Mojo - November 2013

Alabama District Attorney Seeks Prison Time for Rapist Sentenced to Probation

| Sat Nov. 16, 2013 6:04 PM EST

An Alabama district attorney filed a motion today seeking prison time for Austin Smith Clem, who was convicted of repeatedly raping a teenager—twice when she was 14—but was given only probation and a stint in community corrections as punishment.

Brian Jones, the Limehouse County district attorney, told Mother Jones on Friday that his office was reviewing its options to "achieve a sentence that gives justice to our victim." This afternoon, Jones emailed reporters a copy of a motion he filed to stay Clem's sentence and incarcerate him.

Jones has also filed a petition for a writ of mandamus for the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals. The petition argues that Clem's current sentence is illegal, and it asks the appeals court to order the presiding judge in Clem's case, Circuit Court Judge James Woodroof, to "vacate his sentencing order…and re-sentence the defendant according to the provisions of Alabama law."

In September, a jury convicted Clem of two counts of second-degree rape and one count of first-degree rape. Woodroof sentenced Clem to 10 years in prison for each of the second-degree rape charges and 20 years for first-degree rape. But Woodroof "split" the sentence so that Clem would serve two years in Limestone County community corrections program, a program aimed at nonviolent criminals, and three years of probation.

Jones' petition asks the appeals court to consider whether Woodroof, in doing so, violated the Alabama split-sentence statute and the Alabama Community Punishment and Corrections Act. The petition argues that Alabama law prohibits a sentence for a felony—such as forcible rape—from being served in a community corrections program. "Rape by force or compulsion must be treated by the criminal justice system as a violent offense," the petition states. "To suggest otherwise runs afoul of thousands of years of both sound jurisprudence and experience."

On Friday, in response to his punishment, Clem's victim said she was "livid."

In an interview with Mother Jones, Clem's defense attorney, Dan Totten, defended the sentence, saying, "[Clem's] lifestyle for the next six years is going to be very controlled…If he goes to a party and they're serving beer, he can't say, 'Can I have one?' If he wanted to go across the Tennessee line, which as the crow flies is eight or nine miles from his house, and buy a lottery ticket, he can't do that." Totten noted to Mother Jones that he has been friends with Woodroof since childhood. He did not call any witnesses in defense at Clem's trial.

 
 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 15, 2013

Fri Nov. 15, 2013 10:03 AM EST

Members of the Utah Army National Guard 2-211 Aviation Battalion assist members of the 19th Special Forces Group with freefall and static line parachute jumps near Camp Williams, Utah, Oct. 30, 2013. The 2-211 assisted the 19th SFG with maintaining airborne qualification as well as jump master qualifications. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt.Tim Chacon.

Obama's Obamacare Fix Doesn't Put Out the Fire on Capitol Hill

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 4:33 PM EST

On Thursday morning, President Barack Obama announced a fix for the millions of Americans whose insurance plans are being canceled that will allow them to keep their plans for an extra year. But the president's proposal did not go far enough for many congressional Democrats, who are increasingly worried Obamacare's mounting problems are harming the party as a whole.

"There's lots of support for additional changes," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters Thursday when asked if he thought Senate Democrats would back further legislative fixes to Obamacare's cancellation notice problem.

Last week, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is up for reelection in 2014, introduced a bill that would allow Americans with plans that are noncompliant with the Affordable Care Act to keep those plans indefinitely; since then, five other Senate Dems have joined as cosponsors. One of them, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), told reporters Thursday that Obama's plan is a "good intermediate fix, but we still need the Landrieu bill."

Nominee to Run Federal Reserve Unsure When It Will Curb Its Powers to Bail Out Banks

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 3:59 PM EST

Janet Yellen.

On Thursday morning, the Senate banking committee held a hearing on Janet Yellen's nomination to chair the Federal Reserve—the US central bank charged with keeping unemployment low and inflation in check. A telling moment in the hearing came when Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) asked Yellen, the Fed's current vice chair, when the central bank would wind down its powers to bail out banks, as required three years ago by the Dodd-Frank financial reform act. Yellen wasn't sure.

Between 2007 and 2009, the Fed doled out $16 trillion in cheap loans to big banks that were reeling from the global financial crisis. To prevent Wall Street from expecting this type of cash infusion in the future, Dodd-Frank restricted the kinds of emergency lending the Fed can do. But the Fed still hasn't crafted these general provisions into specific regulations limiting its powers—and until it does, it's free to do as it sees fit.

At the hearing, Yellen told Vitter that regulations limiting the Fed's bailout powers are still "in the works" and that she'd "try to get it out soon," but said she was "not certain what the time frame is." During questioning at a financial services committee hearing in July, Fed chair Ben Bernanke said the Fed had "made a lot of progress" on in crafting enforceable limits on its bailout powers, and that he hoped to have the final regulations out by the end of the year. Yellen's lack of an answer for Vitter's question suggests that year-end deadline may be off the table.

As I reported in July, financial reform experts think the reason the Fed is dragging its feet is obvious: the central bank doesn't want to cede any powers it may want to use in the future. It's easier for the Fed to hand out money than to upend the way it operates, Marcus Stanley, the policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, told me at the time.

The Fed could be busy with other matters, of course. But Yellen's lack of an answer suggests that limiting its own powers isn't "a high priority for the Federal Reserve," says Mike Konczal, a financial reform expert at the Roosevelt Institute.

George W. Bush Still Plans to Appear at Jews-for-Jesus-like Event Tonight

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 11:41 AM EST

Despite an uproar in the Jewish community, former president George W. Bush is still slated to deliver the keynote address to a fundraiser for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute in Irving, Texas, tonight. The MJBI trains people to persuade Jews to recognize Jesus as their messiah. Followers of the group believe that if enough Jews are converted, Christ will return to Earth.

After Mother Jones broke the news about Bush's appearance last week, "a small shitstorm…kicked up over the President's decision," writes Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

"I have yet to meet a Jewish person who hasn't heard about this," Tevi Troy, Bush's White House liaison to the Jewish community from 2003 to 2004, told CNN Wednesday. Troy had high praise for Bush's support of Israel and the Jewish community, but, he added, "I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed." A spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition did not respond to a request for comment.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas issued a statement Tuesday expressing their disappointment regarding Bush's scheduled appearance: "Support of this group is a direct affront to the mutual respect that all mainstream religious groups afford each other to practice the principles of their respective beliefs."

Bush's decision to raise money for MJBI "is really painful to so many in the Jewish community," Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said on MSNBC, because MJBI's "primary purpose is to convert all Jews to a different religion. How do you have a respectful relationship if the measure of success of one group is the ending of the other group by having them convert away from their own religion?”

Saperstein, who has worked with Bush on religious-freedom issues, described Bush's decision as "mystifying." That's a sentiment shared by conservatives, including Commentary magazine's Jonathan Tobin, who writes that Bush, who has largely avoided political controversies since leaving the White House, has "stepped into one with both feet."

Want to Piss Off the White House? Talk About Climate Change

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 10:54 AM EST

Politico's Glenn Thrush has a revealing new piece on the pressures of being in President Obama's cabinet—a supposedly fun thing most of its members will never do again. There a lot of nuggets in there, but one in particular stood out: the White House's private outrage at former Secretary of Energy Steve Chu's impromptu decision to talk about climate change while visiting an island nation uniquely threatened by it. On a trip to Trinidad and Tobago with the president, a staffer persuaded press secretary Robert Gibbs to let Chu answer a few questions:

Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater—which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. "I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes," Chu said. "This is something that is very, very scary to all of us…The island states…some of them will disappear."

Earnest slunk backstage. "OK, we'll never do that again," he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, "If you don't kill [Chu], I'm going to."

Emanuel didn't kill Chu, although that would have made for a more interesting story.

A couple things stand out here. Trinidad and Tobago is seriously threatened by climate change, and given the efforts of similarly situated island nations—the Maldives, Tuvalu—to call attention to the crisis, it's hardly an insult to use the occasion of a trip to the country to talk about it. (Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago's capital, is 10 feet above sea level.) But this underscores just how narrow the White House's thinking was at that time. Does anyone actually remember Steven Chu speaking out about sea level rises in Trinidad and Tobago? Did it really distract from the president's economic message? Were there mass protests in the streets of Port of Spain? Did it delay pending legislation or result in any electoral setbacks? The reality is that talking about climate change probably isn't going to be a catastrophe, no matter how awkward it might seem at the time—but not talking about climate change most definitely will.

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Elizabeth Warren Joins the Battle to Overhaul the Senate Filibuster

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 10:49 AM EST
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is lending her voice to the chorus of lawmakers who want substantive changes made to how US senators use the filibuster, the main tool of opposition by the minority party.

The impetus for Warren's comments came on Tuesday, when Senate Republicans filibustered President Obama's nominee to the influential DC Circuit Court of Appeals, Georgetown Law Professor Cornelia Pillard. If she's ever confirmed, Pillard would be the fourth woman on this important federal appeals court, which decides often-consequential cases between the federal government and private parties. Senate Republicans have also filibustered Patricia Millett's nomination to the appeals court and say they plan to block another appeals court nominee, Robert Wilkins, as well.

In the face of all this obstruction, Warren has joined progressive stalwarts such as Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) in demanding real changes to how the filibuster is used. "So far they have shut down the government, they have filibustered people [President Obama] has nominated to fill out his administration, and they are now filibustering judges to block him from filling any of the vacancies with highly qualified people," she said. "We need to call out these filibusters for what they are: Naked attempts to nullify the results of the last election."

Warren went on: "If Republicans continue to filibuster these highly qualified nominees for no reason other than to nullify the president's constitutional authority, then senators not only have the right to change the filibuster, senators have a duty to change the filibuster rules," Warren said. "We cannot turn our backs on the Constitution. We cannot abdicate our oath of office."

Whether Warren's call for filibuster reform results in any actual changes is unlikely. The closest we've come in recent years to real filibuster reform came in July, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid grew so angry at the GOP's use (abuse, according to the Democrats) of the filibuster that he almost used the so-called "nuclear option"—changing the Senate rules so that a nominee could be confirmed with a simple 51-vote majority instead of 60 votes. At the last moment, Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cut a deal to avoid the nuclear option and instead confirm a slate of Obama nominees, including EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.

Plan for more close calls like Reid's July showdown—but with both parties wary of losing the filibuster as a tool for minority power, don't expect major reform any time soon.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 14, 2013

Thu Nov. 14, 2013 10:01 AM EST

An AV-8B Harrier assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 266(Reinforced), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Kearsarge, at sea, Nov. 1, 2013. The 26th MEU finished their eight month deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility aboard the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group serving as a sea-based, expeditionary crisis response force capable of conducting amphibious operations across the full range of military operations. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone/Released.

In 2 Charts: Why Hillary (and Bill) Clinton Damn Well Better Hope Obamacare Succeeds

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 1:00 PM EST

Bill Clinton did it again. On Tuesday, he interjected himself into the ongoing political tussle over the implementation of Obamacare by declaring that President Barack Obama "should honor" his "commitment" to allow people to hang on to their preexisiting health insurance plans. With this comment, the Secretary of Explaining Stuff gave ammo to the foes of Obamacare, and he, unintentionally or not, undermined a core element of the health care law. And, no surprise, he kicked off a spasm of speculation among the politerati: What are the Clintons up to? Will Hillary, if she runs for president, distance herself from the White House? Will she somehow suggest she's more competent than Obama? All this commentary was to be expected. There's something about the Clintons that encourages folks to sniff out clever schemes, intricate plots, and self-serving conniving.

But there's a basic fact that cannot be escaped: The Clintons need Obamacare to succeed. Just look at the chart in the video below:

After Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, he placed his wife in charge of health care reform. (It was part of the two-for-one deal.) And she subsequently unveiled a complicated reform plan that was quickly dubbed Hillarycare by Republicans and conservatives. The Clintons did seem to have a decent amount of political momentum on their side, and their GOP foes, fretting about being rolled, initially entertained the crazy idea of working with the White House to hammer out compromises and shape the legislation a bit more to their liking. Then came Sen. Arlen Specter, a cantankerous Pennsylvania Republican (who years later would switch parties). He hit the Senate floor with charts—complicated wire diagrams that appeared nearly impossible to sort out—that purportedly showed that Hillarycare would create a bureaucratic nightmare. It looked incomprehensibly complicated.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dick Armey, a leading House Republican, created his own chart:

Health care chart
Courtesy of Freedomworks

Armey's office captioned the chart, "Simplicity Defined." Dole showcased it in his 1994 response to Clinton's State of the Union address.

After first toying with a get-along strategy for dealing with Hillarycare, the Republicans mounted a fierce opposition against it, and these charts fueled that effort (along with the Harry and Louise ad campaign orchestrated by the health insurance industry). Waving these charts, the GOPers succeeded in killing Hillarycare—and, decrying the Clintons' health care proposal, they went on to seize control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections.

Hillarycare ended up a political failure and set back the cause of health care reform for nearly two decades. It's not an episode that Hillary Clinton would want discussed during a 2016 presidential campaign. If Obamacare thrives, there will be no reason to look back to Hillarycare and drag these charts out of the dustbin of history. But should the Affordable Care Act falter or collapse, a question will loom: What would Hillary do about health care? Her past record would be raked over and that would likely not boost her presidential prospects. Having screwed up in the early 1990s, could she argue that she would do a better job in reforming the health care system than Obama?

It would be best for a Clinton 2016 campaign for health care to be off the table—with no need to revisit all this inconvenient ancient history. That means she and Bill should be hoping that the implementation of Obamacare proceeds well—and they should do all they can to encourage that. So Bill Clinton ought to coordinate (closely) with the White House on what stuff he should be explaining. It's not only the president's political fortunes that are tied to Obamacare.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 13, 2013

Wed Nov. 13, 2013 9:12 AM EST

Sergeant First Class Adam Silvis, a medical platoon sergeant with the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, moves under fire during Expert Field Medical Badge testing on Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Oct. 13, 2013. This is the first time in 14 years that EFMB testing has been conducted in Kuwait. Photo by Sgt. Adam C. Keith, U.S. Army Central.