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 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.

More Ethics Trouble for Clarence Thomas

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 11:54 AM EDT
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

If Clarence Thomas was hoping that liberals might just forget about his cozy ties to a Dallas real estate developer, or his failure for a decade to disclose the hundreds of thousands of dollars his wife earned from a conservative think tank, well, he would be wrong. As President Obama's health care reform bill gets closer and closer to a hearing before the high court, liberal groups are continuing to press for some sort of disciplinary action against Thomas, or at least to force him to recuse himself from hearing the health care case.

To that end, on Tuesday, the left-leaning Alliance for Justice and the good-government group Common Cause asked the Judicial Conference of the United States, which oversees the federal courts, to investigate whether Thomas violated the Ethics in Government Act. The groups allege that Thomas may have violated the act when he failed to disclose his wife Ginny Thomas's compensation—upwards of $700,000—from the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

The groups also are asking the Judicial Conference to investigate whether Thomas may have failed to report travel paid for by the Texas real estate developer Harlan Crowe, as reported by the New York Times. The Judicial Conference was holding its semi-annual meeting in DC this week when the advocacy groups sent their letter. If the Conference concludes that the allegations have merit, federal law requires that if it "has reasonable cause to believe has willfully falsified or willfully failed to file information required to be reported" it must refer the case to the attorney general. Common Cause president Bob Edgar said in a statement Tuesday:

In America, no one is above the law, including Supreme Court justices. For more than a decade, Justice Thomas omitted information about his wife’s income, clearly required by the Ethics in Government Act, from his annual financial disclosure report. Surely such a repeated violation, by someone entrusted to apply laws far more complex than the Ethics Act, at least deserves a formal review by the Judicial Conference and the Attorney General.

Odds are slim that even the Judicial Conference is going to ask Eric Holder to investigate Thomas. But you can't really fault them for trying. Thomas's lapses seem egregious enough for some higher authority to take a second look.

Unfortunately, thanks the the separation of powers doctrine, there really isn't a higher authority when it comes to the Supreme Court. Some members of Congress are trying to change that. Also this week, the Alliance for Justice has been trying to rally support for congressional hearings on a bill introduced earlier this year that would force Supreme Court justices to be covered by the code of conduct that applies to other federal judges and create new procedures for when a justice may have to recuse from hearing a case. Given that virtually no Republicans have signed on, this law, too, has no hope of going anywhere, at least not any time soon. But the Democrats behind it get points for trying anyway.

*As a completely unrelated side note, Thomas came to mind as I was reading this article earlier this week about how NASCAR has started installing solar panels and recycling and employing flocks of sheep to mow the track lawns. I have to wonder whether Thomas, a former Monsanto employee, might have second thoughts about his anti-environmental positions now that even NASCAR has gone green. A little-known fact about Thomas is that in his spare time, he and Ginny drive their gas-guzzling, 40-foot custom-built bus to NASCAR races, where they hang out with ordinary Americans who often don't even recognize the Supreme Court's most bitter member. Perhaps some of NASCAR's new-found environmental consciousness will rub off.

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New Poverty Numbers Likely To Be Bad

| Tue Sep. 13, 2011 5:03 AM EDT

The Census Bureau is slated to release the latest figures on some critical national indicators early Tuesday morning. Both poverty rates and the number of uninsured Americans will be included in the data dump, and neither figure is likely to be good.

The poverty rate has been creeping up for years. Between 2001 and 2007, poverty rose from 13.2 percent to 14.3 percent, and that was before the unemployment rate skyrocketed over 9 percent after the financial crisis and burst of the housing bubble. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities projects that 2010 may set a new record for the number of people living in deep poverty—that is, on income below half the federal poverty level (about $11,000 for a family of four). In 2009, the country got close to that mark when 6.3 percent of the country was living that close to the edge. It won't take much for deep poverty to claim a share of the population the country hasn't seen since 1975, according to CBPP.

The numbers of uninsured people aren't likely to look any more rosy, given that unemployment has remained stubbornly high. In 2009, 51 million people lacked health insurance—one out of every 6 people—and CBPP predicts that the number for 2010 will be even higher.

The Census figures will be released at 10 a.m. Tuesday, when we'll find out for sure. But even if nothing changes much from last year, the numbers will continue to paint a gloomy financial picture for the country's most vulnerable people. As CBPP points out, the only real way to help these folks in the short term is for the government to take more action, including extending the unemployment benefits and payroll tax holiday policies that are set to expire at the end of the year. But with the congressional "supercommittee" only looking at ways to cut federal spending, it's hard to see any of that happening any time soon, regardless of what the Census has to say about just how much people are suffering.

Health Care Ruling Takeaway: Virginia AG Ken Cuccinelli Is a Bad Lawyer

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 2:52 PM EDT
Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general of Virginia.

Tea partiers love Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. A rock star who frequents their events, he speaks the tea partiers' language, especially when it comes to invoking the Constitution as the basis for opposing everything from President Obama's health care reform law to environmental regulations on climate-changing emissions. But Cuccinelli seems to have studied the Constitution the way most tea partiers have—in someone's living room. Because when it comes to actually practicing law, in real courts where the Constitution is really put to the test, Cuccinelli is a bit of a disaster.

Today, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country, threw out Cuccinelli's lawsuit challenging Obama's Affordable Care Act and its individual mandate. The 4th Circuit never really got to the constitutional issues of the health care law because it found that Cuccinelli and the state of Virgina did not even have standing to bring the case. The individual mandate, the court found, "imposes no obligations on the sole plaintiff, Virginia," meaning that Virginia had no injury nor future harm that might be remedied by the intervention of a federal judge.

It's a classic example of something Cuccinelli should have learned in Civil Procedure 101: Just because you don't like a law doesn't mean you have the right to go to court and get it struck down. You have to be affected by the law somehow, and it was clear from the very beginning that Cuccinelli and Virginia were not. And if Cuccinelli is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court might come to his rescue on this one, he's probably dreaming. While you never know with the Roberts court conservatives, who have proven far more political than consistent, stalwart conservatives like Antonin Scalia.  Roberts himself has been extremely harsh with plaintiffs on standing issues. (See Robert's dissent in Massachusetts v. EPA, a case challenging the EPA's inaction on climate change.)

But Cuccinelli's legal work isn't, of course, about the law. It's about politics. His concern with constitutional issues is rather selective. Otherwise, how to explain his office's defense of local law enforcement officials in the state arresting gay men under sodomy laws the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional eight years ago? Or his legal opinion that state universities have no legal right to protect students and staff against anti-gay discrimination, despite the 14th Amendment's promises of equal protection under the law? Or what of his waste of taxpayer dollars suing over the health care bill in a case he had no legitimate right to bring? The health care lawsuit won Cuccinelli fans across the country, who will no doubt come in handy when he needs to raise money when he runs for senator or governor down the road. All of that might make him a good politician, but it still makes him a bad lawyer.

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