Thursday, June 28, 2012

And Justice for Always

American Jurisprudence is on full display this week.  The end of the Supreme Court’s session results in the more controversial case decisions being announced, parsed and debated. While each case has its specific merits for discussion, I’m pondering how the idea of three “separate but equal” branches of government has become one over the others.

The conceptual idea is that the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches operate in a way that checks and balances against the others so that one branch doesn’t hold disproportionate sway over the other.  It’s a nice idea and I remember learning about it in middle school and being oh so proud to be part of such a smart set up.
The reality, however, is far from the ideal taught to schoolchildren.  The nine Supreme Court justices hold a disproportionate amount of power to the other branches.  And in a largely split Court, major policy decisions come down to one justice.  The Citizen’s United case in 2010 is a good recent example.  In a 5–4 decision, the Court held the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.
The impact of the decision has been far reaching, most evident in the current billion-dollar battle for the Presidency.  Without getting into the merits or even the political impact of the case – rather let’s look at process:
·       The legislative branch established a law (The “McCain-Feingold Act”)
·       The law was signed by President Bush in November 2002 and took effect January 2003.
·       Citizens United challenged the law (after many others had been fined) and it was eventually overthrown by the U.S. Supreme Court.  It established a new legal precedent and overthrew in 234 years of case history.
So the system worked.  The proper path was followed to determine if the law should stand.  Two-thirds of the branches of Government approved of it.  One third didn’t, and their opinion trumps the others.  Not so equal, and then there’s the ripple effect.

Montana has had a law on its books since 1912 that was overthrown this week by the Court based on its own Citizens United ruling.  So if the Judiciary has the final word – then the three branches aren’t actually all that equal…the folks in the robes trump the President and Congress…which may be the only way to have a democracy work where there is passionate disagreement about issues.

Tradition holds that the justices evaluate the merits of the legal arguments based on rulings that have accrued over the years.  Then they can choose to apply those rulings to the case at hand or not.  Majority rules.  In the case of Brown vs. Brown vs. Board of Education - the justices threw out a precedent from 1896 allowing segregation.  In 2003 the justices threw out sodomy laws in Texas and thirteen states in Lawrence vs. Texas.  There are many decisions that break from the past.
So do I only support bold precedent-shattering decisions in instances where I align with the decision?  The lofty idealist in me says no – the reality is yes.  The lesson then isn’t about whether I like or support a particular judicial opinion, it’s that the Judicial Branch is top dog.  With this week’s rulings on Immigration and Health Care – we might actually see the other branches of government try to tackle those issues again, after the rulings.  But at the end of the day Justice has the final word.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bleeding Turnip

Getting Blood from a turnip is a compliment I receive for my negotiating skills.  In my personal life it’s become much more accurate as well as I navigate through my own financial issues.  This week I had some challenging choices to make as to obligations that I have versus things that I get tremendous value out of versus investments that would yield long term benefits.  There's not enough money for all three.  My situation is not dire, I have the privilege of choice even though it often doesn’t feel that way.  I have friends who have had a much more difficult time, having to choose between rent, medicine or food.  Those decisions dictate survival and are severe.
“Dramatic,” “Draconian,” “Austere” are some of the vocabulary words the media and politicians are using to describe the $1.5 trillion in cuts that will automatically kick in this December unless certain thresholds in deficit reduction are met.  This was the compromise agreed to last summer during the Debt Ceiling debacle.  
At first glance $1.5 trillion is a huge number – it’s about the annual deficit.  The US Budget brings in revenue of approx. $2.3 trillion and has expenditures of approx. $3.6 trillion – or a $1.3 trillion shortfall.  A cursory analysis indicates that the required $1.5 trillion in cuts would then balance the budget.  Alas, no such luck.  The $1.5 trillion in cuts is to be implemented over the next 10 years – or $150 billion a year.  Now that’s still a lot of dough.  It works out to about 4% of expenses. 
Personal income in the U.S. is largely dependent on schooling and geography.  The median individual income is $32,140 a year.  4% of that is $1,285.  Spread over a year it’s $107 per month.  For the average individual, cutting $107 per month is probably doable.  It’s certainly not austerity, dramatic or draconian.  Let’s keep that in mind as the rhetoric heats up – knowing that the $1.5 trillion in cuts isn’t evenly spread over 10 years as in the example – it’s weighted towards the later years, so it’s more like 2% being cut in the near future – or using the average individual they’d have to find $50 per month in savings. 
It is simply not sustainable to spend more than is brought in.  My own situation proves it – after having been a part of the upper wage earners for a number of years, my story became like millions of others through lay off and depleted resources resulting in bankruptcy.  (See previous blogs for that journey.)  One of the consequences of that is that I can’t spend more than I bring in – there is no credit available to me.  It’s not austerity, it’s prudence.
The U.S. (and indeed the global) economy would benefit from such prudence.  It’s na├»ve (being kind) to think that there will be a balanced budget in the near future.  It’s also not Armageddon if 4% of the expenditures are cut to begin to align income and expenses.  What’s particularly frustrating about this issue is that it shouldn’t be partisan.  As citizens we should demand that our Government responsibly manage our resources.  Each political party can (and should) argue about how to raise money and what that should be spent on – but whether we spend more than we bring in should no longer be a point of disagreement or negotiation.  Getting the media and politicians to align on that would be opening a vein in that turnip.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Leaking Freedom

It’s Flag Day.  It’s a commemoration, not a holiday (unless you live in Pennsylvania.)  The Second Continental Congress resolved on June 14, 1777 to adopt the flag as a symbol for the emerging union and in 1917 Flag Day was created.  Flags are symbols of patriotism and symbolic of the ethos of the country they represent.  The United States of America represents freedom and justice and the stars and stripes are a potent reflection of those aspirations.  Today what’s being waved is not the symbol of freedom, but instead a construction flag.  Detour ahead.

To kill or not to kill wasn’t the question last week…why the people of the world were giving Barack Obama a pass on his kill list was.  Turns out that wasn’t the issue that riled the politicians, talking heads and blogosphere.  David Sanger, the New York Times reporter who has broken a number of stories on National Security – including the Kill List story and the U.S. Cyber War against Iran spoke on Reliable Sources about Senator Feinstein calling for a hearing on how he got his information.  Somehow the reporter and his sources have become the issue.

Rather than focusing on the substance of the issue – that the President of the United States is personally choosing which of his fellow Americans and others should be exterminated without any attempt to use the Rule of Law – the Administration has successfully framed the issue as one of finding who leaked classified materials.  The bulk of the media and pundits have fallen in line with the narrative.  Politicians are suggesting that the reporter be prosecuted.  The Justice Department has launched a dual investigation.  "The unauthorized disclosure of classified information can compromise the security of this country and all Americans, and it will not be tolerated," Attorney General Holder said.
The last major instance where the hyperventilated claim that the release of classified information would compromise security was the Wikileaks release of materials in 2010.  Private Bradley Manning was arrested and held for nearly 18 months before being charged.  He was put in solitary confinement and left naked for days on end.  When his sanity was becoming an issue due to being held under non-Geneva Convention conditions, he was finally moved and ultimately charged though his trial was further delayed last week so he won’t face his accusers now until early 2013, nearly 3 years after being imprisioned.  (This from the same military that expunged a Marine for a Facebook post in a matter of weeks.)

Over 18 months have now passed since Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks) was placed under House Arrest in England on Sweedish sexual assault charges.  On May 30 he lost his appeal and will be extradited.  At the same time the world’s financial and technological institutions coalesced together in an attempt to shut the organization down.  No major bank (let alone credit card) will process donations to the group, and Amazon which hosted large portions of the data cancelled their contract.  It’s impressive (and eerie) that these major industries have bowed to Administration pressures rather than capitalizing on economic opportunity.  What are the protecting?
According to Amnesty International Wikileaks release of information was “a catalyst in a series of uprisings against repressive regimes.”  So the “Arab Spring” uprisings were launched thanks to the open airing of information - the complete antithesis of the Justice Department claims.  It’s a head scratcher (being polite) how the Obama Administration can on the one hand take credit for bringing Democracy to the Middle East while punishing and criminalizing those who actually prompted the revolution.

Planting the flag on the battlefield helped overturn tyranny 236 years ago. Today we need to focus on making sure that its symbolism aligns with its actions. My flag is one for peace.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

To kill or Not to kill

I’m a lists person.  I like having all of the things I need to do in one central location, preferably organized by priority and function.  Over time my lists have evolved from bits of paper to post-it notes to legal pages to digital manifestations in various calendars and reminder systems.  My thoughtful remembrance of a particular event for somebody has more to do with my electronic support system than a steel trap memory.  I’m not alone in my lists – I have a friend who makes a list of the lists he has to make!  President’s have their lists too…Nixon had his Enemies List.  Carter personally scheduled White Hosue tennis tee times.  And now Obama has his kill list.

The President of the United States of America personally oversees the kill list – taking nominations from advisors to add to it.  Then he decides which one on the list will actually be eliminated.  “He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for fifteen months has authorized killings of people he calls "terrorists."  Since the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising last year Syria has been one of the few countries whose leader hasn’t fallen.  The significant criticism against Assad and his regime is that they massacre and kill people without the benefit of due process.
"All options with regard to Syria are being discussed," U.S. press secretary Jay Carney said this week.  It seems rather ironic (being generous and diplomatic) that President Obama is threatening Assad for doing the same thing he does – though on a grander scale (for now).  Both authorize the killing of others without any due process or explanation.  One is considered a despot, the other the leader of the free world.

George W. Bush was rightly criticized for his ‘cowboy’ foreign policy attitude.  The rhetoric of “bring ‘em back dead or alive” seems almost quaint compared to his successor.  Barak Obama has taken Bush’s policies to their next iteration.  I fear for what’s next – under Obama II or Romney.  For those who shun this ‘slippery slope’ argument, we only need to look back to the assassination of Osama bin Laden (5/1/2011) to see how far we’ve slide and how quickly.  At the time the world was assured this was an extraordinary circumstance.  A year later there’s a kill list that's actively used.

What legal authority – let alone what moral authority – has given one person the right to unilaterally order the execution of another, including his own citizens?  There is none.  “We’re at war” is the knee-jerk response...except that Congress has not authorized a war (as it required under the Constitution) since 1942.  And, frankly, even if War had been declared no law gives the Commander in Chief unilateral authority to personally choose who gets killed.  This week the world took a moment and rightfully honor and celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth of England.  It’s been centuries since a monarch ordered anybody’s head off.

To kill or not to kill isn’t actually the question.  The question is why the citizens of America, let alone of the world, have given Barak Obama a pass on this issue.  Where is the outrage that the Presidency has become akin to the Boss in the Mafia?  I can only imagine the hue and cry if George W. Bush was secretly choosing who gets to live and who gets to die in a non-declared war.  Or do we as a people, as a species, just not care?  Many issues will be vetted through this eternal election season.  It’s up to us to make sure this is one of them.