Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer


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.

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.

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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."

Florida Dems Snub Their Own Challenger To Rick Scott

| Tue Jun. 4, 2013 2:11 PM EDT
State Sen. Nan Rich (D), candidate for governor of Florida

Florida Governor Rick Scott is highly unpopular with voters, and polls show him losing his reelection race next year to any generic Democrat. But now that at least one Democratic challenger has emerged, it appears that the Democrats may already be shooting themselves in the foot. Case in point: The Florida Democratic Party denied Nan Rich, the only Democrat who's jumped into the race, a speaking slot at its annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner later this month.

"I think it’s inappropriate, given the amount of attention the governor’s race will draw," Rich told the Miami Herald. "I've been a candidate for a year. I've traveled the state and built a significant infrastructure and grassroots support. And I'm just asking for five minutes."

Party organizers claimed they didn't want big donors to get "bored by too many speeches" at the event, but the snub is largely viewed as an attempt to sideline Rich, a state senator, in favor of the party's preferred candidate, former Republican governor Charlie Crist. (Signs that Crist is seriously considering jumping into the Democratic primary: Most recently an independent, he officially switched party affiliation again in December after losing a Senate race to Sen. Marco Rubio. Then, in early May, he suddenly became a supporter of same-sex marriage, which he'd previously opposed.)

Florida Dems clearly see Crist as the stronger candidate, even if he is, well, a Republican. A recent poll showed Crist prevailing in a Democratic primary, with Rich receiving just 1 percent of the vote, and faring much better than Rich in a matchup with Scott. Still, polls suggest that Crist isn't exactly a shoe-in, with at least one showing him in a dead heat with Scott. And rank-and-file Democrats are understandably leery about jumping on the bandwagon with a candidate who has previously described himself as a "Jeb Bush Republican." 

But Rich, a stalwart liberal Democrat known for her work on child welfare issues and sharp criticism of Scott, has had trouble raising money and her profile. She could have used the platform at the dinner to help boost her visibility. Instead, the state Democratic party decided it's more important to hear from the mayor of San Antonio, Texas. Meanwhile, the head of the state GOP, Lenny Curry, has seized the opportunity to taunt Florida Democrats for dissing one of their own. He started the hashtag #FreeNanRich and tweeted, "Are big donors really more important than 5 min for @SenatorNanRich?" He also sent out a press release targeted at the state's Democrats to let Rich on the podium, writing:

While Senator Rich and I might not see eye to eye politically, she has a long history of leadership in public service and deserves five minutes of speaking time as the only announced gubernatorial candidate in your party.

Because Senator Rich is an experienced spokesperson for Democratic ideology in Florida, it must be disappointing to see your Chairwoman, Allison Tant, put the interests of big-dollar donors ahead of a mere five minutes for Florida's leading champion of liberal causes.

The Rich snub promises the beginning of a bitter primary battle for the right to challenge Scott, who will certainly benefit from the distraction from his own record. Whether the Democratic primary fight will be enough to keep one of the nation's most loathed governors in office, though, is still very much an open question. 

Anti-Consumer Tea Partier Nominated For Consumer Protection Job

| Wed May 29, 2013 11:05 AM EDT
Former Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY)

Last week, President Barack Obama nominated a former member of the congressional tea party caucus with an anti-consumer legislative record to a seat on the Consumer Product Safety Commission. If confirmed, Ann Marie Buerkle, who served a single term as a Republican congresswoman from upstate New York, will join the five-member bipartisan commission for a seven-year appointment. 

In a way, this fox-in-a-chicken-house move is not truly Obama's fault. The commission has five members, and no more than three can be from the same party. So when it's time to pick a GOPer for such a position and there's a Democrat in the White House, it is the responsibility of Republican congressional leaders. Buerkle was the choice of Senate minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has been stealthily placing conservative loyalists in the far reaches of the federal regulatory apparatus.

Buerkle spent her brief time in Congress battling measures that would help consumers file complaints about a defective product with the CPSC and supporting proposals that would make it more difficult to remove dangerous products from the market. She opposed a bill that would have prevented convicted fraudsters from advertising non-publicly traded securities; she fought measures that would have empowered the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect seniors from abusive practices. And, by the way, she's a climate-change denier.

Buerkle's nomination has many consumer activists scratching their heads, but not for the obvious reasons. That Republicans would pick someone hostile to the agency as a commissioner isn't surprising. McConnell has all but said his stealth nominees are basically there to gum up the works for a Democratic administration. But what's curious about Buerkle's selection for the job is that she has said she still hasn't given up on the idea of running for her old seat in upstate New York next year.

In 2010, Buerkle narrowly defeated incumbent Rep. Dan Maffei (D) in a wave of tea party activism, with heavy backing from the National Rifle Association, which has given her an A-rating for her pro-gun views. The district, though, leans Democrat, and in 2012, she lost to Maffei in a hotly-contested rematch. She hasn't ruled out another run against him, and there's no telling whether she's now truly committed to making mischief on the CPSC or intending to put in a short stint before returning to the electoral battlefield.

Buerkle also recently started hosting a new radio show on WSYR in Syracuse, and she notes that she will need private sponsors to stay on the air. That poses a potential conflict of interest for her commission post, which involves regulating private companies. Some of these firms might see sponsoring her radio show as a way of currying favor with the commissioner.

Obama has to nominate a Republican to the commission—which now has two Democratic members and one Republican—if he has any hope of getting a new Democrat to fill one of two current vacancies. Last year, he nominated Michigan trial lawyer Marietta Robinson to fill the Democratic vacancy, and the Senate held a hearing on the nomination. But the nomination went nowhere, as Republicans resisted. Now that Obama has put forward a GOP nominee, Robinson might have a shot at getting confirmed—though the price is putting a tea partier where she can cause some serious disruption.

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