2008 - %3, July

Liberal Lawyer Helping Louisiana Kill That Guy

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 9:28 AM EDT

In one of the more dramatic decisions of the last Supreme Court term, justices voted 5 to 4 to ban the death penalty in a Louisiana child rape case, Kennedy v. Louisiana. The court based its decision in part on the notion that there was a national consensus against executing people for rape, as suggested by the complete absence of any federal statute making child rape a capital crime. As it turns out, though, the court was wrong. There is such a statute under military law, an error pointed out by Linda Greenhouse on her way out the door from the New York Times.

Based on that omission, Louisiana yesterday petitioned the high court to rehear the case. It's still a longshot, but given the nature of the error, not impossible that the court might reconsider. Besides, the state has a good lawyer. Fighting to execute Patrick Kennedy is Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal. Katyal became a darling of the liberal establishment in 2005 after successfully arguing the Hamdan case, in which the Supreme Court found the Bush administration's military tribunals for trying Guantanamo detainees unconstitutional. (Katyal is currently defending Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, in his military trial, which started this week.) The case rocketed the young, telegenic Katyal into the public eye—he was profiled in Vanity Fair, no less--and his name is one of those constantly floating in the ether as a potential democratic Supreme Court nominee.

His role in the Kennedy case suggests that Katyal is not quite the liberal he's been made out to be by the media. Or, he's got tremendous political savvy. His choice to defend the death penalty in a case that even some court conservatives can't stomach brings back faint memories of a young presidential candidate flying home to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a retarded man. If you aspire to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, what better way for a liberal to prove political independence (and confirmability) than to get someone executed?

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Meeting in the Ladies' Room

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 10:16 PM EDT

Man, I wish I'd thought to write this piece. Kudos to the Wall Street Journal for taking the ladies' loo seriously.

I have long been amazed at the camaraderie of the average women's bathroom, even in anonymous settings like restaurants and malls. A wedding or party? Forget about it. There's a reason we all pack up and go to pee together, gents: We're having fun and laughing at y'all.

Bad Air Killing Eastern US

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 7:28 PM EDT

800px-Gavin_Plant.JPG Thinks it's just China? Well, every major ecosystem type in the eastern US is being degraded by air pollution. That's right: Adirondack forests, Shenandoah streams, Appalachian wetlands, and the Chesapeake Bay, to name a few.

A new report [pdf] is the first to analyze the combined effects of four air pollutants across a broad range of habitat types.

Most studies focus on one pollutant. And why not? Things always look so much better that way.

But the sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and ground-level ozone that are released into the air from smokestacks, tailpipes, and agricultural operations fall back to Earth sooner or later. Ooops.

And because the eastern U.S. is downwind from gynormous pollution sources, it receives the highest levels of deposited air pollution anywhere in North America.

That's bad news for wildlife, forests, soil, water, and, guess what?, economies.

Ten Silliest Digg.com Headlines About The Dark Knight

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 5:13 PM EDT

DiggDigg.com, the web site that allows users to vote on links and stories, is a good place to see what people are talking about (and interested in reading about). Right now, it's all Batman: The Dark Knight, which opened over the weekend to record-breaking crowds. Apparently it's pretty good (this reporter finally managed to buy tickets to an Imax showing tomorrow), enough so that Batman-related stories seem to be taking up a majority of Digg's space, and amidst the box office figures are some pretty ridiculous headlines. I know you're desperate for some Dark Knight-inspired click-throughs, bloggers, but jeez. Here are ten of the more, shall we say, esoteric headlines currently getting votes on Digg:

Fifty Years Without Running Water

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 5:10 PM EDT

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2004 was a big year in Coal Run. After half a century of discrimination, neglect, and bureaucratic runaround, the residents of the mostly-black neighborhood outside Zanesville, Ohio finally got running water. 2008 will be a landmark year too: earlier this month, a jury in the US District Court in Columbus found that racial discrimination lay behind the lack of services, and awarded the affected residents $15,000-$300,000 each.

You can read the details in the original lawsuit (.pdf), and I highly recommend doing so—it's a case study in institutional racism. (During the trial, the town and county argued that they weren't aware that residents didn't have water, and that if they were aware, they weren't sure who had jurisdiction over the neighborhood. That may have been true, but they were happy to charge black citizens up to ten times as much as their white peers to purchase water and haul it home in trucks.)

But as much as this is a story about race, it's also a story about poverty, and how bureaucracy and greed work together to prevent poor people from accessing services that most of us take for granted. 22 percent of Zanesville's residents live below the federal poverty level, including nearly a third of children under 18. Unemployment in Muskingum County, where Zanesville is located, runs at 7.4 percent—significantly higher than the national average. Only 11 percent of city residents have completed college. But just as it took Hurricane Katrina to alert America to the poverty of the Gulf Coast, Zanesville didn't make national news until we heard of something so egregious that we couldn't help but take notice.

Just a week before the District Court decision, Barack Obama spoke in Zanesville about his plan for faith-based organizations to help the country's neediest people. That's a start. But will his administration, or John McCain's, undertake the task of reshaping this society into one that meets the basic needs of all its citizens, no matter how poor or out of the way?

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Andrew|W.

Beijing Spectators Risk Heart Attacks

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 2:40 PM EDT

beijing200.jpgResearchers at Northwestern University warn that pollution in Beijing is so extreme that it could trigger cardiac arrest and strokes in spectators and athletes.

Advice from the docs:

Stay indoors during traffic rush-hour periods. "Indoor air pollution levels are always much lower than outdoor, so staying inside will limit your exposure," Budinger said. He cautioned that Beijing's definition of mild pollution would be a pollution alert day in the U.S.

So that's all good advice for the millions who will be descending upon Beijing for a few weeks, but what about the people who actually live there?

Oh yeah, them: The 750,000 Chinese people that die prematurely from pollution every year—and that the Chinese government doesn't want you to know about. Are they just supposed to stay inside all day every day?

For a good overview of some of the emergency measures Beijing officials have taken to prepare for the Olympics, go here. Hope they keep it up after the party ends. For everyone's sake.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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America Still Working Through That Wardrobe Malfunction Trauma For Some Reason

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 1:54 PM EDT

mojo-photo-malfunction.jpgYes, doctor, we know that it was way back in 2004 when a couple middling pop stars engaged in a flirtatious dance routine during a Super Bowl halftime show that ended in the brief revelation of a boob, but the event apparently still haunts our nightmares. By that I mean, of course, that it's "working its way through the court system," but there was a decision today that may mean an end to our cruel suffering is in sight: a federal appeals court today threw out the original $550,000 FCC fine against CBS for the "wardrobe malfunction." That's right, the 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals is pro-bazoom, or at least fleeting bazoom, citing the "nine-sixteenths of one second glimpse" of the breast in question in their decision. But it felt like an eternity!!! Mostly they just pointed out that the FCC had never fined fleeting indecency before:

While Troops Travel in Squalor, Air Force Brass Choose Swatches for First Class Cabins

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 1:15 PM EDT

On Friday I noted the controversy over two related Air Force projects designed to provide senior military officials with "world class" aircraft accommodations. Outfitted with such first class perks as flat screen TVs, leather chairs, and "aesthetically pleasing" wall and ceiling treatments, the multi-million dollar projects, known as Senior Leader In-Transit Conference Capsules (SLICCs)—first referred to as "comfort capsules, according to Air Force documents—and Senior Leader Intransit Pallets (SLIPs) were the subject of a letter from the Project on Government Oversight's executive director, Danielle Brian, to Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week. In it, she wrote that these programs, which were partially financed with counter-terrorism funding, illustrate a "disconnect between the senior leadership of the Air Force from the increasingly pressing needs of servicemen and women"—particularly given the "deplorable state" of the seat pallets used for troop transport.

Well, POGO has obtained several pictures of the interior of a cargo plane taken at Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar. And it's not pretty:

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Iraq: Provincial Elections Could Be Delayed

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 12:06 PM EDT

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Iraq's Electoral Commission sent a letter to the country's parliament yesterday, warning that unless lawmakers move quickly and pass polling legislation, long-awaited provincial elections—supposed to occur before October 1—might not be held this year. The vote, if and when it happens, is an important linchpin in the American strategy to disperse political power from Baghdad to the local level, a move that would placate disgruntled Sunni groups that boycotted the 2005 election and, as a result, found themselves under the unwelcome jurisdiction of Shiite and Kurdish politicians—and their respective militias.

"We need at least three months after the law is passed to prepare so polling can be up to international standards," Electoral Commission chairman Faraj al-Haidari said yesterday in an interview with Reuters. "Even if the law is passed in the coming days, we will only be able to vote at the end of the year. Any more delay, and we won't be able to have elections this year."

Minimum Wage Goes Up Thursday

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 10:39 AM EDT

Burger flippers rejoice! The federal minimum wage will go up on Thursday to $6.55 from $5.85. Too bad the minimum wage isn't rising as fast as gas prices. Still, this is an improvement. Congress went nine years without raising the floor for low-wage workers, finally boosting the minimum last year when its value hit a 51-year low. One more bump next year will bring the federal minimum wage up to $7.25, a far cry from the $10.50 an hour paid in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but a step in the right direction. Another decade, the minimum wage might actually lift someone above the poverty line.

Right now, 25 states have minimum wages higher than what the feds set, so the hike won't have as much impact as it otherwise might, but it's a boon to low-wage workers in stingy states like Louisiana and Alabama that have no state minimum. Now that Congress has come this far, the next step ought to be indexing the damn thing to inflation like many of the states do. I've never understood why poor working people should be made to suffer so much from political gridlock. Making sure that work pays ought to be one thing people in both parties can agree on.