Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

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Legal Advocates Slam Tea Party Constitution Classes

| Fri May 13, 2011 11:57 AM EDT

Earlier this week, we reported on a new project sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots to pressure public schools into teaching the Constitution using its favored, if dubious, curriculum. Well, the news isn't going over well in some quarters. Liberal lawyers were very unhappy to hear that the tea partiers wanted the public schools to teach the Constitution based on the writings of the late author of the 5,000 Year Leap, W. Cleon Skousen. Skousen's views on the Constitution are considered well outside the mainstream, and they include ideas drawn from white supremacist dogma and other shady sources. One of his textbooks on constitutional history contained blatantly racist material suggesting that slaves were actually a happy bunch of folks.

Friday morning, Doug Kendall, the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal-leaning think tank and public interest law firm, blasted out a press release urging educators to keep the tea partiers out of their schools. He said:

I defy the Tea Party Patriots to find one credible historian willing to support their view of the Constitution’s history. Before the Tea Party gets to go into school and teach our children about the Constitution, they need to find a tenured professor on the history faculty on one of any of the 50 highest-rated universities in the United States who will vouch for the accuracy of their teachings. To qualify to teach America’s children about the Constitution you need to do more than dress up like James Madison.

The Tea Party Patriots are peddling constitutional gobbledygook masquerading as history. Yet whether it is Tea Party organizations misrepresenting American history, or Tea Party politicians like Rep. Michele Bachmann not knowing what state the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in, the Tea Party has utterly disqualified itself from serious discussion of our Constitution’s text and history. America's school boards must flatly reject the Tea Party Patriots' attempts to muscle their bad history into our children’s classrooms.

Health Reform Challenges: Why Judicial Appointments Matter

| Tue May 10, 2011 12:05 PM EDT

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals becomes the first federal appellate court to hear challenges to President Obama's signature health care reform law. The judges assigned to hear the cases were picked at random. Remarkably, the judges hearing the health care arguments Tuesday were all appointed by Democratic presidents—two by Obama himself, and one by Clinton. The makeup of the panel bodes well for the Obama administration, as well as for Neal Katyal, the Indian-American acting Solicitor General who will be defending the health care law in Richmond. But it also illustrates what liberal advocates have been emphasizing to the White House for more than a year: judicial appointments matter.

A few years ago, such a random assignment of democratic appointees would have been unthinkable. For decades, the 4th Circuit has been considered the most conservative in the country. Until very recently, it was dominated by judges nominated by Republican presidents at the urging of uber-conservative senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Though it covers an area with the largest African-American population of any federal circuit, the appellate court didn't even see its first minority judge until 2001. It voted against death-row inmates and sexual harassment and discrimination plaintiffs at a rate higher than any other court in the country, and was famous for attempting to invalidate popular but liberal laws passed by Congress, such as the Violence Against Women Act, which expanded federal prosecution of domestic violence and other crimes against women. The 4th Circuit even made big news a few years back when it ruled that the landmark Supreme Court establishing Miranda rights for criminal suspects was unconstitutional. (The Supreme Court didn't look so fondly on that decision, and it was struck down.)

Four members of the current court were nominated by George W. Bush, one by his father, and there's still one remaining Reagan appointee. The rest are Democrats. But as of 2003, the court was made up of eight Republicans and four Democrats, with President Bush poised to appoint several more judges to the court. Now, however, thanks to four Obama nominees, democrats make up nine of 14 judges on the court.

Despite the lucky draw in the 4th Circuit, critics have long contended that Obama has not made judicial appointments a priority, a move that's bound to affect the staying power of his agenda. To be sure, the Senate has obstructed many of Obama's appointments thanks to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's "just say no" strategy. But Obama has also failed to nominate judges to fill nearly half of the 100 vacancies on the federal bench.

Last February, a group of law professors sent a letter to Obama complaining about the slow pace of nominations, noting that by the same point in his first term, President George W. Bush had appointed nearly twice as many judges as Obama had. By the end of his second term, George W. Bush had appointed 40 percent of the judges in the entire federal judiciary.

Purists argue that the outcome of the health care reform challenges should be the same regardless of the political backgrounds of the judges hearing them, and that their determination should be based solely on the Constitution. But that's naive. Just look at the health care cases the 4th Circuit is hearing Tuesday. There have been two lawsuits challenging the law in Virginia, one by the state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, and the other by Liberty University, both claiming the individual mandate is unconstitutional. The outcomes in those cases couldn't be more different. One district court judge, Norman Moon, was appointed by Bill Clinton. He found the law constitutional. In the other case, Judge Henry Hudson, found that it wasn't. He was appointed by George W. Bush.

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