Blog Posts by Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News

  • Obama: If I were a judge, I’d strike down gay marriage bans

    The U.S. Supreme Court (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

    President Barack Obama said in a press conference Friday that if he sat on the Supreme Court, he would most likely rule that gay marriage bans are unconstitutional.

    Obama's Justice Department filed a brief Thursday night with the Supreme Court urging the nine justices to overturn California's voter-approved gay marriage ban, which passed in 2008 with 52 percent of the vote. The brief argues that the state discriminates against gay couples in California without showing there is a legitimate government interest in doing so.

    At the press conference, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, said he felt compelled to weigh in on the case after declaring last year his personal belief that gay people should be allowed to marry. "I didn't feel like that was something that this administration could avoid," he said of his decision to wade into the case. "I felt it was important for us to articulate what I believe and what this administration stands for."

    He explained that although the

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  • Obama administration files brief supporting gay marriage in California

    Kat McGuckin holds a gay marriage pride flag in front of the Supreme Court in November 2012. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

    The Obama administration has waded into the legal battle over California's gay marriage ban, filing a brief with the Supreme Court Thursday evening that argues the state's voters did not have the right to decide gay couples cannot wed.

    In the brief, the Justice Department--which is not involved in the case--argues that the gay marriage ban violated same-sex couples' constitutional guarantee to equal protection under the law and is the result of prejudice.

    "Prejudice may not...be the basis for differential treatment under the law," the brief said.

    But the Obama administration stopped short of calling for a countrywide guarantee of equal access to marriage for gay people in the brief, keeping its arguments focused on California.

    "Throughout history, we have seen the unjust consequences of decisions and policies rooted in discrimination," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. "The issues before the Supreme Court in this case ... are not just important to the tens of thousands of Americans who are being denied equal benefits and rights under our laws, but to our Nation as a whole.”

    The California ballot initiative, called Proposition 8, was passed in 2008 with 52 percent of the vote and reversed an earlier state Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage in the state. Thousands of gay couples in the state had already tied the knot when the ban passed.

    In its brief, the Obama administration also argued that laws targeting gays and lesbians specifically should face "heightened scrutiny" from the courts, since gay people have faced a history of discrimination, share a trait they cannot change, and lack political power.

    President Barack Obama announced last year that he believes gay couples should be allowed to get married but did not say they have a constitutional right to wed.

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  • Civil rights leaders outraged over Scalia’s ‘racial entitlement’ argument

    Justice Antonin Scalia (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)Civil rights leaders are up in arms over Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's skeptical questions about a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement that brought an end to Jim Crow-era racial discrimination at the polls in the South.

    In oral arguments over the law on Wednesday, Scalia, a stalwart of the court's conservative wing, suggested that the Voting Rights Act was overwhelmingly reauthorized in 2006 by Congress because the nation's politicians were afraid to oppose a "racial entitlement."

    Scalia said that each time the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized in the past 50 years, more and more senators supported it, even though the problem of racial discrimination at the polls has decreased over that time. "Now, I don't think that's attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this," he said. "I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It's been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes."

    The Supreme Court was hearing arguments from Shelby County, Ala., that the nine states and assorted counties covered under the 1965 law no longer need special federal oversight to prevent them from discriminating against black voters.

    Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a major figure in the civil rights movement who was a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said on MSNBC that he was appalled by the comment. “It is an affront to all of what the civil rights movement stood for, what people died for, what people bled for, and those of us who marched across that bridge 48 years ago, we didn’t march for some racial entitlement,” he said. “We wanted to open up the political process and let all of the people come in, and it didn’t matter whether they were black or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American.”

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  • Voter ID laws hang in balance as Supreme Court considers Voting Rights Act

    Voting signs are posted for the election in a firehouse on Nov. 4, 2008, in Selma, Ala. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

    On Wednesday, the Supreme Court hears arguments over whether a key part of the Voting Rights Act—a cornerstone of the civil rights movement—is unfairly targeting Southern states for systematic racial bias that no longer exists.

    The court's decision on the law, which helped dismantle decades of discriminatory voting restrictions in the South, could hand a victory to the recent conservative-led movement to tighten identification requirements and limit early voting hours at the ballot box. A wave of such laws swept 30 states over the past few years.

    Supporters say these laws were designed to combat voter fraud. But they have attracted lawsuits from civil rights groups and the federal government, who argue that the laws disenfranchise minority citizens, who are less likely than white voters to have photo ID. (The Brennan Center estimates that about 11 percent of voting-age citizens do not have a government-issued photo ID.) The laws also sparked a political argument, with some Democrats accusing Republicans of pushing voter ID laws because they affected constituencies that tended to vote Democrat.

    Some of these state photo ID laws in the South have been aggressively fended off by the Justice Department, which argued that states covered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act cannot change election law in this way because it disadvantages minority voters. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, reauthorized by Congress in 2006, gives the federal government the ability to pre-emptively reject changes to election law in states and counties that have a history of discriminating against minority voters. The law covers nine states and portions of seven more.

    The Justice Department used Section 5 of the law to block voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina last year, and it also struck down early voting restrictions in five counties in Florida. (Minority voters are more likely than white voters to vote early in person.)

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  • English requirement in immigration reform will test underfunded ESL system

    Students at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan speak into headsets as they practice their English. (Liz Goodwin/Yahoo News)

    The thorny topic of immigration reform has catapulted to the top of the to-do lists of both Republicans and Democrats, even as both sides continue to bicker over details. President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators are eager to pass an immigration bill this year, with their main points of disagreement, deliberated in public and in private, centering around topics like border security, guest-worker programs and how long undocumented immigrants should have to wait before gaining citizenship.

    There's one issue, however, both sides agree on: The nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants will need to know English before they can earn permanent legal status, commonly referred to as a green card. And therein lies a barely discussed problem with the potential to overwhelm states and put up a barrier to immigrants who want to legalize: The nation’s English as a Second Language system may not be up to the task.

    Those familiar with the issue say the woefully underfunded adult ESL system would face challenges that could stretch it to its breaking point. They include the influx of millions of new students, a severe lack of clarity around funding, and the need for more flexible learning situations, as many immigrants—who often work several jobs—will find it difficult to attend classes.

    The current ESL system is "cobbled together with toothpicks and Band-Aids,” said Paul Musselman, the president of Carnegie Speech, a virtual learning company that makes language software.

    It would be “insane” to require illegal immigrants to learn English, added Leslie Robbins, the executive director of Riverside Language Program in Manhattan, which teaches legal immigrants intensive English courses. For one, she noted, the system is already overloaded. "There's not enough funding currently to deal with the numbers of people who both need and want English-language instruction," she said.

    And Margie McHugh, an expert on immigrant integration issues at the Migration Policy Institute think tank, noted that “the idea that somehow the system could accommodate 11 million new people is beyond anyone’s imagination."

    McHugh estimated that, without schooling, about 55 percent of undocumented immigrants wouldn’t be able to pass the English portion of the U.S. citizenship test—which requires someone to understand English phrases when spoken to slowly and with repetition—if it were given today. That means about 4 million to 5 million people could simultaneously need instruction under the immigration reform law.

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  • ‘Stand your ground’ laws survive debate one year after Trayvon Martin’s death

    College student Jajuan Kelley covers his mouth with a Skittles wrapper as he rallies against

    One year after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by an armed neighborhood watchman, setting off a national debate about race and gun laws, the campaign to change state self-defense laws in Martin's name has petered out.

    George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer facing second-degree murder charges, said he shot Martin in self-defense last Feb. 26 after he decided to follow him in the Sanford, Fla., gated community because Martin looked suspicious. Zimmerman called the police and then approached Martin, and they ended up in a physical fight. Zimmerman, saying he feared for his life, then shot Martin. He was not charged with a crime for several weeks, and his defense attorneys argue he's immune from prosecution under Florida's "stand your ground" law.

    The incident led immediately to scrutiny of the law, which is on the books of 20 states in various forms. Basically, "stand your ground" says that people can use lethal force against an attacker without first attempting to retreat if they have reason to fear for their lives. Most states already allowed people to defend themselves in this way if they're attacked at home, but "stand your ground" went a step further to cover all public places.

    A Tampa Bay Times analysis of 200 "stand your ground" cases in Florida—the law was adopted there in 2005—found that the law has been inconsistently applied, with one man escaping homicide prosecution even though he left an altercation to get his gun from his car, returned and then shot the attacker.

    After the Martin shooting and subsequent uproar, a coalition of civil rights groups and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the nation's highest-profile gun-control advocate, started a campaign, called "Second Chance on Shoot First," to encourage the repeal of these laws. Soon after, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, appointed a task force to study the law. Meanwhile, lawmakers in at least four states with "stand your ground" laws introduced legislation to alter or repeal their laws.

    But not much has happened since then on the state level. On Friday, the Florida task force released its final recommendations on the law, concluding that it works and should not be repealed. (The task force did recommend that prosecutors and law enforcement officers should receive increased training on the law to make sure it is applied consistently.)

    In addition, none of the bills to repeal or change "stand your ground" in other states passed.

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  • Sotomayor, Breyer reprimand Texas prosecutor for race comment

    Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

    Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer sternly admonished a federal prosecutor in Texas for a racially charged comment he made while cross examining a black defendant in a drug trial two years ago. The justices released the statement as part of the court's decision to decline to hear the defendant's appeal.

    The prosecutor, whom Sotomayor declined to name, was questioning defendant Charles Calhoun about his claim that he did not realize his friend was engaging in a drug deal when they were arrested. Calhoun had maintained his innocence, saying he thought he was simply on a road trip when his friend was caught trying to buy cocaine by federal agents.

    “You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you—a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, 'This is a drug deal?'" the prosecutor asked.

    Sotomayor, joined by Breyer, wrote that the prosecutor "tapped a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our Nation" when he cross examined the defendant in this way. They referenced past court cases where prosecutors have insinuated the race of defendants alone proved their guilt.

    Calhoun appealed his guilty verdict up to the Supreme Court, arguing that the prosecutor violated his constitutional rights by the question. The justices agreed with the majority of the court in declining to hear Calhoun's appeal on procedural grounds, but released a separate statement calling out the assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District of Texas. Sam L. Ponder, the attorney who made the remark, declined to comment when reached by Yahoo News on Monday.

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  • Carlos Gutierrez resigns from Citigroup to head up Republican immigration reform effort

    Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

    Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez has left his job at Citigroup to head up a political action committee designed to support Republicans who back immigration reform.

    The recently formed super PAC, called Republicans for Immigration Reform, will financially back Republicans who embrace "common-sense" comprehensive reform, which includes giving legal status to most of the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. It's conceivable that conservative politicians who vote for a pathway to citizenship for this group could face primary challenges from people running to the right of them on immigration, for instance. In those cases, Gutierrez told The Washington Post, the PAC will provide "backup" to Republicans who supported reform.

    Gutierrez, who served as secretary of commerce under George W. Bush, immigrated from Cuba with his family when he was 6 years old. He served as CEO of the Kellogg company and more recently as vice chairman of Citigroup.

    "The upcoming

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  • Business, labor reach deal on some aspects of low-skilled worker program

    AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to the press after a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House February 5. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)Leaders of the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce released a statement of "shared principles" on immigration reform on Thursday as the groups continue to hammer out a deal over what a low-skilled immigrant worker program should look like.

    The statement does not settle one of the central disputes between the two groups: whether there should be caps on the number of visas granted each year and who should decide on those caps. In the past, business and labor groups have been unable to see eye-to-eye on a system for employers to bring low-skilled legal workers to the country, a disagreement that has helped scuttle previous attempts at immigration reform.

    Once the nation's illegal immigrant population is legalized and tougher barriers are put in place for the hiring of undocumented workers, employers in some industries say they'll need to be able to sponsor and import more legal workers to perform jobs that most Americans don't want to do. Unions have argued that low-skilled temporary guest-worker programs encourage employer abuse and lower wages for U.S.-based workers.

    Now, the two groups have been tasked by a Senate working group on immigration reform to come to a compromise.

    In the statement, Chamber President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called for a "a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status," suggesting that some of the low-skilled workers should be able to become permanent legal immigrants to the U.S.

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  • Biden urges gun legislation in speech 10 miles from Sandy Hook

    Vice President Joe Biden urged lawmakers to have the "courage" to pass legislation addressing gun violence on Thursday at a conference in Connecticut just 10 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, scene of the Dec. 14 mass shooting.

    "We have an obligation to act," Biden said of America's politicians, after meeting with two parents of children who were murdered at Sandy Hook. "You all should know there is a moral price to be paid for inaction."

    Biden said a "consensus" is forming around closing loopholes that allow some gun buyers to evade background checks, banning high-capacity magazines and banning some semi-automatic weapons. The vice president also said additional funding should be provided to put more law enforcement officers on the streets and to make mental health services more widely available.

    Biden specifically targeted the AR-15 rifle in his speech, mocking those who argue it's a self-defense or recreational weapon and thus should not be banned. "There are plenty of ways you can protect yourself and recreate without an AR-15," Biden said. He later expressed disbelief at the idea that banning a 100-round drum, such as was used in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting last summer, would infringe upon anyone's Second Amendment rights.

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