Alabama May Back Off Its Policy of Treating New Moms Like Meth Cooks

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 6:10 PM EST

A subcommittee of the Alabama Governor's Health Care Improvement Task Force is examining proposals that aim to reform the nation's harshest "chemical endangerment of a child" statute. The law states that "knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally" exposing a child to controlled substances or drug-making chemicals is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison if a child is unharmed, and 99 years if a child dies.

The enforcement of the law, originally intended to prosecute methamphetamine users who exposed children to the drug, has been unusually broad—including, as ProPublica's Nina Martin previously reported in Mother Jones, the prosecution of pregnant women for exposing their fetuses to even small amounts of anti-anxiety medication. Nearly 500 women have been arrested on related charges since the law passed in 2006.

The law has been criticized by civil rights groups and public health experts for being harmful to those who need the most help—women who are faced with poverty and addiction—and for unfairly prosecuting women who were not drug users at all, but who might have simply taken a small dose of medication that eventually appeared in the blood test of their new babies.

At the task force meeting on Wednesday, Dr. Darlene Traffanstedt, who heads the subcommittee, announced that three proposals were under consideration. One would require prosecutors to offer drug treatment to pregnant women instead of prosecuting them, while another would protect women using drugs that have been legally prescribed to them (which has not been the case since 2006). The third option would hold the law to its "original intent"  by preventing its use against women who are using pregnancy-related medication.

The subcommittee's next meeting is in December, and a draft bill is expected by the beginning of February's legislative session. Read more about the law and its consequences here.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 20 November 2015

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 2:50 PM EST

This has sure been a crappy week, and Hilbert and Hopper agree. As you can see, they decided to flee upstairs to the bedroom and adopt disapproving looks. Those are for Donald Trump. They are hoping that us human types can do more than just glower, so let's get to it.

Charter Schools: Great in Cities, Ho-Hum in Suburbs?

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 2:15 PM EST

Evaluating charter schools is tricky. Maybe highly motivated parents send their kids to charters and others don't. The solution is to identify schools that are oversubscribed and track students who won and lost the lottery to get in. That way you get a random set of parents on both sides. But maybe charters kick out bad students after they've attended for a year or two. The solution is to tag lottery winners as charter kids forever. They count against the charter's performance regardless of where they end up later. Fine, but maybe oversubscribed charters are different in some way. What about less popular charters where you can't do any of this lottery-based research?

Susan Dynarski, an education professor at the University of Michigan, acknowledges all of this, but says we can draw some conclusions anyway:

A consistent pattern has emerged from this research. In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than other public schools.

This pattern — positive results in low-income city neighborhoods, zero to negative results in relatively affluent suburbs — holds in lottery studies in Massachusetts as well in a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department.

Interesting. But if this is really the case, why?

Jeb Bush Opposed to Manipulating People's Fears Over Syrian Refugees

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 12:09 PM EST

Jeb Bush comments on Donald Trump's plan to create a Muslim registry in the United States:

Trump's solutions are "just wrong," Jeb Bush said Friday...."It’s not a question of toughness. It’s manipulating people's angst and their fears. That’s not strength. That’s weakness," Bush said in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Good for Bush, though it's a low bar to oppose a national registry for everyone of a specific religion. I don't think Bush will be the only one to choke on that notion. Still, he was clear about his opposition, and clear about why it's wrong.

It's too bad he's taken this long. He could have been a voice for sanity from the start and set himself apart from the crowd. At this point, though, it would just make him look tentative and indecisive. He lost a chance to do the right thing and possibly get a big payoff from it.

Obamacare's Growing Pains Are About What You'd Expect in a Newly Competitive Market

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 11:33 AM EST

Yesterday United Healthcare announced that they would be exiting the Obamacare exchanges after 2016. They were losing too much money and figured it was time to call it quits.

What does this mean? Here are a few bullet points:

  • UH is a relatively small part of Obamacare, accounting for about 5 percent of exchange members.
  • However, its presence is bigger in some states than others.
  • Overall, then, this is only moderately bad news for Obamacare as a program. In some places, however, it's very bad news. And obviously, for the people affected who have to switch plans in 2017, it's a huge pain in the ass.

Beyond this, the news depends on why UH is doing so badly:

  • It could be that UH simply isn't competitive. If that's the case, it's nothing more than the expected result of marketplace competition. If other companies are more efficient or offer better products, you're in trouble.
  • However, it's also possible that UH's exit exposes some fundamental problems with Obamacare. UH claims—without offering any real evidence—that people are signing up when they get sick and then dropping out. This is unsustainable in any insurance market, and if people really have found loopholes that allow this on a large scale, it's bad news for Obamacare. It would be especially bad news since Republicans are rooting for Obamacare to fail and will refuse to allow any changes that might make it work better.

Generally speaking, I think that what we've been seeing recently is a fairly predictable consequence of setting up a competitive market: there's going to be a lot of churn at the beginning, as companies figure out what works best. Some, like UH and the ill-fated co-ops, will drop out. Others will discover they were too optimistic and will raise rates. Others will gain market share at their expense because they're better run or made better actuarial projections. In a few years, this will all settle down and we'll finally have a pretty good idea of just how well Obamacare works and how much it costs.

We could have avoided this kind of thing by creating a simpler, more universal program, but that just wasn't politically possible. Creating a competitive marketplace was the only way to get Obamacare passed. Unfortunately, competition has both pluses and minuses. In theory, it should provide lower prices and better value in the long run. But it might take a while to get there.

More detail is available from John Cohn and Megan McArdle.

Republicans Play "Can You Top This?" Over Refugees

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 10:46 AM EST

I think it's been nearly 24 hours since I last looked in on our Republican candidates and their prudent, thoughtful stands on Syrian refugees. So where do we stand?

  • Ben Carson compared Syrian terrorists to rabid dogs, suggesting this means we'd be wise to avoid all dogs.
  • Marco Rubio made some strained analogy to Nazis because.... Nazis.
  • Donald Trump wants to keep a database of Muslims. All Muslims? Only newly arrived Muslims? Who knows.
  • Ted Cruz wants to ban all Syrian refugees except Christians.
  • Jeb Bush thinks that's a great idea too.
  • John Kasich has proposed that we create a Department of Judeo-Christian PR.
  • Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie all want to flatly ban Syrian refugees.

We've seen variations of "Can You Top This?" before, perhaps most notably in 2012 regarding illegal immigration. That's probably no coincidence. But that was before Donald Trump joined the field of presidential wannabes and upped the stakes considerably. Now they've gone from merely odious to actively loathsome.

What's the answer? I think maybe Ben Carson has the right idea. These guys are like rabid dogs, which means it might be wise for us to simply avoid all Republicans. You can't be too careful, after all.

More detail here if you can stomach it.

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Gunmen Take 170 Hostages Inside Mali Hotel

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 8:30 AM EST

Update, 11:13 a.m. EST: Multiple reports say the hostage situation is over. At least 27 people are reported dead.


At least three people are dead after gunmen—reportedly shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great"—seized control on Friday of a Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, where 170 people were taken hostage.

Security forces launched a counterassault mission, reportedly freeing 80 out of the initial 170 hostages as of this time.

The Times reports that the gunmen are also releasing Muslims but continuing to hold non-Muslims inside.

The hostage situation in Mali comes just one week after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. On Friday, French President Francois Hollande showed his solidarity with the Malian people.

"With the means we have in the area, we will do what is possible to obtain the freedom of the hostage," Hollande said. "Once again, terrorists want to mark with their barbaric presence all places where they can kill or massacre."

More Transgender People Have Been Killed in 2015 Than Any Other Year on Record

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EST
A memorial display at a vigil for India Clarke, a transgender woman killed in Tampa, Florida, in July

At vigils across the country today, people are honoring the victims of fatal anti-transgender violence as part of an annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. At least 21 transgender people have been killed in the United States already this year, which is more homicides than any other year on record, according to a recent report by Human Rights Campaign. During the first six months of the year alone, more transgender people were killed than in all of 2014. Most of the victims were transgender women of color. So far, none of the attacks have been deemed hate crimes.

On Tuesday, a congressional task force launched in response to the "epidemic of violence against the transgender community." The Transgender Equality Task Force, chaired by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who has a transgender granddaughter, aims to understand the causes of anti-transgender violence and identify what the federal government can do to improve the situation.

Activists say it's hard to know exactly how many transgender people are killed every year. One problem, they say, is that police officers often refer to transgender homicide victims with names and pronouns reflecting their gender of birth, rather than their gender identity. (For example, transgender women are often described by police officers as men.) And while the FBI last year began publishing statistics on hate crimes against gender-nonconforming people, the bureau's figures only reflect cases reported to authorities. Some crime-reporting programs at the state level have also opted, for budgetary reasons, not to collect data on hate crimes against transgender people, according to an FBI spokesman. Lauren Smith, a press contact for Honda, the chair of the congressional task force, said the issue of data collection has come up in discussions among task force members, but that the group won't be meeting until shortly after Thanksgiving to hammer out specific agenda items they hope to address.

Read more of MoJo's coverage on anti-transgender violence here.

Kansas Asks Its Entire Supreme Court to Step Aside in Key Case

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Kansas Republicans believe they have created a law that their own high court cannot review.

In the latest twist of the topsy-turvy constitutional showdown between the GOP-controlled state legislature and the state Supreme Court, the Kansas attorney general has asked the entire Kansas Supreme Court to recuse itself from hearing a key case.

The power struggle between Kansas Republicans and the state's highest court goes back to a years-long battle over education funding. The state Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered the legislature to spend more money on public education, a request that conflicts with Republicans' desire to cut taxes. In 2014, the legislature passed a bill stripping the Supreme Court of the administrative authority to appoint chief judges in Kansas' 31 judicial districts, a move Democrats saw as a power play by the legislature to intimidate the top court during the ongoing fight over school spending. Chief District Court Judge Larry Solomon challenged the constitutionality of the judicial administration law, arguing that it violates the state's separation of powers.

But the legislature doubled down. Earlier this year, it passed a judicial budget that would cut off funding for the entire Kansas court system if the courts struck down the judicial administration bill—a situation that would seize critical state functions such as criminal prosecutions, civil disputes, real estate sales, and adoptions. That led to the bizarre moment in September when a district court ruled the administrative bill unconstitutional, putting all the funding for the state courts in sudden jeopardy. The situation threatened to devolve into a judicial catch-22, in which no court could rule on the legality of the laws because those laws had defunded them. To avoid that situation, the judge put a hold on his ruling invalidating the law until the state Supreme Court could hear the case—except that the state of Kansas is now arguing that the Supreme Court shouldn't have its say.

Rather than let the case proceed to the Supreme Court, Attorney General Derek Schmidt argued in a brief last week that the justices should not hear the case because the law involves the court's authority. Schmidt's brief also notes that the chief justice of the Supreme Court criticized the law when it passed, betraying his bias against the law.

Under Kansas law, Supreme Court justices can appoint district court judges to sit in their place when they recuse themselves. But Schmidt argues that a district court judge shouldn't be involved either because the law involves appointing chief judges at the district court level. Instead, Schmidt proposes that judges on the Kansas Court of Appeals—just below the level of the Supreme Court and above the district courtsreview the case. (Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2013, the Republican-controlled legislature changed the selection process for appeals court judges. Before then, a commission nominated potential judges for the governor to choose from; now the judges are appointed directly by the governor, currently Republican Sam Brownback. The judges most sympathetic to the Republican legislature may be those at the appeals court level.)

Lawyers fighting the judicial administration bill believe the recusal request is frivolous. As they wrote in a brief this week, "centuries of precedent make clear that it is the province and duty of this Court to decide cases that involve the scope of the Court’s authority, jurisdiction, and duties vis-à-vis the other branches of government." In a response filed Thursday, the state held firm that the highest court should not hear the case.

Here Is Today's Case Study in Right-Wing Media Virtue and Rectitude

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 9:53 PM EST

A friend of mine watches Fox News so I don't have to,1 and he says they've been practically wetting their pants over the story of Hillary Clinton's campaign calling the founder of the Laugh Factory and threatening him if he didn't take down a short video compilation of Hillary jokes.

What's that? This already sounds really unlikely? I guess so. It sure doesn't seem very smart for a highly visible presidential candidate, does it? Still, Judicial Watch says it happened, and Fox and Rush and Sean are all over it too. So I guess it must be true. They wouldn't just make stuff up, would they?

Slate's Michelle Goldberg called Jamie Masada, founder of the Laugh Factory, and he says that a few days ago he got a comically threatening phone call from someone named "John." And that's it. John never called back. Masada never told Judicial Watch about the incident. In other words, there's almost literally nothing there.

But apparently some Laugh Factory employee heard about the call, and somehow it went from there to Judicial Watch. Or something like that. Who knows, really? *

Goldberg comments:

What we have here is a small-scale demonstration of how the Hillary smear sausage gets made. It starts with a claim that's ambiguous at best, fabricated at worst, and then interpreted in the most invidious possible light. The claim is reported in one outlet and amplified on Twitter. Other outlets then report on the report, repeating the claim over and over again. Talk radio picks it up. Maybe Fox News follows. Eventually the story achieves a sort of ubiquity in the right-wing media ecosystem, which makes it seem like it's been confirmed. Soon it becomes received truth among conservatives, and sometimes it even crosses into the mainstream media. If you watched the way the Clintons were covered in the 1990s, you know the basics of this process. If you didn't, you're going to spend the next year—and maybe the next nine years—learning all about it.

And there you have it. This is where Mena airport and Vince Foster and Whitewater and the Clinton death list and all the other charming inventions of the Clinton smear squad came from. Seems like only yesterday.

1Not really. Believe it or not, it's part of his job.

*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly suggested that Judicial Watch never contacted Masada in the reporting of its story. See update below.

UPDATE, 11/20/15: According to Judicial Watch, Masada told them the call had come from a "prominent" person inside Clinton's campaign, who Masada declined to identify. According to Michelle Goldberg, who followed up afterward: "Masada told me that on Nov. 11, he got a call from a man named John—he doesn't remember the last name—who sounded 'distinguished, like an attorney.' John said he represented the Clinton campaign."

So Judicial Watch did indeed call Masada, and I apologize for suggesting otherwise. However, there remains zero evidence that the call actually came from anyone inside the Clinton campaign. It could be, as Goldberg points out, a harmless prank or somebody trying to make trouble for the campaign.