Mojo - November 2011

North Carolina Senate Set to Repeal Racial Justice Act

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:50 PM EST
Supporters of Troy Davis gather in Jackson, Georgia, in September.

The North Carolina state senate voted to gut a law on Monday that allows death row inmates to argue that racial bias influenced their sentencing. Enacted in 2009, the Racial Justice Act requires judges in North Carolina to commute death row inmates' sentences to life in prison if they find race played a "significant" role in the initial sentence.

State Republicans have long set their sights on undoing the law, the Wall Street Journal reports. The GOP-controlled North Carolina state house weakened the original law in June, changing its language to require that courts prove that prosecutors acted "with discriminatory purpose" when selecting juries and seeking the death penalty. But proving intent, as one attorney told the Raleigh News & Observer, is exceedingly difficult. And Colorlines' Jamillah King reports that the new language "represented a meaningful undermining of the point: The law had moved courts to a focus on racially disparate outcomes, rather than a racist intent."

The law's opponents say it is sloppily written, and could give inmates the ability to use statistics on racial bias from other jurisdictions in their appeals. Also at stake for Republicans: the future of capital punishment in North Carolina. They view the Racial Justice Act as a Trojan horse for ending the death penalty, pointing out that the state hasn't ordered up an execution since 2006 (three years before the law was enacted). Just a few weeks ago, 43 of North Carolina's 44 district attorneys wrote a letter to the state Senate asking legislators to repeal the Racial Justice Act for that very reason.

It's a fair point—if you're into executing people. Another fair point: according to a widely cited presentation at Michigan State University law school in 2010, defendants who killed a white person in North Carolina were more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty than when their victims were black. And the Raleigh News & Observer reports that African-American jury pool members who weren't rejected for cause were rejected at about twice the rate as potential white jurors.

But as Georgia's controversial execution of Troy Davis earlier this year affirmed, the trend towards disproportionately executing poor black men isn't confined to North Carolina. Here's Colorlines' King again:

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, 56 percent of inmates killed by the state [of Georgia] have been black. . . .

Nationally, 48 percent— that’s nearly 70,000 people—of those who’ve been sentenced to life in prison are black, despite the fact that the black inmates make up 38 percent of the total prison population.

North Carolina is one of 34 states in the U.S. that currently executes prisoners. The Death Penalty Information Center lists it as having the country’s sixth largest death row. The majority of people on it—86 out of a total of 157 inmates—are African American.

What's at issue here isn't the sanctity of capital punishment. It's the fact that it has been wielded unjustly.

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Okay, Maybe The ACLU Is Running The CIA

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 1:45 PM EST
Obama meets with his national security team in 2010.

Sure, Rep. Michele Bachmann's repeated fact-free insinuations that the Obama national security apparatus is being run by civil libertarians are completely false, but this week law enforcement and intelligence professionals and the American Civil Liberties Union are on the same page, at least when it comes to militarizing domestic counterterrorism.

The defense funding bill authorizing domestic indefinite military detention for American citizens suspected of terrorism has come under fire from almost every leading national security official in the administration. All of them have argued that the detention provisions would harm national security:

  • Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the bill would "needlessly complicate efforts by frontline law enforcement professionals to collect critical intelligence concerning operations and activities within the United States."
  • Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the provisions would "deny our nation the ability to respond flexibly and appropriately to unfolding events—including the capture of terrorism suspects."
  • FBI Director Robert Mueller has warned that the "fixes" introduced by the Senate Armed Services Committee "fail to recognize the reality of a counterterrorism investigation."

Now, the convergence between the ACLU and the Obama administration's national security apparatus has little to do with the ACLU's influence, it's just one of those moments where national security officials and civil libertarians happen to see eye-to-eye on something, and not even necessarily for the same reasons. The ACLU doesn't want the military investigating domestic crimes, and national security officials don't want to worry about asking permission to continue every time law enforcement starts investigating a suspect. Civil libertarian blogger Marcy Wheeler, however, sees the ACLU as possibly being "in cahoots" with a plan "to give sanction to a broad expansion of Executive war and surveillance powers the likes of which the CIA loves to exploit."

The key to this supposed plan is an amendment proposed by Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would strip the offending provisions and force the administration to describe the legal powers it thinks it has when it comes to detaining and prose terrorists. Wheeler argues the Udall amendment "unilaterally reasserts the application of the AUMFs (plural) and other vaguely defined legal bases to detention" and "dictates that detention authority apply to a far broader group of people" than the detention provisions currently in the bill. 

The Other 1 Percent: Sick People (Chart)

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 11:55 AM EST

Here's a 1 percent no one wants to be part of: According to a recent analysis by Christopher Conover, a Duke University researcher on health policies and inequalities, barely 1 percent of the population accounts for nearly 20 percent of the nation's already inflated health care spending. These few people each account for, on average, $115,000 in health care spending every year, which is almost three times the annual salary of the average American worker. Only 5 percent of the population accounts for fully 50 percent of all the nation's health care spending. Everybody else generates, on average, about $360 a year in health care costs, or about 3 percent.

So it's not hard to  see where some of the problems lie in the health care system, which is the biggest driver of the country's long-term deficit problems. Conover helpfully provides a chart from his forthcoming book, American Health Economy Illustrated:

Health Care's 1 Percent: Christopher J. ConoverHealth Care's 1 Percent: Christopher J. ConoverGiven the small number of people driving the rapidly escalating health care costs in this country, it seems like solving the problem ought to be a snap, right? Clearly some people need to be spending a little more to make sure they don't get sick down the road, and perhaps others ought to be getting a little less of the expensive and not necessarily useful stuff. Of course, if the problem were that simple, it would have been fixed by now. As GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich said in 2005, "'Health is about 30 times more difficult than national security."

PA Legislator Behind Controversial Electoral College Plan Mulling Senate Run

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 11:45 AM EST
Dominic Pileggi, the Republican majority leader in Pennsylvania's state Senate, is mulling a run for US Senate. He's been a prominent supporter of the plan to change the way Pennsylvania awards its electoral votes in a way that could rig the presidential election against Barack Obama.

Dominic Pileggi, the Pennsylvania state Senate majority leader, has attracted national media attention for his role as the author of the controversial, dark-money-funded plan to change the way the state awards electoral votes in order to rig the presidential election against Obama. Now the GOP lawmaker is considering a bid for US Senate.

Pileggi says he's "been approached by a number of people about the possibility of running for U.S. Senate," he said in a statement to the website PoliticsPA on Monday. Pileggi added that he's "flattered by the question," and has "made no decision," but PoliticsPA cites multiple sources who claim the state Senator has already met with national Republicans about running against Democratic incumbent Bob Casey next November. 

Senate Moves Forward On Domestic Indefinite Detention

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 8:17 AM EST

danmachold/Flickrdanmachold/Flickr

On Monday afternoon, the Senate began its deliberations over the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains controversial provisions that would authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism, mandate it for non-citizens, and potentially interfere with the transfer of low-level insurgents in Afghanistan. The administration has already threatened to veto the bill in its current form. A vote is expected on Wednesday.

Responding to widespread criticism of the bill, Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee respectively, defended the detainee provisions in a Washington Post op-ed Monday, arguing that the bill isn't as bad as critics claim:

The most controversial point involves the circumstances under which a terrorist detainee should be held in military, rather than civilian, custody. The bill provides that a narrowly defined group of people — al-Qaeda terrorists who participate in planning or conducting attacks against us — be held in military custody.

However, the bill does allow the administration, through a waiver, to hold these al-Qaeda detainees in civilian custody if it determines that would best serve national security. Moreover, the administration has broad authority to decide who is covered by this provision and how and when such a decision is made.

The two senators argue that the legislation "specifically prohibits the interruption of ongoing surveillance, intelligence-gathering or interrogation sessions." This is what you might call an "Arizona exception," after the clause in that state's draconian SB 1070 immigration bill that explicitly "prohibited" racial profiling. Just as SB 1070 "prohibited" racial profiling while in practice encouraging it, the detainee language in the defense bill "prohibits" the very thing the bill does: adding another set of rules federal authorities are obliged to follow in order to comply with the law.

"[Law enforcement authorities] should have the flexibility to make these calls on the ground," said one senior administration official. "They shouldn't have to worry about the White House getting the secretary of defense on the phone." While the administration's statement of policy reflected concerns raised by civil libertarians about militarizing domestic law enforcement matters, the administration has mostly emphasied the national security angle. 

Although Levin and McCain wrote that they're not trying to tie the executive branch's hands, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who wants to amend the NDAA to remove restrictions against torture, plainly told the Wall Street Journal that her reasons for supporting the detention restrictions is that she believes they will force the administration to move toward her preferred policy—military detention for all non-citizen terror suspects. "I don't believe the criminal system should be a default position," even for suspected terrorists apprehended inside the US, Ayotte said. She believes the bill will tie the administration's hands; that's why she's backing it. 

Requiring special permission to use the US justice system is hand-tying whether McCain and Levin think so or not. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 29, 2011

Tue Nov. 29, 2011 6:57 AM EST

US Army Staff Sgt. Mark Lynas (left), squad leader, and Sgt. Mark Record, team leader, both attached to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, secure a school and clear insurgent threats in a village in Shah Joy, Afghanistan, November 22, 2011. PRT Zabul's mission is to conduct civil-military operations in Zabul Province to extend the reach and legitimacy of the Government of Afghanistan. Both sergeants are deployed from Charlie Company, 182nd Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts National Guard. (US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras)

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Will Obama Bow on Birth Control?

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 7:10 PM EST

Reproductive rights activists are upping pressure on the Obama administration not to grant major exceptions to the new policy requiring health insurers to cover birth control. Religious groups—particularly the US Conference of Catholic Bishops—have been pressuring the administration to let a wide range of institutions out of covering birth control if they have religious or moral objections.

Fears are high that the Obama administration might allow not only churches, but any hospital, health clinic, or university that is associated with a religious group have an exemption to the new policy. It's not surprising that the bishops and others are lobbying for this exemption; groups that oppose contraception flipped out when the National Academy of Sciences recommended offering no-cost birth control as part of preventative care for women. They were certainly nonplussed when the Obama administration decided to require insurers to cover it. But the outrage is over the fact that the Obama administration appears to be actively considering it—and could make an announcement as soon as this week.

The push back has come from Democrats in Congress—particularly the --as well as groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and the Feminist Majority Foundation, which are running online petitions to the White House.

Not even all Catholics are excited about the move. Catholics for Choice took out an advertisement in Monday's New York Times calling on Obama to to reject the call to expand the refusal clause. Their ad highlighted the fact many Catholic women use birth control for contraception, and women in general use it for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with sex.

It's also worth noting, as this piece from Jezebel about Fordham University points out, some Catholic colleges already refuse to provide birth control to students.

Some of Barney Frank's Best Lines (and Worst Moments)

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 4:23 PM EST
Barney Frank, in younger days.

On Monday, Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) made the surprise announcement that he will not seek reelection in 2012. A liberal stalwart who was first elected to Congress at the dawn of the Reagan era, Frank rose to become the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007-11 and was a key author of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the regulatory overhaul signed into law in July 2010.

Admired for his barbed wit and pugilistic approach to politics, Frank was attacked by conservatives for his pre-housing crisis relationship with Fannie and Freddie and his views on taxation and Wall Street regulation. (Frank's departure, however, will not leave the right without a regulatory bogeyman—once he retires, California congresswoman Maxine Waters will be the most-senior Democrat on the Financial Services Committee.)

Here's a collection of both Frank's greatest hits and some of his most cringe-worthy fumbles.

SOME HIGHS

1) Barney hates Newt (mid-'90s edition)

There are plenty of politicians who have heated ideological disagreements but can still smile and play golf together. Newt Gingrich and Barney Frank don't have that luxury. Long before the 2012 Republican presidential contender said it was a good idea to throw Frank in jail for "put[ting] this country in trouble," the two were already busy hating on everything the other stood for. Along with making it abundantly clear that he "despise[s] Gingrich because of the negative effect he has had on American politics," Frank had the following to say about the then-House Speaker during a 1995 interview with Mother Jones:

That's why [Gingrich] says so many wrong things: He doesn't know a lot about substance. He half-reads some future-oriented books and out of that comes a gabble that's not terribly coherent…[H]e's a mechanic of power.

More than 16 years later, the mutual animosity show little sign of cooling off—Frank even made sure to work a couple Gingrich-related zingers into the Monday afternoon press conference announcing his retirement.

2) Frank's "Make Room for the Serious Criminals" legislation

Frank occasionally found common ground with politicians like Ron Paul on some pet causes. Here's one of them:

Gingrich on Immigration: More Moderate and Consistent Than Romney

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 2:52 PM EST
Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

The two GOP frontrunners are again clashing over immigration, with Newt Gingrich playing the role of immigration moderate to Mitt Romney's border hawk. The only problem is neither label fits either candidate comfortably. 

This morning, Bloomberg revisited Romney's past support for Bush's 2006 immigration reform plan. As I wrote in September, Romney tried to have it both ways on the issue in 2008, after the once-moderate Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) became his main rival for the Republican presidential nomination. More awkward? Moderate-sounding Gingrich opposed the Bush immigration reform proposal at the time, and in the most inflammatory and inaccurate terms possible, saying that the McCain-Kennedy bill would grant "potential terrorists and gang members" legal status. Gingrich also authored a white paper titled "Fool Me Once," which argued that the anti-illegal immigration enforcement promises made by Bush-era reform supporters would prove to be as empty as those made by supporters of the 1986 amnesty bill signed by President Ronald Reagan. Bush's immigration reform proposal was famously tanked by revolt from within his own base

Gingrich did outline a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform for National Review in 2006. It looks a lot like what he's proposing now. Gingrich wanted an English-language requirement, "citizen juries" to decide whether or not to deport unauthorized immigrants, a guest worker program, and privatized employment verification procedures. It's not the deportation-only policy preferred by the Republican base, but it also raises the question of whether Gingrich opposed Bush-era immigration reform (which would have accomplished many of the same goals through alternate, less-Gingrichy means) because it was too moderate, or because, like Romney later on, he put his finger in the wind and figured out which way it was blowing. From the perspective of anti-immigrant conservatives, of course, there's no real difference between Gingrich and Bush.

Republican voters can find plenty of evidence for the argument that both Romney and Gingrich are "squishes" when it comes to illegal immigration. When it comes to consistency, however, Gingrich can make a credible case that he's not the flip-flopper Romney is. Whether his preferred immigration policies are any more workable than mass deportation is a different question.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 24, 2011

Thu Nov. 24, 2011 6:57 AM EST

US Army Pfc. Charles Washington, Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul automatic rifleman, holds a gate open for an Afghan man as he exits the hospital in Shah Joy, Afghanistan, November 21, 2011. Members of PRT Zabul went to the hospital to conduct a key leader engagement. Washington is deployed from Charlie Company, 182nd Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts National Guard. Photo by the US Army.