Monday, November 23, 2015

California's Dysfunctional Death Penalty Can't Be Fixed

California's death penalty scheme is a costly government program that doesn't work.  The approximately 750 men and women on death row are far more likely to die of natural causes than be executed.  Their legal claims, if considered at all, take roughly three decades to resolve, an excruciatingly long period of time that is due to the inherently dysfunctional nature of the process and not, as is commonly believed, from frivolous claims raised by zealous lawyers taking advantage of the process.

Paula Mitchell, a professor at Loyola Law School, recently published an article, Frivolity and the Death Penalty, demonstrating that the inordinate delay in death penalty cases is in large part caused by the adversarial nature of the system itself where "prosecutors . . .  typically do everything within their power to forestall or prevent discovery in post-conviction investigations, which is often what is needed during the appeals process to ensure that everyone has been playing by the rules."

Professor Mitchell's piece focuses on the Georgia case recently argued in the U.S. Supreme Court involving the prosecutor's use of juror challenges to strike all the African Americans from serving on the jury. As Mitchell explained, the case took close to thirty years to be heard because of the resistance of the prosecution to provide their files -- files which, when finally handed over twenty years after trial, appear to undermine the race-neutral reasons that were originally proffered for striking the jurors. 

The obstacles to obtaining critical information about the homicide, the police investigation and the trial from the prosecution (as well as from law enforcement) is certainly not unique to Georgia. Take Kenneth Clair, an African American languishing on death row for an Orange County murder that took place in 1984, where the lone eyewitness claimed the killer was white.  More than 30 years later, his lawyers are still fighting to obtain evidence in possession of the prosecution, including DNA results that could establish the identity of the actual perpetrator.

Delay caused by the resistance from prosecutors comes not only from their multi-faceted attempts to deny or at least narrow the requests for their files.  The California Attorney General also relies on a remarkably Byzantine post-conviction process, using every possible procedural loophole to avoid litigating the cases on their merits that results in years and years of delay.

For example every claim raised in post-conviction must be "exhausted' in state court before it can be presented in a habeas corpus petition in federal court.  However, the California Supreme Court is notoriously stingy when it comes to funding investigation and expert assistance so that it is often only once a case moves from state court into federal court that attorneys are able to develop critical evidence.  But if a federal claim includes even one newly discovered fact to strengthen it, the AG will insist that the case return to state court for exhaustion purposes rather than litigate the claim's underlying merits.  Then, after such claims are denied in state court -- which eventually and inevitably they are -- and the case returns to federal court, the AG will launch a new series of procedural arguments having nothing to do with the claim's substance as a basis for dismissal.

This is just one example of the countless ways the prosecution uses extremely complicated provisions to endlessly litigate procedural issues that have nothing to do with the ultimate issues of the case.  And because of this complexity and the many pitfalls waiting for an unwary attorney -- deadly pitfalls which can lead to the wholesale waiver of critical claims -- only attorneys with specialized knowledge and experience can be qualified to represent death row inmates on appeal and in post-conviction habeas proceedings.  But given the extensive training needed, the decades-long commitment, the stressful and high-stakes nature of litigating life and death issues, and the intensity of having to identify every potentially viable claim while struggling to obtain adequate funding, there is hardly a plethora of attorneys willing and, more importantly, able to do so.  And most of those who are willing and able already represent several of the vast number of inmates already on death row and are understandably reluctant to take on any more cases. 

This provides an additional basis for delay.  Indeed, after an inmate is sentenced to death in California it takes more than five years to find a qualified lawyer to handle the appeal (involving issues that arise from the trial itself) and several more years to find one to handle the habeas corpus proceedings (involving issues that must be independently and painstakingly investigated). 

Professor Mitchell, it should be remembered, co-authored a ground-breaking study in 2011, concluding that California's death penalty system was costing the state about $184 million per year.  The study found  that "since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, California taxpayers have spent roughly $4 billion to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions."  A year later, an updated study revealed that "if the current system is maintained, Californians will spend an additional $5 billion to $7 billion over the cost of [life without possibility of parole] to fund the broken system between now and 2050. In that time, roughly 740 more inmates will be added to death row, an additional fourteen executions will be carried out, and more than five hundred death-row inmates will die of old age or other causes before the state executes them."

Delay is an inherent part of capital litigation.  For the foregoing reasons and particularly in California, where virtually every homicide is eligible for the death penalty -- resulting in the largest death row in the country -- a fair, just and reliable review of death sentences is incompatible with a speedy, expedited process. 

California's death penalty can't be fixed; but it can be replaced with life without possibility of parole ("LWOP").  An initiative to do just that - - and that would require defendants sentenced to LWOP to work in prison, with 60% of their wages going to victim restitution -- may be headed for the ballot in 2016.  A Legislative Analyst's Office has determined that replacing the death penalty with LWOP would save California $150 million a year, by reducing the costs of trials and subsequent appeals.

On the other hand, a pro-death penalty group calling itself Californians for Death Penalty Savings and Reform has proposed its own ballot measure that clumsily attempts to solve the system's intractable problems without dealing with any of the root issues.  It would expand the pool of attorneys available to represent death row inmates and decentralize and streamline the process once attorneys are assigned.  Nothing in the proposal would provide funding to train this new group of lawyers.  And the so-called streamlining would not ease the procedural quagmire that causes so much of the delay.  Nor would it address the prosecution's resistance to providing its trial files.  What it would do is shorten the time to investigate and present claims, and limit possible avenues of revenue.  It thus promises to speed things up while providing less review and less skilled and experienced lawyers to navigate an impossibly complex process.  What could go wrong?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Jerks and Knee-Jerks: Profiles In Cowardice, Bigotry and Ignorance

Earlier this week, in a piece, Shame the Bigots But Address the Fear, I emphasized the importance of taking seriously the American public's genuine fear about safety and security, and not treating everyone who expresses concerns about the influx of refugees as a cold-hearted bigot.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't also be calling out and shaming the cold-hearted bigots -- including, but not limited to, the entire field of Republican presidential candidates. 

There's Donald Trump, who proposes closing mosques in the United States, requiring all Muslims to register in a data base, and is not opposed to forcing them to wear special identification badges (yellow crescents?), drawing a disturbing parallel to Nazi Germany. 

Marco Rubio, given the opportunity to disavow Trump, attempted to trump him.  He would not only shut down mosques, but would close "whatever facility is being used — it’s not just a mosque — any facility that’s being used to radicalize and inspire attacks against the United States."

Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz believe we should only allow Christian refugees to settle here, drawing a disturbing parallel to the Spanish Inquisition.

Ben Carson, not to be outdone, compares Syrian refugees to rabid dogs ("If there is a rabid dog running around your neighborhood, you're probably not going to assume something good about that dog"), drawing a disturbing parallel to an ignorant nut case.

(For those keeping track, those five miserable human beings are supported by about 80% of Republican voters)

And then there are the panic-stricken House Republicans, who have voted for a "pause" in the process to allow refugees from Iraq and Syria, ignoring the fact that none of the Paris attackers were refugees -- from Syria or anywhere else --  and that we already have a painstakingly arduous process in place.  This paragraph from a New York Times article says it all: 
When pressed, most Republicans could not specify which aspects of the rigorous refugee vetting program that they found inadequate. [House Speaker Paul Ryan’s] staff members cited a Bloomberg poll of 1,002 adults released on Wednesday, conducted by Selzer & Company, that found that 53 percent of those surveyed said the resettlement program should be halted.
Pathetically, 47 craven Democrats voted with Republicans in a final tally of 289-137.

And then there are the majority of governors, including presidential candidate John Kasich, who would refuse to allow Syrians to resettle in their states.  One of the more egregious is purported Christian, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who denied admittance to two Syrian refugee families the day before they were scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis.  (Connecticut's governor graciously accepted the two families)

Democratic Roanoke Mayor David Bowers said his city would not be spending any resources on resettling Syrian refugees, suggesting the U.S. consider a plan similar to the internment of Japanese nationals during WWII.

And let's not forget our elected state officials.  There's Republican Rhode Island state Sen. Elaine Morgan, who opposes resettling Syrian refugees because "[t]he Muslim religion and philosophy is to murder, rape, and decapitate anyone who is a non Muslim" and suggests that "we should set up refugee camp to keep them segregated from our populous [sic]."  And then there's Republican Missouri state Rep. Mike Moon who is calling for a special legislative session to stop “the potential Islamization of Missouri.”

The terrorist attacks in Paris have brought out the worst kind of fear-mongering and demagoguery from (mostly) Republican politicians.  These bigoted, inhumane and ignorant responses stem from the desire to pander to the least exceptional aspects of the American psyche for political gain as well as from what Paul Krugman describes as the right wing's propensity for panic.  Andy Borowitz, the great satirist, wrote a piece in the New Yorker this past summer, joking that "a group of scholars who have been monitoring the descent of the bar over the past few decades have concluded that the bar can no longer be lowered."  That proved to be far too optimistic.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Shame The Bigots But Address The Fear

Republicans have long proven their genius for exploiting fear for political gain, using bigotry and cheap slogans to project an aura of toughness.  Aided by a feckless media, they have long been perceived as better able to protect Americans from harm than Democrats, who are thought to be more concerned with political correctness than national security.  And so, we have GOP leaders, like Jeb!, using alarmist rhetoric about an existential threat to western civilization and agitating for all out war.  In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, Republicans are calling for the shutting down of mosques in the U.S., permitting only refugees who can establish their Christian bona fides, and closing our borders to Syrian toddlers trying to escape the ravages of civil war and terrorism. (Mostly) Republican Governors seek to deny resettlement of refugees in their states.  Even the purportedly moderate (by comparison) presidential candidate John Kasich has proposed the creation of a new federal agency that would promote Judeo-Christian beliefs.

It is critical to call out these bigots and moral cowards, to shame them for their xenophobia and ignorance.  President Obama was right in mocking them when he said: “At first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they are scared of three year old orphans. That doesn’t seem so tough to me.”

But Democrats also have to acknowledge that Republicans are tapping into a real fear, that they understand it, and -- in contrast to the hateful rhetoric and simplistic clichés used by Republicans -- that they have the far better approach for keeping Americans safe.

And so, it is important to repeatedly emphasize the fallacy of condemning Islam and all Muslims based on the violence and repression committed by individuals and states in the name of Islam.  As Reza Aslan put it, in a remarkable exchange on CNN in which he repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to move the talking heads off their narrative that Islam is a repressive, violent religion:  "The problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people, and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush."

It is important to explain that the screening process for accepting refugees is an arduous one that can take 18 to 24 months before a refugee is approved for admission to the U.S.  Refugees are vetted by several different agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security.
Fingerprints are taken, biographical information is collected. They are then each individually interviewed by U.S. officials trained to verify that they're bona fide refugees.  Refugees from Syria are then subject to additional screening that looks at where they came from and what caused them to flee their home, stories that are checked out. All of this occurs before a refugee is allowed to set foot in the country.
It is also important to stress that condemning Islam and refusing to accept refugees who aren't Christian will actually make us less safe.  As President Obama explained:  “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the (Republican) rhetoric that’s been coming out here during the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there's a war between Islam and the west. When you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims in a wartorn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative.”

Democrats will play right into the old GOP playbook that portrays them as arrogant elitists detached from real world concerns unless they are able to assure Americans that they get it -- that they take the fear of ordinary Americans about safety and security seriously and don't consider everyone who expresses concerns about the influx of refugees to be cold-hearted bigots. 

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has provided a primer on how to do just that:
“We’ve got to beat these guys in hearts, as well as U.S. Air Force,” he said. “We also have to win the moral battle. And that’s a battle of hope, and a vision for the future where we can live together, and I think this is part of that.”  Inslee said he was sensitive to “very legitimate and real” fears that ISIS militants could pose as refugees in order to sneak into America and commit more crimes. But, he said, “Leadership calls for people to recognize it’s real [and] act responsibly — in this case that means insisting on a robust, multi-layered screening process before they’re allowed in this country.” “I think that our nation is tested from time to time, and I think this is one of those times to really dig deep and see what kind of character our nation and my state has,” he added. “I’ve always believed my state and the country has always been a place of refuge from those who are persecuted. Right on the Statue of Liberty, they talk about the wretched refuge of your teeming shore, and I don’t know where we’ve had more people who fit this classification of victim.”
A large swath of the American public clings to false narratives about the nature of Islam and the steadfastness of Republicans when it comes to national security.  It won't be easy, but to change that narrative we need to not only shame GOP leaders for their ignorance and bigotry, but must also assure the American public that Democrats understand and can address their fear. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dayenu! It Would Be Enough To Oppose GOP Candidates For Any One Of Their Inane Positions

In the classic Passover song, Dayenu, to show appreciation for each of the miraculous Biblical events marking the Jewish Exodus, we sing "Dayenu," which roughly means, "it would have been enough." Escaping slavery in Egypt would have been enough; parting the Red Sea would have been enough; having our needs met during the 40 years wandering in the desert would have been enough, etc.  

If you replace the celebratory and joyous spirit of the song with disgust and despair, Dayenu is not a wholly inappropriate response to the vile nonsense spewing from the Republican candidates running for president.  Their positions on any of a number of keys issues certainly would be enough -- standing alone -- to vote against them.

It would be enough to vote against the Republicans if only for their denial of the existence of man-made climate change and/or their unwillingness to do anything to combat global warming.  GOP candidates running for president would hobble the EPA, negate Obama's executive actions to reduce carbon emissions, support the gutting of environmental regulations aimed at ensuring clean air and water, and expand the production of fossil fuels regardless of the environmental consequences.


It would be enough to vote against the Republicans if only for their extreme positions on women's reproductive rights, including their desire to overturn Roe v. Wade (and nominating Supreme Court justices committed to doing so) and defund Planned Parenthood.  While essentially all of the GOP candidates are anti-choice, many go so far as to support banning abortion even in the case of rape and incest (e.g., Rubio, Carson, Huckabee, Paul, Jindal, Santorum) or support exceptions for the life (but not the health) of the mother (Jeb!, Cruz).


It would be enough to vote against the Republicans if only for their opposition to immigration reform, and their inhumane proposals that range from building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, abolishing birthright citizenship for children born to undocumented immigrants, freezing green card applications, and mass deportation.  These positions, as noted below, have only gotten more extreme in the wake of the Paris attacks.


It would be enough to vote against the Republicans if only for their opposition to raising the minimum wage while proposing tax plans that provide enormous gains for the top 1% and a pittance for the middle class.  Republican candidates continue pushing failed economic theories that benefit the wealthy but cause widening inequality, less economic growth and higher unemployment.  Indeed, the partisan disparity in job growth is stunning:  under Obama, the U.S. added an average of 107,000 jobs a month; under Clinton, 240,000; and under Bush, 13,000 jobs a month.


It would be enough to vote against the Republicans if only for their potential nominations to the Supreme Court.  Given the advanced ages of several of the justices, the next president will most likely have the opportunity to appoint more than one new justice, thereby impacting the balance of the Court for at least another generation.  Another Republican appointee would create a rock solid conservative majority that would surely overturn Roe v. Wade, further dismantle Voting Rights, revisit and overturn the Affordable Care Act, dismantle federal regulations on everything from the environment to Wall Street, further limit available remedies for individuals against corporations, allow for greater intrusion of religion into the public sphere, and roll back advances in civil rights and criminal justice. 


It would be enough to vote against Republicans if only for their desire to deregulate Wall Street.  Dayenu!  If only for their bigoted views on LGBT rights and what they euphemistically call "religious liberty."  Dayenu!  If only for their opposition to any reasonable gun control legislation.  Dayenu!

And finally, and most recently, it would be enough to vote against the Republicans if only for their fear-mongering and senseless demagoguery in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris.  Their ideas run the nonsensical gamut from insisting on using the term "radical Islam" (Rubio's linguistic solution) to closing mosques in the U.S. (Trump) to only admitting Christian refugees from Syria (Jeb!, Cruz) to closing our borders to Syrian refugees altogether (Carson, Rubio, Huckabee, Jindal, Paul) -- even to orphan toddlers (Christie).  Trump would send back the refugees who are already here.  They have nothing to offer but tough-sounding rhetoric.  A prime example is Jeb!, who calls for us to "declare war and harness all of the power that the United States can bring to bear, both diplomatic and military of course, to be able to take out ISIS."  He and his cohorts continue to rely on the same illogic -- and advisers -- used by Jeb!'s brother in responding to 9/11, conveniently forgetting that invading Iraq, dismantling the Baathist Party, relying on torture, and committing other inexcusable acts of incompetence created ISIS in the first place.

Dayenu!  Dayenu!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Creating A New Met Narrative

The sickening feeling that the Mets blew a world championship within their grasp will likely (hopefully) recede.  The visions of Duda's wild throw, Murphy's porous glove, Cespedes' soccer-style fielding, and Familia's ill-advised quick pitch will likely (hopefully) fade.  And then we can appreciate that this team went so much farther than we ever expected.  That, with all their flaws, offensively and defensively, and an incredible but exceedingly young pitching staff, they won the National League pennant and, if not for the aforementioned gaffes, could have won the World Series.  This should not be viewed as another excruciating year of loss, another example of Met misery, another in a long line of underachieving failures in Met history. 

It is time for a new narrative.

As we all know, the Mets went from lovable losers to the beloved Miracle Mets when they won the 1969 World Series -- shocking the baseball world in general and the powerful Baltimore Orioles in particular.  But the miracles were short-lived thanks to untimely injuries and short-sighted trades (Nolan Ryan, Amos Otis, e.g.), and there was little to celebrate over the next few years except for the pitching of Tom Seaver.  Then, in 1973, the Mets almost did it again, with an incredible run the last month of the season (Ya Gotta Believe) and an upset of the Big Red Machine in the playoffs, before losing to the A's in the World Series.

But that was it for a decade.  From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, the Mets were not lovable and not good.  Management was too petty and too cheap to keep Seaver (who they traded to the Reds in 1977), and then overspent on uninspiring underachievers, most notably the lackluster George Foster, who they obtained from the Reds in 1982. 

The Mets won the World Series a second time in 1986, with a powerful, exciting team that seemed poised for a sustained run.  But, again, success proved fleeting.  1987 started with Dwight Gooden, their phenomenal young pitcher in drug rehab and 1988 ended with a gut-wrenching loss to the Dodgers in the playoffs. After that the Mets dismantled the team, replacing iconic players (Darryl Strawberry Len Dykstra, Mookie Wilson) with another string of miserable underachievers (e.g., Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman).

Another decade of poor, uninspiring play followed.  Then, in 1998, the Mets obtained Mike Piazza, a great player who thrived in New York.  But despite Piazza and his star power, the team would consistently disappoint.  They lost their last five games Piazza's first year to miss the playoffs by one game.  1999 was marred by a playoff debacle at the hands of the Braves, with Met pitcher Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run of the deciding game. The first half of the 2000s was not much better, starting with the painful  loss to the Yankees in the World Series, and several mediocre seasons with a new collection of players whose careers took nose-dives as soon as they put on a Met uniform (e.g., Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar).  (For more, see Mets or Bust.)

And then a variation on the now-familiar theme of promise crushed by disappointment when a very strong 2006 team reached the playoffs but lost a devastating final seventh game to the Cardinals in the league championship series.  And since then, historic collapses to miss the playoffs, baffling player moves, an unprecedented number of injuries to star and potential star players, topped off by management's entanglement with Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, causing ownership to shrink payroll and behave like a small-market team. 

This year seemed like another chapter in the dismal history of the Mets.  Towards the end of July, a week before the trading deadline, I wrote a piece entitled:  Not So Amazing:  A Promising Season Fritters Away.  After six straight losing seasons, the Mets opened 2015 in exciting fashion, by going 15-5, including an 11-game winning streak.  By the end of July, thanks to their extraordinary pitching staff, the Mets were still not out of contention.  But with the league's worst offense and management's stubborn refusal to spend money to improve the team, the second half of the season looked dire.

But at the trading deadline, management, incredibly, made a series of deft moves designed to win -- and win now!  They shed players who barely belonged in the minor leagues much less the majors, and replaced them with real live professional baseball players.  They did not trade Wilmer Flores, who cried when he thought he was going to Milwaukee and became a folk hero after he wasn't -- a folk hero who can hit.  Instead they made a deal for Yoenis Cespedes, and his outsized presence changed the feel of the entire lineup.  Everybody started hitting and, to top it off, David Wright, Mr. All-Time Met himself, lost early this season to a serious spinal condition many thought would end his career, came back, punctuating his return with a towering home run in his first at bat.

And, just like that, the Mets cruised into first place and stayed there. They transformed what looked to be another year of mediocrity into one of the most joyful ones in their history, filled with countless unforgettable moments.  Overnight the Mets became a fun, exciting team, energized by fantastic young players, a fascinating, extremely likeable collection of quirky personalities, and star power.

They beat the Dodgers in an intense playoff series, displaying their brilliant, gutty young pitching, resiliency and creative mayhem.  They knocked off a powerful Cub team in a 4-game sweep to capture the pennant. 

These Mets did not rely on miracles to reach the World Series (well, the ultra-religious Daniel Murphy might have) but on great all-around play.  Brilliant pitching, (occasionally) sparkling defense, timely and powerful hitting.  It all fell apart in the World Series, but that should not take away what the team accomplished and what the future holds.

For Met fans, there is always a lingering sense that disappointment is not far off -- that the Mets' penny-wise owners will not do what it takes to keep the team competitive and that something unexpected but nevertheless devastating will undermine the team's seemingly limitless future.  But, things feel different this time.  The Mets have a deep core of great young talent, savvy veterans, and apparently great chemistry.  They surely need to make a few changes and add some key new pieces this off season, but maybe, just maybe, this is the start of a new era.  Maybe it is time for a new narrative.  Not lovable losers or unlovable losers tempered by the occasional miracle, but a truly solid baseball team that doesn't have to rely on magic to win. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Say It Ain't So, Joe: Time For Biden To Cut Bait

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
There is no room for Joe Biden.

We already have Bernie Sanders, who the mainstream press continues to treat as a quirky phenomenon, ignoring the issues that he is so powerfully raising -- particularly the issue that undergirds all the others -- economic inequality.  Bernie is drawing huge, raucous crowds and displaying remarkably successful fundraising prowess, all due, of course, to the resonance of these very issues.  Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, being the brilliant politician she is, understands the zeitgeist (and the power of Bernie), and has moved left, taking thoughtful, progressive stances on issues from gun control to criminal justice reform to immigration to even Wall Street reform.

Which brings us to Joe Biden.  Will he or won't he?  Polls are taken that include him even though he is not running.  Breathless columns are written about promises he made to his dying son. His friends and allies whisper to the press that he is leaning one way or maybe the other.  And now there are reports that he is definitely running and will be announcing his decision any day. 

Biden needs to quell the rumors and walk away.  Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are two formidable candidates.  If Biden chooses to run he will play neatly into two media themes that are damaging to the ultimate Democratic candidate.  First, is the notion fueled by the right and perpetuated by much of the media that Hillary is irreparably flawed, proven untrustworthy and unelectable by Email-ghazi-gate.  This relates to the second theme  -- that even if Hillary's candidacy is doomed (which it isn't) that we need a more establishment Democrat like Biden to jump in because Bernie Sanders is not to be taken seriously. 

As Obama once said about Hillary, Biden is "likeable enough."  But it isn't as if he doesn't have plenty of baggage. He bowed out of the 1988 race because of  accusations that he misrepresented his academic record and plagiarized speeches.  There are the gaffes, some of which display jarring racial insensitivity.  And then there are some of his so-called hallmark achievements as a United States Senator.  Like his role in passing a crime bill in 1994, often referred to as the Biden Crime Bill, a "tough on crime" law largely responsible for mass incarceration in the U.S.  He also was hugely influential in the passage of landmark bankruptcy legislation in 2005, backed by credit card companies and railed against by unions, consumer advocates and, in particular, Elizabeth Warren, who roundly criticized Biden for his role. 

And then, for me, is the albatross that will always be around Biden's neck:  Justice Clarence Thomas. 

Biden was the chair of the Senate's Judiciary Committee during Thomas' confirmation hearings in 1991.  And his performance was unforgivable.  He failed to take Anita Hill's testimony about being sexually harassed by Thomas seriously, and lost control to far more aggressive and more overtly sexist Republicans.  In his efforts to be unstintingly fair to Thomas, he repeatedly assured him that "you have the benefit of the doubt," despite the lack of any legal justification for such an assurance.  He refused to permit expert testimony on sexual harassment.   And, worst of all, he reached a private compromise with Republican senators not to call witnesses who would have corroborated Hill, most importantly, Angela Wright, another former employee of Thomas' at the EEOC who also claimed to have been sexually harassed by him. Thomas was confirmed by a slim margin, 52–48, with the help of 11 Democrats.  Although Biden voted against Thomas, his shameful performance as Judiciary Chair is directly responsible for one of the most reactionary Supreme Court justices in U.S. history.

Joe Biden might come across as more authentic than Hillary and more reasonable than Bernie.  He deservedly garners  an enormous amount of sympathy and respect for the dignity with which he has faced unspeakable family tragedies.  But he is far from a savior for the Democratic Party.  The problem for Biden is the Party doesn't need saving.   

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Dance Of The Madmen

The insufferable David Brooks is shocked, shocked to learn that his Republican Party has "abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism." Where has he been?  This inexorable march to utter insanity -- from Nixon's southern strategy to Reagan's dog whistle politics to the more explicit Tea Party delusions to Trumpism -- has not been all that difficult to discern. 

Brooks is upset because what thinks of as traditional conservatism -- "intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible" -- is no longer the defining characteristic of Republicans.  Like so many other things, this treacly version of the Republican Party only exists in Brook's imagination.   As Paul Krugman, points out, "conservatism was never about that ---  it was always about preserving power relations."  And, by the way, Ronald Reagan's embrace of supply-side economics, "which was not only a radical doctrine but one rejected by virtually the entire economics profession" was hardly an exercise in intellectual humility. 

As Charles Pierce reminds us, it has been "one long, continuous plague of Republican extremism that began quietly when the party moved west and south in its orientation, and when Richard Nixon discovered that George Wallace was onto something that could be immensely useful to a shrewd and brilliant code-talker like Nixon himself."

The chickens have finally come home to roost.  William Greider explains:  "The GOP finds itself trapped in a marriage that has not only gone bad but is coming apart in full public view. After five decades of shrewd strategy, the Republican coalition Richard Nixon put together in 1968—welcoming the segregationist white South into the Party of Lincoln—is now devouring itself in ugly, spiteful recriminations." Or, as Pierce describes more colorfully, "the disease . . .went merrily on, until it finally burst into full-blown dementia in 2008, when the country elected a black Democrat. The country responded by electing the worst Congress in history in 2010, and then somehow surpassed that feat in 2014. Which brings us to this week's carnival of souls."

Pierce makes a critical point that the Democratic Party is partially to blame:  "If one of the parties goes as thoroughly, deeply, banana-sandwich loony as the present Republican Party has, the other party has a definitive obligation to the Republic to beat the crazy out of it so the country can get moving again."
Republican extremism should have been the most fundamental campaign issue for every Democratic candidate for every elected office since about 1991. . . .The mockery and ridicule should have been loud and relentless. It was the only way to break both the grip of the prion disease, and break through the solid bubble of disinformation, anti-facts, and utter bullshit that has sustained the Republican base over the past 25 years. Instead, and it's hard to fault them entirely for their sense of responsibility, the Democrats chose largely to ignore the dance of the madmen at center stage and fulfill some sense of obligation to the country.
But perhaps we have finally reached a tipping point, where even the likes of David Brooks is calling out his Party for being "incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed."  Indeed, it should be difficult for the mainstream press to continue to ignore the fact that one party is engaging in a meaningful discourse about policy while the other has devolved into mindless demagoguery.  Vice-Presidential candidate Martin O'Malley in his closing remarks at last night's debate ably summed up this stark contrast when he noted:
On this stage you didn't hear anyone denigrate women, you didn't hear anyone make racist comments about new immigrants, you didn't hear anyone speak ill of anyone because of their religious beliefs. What you heard was an honest debate of what will move us forward, to lead to a clean electric grid by 2050, and employ more of our people, rebuild our cities and towns, educate our children at higher and better levels, and include more people in the economic and sociopolitical life in our country.
Greider is right that this election cycle provides a great opportunity for the Democrats:
Instead of playing limp and vague, Dems can launch what Howard Dean called for in 2004: a 50-state strategy that runs on liberating issues. Instead of ignoring GOP bigotry, the Democratic ticket can promise to challenge it on every front and attack reactionary Republicans who try to impose the past on voters. Above all, Democrats should demand that Tea Party rebels explain why they are in league with a party that intends to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in order to finance more tax cuts for billionaires. . . . . [I]f common folks ever understand the corrupt nature of the Republican coalition, we will see a popular rebellion that makes the present chaos look like, well, a tea party.
We can no longer ignore the dance of the madmen.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Beauty Of Winning Baseball

My heart skips a beat every time I enter a ballpark and see the perfect symmetry of the infield diamond enveloped by the wide swath of green outfield grass.  I love the meandering pace of the game, the sport's connection to its own and this country's history, the contrasting forces of power and precision, the strategy and the statistics, and the fact that the game has room not only for the pure athleticism of Yoenis Cespedis but also for the phenomenon that is 42-year old, 285-pound Bartolo Colon. 

Baseball is a beautiful game. 

But, I have to admit, it is a whole lot more beautiful when your team is winning. 

You can usually delude yourself through much of a hopeless baseball season that your team can pull it together and make a run for the playoffs down the stretch -- especially now that there are two wildcard teams.  Reality doesn't usually hit until sometime in August.  And then, when you finally accept the inevitability of a losing season, and you are stuck watching a team play uninspiring baseball for the last month or so, when all you have to root for is for your team to spoil another team's playoff run, when your focus is on the individual achievements of your favorite player because your team is going nowhere, much of the luster and lyricism of the game is lost -- at least until the spring, when it all begins again.

But, when your team is having a good year, when you get to experience tension-filled, meaningful games in September and anticipate playoff games in October, there is nothing better. 

After seven straight years with a losing record, preceded by two historic collapses, which were themselves preceded by a heartbreaking playoff loss and countless other frustrating seasons, the New York Mets have clinched a division title.  They have transformed what looked to be another dismal year of mediocrity into a joyful one filled with magical, unforgettable moments.  The Mets are a fun, exciting team with a great core of young players, a fascinating collection of personalities and enough star power to be a post-season force. 

Baseball has never seemed more beautiful.

But, the funny thing about winning is that it feels so good you want it to continue.  Winning the division  -- which is so thrilling and worthy of blissful celebration in the moment -- suddenly is no longer enough. 

Sure, it has been a beautiful September, but what about October?

Well, these are still the Mets. This franchise often finds ingeniously devastating ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Implosion always seems to be just around the corner -- and sometimes closer than that.  Will Matt Harvey and his agent-imposed arbitrary innings limit doom the Mets' chances?  Will newly-minted folk hero Wilmer Flores make a critical fielding gaffe?  Will their often erratic relief corps pick the worst time to be erratic?  Will manager Terry Collins reprise one (or more) of his baffling in-game strategic missteps? 

But, maybe, just maybe, everything will fall into place.  The Mets have had the feel of a championship team since the surprisingly strong return of Mr. All-Time Met David Wright from a back injury, the revelation of 22-year old Michael Conforto (making the jump to the majors from Double A in his first full year of professional ball)  and, most important of all, the acquisition at the trade deadline of La Potencia -- the spectacular Yoenis Cespedes.  Maybe the brilliant yet callow pitching staff can harness their unprecedented power.  Maybe the back end of the bullpen can consistently shut down the opposition.  Maybe other key players like Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy and Travis D'Arnaud will get (or stay) hot.  Maybe a little more magic can be wrung from the likes of Wilmer Flores or Juan Uribe or, dare I say, Michael Cuddyer.

Is it possible that the Mets might be embarking on another miracle?  The answer comes from the late, great Joaquin Andujar, who really summed up the beauty of baseball, as he put it, "in one word:  you never know."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bread For The Journey: The Greek Baker Who Remembers

My old friends and colleagues from another lifetime, Dan Siegel and Jenny Yancey, have been researching and volunteering on the Greek island of Kos, which is on the frontlines of the tragic refugee crisis impacting all of Europe. This piece, originally published on Huffington Post about one Greek man's efforts to help includes links where you can help too.  As Dan says, "this story of our time, now dominated in the media by closing borders and fearful minds, needs coverage of the many compassionate helpers acting in solidarity!"

Guest Post by Dan Siegel and Jenny Yancey

"Where are the babies? Where are the babies?" asks 76-year-old Dionysis Arvanitakis as he hands out rolls of bread and assorted pastries to refugees from the back of his bakery van on the Greek holiday island of Kos.

A long line of mostly young men from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea line up under the hot mid-morning sun, holding their hands out gently, as if standing for communion, below the thick stone walls of the Castle of the Knights that anchors the island's port.

Arvanitakis tears long loaves in two, and looks each person in the eye as they approach. A balding Syrian man pauses before receiving a piece, and reaches out to hold both sides of the baker's face, kissing him atop the head in gratitude.

The baker hands us a metal tray full of pink and chocolate glazed donuts, and asks us to serve the mothers and children camped out in shaded tents across the street. We had met Arvanitakis the previous afternoon for a conversation at his downtown waterfront bakery, where he warmly greets old locals and tourists alike with a gentle smile and strong handshake.

Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, praised the Greek baker in his annual State of the Union address on September 9th to the European Parliament. In his speech focused on the gravest global refugee crisis since World War II, Juncker implored Europeans to "remember well that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee."

"Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls," Juncker concluded in a nod to Arvanitakis. "This is the Europe I want to live in."

The isle of Kos is one of the closest gateways to the European Union, with the houses and lights of the island clearly visible from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum just two and a half nautical miles across Aegean waters.

Smugglers based in Turkey charge refugees $1,500 or more per person to make the perilous crossing to Kos, while day-tripping tourists only need pay $17 (with the right passport) for the easy half-hour excursion ride. Refugees are piled into rubber dinghies in the black of night, with as many as 70 men, women and children on flimsy 16-foot vessels, and told by smugglers to paddle on their own towards the lights of Kos.

Kos was the intended destination for the Syrian three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who with his brother and mother drowned off a capsized dinghy and washed back ashore on Turkey. The image of the boy lying lifeless and face down on shore sparked global awareness and outrage earlier this month over the Mediterranean immigrant tragedy that has been growing for years.

Just this past weekend, another 40 refugees and migrants crossing the waters between Greece and Turkey are reported dead or missing.

Every morning, Arvanitakis rises early to bake an extra 200 pounds or more of bread and pastries to load in his van. And every morning here, refugees swim to shore off overcrowded inflatable rubber boats, walking to the main port in sea-soaked clothes seeking water, food and shelter.

The baker slowly steers his small white van up onto the seaside bike lane, weaving through refugees and tourists alike, to make his first stop directly in front of the port police station. New arrivals congregate in packed quarters there, anxiously awaiting registration papers for their next voyage on to Athens, where most will begin their walk to northern Europe.

The daily ritual of passing out bread takes place a few hundred yards from the celebrated Oriental plane tree where Hippocrates, the father of medicine born on Kos around 460 BC, purportedly taught his medical students ethics and how to care for others.

Arvanitakis knows deprivation himself, having grown up poor in the Peloponnese, the southern peninsula of mainland Greece. He told us that after difficult times there his family chose to migrate to Australia when he was 16. He was "always running, running" looking for work in his new country, and finally secured a job as a pastry chef.

In 1970, after saving enough money, he returned to Greece and landed on Kos, where his wife Evangelia was born and where he soon opened up his own bakery. He and his son Stavros have since grown the business to seven locations, now the largest bakery on Kos.

"Someone who has not starved, cannot put themselves in these people's shoes," Arvanitakis told the Greek media after Junker's speech. "'It's 'us' and 'them' on the same island; two parallel lines, that somehow converge to the very meaning of the word 'human'."

The best and worst of the human spirit has been awakened on Kos by the flood of refugees washing ashore. Local Greek hotel owners have made sandwiches and handed out leftover travel supplies donated by guests. We interviewed European tourists giving up their holidays to deliver food, water and travel gear. Two couples from Iran donated 300 pounds of food and aid. Two German sisters organized Kos Refugees Need Your Help that serves 800 warm meals daily. Dutch citizens volunteer for the Boat Refugee Foundation, which has over 200 more volunteers signed up in Holland to come help for a week or longer.

At the same time, Amnesty International witnessed "a violent attack on refugees" in Kos a few weeks ago, observing a group of 15-25 thugs hitting them with bats while telling them "to go back to their own country."

A 60-year-old English volunteer from London told us that she witnessed two refugees being attacked the previous evening by black-shirted extremists while sitting peacefully outside their tents. One refugee had his leg broken and the other had large welts from a beating across his back (she showed us photos taken on her cell phone). When she tried to intervene, she was pushed to the ground and threatened by the attackers.

The gravity of the refugee crisis greatly compounds the impact of the six years of Greece's grave economic depression and a long summer of political instability. The wave of refugees has clearly heightened the general anxiety of the times, fueling nationalist anger while overwhelming cash-strapped and understaffed authorities on Kos and other impacted nearby islands.

The country is exhausted and nearly broke, and is on the frontline of the surge of refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa and migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Without adequate financial support from wealthier European countries where most refugees hope to settle, Greece and its eastern islands will not be able to cope with the immigrant flow heading into the winter months.

The mayor of Kos, however, has so far refused requests by the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to set-up a refugee reception center and proper housing away from the island port and tourist areas, in fear of attracting more refugees and migrants.

"I feel ashamed of the Greeks who are so upset about this situation," said the 28 year-old daughter at a popular family-run hotel. "In every family here you have family members who left the country to find a better life. Many went out and did well. But now people forget."

It's been more than 60 years since Dionysis Arvanitakis left Greece to find better fortunes in a faraway land. As he stacks up dozens of empty baking trays in the back of his van after another morning round of helping to feed refugees, one thing is certain: the "Baker in Kos" clearly remembers from where he came.


You can learn more about the refugee situation and volunteer/donation aid efforts on the island at the following sites:

Kos Kindness
Kos Refugees Need Your Help
Boat Refugee Foundation
Medecins Sans Frontieres
Mercy Corps

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The One Thing Jeb! Knows

"You know what?  As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe."  So said Jeb! in response to a quip from Donald Trump about his brother's disastrous administration at the GOP debate.  The audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, predictably, applauded. 

In another mind-numbing experience in which none of the demonstrably false and often bat shit crazy responses by the candidates remained unchallenged (and were often met with cheers), Jeb!'s retort stood out as one of the more remarkably outrageous statements.

His brother kept us safe? Maybe he means his brother Neil.  Because everyone except the foil helmet crowd that comprises the Fox News demographic knows about George W.'s safety record.  He didn't keep safe the nearly 3000 people who perished in the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, having, among countless failures, blown off classified briefings from U.S. intelligence agencies, including the one a few weeks before the attack entitled "“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”  And he didn't keep the nearly 4500 U.S. service members safe who were killed in Iraq, when he launched a war to topple a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11.  (I suppose we could talk about Katrina too, and all of the people of New Orleans who were not kept safe, but in fairness, Jeb! appeared to be referring to terrorism.) 

If this is the one thing Jeb! knows for sure then he really knows nothing at all.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Kim Davis Presidential Litmus Test

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
-- U.S. Constitution, Article Two, Section One, Clause Eight
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unequivocally that the 14th Amendment forbids states from banning same sex marriage.  A government official may not, based on her own personal religious preferences, disobey this ruling and refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.  This is no more permissible than refusing to issue licenses based on a religious belief that does not accept the marriage of mixed race couples or of people like Kim Davis -- the Kentucky clerk at the center of this controversy -- who are three-times divorced. 

The federal judge who found Davis in contempt and put her in jail stated: “The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order.  If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems."

And just to be clear, Davis isn't being jailed for her religious beliefs that marriage is only between a man and a woman, as her lawyers have argued.  She can believe whatever she wants.  But she has to carry out her duties as a government official in compliance with the law. 

This is pretty simple.  As President Obama's press secretary put it, “every public official is subject to the rule of law.  No one is above the law. That applies to the president of the United States and it applies to the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, as well.”

Any candidate for president who does not firmly believe in the rule of law -- who believes that Kim Davis is being unjustly punished, who believes that a government official may refuse to follow the law based on her own idiosyncratic religious beliefs -- should be disqualified immediately from seeking office.

That would certainly include the unabashed Kim Davis  fan club:  Ted Cruz ("Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong."); Rand Paul (“I think people who do stand up and are making a stand to say that they believe in something is an important part of the American way”); Mike Huckabee (“ stand with Kim Davis and every American of faith under attack by Washington elites who have nothing but disdain for us, our faith and the Constitution”); Bobby Jindal (“I don’t think anyone should have to choose between following their conscience and religious beliefs and giving up their job and facing financial sanctions"); and Scott Walker ("I read that the Constitution is very clear that people have freedom of religion -- you have the freedom to practice religious beliefs out there, it's a fundamental right").

And that would also include those making fruitless attempts at finding a balance between actual constitutional rights and  what is euphemistically being called "religious liberty":  Chris Christie (“we have to protect religious liberty and people’s ability to be able to practice their religion freely and openly, and of course we have to enforce the law too"); Jeb Bush ("“It seems to me that there ought to be common ground, there ought to be a big enough space for her to act on her conscience, and for now that the law is the law of the land, for a gay couple to be married in whatever jurisdiction that is"). Marco Rubio (“While the clerk’s office has a governmental duty to carry out the law, there should be a way to protect the religious freedom and conscience rights of individuals working in the office”).

As of this morning, John Kasich, Ben Carson and Donald Trump have yet to take a stand one way or the other.

So far, only Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham have passed this remarkably low bar, agreeing that Kim Davis, having accepted a government job, has to either follow the law or find work that is more in line with her faith.

The Republican National Committee is forcing its candidates to take an oath promising to support the eventual Republican nominee.  Far more importantly, Republican candidates should be required take an oath that they promise, if elected, to follow the rule of law.  It is one they would have to take eventually if any of them became president -- God forbid.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tell Me Why I Don't Like Military Mondays

What's with the Mets' camouflage uniforms and caps?  Given their excellent play of late I don't think it is in anticipation of a frontal assault by disgruntled fans.  And they aren't much of a running team, so I don't think it is a strategic move to hide their baserunners to make stealing bases easier. 

No, it's Military Monday.

Beginning with the 2014 season, the Mets decided to honor U.S. servicemen and servicewomen at Monday home games by giving them free tickets and retail discounts, and sponsoring community outreach events   And, for those games, Met players and coaches don military-themed uniforms.  (The San Diego Padres do something similar for Sunday home games and all teams do it on Memorial Day.) 

Now, given the marketing prerogatives of major league teams who now sport a ridiculous number of uniform color combinations in order to sell more shirts, caps and jerseys to fans, it is hard to make an argument about the purity of the game.  But, putting players in battle fatigues takes things too far.

There is a difference between honoring members of the armed services and glorifying the military.  Mets ownership already does the former.  They have demonstrated their sincere and deep commitment by supporting the Wounded Warrior Project, arranging for players to visit VA hospitals, and helping found the Welcome Back Veterans, a program that provides treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder. 

Players wearing faux military uniforms with American flag decals prominently displayed on the shoulder doesn't feel like it is about supporting our troops; it feels jingoistic.  This is particularly unseemly given that more than a quarter of Major League players are from countries other than the U.S. of A.-- some of which have been invaded by our military and exploited by our government.

And I'm not sure it does honor to the military, anyway.  If anything, baseball players looking like make-believe soldiers trivializes military service and feels more like a marketing ploy.  Sure it is a brave act to face a 90-plus mile per hour fastball with nothing more than 32-ounce wooden bat.  But it is hardly analogous to facing the enemy in a war zone.

We already have the National Anthem before every game -- a tradition that became entrenched during the Second World War to make sure the fans didn't question the patriotism of the players who weren't fighting in the war.  The anthem is often accompanied by the presentation of military colors and a military jet flyover.  And, after 9/11, because one song did not seem sufficient for players and fans to express their love of and loyalty to the United States, Irving Berlin's God Bless America began to be sung during the 7th Inning Stretch, either instead of or in addition to Take Me Out To The Ballgame.  It is still sung at many ballparks on Sundays, holidays and in the post-season. 

Isn't that enough?

If baseball teams are going to celebrate honorable professions, then I would like to see them pay tribute to those who devote their lives to protecting and helping people and improving society in other ways too.  How about we have the players dress up like teachers or public defenders or paramedics or social workers?   

Monday, August 31, 2015

How Life And The Death Penalty Imitate The Marx Brothers

The Court:  We'll take up old business.
Defense Counsel:  I wish to discuss the [constitutionality of the death penalty]  
The Court:  Sit down, that's new business. No old business? Very well... We'll take up new business.
Defense Counsel:  Now, about the [death penalty] ....
The Court:  Too late, that's old business already. Sit down
Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal heard oral argument in the case of Jones v. Chappell, in which a federal district judge ruled that the administration of California's death penalty is irrevocably dysfunctional, resulting in systemic delays in which only the "random few" are executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. As U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney found, of the over 900 people that have been sentenced to death since the adoption of the death penalty in 1978, 13 have been executed, 94 have died of other causes. There are over 750 men and women on California's death row. The process for reviewing their death sentences takes an average of 25 years and is getting longer -- delays, as the court found, that are inherent in the system and not the fault of inmates themselves.

Anyone wishing to hear a spirited argument about this ruling and whether California's death penalty is constitutional did not hear it today.  Here's a clip:

The argument barely touched on the underlying merits of the case.  Instead, the focus was on whether the claim could even be considered at all under the Byzantine rules erected by the Supreme Court and Congress -- rules that are designed to thwart criminal defendants from challenging their state convictions and sentences in federal court.  Under these often insurmountable procedural hurdles, a claim cannot involve the application of a new rule that was not clearly established by the Supreme Court at the time a defendant's case became final in the state courts.  [UPDATE:  On 11/12/15, the  Ninth Circuit overturned the decision on this ground]  A claim has to be exhausted in state court before being raised in federal court.  If it has not been exhausted it is generally too late to do so.  [UPDATE:   One of the three 9th Circuit judges on the panel would have overturned the decision on exhaustion grounds]  And if it has been exhausted and the state court rejected the claim, it must also be rejected in federal court-- even if the state court erred -- as long as the state court's decision was not "unreasonable."

One often hears the cliché about criminals being released on technicalities. The reality is that far more often a defendant's righteous claims are tossed out based on technicalities. 
The infrequency of executions and the randomness with regard to which condemned inmates actually will be executed have made a mockery of the supposedly rational justifications for the death penalty.  Because it is “so wantonly and so freakishly” used, California’s death penalty has become a wholly arbitrary punishment in the same sense as the death penalty laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia.

This is a critical issue going to the heart of whether the death penalty as applied in California is so dysfunctional as to be unconstitutional.  The fact that such a claim might not even be considered on its merits but, instead, could be dismissed on a technicality is further evidence of dysfunction.

Not so funny.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Met Fans

My two daughters are the kind of socially conscious, progressive thinking, organic eating, nature loving children that one would expect from being born and raised in Berkeley, California.  They are Bay Area kids in just about every way.  But when it comes to professional baseball, out of some misguided loyalty to their New Yorker father, they blithely turned their back on our two excellent local teams for which they were entitled to root (a variant on birthright citizenship) and became unshakable, die-hard Mets fans. 

And so over the last half-a-dozen years that comprise their sports consciousness, they have watched with dismay as their friends and neighbors celebrate the A's making it to the playoffs year after year, and the Giants winning three world championships, while the Mets keep losing. 

Did I feel guilty about this?  Absolutely.  It is one thing to endure the pain and suffering that comes from a life-long affliction of Met fandom when you can at least draw on the joy and wonder of 1969 and 1986.  It is quite another when the entirety of your Met worldview is framed by bad transactions, crushing injuries and dismal play -- and not one winning season. 

It got so bad that I was afraid to buy them Met t-shirts because each time I did, something would happen to the player whose name adorned the back of the shirt.  Santana shirt -- injury.  Reyes shirt -- free agent.  R.A. Dickey shirt -- traded.  Matt Harvey shirt  -- Tommy John surgery.

As losses mounted and seasons passed, my sweet darlings would look up at me and simply ask "why, Dad?"  I would invariably respond with unsatisfying tropes about the dignity to be found in supporting underdogs; about appreciating the subtle beauty of the game in ways that did not necessarily revolve around winning or losing; about the unfathomable exhilaration that will be felt one day when the Mets eventually turn it around.   "Sure, Dad."

This year seemed like it was going to be another dreadful season.  True there was that incredible 15-5 start which gave them just a taste of what rooting for a winner would be like, but we all knew the team would eventually regress to the mean.  And regress they did, thanks to the worst offense in all of baseball.  And so, we suffered along with the Mets' incredible young pitchers -- Harvey, DeGrom and Syndergaard -- as they pitched brilliantly only to lose games due to some combination of paltry hitting, sloppy fielding, and uninspired managing. 

But then things began to change.

For us, it started in late June when, visiting New York, we went to Citi Field for the debut of another great young pitcher, Steven Matz.  The crowd was electric while Matz pitched a stunning game and responded to the woefully weak lineup behind him by knocking in four runs by himself.  My girls finally experienced the thrill of positive Met energy - of being part a mass of deliriously happy Met fans.   

Not unexpectedly, the euphoria didn't last.  Matz quickly went down with an injury after one more great start (at least we didn't buy a Matz shirt) and the Mets resumed their anemic play.

But then the trade deadline approached and we all know what happened.  The Mets shed players who barely belonged in the minor leagues much less the majors and replaced them with real live professional baseball players.  Wilmer Flores cried when he thought he was traded and became a folk hero after he wasn't -- a folk hero who can hit.  Yoenis Cespedes arrived and with his star power changed the feel of the entire lineup.  And then everybody started hitting -- even the latest in a long line of overpaid disappointments, Michael Cuddyer.  And, to top it off, David Wright, Mr. All-Time Met himself, who was lost early this season to a serious spinal condition many thought would end his career, came back, punctuating his return with a towering home run in his first at bat.

And, just like that, the Mets are in first place and playing inspired ball.  Cespedes hits 3 home runs including a grand slam (7 RBIs) in one game.  DeGrom has a rare bad start but is picked up by the offense in a game where batters 1-7 all hit home runs, the first time that has happened in baseball history.  Harvey skips a start to save his arm, and Logan Verrett, making his first start ever, pitches a gem.  Wright, as mentioned, smashes a home run upon his return.  Wilmer is on a tear since shedding tears.  Even Bartolo Colon gets into the act and pitches 7 shutout innings.  The Mets are not just winning, they're playing like winners.

I'm not delusional  I've prepared my daughters for heartbreak with the requisite horror stories (e.g., the Beltran strike out with the bases loaded to end 2006 playoffs; the loss of 12 of their last 17 games in 2007 to blow a 7-game lead; and another collapse in 2008, when they blew a 3 1/2 game lead, culminating in another devastating loss on the last game of the season.)

But nothing can stop them (or me) from reveling in the moment.  For the first time in their lives, my kids are proud to be Met fans. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thank You Steven Gladstone, Wherever You Are

Two of my all-time favorite rock albums were released in 1975.  Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run.  To commemorate the latter, which came out 40 years ago today, I've revised a piece I wrote a few years back.  
I was in 11th grade in 1975.  A classmate, Steven Gladstone, was touting an album, Born to Run, by a guy with the Jewish-sounding name of Bruce Springsteen.  Turns out, Springsteen is a Dutch name, and Bruce was raised Roman Catholic.  No matter.  His songs, with their epic stories about the love, rebellion, and lost innocence of working class folks on the Jersey Shore resonated with this relatively privileged kid from Long Island.  Throw in a great band, blistering guitar and a soulful saxophone, and I was hooked.

Greil Marcus, reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, described its power and beauty as a revelation:
The song titles by themselves — "Thunder Road," "Night," "Backstreets," "Born to Run," "Jungleland" — suggest the extraordinary dramatic authority that is at the heart of Springsteen's new music. It is the drama that counts; the stories Springsteen is telling are nothing new, though no one has ever told them better or made them matter more. Their familiar romance is half their power: The promise and the threat of the night; the lure of the road; the quest for a chance worth taking and the lust to pay its price; girls glimpsed once at 80 miles an hour and never forgotten; the city streets as the last, permanent American frontier. We know the story: one thousand and one American nights, one long night of fear and love.

What is new is the majesty Springsteen and his band have brought to this story. Springsteen's singing, his words and the band's music have turned the dreams and failures two generations have dropped along the road into an epic — an epic that began when that car went over the cliff in Rebel Without a Cause. One feels that all it ever meant, all it ever had to say, is on this album, brought forth with a determination one would have thought was burnt out years ago. One feels that the music Springsteen has made from this long story has outstripped the story; that it is, in all its fire, a demand for something new.


The songs, the best of them, are adventures in the dark, incidents of wasted fury. Tales of kids born to run who lose anyway, the songs can, as with "Backstreets," hit so hard and fast that it is almost impossible to sit through them without weeping. And yet the music is exhilarating. You may find yourself shaking your head in wonder, smiling through tears at the beauty of it all.


"Oh-o, come on, take my hand," Springsteen sings, "Riding out to case the promised land." And there, in a line, is Born to Run. You take what you find, but you never give up your demand for something better because you know, in your heart, that you deserve it. That contradiction is what keeps Springsteen's story, and the promised land's, alive. Springsteen took what he found and made something better himself. This album is it.

After devouring Born to Run, I bought his two earlier records -- which were far more spare, but with equally unforgettable characters and stories embedded in Bruce's eclectic, infectious music --  and gleefully anticipated his next release.  But due to legal wrangling with his manager, the next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, did not come out for three years, an excruciatingly long time to wait.  But then came the album's eventual release and the Darkness Tour.

Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1978.  I had never seen a performance like it before.  There was a relentless energy and intensity throughout the marathon show.  And there was the sheer joy Bruce and his E-Street Band conveyed on stage and the sincerity of the stories Bruce told in the lead-up to some of the songs.  And, of course, there were the great songs themselves.  When I returned to college in the fall I was a fanatic, and sought to spread the gospel of Bruce to my friends by endlessly playing the bootlegs of his concerts that I had obtained.  Then I learned that the tour was coming to my school.  My friend Henry and I, as well as a few other acolytes, slept out overnight for tickets.  We were rewarded with third row seats, and the show remains unforgettable.

Springsteen sort of lost me with some of his later albums and I can't say I listen to his music much anymore.  But, his keynote address at the 2012 SXSW, reminded me of what I loved about him -- the sweep of his vision, the depth of his passion and his unparalleled music chops.  (See The Boss Gives A History Lesson)  He concluded his speech/performance with this advice: "Treat it like it's all that we have, and then remember: it's only rock and roll."