Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Occupy Is Not An Armed Conflict

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article today about a deepening split in the Occupy movement in Oakland and San Francisco.  The dispute is over whether violent tactics, street battles with police and destruction of property are unacceptable and have the potential to undermine the movement or are justified responses to police repression.  The article, which reported that the debate was "turning into a wrestling match for the soul of the Occupy movement in the Bay Area," failed to note that those advocating or accepting of violence were a very small minority.   And that, of course, illustrates the problem:  it does not take many people to hijack the movement and the message.

Tina Dupuy, award-winning writer, investigative journalist and managing editor of Crooks and Liars has been following Occupy closely from Day One.  She has been to eight Occupy camps in two countries: "One raid. One near-arrest. One march on the U.S. Consulate. A couple of barricaded streets. I was at the largest GA the movement has had thus far (Cal Berkeley) and at the first ever national one (in DC)."  In short, she knows what she is talking about.

Dupuy has written an important piece for Alternet, "Why #OWS Needs to Denounce Violent Tactics on Display at Occupy Oakland" on how the movement is on the brink of being marginalized.  

The Occupy Movement, “the 99 percent,” has, ironically, been hijacked by a small minority within its ranks. I speak of a small percentage of Occupiers who are okay with property destruction. As we saw in Oakland over the weekend: They’re okay with breaking windows, trashing city buildings and throwing bottles at the police. In short: They are not nonviolent. They are willing to commit petty criminal acts masked as a political statement.

These are Black Bloc tactics and they're historically ineffective at spurring change. The now Gingrich-vilified Saul Alinsky in 1970 said the Weather Underground (the terrorist wing of the anti-war movement) should be on the Establishment’s payroll. “Because they are strengthening the Establishment,” said the “professional radical” Alinsky. Nothing kneecapped the call for the war to end quicker than buildings being bombed in solidarity with pacifist sentiments.

Here’s the key point: Occupy is not an armed conflict – it’s a PR war. Nonviolent struggle is a PR war. Gandhi had embedded journalists on his Salt March. He wasn’t a saint. That was a consciously cultivated media image. He used the press and its power to gain sympathy for his cause. What he didn’t do is say he was nonviolent “unless the cops are d*cks,” a sentiment voiced at Occupy. Nonviolent struggle has nothing to do with how the cops react. In actual nonviolent movements they welcome police overreaction because it helps the cause they’re fighting for.

At some General Assemblies this issue is referred to as “diversity of tactics.” It means basically if you’re not okay with property damage, but if someone else is, you’re not going to stand in the way. To a liberal ear it sounds like affirmative action or tolerance. It sounds like diversity of opinion – it’s not. It’s 3,000 people peacefully marching and two *ssholes breaking windows; which becomes 3,000 people breaking some windows in news reports.

Violent tactics taint everyone involved evenly – consenting or not.
Read the whole piece here.


Glenn Greenwald reminds us of Candidate Obama's pledge to negotiate without precondition with the leaders of Iran and other countries, a far-sighted position that caused him to be labeled naive by many in the the punditocracy.  Unfortunately, President Obama refuses to engage meaningfully with Iran through direct negotiations or diplomacy, leaving increasingly harsh sanctions as the only available course.  As Michael Klare writes below, this misguided policy is making the Strait of Hormuz "the most combustible spot on the planet, the most likely place to witness a major conflict between well-armed adversaries."  -- Lovechilde

By Michael T. Klare, cross-posted from Tom Dispatch

Ever since December 27th, war clouds have been gathering over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow body of water connecting the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean and the seas beyond.  On that day, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned that Tehran would block the strait and create havoc in international oil markets if the West placed new economic sanctions on his country.

“If they impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports,” Rahimi declared, “then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.”  Claiming that such a move would constitute an assault on America’s vital interests, President Obama reportedly informed Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Washington would use force to keep the strait open.  To back up their threats, both sides have been bolstering their forces in the area and each has conducted a series of provocative military exercises.

All of a sudden, the Strait of Hormuz has become the most combustible spot on the planet, the most likely place to witness a major conflict between well-armed adversaries.  Why, of all locales, has it become so explosive?

Oil, of course, is a major part of the answer, but -- and this may surprise you -- only a part.

Petroleum remains the world’s most crucial source of energy, and about one-fifth of the planet’s oil supply travels by tanker through the strait.  “Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint due to its daily oil flow of almost 17 million barrels in 2011,” the U.S. Department of Energy noted as last year ended.  Because no other area is capable of replacing these 17 million barrels, any extended closure would produce a global shortage of oil, a price spike, and undoubtedly attendant economic panic and disorder.

No one knows just how high oil prices would go under such circumstances, but many energy analysts believe that the price of a barrel might immediately leap by $50 or more.  “You would get an international reaction that would not only be high, but irrationally high,” says Lawrence J. Goldstein, a director of the Energy Policy Research Foundation.  Even though military experts assume the U.S. will use its overwhelming might to clear the strait of Iranian mines and obstructions in a few days or weeks, the chaos to follow in the region might not end quickly, keeping oil prices elevated for a long time.  Indeed, some analysts fear that oil prices, already hovering around $100 per barrel, would quickly double to more than $200, erasing any prospect of economic recovery in the United States and Western Europe, and possibly plunging the planet into a renewed Great Recession.

The Iranians are well aware of all this, and it is with such a nightmare scenario that they seek to deter Western leaders from further economic sanctions and other more covert acts when they threaten to close the strait.  To calm such fears, U.S. officials have been equally adamant in stressing their determination to keep the strait open.  In such circumstances of heightened tension, one misstep by either side might prove calamitous and turn mutual rhetorical belligerence into actual conflict.

Third Party Mischief

If only we had a political leader who would seek centrist solutions to our nation's problems, and would seek to rise above the rancor to bridge the huge chasm that exists between the two political parties.  Wait, isn't that exactly who we elected?  Apparently not, according to "mega-rich Wall Street titans," as Peter Hart describes them, who under the guise of moderation and bipartisanship hope to place their very own right of center candidate on the ballot in November through anti-democratic means.   This is precisely what we don't need.  As Steve Benen aptly puts it:  American Elect is "an overly-secretive, well-financed gimmick, eager to play electoral mischief for reasons that remain unclear." -- Lovechilde

The One Percent Candidate

By Peter Hart, cross-posted from Other Words

Think big money and Wall Street have too much influence over national politics? Not to worry: A third-party presidential candidate bankrolled by hedge funds will fix all of that.

Believe it or not, that's the pitch coming from a group called "Americans Elect." And some of America's top pundits are loving it. "What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what Drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life," gushed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last year. Another columnist likened the effort to the democratic uprising in Egypt, while a third cheered on the challenge to "today's two-party tyranny."

Sure, it's time to shake up the two-party system. But what exactly is Americans Elect? The group is attempting to use state petition drives to win a spot on this year's presidential ballot. But who will be its candidate? That's apparently up to us — sort of. The candidate will be chosen through the Internet, as citizen delegates weigh in on key issues and then nominate viable, qualified candidates. Sorry, Stephen Colbert, no joke candidates allowed.

That sounds fine — but there's a catch. The group stipulates that the candidate must be a so-called "centrist," but if you look at the candidates the group is reportedly considering, this is just code for moderate Republican. Indeed, many of the people Americans Elect has floated as potential candidates — Jon Huntsman, Chuck Hagel, and Lamar Alexander, for example — happen to be Republicans who have failed to excite many actual Republican voters.

The Democrats whose names are floated include Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent who often votes as a Republican. According to the group's own rules, the group can overrule the choice of the Internet delegates. That doesn't sound much like democracy.

Who is putting up the cash to potentially run a second Republican presidential candidate? The project is "financed with some serious hedge-fund money," Friedman explained.

Monday, January 30, 2012

It's Their Party . . .

As Meteor Blades writes today at Daily Kos, while many disenchanted Republicans cling to the hope that a credible candidate will step in to save the GOP from the current field of presidential candidates, time has essentially run out:  "The Republicans came to the dance with the wrong partners. And now they're going to have to go home with one of them."

Tom Tomorrow, capturing the essence of the two top contenders, shows us why the Republicans should be worried.  As he says, Newt Gingrich "could not be any more repellant if he were literally exposed as an oozing reptillian creature bent on global domination."  And then there's Mitt Romney, "who could not be any less convincing as an 'ordinary guy' if he literally wore a top hat and monocle."  (Click on the Read Tom Tomorrow badge on the right of the blog for a link to the whole comic.) 

Press Freedom: We're Number 47!

A couple of weeks ago, I posted Jim Hightower's piece which reported on a German foundation's analysis of the social justice records of all 31 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which concluded that, based on "such categories as health care, income inequality, pre-school education, and child poverty," the United States came in 27th. 

The news isn't better when it comes to our government's respect for a free press.  Reporters Without Borders, in their annual Press Freedom Index, dropped the United States from 20th in 2011, to a three-way tie for 47th with Argentina and Romania this year.

The report made clear that the United States "owed its fall of 27 places to the many arrests of journalists covering Occupy Wall Street protests."  This is sadly not surprising given, as Jack Mirkinson writes in Huffington Post, how well documented the treatment of journalists by the police has been in 2011: "Reporters were beaten, arrested and prevented from covering police action against Occupy protesters. Tensions heightened so much that the New York Police Department had to meet with journalists and remind its officers not to mistreat them."

Hightower noted that "our bottom-of-the-heap ranking in social justice confirms the economic and political inequality that the Occupy movement is protesting."  But, Laurence Lewis states at Daily Kos, while "the Occupy Movement has changed the conversation in this country . . . those who don't want it changed are scared."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Stress Testing Tim Geithner

By Mary Bottari, cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future

Thanks to Occupy Wall Street, in the State of the Union this week President Obama struck some of his most populist themes yet. He wants to tax millionaires, bring back manufacturing and prosecute the big banks. He touted his Wall Street reforms saying the big banks are “no longer allowed to make risky bets with customers deposits” and “the rest of us aren’t bailing you out ever again.”
But are we safe from the next big bank bailout?

Many experts are dubious and Wednesday the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen decided to test the theory in the most direct way possible. They used the administrative law process to formally petition the nation’s top bank regulators to move swiftly to break up Bank of America (BofA) asserting in their petition: “The bank poses a grave threat to U.S. financial stability by any reasonable definition of that phrase.”

A Ticking Time Bomb

BofA is not just big, its behemoth. With assets of $2.1 trillion, equal to more than 14 percent of U.S. GDP, it is bigger than many small countries. Yet, its stock is trading at $7.

What does Wall Street know that we don’t?

The petition provides a compelling list of disturbing data points. In 2008-2009, BofA publicly took $45 billion in TARP bailout funds and secretly took another $1 trillion in emergency Federal Reserve loans. Yet, several analysts predict that BofA is woefully short of capital reserves and facing potentially billions in legal liability for its role in the crisis.

Although the bank declared net profits in recent quarters, these profit comes from accounting tricks, one-time asset sales and stock swaps. BofA’s share price to tangible book value is extremely low. The market suspects the bank is worth roughly half of what management claims and the price of credit default swaps (a type of insurance) on BofA recently rose to record highs.

“The bank is a ticking time bomb,” says David Arkush of Public Citizen. “If Bank of America in its current form were to fail, it would devastate the financial system. We’re asking the regulators to make sure that never happens. The only way to be sure is to reform the institution into something safer before any crisis materializes.”

Public Citizen asked the new Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), which is chaired by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and made up of the nation's top bank regulators, to use the tools provided in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law to act before a crisis occurs and to break BofA into smaller separate institutions. The law allows the FSOC to limit big bank mergers and acquisitions, restrict products and services or order it to divest assets or off-balance-sheet items after a vote to designate the institution a “grave threat” to financial stability.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Jazz Interlude: Stan Getz

Stan Getz performs Jobim's Wave in Copenhagen with a quartet, from the mid-1970s that consists of Albert Dailey on piano, George Mraz on bass, and Billy Hart on drums.

All Aboard The Transgenic Titanic

By Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, cross-posted from PAN's website

On Tuesday, one of the world’s largest pesticide and biotech companies — Monsanto Corporation — held its annual general meeting in St. Louis. While protestors outside Monsanto headquarters highlighted growing public disenchantment with the industry giant and its genetically engineered products, investors in the meeting were voting on a shareholder resolution from PAN and Harrington Investments.

If passed, the resolution would require Monsanto to report on all financial risks and impacts, including contamination of neighboring crops, associated with its GE/pesticide seed package.

Bright spots in 2011 for Monsanto notwithstanding (Uncle Sam gave the company a sweet holiday gift package in December), there was much for shareholders attending the St. Louis meeting to be concerned about: the impending demise of Monsanto's enormously profitable RoundUp-Ready pesticide/GE seed line; growing numbers of irate farmers and mounting negative publicity over the company’s role in creating superweeds and superbugs now afflicting millions of acres of farmland across the country; surging consumer demand for labeling of GE foods (95% want it); and a share value that has ricocheted wildly between $58 and $78 over the past 6 months.

It is only going to get worse.— Lee Van Wychen, director of science policy, Weed Science Society of America, referring to the superweed epidemic.

In presenting PAN's resolution, we argued that shareholders should take seriously the looming consequences of the risky behavior of the biotech titan. Monsanto’s refusal to acknowledge the evolutionary realities of developed resistance to, and genetic contamination from its ubiquitous GE product lines signaled years ago the company’s complete lack of foresight and accountability.

Not surprisingly, the resolution did not pass in Tuesday's meeting. But the call for greater transparency about Monsanto’s liabilities garnered media attention, including this local TV report.

No Responsible Democrat Should Want Newt Gingrich To Get The GOP Nomination

Robbie Conal
I wasn't particularly politically savvy as a college student in 1980, evidenced by the fact that I relished the idea of Ronald Reagan winning the Republican nomination for President.  I was sure that Reagan's 1950s world view, his far right bona fides, and his intellectual deficits would make him a laughably easy candidate to defeat.  So much so that I voted for -- dare I admit this? -- third-party candidate, John Anderson.  That didn't work out so well, did it?  -- Lovechilde 

By Robert Reich, cross-posted from his website

Republicans are worried sick about Newt Gingrich’s ascendance, while Democrats are tickled pink.

Yet no responsible Democrat should be pleased at the prospect that Gingrich could get the GOP nomination. The future of America is too important to accept even a small risk of a Gingrich presidency.

The Republican worry is understandable. “The possibility of Newt Gingrich being our nominee against Barack Obama I think is essentially handling the election over to Obama,” says former Minnesota Governor Tom Pawlenty, a leading GOP conservative. “I think that’s shared by a lot of folks in the Republican party.”

Pawlenty’s views are indeed widely shared in Republican circles. “He’s not a conservative – he’s an opportunist,” says pundit Joe Scarborough, a member of the Republican Class of 1994 who came to Washington under Gingrich’s banner. Gingrich doesn’t “have the temperament, intellectual discipline or ego control to be either a successful nominee or president,”says New York Republican representative Peter King, who hasn’t endorsed any candidate. “Basically, Newt can’t control himself.”

Gingrich is “an embarrassment to the party,” says New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, and “was run out of the speakership” on ethics violations. Republican strategist Mike Murphy says “Newt Cingrich could not carry a swing state in the general election if it was made of feathers.”

“Weird” is the word I hear most from Republicans who have worked with him. Scott Klug, a former Republican House member from Wisconsin, who hasn’t endorsed anyone yet, says “Newt has ten ideas a day – two of them are good, six are weird and two are very weird.”

Newt’s latest idea, for example – to colonize the moon – is typically whacky.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

R.I.P Rodrigo Hernandez

Roman Colosseum lit to protest an execution
Texas executed Rodrigo Hernandez on January 26, 2012, for the murder and sexual assault of Susan Verstegen in 1994.  Hernandez was linked to the murder based on a DNA match in 2002.  

Hernandez's current attorneys argued that the lawyers who previously represented Hernandez at trial and in earlier appeals were incompetent for failing to develop and present evidence of Hernandez's mental impairments and intellectual disabilities which made him ineligible for the death penalty. 

This is the second execution in the United States this year, and the first in Texas.

The War On A Woman's Right To Choose Continues

By Tanya Somanader, cross-posted from ThinkProgress

Tom Tomorrow
2011 was a banner year for anti-choice activists who succeeded in pushing through a record number of abortion restrictions. But it’s a new year, and it appears the GOP is dead set on outdoing itself. Republicans in Congress and across the country are introducing a variety pack of extreme anti-abortion bills — including personhood initiatives, heartbeat bills, and fetal pain bills — that saw some success last year. Here is a run-down of the abortion restrictions American women across the country are already facing in the first month of 2012:
PERSONHOOD: The Virginia General Assembly’s very first bill, House Bill 1, is a “personhood” measure that defines life as beginning at conception and would essentially outlaw abortions. Modeling it on Mississippi’s failed measure, Virginia Republicans threaten to outlaw birth control and in vitro fertilization for couples trying to have a baby. Anti-choice activists hope to push similar measures in at least 11 other states, including Ohio and Kansas.

RACE-BASED ABORTIONS: Following in Arizona’s footsteps, Florida Republicans introduced a bill that would “require abortion providers to sign an affidavit stating they’re not performing the procedure because the woman did not want a child of a particular gender or race.” Despite a complete lack of evidence, they insist that minority women are seeking abortions, or have a higher abortion rate in their communities, because they loathe the race or sex of the fetus.

FETAL PAIN: Florida Republicans are simultaneously pushing a bill that prohibits abortion after 20 weeks based on the unfounded idea that fetuses can feel pain. “They suck their thumbs,” said state sponsor Rep. Daniel Davis (R). “They get hiccups. They get excited when their mom talks. They feel pain.” The medical community, however, insists that it is highly unlikely the fetus registers pain as its brain is not developed enough. U.S. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) introduced the same measure to ban post-20 week abortions for women in Washington, D.C in order to protect a fetus from “the agonizing process of being aborted.”

HEARTBEAT BILL: Slowly proceeding in Ohio, the “heartbeat” bill is also gaining a foothold in the Oklahoma legislature. State Sen. Dan Newberry (R) and state Rep. Pam Peterson (R) filed companion measures that “require abortion providers to use a fetal heart rate monitor on the fetus of a woman who is at least eight weeks pregnant and make the heartbeat of the unborn child audible before an abortion is performed.” The heartbeat can often be detected as early as “six to seven weeks,” before a women even knows she is pregnant.
House GOP Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) are also pushing their own anti-abortion bills in Congress. Duncan’s bill would “require abortion providers to obtain written certification from a woman seeking an abortion, then to wait 24 hours after that certification before performing the abortion.” Jordan’s bill would “require women seeking an abortion to be given the chance to view an ultrasound of their unborn child before obtaining the abortion.”

Droning On And On And On

On Saturday, as Glenn Greenwald reports, "in Somalia, the U.S. fired missiles from a drone and killed the 27-year-old Lebanon-born, ex-British citizen Bilal el-Berjawi. His wife had given birth 24 hours earlier and the speculation is that the U.S. located him when his wife called to give him the news." 
Clearly, we are cranking up our drone operations, a targeted assassination program which often goes awry.  (Tom Engelhardt points out that according to he London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have, over the years, killed at least 168 children.Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones reports that the Pentagon will announce today that to meet new budget constraints it will be slashing Army troop levels by 80,000 soldiers, or 14 percent of the force, while expanding bases for drones.   Legality and morality aside, as Nick Turse argues below, drones are counterproductive tools of war.  Turse points to 70 drone mishaps which "draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations." 

The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare
What 70 Downed Drones Tell Us About the New American Way of War
By Nick Turse, cross-posted from Tom Dispatch

American fighter jets screamed over the Iraqi countryside heading for the MQ-1 Predator drone, while its crew in California stood by helplessly.  What had begun as an ordinary reconnaissance mission was now taking a ruinous turn.  In an instant, the jets attacked and then it was all over.  The Predator, one of the Air Force’s workhorse hunter/killer robots, had been obliterated.

An account of the spectacular end of that nearly $4 million drone in November 2007 is contained in a collection of Air Force accident investigation documents recently examined by TomDispatch.  They catalog more than 70 catastrophic Air Force drone mishaps since 2000, each resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more.

These official reports, some obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act, offer new insights into a largely covert, yet highly touted war-fighting, assassination, and spy program involving armed robots that are significantly less reliable than previously acknowledged.  These planes, the latest wonder weapons in the U.S. military arsenal, are tested, launched, and piloted from a shadowy network of more than 60 bases spread around the globe, often in support of elite teams of special operations forces.  Collectively, the Air Force documents offer a remarkable portrait of modern drone warfare, one rarely found in a decade of generally triumphalist or awestruck press accounts that seldom mention the limitations of drones, much less their mission failures.

The aerial disasters described draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations.  Launched and landed by aircrews close to battlefields in places like Afghanistan, the drones are controlled during missions by pilots and sensor operators -- often multiple teams over many hours -- from bases in places like Nevada and North Dakota.  They are sometimes also monitored by “screeners” from private security contractors at stateside bases like Hurlburt Field in Florida.  (A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)

Upside Down Justice: Prosecuting Whistleblowing Not Torture

The prosecution of torture whistleblower John Kiriakou criminalizes the revelation of illegality, and decriminalizes the torture. -- Daniel Ellsberg

John Kiriakou, the CIA's former director of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, has been charged with four felony counts for having allegedly disclosed classified information to reporters about the CIA’s interrogation program. Included among those charges are two counts under the Espionage Act of 1917.  John Rudolph at Huffington Post reports that "Kiriakou allegedly leaked information to reporters about two CIA agents directly involved in interrogations of terrorism suspects during the Bush administration that used waterboarding -- a simulated drowning technique that President Obama has himself described as torture."

Kiriakou, the New York Times explains, was "a leader of the team that captured Abu Zubaydah, and he came to public attention in late 2007 when he gave an interview to ABC News portraying the suffocation technique called waterboarding as torture, but calling it necessary."

This is the the sixth prosecution by the Obama Administration of a whistleblower.  (See Put Your Lips Together And . . . Get Indicted.)  What is particularly disturbing about each of these cases is the Justice Department's reliance on the draconian Espionage Act by characterizing the leaking of classified information to reporters as "aiding the enemy."  As Rudolph notes, the 1917 espionage law has only been used three times previously to prosecute leaks to the media.   And, as Charlie Savage in the Times states, Obama has brought “more such cases than all previous presidents combined.”

Daniel Ellsberg, Rudolph writes, called it "brazenly hypocritical" to prosecute Kiriakou for leaking information related to waterboarding while those who performed it were granted immunity:  "You're criminalizing the revelation of illegality and you're decriminalizing the illegality -- the torture."

Glenn Greenwald sums up the Administration's philosophy.  First, "if you are a high-ranking government official who commits war crimes, you will receive full-scale immunity, both civil and criminal, and will have the American President demand that all citizens Look Forward, Not Backward."  But, "if you talk publicly about any of these war crimes, you have committed the Gravest Crime — you are guilty of espionage – and will have the full weight of the American criminal justice system come crashing down upon you."

As Greenwald concludes:
It’s long past time to rip those blindfolds off of the Lady Justice statues. When the purpose of American justice is to shield those with the greatest power who commit the most egregious crimes, while severely punishing those who talk publicly about those crimes, it’s hard to imagine how it can get much more degraded or corrupted than that.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Palate Cleanser: Real Estate

Easy by Real Estate

Desperately Seeking Obsolescence: Capital Defenders Hope To Replace The Death Penalty

This Presidents' Day weekend, criminal defense attorneys, investigators and experts will gather at the Monterey Conference Center, as they have done for the past 25 years, to develop and hone their skills in death penalty cases.  The Capital Case Defense Seminar, sponsored by two stalwart organizations, the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the California Public Defenders Association, draws well over a thousand practitioners every year.

It is hoped, however, that this year will be the last, as many of the attendees join others around the State in supporting the SAFE California Act, a voter initiative which calls for replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.  The push for gathering signatures to put SAFE California on the November 2012 ballot is in its final stages and there is cautious optimism with polls showing a majority of Californians support the measure. 

In the early 1980s, when California's death penalty (reinstated in 1977-78) was just gearing up, the Seminar was a far more modest gathering of a few hundred people, and could be held at the much cozier confines of Asilomar Conference Grounds.  But with thousands of capitally-charged cases over the years and a growing death row population (now more than 700 -- twice as many as any other state), a much larger facility was required to accommodate the expanding number of lawyers, paralegals, mitigation specialists, investigators and experts needed to ensure that cases with such high stakes are provided competent representation.  Indeed, the expansion of the Conference is a reflection of the enormous costs in maintaining what has been described by judges as well as former wardens and prosecutors, as a bloated, broken, wasteful system.

If there is to be a death penalty then defense teams must be funded sufficiently so they can adequately develop and challenge evidence so that judges and juries making life and death decisions are adequately informed about the circumstances of the crime as well as the defendant's background and history.  But this doesn't come cheaply, and together with the costs associated with the prosecution -- whose resources outstrip the defense -- as well as for housing death row inmates, the tab comes close to $200 million a year, according to an exhaustive study released last summer. 

And for what?  The report, by Arthur Alarcon, long-time judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, and law professor Paula Mitchell, concluded 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."  As the California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice concluded after its extensive review in 2008 of the state's death penalty system, death sentences are unlikely ever to be carried out (with extremely rare exceptions) because of a process “plagued with excessive delay” in the appointment of post-conviction counsel and a “severe backlog” in the California Supreme Court's review of death judgments.  According to CCFAJ's report, the lapse of time from sentence of death to execution constitutes the longest delay of any death penalty state.

This has led Tani Cantil-Sakauye, after one year as the Chief Justice of the State of California, to conclude that the state's capital punishment system is "not effective" and requires "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."

A recent New York Times editorial explained that, "California’s system of government-hobbled-by-referendum" means that the only way to replace the death penalty is by a voter initiative.  As noted above, signatures are currently being gathered to put the SAFE California Act on the November 2012 ballot.  If it passes it would replace California's multi‑billion dollar death penalty with life imprisonment without parole and require those convicted of murder to work and pay restitution to victim families through the victim compensation fund.  It would also set aside $100 million in budget saving for local law enforcement for the investigation of unsolved rape and murder cases.

A benefit to support the SAFE California Act campaign is being held during the Capital Case Defense Seminar on Saturday February 18, 6 - 8 pm, at the Portola Hotel & Spa.  (All are welcome.)  Speakers will include two of the most brilliant, dedicated and eloquent death penalty lawyers in the country, Steve Bright and Bryan Stephenson, as well as Jason Baldwin, one of the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three. (Click here for more information about the event, and click here to learn more about the SAFE campaign.)

It is not as ironic as it may seem that capital defense practitioners who have devoted their lives and careers to death penalty cases are trying to make their jobs obsolete.  Being on the front lines they have experienced first hand the unfairness, arbitrariness and unreliability of California's capital punishment scheme.  They know that the imposition of death sentences does nothing to make us safer, and they understand that the resources wasted on this broken system can be far better used during this time of fiscal crisis.  And they will happily do without the intensity and unrelenting pressure of litigating cases that are literally a matter of life and death -- even if it means having to find a new line of work.

Occupy The SOTU

It is hard to imagine that the State of the Union would have included the populist rhetoric and the series of policy proposals aimed at redressing "economic unfairness" if the Occupy movement had not given voice to the concerns and demands of the 99%. 

And so, we get:
(1)  The "Buffet Rule," which calls for a minimum 30 percent income tax rate for millionaires;
(2) A Financial Crimes Unit to investigate abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that will "hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans;
(3)  A mortgage refinancing plan, paid for by a new fee on the largest banks in the country which "gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates; and
(4)  A defense of public investment in the manufacturing sector of the economy and infrastructure.

And we get an unapologetic push back against the Republican's time-honored accusation that Obama is engaging in "class warfare," as well as their new one, that he is succumbing to the politics of "envy."
Washington should stop subsidizing millionaires.  In fact, if you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions.  On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up.  You’re the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages.  You’re the ones who need relief.  
Now, you can call this class warfare all you want.  But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes?  Most Americans would call that common sense.
We don’t begrudge financial success in this country.  We admire it.  When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich.  It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet.  That’s not right.  Americans know it’s not right.
This is a far cry from last year's address, which focused far more on such misguided themes as bipartisanship, national unity, deficits and belt-tightening.  (Although there were too many times tonight when he groused about the disconnect between "Washington" and the American people, and about obstructionist tactics and filibustering from "both sides of the aisle," when I wished he would have said "Republicans" instead.)

We have now have a sense of the narrative Obama will use to frame his re-election campaign and, hopefully, his second term.  As Greg Sargent summarized, "Obama not only argued that inequality and the precarious state of the middle class are the 'central challenge of our time,' but that this state of affairs flowed from a set of specific policy choices and priorities that Republicans would restore if they get back into power.

This is all good, but not quite good enough.  As Robert Borosage points out, the President is assuming we are on the road to economic recovery without the need for urgent action on job creation -- even on his own jobs plan.  And he can't quite let go of his deficit fetish, which has led to his "politically toxic willingness to trade Social Security and Medicare cuts (“reform) for broader deficit reduction."

Isaiah J. Poole sums it up well. "The America we want to build holds true to the promise that Obama mentioned in his speech: that each person has an opportunity to prosper, and each person who prospers has a responsibility to the society from which that prosperity was earned."  But to get there, Borosage asserts, "the movement that began in Madison, Wisconsin and spread from Wall Street across the country will need to continue to build"

So, as Poole, concludes:
At least on this defining issue of our time, conservatives have it catastrophically wrong, and the president is pointed in the right direction. The challenge for the progressive movement is to add the bold demands and sharp contrasts needed to fill out the vision of the America we must move toward.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

German Biotech Giant Flees Europe For U.S.

By Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, cross-posted from PAN's website

Last week the giant German pesticide and biotech company (and largest chemical company in the world), BASF, announced its decision to pack up and flee Europe.

Why? For 13 years, ordinary Europeans have stood firm in challenging the right of biotech companies to dump their risky genetically engineered (GE) seeds onto their fields and have steadfastly rejected the intrusion of GE foods onto their plates. They built up an informed and powerful citizens’ movement that has made itself heard, even over the din of the monied GE lobby. For this, hearty congratulations are due to our cousins across the Atlantic!
Unfortunately, BASF is headed straight for a research park here in the U.S. — namely the Research Triangle in North Carolina, which has become a hub for the biotech industry. BASF will be joining over 70 agricultural technology companies there, the Winston-Salem Journal reports, including Bayer CropScience and Syngenta.

Not too far off in St. Louis is Monsanto, which BASF is collaborating with on (among other things) a new dicamba-resistant GE crop line. This is yet one more in the pipeline of ecologically disastrous herbicide-resistant GE crops I’ve been writing about lately. 

Americans rejecting GE too

UC Berkeley professor of microbial ecology, Ignacio Chapela, explains what’s behind BASF’s decision to pull out of Europe in Counter Punch:
The future holds very little promise for GMOs altogether, and BASF is only the first [company] to have the capacity to recognize the thirty years of bad investments…The reasons for the failure of BASF’s products in Europe are many and very diverse, but the fundamental truth stands that over the decades no real benefit has offset the proven harm caused by GMOs.

State Of Disunion: A Globalizing Private Sector, A Government Overwhelmed By Corporate Money

By Robert Reich, cross-posted from his website

Who should have the primary strategic responsibility for making American workers globally competitive – the private sector or government? This will be a defining issue in the 2012 campaign.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama will make the case that government has a vital role. His Republican rivals disagree. Mitt Romney charges the President is putting “free enterprise on trial,” while Newt Gingrich merely fulminates about “liberal elites.”

American business won’t and can’t lead the way to more and better jobs in the United States. First, the private sector is increasingly global, with less and less stake in America. Second, it’s driven by the necessity of creating profits, not better jobs.

The National Science Foundation has just released its biennial report on global investment in science, engineering and technology. The NSF warns that the United States is quickly losing ground to Asia, especially to China. America’s share of global R&D spending is tumbling. In the decade to 2009, it dropped from 38 percent to 31 percent, while Asia’s share rose from 24 to 35 percent.

One big reason: According to the NSF, American firms nearly doubled their R&D investment in Asia over these years, to over $7.5 billion.

GE recently announced a $500 million expansion of its R&D facilities in China. The firm has already invested $2 billion.

GE’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt chairs Obama’s council on work and competitiveness. I’d wager that as an American citizen, Immelt is concerned about working Americans. But as CEO of GE, Immelt’s job is to be concerned about GE’s shareholders. They aren’t the same.

Newt's Sugar Daddy

How is it possible that such an unethical, nasty, sleazy, mean-spirited, polarizing, egotistical, hypocritical jerk can be winning primaries and surging in the polls?  One reason, of course, is that his remaining competition consists of a liar, a creep and a full bore crank.  And not to be underestimated is the power of the Occupy movement, which has dramatically changed the national conversation so that Romney's efficient and ruthless behavior at his equity firm, his refusal to disclose his tax returns and his "corporations are people" rhetoric make him the perfect symbol for the despised 1%.  Third, the Republican base can't resist a fire-breathing blowhard with the shamelessness to relentlessly attack and demonize our Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist President.

But Newt, not known for his organizational or fund-raising skills, has emerged as a threat to Mitt Romney's ascendancy to the GOP nomination thanks in large part to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the Super PACs the ruling has spawned.  It has allowed one couple, the Adelsons, to give $10 million to Gingrich's "independent" Destroying Winning Our Future Super PAC, and thereby completely upend the political process.

Sheldon Adelson, a "casino and hotel magnate," gave the first $5 million, which was used to launch the negative ads against Mitt Romney in South Carolina that were pivotal to Gingrich's primary victory there.  Now, as the New York Times reports, Sheldon's wife Miriam is giving the Super PAC another $5 million to help with the upcoming Florida primary.  And thus, as the Times noted:
The wealth of a single couple has now leveled the playing field in two critical primary states for Mr. Gingrich, a candidate who ended September more than $1 million in debt, finished out of the running in Iowa and New Hampshire and, unlike Mr. Romney, has yet to attract the broad network of hard-money donors and bundlers that traditionally propel presidential campaigns.
According to Wikipedia, Sheldon Adelson is the eighth richest American, with a net worth of over $ 23 billion.  Our post-Citizens United campaign finance laws are allowing him to the opportunity to buy the Republican nomination for President.  What will he want in return?  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tell Obama: Just Say "No" To Bank Sweetheart Deal

By Robert Borosage, cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future

Americans from across the political spectrum are angry that the Wall Street banks blew up the economy and got bailed out, while home owners and taxpayers were stuck with the bill. And now, with fresh reports today of a pending state attorneys general settlement with the big banks that would immunize them from prosecution and civil suits in exchange for $25 billion, largely for principal reduction for underwater homeowners, the Campaign For America’s Future has joined in a broad coalition to oppose any sweetheart deal.

We're asking you to send an email to President Obama right now: Reject the sweetheart bank settlement. Do not follow through with your plan to announce it in the State of the Union address Tuesday. Instead, investigate the banks that caused the housing crisis.

This is an issue that raises a fundamental question about the nature of our justice system and the nature of our democracy. The law is respected only if it is enforced. Cutting a settlement with the big banks before we understand the scope of what the FBI has called "an epidemic of fraud" violates our basic sense of justice. No one who robbed a bank would be offered immunity, a modest fine and no admission of guilt before there was any investigation into who stole the money and how much they took.

And for our democracy, politically Americans are increasingly cynical about the ability of Washington to deal with special interests. They increasingly believe Washington can be bought and sold by Wall Street. This is destructive to our democracy. The President’s campaign will sensibly highlight his commitment to fair rules and a fair shot for every American. Needless to say, a sweetheart deal with the banks would be a glaring contradiction to that theme, and any deal enforced over the objections of the most independent attorneys general, such as New York’s Eric Schneiderman, will fail that test.

What the people want is clear: Investigation before immunity. Penalize the perpetrators, not their victims. Any settlement must have sufficient scope to deal with the scale of the problem. There is an estimated $700 billion of negative equity in underwater homes. While 1 million homeowners have been helped by efforts to save homeowners, 10.7 million homeowners are underwater and that does not count people who have already suffered foreclosure. The top six banks paid bonuses worth $140 billion last year alone; experts conservatively estimate this totals $420 billion over the last three years. They hold assets of $9.5 trillion. The rumored settlement of $25 billion is barely a slap on the wrist.

It is vital to this country that the banks are made accountable. It is vital that they do not see the law as simply a minor price of doing profitable business, a speed bump on the way to their bonuses.

With Occupy Wall Street inspiring activists and with citizens across the country being asked to pay to clean up the mess the banks created in the economy, every state attorney general and the Obama administration should understand that any deal will receive widespread public scrutiny. Any settlement must be able to satisfy the standards of justice and fairness. What is now on the table does not come close.

Act now: Tell President Obama: No sweetheart deal for the banks in the State of the Union address.

Roe v. Wade At 39

By Casey Martinson, cross-posted from RH Reality Check

Earlier this week, Washington Post columnist David Milbank leveled criticism at both sides of the debate over reproductive rights, claiming that all of the sound and fury leading up to the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision on Sunday is more about raising money for advocacy groups than dealing with the issue of abortion.
“If these groups cared as much about the issue as they claim, and didn’t have such strong financial incentives to avoid consensus and compromise, they’d cancel the carnivals and get to work on the one thing everybody agrees would be worthwhile – reducing unwanted pregnancies.”
He goes on to say that while abortion opponents should be criticized for “resisting easy birth control,” the pro-choice crowd should “drop the sky-is-falling warnings about Roe and acknowledge that…not every compromise means a slippery slope to the back alley.”

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of real-world evidence piling up to the conclusion that Milbank is being more than a little naïve, and there are probably a lot of so-called “centrists” in the same boat. So let’s set a few things straight.

First, the idea that the pro-choice community – whose most visible proponent is Planned Parenthood – has not “[gotten] to work” on reducing unwanted pregnancies is obviously absurd. Nationwide, Planned Parenthood affiliates provide affordable birth control to more than 2.5 million women each year, and sex education programming to over a million people each year – 24 million if you include traffic to online and mobile education resources. At the Planned Parenthood affiliate where I work, we see nearly as many people in the community through our education programs as we see in our health centers. And when we talk to elected officials, comprehensive sex education is always a top priority. Nobody is doing more than Planned Parenthood to reduce unintended pregnancy.

Second, I’m sorry to say that the sky is falling on Roe v Wade. It’s been falling incrementally for the past four decades, and it fell further, faster, in 2011 than in any year before. According to the Guttmacher Institute, state legislatures passed 94 new laws restricting abortion in 2012. Not only is that a new record, but it shatters the previous record of 34 new laws passed in 2005 by a lot.

The Future Of The Keystone XL Pipeline

By Mike Ludwig and Alissa Bohling, cross-posted from Truthout

The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is far from over. Environmentalists are celebrating a victory this week after President Obama rejected a permit for the transcontinental project on Wednesday, but pipeline developer TransCanada plans to reapply for a permit and have the pipeline running by 2014.

Republicans in Congress who adopted the pipeline as their jobs and development issue du jour have pledged to do whatever it takes to keep the project on track.

"It's clear that TransCanada has invested a lot of financial and political capital, and they are not going to back down lightly," said Carroll Muffett, a spokesperson for the Center for International Environmental Law.

Environmentalists, labor leaders and Republicans in Congress have also spent a lot of time and political energy on the pipeline, and depending on whom you talk to, Obama's decision makes him either a climate hero or a job killer.

"Make no mistake - this is a brave decision," said Bill McKibben, an author and anti-pipeline protest organizer, in a statement to supporters.

"If we don't work with Canada on this, then China will," said an "outraged" Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pitcher R.A. Dickey Reaches The Peak Of His Game

The view was unforgettably magnificent, as incredible as anything I have ever seen. But as I took time to contemplate, I realized that the reason the view was so rich was the overall experience of the trek. We had walked approximately 40 miles and climbed 13,000 feet since the beginning of the journey, overcoming all kinds of adversities. All the while, we were building relationships with everyone from the porters to one another, sharing in our triumphs and helping one another in times of need.  -- R.A. Dickey upon reaching the summit at Mt. Kilimanjaro
R.A. Dickey is not your typical ballplayer.   Only after he was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1996, was it discovered that he was missing his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm.  A mediocre pitcher with unconventional stuff, he developed a knuckleball, with which he has gained some modicum of success as a Met the last couple of years. 

Dickey has endeared himself to Met fans with his intensity and his quirkiness (he is an avid reader and keeps a stack of books in the dugout) and by his fairly decent playing for a pretty dismal team (winning 11 games in 2010 and pitching well last year despite an 8-13 losing record.)

This off season Dickey announced his intention to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking in India.  (If injured he could have forfeited his $4 million salary.)  Dickey, a born-again Christian, is supporting an organization called "Bombay Teen Challenge," which ministers to "desperate people living on the streets and in the red light district of Mumbai."  Specifically, Dickey hoped to raise $100,000, for the purchase of a health clinic in the heart of the red light district "to allow thousands of women living in the brothels to become introduced to Bombay Teen Challenge and ultimately, have a chance at freedom."

Dickey reached the summit on January 14, which he writes about here.  He was accompanied by Dave Racaniello, the team’s bullpen catcher; and Kevin Slowey, a former teammate, now with the Colorado Rockies (and 2 guides, 4 assisting porters, 11 regular porters and a cook.)  They arrived back in the States on January 17th, and reportedly surpassed their goal of raising $100,000.

This very well may be the highlight of the Mets' season.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Citizens United In Their Disgust

By Isaiah J. Poole, cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future

Saturday is the two-year anniversary of the infamous Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court that allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.

Since then, our democracy has been drowning in a tsunami of corporate special interest money. Our government is under the thumb of the Koch brothers and other corporate moguls instead of the hands of the people.


Send your comment to tell the Securities and Exchange Commission to require public companies to disclose their political spending. Your comments will go directly to the SEC.

And citizens are uniting in their disgust. A poll released Thursday by Democracy Corps and the Public Campaign Action Fund, an organization that is rallying to counter the Citizens United ruling, said, "Americans across all parties oppose the ruling; among all voters, 62 percent oppose the decision and nearly half (46 percent) strongly oppose it. More than half of all voters say they would support a constitutional amendment to reverse the opinion."

Further, "Eight in ten voters say there is too much big money spent on political campaigns and elections today and that campaign contributions and spending should be limited." And the candidates who stand on the side of reining in corporate efforts to buy our political system will get more favor from voters than those who stand with the status quo.

The ultimate solution is getting two-thirds of the states to pass a constitutional amendment that declares what everyone except Mitt Romney seems to understand: corporations are not people and money is not speech. But that will take time.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Obama Finally Does The Right Thing On Contraceptive Coverage

By Jodi Jacobson, cross-posted from RH Reality Check

Today, the Obama Administration took a long-overdue stand on women's rights to basic reproductive and sexual health care by making a final ruling on contraceptive coverage under health reform. The decision requires that the vast majority of employer-based health insurance plans must cover preventive services for women including contraception without charging a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible. This means all women with health insurance coverage will have access to the full range of preventive services originally recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), including all FDA-approved forms of contraception.

“All women should have access to contraceptive coverage, regardless of where they work,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “The administration stood firm against intensive lobbying efforts from anti-birth-control organizations trying to expand the refusal option even further to allow organizations and corporations to deny their employees contraceptive coverage. As a result, millions will get access to contraception—and they will not have to ask their bosses for permission.”

“I applaud the Administration for making a decision based on science that greatly expands women’s access to affordable contraceptive coverage," said Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA).
Especially in tough economic times like we are experiencing now, women and their partners often have to choose between high contraceptive costs and paying the bills. Today’s announcement will go a long way in making sure that cost does not prohibit women from planning their pregnancies.
Last August, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the initial or "interim" ruling on contraceptive coverage. But the fate of contraceptive care without a co-pay was called into question when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and other religious right groups--who are opposed to virtually all forms of reproductive and sexual health services--began a strenuous campaign to over-turn the original interim ruling.

Unfair And Unconscionable: The Capital Jurisprudence Of Antonin Scalia

By Jeff Gamso, cross-posted from his blog, Gamso - For the Defense

Paul Szep
He'll get a chance because his lawyers abandoned him.  So said 7 of 9.  Ginsburg wrote the opinion.  Alito (no pushover he) joined but wrote also his own concurrence to point out that it was the lawyers who were at fault and not the deeply flawed Alabama system of providing (or not providing) capital representation.

Scalia dissented.  Joined by Clarence Thomas, Scalia explained that really, he was abandoned by only some of his lawyers.  And sure it's all unfair but then if we demanded fairness of our criminal justice system it would be the end of the republic.

OK, he didn't actually say that.  What he said was this.
But if the interest of fairness justifies our excusing Maples’ procedural default here, it does so whenever a defendant’s procedural default is caused by his attorney.That is simply not the law—and cannot be, if the states are to have an orderly system of criminal litigation conducted by counsel. Our precedents allow a State to stand on its rights and enforce a habeas petitioner’s procedural default even when counsel is to blame.
That is to say if we demanded fairness, then it would be the end of "an orderly system of criminal litigation conducted by counsel."  The republic would survive, but our whole system of criminal justice would collapse.  (Which he might think would destroy the republic, but he doesn't say that.)

So fairness be damned.

The case is Maples v. Thomas, and I've written about it before.   It's the sad saga of Cory Maples.  He's on death row in Alabama.  He got Sullivan & Cromwell, a fancy-ass, white-shoe, big-shot law firm in New York to represent him in state post-conviction proceedings because Alabama can't be bothered actually paying lawyers to do that sort of work.  But S & C dropped the ball.  Horribly.  Inexcusably.  Their lawyers abandoned Cory without telling him.  Alabama sent word to the lawyers that Cory had lost a round of his case which started a clock by which he had to appeal.  S & C returned the letters unopened because the lawyers who'd been working on Cory's case left the firm.  And then Alabama did nothing.  Until the deadline passed.

And SCOTUS today, in an opinion that really does nothing much to break any legal ground but really is no more than a correction of a monstrous and self-evident wrong, by a vote of 7-2, said to give Cory a chance.  Because, after all (although they didn't say this), the alternative is unfair.

Which left Nino to stammer and threaten the end of criminal law (if not the republic).

Etta James (1938-2012)

Bradley Manning, Washington, And The Blood Of Civilians

By Chase Madar, cross-posted from Tom Dispatch

From animated piece by Michael Daly
Who in their right mind wants to talk about, think about, or read a short essay about... civilian war casualties?  What a bummer, this topic, especially since our Afghan, Iraq, and other ongoing wars were advertised as uplifting acts of philanthropy: wars to spread security, freedom, democracy, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, etc.

A couple hundred thousand dead civilians have a way of making such noble ideals seem like dollar-store tinsel.  And so, throughout our decade-long foreign policy debacle in the Greater Middle East, we in the U.S. have generally agreed that no one shall commit the gaucherie of dwelling on (and “dwelling on” = fleetingly mentioned) civilian casualties. Washington elites may squabble over some things, but as for foreigners killed by our numerous wars, our Beltway crew adheres to a sullen code of omertà.

Club rules do, however, permit one loophole: Washington officials may bemoan the nightmare of civilian casualties -- but only if they can be pinned on a 24-year-old Army private first class named Bradley Manning.

Pfc. Manning, you will remember, is the young soldier who is soon to be court-martialed for passing some 750,000 military and diplomatic documents, a large chunk of them classified, to the website WikiLeaks.  Among those leaks, there was indeed some serious stuff about how Americans dealt with civilians in invaded countries.  For instance, the documents revealed that the U.S. military, then the occupying force in Iraq, did little or nothing to prevent Iraqi authorities from torturing prisoners in a variety of gruesome ways, sometimes to death.

Then there was that gun-sight video -- unclassified but buried in classified material -- of an American Apache helicopter opening fire on a crowd on a Baghdad street, gunning down a dozen men, including two Reuters employees, and injuring more, including children.  There were also those field reports about how jumpy American soldiers repeatedly shot down civilians at roadside checkpoints; about night raids gone wrong both in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a count of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, a tally whose existence the U.S. military had previously denied possessing.

Together, these leaks and many others offered a composite portrait of military and political debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan whose grinding theme has been civilian casualties, a fact not much noted here in the U.S.  A tiny number of low-ranking American soldiers have been held to account for rare instances of premeditated murder of civilians, but most of the troops who kill civilians in the midst of the chaos of war are not tried, much less convicted.  We don’t talk about these cases a lot either.  On the other hand, officials of all types make free with lusty condemnations of Bradley Manning, whose leaks are luridly credited with potential (though not actual) deaths.

Judicial Vacancies: From Bad To Worse

I've written often about the scandalous vacancy rate in the federal judiciary, which has been caused by Obama's dithering, Senate Democrats' acquiescence and, most of all, a Republican strategy that takes full advantage of the first two.  (See, e.g., Scooping Linda Greenhouse, The GOP Plan To Obstruct Judicial Nominations, Tit for Tat, Courting Disaster.)

A new report by the Brookings Institute confirms that three years into Obama's first term, judicial vacancies have actually risen.  As NPR summarized, "the report shows that Obama has been slower to nominate trial judges, the Senate slower to confirm them, and at the same time a larger number of judges are retiring."

Obama has nominated 133 district court judges and 37 court of appeal judges thus far.  At this stage of his first term, Bush had nominated 165 for district court and 49 for the appellate court.  In addition, Senate Republicans have successfully slowed the process so that district court nominees have waited an average of seven months to win confirmation, even when there has been no real opposition.  More than a quarter of the 133 nominees are still awaiting confirmation, a significantly lower confirmation rate than under prior administrations. 

The one bright spot for judicial vacancies is that the judges who are nominated and ultimately confirmed are diverse.  Nearly half are women; more than a fifth are African American; 11 percent are Hispanic; and 7 percent are Asian American.  In addition, the first openly-gay man was recently confirmed.  In sum, 38% of Obama's appointments are white males, compared to 66% under Bush.

As Republicans long ago recognized, the composition of the federal courts of appeal (aka circuit courts) is critical because, given how few cases reach the United States Supreme Court, they are often the ultimate arbiter of the application, enforcement and interpretation of federal regulations and statutes.  And when cases are taken up by the Supreme Court, how the lower federal courts have framed the issues or resolved factual disputes is critical to their resolution.  Accordingly, Republicans continue to dominate the circuits, although Obama has increased the percentage of appellate judges appointed by a Democrat from 37% to 44%.

While Republicans doggedly try to maintain their ideological advantage, Obama and his fellow Democrats have to be far more aggressive in making the federal judiciary a priority.