Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Supreme Court – and us

... "And this is the way the world will end -- not with a bang, but a whimper," T.S. Eliot wrote of empty men in his poem Hollow Men. He spoke of those who did not leave a positive mark on their world. And, although the Supreme Court does now include three women, it is the nay-sayers, those negative ones who are making the biggest marks.

The three women (Ginsberg, Kagan and Sotomayer), plus Justice Breyer form the liberal block and are some times joined by Justice Kennedy. Often, however the frequent 5-4 majority votes reflect the Conservative view. Think of decisions such as Citizens United -- which has been considered the worst court decision in decades, remember the result of the Bush v Gore election decision, take note of all of the worker petition results in recent years, such as Lilly Ledbetter, when the employer side won. But in the decisions this week, for the most part, we have seen either in the majority or in sputtering dissent, the words of hollow men which do not ring true for most of us. In my view, the Supreme Court ended this term of 2012-13 with bangs and whimpers. Or one could put it in baseball terms, some balls, some hits, some errors…no home runs.

  • Affirmative Action: Here my theory seems to not hold -- as this decision to not decide (in itself – a pass on a conclusion) was by a 7-1 vote to send it back to the lower courts which they instructed to re-write the guidelines. Justice Ginsberg in her dissent, took note of the de facto segregation in Texas and the need to consider race to continue diversity. According to this article: "Monday’s decision let stand, for now, a longstanding but fragile societal compromise, one that forbids quotas but allows using race as one factor among many in the admissions process."

Many, however, believe that this is yet another blow to affirmative action in the long run, as it encourages public universities to further diminish the role of race as a consideration in admissions policies.

  • Voting Rights Act: On this issue, the Justices chose to look at the Act in the broadest fashion, acting not only on the matter relating to the petition of Selby County Alabama, but on this section as a whole and how it pertains to pre-clearance requirements. In current law, counties or areas which have had a record of poor voter rights are required to get prior Justice Department approval to permit changes in election procedures. By ruling that racial disparities are no longer seen in voter registrations the Court indicated that this section of the most successful civil rights legislation was no longer necessary.

By a stroke of this decision, they said we are a color blind nation -- minorities have achieved parity. In this decision they closed their eyes to matters of voter intimidation, poll challenges, decreased hours and polling places in minority neighborhoods and voter ID regulations in many red states. They ignored the hours long waits to vote in places such as Florida or Virginia. The proof now required, demands one to show discrimination after an election, rather than forestall it before it happens. As Congressman John Lewis said after the decision, "this vote placed a dagger in the heart of this law."

Do you remember the Bridge at Selma? I do, and I remember the powerful speech that President Johnson gave after that horrific day in which he promised that the Voting Rights Bill would pass.

That was a short 50 years ago, but the words still ring true. The Justices live in Washington and cannot be unaware of the political climate. In fact they seem to have placed their political hats on in this decision, because they clearly have not made this decision on the merits of the case. Here they are following a recent trend. When having to right a civil wrong, they rule very narrowly and when being challenged on political issues they rule broadly on the conservative side. Salon has proposed that Congress make the Law applicable to all 50 states and thereby negate this decision -- a very novel approach.

  • DOMA and California's Prop 8: The discriminatory Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was found to be unconstitutional by a 5/4 divided Supreme Court. That section of DOMA only permitted man/woman married couples to enjoy Federal rights and benefits, and specifically excluded same-sex couples from exercising those same rights. It is unfortunate that Congress passed DOMA in 1996 with large margins, and President Clinton signed it. Subsequently, Mr. Clinton has renounced this law, which has long been a beacon for the religious right.

In fact states were mobilized during the 2004 Presidential election with the so-called Moral Majority anti same-sex marriage equality movement. Some say this Karl Rove engineered campaign actually paved the way for a Bush victory. Legalizing discrimination is contrary to what we define as our American Way of life, yet as one can see, it surely happens. It is still legal in some places to discriminate against gay or transgendered job applicants. Again, this seems contrary.

Here, the Court ruled narrowly allowing married gay couples to apply for Federal benefits only in those states where their marriage is legal. So if one lives in one of the 13 states where marriage equality is in effect, one can file a Federal Tax return as a married couple or apply for spousal insurance coverage on a Federal job. If one lives in a state such as Virginia, where this is not the law, one's status is unclear at this time.

Surely the justices should have done a better job on this matter. While they looked at California’s Proposition 8, they sent it back with no real decision, concluding that the parties contesting it had no "skin in the game," i.e. that they did not have legal standing to oppose it. So as of now, marriage equality is now the law in California and a several years wait for implementation has ended. By not acting broadly, by not deciding these questions as a national issue, the Court has again failed the rest of us. Once again, discrimination is not legal -- I am not saying it does not happen -- but rather that it should not... but that is a discussion for another day.

Where should we go from here? How can we make our Court less tied to party or class and more tied to the Bill of Rights? How can we get our dysfunctional Congress to enact provisions such as immigration reform and real voting rights reform? I do not have the answers as I pose these questions in a real quest for information. Let me hear from you and learn your solutions to the real problems -- the ones involving each of us in some way. Because, if we see wrongs and do not speak out, we then perpetuate them.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Some Thoughts of Summer and a Farm Bill

Tonight, all was right with my world as I drove home from work. The evening sky was pink tinged, the day had been mild with a slight breeze and low humidity and we were on the eve of the summer solstice. The tiger lilies were dotting the country roads as I traveled. Could the fields of Queen Anne's Lace, Black-eyed Susans and summer cornstalks be far behind? Turning on the classical music station, I heard waltz music, which brought memories of films with grand ballrooms, and visions of swirling dancers and fabulous costumes from long ago epics. The strange tornado that hit our Maryland suburbs last week seemed far behind us tonight.

But my reverie was interrupted as I heard news about the House of Representatives defeat of the Farm Bill tonight. Finger pointing had already started with Republicans blaming Democrats and vice-versa. Speaker Boehner and his Majority Leader Cantor did not count their votes well as many members of their own party also voted against this bill. Maryland's Steny Hoyer accepted none of the blame voiced by Cantor, claiming that Democrats voted against a bad bill not as a result of poor bi-partisan ship. Not that I minded this defeat, as Hoyer was correct. This was a bad bill.

But in what has come to be typical of this divided Congress, the Democrats and the conservative Tea Partiers both voted against this bill for vastly different reasons. The Tea Party folks wanted to cut and restrict food stamp funds even more than the rest of their party. Essentially they wanted to cut $40 billion over ten years with half of that cut coming from the food stamp or SNAP program which supplements food for poor families. Rep McGovern (D) of Massachusetts claimed that over 2 million people would be cut from the program which has grown as the numbers of unemployed rose during the Great Recession. The Farm Bill is typically funded for 5 years but this House has been unable to pass one over the last two years. The Senate has passed a companion bill which has a more modest $5 Billion decrease in food stamp funding. Both Bills had punitive measures imbedded in them. Senator Vitter of Louisiana, one of the poorer (per capita income slightly over $30,000) states in the country wants to deny food stamps to any convicted felon. What part of that "paying one's debt to society" does he not understand?

Some Congressmen, even those who were in line to receive farm crop subsidies themselves, (Rep. Fincher of Tennessee has received over $3 million in subsidies himself) even as he and others railed against monies for the poor. This Congressman was quoted recently saying that if people want to eat, then they should work, they should not expect handouts. Darkly warning against fraud, some members claimed people traded food stamps for tattoos. (This claim was absolutely disputed by the Agricultural Department.) Somehow they are overlooking the fact that the average food stamp allotment is approximately $5.00 per person per day. Since many people spend more than that for a latte on the way to work, that should give some context to this argument. During the recent Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich repeatedly claimed that President Obama was the food stamp President. This program is certainly better that the previous program which gave away surplus foods such as dried beans, powdered milk and cheese. Congress seems to absolve itself of any blame in this situation, just gets bogged down in posturing. Well, maybe if the Congress would pass a JOBS bill, then fewer people would need to apply for food stamps.

What I do not understand is how our country has become so mean-spirited. What is it about the people who were elected by the Tea Party that made them be so self-centered and lacking in charity towards one's neighbors? Why are they so threatened by the services that are among the best things that this country has to offer -- in my opinion. In my estimate, we have changed so much from the era of robber barons, with exploitation of workers, and poor houses which were so prevalent about a century ago. We have created a network of social services which serve as a safety net to keep families out of abject poverty. There are emergency shelters, food banks and services such as Medicaid and Social Security to aid those in need. We educate poor children through programs such as Head Start, provide food for the frail in Meals on Wheels programs and give health care through city clinics or Planned Parenthood. And soon we will implement the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare to many), bringing the United States closer to the majority of nations who provide health care believing that health care is a right, not a privilege. We have created a caring country that these social misfits now want to dismantle.

Perhaps certain social scientists will, in future generations, venture to study this subset first seen in the 2010 election as an aberration common only to the early 21st Century. They appear to be overwhelmingly white, mostly male and mostly not from the Blue states. (Other hangers-on such as Michelle Bachman and Lindsay Graham tried to rub the tea party lamps and find their genie, although Michelle has decided to read the tea leaves of her narrow win last year and retire.) Some of the TP members were defeated in the 2012 Presidential year election. One could hope that more will find defeat in 2014. Meanwhile some non Tea Partiers in the Republican Party are fearful that they will be defeated if they do not turn further to the right and follow these fringe members, so they are passing nothing of consequence. They are not doing the peoples work. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell has obstructed rather than governed and moved to create paralysis in courts and governmental appointments.

So how did my summer reverie disappear -- it didn't take much did it? Help me find a way to restore the society that cares about the least among us. Perhaps you have an idea about how we can bring back sanity and functionality to our government. If so, tell me here.