Mojo - February 2014

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 14, 2014

Fri Feb. 14, 2014 11:35 AM EST

Sgt Jason O. Lucas, an infantryman assigned to Predator Company, 4th Squadron "Longknife", 3d Cavalry Regiment, kisses his wife Emily during a redeployment ceremony held Jan. 30 at the West Fort Hood Gym. Lucas returned from a nine-month long deployment in Afghanistan with III Corps. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Dator, 3d Cavalry Regiment Public Affairs)

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Read the Incredibly Moving Opinion From the Judge Who Just Struck Down Virginia's Gay-Marriage Ban

| Fri Feb. 14, 2014 4:39 AM EST

On Thursday night, a federal court in Virginia struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage. The ruling follows similar decisions in Oklahoma and Utah, but it stands out for its celebratory tone and its stirring portrayal of marriage equality as a fundamental right. US District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen found that allowing same-sex marriage, like abolishing slavery and extending suffrage to women, was part of American’s ongoing expansion of constitutional rights to people who had been unjustly excluded. In her words, "We have arrived upon another moment in history when We the People becomes more inclusive, and our freedom more perfect."

Below is an excerpt from her opinion:

The plaintiffs [two same-sex couples] ask for nothing more than to exercise a right that is enjoyed by the vast majority of Virginia's adult citizens. They seek simply the same right that is currently enjoyed by heterosexual individuals: the right to make a public commitment to form an exclusive relationship and create a family with a partner with whom the person shares an intimate and sustaining emotional bond. This right is deeply rooted in the nation's history and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty because it protects an individual's ability to make deeply personal choices about love and family free from government interference.

Virginia's Marriage Laws impose a condition on this exercise. These laws limit the fundamental right to marry to only those Virginia citizens willing to choose a member of the opposite gender for a spouse. These laws interject profound government interference into one of the most personal choices a person makes…

Gay and lesbian individuals share the same capacity as heterosexual individuals to form, preserve and celebrate loving, intimate and lasting relationships. Such relationships are created through the exercise of sacred, personal choices—choices, like the choices made by every other citizen, that must be free from unwarranted government interference…

Ultimately, this is consistent with our nation's traditions of freedom. [According to United States v. Virginia:] "The history of our Constitution is the story of the extension of constitutional rights and protections to people once ignored or excluded." Our nation's uneven but dogged journey toward truer and more meaningful freedoms for our citizens has brought us continually to a deeper understanding of the first three words in our Constitution: We the people. "We the People" have become a broader, more diverse family than once imagined.

Justice has often been forged from fires of indignities and prejudices suffered. Our triumphs that celebrate the freedom of choice are hallowed. We have arrived upon another moment in history when We the People becomes more inclusive, and our freedom more perfect….

Almost one hundred and fifty four years ago, as Abraham Lincoln approached the cataclysmic rending of our nation over a struggle for other freedoms, a rending that would take his life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, he wrote these words: "It can not have failed to strike you that these men ask for just. . . the same thing—fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have. "

The men and women, and the children too, whose voices join in noble harmony with Plaintiffs today, also ask for fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as it is in this Court's power, they and all others shall have.

Wright Allen—whose ruling is stayed pending appeal—also addressed arguments from Virginia officials that gay marriage broke with tradition. "Tradition is revered in the Commonwealth, and often rightly so," she wrote. "However, tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia's ban on interracial marriage."

The Virginia case now joins the Oklahoma and Utah cases in the race to the Supreme Court, which may have the final word on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.

Read Wright Allen's entire opinion below:

 

Corn on "Hardball": John Boehner Moves Forward With Clean Debt Ceiling Extension, Angers Tea Party

Thu Feb. 13, 2014 3:33 PM EST

Mother Jones DC Bureau Chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Chris Matthews about John Boehner's decision to move forward with a clean debt ceiling extension and the "inevitable clash between two wings within the Republican party." Watch here:

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

This Map Is Not the Benghazi Smoking Gun Conservatives Think It Is

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 2:53 PM EST
Department of the Navy

This map of the location of US Navy ships during the 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch, is the latest purported smoking gun in what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has called "the worst tragedy since 9/11." The implication: The White House was in a position to intervene while the attack was ongoing but, for some reason, chose not to. "Map Shows Dozens of U.S. Military Ships Stationed In North Africa Waters During Benghazi Attack," wrote Katie Pavlich at Town Hall, a headline that was picked up by the esteemed Fox Nation.

But that's not quite right. Most of the "dozens" of ships were nowhere near Benghazi, and the list includes many vessels that wouldn't do much good in a rescue situation. For instance, the Lewis and Clark is a cargo vessel, and it was somewhere off the coast of West Africa. The map features eight minesweepers and a tug boat in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, a very long way from Benghazi. The Laramie, an oiler, was off the coast of Yemen. Per the Navy, the nearest aircraft carrier was 128 hours away. Only a handful of ships were even in the same body of water as Benghazi, and given the small window in which the attack unfolded, mobilizing a destroyer from the Iranian coastline probably wasn't going to fix the problem.

Still, with Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state at the time, mulling a presidential bid, expect even more Benghazi "smoking guns" in the years ahead.

VIDEO: Elizabeth Warren Calls for Closing Loopholes for the Rich to Cut Student Loan Debt

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 11:52 AM EST

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on her colleagues in the Senate to reduce interest rates for Americans crushed by student loan debt, and pay for it by closing tax loopholes for the rich.

Last summer, after a rancorous debate, Congress passed a law setting interest rates for new student loans for undergrads at 3.86 percent for the coming year. (Rates were set to double to 6.8 percent.) However, the legislation did not cut interest rates for those who took out the same type of loan before July 1 of last year. Americans who financed their education earlier than that are paying off debt with interest rates of 7, 8, or 9 percent. On Wednesday, Warren joined Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a speech on the Senate floor to highlight her plan to introduce legislation that would allow Americans with high-interest student loan debt to refinance their loans at the new rates being offered to first-time borrowers this year.

"Refinancing those old loans would lower interest rates to 3.86 percent for undergraduate loans," Warren said. "This is real money back in the pockets of people who invested in their education. Real money that will help young people find a little more financial stability as they work hard to build their futures. Real money that says that America invests in those who work to get an education."

Warren proposed that the rate cut be paid for by closing tax loopholes for the rich. "Right now, this country essentially taxes students—by charging high interest rates that bring money into the government—while at the same time we give away far more money through a tax code riddled with loopholes and let the wealthiest individuals and corporations avoid paying a fair share," Senator Warren said. "We can close those loopholes and put the money directly into refinancing student loans."

The senator said the Buffet Rule—part of a tax plan proposed by President Barack Obama that would eliminate tax loopholes for the wealthy to ensure that billionaires pay at least as much in taxes as their secretaries—would be a good place to start. Many of the wealthy end up paying a lower tax rate because they earn income through investments, for example, which is taxed at the capital gains rate of 15 percent. Meanwhile, an average head of household who makes $50,000 pays about 25 percent of her income in taxes. The Buffet Rule would require millionaires to pay an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent of their gross income.

Last year, during the debate over what to do with skyrocketing student loan rates, Warren introduced her own bill that would have cut need-based undergrad loan interest rates to the same low 0.75 percent interest rate that banks pay to the Federal Reserve for short-term loans. The bill was never brought up for a vote. Warren voted against the compromise plan that Obama signed into law in August, which allows interest rates on undergrad loans to fluctuate all the way up to 8.25 percent.

Justin Amash Might Be Staying in Washington for a While

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 11:12 AM EST

Michigan GOP Rep. Justin Amash, a Ron Paul acolyte and leading NSA critic whom I profiled for the magazine last fall, was supposed to be on the ropes. Amash was one of a handful of tea party congressmen to earn primary challenges from members of the party who believed they had gone too far in their obstructionism with little to show for it. In November, a group of former Amash donors publicly backed his challenger, Brian Ellis, arguing that the congressman "and others have effectively nullified the Republican majority in the U.S. House" by driving a wedge through the party.

But things are looking up for Amash, and by extension the political movement he refers to as "the Rebel Alliance." A new poll released this week from Basswood Research showed Amash with a 60–12 lead over Ellis. Most voters still hadn't heard of Ellis, but those who had overwhelmingly didn't like him. That might be a product of the $200,000 that the conservative Club for Growth, whose ads helped Amash win the seat in the first place, has already poured into television spots hammering Ellis.

Now, per the New York Times, Amash is about to get some more help: Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-backed political operation, is launching a $230,000 ad buy to bolster the incumbent's credentials as an opponent of the Affordable Care Act. It's still early—the primary isn't until August. But Amash and his allies have thus far sent a firm message to his Republican critics: their money might better be spent elsewhere.

For more on the tea party's success in Michigan, check out my colleague Andy Kroll's report on the DeVos family of Grand Rapids—"the new Kochs"—who are not coincidentally one of Amash's biggest benefactors.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 13, 2014

Thu Feb. 13, 2014 10:55 AM EST

Snow covers a Task Force Thunder, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), CH-47 Chinook Helicopter at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Feb. 6, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Joseph Green)

Dr. Drew and Nancy Grace: Why Do You Keep Booking This White Supremacist?

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 7:00 AM EST

During George Zimmerman's trial for the alleged murder of Trayvon Martin, the media relied mostly on one man for pro-Zimmerman commentary: his friend and fellow neighborhood watch volunteer, Frank Taaffe. It has since come to light that Taaffe is an ex-con and fervent white supremacist who believes that whites and blacks have no business mingling and claims that "the only time a black life is validated is when a white person kills them." He also hosts a white-power podcast. On one episode last fall he argued that all women who married black men would probably meet the same fate as Nicole Brown Simpson. ("I always say, you lie down with dogs you're going to get fleas—especially if they're black dogs.")

Nevertheless, the cable news networks have continued to give Taaffe airtime. Most recently, CNN's sister network, HLN, has been tapping him for commentary on the case of Michael Dunn, who, like Zimmerman, stands accused of murdering a black teenager in Florida. In the last few days, Taaffe has appeared on HLN at least six times, and he says on his Facebook page that he's slated to make nightly appearances on two HLN shows, Nancy Grace and Dr. Crew on Call, for the remainder of the week.

Taaffe's task is defending Dunn, who shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis outside of a Jacksonville gas station after arguing with the teen and his friends over loud music. Dunn claims he saw Davis holding what looked like a shotgun and that he fired at the boys in self-defense, but witnesses maintain that Davis was unarmed. On air, Taaffe has argued that the killing was justified, even if Davis wasn't pointing a firearm, because young black men are prone to violence. Here's a snippet from his exchange with an African American guest on Dr. Drew on Call last week:

You talk about the white man being the devil—well, here's a fact…According to the FBI, and the US Department of Justice, African Americans make up 12 percent of the population, yet they commit the most disproportionate amount of violent crimes. Over 60 percent of the murders were convicted by African Americans. And 32 percent were under the age of 18. So, when Michael Dunn pulled into that gas station, you know, you wonder why we have these premonitions…

The Obama Administration Wants 6 Million Americans to Get Back Their Right to Vote. Here's How.

| Thu Feb. 13, 2014 7:00 AM EST

On Tuesday morning, Attorney General Eric Holder made a plea to states to overturn laws barring people convicted of felonies from voting. "It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values. These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed," he said at a criminal-justice symposium in Washington, DC. "And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore—it is also too unjust to tolerate."

As the New York Times pointed out, Holder's comments were largely symbolic, since he doesn't have the authority to personally enact changes. Regardless, Holder called attention to a huge, largely overlooked demographic. So what's the lay of the land when it comes to felony disenfranchisement laws? Here are some facts to help clarify the issue.

So how common are laws restricting felon voting? As we've reported before, nearly every state restricts the voting rights of people convicted of felonies. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions on voting; in these, felons can vote while still in prison. On the other hand, 11 states restrict voting even after a person has completed their prison sentence and finished probation or parole. Twenty states require completion of parole and probation before voting is allowed, and 14 states allow felons to vote after they leave prison. 

Among states that bar voting even after a person has completed their sentence, the laws still differ greatly. In Alabama, only certain felony offenses result in disenfranchisement. In Florida, Nebraska, and Virginia, felons are able to vote after waiting periods between two and five years. And in Nevada, almost all felony offenders are completely barred from the polls (first-time, nonviolent felony convictions are exempt).

Eight states also completely bar people with misdemeanor convictions from voting while incarcerated.

How did this practice start? In his speech, Holder rightly pointed out that laws barring felons from voting are a relic of post-Civil War America. "After Reconstruction, many southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations," he said. The Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice advocacy and research non-profit, confirms this, though notes that the revocation of voting rights dates back even further, to colonial America, when English colonists introduced the common law practice of "civil death," a set of criminal penalties that included the stripping of voting rights. Later, as slavery was outlawed after the Civil War, the qualification of needing to own property to vote was gradually repealed across all states, notes the Sentencing Project. This meant that felony disenfranchisement policies "served as an alternate means for wealthy elites to constrict the political power of the lower classes." 

How many people do these laws really affect? Nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to felony disenfranchisement laws. Moreover, the bulk of disenfranchised felons—75 percent—are no longer in prison. Approximately 2.6 million of those remain disenfranchised despite having completed all parts of their sentence (prison time, parole, probation) because they live in states that bar felons from the polls for life or require a post-sentence waiting period.

The number of felons without voting rights has ballooned significantly along with the growing prison population. The United States has the world's highest rate of incarceration: Department of Justice statistics show that the number of people under correctional supervision has increased from fewer than 2 million in 1980 to more than 7 million by 2011. As a result, the number of disenfranchised felons has grown from 1.17 million in 1976 to 5.85 million by 2010, and at a rate of 500 percent since 1980. 

Who gets the brunt of these laws? Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects people of color. Black men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. According to the Urban Institute, 11.4 percent of African American men aged 20 to 34 were in prison in 2008, compared with just 1.8 percent of white men. One out of every 13 black Americans of voting age can't vote due to criminal disenfranchisement laws, a number much higher than for any other demographic. This ratio is more stark in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, where more than 1 in 5 black adults is barred from the polls. Overall, 2.2 million black Americans have lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws. 

"The impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable," Holder said on Tuesday. "These individuals and many others—of all races, backgrounds, and walks of life—are routinely denied the chance to participate in the most fundamental and important act of self-governance."

Wednesday Was Full of Good News for Obamacare. Here Are the Charts That Prove It.

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 6:55 PM EST

More Americans enrolled in Obamacare plans in January than expected, according to data released Wednesday by the Obama administration. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had expected to sign up 1,059,900 people last month. Instead, about 1.14 million people purchased health plans through the federal and state health insurance exchanges.

This is the first time since the uninsured started buying insurance on the exchanges in October that the administration has beaten a monthly enrollment goal. Here's what that looks like, via Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post:

The January sign-up number is down from the 1.8 million people who enrolled in December, but that was expected, because many Americans wanted to sign up before the start of the new year. Since enrollment began, a total of 3.3 million Americans have signed up for health insurance through the exchanges.

There was also a slight uptick in the number of young adults signing up for coverage in January. A quarter of the Americans who have enrolled so far are young people, who tend to be healthier, and who the Obama administration needs to hold down insurance costs. That's below the 40 percent target, but the trend is moving in the right direction.

The percentage of Americans who are uninsured hit a five-year low this month, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday. Sixteen percent of adults do not have health insurance, the lowest uninsured rate since 2009.

Take a look (via Gallup):