Tuesday, July 22, 2014

An Open Letter To Kamala Harris

Dear Madam Attorney General:

I write to urge you to not appeal Jones v. Chappell, the recent federal court decision holding 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 currently 748 death row inmates. 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.

I had the good fortune of meeting you in 2007, at a Death Penalty Focus Awards Dinner when, as San Francisco District Attorney, you were given the Mario Cuomo Acts of Courage Award for declining to authorize death penalty prosecutions. 

Subsequently, when you campaigned for Attorney General, you acknowledged that California's death penalty system is flawed.  You argued that the death penalty has not made us safer and that the money spent every year on the death penalty could be far more productively used to fund programs which aim to stop recidivism. As you put it, "not housing octogenarians on Death Row could put 1,000 more cops on the street."

I imagine as Attorney General you now have an even clearer sense of how broken and how costly the death penalty is.  As the bipartisan California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found, the system continues to be "plagued with excessive delay in the appointment of counsel" and "a severe backlog in the review" of cases before the California Supreme Court.  

An extensive study headed Judge Arthur Alarcon determined that California's death penalty system has cost taxpayers roughly $4 billion "to fund a dysfunctional death penalty system that has carried out no more than 13 executions."  But despite these vast expenditures, the current Chief Justice of the State of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged, the death penalty is not effective and fixing its problems would require "structural changes" that the State cannot afford. Her predecessor, Ron George, who was Chief Justice for 15 years, came to the same conclusion, describing California's death penalty scheme as "dysfunctional."

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 – deterrence and retribution.  In a well-reasoned and well-documented opinion, a federal judge has now agreed:  "For all practical purposes ... a sentence of death in California is a sentence of life imprisonment with the remote possibility of death -- a sentence no rational legislature or jury could ever impose."

As Attorney General, representing the People of California, you have a duty to enforce and apply the law.  But where a court has found that law to be unconstitutional, you are well within your discretion to abide by the court's decision.  By not appealing a ruling that confirms what you have long stated -- that California's death penalty is broken -- you will again be taking the kind of principled position for which you were honored when we met years ago and for which you are so admired.


(Related post:  California's Cruel and Unusual Death Penalty)

Friday, June 13, 2014

George Bush's Iraq: The Long Reach Of The Pottery Barn Rule

"You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,' he told the president. 'You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all."
-- Secretary of State Colin Powell to President George W. Bush per Bob Woodward
Americans are famous for their ahistorical perspective and collective amnesia, but as President Obama comes under increasing criticism for "losing" Iraq -- by the very same group of dead enders that were wrong on every aspect of the initial invasion -- do we really have to be reminded that the Iraqi debacle did not start with Obama's election in 2008? 

Jay Bookman at the Atlanta Constitution states what should be obvious:  "The tragic sequence of events now playing out in Iraq was set in motion by the decision of President Bush, Vice President Cheney and others to use the attacks of Sept. 11 as cover to carry out the invasion that they had long coveted. We ignited this inferno, even if others have since added fuel to it, and the claim that we did so out of humanitarian concern for the Iraqis is just as empty as those depots of WMD turned out to be."

But the Bush Administration didn't just lie about the rationale for invading Iraq.  Once we shocked and awed our way into the country, that good old lethal combination of arrogance and incompetence that characterized everything Bush/Cheney did left a political, economic and bureaucratic vacuum that is a root cause of the current chaos and resurgence of violence there.

Dexter Filkins states that "when the Americans invaded, in March, 2003, they destroyed the Iraqi state—its military, its bureaucracy, its police force, and most everything else that might hold a country together."  Remember, we were going to be welcomed as Liberators and, as the neocons promised, would create a free market paradise -- after first destroying the economy - as a first step towards democratizing the entire Middle East?  How'd that work out again?  If only Obama had kept us there a little longer....

Further, Fareed Zakaria explains, "having invaded Iraq with a small force — what the expert Tom Ricks called “the worst war plan in American history” — the administration needed to find local allies. It quickly decided to destroy Iraq’s Sunni ruling establishment and empower the hard-line Shiite religious parties that had opposed Saddam Hussein. This meant that a structure of Sunni power that had been in the area for centuries collapsed."  And as a direct consequence of these decisions "to disband the army, dismantle the bureaucracy and purge Sunnis in general," we get Nuri Al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister, whose hard-line authoritarianism and brutal attempts to crush the Sunni minority opposition has been, according to Filkins, the dominant factor in Iraq's collapse.

While conservatives audaciously claim that this is all Obama's fault for leaving the country before we finished the job -- as John McCain nonsensically puts it,"we had the conflict won" -- or as Maxwell Smart would put it, "we missed it by that much" -- they conveniently overlook that Maliki would not allow U.S. troops to remain.  (Recall Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement in December 2008, setting January 1, 2012 as the deadline for all U.S. forces to depart; no new deal could be agreed upon; Maliki refused to agree to legal immunity for U.S. troops.)

But even if we could have left a residual military force in Iraq, to what end and for how long?  Sure, according to Steven Benen, "we could have embraced perpetual war and kept a lid on Iraqi violence by trying another decade – or two, or more – of war, sacrifice, investment, and training. . . Perpetual war may inexplicably sound appealing to some Republican policymakers, but (a) they have no credibility; and (b) there are many problems perpetual wars can’t solve. This is one of them."

The right seemed to have reached a new plateau for hypocrisy when Ollie North started blithering about the impropriety of negotiating with terrorists for hostages in the wake of Bowe Bergdahl's release.  At least North wasn't opining on the very same conflict with which he played such an ignominious role.  Former Bush officials, their apologists and enablers in government and media are offering their views on the very same situation that they so tragically got wrong in the first place.  They should be shamed and shunned -- or as Charles Pierce more colorfully says, these mendacious idiots "should be abandoned on cannibal island where they belong."  Instead, they are permitted to take to the airwaves to discuss what should have been done and should now be done to save Iraq.  No one should listen.

They broke it and they will forever own it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

When The Lunatic Fringe Goes Mainstream

While outraged conservatives fear that President Obama's exchange of five Taliban prisoners for the release of POW Bowe Bergdhal will precipitate terrorist attacks from Islam Jihadists, they conveniently ignore the onslaught of shootings by their very own brethren.  Indeed, with the Las Vegas shooting this past weekend of two police officers and a civilian, there have now been 40 people killed by in the United States by right wing violence since September 11, 2001.

Homegrown right wing fanatics have a long and bloody history in this country, but the recent spate of shootings feels like something new, more like of a frightening trend than the random spasm of a lunatic fringe.  And while it would be folly to try to pinpoint any one cause, there seem to be a confluence of contributing factors.

First, of course, is the ready access to guns -- military-style guns -- and the N.R.A.'s ability to prevent a majority of cowering politicians from enacting even the most minimal gun control legislation.  There have been 74 school shootings since Sandy Hook and, if anything, the gun fetishists have gained influence.  The Open Carry Texas movement, involving men brazenly displaying their assault weapons in fast food restaurants, seemed to discomfit even the N.R.A.  But only temporarily.  Meanwhile, no tragedy seems to be able to move the government from its blithe acquiescence to these gun nuts.

Closely related is the deep-rooted belief among a wide swath of conservatives that the Second Amendment sanctions their fundamental right to armed revolution in response to what they perceive as tyranny.  As Ed Kilgore puts it, they believe that "virtually unlimited access to weaponry, including military weaponry, is essential to the maintenance of liberty on grounds that patriots might need to emulate the original American Revolutionaries and undertake the armed overthrow of the government."

The problem is that what they view as tyrannical encompasses pretty much anything that a Democratic Administration, especially the current one, endorses.  Obamacare is an assault on freedom.  Climate change is a hoax.  Legalized abortion is akin to the Holocaust.  The IRS is a tool to deny free speech to the Tea Party.

And right wing politicians eagerly play along.  For example, as Brian Beutler describes, "when Democrats tried to pass an extremely modest gun law in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Ted Cruz said the real goal was 'a federal list of every gun owner in America.'  When Democrats more recently proposed a constitutional amendment to effectively reverse the consequences of the Citizens United ruling, he said they were trying to 'repeal the First Amendment.'" 

And what makes this particularly explosive is the apocalyptic rhetoric of mainstream conservatives -- Republican politicians and Fox News pundits alike -- who pander to their base, stoking their anger and feeding their paranoia by engaging in relentless falsehoods and implicitly condoning whatever measures are taken to redress the government's infringement on their liberty.

Back in January 2011, after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Tuscon, I wrote that it was inevitable that the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric and violent imagery from the right was bound to land somewhere: "Republicans have demonized the President and others who oppose their political and social world view, and have called, perhaps metaphorically, for their demise in offensively graphic terms. Tragically and predictably, not everyone understands it as metaphor."

Things have only gotten worse.  As Paul Waldman writes "when you broadcast every day that the government of the world’s oldest democracy is a totalitarian beast bent on turning America into a prison of oppression and fear, when you glorify lawbreakers like Cliven Bundy, when you say that your opponents would literally destroy the country if they could, you can’t profess surprise when some people decide that violence is the only means of forestalling the disaster you have warned them about."

Waldman says that "it may be going too far to say that conservative politicians and media figures whose rhetoric has fed the deranged fantasies of terrorists and killers have blood on their hands."  I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Zen and the Misery of Being a Met Fan

Being a Met fan is not a choice.  As a recent study published in the New York Times confirmed, if your team wins a championship when you are between the ages of 8 and 12, you are far more likely to maintain a lifetime loyalty to that team.  In 1969, I was ten years old.  Quod erat demonstrandum

If my parents had only waited and had me 8 years later, I would be an insufferable Yankees fan instead of a suffering Mets fan.  Alas, there is nothing to be done despite the unrelenting misery over the last six or seven years.  Who am I kidding, with rare exceptions, over the last 45-plus years.

By the time the Mets miraculously won the World Series in 1969, I was already hooked (thanks to my father, who adopted the Mets after being abandoned by the Brooklyn Dodgers) and was inured to their lovable losing ways. But, as David Searles wrote a while back, "the miracle year of 1969 changed everything."   Indeed.

"It was the first year where legitimate excitement surrounded the team," when they "seemed to perform a new miracle every day down the stretch that season." And after they won, it was never the same -- losing would no longer be lovable.

I will always cherish that 1969 team -- Tom Seaver, Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson, Tug McGraw, Jerry Koosman, Jerry Grote and the rest. And, only a few years later, with many of the same players, minus a few (like Agee) and some key additions (like John Milner, Jon Matlack, Rusty Staub, Felix Millan and even Willie Mays), they pulled off another miracle, winning their division after being in fifth place at the end of August, and then beating the mighty Reds in the playoffs before losing in seven games to the A's in the World Series.

But that was it for a decade. Things got so bad that in 1979, the 10th Anniversary of The Miracle Mets, my friend Michael and I went to Old Timers' Day at Shea Stadium and after watching our beloved 1969 stalwarts play a couple of ceremonial innings we left prior to the start of the "real" game. We simply couldn't bear the stark contrast with the then-current team, led by the likes of Willie Montanez, Richie Hebner and the detritus from the catastrophic Tom Seaver trade two years earlier.

Finally, in 1983, despite another last place finish, there were some hopeful signs. Darryl Strawberry, with his great name and incredible talent made his debut, and in mid-season the Mets acquired a star from the Cardinals, Keith Hernandez. Then in 1984, after seven straight losing seasons, the Mets became a fun team to watch. With a full year from Keith, and a youth movement led by Strawberry and phenomenal rookie sensation Dwight Gooden, the Mets won 90 games and finished in second place.  And then, before the 1985 season, the Mets acquired the great Gary Carter, who had succeeded Johnny Bench as the dominant National League catcher.

Of course, in 1986, the Mets won the World Series, with the help of Bill Buckner's wobbly legs, after a stunning playoff against Houston. Miracles abounded once again, and so did expectation. The Mets had a fabulous team filled with great young talent. But it was not to be. 1987 started with Dwight Gooden in drug rehab and 1988 ended with an excruciating loss to the Dodgers in the playoffs. After that, the Mets began dismantling the 1986 team, replacing iconic players like Len Dykstra, Strawberry and Mookie Wilson with spectacular underachievers like Juan Samuel, Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman (see Mets or Bust), resulting in six losing seasons in a row.

Even after signing Mike Piazza in 1998, the team would consistently cause heartburn and heartbreak. The Mets lost their last five games Piazza's first year to miss the playoffs by one game, followed in 1999 with a defeat by the Braves in the playoffs after Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run of the deciding game. The 2000s were not much better, starting with the crushing loss to the Yankees in the World Series (Armando Benitez, anyone?) followed by several mediocre seasons.

An exciting 2006 team reached the playoffs but lost a devastating final seventh game to the Cardinals. Two searing images from that game form the perfect Met microcosm: Endy Chavez makes one of the most incredible catches ever in the post season in the 6th inning only to have Carlos Beltran strike out looking with the bases loaded three innings later to end the game.

And since then, historic collapses to miss the playoffs, baffling player moves, an unprecedented number of injuries to star and potential star players, culminating in the entanglement with Bernie Madoff, which has caused ownership to shrink payroll and behave like they own a small-market team.


So, to paraphrase legendary announcer Bob Murphy, here's the "(un)happy recap": The Mets were laughably bad until they won in 1969. By the mid-1970s they were awful again, and it wasn't so cute. They peaked again in 1986, but couldn't sustain their greatness, and in the 28 years since, if anything could go wrong it invariably did.

After Matt Harvey, the Mets' dynamic young phenom, went down with an elbow injury last year at the height of his remarkable rookie season, I penned the Seven Stages of Being A Met Fan, which  starts with hope, works its way through anger and despair, and invariably reaches acceptance. 

Despite the Mets better play of late, and the excitement surrounding the bevy of young arms in the system, I, along with many Met fans, am currently somewhere between anger and despair.  The owners, general manager and field manager have lost what little trust they had left.  They hire PR men instead of HR men.  They blame the fans for not showing up to support their lousy product.  They make bad choices when they finally ease the tightening of purse strings (e.g., Chris Young), they dither  interminably when it comes to choosing among the players they do have (e.g., the Lucas Duda-Ike Davis drama), they confuse promising youngsters by bringing them up only to bench them in favor of players they previously disparaged (e.g., Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada) or play mediocre veterans (e.g., Eric Young, Chris Young) instead of their very few exciting young players (e.g., Juan Lagares).

Jake deGrom

Confronting yet another season of misery and frustration, I need to somehow move past anger and despair and get to acceptance.  I need to remind myself that while there have been only two miraculous championship years, smaller miracles happen all the time -- even now:  a Lagares catch, a Flores grand slam, a Mejia save, an Abreu double, a deGrom anything.  Being a Met fan is about expecting the worst, which will probably happen, although in ways that are unexpected; but it is also about reveling in these spectacular surprises and moments of beauty that make it all worthwhile.  Om shanti.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Botched Executions and Devolving Standards of Decency

Another botched execution.  This one in Oklahoma where witnesses described an "agonizing scene" in which over the course of 43 minutes, Clayton Lockett writhed, convulsed and struggled to speak before his heart "essentially exploded."  Earlier this year, on January 16, 2014, Dennis McGuire was executed in Ohio, a fifteen minute exercise in torture during which McGuire gasped and choked  before dying.

The phrase "botched execution" should be removed from the lexicon.  Webster's defines "botch" in relatively innocuous terms such as "bungle," "foul up" and "repair ineptly."  There is nothing innocuous about what the director of the ACLU in Oklahoma described as "human science experiments" -- experiments that can only be described as torture.

These latest horrors stem from the use of untested and unregulated lethal injection drugs, and the secrecy surrounding how and from whom these drugs are obtained.  As detailed in an important New York Times op-ed, presciently titled Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths, after an American pharmaceutical firm stopped making thiopental, the anesthetic used for executions, and federal courts barred the importation of the drug from overseas, states began substituting pentobarbital.  But with the Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital refusing to allow the drug to be used for executions, states started obtaining it from compounding pharmacies, "which mix small batches of drugs to order, and whose products are not approved by the F.D.A."  Other states, like Ohio and Oklahoma, are going with other untried drugs, such as midazolam.  

The grisly results, not at all surprising given the lack of oversight and appalling lack of scientific or medical review, are morally repulsive.
 
The "feckless" justices on the Supreme Court, as The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen, describes them, long ago should have "stop[ped] the madness caused by the current generation of lethal-injection secrecy" and "establish[ed] standards that would require states like Oklahoma to share basic information about the drugs used to kill prisoners."  And lower court state and federal judges should have demanded more through review of the issues raised by the use of new, untested lethal drug combinations.

But, the execution protocol is just the last of the many levels in the capital punishment process -- the machinery of death, as Justice Harry Blackmun put it -- in which the inevitability of human error and human frailties cause unfairness, unreliability and cruelty.  Police, trial lawyers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, appellate lawyers, appellate judges and executioners are all capable of bias and discrimination, errors in judgment and honest mistakes.  So many variables lead to so many instances of wrongful conviction, arbitrary and unjust sentence and ultimately, agonizing scenes of torture.

 "Evolving standards of decency" is a phrase used in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to analyze whether a given practice is cruel and unusual.  The Supreme Court has so far refused to find that capital punishment offends "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."  Meanwhile, the high court continues to allow execution after execution to go forward, more concerned with finality and swift punishment than justice and decency.  Indeed, Andrew Cohen notes, just  few months ago, Justice Scalia, during oral argument in Hall v. Florida, lamented the slow pace of executions in this country.

The notion of "evolving standards of decency" has always struck me as optimistic; as an acknowledgment that, while we may not be there yet, some day our society will evolve to the point where the death penalty will be unacceptable.  Unfortunately, with state officials still clamoring for vengeance and the Supreme Court as the arbiter of our evolution, we still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Justice For All? Despised Defendants Need Zealous Advocates

"Is Atticus Finch's courage only virtuous because we all end up liking and believing in Tom Robinson?"  --  Prof. Lawrence Marshall

The popular version of the heroic criminal defense lawyer is one who tirelessly defends the wrongly accused, saving a client who is more victim himself (or herself) than perpetrator.  In real life, defense lawyers are usually called upon to represent the guilty, to provide a vigorous defense for those who have committed despicable acts.  This is a far more heroic calling. Indeed, it is critically necessary to our system of justice to have dedicated, skillful advocates representing people who are hated and feared, and ensuring that the government is following the law.

As an attorney representing death row inmates for close to 25 years, I have witnessed -- literally -- the dreadful consequences of trial lawyers providing tepid representation.  A recent Mother Jones article provides a disturbing top ten list of "lawyers who were drunk or sleeping during trials, who demeaned their clients in front of the jury, who missed key deadlines or used a 'one brief fits all' appeals format."  The result, as legendary lawyer Stephen Bright once observed, is that those with the worst lawyers not those who committed the worst crimes end up on death row.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg agreed, stating a dozen years ago that, "People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty."

Unfortunately, it is becoming  all too common that the zealous lawyers who take on the cases of notorious clients are themselves targeted.  As Dalia Lithwick put it, "[o]nce upon a time in America this was called advocating for justice. But in today’s America, it’s deemed a miscarriage of justice."

A few years ago, Liz Cheney and her group, Keep America Safe, launched a smear campaign against lawyers in Obama's Justice Department, referring to them as the "Al Qaeda 7," for previously having represented Guantanamo detainees.  A group of former Bush Administration officials and other prominent lawyers shot back, publishing a letter condemning Liz Cheney's ad as shameful.  They rightfully stressed that "the American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams's representation of the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre."

Next, the ACLU and CCR (Center for Constitutional Rights) were chastised for representing (the now deceased) Anwar al-Awlaki.  The Obama Administration had authorized the killing of Awlaki, an American-born cleric tied to Al Qaeda and allegedly hiding in Yemen at that time.  A lawsuit brought by Awlaki’s father, who was represented by the ACLU and CCR, challenged “whether the government has the power to kill any American citizen it labels as a terrorist without review by the courts.”  This did not “cross the line” as Andrew Sullivan asserted.  Indeed, as Glenn Greewald passionately argued:  "How could it ever 'cross a line' for a civil liberties lawyer to represent an American citizen in an American court arguing that the Government is transgressing the limits of the U.S. Constitution?  The only thing that crosses a line is to insinuate that there's something improper about that."  (Awlaki was later killed in a September 30, 211 drone attack.  But thanks to more honorable lawyering by the ACLU, a federal appeals court has just ordered the Justice Department to release portions of a memo providing the ostensible legal justification for this targeted killing of a U.S. citizen.)

Recently, the United States Senate voted to reject Depo Adegbile, an otherwise sterling choice to run the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, because he headed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund when it represented Mumia Abu-Jamal, sentenced to death for killing a police officer, in his successful fight for life.  (Abu-Jamal is now serving a life without possibility of parole sentence.)

Pennsylvania Democrat, Bob Casey paid lip service to “respect[ing] that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime" but added the disturbing non sequitur that "it is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives — both elected and appointed.”  Casey added that “The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia."  Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, defending Adegbile's rejection by the Senate, was more direct:  “When someone has a history of helping cop-killers, this is what happens.”

And the latest attack on attorneys who have the audacity to provide representation guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to criminal defendants is a remarkably offensive campaign ad sponsored by the Republican Governors Association (RGA), entitled "Vincent Sheehan Protects Criminals, Not South Carolina." Sheehan is running for Governor against Republican incumbent, Nikki Haley.  He is described in the ad  as "trial lawyer" who "made money off criminals" and "got a sex offender out of jail time."  Indeed, he was actually paid for defending “violent criminals who abused women.”   As Ed Kilgore puts it, this ad sets a "new standard for immoral cynicism."  (Steve Benen points out that Chris Christie, the current head of the RGA, who has hired defense attorneys of his own recently, should have a better understanding of the importance of the right to counsel.)

So there you  have it.  While it might be important for our legal system to ensure that all criminal defendants have effective advocates, a lawyer's representation of a particularly despicable client accused of a particularly despicable crime is apparently a disqualifying factor for public office.  If, as Lindsay Graham says, "this is what happens" when a lawyer helps a "cop-killer" or any other unpopular client, our system of justice is in peril.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

So Much To Rant At, So Little Time

There was a time when I blogged almost every day.  Then, with a new job in an unfamiliar field requiring more of my energy and focus, I took a break.  Over the last year, I've slowly waded back in, and sporadically posted when I've felt the compulsion to do so.  While I don't have time to write anything in depth at the moment, there are a few issues that I just can't let go by without saying something.
  • I've written frequently about the Senate Republicans' use of the filibuster to thwart democracy judicial nominations, most recently here.   Their tactics became so obstructionist that even the timid Democrats in the Senate agreed to change the rules and preclude the filibuster for judicial nominations.  But this hasn't stopped Republicans from continuing to prevent President Obama from appointing federal judges, using an arcane procedure that essentially gives home-state Senators veto power by withholding "blue slips" that allow a nominee to proceed to a confirmation hearing.  Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, can abandon this custom just as Republican Orrin Hatch did when he was committee chair.  For some unfathomable reason, Leahy has been unwilling to end the blue slip requirement, but you can sign this petition to urge him to do so before Obama runs out of time to fill judicial vacancies.

  • Which brings me to the related topic of who President Obama is nominating to the federal bench when he does get the opportunity.  First, there are the unacceptably conservative nominations put forward to fill two Georgia district court seats.  These were part of a misguided attempt by Obama -- prior to the filibuster rule change -- to cut a deal to get the intransigent Georgia Republican Senators to move an 11th Circuit nomination forward.  Civil rights and abortion rights advocates strongly oppose these nominations.  Obama's judicial nominations, generally, have been disappointing, with a large majority coming from the corporate sector or the prosecutor's office and rarely from public interest firms or public defenders' offices.  These are lifetime appointments.  Given the zeal with which both Bush Administrations pushed young, right wing judges to fill the federal judiciary, it is critical that a Democratic Administration, particularly with what may prove to be a short-lived Senate majority, not let pass the opportunity to elevate progressive-minded lawyers to the bench.

  • Donald Rumsfeld proudly writes to the IRS every year when he files his return, complaining about the complexity of the tax code and professing not to know whether his return is accurate.   Rumsfeld's absent-minded government stooge routine has worn remarkably thin.  Rumsfeld revealed to documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in The Unknown Known, that he never read the so-called Torture Memos and professes to have no second thoughts -- or very many thoughts at all -- about his role in the "War on Terror" and the War on Iraq.  Two things.  First, Rumsfeld should be immediately audited given his admission about not submitting knowingly accurate tax returns.  Second, should it be determined upon a thorough audit that Rumsfeld has overpaid his taxes, it wouldn't come close to paying what he owes this Country for the damage he has wrought.

  • Oliver North, a self-professed "right wing goon," is a television consultant on the FX series, The Americans.  Relied on for his so-called expertise, he received a story credit for an episode in which KGB spies living in the U.S. infiltrate a contra training camp.  Recall that North was involved in one of the more shameful episodes in American history, when, as a member of the National Security Council, he played a central role in selling arms to Iran and funneling the profits to the Nicaraguan contras, at a time when Congress had banned such funding due to the contra's human rights abuses.  North admitted he had lied to Congress, shredded critical documents and altered key records.  Because of issues revolving around a grant of immunity for his Congressional testimony, North's felony convictions for obstructing a Congessional inquiry were eventually vacated, and he has remained for all these years an unrepentant, vindicated hero to the far right.  The fact that he is now peddling his "expertise" for mainstream consumption is unsettling to say the least.

  • The joy of the new baseball season has been marred not just by the usual spate of Met injuries, bizarre personnel moves and erratic play, but by new Major League rules involving instant replay.  I understood the need for the original instant replay rule, which was designed to review home runs.  New fangled ballparks with unusual angles and idiosyncratic seating make it much more difficult to discern with the naked eye when a ball was actually hit out of the park.  But the success of the original rule has led to the inevitable slipperly slope -- new rules which have expanded replay into many more areas of the game.  Although only weeks old, expanded replay is proving to be a disaster.  These rules which try to eliminate human error are applied by human beings, resulting in ... plenty of human error.  Instant reply is causing delay, uncertainty and more bad calls.  Baseball managment needs to stop trying to remove the human element and accept that baseball is a game of imperfection.
Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

OMG Mr. Met Is On Twitter: #isnothingsacred?

President Obama's dog has a twitter account.  It has over 15,000 followers.  How many actually believe that Bo is tweeting is unclear. 

Twitter and other social media have become critical promotional tools for politicians, celebrities, and corporations.  And so it is not surprising that there is a flood of nonsensical accounts or that people follow them.

But Mr. Met

Mr. Met began appearing on programs and scorecards in 1963, making his first live appearance at Shea Stadium the following year.  Although the mid-1970s were so grim that even Mr. Met couldn't bear going to Met games, he reappeared in the 1990s, becoming a mainstay once again.

There has always been a quiet dignity about Mr. Met.  Through the few miraculous moments and the all-too-many dismal times, Mr. Met has remained steadfast.  With season upon season turning from promise to devastating disappointment, there are no clever quips, sarcastic gibes, lame excuses or apologetic mutterings from Mr. Met.  Just a smile and a wave.

But Mr. Met now has a twitter account.  And the fleeting benefit of knowing what Mr. Met is actually thinking behind that lovable massive head is far outweighed by the end of his mystique.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Travesty of Justice: Nominee To Enforce Civil Rights Rejected For Fighting For Justice

"The Senate’s failure to confirm Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice is a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks . . . . Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. . . . His unwavering dedication to protecting every American’s civil and Constitutional rights under the law – including voting rights – could not be more important right now. . . The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice – and those who voted against his nomination denied the American people an outstanding public servant."  -- President Obama 

Debo Adegbile
In 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.  Abu-Jamal remained on death row for 30 years during an intensely fought battle in both the legal arena and public sphere which resulted in his death sentence being vacated.  Now almost 60 years old, Abu-Jamal is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Serious concerns remain about the fairness of Abu-Jamal's trial.  Some consider him a political prisoner.  On the other side, which includes Officer Faulkner's family and the Fraternal Order of Police, there continues to be outrage about the campaign to free Abu-Jamal as well as the fact that he was not executed.

No matter one's views about Abu-Jamal, about the case or the politics, or even about the death penalty, one issue should be uncontroversial -- that Abu-Jamal or any criminal defendant has the right to have an effective, zealous advocate, particularly when the case is a matter of life and death.  An important corollary, in my view, is that a lawyer's most  honorable role is to represent people who are hated and feared, and to ensure that the government is following the law.  (Here's an earlier piece, Crossing the Line, on prior attempts to smear lawyers who advocate for the despised.)

It is deeply distressing that the United States Senate just voted to reject Depo Adegbile, an otherwise sterling choice to run the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, because he headed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund when it represented Abu-Jamal in his fight for life.  Adegbile, who didn't personally work on Abu-Jamal's case, twice argued cases defending the Voting Rights Act before the U.S. Supreme Court, a far more relevant qualification for the job.

Sen. Patrick Leahy made the case that "the principle that all sides deserve an effective counsel is at the bedrock of our constitutional system” and “we cannot equate the lawyer with the conduct of those we represent if we want our justice system to endure."

Nevertheless, the Senate voted 52-47 to scuttle the nomination.

You can expect Republicans to vote against any Obama pick who would be supportive of civil rights enforcement.  As Sen. Dick Durbin put it, "I think the accusation is that the president is picking someone for the Division of Civil Rights who has been a leader in civil rights," and Republicans have “historically been troubled by … appointments [to the post] no matter who they are.” 

And you can expect Republicans to say stupid shit like what Sen. Lindsay Graham said:  “When someone has a history of helping cop-killers, this is what happens.”

But it was the Democrats who doomed Adegbile's chances, by pandering to the same simplistic pro-law enforcement, pro-prosecution sentiment as Senator Graham, effectively denigrating the importance of mounting a vigorous legal defense of a notorious defendant.

Pennsylvania Democrat, Bob Casey paid lip service to “respect[ing] that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime" but added the disturbing non sequitur that "it is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives — both elected and appointed.”  Casey added that “The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia.”

Christopher Coons, a Democratic Senator from Delaware also claimed to understand, "as a lawyer . . . the importance of having legal advocates willing to fight for even the most despicable clients" and purported to "embrace the proposition that an attorney is not responsible for the actions of their client."  But he decided to cast his vote aganst Adegbile because of the "decade-long public campaign . . . to elevate a heinous, cold-blooded killer to the status of political prisoner and folk hero," a campaign that Adegbile, by the way, had nothing to do with.

According to this reasoning, it is critical for our legal system to ensure that all criminal defendants have effective advocates but a lawyer's representation of a particularly despicable client accused of a particularly despicable crime (such as killing a police officer) is a disqualifying factor for public office.  Or as Lindsay Graham put it, "this is what happens" when you help cop-killers.

In addition to Casey and Coons, other shameful Democrats included Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas. John Walsh of Montana, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Derek Jeter's Long Goodbye: The Narcissism of a Yankee Icon


Derek Jeter is a brilliant baseball player and one of the greatest shortstops of all time; probably in the top five (with Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken).  Among many, many honors, he is a 13-time All Star, with 5 Gold Gloves to his credit.  His 3,316 hits are more than any Yankee in history.  He played a key role in ushering in the Yankees' latest era of dominance and helped lead them to five World Series championships.  He is universally praised, even by those who hate the Yankees, as not just a fabulous ballplayer, but as a class act, the face of the sport, a true ambassador for Major League Baseball.

According to Forbes, Derek Jeter also happens to be baseball's "top pitchman."  He has endorsement deals with "Nike, Gatorade, Ford Motor, Movado, Steiner Sports, Rawlings and 24-hour Fitness."  He also has a line of colognes through Avon:  "Driven."

But Derek Jeter wants more.  We now know that after 19 seasons, Derek Jeter is going to play one more season and one more season only.  Following in the sainted footsteps of his teammate, Mariano Rivera, he made this announcement before the start of the year and will now enjoy a 162-game salute to his greatness.  Not only a special night at Yankee Stadium, but a season-long farewell tour, recapping his storied career with accolades, video tributes, speeches, gifts, and Derek Jeter Days at every opposing team's stadium capped by an All Star Game played practically in his honor.

Great for attendance, and great for marketing, but is it really great for baseball to have another season devoted to another Yankee Legend? 

One of the wonderfully unique aspects of baseball is its deep connection to its history.  But sometimes the history can get in the way of the present.  The cloying tributes to Mariano Rivera in every baseball city last season were as annoying as they were interminable.  To make matters worse, he was not merely honored at the All Star Game, but awarded the MVP for sentimental reasons.  Touching?  Maybe for Yankee fans, but for baseball fans?

Does anyone see this as disturbingly narcissistic?  The epitome of the self-absorbed, needy modern athlete, rather than a dignified icon.  Don't ask the baseball press, who are blinded by the wonder of Derek Jeter.  Doug Glanville, the usually insightful former ballplayer at the New York Times, in his unmitigated paean, extolls Jeter's bravery:  "it takes a lot of courage to pre-empt the inevitable physical decline of a professional baseball player and do what he did this week."  Ken Rosenthal says Jeter "deserves" his farewell tour and describes Jeter's announcement as "typically gracious."  And Jon Heyman praises Jeter for making his retirement known now so that he would not create a fuss and distract his teammates during the season with endless questions about his future. 

No fuss, really?  The class move, the gracious move would have been for Jeter to announce his retirement at the end of the season, at which time he could be deservedly honored as one of the greatest players in the history of the game.  Instead, Derek Jeter is going to lap up all the attention he can muster in a season-long victory lap. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Death Penalty's Death Rattle

Three Ex-California Governors

Popular support for the death penalty has fallen significantly.  Six states have repealed it over the last six years, leaving 32 states with the death penalty on their books.  In three other states, most recently in Washington, governors have imposed moratoriums on executions.  The rate of executions around the country is rapidly declining and imposition of death sentences is at a historic low.  Meanwhile ever more exonerations are showing deep flaws in the criminal justice system  Evolving standards of decency, indeed.

Meanwhile, those still clamoring for the death penalty are making gruesome spectacles of themselves.  With pharmaceutical companies balking at having their products used in executions, there is a nationwide shortage of the drugs formerly used for lethal injection -- drugs which were combined in a cocktail already fraught with serious problems.  This has led officials in various states to call for a return to the firing squad or gas chamber, or more commonly to act like junior chemists, cobbling together their own unregulated and untested lethal combinations.  Inevitably, on January 16, 2014, Dennis McGuire was executed in Ohio with a new drug protocol that resulted in an agonizing fifteen minute ordeal in which McGuire gasped, choked  and struggled before dying.  While Ohio's governor ordered a stay for the next scheduled inmate to allow for further review of the state's procedures, other states are moving forward with their own experiments -- some of which are being halted by the courts and some aren't.

And then there is California, where three miserable former Governors just announced a proposed ballot initiative designed to speed up the death penalty appeals process.  Having apparently not done enough damage while they were in office, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, are backing a measure that will do nothing to address a hopelessly dysfunctional system that has cost taxpayers $4 billion, but is sure to add more delay, more costs, and more unreliability.

Morality aside, the arbitrariness of the death penalty is one of its more disturbing and intractable problems. Death sentences are not imposed on the so-called worst of the worst.  Far more significant factors in determining who gets a death sentence are the quality of the lawyers, the geographic location of the crime, and the race of the perpetrator and victim.   

This new initiative would exacerbate these problems. It would limit state appeals for death row inmates to five years where now it takes at least that long to appoint a qualified lawyer willing and able to take on such cases.  Another brilliant idea is to bypass the California Supreme Court which now hears all death penalty appeals directly and spread the cases to the lower courts of appeal around the state -- a state which already possess a gross geographical imbalance with virtually all death sentences coming from the south.

The thrust of the ballot measure would thus be to speed up and decentralize the process, limit avenues of review, and provide less skilled lawyers.  What could go wrong?

The fundamental problem, of course, is that California's death penalty system is broken beyond repair.  It is costly, arbitrary, discriminatory, and unworkable.  With over 700 inmates on death row, it serves no useful purpose while diverting needed resources from true public safety programs.  An initiative to replace the death penalty with life without parole and thereby not only move towards a more just and sane justice system but save millions of dollars every year barely lost in November 2012.  A similar effort is sure to be successful in the near future.

In the meantime, like a macabre game of whack-a-mole, we need to beat down these destructive proposals when they appear, and refocus on meaningful criminal justice reforms including an end to the death penalty.  Click here to join the fight. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Deconstructing Woody Allen

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
-- Woody Allen
With a trio of remarkable and remarkably funny films in the early 1970s (Bananas, Sleeper, and Love & Death), I became a huge fan of Woody Allen movies in my tweens/teens.  I delighted in the other hilariously memorable movies made during this period too, including Take the Money and Run and Play It Again, Sam.  My love and deep appreciation for Allen's movies was then cemented with Annie Hall, one of the great romantic comedies of all time, followed by Manhattan.  There were more truly great movies in the 1980s, notably Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, and several worthy films in the 1990s (e.g., Shadows and Fog, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Deconstructing Harry).  I haven't been able to summon the same level of devotion to his later works, but have continued to enjoy many -- certainly not all -- of the yearly movies Allen has released over the last decade or so. 

It has not been hard for me to separate Woody Allen the artist/filmmaker from Woody Allen the man.  I know the movies.  I don't know the man.  I know he married Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of Mia Farrow, with whom he had a long relationship, and that there is about a 35-year difference in their ages.  Kinda creepy, but they've been married a long time now and what do I really know about it?

And now, in the wake of Allen's lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, allegations have resurfaced of his molestation of Farrow's daughter Dylan twenty years ago when she was seven.  Allen was accused at the time but no charges were filed after an investigation proved inconclusive.  There has been almost universal outrage that an accused pedophile could be given such an award, with countless people expressing their certainty about Allen's guilt.  Others have been more cautious but still insist that accusations of abuse should be enough to disqualify him from being honored.  The few, brave souls who expressed appreciation of his work are themselves accused of being insensitive to victims of sexual abuse and supporting pedophilia.

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and friend of Mia Farrow, published a letter from Dylan, herself, in which she insists that Allen assaulted her and remains haunted by the fact that he got away with it, spurring a ferocious and tragic inter-familial debate in the media.  One brother sides with Dylan and their mother.  Another sides with Allen. Allen has now felt compelled to come forward with his own defense, just published in the Times.

Kristof admits that "none of us can be certain what happened" but, nevertheless insists that while "the standard to send someone to prison is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, []shouldn’t the standard to honor someone be that they are unimpeachably, well, honorable?"   Well...No. 

When someone is accused of a heinous act, my criminal defense instincts are awakened and my skepticism of the so-called proof of guilt is heightened.  At least in a criminal case, the accused is entitled to cross-examine his accuser, challenge the evidence, and present a defense.   When someone is accused in the media, we only know what is being reported.  We don't know what the evidence really is.  We can't possibly know what actually occurred.

It should go without saying that sexual abuse is all too prevalent.  There are countless heartbreaking stories about victims whose perpetrators are never caught.  But there are also instances of false accusations,  and even of false memories, where children are manipulated to believe something that never happened.

The criminal justice system is a flawed vehicle for ferreting out the truth.  It is without doubt the province of powerful white males.  A fair and just result is often more dependent on the skill, resources and funding of the attorneys and experts, and on the sensitivity of the judge and other players in the process than on the actual facts.  Most cases are never brought to trial.  When they are, the guilty are often found guilty but not always; and the innocent are often found not guilty but not always.

And even more flawed than courts of law are courts of public opinion.  

Dalia Lithwick writes perceptively that "in the current debate about what happened between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow in a Connecticut farmhouse in 1992, it massively disserves and undermines the most basic goals of the legal system when we import legal concepts into what is essentially a barroom brawl." 
The Court of Public Opinion is what we used to call villagers with flaming torches. It has no rules, no arbiter, no mechanism at all for separating truth from lies. It allows everything into evidence and has no mechanism to separate facts about the case from the experiences and political leanings of the millions of us who are all acting as witnesses, judges, and jurors.
Is Woody Allen guilty of sexual abuse?  I have no idea and can't possibly know.  Does his lifestyle seem a little creepy?  Yep.  Are his movies -- particularly the early ones -- great.  Absolutely.

And can we honor his body of work without honoring his lifestyle or dishonoring his accusers?  Alyssa Rosenberg suggests we focus on the art not the artist:  "sticking to the work and avoiding personal praise of the person in question might be a good minimum standard."  Agreed.  But maybe we can also put down the pitchforks and flaming torches. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Richard Sherman, Race and Class In The NFL

Where's the fainting couch?  American football fans, after witnessing 60 minutes of cringe-worthy brutality replete with bone-jarring, brain-rattling hits and gruesome injuries, are shocked, offended, and outraged that a football player -- an African American football player -- who makes a remarkable game-winning play and has a microphone stuck in his face, departed from the usual script of praising God and crediting his fellow teammates, and engaged in a little adrenaline-induced trash talk. 

As Isaac Saul wrote, in a particularly insightful Huffington Post piece, "could you imagine if this generation had to deal with Muhammad Ali?"

Race, as always, plays an outsized role in the reaction to Seahawk defense back Richard Sherman's post-game exclamation that "I'm the best corner[back] in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you going to get."
  
Sherman was called arrogant, classless (classless in football?), thuggish, and so much worse.

Travis Waldron points out that "the day after the interview, the word 'thug' was used some 625 times on television, more than it had been used on any single day in the past three years, according to a Deadspin analysis. And most of it was used with the same connotation that racist terms like the n-word would have been used once. Sherman is too loud. Too boisterous. Too…black."

As Ta-Nahisi Coates said, "there's some weird notion in our society that holds that trash-talking is for the classless and stupid. I don't know what it means to be 'classless' in an organization like the NFL. And then there is the racism from onlookers, who are incapable of perceiving in Sherman an individual, and instead see the sum of all American fears—monkey, thug, terrorist, nigger."

Richard Sherman grew up in Compton, finished second in his high school class and then graduated from Stanford with a 3.9 GPA, before becoming the best defensive back in the game.  Oh, and he started his own non-profit, Blanket Coverage, whose mission "is to level the playing field for children enrolled in grades K-12 who have a strong combination of potential, goals and a desire to make the most of their education."

As Saul put it:  "This is a guy who represents one of the best kinds of sports stories there is in the world: the rise from the bottom, the profound destruction of obstacles, the honest success story built by a foundation of hard work and loving parents. If anyone with a brain took the time to learn about Richard Sherman, and then put him in the context of the rest of the National Football League, he'd be a pretty hard guy to bash."

Saul notes that 31 NFL players were arrested last off season for everything from gun charges and driving under the Influence to murder. The NFL, where recently at least one team paid bounties to players who caused injuries to opposing players.  But it is Richard Sherman's post-game reaction that offends our sensibilities. 

What Sherman taught us, Isaac Saul writes, "is that we're still a country that isn't ready for lower-class Americans from neighborhoods like Compton to succeed. We're still a country that can't decipher a person's character. But most of all, he taught us that no matter what you overcome in your life, we're still a country that can't accept someone if they're a little louder, a little prouder, or a little different from the people we surround ourselves with."

Not to mention that Richard Sherman is a proud Black man.

 Unfortunately, Greg Howard is right:
Too many of us think that one ecstatic, triumphant black man showing honest, human emotion just seconds after making a play that very well could be written into the first appositive of his obituary, is not only offensive, but is also representative of the tens of millions of blacks in this country. And in two weeks time, in the year 2014, too many of us will be rooting for the Denver Broncos for no other reason than to knock Richard Sherman down a few notches, if only to put him back in his place.
 Go Seahawks!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pizza Journeys

Although I've lived in California for 30 years, according to a recent New York Times test, I still talk like a New Yorker.  I have also held fast to a couple of New York obsessions.  As readers of this blog well know, I remain painfully devoted to the baseball team of my youth.  The other one -- less easily satisfied with a cable TV subscription -- is pizza.  For that, I have to wait for my occasional visits to New York, when I venture out to as many of the legendary pizzerias as my family will tolerate.

There was wonderful pizza in Great Neck, Long Island, where I grew up.  I preferred La Tosca, but a plausible argument could be made -- and often was -- that Scotto's was its equal.  We took great pizza for granted and it was hard to imagine it could taste any better.  But everything is better in the City, and back then the consensus was the best pizzeria in Manhattan was Ray's.  Yes, but which Ray's?

Ray's, Famous Ray's, Original Ray's or Famous Original Ray's?

Well, the first Ray's was on Prince Street in Little Italy, opened by Ralph Cuomo in 1959. (Ray's closed in 2011, after a legal dispute among Cuomo's heirs)  Cuomo had opened a second location on First Avenue at 59th Street, which he sold in the early 1960s to Rosolino Mangano, and which then became the first of several "Famous Original Ray's."  For me, the go-to Ray's was Famous Ray's on 6th Avenue and 11th Street, opened by Mario Di Rienzo in 1973.  Famous Ray's closed in 2011, but Mario reopened in 2012, as Famous Roio's Pizza.  In the fall of 2012, I went to Famous Roio's with that wide, thin, greasy slice still embedded in my memory.  I was deeply disappointed.  Too thick with too much cheese, and nothing at all like I recalled.  Others must have felt the same.  Famous Roio's closed its doors in 2013. 

Coal Brick Ovens

Then there are the storied coal brick oven pizzerias, beginning with Lombardi's at Spring Street and Mott, which, as the plaque says, is the "First Pizzeria in the United States."  Opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1905, the pizza at Lombardi's is truly excellent, but the restaurant -- geared for tourists -- sorely lacks atmosphere.  

Lombardi, himself, trained the next generation of pizza makers, including Antonio (Totonno) Pero, who opened Totonno's at Coney Island, John Sasso of John's of Bleecker Street, and Patsy Lancieri of Patsy's in East Harlem.  Patsy's nephew, Patsy Grimaldi, opened Grimaldi's in Brooklyn. 

These successors to Lombardi's form the pantheon of the great coal-fired brick oven pizzerias.  These ovens give the pizza a crispness and smoky flavor that cannot be duplicated -- literally.  New coal ovens are not permitted because they fail to meet New York's  environmental laws, but the old ovens, having been grandfathered in, can still be used.

The walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to Grimaldi's feels like the true pilgrimage that it is.  Once you brave the line outside, the red and white checkered tablecloths, photographs of New York glitterati on the wall, and Sinatra on the sound system transport you back in time.  The pizza, crisp and piping hot out of the brick oven is as good as it gets.  And Totonno's is just as good, maybe better.  It is unassuming and more down-to-earth as befits its Coney Island location, and has the feel of a family-run operation -- as it should since Totonno's grandchildren operate the place.  John's of Bleeker Street, with its wood booths and "no slices" reminder, is no slouch when it comes to great brick oven pizza and comes in a close third.   

The Old Masters

There are not too many things more sacred than personally receiving a pizza from one of the Old Masters. Sal & Carmine's is indistinguishable on the outside (or inside for that matter) from any other hole-in-the-wall pizza joint, but this hallowed place opened in 1959 on the upper West Side -- Broadway at 102nd Street -- is no run-of-the-mill pizzeria.  Sadly, Sal passed away in 2009, but his brother Carmine is still behind the counter, and served up one of the best slices I've ever had.  A bit light on sauce but with a memorable, chewy crust that is not as floppy thin as a traditional NY slice (not that there's anything wrong with that).

I dragged my family to Avenue J in the Midwood section of Brooklyn for a pie at Di Fara, which is often rated the "Best Pizza in NY."  Di Fara has been run by Dom DeMarco since 1964, and he still makes every pie personally.  Yes, every pie.  As a result, service is slow and the line outside the door is long.  When we got there in the late afternoon, DeMarco's friendly but very protective daughter came out to say they were going to close for an hour because her father needed a break.  We didn't mind the wait, and were ultimately rewarded when DeMarco, himself, took our pie out of the oven, ceremoniously cut fresh basil leaves over the top, and handed it over. 

For the last few years, my favorite slice in the City has been from Joe's Pizza on Carmine Street in the West Village.  Joe's was opened in 1975, by Joe Pozzuoli, who still runs the business.   This is the classic New York slice -- thin crust, sweet tomato sauce, perfect amount of cheese. I feel like I've come full circle.

To Be Continued

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Going Nuclear: GOP Uses Filibuster As A Weapon Of Mass Destruction Because They Hate Our Freedoms

Just when you think the Republican's ideological assault on democracy can't get worse, it does.  But this time it isn't the Tea Party nihilists in the House but Establishment Republicans in the Senate who are obstructing the legitimate operation of government, making a mockery of majority rule by requiring that virtually everything must pass a 60-vote threshold.

After the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is the nation's most important appellate court.  It has jurisdiction over challenges to executive orders, federal regulations and decisions of many federal agencies on topics, as Nan Aron, President of Alliance for Justice, notes, like the environment, consumer protections, workers' rights, banking regulations, executive power, and other vital issues."  Four of the current Supreme Court justices sat on the D.C. Circuit (Roberts, Ginsburg, Thomas and Scalia).

The court is currently evenly split (4-4) between Democrat and Republican-nominated judges, with three vacancies.  President Obama has nominated three extremely qualified judges to fill the three empty seats (after already withdrawing the nomination of another unassailable choice who was blocked by Republicans earlier this year).  Two of the three have already been filibustered by Senate Republicans, who intend to block the third, advancing the specious argument that Obama is engaged in court-packing when he is merely filling existing vacancies. 

Republicans claim the D.C. Circuit, with its relatively smaller (although exceedingly complex) caseload doesn't need all 11 judges.  Of course, as Harry Reid  pointed out, the contention that 11 judges are not needed it "not what they said when President Bush filled several vacant seats on the court. When George W. Bush was President, Senate Republicans happily filled the 9th, 10th and 11th seats on the D.C. Circuit -- the same three seats President Obama seeks to fill today -- even though the court had a smaller caseload at the time."

Republican hypocrisy doesn't end there.  Recall those bygone days when Democrats used the filibuster effectively to thwart some of George W. Bush's more extreme judicial appointments (although not by any means all of them).  Republicans argued back then that use of the filibuster was not just wrong, it was unconstitutional.  They threatened to employ the so-called "nuclear option," to change the Senate rules to preclude filibusters for judicial nominees.  Of course, the Democrats blinked.  Seven Democrats joined seven Republicans to form the "Gang of Fourteen," and signed an agreement in which the Republicans in the gang would not vote for the nuclear option and the Democrats would not filibuster except in "extraordinary circumstances."  In practical terms, this meant that Bush was able appoint the conservatives he wanted to the bench and the Democratic minority, without the seven members of the gang, could not stop him.  Thus, five nominees who had originally been filibustered, and several other conservatives, became federal judges, and, perhaps most significantly, Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court was permitted an up-or-down vote.  He was confirmed by a vote of 58-42, with enough Senators voting against him to have successfully filibustered and prevented a vote on his confirmation. 

Republicans, now in the minority, are blatantly violating the agreement not to filibuster judges except in extraordinary circumstances but Democrats are balking at going nuclear.  Recalcitrant Democrats fear that when they are in the minority, a Republican president could nominate a right wing radical to the Supreme Court and Democrats would no longer have the filibuster as a tool to stop it.  Indeed, Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, explicitly threatened that if Democrats eliminate the filibuster it would be easier for a future Republican president to appoint more justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas: "All I can say is this -- be careful what you wish for. . . So if the Democrats are bent on changing the rules, then I say go ahead. There are a lot more Scalias and Thomases that we'd love to put on the bench. The nominees we'd nominate and put on the bench with 51 votes would interpret the constitution as it was written."

Of course, if there were a Republican president and Republican majority and Democrats tried to employ the filibuster, Republicans would either go nuclear anyway, or the Democrats would cave as they did in the last go round.  Moreover, what makes anyone think that the Democrats would filibuster a  Supreme Court nominee?  There are already four right wing radicals on the high court and Democrats failed to use the filibuster to stop any of them.  To review, Scalia was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1986.  The Democratic minority, perhaps distracted by the (ultimately unsuccessful) fight over Justice Rehnquist's nomination for Chief Justice, joined Republicans to approve Scalia unanimously.  In 1991, with Democrats in the majority, the Senate voted in George H.W. Bush's nominee, Clarence Thomas, by a vote of 52-48.  George W. Bush's nomination of John Roberts for Chief Justice was approved by a vote of 78-22, and as discussed above, Alito was confirmed after an agreement not to filibuster.

Republican abuse of the filibuster to prevent a president from filling vacancies no matter who is nominated so as not to tip the majority on the court is unprecedented.  If successful, what is to stop them from blocking nominees in every other court where the ideological split would potentially change in the Democrats' favor -- even the Supreme Court?

The "nuclear" option is really a misnomer.  It is the Republican Party that is using the filibuster as weapon of mass destruction -- a weapon to upend the democratic process.  As George W. would say, it is because "they hate what they see right here in this chamber:  a democratically elected government  . . .  They hate our freedom . .  ."  The smoking gun might not be a mushroom cloud, but if the Democrats refuse to change the filibuster rules and allow Republicans to block Obama's nominees for the D.C. Circuit, they may as well cede the federal judiciary branch -- indeed, our federal government -- to a Republican cabal for the foreseeable future.