Political MoJo

The Obama Administration Wants to End Racial Profiling "Once and for All"

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 9:35 AM EST

Speaking at the same Baptist church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced he would soon unveil a plan to end racial profiling "once and for all."

His speech comes just one week after a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The decision sparked massive demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb and throughout the nation, with protestors demanding justice for Brown. Wilson has since resigned from the force.

Holder said the events that followed Brown's death "are truly national in scope and threaten the entire nation."

"In the coming days, I will announce updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement," he said before a packed Ebenezer Baptist Church. "This will institute rigorous new standards—and robust safeguards—to help end racial profiling, once and for all. This new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing."

Protesters chanting “no justice, no peace” briefly interrupted Holder's announcement. They were escorted out and Holder commended their "genuine expression of concern and involvement."

Also on Monday, President Barack Obama introduced a proposal to equip police officers with body cameras.

 

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Court Blocks Texas From Executing Mentally Ill Convict—for Now

| Mon Dec. 1, 2014 7:09 PM EST
 
Scott Panetti in an old mug shot

Update 12/3/2014: Less than eight hours before Scott Panetti was scheduled to die, a federal appeals court ordered a stay of execution in order to “fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue." Panetti's lawyers responded in a statment: "Mr. Panetti's illness, schizophrenia, was present for years prior to the crime, profoundly affected his trial, and appears to have worsened in recent years. Mr. Panetti has not had a competency evaluation in seven years, and we believe that today's ruling is the first step in a process which will clearly demonstrate that Mr. Panetti is too severely mentally ill to be executed."

Today the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 7-0 against recommending clemency for Scott Panetti, a severely mentally ill death row inmate who is now infamous for having represented himself at trial wearing a purple cowboy suit.

Panetti, first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978, was convicted of capital murder after he shaved his head, donned camo fatigues, and shot his in-laws in 1992 in a psychotic rage. But today, not even his victims think he should be executed. His ex-wife has said publicly that she believes he is deeply sick and should be spared. In the past month, a host of prominent conservatives and evangelicals have joined with death penalty opponents, mental-health groups, the European Union, the nation of Bulgaria, a former Texas governor, libertarian cult figure Ron Paul, and myriad others who have called on the board and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to spare Panetti. But even that wasn't enough to sway the governor-appointed board.

Scott Panetti
A more recent shot of Panetti
Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The decision means that Panetti's last real hope of avoiding execution on Wednesday lies with the US Supreme Court. Texas law doesn't give the governor independent authority to commute a sentence unless the pardons board recommends such a move—although Perry could order a one-time 30-day delay. Every Texas court that has heard Panetti's appeals in recent weeks has ruled against him, despite powerful dissents from conservative Republican judges.

With the execution less than 48 hours away, Panetti's lawyers have filed two petitions with the high court asking the justices to halt the execution and review the case to determine whether executing the mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment. They also argue that Panetti hasn't had a mental competency hearing in seven years, and that his mental state has deteriorated significantly during that time. (He now apparently believes there's a listening device implanted in his tooth, for instance.)

 

This is a similar issue to the one that won Panetti a reprieve in 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that he hadn't been afforded due process in assessing his competency to be executed. (A previous Supreme Court ruling bans use of the death penalty on people who can't understand the nature of their punishment.) The 2007 decision gave Panetti the right to a hearing on his mental competency, but it didn't do him much good. Even though Panetti still believed he was going to be executed for preaching the Gospel, and despite the fact that all but one of the doctors who testified in the hearing believed he was seriously mentally ill, the lower courts green-lighted his execution anyway. The Supreme Court denied his last appeal of those decisions this past October, clearing the way for his December 3 execution.

The Supreme Court hasn't been especially sympathetic lately to arguments about mental illness and the death penalty. Last year, it refused to block the execution of another seriously mentally ill inmate in Florida, John Ferguson, who went to his death believing he was the prince of God. But Panetti's pro bono lawyers, Kathryn Kase and Greg Wiercioch, argue that public opinion on the issue is changing, and that the law needs to change with it. They cite a new poll showing that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose executing someone with a serious mental illness. They also reference new research showing that juries and judges today are far less likely to choose death for a mentally ill defendant than they were 20 or 30 years ago. In 11 former and current death penalty states that allow for a "guilty but mentally ill" verdict, there hasn't been a death sentence imposed on a mentally ill person in at least 20 years.

The Supreme Court petitions also seem clearly targeted at Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was the swing vote in Panetti's favor in 2007, and who is somewhat fond of citing international law in his opinions. Panetti's lawyers emphasize that executing the mentally ill is considered a major human rights violation by most other civilized countries. We'll soon know whether these arguments are proving persuasive, as Texas is moving full steam ahead for Panetti's lethal injection. The high court will have to act quickly one way or another.

The following infographic was created by the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit group that seeks to fix the flaws in the death penalty process and ensure fair representation for capital defendants:

TexasDefender.org


 

 

President Obama Wants More Cops To Wear Body Cams

| Mon Dec. 1, 2014 2:24 PM EST

The White House wants Congress to spend $75 million on body cameras for law enforcement. The funding, which could pay for as many as 50,000 devices, comes as part of a larger proposal to provide $263 million in new funding to train and equip local police departments.

Calls for more body cams have increased in the wake of Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson. As we reported in August:

"I think body cameras are definitely a net good," says David Harris, a law professor and police behavior expert at the University of Pittsburgh. "They are one of the most prominent technologies to come along in a long time in terms of accountability, evidence gathering, [and] in terms of, frankly, changing behavior on either side of the camera. Nothing is a silver bullet, but this has the potential to be a substantial advance."

Harris, who consults for law enforcement agencies on the side, points to a study by police in Rialto, California. After introducing body-worn video cameras in February 2012, that department reported an 88 percent reduction over the previous year in complaints against officers—and the use of force by its officers fell by nearly 60 percent. A separate British study of one small police department looked at data collected in 2005 and 2006 and found a 14 percent drop in citizen complaints in the six months after cameras were introduced compared to same six-month period of the previous year.

Obama's proposal could pay for as many as 50,000 body cams but, as the Verge points out, there are 750,000 police officers in the US—and even if each of them had a body cam on it still probably wouldn't be a panacea for police abuse. A bad cop with a body cam is still a bad cop.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Undergoes Heart Surgery

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 11:14 AM EST

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is "resting comfortably" after undergoing a coronary catheterization procedure, a press release from the nation's highest court announced Wednesday morning.

Ginsburg, who at 81 is the Supreme Court's oldest member, is expected to be discharged in the next 48 hours. From the release:

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent a coronary catheterization procedure this morning at MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center to place a stent in her right coronary artery. The coronary blockage was discovered after Justice Ginsburg experienced discomfort during routine exercise last night and was taken to the hospital. She is resting comfortably and is expected to be discharged in the next 48 hours.

Ginsburg has pushed back against suggestions she step down while President Barack Obama is still in office. In an interview with Elle last September, she defended her resistance to such calls. "Anybody who thinks that if I step down, Obama could appoint someone like me, they’re misguided. As long as I can do the job full steam…. I think I’ll recognize when the time comes that I can’t any longer. But now I can."

Media Goes Wild Over Hagel Firing But Not Obama's Secret Afghanistan Reversal

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:03 AM EST
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.

There's little the Washington-centric political-media universe loves more than the story of a fallen star. The defenestration of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has reporters and pundits in a schadenfreude-driven tizzy. Was he fired? Was he in over his head? OMG, look at how the White House is dumping on him, as he departs! Who's passing nasty notes in class about him?

The presumably forced resignation of Hagel is indeed big news. The Obama administration is confronting a host of new national security challenges: ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola. So the guy (or gal) in charge of the Pentagon has to be nimble and able to handle this expanding and shifting to-do list. And Hagel, ever since his underwhelming performance at his confirmation hearing, has not been (at least in public) a confidence-inspiring Cabinet member. So perhaps President Barack Obama can do better—though the elbowing Hagel is receiving on the way out seems poor manners.

Yet here's a useful exercise. Compare the red-hot media reaction to Hagel's bye-bye to the response to the New York Times' eye-popping report that Obama signed a secret order to expand the US military mission in Afghanistan next year. The story about one man—yes, one of the cool kids in DC—is at least an order of magnitude higher on the MediaReax-ometer. Any tidbit from an anonymous source about de-Hagelization gets immediate attention from tweeting journos. But the story about this significant policy shift has prompted mostly a yawn.

In case you missed it—the story was posted online on Friday but appeared in Saturday's dead-trees edition—the Times revealed that Obama, who last May said the United States would have no combat missions in Afghanistan in 2015 (and only train Afghan forces and hunt Al Qaeda "remnants"), had secretly authorized American forces

to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

Chuck Hagel Resigning as Secretary of Defense

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 10:36 AM EST

President Barack Obama is expected to announce the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday. The New York Times reports that the president's decision to ask Hagel to step down follows a series of meetings, which concluded that a change in leadership was needed in order to deal with international threats including the Islamic State.

Candidates for Hagel's replacement reportedly include former Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) Hagel, the only Republican in the president's national security team, is expected to remain until a successor is named.

Less than two years on the job, this is the first major resignation from Obama's cabinet following the Democrats' disappointing midterm elections. From an administration official:

Over the past two years, Secretary Hagel helped manage an intense period of transition for the United States Armed Forces, including the drawdown in Afghanistan, the need to prepare our forces for future missions, and tough fiscal choices to keep our military strong and ready. Over nearly two years, Secretary Hagel has been a steady hand, guiding our military through this transition, and helping us respond to challenges from ISIL to Ebola. In October, Secretary Hagel began speaking with the President about departing the Administration given the natural post-midterms transition time.

Earlier this month, Hagel announced the country's nuclear weapons program would be undergoing a massive overhaul after the Pentagon released a review citing antiquated equipment and poor leadership plaguing the nuclear forces. 

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The Ohlone People Were Forced Out of San Francisco. Now They Want Part of Their Land Back.

| Sat Nov. 22, 2014 6:00 AM EST

"There are only three ways to get land," said Tony Cerda, chairman of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe, in 2010. "You can buy it, have it given to you, or steal it." It's clear which one of those applies to his people, the Ohlone, who lived in the central California coastal region for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. The Ohlone once numbered as many as 15,000 on lands stretching from the San Francisco Bay to Big Sur. But following years of enslavement under the Spanish mission system and, later, persecution by settlers, they are now largely a people in exile.

Cerda's tribe—about 2,000 people living in the Pomona area east of Los Angeles—are now the largest contemporary Ohlone group in the state. They're leading the push for cultural recognition in the city of San Francisco. Specifically, they're asking the city for land to build a cultural center as part of a proposed shoreline redevelopment project in the Hunters Point Shipyard area. The area was once the location of a historic Ohlone village and burial site—one of over 425 in the San Francisco Bay region.

Ohlone leaders say a cultural center would highlight the oft-overlooked history of California's native people while serving as a permanent place for today's tribes to continue their song, dance, language, and art traditions. And they're also hoping to rebuild their cultural presence through community events like the annual Big Time Gathering, which took place in October in San Francisco's Presidio National Park. This year's gathering was the biggest yet, drawing more than 100 Native Californians from seven different tribes. Their goal is to honor their roots, says Neil Maclean, one of the event's organizers: "Through hearing them sing, seeing them dance, and joining with them in ceremony, the Ohlone will tell their side about what it is like to survive."

Native Children Have the Same Rate of PTSD as Combat Veterans

| Fri Nov. 21, 2014 3:22 PM EST

Here's the most sobering statistic you'll see today: American-Indian and Alaskan Native children experience PTSD at the same rate at veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a new report from a Department of Justice advisory committee, 22 percent of American-Indian and Alaskan Native juveniles have PTSD—three times higher than the national rate. Among other proposals, the committee recommends Congress grant tribes the ability to prosecute non-Indians who abuse children. Under the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Congress empowered tribes to prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence, but left other crimes, like sexual abuse, untouched.

You can read the full report here:

 

President Obama Acted Unilaterally on Immigration and the Right Is Predictably Outraged

| Fri Nov. 21, 2014 12:25 PM EST

President Barack Obama, who has issued fewer executive orders than any president since Grover Cleveland, issued a set of directives this week to protect 5 million undocumented residents from deportation. The new executive actions will allow undocumented parents of US citizens to stay in the country, and allow children who were brought to the United States by their parents to apply for employment visas. It also, according to various Republican critics, cements Obama's status as a dictator, a king, an emperor, and maybe even a maniac bent on ethnic cleansing:

Obama is a king. "The president acts like he's a king," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said. "He ignores the Constitution. He arrogantly says, 'If Congress will not act, then I must.' These are not the words of a great leader. These are the words that sound more like the exclamations of an autocrat."

This will lead to anarchy. "The country's going to go nuts, because they're going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president, and it's going to be a very serious situation," retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told USA Today. "You're going to see—hopefully not—but you could see instances of anarchy. ... You could see violence."

He could go to jail. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told Slate that the president might be committing a felony: "At some point, you have to evaluate whether the president's conduct aids or abets, encourages, or entices foreigners to unlawfully cross into the United States of America. That has a five-year in-jail penalty associated with it."

Is ethnic cleansing next? When asked by a talk-radio called on Thursday if the new executive actions would lead to "ethnic cleansing," Kansas Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach said it just might:

What protects us in America from any kind of ethnic cleansing is the rule of law, of course. And the rule of law used to be unassailable, used to be taken for granted in America. And now, of course, we have a President who disregards the law when it suits his interests. And, so, you know, while I normally would answer that by saying, 'Steve, of course we have the rule of law, that could never happen in America,' I wonder what could happen. I still don't think it’s going to happen in America, but I have to admit, that things are, things are strange and they're happening.

Kobach is hardly a fringe figure. He was the architect of the self-deportation strategy at the core some of the nation's harshest immigration laws.

Watch Obama Announce His Immigration Executive Action Right Here

Thu Nov. 20, 2014 7:46 PM EST

While you're waiting for the speech to start, read about the three expected takeaways from President Obama's executive action on immigration, or about how some prominent conservatives are already calling for his impeachment.