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When North Carolina lawmakers passed a law last year mandating drug testing of public benefit recipients modeled (at least in part) on a law in Florida, civil liberties and anti-poverty advocates told them it was a bad and unconstitutional idea.

Today those advocates are feeling some vindication as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1tth Circuit stuck down Florida’s law. This is from the New York Times story:

The three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled that the law, one of the strictest in the country, was an unreasonable search because Florida officials had failed to show a “substantial need” to test all people who applied for welfare benefits. Applicants were required to submit to urine tests, a measure that Mr. Scott said would protect children of welfare applicants by ensuring that their parents were not buying and using drugs.

“The state has not demonstrated a more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among TANF applicants than in the general population,” the panel said in its unanimous decision, using an acronym for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

North Carolina’s law is not identical, but the same basic logic ought to apply: If we’re going to start doing forced bodily searches of welfare recipients, there’s no logical reason the state shouldn’t be able to mandate such tests for all recipients of public benefits — from college students to Social Security beneficiaries.

let’s hope this decision heralds th beginning of the end for such invasive and ill-conceived programs.

Commentary

Loretta BiggsLoretta Copeland Biggs, President Obama’s nominee for U.S. District Judge in North Carolina’s Middle District, has not yet been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Biggs appeared before the Committee on November 13 for her scheduled hearing and is now waiting on approval by the Committee. If she is approved by the Committee, Biggs’s nomination will then be forwarded to the Senate floor where it will be considered and voted on by the full Senate.  This entire process must occur within the next few weeks in order for Biggs to be confirmed before the Senate’s lame-duck session ends. Nominees who aren’t confirmed this month will have to do it all over again next year, starting with being renominated.

Currently, it seems to be taking approximately a month between when hearings are held and when the Committee approves a candidate. Unfortunately, there is no exact timeline for how long this may take because there are many permitted ways to stall and obstruct the process. At the Committee’s last hearing, for instance, Charles Grassley, Republican Senator from Iowa, unnecessarily decided to delay approval of nine judicial nominees for a week. This in turn delayed scheduling a vote on the Senate floor and will delay the eventual vote itself (which generally seems to occur two to three months later).

These delay tactics do seem to be a ploy to avoid confirming President Obama’s nominees. Read More

Commentary

There’s still a long way to go in transforming our criminal justice system into what it needs to be. Indeed, the lead editorial in Sunday’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer reminded us that the ongoing assault on North Carolina’s court system by the General Assembly and Governor McCrory is as absurd as it is counterproductive and shortsighted.

And yet, despite the ridiculous budget cuts that have resulted in all kinds of destructive service reductions, there is some promising news on the criminal justice front.  Today’s lead editorial in the News & Observer explains:

In 2011, North Carolina’s prison population was growing. The probation system was failing because of lax supervision caused by understaffing. A majority of prison admissions were because of revoked probations. Treatment programs to help inmates addicted to drugs and suffering other behavioral problems were sparse. Prisons were always under construction to keep up with growing inmate populations.

Then Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican lawmakers agreed to address the issues through the Justice Reinvestment Act. Now, the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments reports that the state is doing better than its expectations, the Associated Press reported.

Simply put. the state chilled out — at least a little — on the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to criminal sentencing and put at least a few more resources into post-release supervision and services in an effort to cut down on recidivism. There is  real reason to believe that such an approach will both produce better results for society and save money.

Not surprisingly, state efforts in this area are far from perfect and continue to be hamstrung by pandering politicians bent on showing how macho they are when it comes to crime. Many additional changes and services are needed. That said, as this morning’s editorial notes, the reports thus far on the Justice Reinvestment Act (click here for a thorough explanation from the good folks at the Carolina Justice Policy Center) make clear that the model shows real promise and deserves lots more effort and attention.

Let’s hope the humane, cost-effective and bipartisan reforms keep on coming.

Commentary

hagan-and-burrWith the midterm elections finally out of the way, lawmakers will return to Washington in the days ahead for what is commonly referred to as a “lame duck” session. Among many important piece of  business, are numerous judicial nominees that must get confirmed to fill vacancies on our nation’s federal courts and keep the wheels of justice moving.

Going into the 2014 lame duck period, there are 64 current judicial vacancies and 34 nominees pending in the Senate. As we’ve detailed at length in this space previously, two of these vacancies are here in North Carolina and one has sat empty for eight years.

In such an environment, it is vital for the Senate to stay in session until every judicial nominee on the floor gets a yes-or-no vote. If these judges are not confirmed, our federal courts will simply not be able adequately handle the numerous critical issues – from marriage equality to voting rights to health care to immigration – that affect all of us.

Happily, there are historical precedents for this kind of swift action: In the 2010 and 2012 lame duck sessions, a total of 32 judicial nominees were confirmed. Senators should apply a similar focus this session. In the 2002 lame duck session, Democrats controlled the Senate. In a spirit of bipartisanship, even though they were the opposition party, they nonetheless confirmed 20 of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Republicans today should put aside politics and get to work to get nominees waiting for a vote confirmed.

Obviously, it is also important to work to confirm judges before the end of the year because the new Republican Senate it is likely to obstruct judicial nominees with the hope that a Republican president will be elected in 2016. Indeed, many expect that the GOP leadership will change the rules to slow judicial confirmations to a crawl and reinstitute obstruction by filibuster.

Instead of judges who side with corporate interests and whittle away at laws that protect our rights, the United States needs judges who support equality, protect access to health care, and are committed to safeguarding the Constitution. That’s why we need the Senate to act on judicial nominees before the end of the year.

The good people at the Center for American Progress have established a website — WhyCourtsmatter.org — that allows you to learn more about (and participate) in the effort to spur Senate action. Click here to learn more.

Commentary

In case you missed them, two commentaries on the main Policy Watch website from earlier today are worth a look this afternoon.

In today’s “Monday numbers,” Chris Fitzsimon lists some of the latest sobering numbers surrounding the unrepentant efforts of Senator Phil Berger, Rep. Paul Stam and some other troubled souls to block enforcement of the law in North Carolina when it comes to marriage equality. Example:

4—number of says since Fayetteville minister Johnny Hunter said at Rep. Stam’s news that John Arrowood, a candidate for the N.C. Court of Appeals who is gay, is a “flaming homosexual” who should drop out of the race (“Fayetteville minister says openly gay judicial candidate is ‘biased’,) WNCN-TV, October 23, 2014)

0—number of times that Rep. Stam has publicly condemned the comments or openly expressed his disagreement with them

Meanwhile in “Judgeships crowd ballot with bubbles,” commentator Steve Ford of the North Carolina Council of Churches explores the wackiness of the ballot that North Carolina voters are now tackling across the state (which includes a Court of Appeals race with 19 candidates for one office). As Ford notes:

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