Welcome to “The Brief,” a monthly roundup of Democracy Forward’s latest work to use the law to fight for good government on behalf of all Americans. Read on below for news of our victories, newest filings, latest case updates, and resources to learn more.
Democracy Forward had big news in June. We welcomed our new President and Chief Executive Officer Skye Perryman and previewed how we’re expanding our work, using new strategies to oppose abuses of power and fight for the promise of democracy on behalf of all Americans.
For starters: We just sued in Texas after Governor Greg Abbott unconstitutionally defunded the state legislature in an act of retaliation for its failure to pass his preferred voter suppression and other bills.
There’s more where that came from. Read on for more about our work at both the state and federal levels on a range of issues—such as forensic scientific integrity and civil rights, environmental justice, support in court for our work in a lawsuit representing LGBTQ+ and Native youth, and efforts to promote regulatory transparency and benefit consumers—among many others.
Look forward to our fights in court for democracy:
On June 17, we were proud to welcome Skye Perryman back to Democracy Forward. Skye joined Democracy Forward in 2017 as a founding litigator, went on to lead the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ legal and policy work, and now returns, joining us as President and CEO.
Since 2017, Democracy Forward’s work has shown that fighting for democracy isn’t just about fighting for a lofty ideal: it is about fighting for real people and communities—fearlessly and tirelessly.
Our work isn’t over. On January 6, violent rioters and insurrectionists executed a planned siege on our nation’s Capitol. In statehouses, courtrooms, and communities across the country, we still see threats to democracy every day.
As Skye wrote to our team and community—
“We will take on new fights, including providing resources and legal representation to committed advocates in states across the country when unlawful policies and abuses of power threaten Americans’ wellbeing. We will further use the law and regulatory process to make sure the government hears the voices of those essential to the fabric of the country. We remain determined and nimble—and we will go where we are needed. As always, we will not let the odds or challenges discourage us in this work.” Read on →
For more about our work ahead, including our first case filed with Skye at the helm, check out her interview with the National Law Journal: After Trump, Legal Group Eyes Countering State-Level ‘Abuses of Power’
Countering abuses of power threatening democracy:
Everything is bigger in Texas—Bringing a big coalition lawsuit to challenge Abbott’s big constitutional violation.
What happened? In an unprecedented and unconstitutional abuse of power, Texas Gov. Abbott effectively abolished the state legislature when he vetoed its two-year funding. The Governor’s action is an unconstitutional attempt to grant himself coercive authority over an independent, co-equal branch of government.
Why does it matter? Gov. Abbott’s action threatens our system of checks and balances. He is also holding state workers hostage to his personal political agenda and seeking to wield power over those elected to represent Texans. The livelihoods of more than 2,100 full-time state employees working for the Legislative Branch will be at risk.
And without funding, the Senate, the House of Representatives, all their staff, and all the nonpartisan offices will be shut down. This will cause Texans to lose constituent services, will release state contractors from oversight, and will prevent pressing work—like redistricting and responding to the state’s energy crisis—from getting done.
Gov. Abbott’s actions are a violation of the Texas Constitution, an abuse of power, an immediate harm to Texans, and a threat to democracy. And there is no limiting principle—the governor’s abuse of power sets a dangerous precedent. If the governor can veto funding for the state legislature because he dislikes how the legislature acted, what would stop him from vetoing funding for the state judiciary, as well?
We took the fight to the Texas Supreme Court in order to stop Gov. Abbott’s abuse of power. Democracy Forward is representing the Texas AFL-CIO and state workers along with Jim Dunnam of Dunnam & Dunnam in a lawsuit also joined by Texas lawmakers and legislative caucuses. The Legislative Members and caucuses in the suit are represented by Chad Dunn of Brazil & Dunn and Kevin Vickers of Brady & Peavey.
What’s next? Texas officials have until July 5 to file a response. The Governor has called a special session beginning on July 8, and state workers continue to be uncertain of their ability to pay their bills and provide for themselves and their families.
In the news— San Antonio Express-News | San Antonio legislative aide takes a stand against Abbott’s defunding veto
“For most legislative aides, however, government work is everything.
“Rodriguez and his wife are raising a 1-year-old daughter named Evelyn. Rodriguez’s Texas House job is the sole source of income and health insurance for his young family. That livelihood is under threat right now…
“He mentioned that support-staff workers ‘tend to be nonpartisan and maybe even apolitical and they’re kind of stuck in the middle of this.’
“‘This is not the right way to deal with it,’ Rodriguez said. ‘The staff, we’re the ones answering the phone, connecting constituents to resources — to Medicaid, veteran benefits, what have you. To put us on the line isn’t the right approach.’”
Exposing under-the-radar, anti-science threats to justice:
Demanding the U.S. Department of Justice retract an unlawful, unscientific Trump-era statement on forensic science that puts innocent people at risk.
What happened? In its final days in power, the Trump administration issued an unsigned, unattributed, and unverifiable statement that criticizes and seeks to undermine the findings of an important report on the validity of forensic science techniques.
The report was issued by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2016 and concluded that some forensic techniques used in court—like bitemark analysis—are seriously flawed and not rooted in science. DOJ’s Trump-era statement attempts to call the report into question without actually offering a substantive, scientific response.
Who does this affect? Because the statement was issued by the Justice Department, it’s highly influential and risks misleading judges and prosecutors across the country about the validity of forensic techniques. The inaccurate statement has already been cited in at least five criminal cases in state courts. In short, the statement risks legitimizing flawed forensic techniques, potentially leading to wrongful convictions of innocent people.
We requested the Department of Justice swiftly retract the Trump-era statement. Our letter on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists details how the statement violates the Information Quality Act—which requires federal agencies to disseminate accurate and reliable information to the public. The statement is also inconsistent with President Biden’s scientific integrity policy, which seeks to ensure federal policy is “guided by the best available science.”
We’re calling on the Department of Justice to withdraw the misleading Trump-era statement in full within 120 days. Read more from The Union of Concerned Scientists: DOJ’s Forensic Science Guidance is Putting the Innocent At-Risk
We’re not just in court. Helping voices reach government:
In response to comments, Department of Energy reverses burdensome Trump-era rule on guidance documents.
What happened? Guidance documents can help agencies, stakeholders, and the public. The Trump-era Department of Energy issued requirements for the issuance of guidance documents that limited the agency’s ability to nimbly address evolving issues and increased the costs of issuing guidance.
In April, Democracy Forward submitted a written comment to DOE on behalf of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP) supporting withdrawal of these harmful requirements. The comment highlighted how properly used guidance documents can promote transparency and help DOE quickly inform the public of its actions as it responds to evolving challenges.
Consistent with our comment, the Department of Energy withdrew this burdensome guidance document rule. In its withdrawal, the agency noted that it “agrees with [ASAP’s] comments” and believes the Trump-era requirements for issuing guidance “hinder DOE in having such maximum flexibility in that it could require DOE to delay issuance of final guidance documents that may be best issued quickly.” This action will promote regulatory transparency.
Petitioning to formalize a policy allowing use of important environmental clean-up projects.
What happened? The Trump administration tried to eliminate the use of supplemental environmental projects (that’s SEPs, for short) in environmental enforcement settlements. SEPs are real-world projects that polluters take on in communities they have harmed with illegal pollution. These environmental justice mechanisms have, in the past, successfully helped public schools replace unsafe drinking fountains and effectively reduced lead-exposure for low-income families.
The U.S. Department of Justice has included SEPs in environmental settlements for decades, and the EPA has included them in their enforcement actions. But the Trump administration prohibited their use in a memo (that we challenged and the Biden administration rescinded), and it issued a rule that has stirred confusion about whether SEPs are allowed to be included in settlements again. That confusion has discouraged the use of SEPs by both agencies.
We urged the Justice Department to clear up the confusion and issue a rule expressly allowing SEPs to be included in environmental settlements. SEPs are a critical tool the Justice Department and EPA use to help communities most impacted by pollution. They should be expressly authorized for use in the years to come.
Looking ahead: next steps in our federal LGBTQ+ and Native foster youth data reporting case.
This month, Democracy Forward lawyers Kristen Miller and Samara Spence presented updates on our ‘Sunset Rule’ and ‘AFCARS’ litigation at the California Tribal Family Coalition’s 2021 Statewide ICWA Conference.
What happened? Kristen stressed the importance of our ongoing lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s unlawful elimination of data collection requirements on LGBTQ+ and Native foster youth in the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (that’s where we got ‘AFCARS’ from). The absence of this data amounts to an unlawful statistical erasure of their communities’ marginalized foster youth.
This presentation was hot on the heels of our latest filing pressing the current administration for action. Our action has been supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics and 28 members of Congress—which have filed briefs in support.
We’re continuing our fight in court to protect LGBTQ+ youth and American Indian/Alaska Native children in the foster care system from statistical erasure. The Trump-era policy is unlawful and must be set aside.
Stay tuned: the government is due to respond to our suit by July 16.
As Skye recently stated, “When abuses of power occur they need to be challenged, and under our system of government, one place they need to be challenged is in the courts.”
As we enter July, we’ll keep bringing the heat, exposing threats, and supporting advocates doing transformative work. Stay tuned for more to come.