I don’t think we should start now.”
Midterms are in November. Congress and the White House have less than a year to spruce up their own resumes. I’d be guessing, but I’d bet the electorate won’t be so permissive when it comes to vetting them.
posted by Amy Levengood
“Despite press reports that the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee now may be considering changing the Committee’s practice of observing senatorial courtesy, we, as a Conference, expect it to be observed, even-handedly and regardless of party affiliation. And we will act to preserve this principle and the rights of our colleagues if it is not.”
What short memories members of congress seem to have. The quote above is an excerpt from a letter signed by every GOP senator including Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and sent to President Obama in 2009 warning that they wouldn’t allow judicial nominees to move forward if they weren’t first approved using the “blue slip” process.
That was in 2009, when Republicans had neither a majority in the Senate nor an ideological ally in the White House. Now it’s 2017 and my, how things have changed! When it comes to Trump’s nominees, McConnell and Grassley are doing a politically expedient about face. Grassley, the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced last week that he would allow hearings to proceed for two nominees despite the fact that their home state senators had not returned positive blue slips.
So what's a blue slip?
The blue slip process is a tradition of "senatorial courtesy" that actually dates back to the very origins of our republic.
In 1789 George Washington sent particular senators his list of nominees for port tax collectors. Next to the nominee's name, a clerk noted each senator's vote of either approval or dissent.
Every nominee received an "aye" except for poor Benjamin Fishbourn of Georgia. (Fishbourn was opposed by GA Senator James Gunn who preferred a candidate who was a close political ally.) Fishbourn became the first presidential nominee to be rejected by the Senate. This is where the tradition began.
There are two versions of the blue slip, one in the House and one in the Senate. The House version involves tax and spending bills. In the Senate "blue slip" refers to the letter printed on blue paper (thus the term) sent to home state senators from the chair of the Judiciary Committee, allowing them to weigh in on a particular judicial nominee.
One of the earliest examples of a blue slip from 1917.
It's been a longstanding tradition of the Senate Judiciary Committee that both home state senators of a nominee, even if they're not on the committee, must turn in the blue slip in order for the committee to move the nominee forward for consideration. Senators may also choose to not return a blue slip on the candidate, and in the past this often meant that the nominee wouldn't get a hearing. A "negative" blue slip was seen as a veto, and the chairman would refuse to move the nomination forward. Either way, the blue slip gave the Senate a participatory role in both the advisory and consent part of the process. A role, which many believed, ensured a qualified and mainstream judiciary.
That’s what Senator Grassley said in 2015. But now, on November 29th in fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider two circuit court nominees who have not received the support of both of their home state senators: Kyle Duncan of Louisiana (nominated for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals) and David Stras of Minnesota (nominated for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals).
Reviews from home state senators on both Stras and Duncan are mixed. Senator Amy Klobuchar has returned a favorable blue slip on Stras, but Senator Al Franken has decided to withhold his because he fears Stras’ would be a “deeply conservative jurist. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy (of Graham-Cassidy fame) approved of Duncan’s nomination; Louisiana’s other Republican senator, John Kennedy has yet to return his blue slip.
If we take a closer look at Kyle Duncan’s record, we get a better understanding of the kind of judicial candidates the blue slip was designed to prevent.
What we know about Kyle Duncan:
He was raised in Baton Rouge and was Louisiana’s solicitor general from 2008 to 2012. Duncan has never been a judge, but he has what some have called “sterling credentials with right wing political activists”.
The blue slip was designed to block extremist nominees like Kyle Duncan. The tradition also gives the party that's not in power some say in the process. “Blue slips are one of the few weapons that are left to protect the minority’s rights,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and an expert on the judicial nominations process. “They also protect home state senators’ prerogatives to affect who is nominated from their states, which could be important for GOP senators who disagree with Trump.”
A recent memo from Grassley’s staff stated, “A blue slip policy allowing a single senator to block a nominee from even receiving Committee consideration is a more extreme example of a counter-majoritarian practice.”
Chuck Grassley doesn’t face his electorate for another 6 years. But some of his colleagues in the Senate won’t be as lucky. Come 2018, if they continue to ignore Senate tradition they won't have to worry about about returning blue slips. They'll be getting pink slips from us!
Learn more about the judicial process on our Federal Court System page.
For more information on judicial nominees go to the Alliance for Justice at www.afj.org.
What's At Stake With The Judiciary
140 federal judicial vacancies
19 in circuit courts
121 in district courts
52 judicial emergencies
10 for circuit courts
42 for district courts
46 nominees to the federal bench
10 circuit court
36 district court
19 nominees pending on the floor
posted by Amy Levengood
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sent out a tweet Sunday asking people to tell her what they’d do with the money they’d save under the Trump tax scheme. Apparently by cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, we are all going to get an average pay raise of $4,000 per household. Sarah wants to know what we’re going to do with all the extra cash, and she’s promising to share our stories from her podium. I thought this was rather fitting, since this White House is so given to telling fish stories and fairy tales.
But hey, if you think she can be a little loose with the facts, don’t take it from Sarah; look no further than fashion maven, popsicle aficionado, and presidential advisor, first daughter Ivanka Trump. Speaking Monday in Bucks County, Ivanka told the audience that her father’s tax plan would work in tandem with his deregulation crusade. The economy would be spurred, young entrepreneurs would keep their companies stateside (cough), we would all stop “losing sleep over” industry regulations and live happily ever after.
If that’s too much fiction for you, here’s a reality check. Trump’s tax plan is Little Red Riding Hood economics-a hungry, greedy wolf of a tax cut for the wealthy all gussied up in grandma’s bloomers. Just like the Big Bad Wolf who tried to pull a scam on Little Red, Trump and Republicans in Congress are trying to fool the American people into believing their tax “reform” plan is going to benefit the middle class. But we’ve all heard this story before, so let’s break it down by playing a game of Fact or Fiction and expose this animal for what it really is.
Fact or Fiction?
The U.S. tax code is cumbersome and hinders economic growth. Trump's plan is a tax reform, which will simplify tax brackets and close loopholes to help small businesses and average families.
What they’re not telling you is that it’s the wealthiest of the wealthy that will benefit. The top tax rate goes from 39.6% to 35%, which only helps those making more than $418,000 or $470,000 for a married couple. For the top 0.1% the average tax reduction per return will be $1 million!
Fact or Fiction?
Under the Trump plan, the "pass-through" income tax rate would be lowered. Small businesses would benefit.
Many businesses are organized in a way that they are taxed through the owner’s individual income not through the corporate tax code. 70% of all pass-through income is accrued by the top 1%. Pass-through income is taxed at the individual rate of 39.6%. Republicans want to limit the tax on pass-through income to 25%. This will cost $770 billion over ten years. It would not help small businesses. Half the benefits of this change would go to the 1%. Republicans say they want to reform the tax code, but this would create a huge loophole that would be a boon to hedge fund managers not mom and pop. A certain individual would be one of those who gain the most. Want to guess who that may be? The Trump Organization is essentially a series of pass-through entities. If the rate is lowered to 25%, Trump and his brood would see a significant tax reduction.
Fact or Fiction?
Repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) would eliminate some of the loopholes used to avoid paying taxes.
The AMT was put in place so that the wealthiest couldn’t exploit loopholes. Under this part of the tax code, the wealthy must first calculate their tax obligation under the regular code, then calculate it under the AMT. If the AMT is greater, those individuals must pay the difference. Republicans want to eliminate the AMT, giving the wealthy another break, allowing them to pay little or no tax at all.
Fact or Fiction?
The estate tax should be repealed, so American families can maintain their hard-earned assets.
This tax only effects individuals whose estate is valued at more than $5.5 million. The richest 400 billionaires have more wealth than 62% of Americans. The estate tax was intended to correct this persistent concentration of wealth. Now Republicans want to get rid of it altogether. This would cost $239 billion in ten years. Who will this benefit? 99.8% of people would be unaffected by the estate tax to begin with, so again we're looking at a tiny portion of the overall population.
Are you sensing a trend?
Let's face the facts. The Trump Tax plan is a hoax and one we've seen before. The money doesn't trickle down as promised and any small advantages that may be claimed are usually erased by cuts in essential programs and services. The White House pretends this will be a gift from the gods for the middle class, but those it actually helps are doing rather well already. According to Ed Wolff, an economist at N.Y.U., "the richest ten per cent of U.S. households own more than eighty per cent of all stock-market wealth. And, as the market has risen in anticipation of the Trump tax plan passing, these wealthy households have already enjoyed a substantial windfall." In other words, the rich get richer.
There's one last point that needs to be made, and it's one of the more insidious aspects of the plan. Trump's tax plan would widen the already cavernous racial wealth gap. "The vast majority of the benefits of the Trump Tax Scam flow to the highest quintile of families—an income band that is 77% white but only 6% African American and 7% Latino. "
What all of this underscores is how imperative it is for the American people to see Trump’s tax returns-to see just how much he is benefiting from his own policies while at best, not helping, and at worst, hurting the rest of us.
This story is far from its conclusion, but unless we mobilize like we did to fight Trumpcare, it won't have a happy ending. Like Little Red Riding Hood in her refrain with the wolf, we might say, “Mr. Trump, what small hands you have!” I'm just afraid his response would be, “The better to fleece you with, my dear!”
Credit: Tony Webster/Flickr
When a nation’s president personally and ferociously attacks one of its citizens and by extension an entire group of people, I don’t think it’s too much to ask what’s really at the heart of such vitriol. Yes- I’m speaking of 45, and yes- I’m speaking of Colin Kaepernick and his NFL colleagues.
By now I’m sure you’re all aware of the story behind Kaepernick’s protest. It began in 2016 when he sat during the playing of the national anthem. In Kaepernick’s words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." He was referring, of course, to cases such as those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, which led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Later Kaepernick took to kneeling during the anthem to show respect for members of the military but insisted that he would continue his protests until "[the American flag] represents what it's supposed to represent".
Unfortunately, between the president’s rants and stunts like the one pulled this weekend by VP Mike Pence, the original intent of Colin Kaepernick’s protest has gone a little blurry around the edges. One can't help but wonder if that wasn’t precisely their intent.
What is it exactly that 45 and his VP don’t want us to see? Maybe it’s the fact that in 2015, for example, in officer-involved killings the rate of death of young black men was 5 times higher than white men of the same age. To say we need to refocus the issue is an understatement. Up until last December the FBI didn’t even have accurate data on homicides by police and depended solely on police chiefs voluntarily submitting their numbers. In fact, it was found that by using this method the bureau was recording less than half of all killings occurring nationwide.
After the unrest in Ferguson, a White House task force convened by President Obama recommended that better data on killings and the use of force by police was warranted. The basic lack of data came to light due to a project by The Washington Post and one from The Guardian called The Counted, which combined reporting with verified crowdsourced information to give a more accurate tally of the number of police involved killings. Former FBI Director James Comey announced reforms to the FBI’s data collection methods saying it was “unacceptable” that projects like The Counted had better numbers than his own agency.
Fortunately, Senator Art Haywood (Senate District 4, serving parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties) is placing attention back where it belongs. Haywood is the prime sponsor of a bill, SB 400, which would require an independent prosecutor be appointed when there is a deadly force incident and police officers are involved. Haywood first introduced the bill during the 2015-16 legislative session and is reintroducing it now along with co-sponsors Daylin Leach (SD-17), Jay Cost (SD-43), and Vincent Hughes (SD-7).
Senator Haywood has a simple objective. “When it comes time to investigate a police-involved shooting, let’s have more independence in the process,” said Haywood.
The initiative has met with some criticism, particularly from Wendall Morris of the Pennsylvania State Police director of the Bureau of Integrity and Professional Standards unit. “I’m confident in the ability of our internal affairs division, and our investigators and current processes that’s set up to make sure that there are fair and impartial investigations,” said Morris.
Some district attorneys have also expressed reservations saying the law would take away the rights of local DA’s to decide whether prosecution in such cases is necessary. “You’d be given that decision to someone who’s unelected, who’s not responsible to the community,” Dauphin County DA Ed Marsico said.
But isn’t that precisely the bill’s objective to keep the process apolitical and independent?
Pennsylvania ACLU director Liz Randol notes, “This would be a clear-cut way to ensure that there’s a level of separation between the local district attorneys and the police officers they’re investigating. I think most important for us, it’s about making sure that the public perceives and understands that this process has to be fair.”
SB 400 would provide fairness and a neutral review of cases in which an individual dies at the hands of police. It would also restore something fundamental to our democracy-public confidence in our judicial system. Maybe then the American flag will once again “represent what it’s supposed to represent” -not just for some of the people but for us all.
posted by Amy Levengood
Francisco de Goya's The Third of May, 1808. 1814, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
I’m always intrigued when I read stories of 19th Century art patrons fainting in galleries before particularly graphic paintings by Goya, for example, or depictions of human suffering in works such as Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. It seems strange that our Victorian cousins’ sensibilities were so delicate and different from our own. Though their lives were often harsh with death a constant companion, they weren’t inundated on a daily basis with violent visual imagery in movies or on T.V. as we are today. I think of this every time there’s a mass shooting in this country. While it’s always horrifying, I must admit each time one of these events occurs I feel a little more numb than the last time. Is this a sympton of the desensitization that that our pre-24 hour news cycle fore bearers had not yet acquired? In a nation where, according to the Congressional Research Service, there are twice as many guns per capita as there were in 1968 (more than 300 million in all) it’s often hard to be surprised.
This brings me to two bills dealing with gun legislation sitting in the PA Senate. One is an improvement on current law, the other is simply appalling.
The first is SB 501: Enhancing Safety For All Parties Involved In Protection From Abuse. Under current PA law, when a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order is issued, judges have the discretion of whether to order a surrender of the defendant’s firearms. The defendant has the option of turning them over to a parent, close friend, or relative. This presents a very dangerous proposition. Nothing prevents the third party from allowing the defendant continued access to the weapon. There are at least three cases over the last decade where a defendant has convinced their friend or relative to return the gun and then committed a homicide. (Click here to view the Domestic Violence Fatality Report.) SB 501 would only allow the firearms to be surrendered to the County Sheriff, an additional law enforcement agency, or a federally-licensed firearms dealer. If the defendant is convicted, the firearms would have to be handed over within 24 hours rather than the current 60 days.
Providing victims with extended PFA protection is a significant tool for victim safety and offender accountability. SB 501 would allow judges to use risk assessment tools to determine whether a defendant poses a danger to a victim when determining bail.
Ellen Kramer of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence notes, “There is so much more that must be done to stem the tide of domestic violence in our communities. For many domestic violence victims, a PFA offers vital protection that allows them to escape their abusive relationships and live in safer and more independent environments.”
Now for the appalling part. The gun lobby has a singular solution for securing our country against gun violence: Americans need to pack more heat. According to NRA Leader Wayne LaPierre, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Beyond this being simply nuts, the lack of logic in it was born out in the recent massacre in Las Vegas.
“If you were in the concert venue, concealed carrying, it’s not likely you could effectively respond,” said Pete Blair, the executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University and author of a study of police responses to active shooters. “Most people with a pistol aren’t accurate or effective beyond 25 yards.”
In the case of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 383, the “good guys” are teachers. SB 383 would allow school personnel to have access to firearms in school safety zones with three conditions: if the school board approves, they are licensed to carry, and have met certain training requirements. The bill has passed 28-22 in the PA Senate. Now it's up to the House Education Committee.
Numerous groups have come out in opposition to the bill, including PSEA, AFT, Ceasefire PA, and Moms Demand Action. “Elementary, middle and high school teachers should not be expected to do double-duty as sharpshooters, nor should they have to tolerate an environment where their colleagues or visitors in their schools might be carrying a loaded gun," reads a statement from Moms Demand Action.
When we let fear shape public policies, we end up with a false sense of security without actually addressing the problem. When we let campaign donations and the NRA shape public policies, we end up with a lot of "thoughts and prayers" and no concrete action. It's this lassitude or "numbing down" that the gun lobby and the politicians in its pocket are counting on.
Some may chalk up Victorian delicacy to tight corsets, but I like to hope that we are still capable of a spontaneous and visceral reaction to violence and bloodshed. Let's hope our lawmakers, too, have retained at least this much of a semblance of humanity.
posted by Amy Levengood
If you're a resident of California, New York, Colorado, or even Guam, and are a member of the LGBT community you can rest assured that you are protected by law from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in both the public and private sectors. Those areas listed are just a few of the 23 states and territories which afford their residents such protection. (See the map above.)
“What about Pennsylvania?” you may ask. Believe it or not Pennsylvania was the first state to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation in the public sector back in 1975. (This was done via executive order. In 2003 via executive order, discrimination was banned based on gender identity.) But since then those working in the private sector, which are by far the majority, have been left defenseless. And little has been done to protect transgender individuals in either sector of the economy. There are currently no explicit, comprehensive statewide non-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people in Pennsylvania.
Remember the little cartoon scroll from School House Rock! who dreamed of becoming a bill? He sang, “It’s a long, long wait while I’m sitting in committee.” Well sitting quietly in committee since April 2017 is an act now known as SB 613. It’s a piece of legislation that seeks to amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) of 1955. It’s identical to SB 974 proposed in the last session of the PA legislature and co-sponsored by Berks County’s own Senator Judy Schwank.
Here’s the language of the current PHRA:
(a) The practice or policy of discrimination against individuals or groups by reason of their race, color, familial status, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability, use of guide or support animals because of the blindness, deafness or physical handicap of the user or because the user is a handler or trainer of support or guide animals is a matter of concern of the Commonwealth. Such discrimination foments domestic strife and unrest, threatens the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of the Commonwealth, and undermines the foundations of a free democratic state. The denial of equal employment, housing and public accommodation opportunities because of such discrimination, and the consequent failure to utilize the productive capacities of individuals to their fullest extent, deprives large segments of the population of the Commonwealth of earnings necessary to maintain decent standards of living, necessitates their resort to public relief and intensifies group conflicts, thereby resulting in grave injury to the public health and welfare, compels many individuals to live in dwellings which are substandard, unhealthful and overcrowded, resulting in racial segregation in public schools and other community facilities, juvenile delinquency and other evils, thereby threatening the peace, health, safety and general welfare of the Commonwealth and its inhabitants.
(b) It is hereby declared to be the public policy of this Commonwealth to foster the employment of all individuals in accordance with their fullest capacities regardless of their race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability, use of guide or support animals because of the blindness, deafness or physical handicap of the user or because the user is a handler or trainer of support or guide animals, and to safeguard their right to obtain and hold employment without such discrimination, to assure equal opportunities to all individuals and to safeguard their rights to public accommodation and to secure housing accommodation and commercial property regardless of race, color, familial status, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability, use of guide or support animals because of blindness or deafness of the user or because the user is a handler or trainer of guide or support animals.
(c) This act shall be deemed an exercise of the police power of the Commonwealth for the protection of the public welfare, prosperity, health and peace of the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
SB 613 would provide a basic level of protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Why should Pennsylvanians support this amendment? Number one-it’s the right thing to do! In addition, recent surveys show 70% of Pennsylvanians support bolstering protections against discrimination for the LGBT community. But beyond that there are positive economic benefits for the commonwealth. Promoting a respect for diversity can only serve to attract the best workers and give Pennsylvania an economic advantage. Language from the bill's Memorandum sums it up well:
"More than 400 companies in Pennsylvania, including some of the largest employers, have non-discrimination policies in place that include sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Additionally, all Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Commonwealth have non-discrimination policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and most have a gender identity or expression policy as well. These employers recognize that by respecting diversity, they can attract and retain the best workers and maintain a competitive advantage – a key factor in stimulating economic growth.
Pennsylvania should be seen as a place that welcomes any individual who wants to work hard, succeed, and contribute to our economy without the fear of being fired or refused services simply because of who they are. Although there has been an increase in the number of Pennsylvania municipalities that have passed non-discrimination ordinances, without a statewide law, thousands of individuals not residing in one of these thirty-eight (38) municipalities are not covered. Moreover, Pennsylvania has the distinction of being the only state in the Northeast without a law protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity."
Since the Memorandum was written, the number of municipalities has increased to 44.
Municipalities with non-discrimination ordinances
Forty-four (44) municipalities in Pennsylvania prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or both:
1. City of Philadelphia (1982 SO, 2002 GI)
2. City of Harrisburg (1983)
3. City of Pittsburgh (1997)
4. City of York (1998)
5. City of Lancaster (2002)
6. City of Allentown (2002)
7. Erie County (2002)
8. City of Erie (2002)
9. New Hope Borough (2002)
10. City of Scranton (2003)
11. Swarthmore Borough (2006)
12. City of West Chester (2006)
13. City of Easton (2006)
14. Lansdowne Borough (2006)
15. State College Borough (2007)
16. Allegheny County (2009)
17. City of Reading (2009)
18. Doylestown Borough (2010)
19. Lower Merion Township (2010)
20. Borough of Conshohocken (2011)
21. Haverford Township (2011)
22. City of Bethlehem (2011)
23. Springfield Township (2011)
24. Newtown Borough (2011)
25. Whitemarsh Township (2011)
26. Jenkintown Borough (2011)
27. Susquehanna Township (2011)
28. Cheltenham Borough (2012)
29. Abington Township (2012)
30. Upper Merion Township (2012)
31. East Norriton Township (2012)
32. City of Pittston (2013)
33. Bristol Borough (2013)
34. Downingtown (2014)
35. Ambler Borough (2016)
36. Dickson City (2016)
37. Wilkes-Barre (2016)
38. Carlisle (2016)
39. Kennett Square Borough (2017)
40. Phoenixville (2017)
41. Royersford (2017)
42. Camp Hill (2017)
43. Stroudsburg (2017)
44. Upper Dublin Township (2017)
courtesy Equality Pennsylvania
Listen to the stories of people directly affected by SB 613:
Hopefully our legislators will get SB 613 out of committee and up for a vote soon. As for me, I don't remember the Declaration of Independence saying anything about pursuing happiness only in certain zip codes. Maybe I need to binge watch some School House Rock!
posted by Amy Levengood
Shortly after the terrible events in Charlottesville, a message came into my inbox from Governor Wolf. On the surface it read like the usual boilerplate with the fine print at the bottom reminding me that contributions and gifts to Tom Wolf for Governor are not tax deductible. But something about the tone of it was a bit different. In the email Wolf talked about the tragedy in Charlottesville and expressed his and his wife Frances’ sympathy for the victims. He denounced white supremacy and described the president’s response as “nothing short of disgusting and incendiary”. He also reminded us of the special place Pennsylvania holds in the nation because of its particular history, first as a colony built on values of freedom and tolerance, then as the place where the Declaration of Independence, the document which embodies those values was written and signed, and later as home to the battlefields of Gettysburg where people gave their lives to preserve and defend the young nation in order that those values could be enjoyed by all.
This started me to thinking. Where does a state like Pennsylvania, which sits north of the Mason Dixon Line, find itself on the continuum of tolerance and bigotry? I began to do a little sleuthing and what I found was troubling.
Back in February the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a study showing hate groups are on the rise across the country. SPLC has identified 917 organizations in the U.S. that qualify as hate groups. 40 of those groups have affiliates right here in PA. In fact, Pennsylvania ranks as the state with the 5th most hate groups in the U.S.
Sadly this came as no surprise. At one time I lived in the center of Boyertown and can vividly remember when once a month usually on Saturdays, KKK members would rally in broad daylight, albeit hidden under hoods, handing out pamphlets to passing motorists in the main intersection of town. That’s when Project Lemonade stepped in. Using a phone chain to alert members, Project Lemonade would spring into action when the Klan began their activities. For every minute the hate group would rally, Project Lemonade would counter-protest in order to solicit donations which in turn would be given to the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League and the SPLC or be used toward school programs and books that promoted diversity. This grass roots effort was successful in ridding downtown Boyertown of the Klan.
Unfortunately the didn't go far. As was noted earlier, the SPLC has identified 40 hate groups in PA. On their website is a resource called the Hate Map which pinpoints the groups in PA and throughout the country. Looking at the map, one sees that an affiliate of the Klan calling itself the Ku Klos Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is centered about 6 miles north of Boyertown in Bally, PA.
Other groups in PA that the SPLC has identified as hate groups fall into the following categories: general hate, white supremacy, black separatists, Holocaust deniers, radical traditional Catholicism, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT. Of all these, the Klan remains the most active.
In addition to the above-listed groups, in 2015 Pennsylvania was found to have the most anti-government groups in the country, including two militias. (Members of the Pennsylvania Lightfoot Militia were spotted in the crowd in Charlottesville. See Sean Kitchen's article in Raging Chicken Press.) SPCL doesn’t qualify anti-government groups as criminal, violent, or racist. The groups describe themselves as opposed to the “New World Order” and in general subscribe to unfounded conspiracy theories and extreme antigovernment doctrines.
It’s not a pretty picture we Pennsylvanians see when we look in the mirror. We need to remain vigilant and remind ourselves of our history. We need to take heart in how a small grassroots group of ordinary citizens with an innocuous name like Project Lemonade chased the bogeyman from their town. Governor Wolf said in his email, “I have a message for any white supremacist who thinks that they can make Pennsylvania a safe haven for bigotry and intolerance: you are not welcome here. You cannot intimidate us because the spirit of Pennsylvania will always win over hate.” I hope he’s right.
7 Charts that explain hate groups in the U.S.
If you're asking what you can do, take a look at a new publication from the SPLC: "Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide". The center describes it as "a blueprint for speaking up and organizing communities against hate while – most importantly – avoiding violent confrontations."
posted by Amy Levengood
photo courtesy Ivan Dorta
Below is the Mission Statement of the Berks County Jail System:
The Berks County Jail System is intended to establish a secure institutional environment that serves to provide protection and safety for the citizens, staff and the legally incarcerated of Berks County, while meeting the standards established for this purpose by the American Correctional Association and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
This will be accomplished through the use of a cost-effective organization and procedures that provide for security, social restoration and (re)habilitation in the jail environment.
Aerial view of the Berks County Prison in Leesport
photo source: www.FlyinPhilsPhotos.com
It seems County Commissioner Mark Scott has zoomed-in on only one particular word of that statement, i.e. cost-effective. Faced with an 84-year-old structure and state budget shortfalls, the Berks County Commissioners (Kevin Barnhardt, Christian Leinbach, Mark Scott) have taken it upon themselves to explore solutions to revamping the prison and its operations. Scott has given estimates of $100 million to construct a new facility. Proposals from the architectural firm, L.R. Kimball, have placed the figure upwards of $152 million to rebuild or remodel.
Unfortunately, the commissioners’ exploration has led them to the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, which is managed by the private firm GEO Group. What is the GEO Group? GEO Group is a Florida-based company which specializes in privatized correctional facilities in the U.S. and across the globe. Its facilities include prisons, immigration detention centers, and mental health and residential treatment centers. In 2015, 45% of GEO Group’s revenue was derived from U.S. Government contracts. The company has been the subject of multiple law suits involving poor treatment of prisoners. In 2016 Deputy A.G. Sally Yates announced the U.S. Department of Justice intended to phase out private prison contracts, but since the new administration has taken over officials have stated the policy is now under review. By the way, GEO Group donated generously to the Trump Campaign.
With the glaring conflicts of interest inherent in placing private, for-profit companies in charge of human services, it’s surprising that only a handful of individuals have come forward to express their reservations. But what they have had to say is compelling and deserves attention.
Correctional officer, Patrick Murray, has asked the commissioners to take privatization off the table to protect the safety and welfare of the community. "Our officers, our staff, our supervisors do a real good job - even if most people never see it," he said. "We're kind of the bottom of the shoe when it comes to law enforcement, but we really care about what we do." Another officer, Rob Haeusler, argues, "Private corporations outside the state do not care about recidivism rates, specialty courts, alternative sentencing or how we treat inmates," he said. "They do not answer to the community, they answer to investors who demand a financial return. Inmate population decreases are actually a negative growth aspect for their bottom line."
The concerns don’t only encompass prisoner well-being. Shannon Kozik, a vocal opponent of privatizing the jail, expressed her fears for prison employees. "The county has already walked down the road of privatization," she said, citing the county's decision to close the Berks County Youth Center in 2012 and the subsequent contract with Abraxas Academy, which is part of the GEO Group. Kozik listed several "controversial incidents" Abraxas has had, including two riots in 2010, residents assaulting employees, and several charges of aggravated assault. "While any correctional facility will have challenges, the high rates of assaults gives me pause and leads me to question the staffing and training practices that the GEO Group supports," she said. Abraxas Academy, Kozik noted, is just one of many GEO Group facilities with a history of staffing concerns, poor treatment for those incarcerated, law suits, and allegations of corruption. Kozik also expressed concern about CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), "the other major private entity," which, she said, has "a comparable list of concerns. It is my hope that these issues – not just the bottom line – will be taken into consideration when decisions about privatization are made.”
Also read Merissa Sechler's "Letter to the Editor" in the Reading Eagle.
The topic came up at the most recent commissioners' meeting on Thursday August 17th. County Commissioner and prison board chairman Kevin Barnhard said, "I want to again state personally on the record: I have never advocated for privatizing the operation of the jail. This is the single most important cost driver for this county. We're going to take our time and do our due diligence to make sure whatever happens is in keeping with trying to contain costs as well as for the safety of the inmates and the staff."
Commissioner Christian Leinbach added, "All options are on the table, with the exception of doing nothing. It is crystal clear that we cannot let the jail go as it is. No business that I'm aware of is 'pushing' privatization of the county of Berks. We are looking at that – at least I am – as an option. And I’ve made it very clear at the end of the day that it is not just about money."
Commissioner Scott was not in attendance at the meeting. Perhaps Commissioner Scott needs to revisit the prison's mission statement and explore it in its entirety next time.
To contact the Berks County Commissioners click here.
Listed below are some talking points compiled by Ivan Dorta, a jail employee and activist in the fight against prison privatization.
posted by Amy Levengood
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol and First Sts., 1 First St. NE. Those are the addresses of the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the Supreme Court, respectively. If you’ve forgotten we still have three branches of government in Washington, you’re forgiven. Given the daily antics of the Executive Branch, it’s easy to overlook what’s going on near the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. So let’s take a little tour down Memory Lane.
In 1965 Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act to address racial discrimination in our electoral process. In Section 5 of the Act, there exists a “preclearance requirement” that requires certain states to obtain a “determination” by the U.S. Attorney General or a panel of the U.S. District Court of D.C. prior to enforcing any changes in their voting laws, that those laws do not "deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group". Section 4(b) of the Act addresses the “coverage formula” which essentially determines which states are subject to “preclearance”. In the original 1965 Act, those states and jurisdictions included the whole of Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia; and some subdivisions (usually counties) in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Carolina.
Take a leap forward in time to 2013. In Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder, the constitutionality of Sections 5 and 4(b) was challenged. On June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in a 5 to 4 vote that Section 4(b) was unconstitutional, because data used in the “coverage formula” was over 40 years old. Section 5 was not struck down but is de facto null and void, because it can’t be enforced until Congress enacts a new coverage formula. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that discrimination in voting had indeed decreased since 1965 but mostly due to the Voting Rights Act itself. Bader noted that "[t]hrowing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet”. However, while acknowledging in a majority opinion that the Act was successful "at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process”, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “no one can fairly say that it shows anything approaching the 'pervasive,' 'flagrant,' 'widespread,' and 'rampant' discrimination that faced Congress in 1965, and that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the nation.” This ruling led many critics to wonder if Justice Roberts believed racism was a thing of the past.
Then 2016 happened. Enough said except to point out that among other things, many accepted norms and traditions were turned upside down. Could this u-turn apply to Justice Roberts as well? Writing for the Brennan Center for Justice, associate law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy muses precisely on that question, whether the 2016 election changed Justice Roberts’ tune. Torres-Spelliscy focuses specifically on a 6-2 ruling in February in the case of Buck v. Davis, in which the Supreme Court held that “Duane Buck received ineffective assistance of counsel by allowing this racially stereotyped evidence to enter the case”.
Click here to read Professor Torres-Spelliscy's complete article.
posted by Amy Levengood