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.

Health Reform Challenges: Why Judicial Appointments Matter

| Tue May 10, 2011 12:05 PM EDT

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals becomes the first federal appellate court to hear challenges to President Obama's signature health care reform law. The judges assigned to hear the cases were picked at random. Remarkably, the judges hearing the health care arguments Tuesday were all appointed by Democratic presidents—two by Obama himself, and one by Clinton. The makeup of the panel bodes well for the Obama administration, as well as for Neal Katyal, the Indian-American acting Solicitor General who will be defending the health care law in Richmond. But it also illustrates what liberal advocates have been emphasizing to the White House for more than a year: judicial appointments matter.

A few years ago, such a random assignment of democratic appointees would have been unthinkable. For decades, the 4th Circuit has been considered the most conservative in the country. Until very recently, it was dominated by judges nominated by Republican presidents at the urging of uber-conservative senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Though it covers an area with the largest African-American population of any federal circuit, the appellate court didn't even see its first minority judge until 2001. It voted against death-row inmates and sexual harassment and discrimination plaintiffs at a rate higher than any other court in the country, and was famous for attempting to invalidate popular but liberal laws passed by Congress, such as the Violence Against Women Act, which expanded federal prosecution of domestic violence and other crimes against women. The 4th Circuit even made big news a few years back when it ruled that the landmark Supreme Court establishing Miranda rights for criminal suspects was unconstitutional. (The Supreme Court didn't look so fondly on that decision, and it was struck down.)

Four members of the current court were nominated by George W. Bush, one by his father, and there's still one remaining Reagan appointee. The rest are Democrats. But as of 2003, the court was made up of eight Republicans and four Democrats, with President Bush poised to appoint several more judges to the court. Now, however, thanks to four Obama nominees, democrats make up nine of 14 judges on the court.

Despite the lucky draw in the 4th Circuit, critics have long contended that Obama has not made judicial appointments a priority, a move that's bound to affect the staying power of his agenda. To be sure, the Senate has obstructed many of Obama's appointments thanks to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's "just say no" strategy. But Obama has also failed to nominate judges to fill nearly half of the 100 vacancies on the federal bench.

Last February, a group of law professors sent a letter to Obama complaining about the slow pace of nominations, noting that by the same point in his first term, President George W. Bush had appointed nearly twice as many judges as Obama had. By the end of his second term, George W. Bush had appointed 40 percent of the judges in the entire federal judiciary.

Purists argue that the outcome of the health care reform challenges should be the same regardless of the political backgrounds of the judges hearing them, and that their determination should be based solely on the Constitution. But that's naive. Just look at the health care cases the 4th Circuit is hearing Tuesday. There have been two lawsuits challenging the law in Virginia, one by the state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, and the other by Liberty University, both claiming the individual mandate is unconstitutional. The outcomes in those cases couldn't be more different. One district court judge, Norman Moon, was appointed by Bill Clinton. He found the law constitutional. In the other case, Judge Henry Hudson, found that it wasn't. He was appointed by George W. Bush.

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Bachmann Knows When to Duck the Tea Party

| Mon May 9, 2011 1:25 PM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) addresses the crowd during a rally near the U.S. Capitol. The ''Cut Spending Now Revolt'', staged Americans for Prosperity, was held to urge lawmakers to reduce federal spending.

You gotta give Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) credit: She knows how to work the tea party without getting too close to its fringes. On Monday morning, a group of tea party activists convened at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to "blast" Republican members of Congress over the upcoming debt ceiling vote. The tea partiers feared that House Speaker John Boehner and other GOPers would buckle and agree to raising the debt ceiling. The press release announcing the event suggested that the star attraction would be Bachmann—which raised the dramatic prospect of Bachmann doing battle with Boehner and other GOPers dubbed "RINOs" (Republicans In Name Only) by the organizers of this event. But when the press conference kicked off, a spokesman for the organizers revealed that Bachmann would not be there in person. Instead, she had sent a statement, which he read to a small group of reporters. Bachmann said:

If I were there I would tell you that I hear you and I agree: it's time to reject the debt ceiling scare tactics and address the truly frightening reality that our debt is at $14 trillion and growing.... Thank you to the Tea Party for not giving up the fight. Your stubborn determination to return our country to its founding principles give me great hope for conservative accomplishments in the current House of Representative and for even greater victories in 2012.

It soon became clear that Bachmann had made the right move by steering clear of potential photo ops with these tea partiers. The event was weird. It was headlined by William Temple, a tricorn-hat-wearing, musket-carrying Revolutionary War reenactor from Georgia. Temple has been featured in at least one documentary on the tea party, and he's a regular presence at tea party rallies in Washington. At this event, he was dressed to the hilt as his character Button Gwinnett, the second person to sign the Declaration of Independence. Temple's tin cup rattled as he walked to the podium. He thundered on endlessly like the Baptist minister he is—when not reenacting the war for independence, he preaches in a church in Georgia—lapsing in and out of a British accent and occasionally referring to his musket, which was leaning against the wall behind him with a flower stuck in the barrel.

While Temple called on Republicans to vote against raising the debt ceilling and ranted against "wimpy house RINOS who refuse to hide President Obama's Mastercard," he managed to truly get worked up over the move to end the ban on gays in the military. Tea party rallies generally have steered away from divisive social issues, but Temple showed no such reticence. "As a combat veteran, I know we don't have time to worry about the guy behind us," he warned. He took a brief detour from his prepared speech to greet James Manship, a tea party activist who regularly dresses up as George Washington. "Welcome, General," he said, tipping his hat. The General tipped his hat back, and Temple resumed his speech, which included a long digression about the evils of "females in forward combat roles."

Until now, Temple has been something of a outlier within the tea party, despite his frequent photo-ops in national media outlets. He's the (same) guy everyone wants to snap pictures of at a tea party rally, leading to the mistaken impression that many tea partiers like to dress up. But Monday's press conference marked his first real appearance as a tea party leader. He managed to corral a surprising number of men in suits for the event—people willing to talk seriously about the national debt in spite of occasional cries of "Amen!" and "Huzzah!" from Temple and Manship.

Another speaker at the event was Joseph Farah, the founder and editor of WorldNet Daily, a website that has been a leading promoter of birtherism (and continutes to push the conspiracy theory, even after President Barack Obama has released his original, long-form birth certificate). Farah was promoting his "No More Red Ink" lobbying effort, which he said would generate millions of letters from the grassroots to Congress urging House Republicans to "freeze the debt limit." Joining him was Brian Wesbury, a former chief economist from the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and a CNBC regular. Wesbury argued that that the Fed chairman and Treasury secretary are both wrong to predict that failing to lift the debt ceiling will lead to a default on government debt. (Wesbury also wrote a big story in the Wall Street Journal in January 2008 predicting that the Dow would soon hit 15,000.) Also in the lineup: Daniel Mitchell, a Cato Institute fellow, and Bob Vander Plaats, the tea party candidate for Iowa governor last year and an anti-gay activist who helped lead the campaign to unseat three Iowa state supreme court justices who had ruled in favor of gay marriage. A South Dakota chiropractor who was supposed to talk about tea party fury over Obamacare was, like Bachmann, a no-show.

C.L. Bryant, a Baptist minister from Louisiana and a staple of tea party rallies (and often the only African-American in the line-up), echoed Temple's concerns about ending Don't Ask/Don't Tell and expressed deep disappointment with Boehner. "We did not give you the gavel on Capitol Hill for you to play nice with liberals," he intoned. The press corps was also treated to a speech from Manship, in his George Washington character, as he quoted from his "farewell address" and letters he had written in 1779 decrying the moral evils of debt.

The assembled tea party activists used the press conference to publicize yet another convention of activists planned for Kansas City, Kansas, at the end of September, called the Freedom Jamboree & Tea Party National Straw Poll Convention. The gathering is described on its website as "the ultimate grassroots event," akin to a “Tea Party Woodstock but without all the trash, drugs, and hippies." Temple said that the group is inviting all potential presidential candidates to come to the event and address the crowd.

Given that one presidential contender wouldn't even come to the group's press conference, it's hard to imagine that the next event will draw much of a star-studded crowd of GOP 2012 contenders. But who knows? If you'd told me two years ago that I'd be covering a press conference led by grown men dressed as George Washington and Button Gwinnett, and that reporters from news outlets like the Washington Post would be there taking the whole thing seriously, I never would have believed it.

Bachmann may not have wanted to stand in a room with these guys, but she was still concerned enough about their influence to participate by sending a personal statement that boosted the event's newsworthiness. It may be 2011, but men in tricorn hats still command that sort of respect.

AG Holder Was Right About Bin Laden

| Tue May 3, 2011 10:12 AM EDT

The killing of Osama bin Laden couldn't have come at a better time for one beleaguered member of the Obama administration: Eric Holder. The attorney general is on the Hill this week for back-to-back oversight hearings of the Justice Department by the House and Senate judiciary committees. Holder's recent appearances before congressional committees have not been well received by Republicans in large part because of his statements about how the department was likely to handle Bin Laden.

In March 2010, Holder's planned testimony before the Senate judiciary committee was unexpectedly postponed several weeks. When the news broke, Byron York at the Washington Examiner speculated that the administration was trying to avoid "another embarrassing performance by the attorney general." York quoted an unnamed Republican saying that Holder's previous appearance before the House appropriations committee was a "disaster," thanks to his insistence that Bin Laden would never be taken alive. "Those and other statements amounted to a blooper reel from just one Holder appearance," York wrote.

Republicans had been grilling Holder about the possibility that the Justice Department might insist on reading Bin Laden his Miranda rights if he were captured, to which Holder replied, "Let’s deal with reality. You're talking about a hypothetical that will never occur. The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden. He will never appear in an American courtroom. That’s the reality... He will be killed by us, or he will be killed by his own people so he's not captured by us. We know that.”

Republicans on the committee weren’t buying it, and suggested that Holder really wanted to treat Bin Laden like Charles Manson or any other mass murder. "The disconnect between this administration and your mindset is so completely opposite that of where the vast majority of the American people are," Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) told him.

A year later, and Holder is suddenly looking like a visionary. Whether the Republicans on the Hill this week will give him any credit for accurately predicting the future remains to be seen. But at least this time around, Holder will be coming to the Hill armed with proof that he knew what he was talking about when it came to Bin Laden. Republicans will have a lot of trouble taking a chink out of that armor. 

"Not Bad for a Kenyan Muslim Communist!"

| Mon May 2, 2011 3:51 PM EDT

After nearly two years of relentlessly bashing President Obama, the tea party movement has been strangely quiet in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. It seems that Obama's powerful show of military force has done what none of his other policy moves have been able to do, which is shut them up, however briefly. And not only are they not taking to the airwaves to bash him, some are even grudgingly admitting respect for his administration’s success.

Robin Stublen, a tea party organizer in Florida who’s no fan of Obama's, says, "I think it's wonderful. He did exactly what a president’s supposed to do."

Stublen says that many of his fellow activists feel the same way, and that most of the chatter he's hearing from grassroots conservatives is pretty positive. "We realize a bad guy’s been killed," he says. The nearly overnight change in the tea party's focus was apparent Sunday night at the White House, where spontaneous celebrations broke out after the news of Bin Laden's death spread. Among the many Obama campaign signs were enough Gadsden flags to give the celebration the look of a tea party rally.

Kellen Giuda is the founder of the NYC Tea Party and is already working to help defeat Obama in 2012 through a new PAC. Yet he was among the tea partiers at the White House, cheering the death of Bin Laden. He later posted online photos and video of the scene, which included the "Don't Tread on Me" flags so ubiquitous at tea party rallies. He wrote:

Last night I, my girlfriend and a friend went down to the White House to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. Being a Tea Party organizer I was happy to see some Gadsden flags and didn't care at all when I saw some Obama campaign posters. 98% of the celebration was non-partisan and it was wonderful.

It was crazy with people climbing light poles, songs (someone brought a drum set), singing our national anthem, people climbing in all the trees right outside the White House, chants of USA, USA, USA, and just a great celebration with Americans for justice and freedom.

Even the cantankerous Judson Phillips, head of Tea Party Nation, was briefly forced to acknowledge that the Obama administration had sent Bin Laden "to Hell." Even so, like other tea partiers, he was reluctant to give Obama much credit for the kill, writing:

Obama is taking credit for this. He did give the order. Did he really have a choice? If word leaked out that he had solid intelligence on where Bin Laden was and did not act, it would have killed any chance he had at reelection.

For much of Monday morning, there was serious radio silence from one of the most outspoken tea party groups even as the Internet was ablaze with the news about Bin Laden. The website for Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest tea party umbrella groups in the country, was still focused on the debt ceiling and $4 gasoline. Eventually, national coordinator Mark Meckler commented on the big news, telling National Journal that Obama didn’t deserve any recognition for the military operation in Pakistan. "Taking such credit would be an insult to the courageous men and women in our armed forces who voluntarily put themselves in harm's way," he said. "Any credit given is due to them."

But more the more common sentiment was expressed by a commenter on the Tea Party Patriots website who wrote, "Obamma [sic] killed Osama bin Laden - pretty good for a Kenyan Muslim Communist!!!"

Still, as the euphoria over the initial news wears off, the tea partiers will no doubt find more reasons to be critical of the administration. Within hours of the late-night news, some of them were already starting the cries of "show me the body," after learning that bin Laden’s body had been buried at sea—a sentiment fueled by Andrew Breitbart.

Stublen thinks this bit of conspiracy theorism about Bin Laden is on the margins of the movement. "You’ll have to really look to find some loons to find someone" who really disagrees with what Obama did or doesn't believe it really happened, he says. Stublen recognizes, though, that "pitching his ass out there in the ocean" is going to create some lingering suspicions about whether Bin Laden is really dead that it could be a problem going forward. "I hope they got a lot of pictures. That’s the only way we’re going to convince people," Stublen says. "They’re going to have to release the pictures."

The Tea Party's 2012 Hit List

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 3:01 AM EDT

Ever since lawmakers hammered out a budget compromise at the zero hour last week, furious tea party leaders have been working the media circuit and threatening to "primary" the Republican traitors who voted for the deal. But is it all talk?

Last week, Tea Party Nation's Judson Phillips claimed activists will try to pick off House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). And Mark Meckler, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, tells The Hill that activists are already recruiting candidates to challenge sitting GOP House members who voted to keep the government open for business:

"I'm literally getting emails by the hour from people talking about primary challenges," Meckler told The Ballot Box, adding that opposition to the deal among grassroots conservatives has been building all week...

"I'm hearing it from just about every district where someone voted yes [on the deal]," he said of the potential targets. "It's a pretty easy list, actually. All you have to do is look at the roll call."

Based on these parameters the tea party will ostensibly be gunning for some of the very people they worked so hard to put into office in November. That includes Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who spoke at a Tea Party Patriots "continuing revolution" protest on Capitol Hill just a few days before the budget vote, and voted for the deal.

What about budget hawk and man of the hour Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.)? He voted for the deal. Will tea partiers try to primary the lawmaker who put the deficit on the congressional map this year? Then there's tea party favorite Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), an arch conservative who many conservative activists consider an ideal presidential contendor. He, too, voted for the budget compromise, along with other conservative luminaries including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), tea party upstart Rep. Vicky Hartlzer (R-Mo.), and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the tea party's favorite doctor in the House during the health care fight.

Meckler also didn't say whether he would be organizing a primary challenge to his own home district congressman, Rep. Tom McClintock, who is probably the most right-wing member of the California delegation. Meckler is reportedly tight with McClintock, a frequent speaker at local tea party rallies in Nevada County, California, where Meckler lives. Yep, McClintock also voted for the budget bill.

For tea partiers, making good on their primary threats will require attacking many of the congressional lawmakers who actually listen to them. In doing so, conservative activists risk losing what little ground they've gained in Washington. 

Ultimately, the primary threats seem as much about publicity as political activism. Threats to target Boehner got Tea Party Nation's Phillips on Glenn Beck's show this week, even though he would be hard pressed to organize a well-attended rally much less a primary challenge. Despite Meckler's claims that tea partiers are enraged by the recent budget deal, that anger largely seems to be manifesting itself during Meckler's cable appearances. When his group held a protest over the budget bills in DC at the end of March, only a handful of tea partiers showed up. The event paled in comparison to the mega-rallies organized during the health care debate

The lack of visible signs of mass anger is no surprise. After all, the budget deal struck last week was a huge win for the tea party, and one that came on the heels of significant electoral successes during the midterm election. But if tea party leaders actually declared victory and dialed down the outrage, they might find their movement on the path to irrelevance. So perhaps their strategy is just to keep on shouting and issuing threats, even if they're empty ones.

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