Mojo - April 2014

Ted Cruz: Conservative Darling. Grandstanding Senator. Campaign-Finance Reform Ally?

| Thu May 1, 2014 9:51 AM EDT

For the first time since the McCutcheon v. FEC decision, the Supreme Court's latest ruling further rolling back restrictions on the flow of money in American politics, members of the Senate on Wednesday tackled the onslaught of "dark money" washing through 2014 races and the future consequences of McCutcheon. (Short answer: More wealthy Americans pumping more money into political races in 2014 and beyond.)

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens headlined Wednesday's hearing, organized by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). Stevens took a decidedly progressive tack in his remarks, declaring that "money is not speech" and calling on Congress to write campaign-finance rules that "create a level playing field" for all political candidates. But perhaps the more revealing set of comments came from an unlikely source: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the self-styled populist always trying, as he reminds us, to "make DC listen" to the little guy. 

In short, Cruz, who's as conservative as they come, may have more in common with the campaign-finance reform crowd than he realizes.

He raised eyebrows, for instance, as he described his vision for America's campaign finance system. "A far better system," he said, "would be to allow individual unlimited contributions to candidates and require immediate disclosure." The unlimited contributions part of that statement is standard conservative fare: If billionaires like Tom Steyer or Sheldon Adelson or Michael Bloomberg want to underwrite their preferred candidates with bottomless dollars, go ahead and let them. But the latter half—"require immediate disclosure"—is significant. It's a break from GOP leaders including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus who've soured on the idea of disclosure. Angus King later said he was so struck by Cruz's comments that he'd scribbled them down. Might Senate Democrats have an unlikely ally in Cruz if and when the DISCLOSE Act gets another vote?

At the hearing, Cruz went on to assail his fellow members of Congress for caring more about hanging onto their seats than pursuing real legislative solutions. "Our democratic process is broken and corrupt right now because politicians in both parties hold onto incumbency," he said. "We need to empower the individual citizens." Funny thing is, that's what Democrats who support the Government By The People Act and other fair elections programs want as well. Fair elections backers say candidates spend too much time raising money from wealthy individuals, which not only shrinks the field of people who can run for office but arguably makes those candidates who do run more receptive to well-heeled funders. Give candidates a reason to court lots of small donors—say, offering to match donations of $150 or less with six times that in public money—and you expose them to a diverse array of people. Meanwhile, your Average Joe, without his Rolodex full of well-to-do friends, can now mount a competitive bid for office. If Cruz wants to "empower the individual citizens," fair elections is one way to do it.

Not that Cruz hung around long enough on Wednesday to hear these kinds of ideas. He high-tailed it out of the hearing after delivering his remarks. Maybe he had a fundraiser to get to.

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Bill Nye: "You Can Hate Me, You Can Hate Everything, But Science Education Is What Leads to Innovators"

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 5:12 PM EDT

On Tuesday, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) appeared on NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers to tell the story of how he and Neil deGrasse Tyson ended up taking that "Presidential Selfie" with President Obama. During his appearance he also discussed his friendship with Tyson—how they get together and drink wine and talk about women and space exploration—and his recent debate with creationist Ken Ham, and the need for much more science literacy in America:

We want to raise awareness of science literacy, specifically, in this case, science illiteracy—striking science illiteracy. And the reason I bring this up, you can hate me, you can hate everything, but science education is what leads to innovators. It leads to that kooky internet that the kids use, their electric computer machines...The Facebooking, and the tweeting, and the Instagramming—all that would not exist without our understanding of science...And then we would not be able to feed this many people around the world without understanding science. So this is deeply important to me, and I hope that in the coming years awareness will be raised, and voters and taxpayers will not let these people with these...wrong views about nature...try to get on school boards.

Watch:

"I fight this fight out of patriotism," Nye told me last year, regarding his war on anti-science politics. "We can't have economic growth without basic investment in science and research. And we can't have irresponsible school board members in Texas teaching that the earth is 10,000 years old. We can't have us embracing scientific illiteracy."

"He's been instrumental in helping advance some of the president's key initiatives to make sure we can out-educate, out-innovate, and out-compete the world," an Obama administration official said. "The president lights up when he sees Bill," another official mentioned.

Now here's that "Presidential Selfie":

Bill Nye Neil deGrasse Tyson Barack Obama selfie
thescienceguy/Instagram

(H/t Mediaite)

After Offensive Comments, Paul Ryan Will Let Black Lawmakers School Him on Poverty

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 4:23 PM EDT

On Wednesday afternoon, anti-safety-net crusader Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in an attempt to make amends after he said on a radio show last month that urban poverty is caused by the lack of a work ethic in inner cities. At the meeting, Ryan admitted he didn't "know everything about poverty," and agreed to sit down with CBC members in the coming months to discuss specific solutions proposed by black lawmakers to address the needs of historically disadvantaged communities.

"The sky didn't open up," says CBC member Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), who was at the meeting. "But there were some productive things that happened."

In a conversation with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett on March 12, Ryan said, "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."

At the time, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the CBC, called Ryan's remarks "a thinly veiled racial attack." Ryan denied the comments had anything to do with race. He said he was merely criticizing the fact that inner city men are "isolated" from economic opportunity. This isn't the first time Ryan has used racial rhetoric when talking about poverty. In a 2005 speech, he associated the "victimization class" with minorities, and in 2012, he said inner-city poverty and crime was a cultural problem.

At the Wednesday gathering, CBC members pounced on that walk-back by pointing out that if Ryan wants to prevent the isolation of inner-city men, his most recent federal budget proposal certainly doesn't reflect that; it drastically cuts social programs designed to support them. CBC members introduced Ryan to the caucus' alternative federal budget plan, which would require that 10 percent of all federal agencies' funds be directed to areas that have had a poverty rate of at least 20 percent for the last 30 years. CBC lawmakers say the plan would do much to improve socio-economic conditions in inner cities and other areas that struggle with persistent poverty.

"[Ryan] said he doesn't know everything about poverty and how to alleviate it," Moore says, and so he agreed to sit down with the CBC's budget writers to discuss the lawmakers' plan in more detail. (The CBC and Ryan have not yet pinned down a date for the upcoming meeting.)

Moore says that despite Ryan's offensive remarks a few weeks ago, the face-to-face meeting went over pretty well. "We were very cordial," she says.

Lethal Injection Is a Terrible Way To Kill People

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 11:07 AM EDT

"[T]onight, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death."—Madeline Cohen, assistant federal public defender.

Last night, Oklahoma became the latest state to botch an execution while using a new lethal injection protocol. Five minutes after injecting convicted murderer Lockett with 100 milligrams of the sedative midazolam, executioners administered two other drugs designed to paralyze him and then stop his heart. But instead of dying, Lockett started writhing and kicking and lifting his head and shoulders up off the gurney. The execution was eventually halted, but Lockett died a while later from a heart attack. State officials said that the cause of the problems was a "blown" vein line that prevented the drugs from entering the bloodstream.

Thanks to the disastrous course of events, Governor Mary Fallin (R), who recently promised to defy the state's highest court and execute Lockett despite a legal stay in the case, postponed the killing of Charles Warner, who was slated to be executed last night after Lockett. Lockett and Warner had prompted a state constitutional crisis when they filed suit over the state's secrecy statute that had denied them complete information about the source and purity of the new drugs they would be executed with.

A lower state court had found the statute unconstitutional, and after a convoluted back and forth between the higher courts, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay of the executions so the issues could be fully litigated. But Fallin threatened to execute the men anyway and accused the court of overstepping its authority; meanwhile, the state legislature began impeachment proceedings against the justices. A few days later, the court caved and allowed the executions to move forward, resulting in what witnesses called the "torture" and death of Clayton Lockett.

Experts had been watching the proceedings closely because Oklahoma planned to use a combination of drugs that has only been used once before in an execution, in Florida this year. In 2011, international pharmaceutical companies either stopped making or refused to sell prisons the drugs that had long been used in lethal injections, creating a shortage in death-penalty states. These states have sought a variety of dubious ways to address the shortage, including illegally importing the old drugs or trying out new but slower-acting drugs, as they did on Lockett.

When it was first used in Florida, midzolam—one of the new drugs used on Lockett—was given at a dose five times higher than what Oklahoma said it would use. As it turned out, though, the bungled execution may have had little to do with the drug protocol and a lot to do with a pretty common problem in lethal injection. According to Austin Sarat, an Amherst college professor and author of the timely new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, lethal injection is more prone to these sorts of debacles than any other form of execution used in the US since the late 19th century. His data show as many as 7 percent of lethal injection executions go awry, and often for the same reasons why Lockett suffered so much: The veins of death row inmates can't handle the needles.

Many death row inmates were once IV drug users, and by the time they reach the death chamber, their veins are a mess. Others are obese from years of confinement, which also makes their veins hard to find. Compounding that problem is the fact that the people inserting the needles usually aren't medical professionals. They're prison guards (in Oklahoma they're paid $300 for the job), and they're usually in a big hurry to get it done quickly—an factor that doesn't mesh well with the slower-acting drugs states are now resorting to.

After Florida finally retired "Old Sparky," its electric chair that had a tendency to light people on fire while killing them, it turned to lethal injection in 2000. In 2006, the state botched the execution of Angel Diaz, who took 34 minutes—three times longer than the previous two executions—to die. While on the gurney, he writhed, winced, and shuddered, and witnesses reported that he seemed to be in a great deal of pain. When a heart monitor showed he wasn't dying fast enough, he was given a second dose of one of the drugs. But as it turned out, the needle had gone through the vein and poked out the other side, delivering the drugs into soft tissue rather than the blood stream, a process that's known to cause an extremely slow and painful death. Then-Governor Jeb Bush put a halt to executions in the state for a while afterwards as a result.

In 2009, Ohio attempted to execute Romell Broom but struggled for more than two hours to find a suitable vein in which to administer the injection. He even attempted to help his executioners find an insertion spot. As the poking and prodding went on, Broom was visibly in pain. “At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving," the Columbus Dispatch reported. After two hours, the execution was halted so medical experts could figure out a better way to kill him. So far they haven't, and he remains on death row.

These sorts of incidents are one reason that defense attorneys have been arguing in court that for all its clinical veneer, lethal injection still constitutes unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Oklahoma just gave them some more ammunition for that fight, even without giving up the details of the drugs it used.

 

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 30, 2014

Wed Apr. 30, 2014 9:26 AM EDT

Lance Cpl. George Redhead, a native of San Jose, Calif., low crawls through the muddy water of the "pit-and-pond" section of the endurance course April 17 at the Jungle Warfare Training Center on Camp Gonsalves. The jungle is vastly different from the desert terrain many Marines have been training in for the past decade, according to Kao. The jungle does not allow for significant mechanized or motorized movements, which forces Marines to hone their dismounted warfighting abilities. Redhead is a rifleman with 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion currently assigned to Combat Assault Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, under the unit deployment program. Kao is a native of Vancouver, Wash., and is the camp commander for Camp Gonsalves, Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler, Marine Corps Installations Pacific. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Stephen D. Himes/Released)

Watch: The White House's New Sexual Assault PSA Starring Daniel Craig and Benicio Del Toro

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 3:55 PM EDT

On Tuesday, the White House posted their new, star-studded PSA on sexual assault and rape. The video (which features Benicio Del Toro, Steve Carell, Daniel Craig, Seth Meyers, Dulé Hill, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama) was released as part of the Obama administration's 1 is 2 Many campaign. The video's release coincides with Vice President Biden's big speech on the subject, and with the formal unveiling of the first report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. (The White House is pressuring colleges and universities to improve their handling of cases of rape and sexual assault.)

"If she doesn't consent, or if she can't consent, it's rape, it's assault," Del Toro says in the video. "If saw it happening, I'd never blame her—I'd help her," Craig says.

Watch the extended 60-second PSA here:

"I'm not used to making calls to big old movie stars," Biden said. "But I called them. And every one of them said immediately, 'What can I do?'"

The PSA is set to air in select Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark movie theaters, and in theaters on military installations starting in May. Here are statements from three of the participating actors, via the White House:

Benicio Del Toro:

This PSA is about reaching out to people and letting them know that there is an epidemic of sexual assaults. Those who commit sexual assaults will be condemned, whoever they are. The PSA also encourages any witness to such acts to speak up, do the right thing, and be a hero. It is about protecting and respecting our loved ones—our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and girlfriends.

Dulé Hill:

One sexual assault is one too many. My desire for this PSA is that it will heighten awareness and in turn be a catalyst for more prevention.

Daniel Craig:

I am honored to be part of such an important and crucial project. The message is clear and simple; everyone has a responsibility. There are no exceptions. There are no excuses. Please watch it and pass it on.

On a related note, here's Craig in drag in a two-minute video highlighting gender inequality, sexual assault, and violence against women. The video, which coincided with 2011 International Women's Day, is narrated by Judi Dench, his James Bond co-star:

This post has been updated.

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Department of Education: Title IX Prohibits Discrimination Against Transgender Students

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 2:33 PM EDT

On Tuesday, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued explicit guidance barring schools that receive federal Title IX funds from discriminating against transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

"Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation. Similarly, the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations," the guidance reads.

Human rights advocates are praising the new policy: "We hear from hundreds of students each year who simply want to be themselves and learn at school,” Masen Davis, Executive Director of Transgender Law Center, said in a statement. "Sadly, many schools continue to exclude transgender students from being able to fully participate. Now, every school in the nation should know they are required to give all students, including transgender students, a fair chance at success."

"This guidance is crystal clear and leaves no room for uncertainty on the part of schools regarding their legal obligation to protect transgender students from discrimination," said Ian Thompson, ACLU legislative representative, in a statement. The ACLU notes that the guidance builds upon the 2012 ruling from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protecting transgender employees from workplace discrimination.

The Title IX program is a Nixon-era law that bans schools that receive federal funding from engaging in sex discrimination. But the requirement hasn't always extended to transgender students. The Transgender Law Center is currently representing a transgender man who filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the University of Pittsburgh violated his rights under Title IX, among other laws.  While he was a student, the university allegedly banned him from using the men's restrooms and later expelled him after he continued using the men's facilities.

 

Donald Sterling's $2.5 Million Fine Isn't As Much As You Think It Is

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 2:31 PM EDT

Donald Sterling's penalty is in: a lifetime ban from the NBA and a $2.5 million fine, the maximum league sanction, for the racist audio recording released last week. The NBA will also work to force him to sell the Los Angeles Clippers, the team he's owned since 1981.

It's a harsh punishment, no doubt. But let's not kid ourselves about the $2.5 million. Sterling, after all, is reportedly worth $1.9 billion. According to a 2013 Credit Suisse report on global wealth, the median American is worth $44,911. In other words, a $2.5 million fine for Sterling is like a $59 fine for that middle-of-the-road American.

Also, a reminder: Donald Sterling bought the Clippers for $12.5 million. The team's value is now at least $575 million; some think it's worth more than $1 billion. We have a feeling he'll come out of this just fine.

Does This Secret Drug Cocktail Work To Execute People? Oklahoma Will Find Out Tonight.

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 10:11 AM EDT
The lethal injection room at California's San Quentin State Prison

Update: Oklahoma canceled the second execution after the first one went horribly awry. According to the New York Times, after he'd been declared unconscious, prisoner Clayton D. Locket twitched and gasped and said "man" and "something's wrong," before dying of a heart attack.

Tonight Oklahoma will continue the nation's ongoing experiment in executing people with untested drug combinations as it moves to kill death row inmates Clayton D. Lockett and Charles Warner using a new, secretly acquired drug cocktail.

Officials in Oklahoma and other states have resorted to these methods because they can no longer access sodium thiopental, the anesthetic traditionally used in lethal injections, and another drug used to paralyze the condemned. The lone US manufacturer quit producing sodium thiopental in 2011, and international suppliers—​​particulalry in the European Union, which opposes the death penalty on humanitarian grounds—​​have stopped exporting both drugs to the United States. This has left states like Oklahoma scrambling to find new pharmaceuticals for killing death row inmates. Some have been reduced to illegally importing the drugs, using untested combinations, or buying from unregulated compounding pharmacies, a number of which have a history of producing contaminated products.

Death row inmates and their lawyers have protested on the grounds that these untested protocols could produce a level of suffering that violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and they've sued for more information about the source and purity of the drugs. In response, several states have passed secrecy laws, allowing them to keep the names of their suppliers, and in some cases the contents of the lethal injection, under wraps. (Oklahoma is so eager to hide the source of its death drugs that it buys them with petty cash so there are no transaction records.) Death row inmates, in turn, have filed suits challenging the constitutionality of these secrecy statutes.

In February, Lockett and Warner prompted a high-profile showdown between Oklahoma officials when they sued the state, asserting that its execution protocol could inflict "severe pain" in violation of the Eighth Amendment. A lower state court found the drug secrecy law patently unconstitutional, and the state Supreme Court ultimately stayed the two men's executions until the issues were fully litigated. But Republican Gov. Mary Fallin insisted they be executed regardless of the court's ruling, prompting a political crisis. On April 23, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, whose justices are now being threatened by the Legislature with impeachment, caved and allowed the executions to move forward.

The public knows very little about the drugs that will be used to kill Lockett and Warner who stand convicted of murder. ​​Lockett shot a teenage girl, then buried her alive, while Warner raped and killed his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter in 1997. Initially, the state said it would deploy a three-drug cocktail, including the sedative pentobarbital (normally used to euthanize animals), vercuronium bromide (which paralyzes the inmate so onlookers can't tell if he's suffering), and potassium chloride (which stops the heart​). The first drug is supposed to knock out the inmate so he doesn't feel pain, but pentobarbital, which states substituted for sodium thiopental after it went off the market, works more slowly than the old drug, and it wasn't tested in advance to make sure it was an appropriate substitute. Also, lawyers argue that it doesn't prevent pain during an execution. For that reason, injecting it into a conscious animal in California is actually a crime

Due to a shortages of pentobarbital and vercuronium bromide, Oklahoma planned to buy the drugs from an unnamed compounding pharmacy. This was problematic because such pharmacies are unregulated, and contaminated pentobarbital can result in excruciatingly painful deaths. (Experts say it can feel as though the insides of a person's veins are being scraped with sandpaper.) South Dakota used a compounded pentobarbital contaminated with a fungus to execute Eric Robert in 2012. During the execution, he repeatedly opened his eyes—a sign that the drug wasn't working, some experts said. Oklahoma has had similar problems. In January, it executed another man, Michael Lee Wilson, using pentobarbital from an unidentified compounding pharmacy. During the execution he sputtered, "I feel my whole body burning," another sign that the drug wasn't doing its job.

In March, Oklahoma backed away from this approach and said it would instead use one of five possible drug combinations, including a two-drug cocktail of midazolam (a sedative) and hydromorphone (a pain killer). When states first proposed using those drugs in lethal injection mixes last year, defense lawyers and medical experts warned that inmates receiving them would essentially suffocate to death. Brushing aside these concerns, in January Ohio used the drugs to execute Dennis McGuire, who gasped and convulsed horribly for more than 10 minutes before taking a record 26 minutes to die. His family, who watched in horror, is now suing over what they allege was cruel and unusual punishment.  

Oklahoma has since shifted course again and announced that it would use a three-drug combo that includes midazolam and pancuronium bromide. According to Madeline Cohen, an assistant federal public defender representing Charles Warner, the state claims that both drugs are being purchased from manufacturers rather than compounding pharmacies but wouldn't provide any other information. The only known use of this drug combination for executions was in Florida in 2013, but Florida used five times the dose of midazolam that Oklahoma plans to use, meaning Lockett and Warner will essentially be human guinea pigs. "It is an experiment, and I don’t think anybody is absolutely certain what will happen in Oklahoma," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Dieter adds that we'll never know whether the drugs worked properly or caused needlessly painful deaths because the people who could tell us will be dead.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 29, 2014

Tue Apr. 29, 2014 9:20 AM EDT

Landing support Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 22, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit await a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter for a helicopter supply transfer during a U.S.-French bilateral exercise. The 22nd MEU is deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group as a theater reserve and crisis response force throughout the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alisa J. Helin/Released)