Stephanie Mencimer

Ryan Sponsored Abortion Bill That Would Make Romney's Kids Criminals

Now that Mitt Romney has chosen Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Ryan's long history as a culture warrior is getting a fresh look. Women's groups have already honed in on his extreme anti-abortion record, which consistently has earned him a 100 percent voting approval rating from the National Right to Life Committee.

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How the Tea Party Thinks Sustainable Development Is an International Conspiracy to Take Away Our Personal Freedoms

First, they took on the political establishment in Congress. Now, tea partiers have trained their sights on a new and insidious target: local planning and zoning commissions, which activists believe are carrying out a global conspiracy to trample American liberties and force citizens into Orwellian "human habitation zones."

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Will War Between the Religious Right and Libertarians Tear the Tea Party Apart?

In the months leading up to the midterm congressional elections, the tea party movement managed to tamp down on its internal divisions in pursuit of a shared goal of defeating Democrats. But with the elections over, the movement's fault lines are starting to show, and tensions between the tea party's social conservative and libertarian wings are poised to explode into an all-out civil war.

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Tea Party Travel Agents Duke It out for Protest Business

Tea Party marches on Washington have gotten so big and unwieldy that the grassroots conservative movement has spawned its own travel agents. And the business is cutthroat -- sparking a clash between tea party entrepreneurs replete with allegations of slander, backstabbing, and threats of legal action.

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Does BP Plan to Rip Off the Families of Killed Rig Workers?

After a BP refinery in Texas exploded in 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring scores more, the oil giant paid $1.6 billion in settlements to employees and their families. But the families of the workers killed on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico probably won't receive a similar windfall. That’s because the Deepwater rig is legally considered an ocean-going vessel, and was more three nautical miles offshore at the time of the accident. As a result, the families of the dead workers can only sue BP and its contractors under a 90-year-old maritime law, the Death on the High Seas Act, which severely limits liability. In some cases, BP could get away with shelling out sums as paltry as $1,000.

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Obscure Law Could Cost Hillary Clinton Her Cabinet Post

Ever since Barack Obama started running for the White House, he's been plagued by lawsuits from detractors who claim that he is not a natural-born citizen, and thus is ineligible to serve as president. Now the devoted conspiracy theorists of the so-called "eligibility movement" have a fresh target: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And there's a chance that the Supreme Court might hear their challenge.

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Conservative Activists Furious at GOP Consultants Hijacking Tea Party Name

Would a true Tea Party patriot drop nearly $1,600 in donor money for a small meal at a fancy steakhouse? Robin Stublen says no, and he's mad as hell about the profligate expenditures of a GOP political organization that has glommed on to his grassroots movement. Stublen is the organizer of the Punta Gorda, Florida, Tea Party and a member of Tea Party Patriots, a national grassroots organization that has no offices, no president, raises virtually no money, operates largely on volunteer efforts, and, most importantly, doesn't endorse candidates. But unbeknownst to many, there's another outfit claiming ownership of this conservative movement. It's called the Tea Party Express, and it has dominated Fox News coverage over the past year with its multi-state bus tours and political rallies.

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Anti-Abortion Group to Protest Palin

When she was running for governor of Alaska in 2006, Sarah Palin reportedly said that even if her then-14-year-old daughter were raped, she would "choose life" and force her to bear a child. Comments like that that have endeared the fiery Alaskan politician to most pro-life voters, who lionized her for not aborting her Down's Syndrome baby. But Trig isn’t enough to protect Palin from a phalanx of anti-abortion activists who plan to protest her appearance on Thursday to promote her book in the conservative heartland of Indiana. Their reason? They think she's not really pro-life.

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Is the Right-Wing Tea Party Kettle Starting to Losing Its Steam?

The tea partiers are launching the revolution. This week. But will anyone actually show up?
On Sunday, Rep. Michele Bachmann challenged viewers of Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to join her last-ditch attempt to kill health care reform. The fiery Minnesota Republican plans to hold a press conference at "high noon" today. She urged Americans to flood the halls of Congress that day, find their elected officials, "look at the whites of their eyes and tell them, 'don't you dare take away my health care.'"
Since then, so-called tea party patriots have been burning up the Internets trying to rally supporters to attend Bachmann’s event. But so far, their efforts haven't amounted to much. The official Tea Party Patriots website laments that Bachmann’s rally is being stymied by a "media blackout"—meaning that mainstream outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have ignored it.


The lack of media interest could stem from the tea partiers’ failure to mobilize as a genuine grassroots political force. In preparation for Bachmann’s press conference, the patriots devised a "three phase attack" on Congress called "Operation House Call." The idea was for tea partiers to call, email, fax and visit key lawmakers, starting at 1:30 on Tuesday afternoon.

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Why Is Obama Backing Bank of America in Court?

Now that the Obama administration is a shareholder in Bank of America, will it protect the interests of the bailed-out bank or those of customers targeted by its predatory practices? It's a difficult calculation, and one the administration soon has to make as a class action suit against BoA lands in a state supreme court.

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Can a Prison Profiteer with No Court Experience Make a Good Trial Judge?

In October 2000, Dick Cheney faced off for a debate with Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. The 60-year-old Cheney appeared comfortable discussing the ins and outs of policy and made good-natured jokes about Lieberman's singing abilities, or lack thereof. Cheney's smooth performance reflected his many years in public service. But the aspiring vice president also had a strong debate-preparation team made up of longtime friends and GOP loyalists. Among them was Gustavus Adolphus Puryear IV, a legislative director for Tennessee senator Bill Frist, who was on contract with the Bush/Cheney campaign. Puryear apparently did such a good job prepping Cheney that he was called in again in 2004 to help him gear up for his debate with Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards.

Puryear's efforts on behalf of the Bush administration paid off last June when the president nominated him to be a federal trial court judge for the Middle District of Tennessee. Puryear certainly isn't the first judicial nominee selected primarily for his political service, but still, his resume is remarkably thin on the practice of law, a basic prerequisite even for the best-connected political hacks.

Puryear got his start in politics in the mid-1990s working as counsel to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, then chaired by Fred Thompson, as it investigated the Clinton fundraising scandals. From there he went to work for Frist. Beyond a brief stint in private practice for a corporate law firm when he was fresh out of law school, Puryear has spent more time inside an executive suite than a courtroom. And it's that corporate work that makes him an especially questionable candidate for the federal bench.

Puryear was in Washington last week for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Senators Arlen Specter (R.-Pa,) and Dianne Feinstein (D.-Ca.) both put his resume under a microscope, noting his conspicuous lack of trial experience. At one point Specter asked him point blank, "How many cases have you actually tried?" To which Puryear answered: Two. Indeed, according to his written questionnaire for the committee, of the two cases he has tried in the entirety of his legal career, he was lead counsel on one of them. The last time he litigated a case in federal court was more than a decade ago.

Puryear has spent the bulk of his legal career at the Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company. As its general counsel since 2001, Puryear has made millions of dollars working for a company that profits from the country's incarceration boom, particularly through his recent sale of more than $3 million worth of the company's stock. (His financial disclosure form shows a net worth of more than $13 million.) His employer creates enormous conflicts for Puryear as a potential federal judge, as the CCA gets sued all the time, often in the very district where he hopes to preside as judge. Since 2000, roughly 260 cases have been filed in that court against the CCA, its officers, and subsidiaries.

In addition, Puryear's current job involves overseeing the CCA's defense against inmate litigation, a prison staple that he has publicly dismissed as a nuisance, even though such litigation has led to significant verdicts and settlements against the company. For instance, in 2000, a South Carolina jury hit the CCA with a $3 million verdict for abusing juveniles. Other successful suits have alleged that the company's employees abused inmates and provided negligent medical care. Yet in a quote he no doubt now regrets, in 2004 Puryear said that, "Litigation is an outlet for inmates. It's something they can do in their spare time." Inmate lawsuits typically account for more than 10 percent of the docket in Tennessee's Middle District, meaning that Puryear will see his share of them if he gets confirmed.

During his confirmation hearing last week, Puryear told the committee that he would recuse himself from any cases involving the CCA -- at least, he said, for some time after he's divested all of his stock in the company. He dismissed concerns about his conflict of interest by noting that the CCA cases make up a small part of the court's workload and that his recusals would not create problems for the other judges. But his promises to recuse still don't get to the heart of a fundamental conflict: To the CCA, inmates are a revenue stream warehoused at the cheapest price. This not exactly the view of the criminal justice system you want from a judge if you are a defendant.

A trial court judge in Tennessee's Middle District can expect to handle more than 60 criminal cases a year. Every person Puryear sends to prison is a potential money-maker for his former employer, which contracts with the federal government to manage 15 detention facilities, and also holds federal prisoners in other CCA institutions that house state and local prisoners when the need arises, according to Steve Owen, the company's director of marketing and communications. The number of inmates coming from Tennessee may be relatively small, but still, it seems fair to ask whether Puryear's conflict of interest runs so deep that he might have to recuse himself from criminal cases entirely.

Thus far, Puryear has largely escaped media scrutiny, as the activist groups that monitor the federal courts tend to focus mostly on appellate courts and the occasional Supreme Court battle rather than on trial court nominees. Puryear's CV also doesn't signal fights on many of the hot-button social issues that usually set off a confirmation battle. He doesn't sound -- or look -- like Robert Bork. He's young, patrician, a model member of the exclusive Belle Meade Country Club, and director of the Antiques & Garden Show of Nashville. But for his deep voice he could be Niles on "Frasier." Nonetheless, Puryear might be in for an unexpected fight, due in part to his decision to publicly dis jailhouse lawyers.

Alex Friedmann was one of those jailhouse lawyers. He spent six years inside one of the CCA's prisons in Tennessee for attempted murder and armed robbery. Friedmann actually sued the CCA while incarcerated for retaliating against him for his comments to a reporter for The Nation. Representing himself, he took another case all the way to a jury trial, where he mostly lost, though he won a default judgment against a former unit manager. He also appealed a different case against the state, over censorship, that went all the way to the Sixth Circuit court of appeals where he won. "In that regard, I'm more qualified than [Puryear] is," he observes, noting that Puryear isn't even admitted to practice in the Sixth Circuit.

Now out of prison nine years, Friedmann is an editor for Prison Legal News, which is how he first learned about Puryear's nomination. After doing a little checking on him, Friedmann ran across Puryear's quote about inmate litigation, which didn't sit too well with him, and he set out to torpedo Puryear's nomination. As a former CCA inmate and a board member of a Florida nonprofit group that opposes prison privatization, Friedmann readily admits that he's not a disinterested party in the nomination battle. Nonetheless, his political instincts are sound. He is cobbling together a coalition to oppose Puryear's nomination, including the American Federal State and Municipal Employees Union, which opposes private prisons for their anti-labor positions. Friedmann's currently at work trying to enlist the real powerhouse of liberal judicial activists to join the coalition: women's groups.

Friedmann has compiled stats from the federal court docket on the CCA's lawsuit history in order to highlight the potential conflicts of interest Puryear might face, and he picked apart Puryear's resume and his responses to the Senate Judiciary Committee's questions last week. For instance, when pressed on his view of criminal defendants and prison inmates, Puryear pointed to his service as a commissioner on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Skeptical, Friedmann checked out Puryear's attendance record with the commission. He says the commission held eight public hearings between 2005 and 2007 -- and Puryear missed at least four of them. "If the gentleman does have a genuine concern about inmates, why did he miss half the meetings?" he asks.

Friedmann is also raising significant questions about Puryear's response to questions about the death of a female inmate at the CCA's facility in Nashville. The medical examiner ruled that 34-year-old Estelle Richardson was beaten to death while in the company's custody. She suffered a skull fracture, broken ribs, and liver damage. Prosecutors indicted four CCA guards in 2005, but later dropped the charges after being unable to determine the time of death. So far, no one has been held responsible for Richardson's death, although the CCA settled a private lawsuit filed by her family.

When Sen. Feinstein asked Puryear about the case, Puryear disputed the medical examiner's findings and claimed that Richardson's death might not have been a homicide at all. He suggested that the broken ribs and liver injury may have been caused by CPR. It's "common" for people to suffer such injuries from CPR, Puryear said, to which a dumbfounded Feinstein exclaimed, "Common?" Apparently not satisfied with Puryear's answers, Feinstein asked him to provide the committee with further written information about the case.

Meanwhile, after the hearing, Friedmann called the Tennessee medical examiner who worked the case, who he says reaffirmed the original finding that Robinson's death was a homicide and that there was nothing to suggest her injuries were caused by resuscitation efforts. Friedmann also spoke with the lawyers who represented Richardson's family and he says that they told him that the CCA never raised CPR injuries as a defense in the litigation. Puryear's comments to the committee, says Freidmann, are "not supported by the medical record," which makes him skeptical about Puryear's judgment as a lawyer -- and his credibility.

Friedmann seems to recognize that prison inmates are not the stuff of judicial confirmation fights, so he has also homed in on another issue that might provide more traction, not to mention the interest of powerful women's groups: Puryear's country club.

The tony Belle Meade Country Club in Nashville is so exclusive that you have to be a member just to access its website. It didn't admit a single black member until 1994, a racist history so potent that even Puryear's mentor, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, quit the club in 1993 when he first ran for office. While Belle Meade admits women, Friedmann has heard that it still won't give "lady members" voting rights. (Troy Cunningham, the controller of the club for the past 17 years, wouldn't respond to questions about women's voting rights, saying that "all questions flow through the members," meaning that someone will have to put the question to Puryear himself.) But if Friedmann can stir up controversy over Puryear's country club membership, he might actually have a shot at scuttling his nomination.

The Supreme Court Forgets the Little People

The line forms early on Friday mornings at Foundry United Methodist Church, a nearly 200-year-old institution located a few blocks from the White House. Famous in some circles as Bill Clinton's church, among the city's down and out, Foundry is better known as one of the few places around that offer help securing a government-issued photo identification.

Two weeks ago, Deborah Killebrew, 58, was one of those queued up outside the church to pick up a copy of her birth certificate, which Foundry volunteers had helped her obtain. Six years ago, Killebrew was hit by a drunk driver. Her fiance was killed in the crash, and she was left with cervical spine injuries that eventually put her in a wheelchair. After a string of bad luck, she wound up living in a D.C. homeless shelter. Somewhere along the way, she lost her expired Virginia driver's license. Killebrew was unable to get a new one because she didn't have an official copy of her birth certificate from the state of Indiana, where she was born. But to get her birth certificate, Killebrew had to send the state a copy of her driver's license or a stack of other documents -- like a car registration or mortgage document -- that she also didn't have. Eventually, she just gave up until she was referred to Foundry.

Without a photo ID, Killebrew may not be able to drive or apply for food stamps, but here in D.C., one thing she can do is vote, which she does regularly. If she still lived in Indiana, though, she'd be out of luck. Two days before she arrived at Foundry to claim her birth certificate, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit over a strict new Indiana law requiring all voters to show a government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot. The plaintiffs argued that the law was an unconstitutional burden on voters, particularly minority, poor and elderly voters, who are the least likely to have the requisite ID. The law does allow people without an ID to cast a provisional ballot, but it won't get counted until the voter turns up at a county clerk's office to present identification.

If the justices rule against the plaintiffs, they will clear the way for other states to implement similar laws restricting voting rights for the less fortunate. Judging from the oral arguments in Crawford v. Marion County Elections Board, that's just what the justices are poised to do. While John Roberts worked at a steel mill during college, and Clarence Thomas came up dirt-poor in Pin Point, Ga., the Supreme Court of late hasn't shown much interest in people like Killebrew who reside at the bottom of the economic food chain. The court's docket is increasingly dominated by business litigation -- patent challenges, anti-trust suits and attempts by big businesses to insulate themselves from all sorts of legal liability and litigation brought by their employees, investors or aggrieved customers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently bragged that it had its best year yet before the high court in 2007, racking up a string of impressive victories for big business that even surpassed the chamber's record-breaking year in 2006.

Topped off by last week's decision in Stoneridge Investment Partners v. Scientific Atlanta, which sharply restricted the ability of shareholders to sue entities that abet corporate fraud, recent winners before the Supreme Court have included Enron and the banks that facilitated its scam, payday lenders, investment banks that engage in price fixing and tobacco companies, among others. Losers have been small investors, poor black schoolchildren, working-class women paid less than men -- and one kid who was paralyzed after a police officer rammed his car because he was speeding.

Not only are "the people" losing at a rapid clip when they come before the court, but it has gotten much, much harder for the average person to even get into court in the first place. Over the past two decades, Supreme Court decisions have quietly prevented a wide swath of the American population from even reaching the courthouse, much less prevailing there when they've challenged better-funded and more powerful interests. Lee Epstein, a professor at Northwestern law school, says that the court is "shutting down access to plaintiffs in all sorts of ways. The court seems to be saying 'stay out.'"

In the last term, the court ruled, for instance, that taxpayers had no right to challenge the federal government's use of tax dollars to pay for religious-based social services. The case overturned years of precedent giving people a say in how their money is spent if it seems to mix too much church with state business. In a complicated anti-trust case, the court basically rewrote the rules for filing a civil lawsuit, making it harder for plaintiffs to even get into a courtroom under the guise of protecting business from allegedly frivolous lawsuits.

Many civil rights lawsuits are brought by private individuals rather than the government through agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, making them the primary mode of enforcing anti-discrimination laws passed by Congress. Yet the Supreme Court has moved to sharply limit such lawsuits through decisions that, for instance, restrict the awarding of attorneys fees to plaintiffs so that lawyers can no longer afford to bring such cases.

Epstein says that while it's true many of these decisions break down along ideological lines, some of rulings also may stem from the justices' personal backgrounds. Never has the Supreme Court been more homogeneous, she says, noting that race and gender aside, the range of professional experience of the current court is extremely limited. All of the current justices came straight from the federal appeals courts, she points out, and most spent the bulk of their careers in government service or academia. Today's sitting justices are even geographically homogeneous, having lived most of their adult lives in Washington or other nearby East Coast metro centers. Before they were appointed, Epstein says, "Most of these people could have taken the Metro or Amtrak to get to work."

At least with Sandra Day O'Connor on the court, Epstein says, there was not just a female voice, but someone from the West who had a different background from the other justices. O'Connor had been an Arizona state legislator and served as an elected trial court judge in Maricopa County. Epstein suggests that some of the court's rulings in recent years may have as much to do with the justices' service on appellate courts as ideology. None of them has much experience as private-practice litigators or trial judges, where they would be forced to look the plaintiffs in the eye and hear their stories. Epstein believes that the current crop of justices is inclined to think that "the judges below them get it right."

The insular experience of the Supreme Court justices seems to be spilling over into their decision making in a way that goes beyond partisan politics. Indeed, some of the more arcane business cases, which will nonetheless have a profound impact on such things as consumer protection, were decided by majorities that included Clinton appointees. All of the justices seem reluctant to do anything that might mess with business too much, even when those businesses could use some messing with.

In Watters v. Wachovia last year, for instance, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a former ACLU lawyer, wrote the opinion for a majority that also included liberal Steven Breyer in a case that declared that states have no right to regulate the operating subsidiaries of national banks. On its face, this might sound like no big deal, until you recognize that some of those operating subsidiaries were engaged in subprime and other shady mortgage lending that's now wreaking havoc on the economy. The states had attempted to step in to combat some of the fraud at work long before the feds even noticed there was a problem.

But the court's liberals deferred to the federal banking regulators in the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The decision was a huge victory for the banks, leaving their subsidiaries largely immune to regulation or lawsuits based on state consumer protection laws.

Ginsburg and Breyer also came down with the majority in a decision that upheld the use of mandatory-arbitration clauses in contracts for services that are themselves against the law. In Buckeye Check Cashing v. Cardegna, the court said a consumer could be forced to arbitrate a dispute with a payday lender rather than go to court even though payday lending is illegal in Florida, where the case originated.

During the oral arguments, Breyer expressed concern that if the court ruled for the consumer, businesses might suffer because so many of them now use mandatory arbitration to keep people out of court. He seemed to believe that letting people go to court would somehow lead to economic ruin, even when they were suing companies that had defrauded them. "I wouldn't want to reach a decision … that would make a significant negative difference in the gross national product of the United States," Breyer said. The case greatly expanded the number of people who can no longer bring their consumer disputes before a judge or jury.

Despite a few of these sorts of decisions, it is still the conservatives on the court who seem to be most out of touch with the people who will be affected by their rulings. The oral arguments during the Indiana voter ID case serve as a case in point. There was Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. with his movie-star good looks and a smile and smoothness that seemed so reasonable and reassuring during his confirmation hearings. And yet, during the oral arguments, Roberts couldn't have been more dismissive of the plight of poor and minority voters at the heart of the case. Like the other conservatives, Roberts, who earned $1 million a year in private practice, couldn't seem to fathom that there are people in this country who don't have a photo ID. When informed that a voter who didn't have an ID would have to travel to a county clerk's office to provide addition documentation for her vote to be counted, Roberts quipped that in his home state of Indiana, county clerk's offices weren't too far apart.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Paul Smith, countered that for a poor person living in Gary, Ind., the county clerk's office was quite a schlep, 17 miles. ("Seventeen miles is 17 miles for the rich and the poor," Antonin Scalia chimed in.) Smith gently reminded the justices that the people he was talking about didn't have driver's licenses. That's why they couldn't vote at their local polling places. For them, getting to the clerk's office would require using public transportation, which, anyone who's ever spent much time on public transit would surely know, gets less and less frequent and reliable the farther you have to travel.

What was striking about the exchange between Smith and Roberts, though, wasn't just Roberts' unfamiliarity with riding the bus, but his lack of any apparent understanding of the lives of people on the lower end of the economic spectrum. In this regard, Roberts is not alone on the court. It's clear that many of the justices would rather not see these sorts of folks appearing on their docket at all. Simon Lazarus, public policy counsel at the National Senior Citizens Law Center, calls it the "arrogant abstractness" that predominates the court today.

The court's overt hostility to average- or low-income people is in itself keeping people out of court. One possible reason the Supreme Court docket is so crowded with business cases is that liberal public interest lawyers are avoiding it, says John Bouman, the president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. "There's very little empathy on the court," he says, and as a result "people are showing restraint as to whether to take things up at all."

The change in the docket may only reinforce the court's ivory-tower qualities. The fewer everyday people who make their cases in court, the fewer opportunities the justices will have to let their perceptions evolve. One of the selling points of lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices is that it can free them from politics and allow them to focus on the law and the facts of the cases before them. It is supposed to allow for evolution, which has been known to happen. Justice John Paul Stevens, now the last remaining reliable liberal on the court, is himself a Republican appointee nominated by Gerald Ford. His views on such hot-button issues as affirmative action and obscenity have changed during his many years on the court. Even former Chief Justice Rehnquist, who as a law clerk once wrote that he thought Plessy v. Ferguson, the case upholding racial segregation, ought to be reaffirmed, eventually came to champion Brown v. Board of Education.

But you do have to wonder about the current crop of young conservatives like Roberts. Insulated from the real world through an adult life of privilege, insulated from actual people by years of conservative legal rulings, it's hard to see where the opportunities for growth will come from. As Arthur Bryant, the executive director of Public Justice, a public-interest law firm, says, "Our system of justice cannot do justice if people cannot get into court."

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