Thursday, January 28, 2010

Crazy Thursday

Thursday was pretty informative to say the least. I began by writing a brief story about a Kentucky senate committee approving a bill making all government agencies disclose expenditures on a universal database... that was only the beginning.

The luncheon I attended was held at the National Press Club and was moderated by Michael Gerhardt (UNC law school professor and accomplished lawyer). The topic: "Judicial Nominations in the First Year of the Obama Administration." Seeing as there is a vacancy on Georgia's district court circuit, I was pretty enthusiastic about the discussion. I won't bore you with all the details, but here are the stats that stood out to me: (as of Dec. 31, 2009)
  • 102 federal judge vacancies to be filled. Of those vacancies, 31 are considered emergency vacancies
  • Obama has nominated 33 federal judges and only 13 have been confirmed by the senate
  • it takes 137 days, on average, to confirm an Obama nomination (EXTREMELY LONG COMPARABLY)
  • 22 predicted future vacancies (including the replacement for Justice Stevens predicted to retire this summer)
Some panelists described these numbers as "irresponsible" and everyone agreed that judicial nominations are not a priority for the Obama administration. To compare the numbers...
after one year in office:
  • Bush had nominated 65 judges, and the democratic senate had confirmed 28
  • Clinton had nominated 45 judges, and the republican senate had confirmed 27
The recent Citizens United opinion has really shown the importance of judges in our system and how they can rule as judicial activists--that makes republicans even more skeptical of Obama nominations. Basically Obama relies on the ABA and senators to help guide him when choosing nominees. Beverly Martin was explicitly mentioned at the panel for being a progressive judge who garnered the support of both GA senators and that helped her get confirmed very quickly. Some panelists thought Obama has been playing it safe by simply moving district court judges up to the appellate level.

One thing Obama is doing for district court nominations is looking for nominees with diverse walks of life (i.e. more women, minorities, and people who have worked for the government). It is easier to get people approved for the District Court level because usually only 1 out of 100 cases requires an opinion that may require political ideals--it is mostly a trial court. The political battles are held at the court of appeals.

The vacancies are at "historical rates" and Obama is going to have to make nominations a priority or the judicial process will continue to suffer.

NEXT, I went to Newseum (a museum for award -winning news writing and photography). There I attended a pack panel lead by Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Retired). IT WAS SO INTERESTING! The topic was "Women Advocates of the Supreme Court Bar." The panel consisted of three unbelievable women: Elena Kagan (Solicitor General), Maureen Mahoney (Supreme Court lawyer who has argued 22 cases at the Supreme Court), and Wendy Williams (Professor at Georgetown Law specializing in gender and law).

O'Connor is nothing short of feisty. When introducing the panel she asked lots of funny questions.
  • O'Connor: Wendy Williams is a professor of law
  • Williams: Well, I also argued a case at the Supreme Court
  • O'Conor: Did you now. Well were you scared?
  • Williams: Yes.
  • O'Conor: Well you should have been.
She cited lots of quotes from Supreme Court Justices and prominent lawyers from the early 20th century about "women lawyers." One Justice told a female bar hopeful, "Women's minds are filled with culture and emotion- not of reason!" and that "women should be spared exposure to obscene courtroom behavior." All of these roused the crowd.

O'Connor also mentioned that her Supreme Court chamber overlooked a famous suffragist's house (Alice Paul). Every time O'Connor would look out of her window, she couldn't help being reminded of all the women who came before her pursuing law and making it a little easier for future generations.

Looking back on my 21 years of life, I can't recall one instance in which my gender was an issue- never a snide comment; no professors or deans telling me that I'm wasting my time...never a discouraging word in regards to my gender. It is amazing that my mother's generation made such strides for women in law. Hearing the timeline was daunting because these things really weren't that long ago. I live this great life filled with limitless opportunity and I never fully understood why nor cared enough for that matter. The history books distance my generation from any palpable understanding of life before NOW, simply because the lifestyles are night and day. But the testimony of these amazing women was truly eye-opening.

When I was younger I remember religiously going to women's lunches with my mother. I always looked forward to them, not because of the insightful speeches about the advancement of women, but also because my mother would take Jessie and me out of school for the occasions. I just didn't get understand the importance of women sticking together and observing advancements. As I got older, mom would tell me stories about deans and men discouraging her from practicing law--this is in the 80s!

Now that I am in DC I have wonderful female attorneys like the (panel I attended) offering advice and getting me excited about the future. I am so thankful for the road paved for me... THANK YOU THANK YOU!

Monday, January 25, 2010

FOIA Laws in Private Prisons

Yesterday, I attended a Congressional briefing for House bill 2450 that would extend the Freedom of Information Act to private prison companies that government agencies contract to handle federal prisoners. Fulton County jail came up as evidence of why the government has had to outsource to private companies: overcrowding, human rights violations, etc. But the horrible thing is that these private prisons are worse for prisoners because of low pay for guards, huge turnover rates (meaning that the guards are not educated b/c they are new to the job often times), and inadequate health facilities. AND since these prison companies are not government agencies the media cannot get any information on their practices, facilities, or the inmates. They are exempt from FOIA laws, but still paid with taxpayer money.

A lawyer from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) read the testimony of a man who stayed in one of these federal prisons. It is pretty horrific. Here is the link: http://www.aclu.org/files/images/asset_upload_file841_32062.pdf

It is absolutely the tip of the ice-berg. But what disturbed me even more were people's reaction to this testimony and the other inhumane accounts that were presented. Hill staffers were eating the free food, messing with their blackberries, and walking in and out of the room. They were so desensitized! I was on the verge of tears and no one seemed to notice the shock value I was reacting to.

This reminded me of the arguments Jessie and I had with our mother over Christmas break about all the problems with Fulton County Jail--the rapes, the inadequate health care, etc. We became enraged by the small anecdotal hearsay mom relayed to us, and we were shocked at how she didn't share in our physical reaction. But I am beginning to see how naive I am in thinking that these problems are unique. This town has a way of empowering and at the same time making you feel hopeless.

These were just thoughts that i was gripping with as i wrote the story about the briefing for the website.www.rcfp.org. It will be up online tonight, but it will be simple and won't convey the emotion i felt.

In more positive news-- i got assigned a 750 word spread for the magazine! YAY! i am writing about the Prop. 8 case out of California. interns never get stories! and they are only giving me 3 days to do interviews and finish it, so the pressure is on!