Why We Still Need the Voting Rights Act

And Why the Whole World is Watching

When he signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson said:

This act flows from a clear and simple wrong. . . . Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color.  This law will ensure them the right to vote.  The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify.  The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny.

Our friends over at the Alliance for Justice published this great primer on how the Voting Rights Act works, how it has helped, why it isn’t enough, and why the whole world is watching how the US Supreme Court will rule.

Read the entire, original article here.

Retired Federal Judge: Your Faith In Secret Surveillance Court Is Dramatically Misplaced | ThinkProgress

by Nicole Flatow of thinkprogress.org

A retired federal judge warned Friday against blind faith in the secret court deciding the scope of U.S. government surveillance. During a panel discussion on constitutional privacy protection in the wake of a leaked Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decision that revealed widespread NSA data collection, U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner stood up in the audience to counter the statements of conservative law professor Nathan Sales that secret surveillance requests are subject to meaningful judicial review. She cautioned:

As a former Article III judge, I can tell you that your faith in the FISA Court is dramatically misplaced.   Read the entire article at thinkprogress.

BREAKING COURT NEWS: President Does Job. Republicans Set Hair on Fire.

By Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice


This should be a routine story. Every president does exactly the same thing; when there are vacancies on the federal bench the president is required to nominate new judges, subject, of course, to the advice and consent of the Senate. It’s in his job description (see Constitution; Article II, section 2).orted to be ready to do something very important: He is expected to make nominations for the three empty seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Which is why you may be puzzled to hear Senate Republicans are screaming bloody murder. The president is trying to “pack the court,” they cry, as if filling vacant judgeships is some kind of unprecedented power grab. They are outraged that the president has the audacity to send names forward for empty seats on the 11-member D.C. Circuit

Read the complete article by Nan Aron from the Alliance for Justice on the Huffington Post:

Nan Aron: BREAKING COURT NEWS: President Does Job. Republicans Set Hair on Fire..

Will Stop and Swab Become the New Stop and Frisk? Reflections on National DNA Day

Today is national DNA Day. It marks the day on which James Watson and Francis Crick along with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin published their papers elucidating the structure of human DNA. 10 years ago today also marks the day that scientists working on the Human Genome Project announced that their efforts were nearly complete. That same day the U.S. Congress issued a proclamation declaring April 25th National DNA Day. Having studied and worked in the field of genetics for two decades, this day has always passed with a sense of geeky pride for me. Pride in the work that I was a part of and pride in the fact that for one day many in the nation would share in the wonderment and potential of the human genome and experience what I felt almost every day. Nothing has changed for me in the excitement I feel or in my belief that research into our DNA will bring about great capacity to alleviate suffering, shatter long-held misconceptions about race and class, and help people live to their fullest potential. However, this year I cannot help but feel the technology I have always held in such high regard has been hijacked.
You see, a person’s DNA reveals a lot about them. This is mostly information concerning discontinuous traits like your blood type or clearly-defined diseases like hemophilia or sickle-cell anemia. Your DNA can also provide information on your likelihood of developing other diseases such as cancers or diabetes. Medical genetics may soon give precise odds that a person will develop any given disease, provide information about continuous traits such as height, and will likely provide us with all the information necessary to plan out our health care needs, dietary requirements, and exercise regimes for our entire lives. Of course, our DNA will not reveal quite everything about us. It will not reveal as socio-economic status or race. Sure, DNA may provide someone with an intellectual advantage to boost earning potential or specify how and to what extent differing pigments are carried, but this is actually quite a subtle and continuous trait. There is also research which now demonstrates genetic markers for propensity towards anger or having a predisposition to violence. Scientists carefully warn that this information should not be used to make assumptions about any person since many of us carry these genes or markers; they simply aren’t expressed for some reason. Your DNA may also be able to do one other thing, convince a court or jury of your guilt or innocence.
It is this last item that is of particular concern to me on this National DNA Day. Many in law enforcement have been working for more than a decade to expand laws authorizing the collection of samples from individuals taken into custody so that their DNA may be added to a national database and checked against DNA obtained at other crime scenes. After efforts to pass such a law in Nevada was unsuccessful two years ago, the legislature has again taken the issue up for consideration with Senate Bill 243, which passed the Senate last week by a unanimous vote.
This seems a particularly strange use of government resources, since the use of genetic information as a criminal dragnet goes against everything that one is taught as a scientist. You should never set out to prove yourself right, but always strive to prove yourself wrong. I have always found it strange that we as a society are willing to spend so much on law enforcement and the penal system and so little on education, research, and health care. As citizens, we should be demanding that our government focus its attention and use this technology to cure diseases and understand some of the factors which cause people to become prone to acts of violence. Instead, our government is allowing the FBI, not scientists, to push states to enact punishment-based laws while eroding civil rights and liberties in the process. The United States now has a national DNA indexing system known as CODIS [Combined DNA Index System]. It is run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and provides, among other things, support for the expansion of model legislation for arrestee DNA collection.
Understandably, those in law enforcement want to be able to solve and prevent as many crimes as possible. And while most would agree that law enforcement should have the best tools available, I think people would rank the preservation of individual rights and liberties as an even higher priority. While many people question the use of the technology at all, others simply question the practice of collecting specimens from individuals prior to conviction and would be willing to overlook other issues if this additional precaution were taken. I myself have a number of concerns with the use of DNA profiling, ranging from the technological to the legal. While some of my concerns could be lessened with changes to the bill, such as post-conviction sample collection and better regulations of the chain of custody and DNA lab, my concerns with racial equity and Constitutional rights cannot. There also seems to be unwillingness on the part of legislators sponsoring these types of bills to make any significant changes. The lack of compromise on the matter is puzzling. It was not until reading the Department of Justice report on the effectiveness of DNA profiling along with realizing that the FBI was pushing this model legislation did the unwillingness for change make sense.
Several reports over the last decade are revealing in what they conclude; they are also revealing in what they omit. In all the reports, the top contributing factors leading to a DNA profile match are the quantity and quality of the sample taken from the crime scene for which a match is sought. Several other factors appear on these lists, including techniques, training, and chain of custody. The one thing you will not find in these reports is the efficacy of the sample size database. Do not bother trying to find such numbers either; the government has refused to release them. Studies in countries that utilizing or have used similar databases show that the size of the database makes little difference to finding a profile match. These studies demonstrate that an extremely high number of DNA profiles would be required in order to be of much use and that law enforcement is better served investigating the crime rather than spending time and resources waiting on some miracle technology to do it for them. In other words, the only way to make the system work is to drastically increase the number of people required to submit a sample for profiling. This explains the unwillingness to drop pre-conviction sampling and also explains why there has even been a push for expansion in other states, which now include such violations as walking a dog in California with the wrong length of leash.
As of the end of 2012, just over half of the states have enacted arrestee DNA collection laws. Nearly all of these laws are pre-conviction, and I for one do not find it to be a coincidence that 20 of those 28 states are at or below the Missouri Compromise Line. Oklahoma, Georgia, and Nevada are the exceptions. I mention this, because it brings me to my last and most important deal-breaker for these laws.

If you are reading this blog, then it should also come as no surprise to you that black men are six times more likely to be stopped by police, more than three times as likely to be taken into custody as a result and twice as likely to have some sort of altercation resulting in additional, serious charges. Once introduced or reintroduced to the criminal justice system, people of color are far more likely to be convicted of crimes for which they are charged and more likely to receive a prison sentence. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. prison population is comprised of people of color and 1 in 10 black males in their thirties will be in jail on any given day. These disparities that exist in our criminal justice system will also be extended to the DNA profile databases, subjecting people of color to disproportionately high rates of what will amount to a form of electronic surveillance without probable cause and without warrant for the rest of their lives. I would hope that after decades of Jim Crow, segregation, the War on Drugs, the school to prison pipeline, and stop and frisk, we wouldn’t want to add additional measures to further exacerbate the this epidemic.

Perhaps some in society are willing to accept a forfeiture of rights for those convicted of crimes. After all, it isn’t their rights they are willing to forfeit. But are people really willing to forfeit the rights to privacy, due process, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure for everyone? There should be no debate regarding the violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, allowing defendants to access their own sample for the purposes of exoneration, and the disproportionate effects of racial profiling and the institutional racism of the criminal justice system. We should turn our eyes instead to the system that still struggles to confront and address the institutionalized racism that clouds much of today’s justice.

Demise of Mining Tax Protection Moves Closer to Reality

This week brought with it surprising and welcome news on Tuesday in the form of due pass recommendation for SJR 15 from the Senate Committee on Revenue. After hearing testimony in support of SJR15 from numerous supporters followed by testimony from the Nevada Mining Association and a legal representative of the industry in opposition, or was it neutral? perhaps it was neutral leaning towards opposition?  We couldn’t really figure it out and neither could the Senators on the Committee as they tried in vein to get a simple answer from the two industry spokespersons.

As the hearing on SJR15 came to a close, Chairman Kihuen indicated that he was open to motions on the Resolution. It was at this point that Senator Parks, seconded by Senator Roberson, gave Nevadans great hope for the ultimate Sesquicentennial Anniversary present– the ability to change the Net Proceeds of Minerals taxation scheme. This was followed by a unanimous vote of the Committee and the hearing was closed, or so we thought.

In what could only be described as a bizarre and pointless lecture about spilled milk, Asm. Hansen criticized his fellow lawmakers for passing the measure out of Committee. In his poorly timed post-vote tirade, the Assemblyman accused the Senators of being out of touch, among other things. Considering the years of distorted industry ‘facts’ that have been debunked, the legal spin that has been repeatedly corrected by the Legislative Council Bureau, and the public relations love affair the industry thought it was having with Nevadans rebuffed, maybe it is Mr. Hansen that is out of touch.

After so many years of feeling like Charlie Brown going for yet another pass at the football, the most welcome vote brought all in the room a subdued mix of relief and cautious joy as we looked around the room at one another to confirm we hadn’t just imagined the vote. We slowly got up, shared some hugs and began to discuss the next steps in this struggle.

As for the hardrock mining industry representatives, this time all they got was a rock!


The image used in this article shows cyanide leaching area in the Carlin trend region of Nevada. It is credited to NASA (yes, it was taken from space) and is under Creative Commons license, some rights retained, not for profit use.

Malicious Obstruction in the Senate – NYTimes.com

Earlier this month, during one of his new across-the-aisle good-will tours, President Obama pleaded with Senate Republicans to ease up on their record number of filibusters of his nominees. He might as well have been talking to one of the statues in the Capitol. Republicans have made it clear that erecting hurdles for Mr. Obama is, if anything, their overriding legislative goal. Read the NYT editorial on the issue. Malicious Obstruction in the Senate – NYTimes.com.

All Rise!

Well, the President is trying, anyway.

In the last 4 years the Federal Judiciary has moved a bit closer to reflecting the faces of those who come before it seeking justice. With over 3,200 judges in the Federal Court system, it is astonishing how the names of so many of President Obama’s appointees are followed with, “the first…”  The President not only holds the distinction of being the only President in U.S. history to nominate an equal number of women and men for the bench but also leads–by double digits– in the number of minority candidate nominations. This sounds like good news, right?  It would be if President Obama did not also hold so many of the records for opposition party obstruction tactics.

Senate Republicans have blocked more Federal Court nominations under this President than in U.S. history. This President’s nominees who are lucky enough to move through the process have, on average, waited 4 times as long as those nominated under every other President in recent history. A combination of tradition and lack of transparency in the process has allowed Senate Republicans to manipulate the Constitution’s ‘advise and consent’ clause for partisan political gain.

PLAN and ProgressNow NV have launched a new program this year to educate Nevadans about the Federal Courts and appointment process and the impact that a handful of people at any level of the Federal Courts can have on the issues we care about. To find out more about this program or to see about scheduling a presentation, contact Michael Ginsburg at PLAN  or Brian Fadie at ProgressNow NV

mginsburg@planevada.org  702-791-1965