The nation's attention these last two weeks has been on the flashy conventions, the big speeches, and Sarah Palin's bulldog lipstick. But what hasn't garnered much interest are the real differences in the two parties' platforms. A comparison of the Republican and Democratic platforms on judicial nominations and civil rights shows the two parties have strongly differing views, and not just on the importance of community organizers vs. PTA members. Because of the density of the platforms, I've only addressed a few civil rights issues here—the rights of women, immigrants, LGBT, and people with disabilities—and will leave the discussion of civil liberties, and affirmative action for another day. (In case you were wondering, the Republicans are against "quotas" and the Democrats support affirmative action.)
Perhaps most important for both parties is appointing judges that share their respective views on the role of the courts. Federal judges are appointed for life, so they make decisions and shape policies for decades. Justice Stevens, for example, has served on the Supreme Court through nine presidential terms. Ten of the thirteen federal appeals circuits are "dominated by the conservative appointees," according to the Alliance for Justice Action Campaign. Those courts handle 30,000 cases per year.
The Republicans prioritize judicial nominations in their platform, devoting more to this issue than the Democrats, and offering much greater specificity and clarity. Their plank provides, in part, that:
Republicans will insist on the appointment of constitutionalist judges, men and women who will not distort our founding documents to deny the people's right to self-government, sanction federal powers that violate our liberties, or inject foreign law into American jurisprudence.
The Republicans single out recent controversial Supreme Court rulings on property rights, the Guantanamo rulings on habeas corpus, and the ruling declaring the death penalty for rape unconstitutional. The Republican platform also takes a shot at the four moderate Justices who dissented in the D.C. gun control case:
Four justices of the Supreme Court believe that individual Americans have no individual right to bear arms to protect themselves and their families.
While the Republicans take aim at Court decisions that draw the ire of conservatives, the Republican platform ignores recent Supreme Court cases that closed the courthouse doors to civil rights, such as last term's Indiana voter identification case.
In contrast, the Democrats' plank is somewhat vague and speaks in broad terms, and it too fails to identify any problems with the courts or the recent rolling back of fundamental civil rights:
For our Judiciary, we will select and confirm judges who are men and women of unquestionable talent and character, who firmly respect the rule of law, and who listen to and are respectful of different points of view and who represent the diversity of America.
Our Constitution is not a nuisance. It is the foundation of our democracy. It makes freedom and self-governance possible, and helps to protect our security. The Democratic Party will restore our Constitution to its proper place in our government and return our Nation to our best traditions-including our commitment to government by law, and not by men.
The Democrats haven't focused much on this issue—perhaps the most important domestic issue—in their platform or in their campaigning. The Republicans have shown they want this more than the Democrats.
If the Republicans dominate on the issue of judicial nominations (as they have for the past eight years and before), the Democrats easily run away with women's rights. The Democratic platform is goal oriented, and gets into some real specifics, even reaching international human rights treaties. The Democrats are committed to enforcing Title IX (which prohibits discrimination against women), and they urge passage of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
When it comes to reproductive health care, the Democrats criticize "the current Administration's consistent attempts to undermine a woman's ability to make her own life choices and obtain reproductive health care, including birth control." They also "will end health insurance discrimination against contraception..."
The Democratic platform also calls for passage of the Fair Pay Act that would reverse last year's infamous ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company; and for strengthening of the Equal Pay Act.
The Republican message when it comes to women's rights is that "women deserve better."
"Women deserve better than abortion. Every effort should be made to work with women considering abortion to enable and empower them to choose life." Moreover, they also argue that immigrants "must embrace...the rights of women." (Because apparently they don't.)
Not to be outdone by the Democrats on equal opportunity for women, the Republicans "support the option of firearms training in federal programs serving senior citizens and women." They also "support the advancement of women in the military and their exemption from ground combat units."
Regarding international human rights protections for women, the Republicans aren't too happy about the way things are right now:
We reject any treaty or agreement" that "provide abortions or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other countries. That includes the UN convention on women's rights, signed in the last months of the Carter Administration, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Each party approaches immigration through a national security lens, calling for beefed-up border security and crack-downs on employers who hire undocumented workers. The Republican platform, however, calls for denial of federal funds for sanctuary cities "which endanger the lives of U.S. citizens" and calls for denying in-state tuition, driver's licenses and public benefits to undocumented immigrants. Oddly, the platform calls for English as the official language because it "foster[s] a commitment to our national motto, E Pluribus Unum."
The Republican platform also takes aim at the rights of immigrants to challenge their detention and deportation:
The rule of law means guaranteeing to law enforcement the tools and coordination to deport criminal aliens without delay -- and correcting court decisions that have made deportation so difficult.
The Democrats, like the Republicans, use a great deal of ink on tough talk, but they argue for comprehensive immigration reform, and an immigration system focused on family reunification, the cornerstone of our immigration policy for years. Importantly, the Democrats argue that "raids are ineffective, tear apart families, and leave people detained without adequate access to counsel."
The two parties couldn't be further apart on LGBT rights. The Republicans, as you may know, aren't too supportive of these rights, and demand "a constitutional amendment that fully protects marriage as a union of a man and a woman, so that judges cannot make other arrangements equivalent to it."
In contrast, the Democrats "...support the full inclusion of all families, including same-sex couples, in the life of our nation, and support equal responsibility, benefits, and protections. We will enact a comprehensive bipartisan employment non-discrimination act. We oppose the Defense of Marriage Act and all attempts to use this issue to divide us."
The Rights of People with Disabilities
The Democrats take a surprisingly strong position on the rights of people with disabilities. The platform calls for ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, "sufficient funding to empower Americans with disabilities to succeed in school and beyond", and increases in staffing for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is charged with enforcing the nation's federal employment laws. The Democrats call for passage of the Community Choice Act into law, which will give people with disabilities the choice of living in their communities rather than being warehoused in nursing homes or other institutions.
Despite Sarah Palin's plea to parents of children with special needs, the Republicans fold their discussion of disability into their "Maintaining The Sanctity and Dignity of Human Life" section, which mostly deals with rolling back women's reproductive rights. Nestled in that section is this:
Respect for life requires efforts to include persons with disabilities in education, employment, the justice system, and civic participation. In keeping with that commitment, we oppose the nonconsensual withholding of care or treatment from people with disabilities, as well as the elderly and infirm, just as we oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide, which endanger especially those on the margins of society.
The differences between the platforms are stark. It's not clear whether the candidates will ever follow the platform, but for what they are worth, they offer a clear choice.
Because these are the party's platforms, and not necessarily the positions of the individual candidates, the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights will post a second piece on the candidate's positions on these issues.