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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Gov. Rick Scott Deflowers Florida

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 6:30 AM EDT

Members of the Florida state Legislature rarely agree on anything. It's unusual for a bill to get unanimous support from the body. But as it turns out, there is one thing that both Republicans and Democrats really love: wildflowers. Florida lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature voted a collective 157 to 0 this spring to increase the fee for a special Florida wildflower license plate from $15 to $25 starting in July. The proceeds would have gone to the Florida Wildflower Foundation, which for 13 years has been using license plate fees to dole out $2.5 million in grants to schools, garden clubs, and other green-thumb groups to plant native Florida flowers. The only problem is that on Friday afternoon, Republican Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill.

The move seems to have left even Republicans somewhat mystified. The only people who paid the fee were those who wanted to chip in for the pretty roadside flowers, and it brought the cost of the license plate in line with another one Scott approved for the Freemasons. But Scott apparently saw it otherwise, insisting that the wildflower license plate fee is apparently just another manifestation of big government. He wrote:

The bill increases the annual use fee for a specialty license plate; an expense in addition to the standard fees paid when registering a motor vehicle. Although buying a specialty license plate is voluntary, Floridians wishing to demonstrate their support for our State's natural beauty would be subjected to the cost increases sought by this bill.

The veto might be in keeping with Scott's image as a strict small-government tea partier, though it's unclear that even the tea partiers are part of the anti-wildflower lobby. What's really odd about the veto is that Scott has spent the past few months running away from the tea party, which has made him one of the nation's most unpopular governors. He's been transforming himself into a more traditional tax-and-spend politician, even coming out in support of expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, as he tries to hang on to his job in next year's election. But the flower veto suggests that the tea partier in him is refusing to go quietly. Or maybe he just really hates flowers. Either explanation probably isn't going to help him win any votes. As the Legislature has shown, in Florida, just about everyone loves wildflowers. 

Study: Democratic Judges More Susceptible to Business Money Influence

| Tue Jun. 11, 2013 1:35 PM EDT

It's not exactly front-page news that money from business groups have a big influence in judicial elections these days. State supreme court elections have become more contested, more nasty and much more expensive over the past decade as business groups have sought to make state courts more friendly to industry. But a new report from the American Constitution Society, a liberal legal organization, shows a few interesting developments in how all this money in judicial elections is playing out.

The study found the obvious correlation between campaign contributions from businesses and business-friendly judicial decisions. A judge who got a quarter of her contributions from business could be expected to cast pro-business votes in 62 percent of the cases that come before her. But here's the rub: after crunching the data, the study's authors found that large campaign contributions from business interests had a bigger impact on Democrats' decisions than they did on Republicans'—a sign, perhaps that corporate America is wasting its money on GOP judicial candidates who are already pro-business to begin with.

In judicial elections, the most highly contested and expensive races in 2010 and 2012 came in partisan elections, and the money tended to come largely from two groups: business interests and other lawyers, typically trial lawyers. (Union money, interestingly, is almost nowhere to be found in judicial elections.) But the trial lawyers' contributions, which in the late 1980s were the impetus for the business community to get involved in judicial elections in the first place, now pale by comparison to what industry spends. The ACS study found that business groups' spending on TV advertising dwarfed that of interests on the other side. Business groups spent $1.68 for every $1 they donated to an actual campaign, whereas for every $1 that lawyers and lobbyists gave to a judicial candidate's campaign, they spent a mere 26 cents on critical TV ads.

Another thing stands out in the new study's findings: Not all elections are created equal, and the report offers a way to end the potential threat of campaign money to an independent judiciary. In states where a governor appoints a state supreme court justice who then stands every few years for a nonpartisan retention election—an up or down vote on the fate of the single judge—ACS found that there was very little campaign money involved in the races. Justices in retention elections raised 40 times less money than those facing partisan elections, and there was no relationship between contributions to retained judges and their voting patterns. Only nine states elect their judges in partisan elections (almost all of them in the South or other poor states like West Virginia and Michigan), and they've been the primary battlegrounds for deep-pocketed interests groups. If those states switched to retention elections and merit appointments, the judicial election arms race would mostly come to an end.

Edward Snowden and the Iceland Option

| Mon Jun. 10, 2013 6:30 PM EDT

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed details about two massive spying programs, initially holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong, a part of the world he chose apparently because of its "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." But it's not clear that Hong Kong officials are especially interested in sheltering him. And Snowden said when he went public this weekend that he might try to seek asylum in Iceland.

But Iceland is a long way from Hong Kong. At least 20 hours by air and easily a $3,000 ticket, the trip also would almost certainly require a stop in another European country that might be inclined to turn him over to the US during a layover. But could he try to follow the lead of Julian Assange and make his way to the Icelandic consulate in Hong Kong, where he could submit an application for asylum? The consulate is only about five miles from Snowden's last known whereabouts, the swanky Mira hotel in Kowloon.

A spokesman for the government of Iceland told USA Today this would not be possible because asylum seekers have to be in Iceland to start the application process:

"The main stipulation for seeking asylum in Iceland would be that the person must be in Iceland to start the process," said Johannes Tomasson, the chief spokesman for Iceland's Ministry of Interior in Reykjavik. "That would be the ground rule No. 1."

Snowden does have supporters in the country, namely Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, who released a statement this week saying, "We feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability." In an interview with Mother Jones, Jónsdóttir noted that Iceland's interior minister is a conservative "who has been saying [he wants] to strengthen ties with US, which means he will want to do everything that the US government tells him to do." But she explained that the parliament has the power to grant citizenship to people in special cases, which could spare Snowden from extradition because, she says, Iceland has never extradited an Icelandic citizen anywhere. This would still require Snowden to get from Hong Kong to Iceland. If he did, whether Jónsdóttir could rally enough of her colleagues to take action is anything but certain.

Jónsdóttir is the public face of the Pirate Party, a newly formed opposition party dedicated to media freedom and digital innovation. The party won only 3 out of 63 seats in the recently formed parliament and may not have much clout in the matter. Moreover, others in the government have not expressed a great desire to help Snowden. After all, the United States is one of Iceland's largest trading partners, and Iceland has a long-standing extradition treaty with the US, factors that even Jónsdóttir concedes could mean that Iceland is "not the best location" for Snowden to seek refuge.

If all else fails, Jónsdóttir says, "maybe we need to create like a whistleblower freedom boat somewhere to pick up refugees."

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