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.

House GOP Advances Fake Pro-Working-Mother Bill

| Tue May 7, 2013 12:44 PM EDT
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tours Richmond Public Schools adult career center.

In February, in the wake of their bruising loss at the polls in the 2012 presidential election, Republicans in Congress decided to launch a concerted effort to change their image and lure back a critical group of voters who abandoned the party in droves last year: women. To that end, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) gave a high-profile speech about how the party intended to "make life work" for working families. He emphasized women-friendly ideas like improving education, reducing the cost of college, and other key work/life balance issues. Among those he touched on was the idea of flex time. Cantor said:

If you're a working parent, you know there’s hardly ever enough time at home to be with the kids. Too many parents have to weigh whether they can afford to miss work even for half a day to see their child off on the first day of school or attend a parent-teacher conference.

Federal laws dating back to the 1930s make it harder for parents who hold hourly jobs to balance the demands of work and home. An hourly employee cannot convert previous overtime into future comp-time or flex-time. In 1985, Congress passed a law that gave state and municipal employees this flexibility, but today still denies that same privilege to the entire private sector. That’s not right...

Imagine if we simply chose to give all employees and employers this option. A working mom could work overtime this month and use it as time off next month without having to worry about whether she’ll be able to take home enough money to pay the rent. This is the kind of common sense legislation that should be non-controversial and moves us in the right direction to help make life work for families.

Flex-time as Cantor described it sounds great on paper—every working parent's dream even! But of course, the devil is in the details. Those details come in the form of the Working Families Flexibility Act, a bill Cantor introduced in April. Far from helping working families, the proposed legislation would instead deprive them of the longstanding right to be paid time-and-a-half for overtime. The bill would allow companies to give hourly workers comp time in lieu of overtime if the workers agree to it. That might not be such a terrible thing, except that the bill doesn't give workers any power to decide when to use the comp time. The employer gets to decide that. If the employer fails to let the worker use a bunch of accrued comp time, the bill would allow the worker to demand the overtime compensation in cash, but it gives the company 30 days to make good on the payment. And if the company stiffs the worker on the overtime compensation, the bill prevents workers from complaining to the US Department of Labor, as they can now, and instead forces them to try to find a lawyer who will take up their cause to collect a few hundred dollars worth of back pay, a fairly toothless enforcement measure. The bill, supported by the US Chamber of Commerce, is a backdoor attempt to shield big companies like Wal-Mart from costly lawsuits they've seen stemming from their systematic refusal to pay low-wage workers the overtime to which they're legally entitled.

All of this is why women's groups aren't signing on to the bill. The legislation "only pretends to give people the time they need to manage the dual demands of work and family," Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership on Women and Families, said this week as the bill moved forward in the House. "It is insulting that the House is wasting time with a bill that would make things so much worse."

Republicans' track record of helping working families is truly dismal, and one speech from Cantor isn't going to change that. Republicans fought the Family and Medical Leave Act tooth and nail (the first President Bush vetoed the bill twice before Bill Clinton finally signed it in to law) and have refused to expand it to include more people or paid leave so families could actually use it. This is the same party that rabidly opposes the Healthy Families Act, which would provide paid sick leave for more workers, a measure public health officials say is critical not just to family sanity but to the nation's health. Perhaps what's most depressing about the GOP's new working families bill is that Republican leaders thought women were dumb enough not to notice that it was just a cynical attempt to win women's votes while still catering to the GOP's big corporate backers.

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Florida Passes Law To Speed Up Executions

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 12:29 PM EDT

States across the country have spent the last few years reconsidering the wisdom of capital punishment. Over the past six years, five states have abolished the death penalty entirely, including Maryland just last month. But Florida, where the execution rate is second only to Texas, isn't having that conversation. Instead, Gov. Rick Scott (R) is currently considering a bill passed by the legislature this week that would speed up executions in the state by limiting "frivolous" appeals by inmates and shortening the time they spend on Death Row. (Florida has about 400 people on Death Row, 10 of whom have been there more than 35 years.)

Called the "Timely Justice Act," the bill would create new deadlines for certain filings and force the state to move faster towards an execution after a ruling by the state supreme court. Florida legislators behind the bill believe it will save money (executions currently cost state taxpayers about $24 million each) and bring closure to victims, but legal advocates say that it's likely to do nothing but raise the possibility that Florida will execute an innocent person. They're on pretty solid ground with that argument, given that 24 people on Florida's Death Row have been exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.

It's not very hard to convict someone of a capital crime in Florida, which is the only state in the country that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence with only a simple majority vote of 7 to 5. Also, the state has one of the nation's worst indigent defense systems, ensuring that anyone facing a capital charge is likely to get a bad lawyer in the deal. Because of other state budget crises, Florida has slashed the money available for indigent defense, and it caps the fees in a capital case at $15,000, an amount that barely covers a lawyer's time in court through the trial. The fees are so bad that few lawyers will take capital cases. (Florida's indigent defense system is generally a mess. After the state legislature in 2009 set very low flat fees for private lawyers who are appointed to handle criminal defense cases, lawyers fled the system in droves. Things got so dire that at one point judges attempted to force lawyers to take the cases through "involuntary" appointments.)

The lawyers who do take the capital cases are often largely incompetent. Florida made the news a few years ago after one of its mentally ill death row inmates, Albert Holland Jr., won a US Supreme Court case in which Justice Stephen Breyer found that Holland did a better job of representing himself than his court-appointed lawyers did. The New York Times explains what sorts of representation Holland had gotten in Florida:

Consider Kenneth Delegal, who was assigned to defend Mr. Holland at a 1996 retrial on charges that he killed a Pompano Beach police officer in 1990. Mr. Delegal was removed from the case after being sent to a mental health facility. Later, the two men would see each other at the Broward County jail, where Mr. Delegal was held on drug and domestic violence charges.

The next lawyer, James Lewis, was a friend of Mr. Delegal’s and had shared office space with him. When Mr. Delegal went to court after his removal from Mr. Holland’s case, seeking to be paid about $40,000 for his work on it, the new lawyer testified on behalf of the old one, saying the fees had been “reasonable and necessary.”

Mr. Delegal died of a drug overdose about a month after the fee hearing, and a local paper asked his former colleague Mr. Lewis about his troubles. “I heard some rumors,” Mr. Lewis said, “but I chose not to know.”

The new Florida bill attempts to address the issue of terrible lawyers and the appeals they generate by setting competence standards for lawyers taking capital cases, and it would bar anyone found guilty twice of giving "constitutionally deficient representation" from handling another capital case for five years. But the bill doesn't provide any more money to pay for more competent counsel.

The bill's opponents haven't convinced Florida lawmakers of any of this. During a legislative debate last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) said, "Only God can judge. But we sure can set up the meeting." The bill awaits Scott's signature.

Florida Tea Party's Unemployment Tests Get Flunked by the Feds

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 3:50 PM EDT

Tea partiers revere the Constitution, which they often study like the Bible, in small groups. But somehow all that devotion to the Founders' original thinking doesn't seem to have much of an impact on their ability to follow its requirements once tea partiers take power in elected office. Take the case of Florida's GOP governor Rick Scott, who has turned Florida into the nation's premiere laboratory for tea party governance. He's been trying for years now to force poor single mothers to take drug tests before getting welfare benefits, a requirement that's since been shot down in federal court twice as likely unconstitutional. And the US Department of Justice is threatening to sue the state for unconstitutionally warehousing disabled children in geriatric nursing homes

Then there's the state's unemployment benefits system, which was "modernized" by the legislature under Scott's leadership in 2011 to become one of the nation's stingiest. A new law required unemployed people to file all claims for benefits online, even though previously at least 40 percent of UI claims were done over the phone. The new online filing system required people to take a "skills review" test that included 45 math and reading questions. Failing to take the test would result in losing eligibility for benefits.

Study: Siri Doesn't Make Texting While Driving Any Safer

| Tue Apr. 23, 2013 2:11 PM EDT

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, a time when safety and transportation experts beg, plead and cajole Americans to put down their phones while driving, lest they become a murderer behind the wheel. It's a thankless job, as American drivers suffer from some serious delusions about their abilities to pilot a car safely while texting their girlfriends, shopping on eBay, or dialing in to Rush Limbaugh. Despite the fact that a quarter of all motor vehicle crashes today involve cellphone use, Americans still think it's only other drivers who are the problem. More than 90 percent of drivers think other drivers texting or using cellphones behind the wheel are a threat to their personal safety, yet two in three of them do it anyway, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Elected officials have been reluctant to address the problem, passing legislation that reinforces drivers' delusions—like the law here in DC that allows people to drive and talk on the phone so long as they use a hands-free device, even though there's no evidence that talking on a Bluetooth is any safer than just holding up the old phone. (Spend some time in DC cabs to get a sense of how well this law is working out.)

Phone companies have been trying to come up with technical solutions that might head off further attempts by lawmakers to curb cellphone use while driving. The latest of these has been the suggestion that Siri can help. The idea is that simply talking to your phone to send a text rather than punching in the message would somehow allow people to keep their eyes on the road and drive safely while texting. As it turns out, the notion that an app will save lives is as faulty as the promise that the Bluetooth would.

A new study out from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute this month found that:

  • Driver response time was terrible regardless of whether the driver was manually texting or using Siri.
  • Texting drivers of any sort took twice as long to react to roadway hazards than when they were off the phone.
  • Texting drivers spent a lot of time not looking at the road, regardless of whether they were using a voice-to-text app.
  • Manual texting was actually quicker than using a voice app, but driving performance was equally bad in both cases.

The new study also found a new form of distracted driving delusions: Drivers felt less safe when they were texting, but they felt safer using a voice app than texting manually, even though their performance on the road was equally dangerous. 

Moral of the story: When you get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, just put down the damn phone! And just as a chilling reminder of why this is important, watch this video:

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