Jewish groups ride roller-coaster week of Supreme Court rulings


A slight bump up on affirmative action, a plunge on voting rights, and on gay marriage, the mountaintop: federal legitimacy.

It’s been a week of roller-coaster highs and lows at the Supreme Court for liberal Jewish groups. Their collective pledge: Stick it out.

“These are critical decisions and it’s going to be a fight” on voting rights, said Sammie Moshenberg, the director of the National Council of Jewish Women, one of several groups that had weighed in on the recent cases with friend-of-the-court briefs.

The same tone — vigilance on voting rights, gratitude on affirmative action and gay marriage — informed statements from other groups.

On Monday, the court ordered lower courts to more stringently scrutinize the University of Texas’ affirmative action practices but did not otherwise reverse its earlier decision upholding the right of universities to make race a factor in accepting students.

Jewish groups praised the decision, with the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center celebrating it for upholding “the use of affirmative action, the principle of diversity, and the understanding that race conscious remedies may be necessary to ensure diversity, even as we are aware that the decision’s wording indicates the Court may welcome future opportunities to review and potentially restrict affirmative action.”

Tuesday’s decision on voting rights, a 5-4 call that split the court along its conservative-liberal lines, shocked Jewish groups. The decision kept in place the shell of the 1965 Voting Rights Act but gutted its key provision, which had mandated federal review of any changes in voting laws in areas and states — mostly in the South — where racial discrimination had been pervasive.

All three Jewish justices dissented from the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, which found that the 1965 rules were outdated. In a withering dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that Congress had overwhelmingly reaffirmed the 1965 rules as recently as 2006 and said the court was overstepping its bounds.

The decision drew strong condemnation from Jewish groups and vows to bring the case to Congress, although the likelihood is that current political realities — a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate — will preclude a review of the 1965 law anytime soon.

On Wednesday morning, the court issued two rulings on gay rights. One overturned a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which mandated that federal laws abide by a definition of marriage as between a man and woman. In the second ruling, the court said that individuals who sought to overturn a California Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage had no standing to sue.

The first case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a Jewish woman, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who also was Jewish, although their Canadian marriage was recognized as legal by the State of New York, where they resided.

“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by the four liberal judges, including the three Jewish justices: Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, as well as Sonia Sotomayor. “It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.”

The marriage equality cases had Jewish groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides, with liberal groups defending the rights of gay couples and Orthodox groups seeking to push back against the California Supreme Court decision.

“Society’s mores may shift and crumble but eternal verities exist,” the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said in a statement. “One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman. Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court today, but that sanctity remains untouched.”

Liberal Jewish groups were elated.

“Having faced prejudice and bigotry throughout our history, the Jewish community does not tolerate unjust discrimination against others,” Alan van Capelle, the director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish group that advocates on social issues and that had joined friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases, said in a statement. “Personally, as a gay Jewish man who has long been fighting for LGBT rights, it means so much to see our highest court rule that my family has as much right to happiness and protection under the law as any other.”

Life story, Israel trips tie Sotomayor to Jews


Jewish groups don’t endorse U.S. Supreme Court nominees, at least in writing.

The tears and choked sobs when Sonia Sotomayor accepted President Obama’s nomination on Tuesday told another story.

Packed into the room along with Sotomayor’s family, friends and colleagues were representatives of Jewish groups that have consulted with the White House about prospective replacements for David Souter.

The story of her life—the daughter of a Puerto Rican single mother from the Bronx, N.Y., whose ambitions knew no bounds—resounded with a community that has made the story of immigrant triumph over struggle a template of Jewish American success.

“It was impossible not to moved by her personal story,” said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “To see her mother sitting there and think about what this says about her and her country—the combination of someone who grew up in a housing project, who has been on the bench for a long time, but who has been a prosecutor as well, that combination is very powerful.”

“It was thrilling,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women.

It doesn’t hurt that Sotomayor, 54, is a poster child for strong Jewish-Hispanic relations. In 1986, when she was in private legal practice, she joined one of the first young leadership tours of Israel sponsored by Project Interchange, which is affiliated with the American Jewish Committee.

Sotomayor so enjoyed the country—its immigrant culture, its popular music influenced heavily by Jewish immigrants from Argentina and Brazil—that she made a return visit in 1996 when she was a federal judge, and recently joined a Project Interchange U.S.-Israel forum on immigration. In the process, she formed a lifelong friendship with Project Interchange founder Debbie Berger and her husband, Paul, who attended her swearing-in as a Manhattan appeals court judge in 1998.

“She enjoyed Israel not just from an intellectual perspective, she liked the music and the people,” Paul Berger told JTA.

Richard Foltin, the legislative director for the AJC, said her background naturally played a role in how the Jewish community would welcome her.

“We must recognize the significance of the third woman and first Hispanic on the court,” he said. “And there’s no question of her impressive qualifications.”

Sotomayor would come to the Supreme Court with one of the longest bench careers in its history, having handed down or joined 3,000 decisions in 18 years as a federal and appeals court judge. That’s a lot to read through and accounted for a degree of hesitancy from Jewish groups that were enthused about her life story but just getting to know her judicial record.

“I’ve got a bunch of opinions in my briefcase and it’s time to start reading,” Pelavin said.

The National Council of Jewish Women—one of the few Jewish groups that expresses an opinion on judicial candidates—has yet to announce where it stands. Whatever the case, said Nancy Ratzan, the NCJW’s president, the organization would dedicate itself to ensuring that Sotomayor receives a fair hearing.

“Our 90,000 followers will be focused on making sure it’s a fair and prompt process that focuses on her record,” she said.

NCJW and the Religious Action Center will canvass members for appropriate questions for Sotomayor during the confirmation process; the questions will be relayed to the U.S. Senate Judicary Committee.

Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling for a process that is conducted “professionally, and with civility and respect,” and praised the pick while stopping short of an official endorsement.

“We applaud President Obama for having selected this noted jurist to be the Court’s first Hispanic and third woman Justice,” the ADL leaders stated. “If confirmed, she will undoubtedly bring an important new perspective to the work of the Court.”

Even the Orthodox Union, which tends to stake our more conservative ground than other Jewish organizations on church-state issues, spoke positively about Sotomayor, citing several religious freedom-related cases.

In a 1993 case, she upheld the constitutional right of a rabbi in White Plains, N.Y., to display a menorah in a city park. In two other cases, in 1994 and 2003, Sotomayor upheld prisoners’ religious rights even though the practices in question did not conform with mainstream beliefs. And in 2006, she ruled that allowing federal age discrimination statutes to apply to a 70-year-old minister dismissed by the Methodist church would constitute unwarranted government interference in church affairs.

Those decisions, OU said, were “very encouraging.”

Marc Stern, the legal counsel for the American Jewish Congress, predicted that Sotomayor’s long bench experience ultimately will be a plus. More time on the bench shaping reasoned opinions made her less of a target than other nominees—like Lani Gunier, Robert Bork and Samuel Alito—whose years pushing intellectual boundaries in the halls of academe handed fodder to opponents seeking controversial statements.

Additionally, the 2nd Circuit of Appeals—based in Manhattan and covering New York, Connecticut and Vermont—deals with cases emerging from courts and legislatures that already trend liberal. That means it is less likely to address issues such as abortion and discrimination that often exercise Jewish groups.

“There’s no track record that anyone can point to,” Stern said. “There’s not likely going to be a whole lot there as a smoking gun.”