28 April 2009

Chief Senate GOP sponsor of the Equal Justice for United States Military Personnel Act of 2009 to switch parties

United States Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the chief Republican cosponsor of the Equal Justice for United States Military Personnel Act of 2009, S 357, has announced today that he will switch parties. The switch will give Democrats a 59 seat majority in the Senate, which is just one seat from the 60 they need to become filibuster-proof. If Democrat Al Franken is able to hold onto the lead of votes he has in the State of Minnesota over former Senator Norm Coleman, Senate Democrats would have the 60 seat majority they need to have control of the Senate.

Long known for his supportive stance on procedural due process protections, Specter, has supported equal access to the Supreme Court for servicemembers since 2007. However, in the last Congress other GOP senators blocked measures to grant servicemembers Supreme Court access. Senator Specter worked hard, as the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to overcome other Republican blocks on the legislation. In 2007, Specter first consposored the Equal Justice for United States Military Personnel Act of 2007, S 2052 (110th Congress) with Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Specter, in a bipartian attempt with Senator Feinstein, tried in 2007 to get the measure into the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 but was blocked by former GOP Senator John Warner (R-Va.). The next year, in 2008, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), blocked S 2052 and the House-passed Equal Justice for Our Military Act of 2007, HR 3174 (110th Congress) from being placed upon the unanimous consent of the Senate for an up-or-down vote. In the fall of 2008, Senator Specter and his senior staff worked tirelessly to clear Graham's block from the Republican cloakroom. But Graham wouldn't release his block and both bills died in the last Congress.

The U.S. Department of Defense had lobbied certain GOP Senators, including Senators Warner and Graham, to block legislation to grant servicemembers equal access to the Supreme Court. These were the same GOP Senators that supported the Military Commissions Act of 2006 which gave enemy combatants Supreme Court access. The Pentagon argued, under the Bush administration, that granting servicemembers Supreme Court access would only serve to burden the Supreme Court.

With Specter now switching to the other side of the aisle as a Democrat there is a greater chance that the pending legislation will be passed in this Congress. Under the Senate rules a 60 vote majority is required for cloture. This was a problem in the last Congress with the House-passed bill and the favorably reported S 2052 Senate version. Graham was able to easily block a floor vote under the Senate rules. Last year after the House passed HR 3174 the Senate Democratic leadership hot-lined the bill. All Democratic Senators had cleared the House-passed bill to be placed upon the unanimous consent calendar of the Senate for a floor vote but Graham through the Republican cloakroom opposed it and placed a hold on the bill. I was able to out Graham on his hold but calls and emails seeking comment to his chief of staff, communications director, press secretary and legislative director were never responded to. Opponents such as Graham, or any other GOP Senators, who seek to block votes and hide under the Republican cloakroom of secrecy rules will not be able to thwart the democratic process if the Democrats have a 60 seat majority.

I applaud Senator Specter for his work over the years, as a GOP Senator, in trying in a bipartisan way to secure Supreme Court access for America's servicemembers. And I will continue to work with Senator Specter and his staff on this issue now that he is a Democrat. Every citizen or lawful resident of the United States deserves to have the automatic right to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for redress of a conviction. Why the GOP has been so resistent to the idea of giving servicemembers equal access to the Supreme Court yet granting enemies access to the high court in 2006 simply defies logic.

[Note: This author was a life-long registered Republican in San Diego County, California and finally left the GOP in 2006 to switch to the Democratic Party due in part to GOP Congressional obstructionism where good ideas were tossed for cheap political tricks.]

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