Friday, May 30, 2014

Grassroots push leads to negotiated minimum wage hike in Michigan

The dust has cleared on a brouhaha surrounding a proposed minimum wage hike in Michigan.

The good guys (mostly) won – thanks to grassroots organizing, massive public pressure and some skilled negotiating behind closed doors. It was an incomplete victory, but it was a victory all the same – most low-wage workers in Michigan are getting a 25 percent pay increase over the next four years to $9.25.

The story starts at Raise Michigan, a grassroots organization that put together a petition drive in February to put a proposal before the legislature to amend the minimum wage to raise the wage. If the legislature didn’t pass it, it would go before voters in November.  It’s a similar gambit that anti-choice organizations used to circumvent Gov. Rick Snyder’s veto of legislation that excluded abortion coverage from Michigan’s health insurance exchange last summer.

The idea was to raise the wage for most workers from $7.40 to $10.10 an hour over three years from, 2015 to 2017, and then index future increases to inflation. As importantly, the petition would also raise the minimum of tipped workers from the current unconscionable $2.65 an hour by 85 cents a year until it reached parity with the rest of the work force. 

Of course, the usual suspects in business and the restaurant industry cried bloody murder about how giving low wage workers a raise to non-poverty income levels would wreck the economy.  But the legislature’s Republican majority was in a pickle – if they defeated the measure in the ledge, then it would go on the ballot – where minimum wage increases tend to fare quite well.
In response, Senate majority leader Randy Richardville (the dude who drove me to blog in the first place) reasoned that if the minimum wage law was repealed, then technically an initiative amending the law would be out of order.
Follow me below the fold for how that particular evil gambit actually turned into a productive set of negotiations and a legislative victory.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Boggs hearings represent mere hiccup -- Obama judge picks continue confirmation surge

There’s been a lot of frustration among Progressives over Republican senators continuing to block Obama judicial picks in committee thanks to the blue slip method.  The latest manifestation of the frustration comes with the nomination of Michael Boggs, a Republican-backed candidate nominated as part of a deal to fill several slots on federal bench in Georgia (In return for nominating Boggs and two other district appointments, Georgia’s Republican Senators agreed to allow the nomination of Jill Pryor to move forward for the 11th Circuit Court seat and Leigh Martin May for a district judge seat.)

Progressives' frustration is understandable – as a state judge and legislator Boggs has defended voter identification laws, displaying the Confederate flag and opposed gay rights. However, Democrats should also keep their eyes on the forest through the trees: with the elimination of the filibuster for most executive nominations last November, judicial confirmations have drastically increased.
How much?  In 2014, the Senate has confirmed 40 judges thus far – 33 in the district courts and seven in the appellate courts. During the first five years of Obama’s presidency, the previous high number of judges confirmed through the end of May was 24 (in 2011 and 2012).  That translates into an increase of 67 percent in the number of judicial confirmations. Oh – and we’ve still got another week of Senate business to go in May. 

In addition, the vacancy rate is also starting to decline noticeably on the federal bench.  At the beginning of December, just after the Senate eliminated the filibuster, there were 86 vacancies on the district and circuit courts. That number increased on February 1 to 96 openings – likely because GOP obstruction forced Obama to resubmit every nomination, forcing a fresh round of committee hearings. However, by the beginning of March, the number of vacancies was beginning to fall and has continued to decline ever since. By May 20, the number of vacancies had declined to 67, a decrease of 30 percent from its February high (See figure).

Again, this happening doesn’t mean that everything is rosy.  In some states dominated by conservatives, the process is slow (like in Georgia) or seems entirely hopeless, like in Texas (though the Fifth Circuit court will pick up Texan Greg Costa today).  

And would some one give Jennifer Prescod May-Parker of North Carolina a commission already?

However, even in some conservative states there has been progress.  Four nominees from Florida have cleared committee and await final confirmation after months of obstruction from Senator Marco Rubio. More importantly, Arizona has a functioning district court for the first time in several years as six  nominees received confirmation last week – including Rosemary Marquez, who was first nominated in 2011 and blocked by Arizona's senatorial delegation, and Diane Humetewa, the first Native American woman to become a federal judge.

The point is that progressives are right to be frustrated by continuing blocking of some nominations,  however, we should keep it in the back of our minds that nominations are flowing much more quickly now than they were a year ago.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Senior (judge) moments slow progressive turnover in U.S. Courts

With the filibuster dead for most executive appointments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has stepped on the gas for judicial appointments this spring.  As of May 2, the body had confirmed four circuit court judges and 24 district court judges in 2014 – a veritable consentapalooza.

But for all the progress on nominations, the character of the federal bench is changing more slowly than it appears on the surface. Many judges who retire from their court don’t fully step down. Rather, when they take senior status, they still hear some cases. 

How big of a stamp can these semi-retired judges make? Sometimes a profound one, depending how the draw affects the composition of a three-judge panel at the circuit court level -- one step below the Supreme Court.

Take for example the recent infamous case Hobby Lobby vs. Sebelius currently before the Supreme Court – in which a corporation claims to have religious rights to evade the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The opinion at DC Circuit was authored bynoted fire-breathing conservative circuit justice Janice Rodgers Brown. However, the other judge that joined the opinion was A. Raymond Randolph – a George H.W. Bush appointee who took senior status in 2008. (For that matter, the dissenting justice was Harry Edwards, a Carter appointee who took senior status in 2005)
Semi-active senior judges also boast impressive numbers.

With the confirmations of Michelle Friedland and Nancy Moritz (Moritz is up on Monday) , Democratic appointees will hold 80 judgeships on the circuit courts and GOP appointees hold 74, with 14 vacancies.  

However, there are 91 active judges with senior status – 55 appointed by Republican presidents and 36 by Democrats. Throwing them into the mix leaves us with 129 Republican appointees and 116 appointed by Democrats – quite a shift.

This comparison is a bit misleading – most of those senior judges don’t hear as many cases so the GOP advantage is overstated considerably. (Senior judges hear about 15 percent of all cases across the court system.) Nor do senior-status judges sit on en-banc cases at the appellate level in which the entire court hears a case and often overturns the decision of a smaller three-judge panel.
However, the presence of senior judges is currently working to slow the pace of progressive judicial decisions, which is all the more reason to keep aggressively confirming judges.