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 several years 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.

Conservative Property Rights Movement Threatens "Rails to Trails" Program

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 9:59 AM EDT
The White River state rail trail near Burlington, Vermont.

The Rails-to-Trails program has long been a government program everyone can love. In 1983, Congress created the feel-good program to convert abandoned rail tracks into hiking and biking trails for public use. Not only did the program re-purpose ugly abandoned trackwork, but it did it on the cheap. When Congress passed the measure into law, the Congressional Budget Office found that it wouldn't cost federal taxpayers a dime. The railroad usually pulls up the tracks and leases or donates the corridor to a trail agency that puts it into public use for recreation, while reserving the right to turn the trail back into a railroad track at some point in the future.

Since the program was created, 20,000 miles of unused train tracks have been converted into recreational trails. But these days, anything involving a bike, it seems, is a ripe target for conservative ire. Thanks to some creative work by conservative property rights groups, the cost of the formerly cheap program has grown exponentially, largely because of lawsuits by property owners who own land next to the railways and claim that putting bikes instead of trains on the corridors constitutes a "taking" by the government for which they should be compensated. Jenna Greene at the National Law Journal tells the story here.

Historically, the sorts of takings that conservatives have been peeved about involve such cases as a municipality using its eminent domain power to seize someone's house or run-down apartment building and giving it to shopping mall developers or a big drug company, or when the EPA takes land to create habitat for an endangered species. But the rail-to-trail cases are somewhat different. According to Greene, just in the past year, the federal government has paid out nearly $50 million in settlements to property owners to compensate them for the conversion of private railroad property to trails, even when the landowners get to keep the land.

The problem stems from a fairly egregious example of judicial activism in a case filed by Vermont's Presault family. They were angry that a rail conversion had brought a steady stream of cyclists and backpackers across their land where trains used to travel, even though they knew the rail bed was at risk of becoming a trail when they bought the land. Backed by the conservative New England Legal Foundation, they spent eight years fighting the trail all the way to the US Supreme Court, challenging the rail-to-trail statute as unconstitutional and demanding compensation for the cyclists' intrusion. The high court disagreed with them and found the law valid, but it did allow the Presaults to pursue their damages claim. They lost, however, before the Court of Federal Claims, which said they weren't entitled to any money. A a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit came to the same conclusion. 

But weirdly, the Federal Circuit later decided all on its own to have the full circuit hear the case again, and this time, it found in the Presaults' favor. Perhaps it was no coincidence that four of the six judges who voted to give the family $350,000 in damages (plus almost $900,000 to their lawyers) had recently attended an all-expense paid junket to a legal seminar at a Montana resort sponsored by the same conservative foundations bankrolling the Presaults' litigation. Donors to the seminars included the Olin Foundation, which also supported the New England Legal Foundation, and, of course, the Koch brothers, the oil and gas magnates who fund a host of conservative causes.

That decision set off a wave of litigation by property owners demanding to be compensated for the horror of having bikes running on the abandoned train bed on their land. Judges who've never seen a consumer protection class action they could certify have been regularly allowing class actions by property owners over rail-to-trail conversions. Greene reports that the government has been losing all of these cases, and paying out some huge settlements, including one this year in South Carolina for $33.5 million, which amounted to more $1 million per mile of trail. There are 8,000 such claims in the pipeline, potentially turning the affordable trail program into a very expensive giveaway to private landowners courtesy of federal taxpayers. 

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Deep Throat's Parking Garage to Be Demolished

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 10:12 AM EDT
Parking space 32D, where Woodward met Deep Throat

As historic landmarks go, the parking garage at 1401 Wilson Blvd, in Arlington, Va., just outside DC isn't much to look at. But parking space 32D helped in its own way to bring down a president. The parking space is the famous meeting spot of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and W. Mark Felt, better known as "Deep Throat" and Woodward's source for the scoops on the Watergate burglary that eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974. But as with so many historic landmarks, nothing in this country is sacred. The parking space is on the verge of obliteration. 

A developer is planning to raze the 50-year-old office building above the garage and replace it with—what else?—swanky new condos. Tim Helmig, vice president of Monday Properties, recognizes the historic import of the parking garage and plans to commemorate it with a plaque or something miniscule after 32D falls to the wrecking ball. But he told the Washington Business Journal that the garage has got to go, saying, "The garage is at the end of its useful life, and with the redevelopment the configuration of the garage itself is going to change."

That's the trouble with many of the Watergate landmarks. The critical moments in the greatest political scandal in modern American history took place in some of the most mundane locations. When members of Nixon's reelection campaign watched as the burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate, for instance, they conducted their stakeout from Room 723 in the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge across the street. (The famous "plumbers' unit" also had a room at the hotel a few floors down, where they listened to wiretaps from the bug placed in the DNC offices.) The hotel preserved the famous room and opened it to guests making Watergate pilgrimages. But in 1999, George Washington University bought the HoJos and turned it into student housing. Today, Room 723 is just another college dorm room. But at least it's still there.

The parking garage demolition will wipe a famous site off the map, and given that this is part of Washington political history, the demo may not go off without a fight. Washington has an earnest core of history preservation activists, who've attempted to preserve all sorts of abominations for the sake of posterity. (See this "new brutalist" church, for instance.) By comparison, parking space 32D seems worth saving.

Democrats To Introduce Supreme Court Ethics Bill

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 3:01 PM EDT

The only federal judges not bound by an ethics code.

​Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has been in the news recently after Mother Jones revealed her involvement in Groundswell, a secret effort by a group of conservatives to organize their fight against liberals, mainstream Republicans, and Karl Rove. Her political activity has once again raised questions about whether she is creating conflicts of interest for her husband, and whether he should be forced to recuse himself from cases that involve Ginni's work.

Such calls for Thomas to recuse from cases hit a fevered pitch when the Affordable Care Act was before the high court and Ginni was actively lobbying against it. As it turned out, there's no mechanism for concerned citizens to complain about a Supreme Court justice, or even a clear set of rules that the justices must follow in making recusal decisions. Supreme Court justices are exempt from the Code of Conduct for United State Judges, the rulebook that every other federal judge in the country has to follow.

That code would have prohibited the justices from a number of controversial activities the Supreme Court has engaged in over the past few years. In 2011, for instance, Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia headlined a fundraiser for the conservative legal group, the Federalist Society. Ordinary federal judges couldn't have done that. Both also have attended hush-hush political events hosted by Koch Industries that are billed as efforts "to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it." Koch Industries is owned by the right-wing Koch family that's been dumping millions of dollars in the Republican politics, particularly after the court decided in Citizens United to allow unlimited corporate money into the electoral system. The code also requires federal judges to recuse themselves from cases in which a spouse or family member has a financial interest, a rule that might apply to the Thomases.

Several members have decided to try to do something about the appearance of impropriety by some of the justices. On Thursday, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sen. Chris Murhpy (D-CT), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), plan to introduce the Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2012 that would force the high court to adopt an ethics code much like the one that binds lower court judges. The idea has support from legal scholars, who've been urging the court to adopt such a code since last year. More than 125,000 people have signed a petition calling on Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. to apply the Code of Conduct to the court. But Roberts has been pretty adamant that he thinks the justices are perfectly capable of policing themselves without the need for silly codes (codes which most of the sitting justices once had to abide by on a lower court). 

Without buy-in from Roberts, any attempt, even by Congress, to require the justices to give themselves a written code of ethics is probably a tough sell. The new bill, if it could even pass through the full Congress (also doubtful), could set off an epic separation of powers battle between the two branches of government. A spokesman from Slaughter's office says that the bill is absolutely constitutional, as Congress has the authority to regulate the administration of the court—setting the number of justices and whatnot. Still, it's possible that the court could put up a fight—a fight that might ultimately have to be decided by....the Supreme Court.

Inadequate Diaper Supply Linked To Child Abuse, Depression

| Tue Jul. 30, 2013 9:12 AM EDT
Babies without lots of clean diapers are at risk of child abuse

Being poor and trying to raise children is stressful on a host of levels, but it's especially tough for people who can't afford diapers. New research from Yale University's school of medicine finds that depressed, low-income mothers might need Pampers far more than they need Prozac. The study found that women who lack an adequate supply of diapers for their babies are more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety than other low-income mothers. Maternal depression and mental health problems, the researchers say, can have longterm and debilitating effects on children's well-being and their performance in school.

The researchers, who have been studying mothers in a Connecticut low-income housing project, found that the lack of an adequate supply of diapers was a better predictor of a mother's mental health need than even food insecurity. The average baby needs between eight and 10 diapers a day, at a cost of around $120 a month, according to the DC Diaper Bank, a nonprofit that provides free diapers to poor families in DC. But Yale researchers found women who were trying to stretch a single diaper for an entire day, thanks in part to their lack of cash and the high price of the products in their neighborhoods. Not only does a diaper shortage lead to mental health problems in the mother, it's also been directly linked to child abuse. After all, a wet, smelly baby is a very unhappy baby, and one likely to have a raging case of diaper rash to boot.

In a way, the study seems like a no-brainer: Of course not being able to buy diapers is stressful! But the study has special relevance for American poverty policy. Since 1994, when the nation ended welfare as we know it, the safety net has become increasingly organized around food stamps, not cash grants, for poor mothers. You can't buy diapers with food stamps.

Very few low-income families are able to get cold hard cash from government safety net programs, as they did before welfare was "reformed." Today, only about 4 million Americans receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), compared with 14 million in 1996, even though the poverty rate is higher today than it was back then. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, of every 100 families with children in poverty today, only 27 receive any form of TANF benefits, compared with 68 in 1996. Those who do get some cash are getting far less of it, as the monthly benefits—never large to begin with—have fallen as much as 30 percent since welfare reform began. In 14 states, a family of three receives less than $300 a month.

Not surprisingly, the program no longer lifts many kids out of deep poverty (defined as living at below 50 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $9700 per year for a family of three). In 1995, the program kept 2.2 million kids out of deep poverty, about 62 percent of the kids at risk of those dire circumstances. By 2005, that number had fallen to about 650,000—just 21 percent of the children at risk for deep poverty.

All those figures mean that far fewer poor moms can afford diapers, and that one factor is now linked to a significant and also avoidable problem with long-term implications for the nation's poor children. The irony, too, is that by changing federal policy to make it impossible for poor women to buy the critical things they need to care for their babies, policymakers have also inadvertently made it difficult for poor women to go to work or receive work training, one of the key goals of the '94 welfare overhaul. That's because child care providers won't take poor women's children if they can't provide an adequate supply of diapers.

In the wake of welfare reform, nonprofits like the DC Diaper Bank have sprung up to try to distribute free diapers through neighborhood service organizations and other programs that serve low-income moms. It's not nearly as effective as having a better national poverty policy, but a good idea nonetheless. You can find a local one and ways to donate here.

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Tue Sep. 9, 2014 6:30 AM EDT | Updated Tue Dec. 16, 2014 10:10 AM EDT