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“So Much For Checks And Balances”: Welcome To Tennessee, Where Lawmakers Are Trying To Kneecap Judges

In state houses around the country, January often brings the emergence of many of the year’s most dubious legislative proposals. January is the month of patently unconstitutional bans on “sharia law.” It is the month of promoting the unlawful practice of jury nullification. But mostly it’s the month for legislators to attack the independence of the judiciary.

Again this year, all over the country, state lawmakers have introduced bills to curb their cousins in the judicial branch. In Oklahoma, lawmakers want to remove from the Code of Judicial Conduct references to judicial independence. In Kansas and New York, state lawmakers want to force trial judges to render their decisions within a certain time or be forced out of office. But perhaps the most egregious of this year’s crop of ill-advised measures comes from Tennessee, where lawmakers have introduced a bill that combines many of these bad measures from other states into one big ball of scorn for the state’s judiciary.

SB 2322, as the Tennessee bill is known, seeks to replace the administrative office of the state courts with the treasurer’s office, which is part of the executive branch of state government. The state Supreme Court would no longer be able to “direct” the work of the court administrator but rather “urge” executive branch officials to take certain action. The bill would shut down the state’s judicial disciplinary board, now under the auspices of the judicial branch, and replace it with a new review board that would answer, again, to the state treasurer. That board would be made up of political appointees from the executive and legislative branches of government. Judges would be prohibited from serving on a board evaluating the work of the judiciary.

If that were all SB 2322 did, it would be bad enough. Each of the above components of the pending legislation violates separation of powers principles and constitutes impermissible encroachment upon basic judicial functions. It is axiomatic that judges should have the power and authority to administer their own affairs, as they do in every other jurisdiction in the nation, and should not be precluded from evaluating the disciplinary issues that arise within their profession. You don’t need to be a political scientist to understand the pressure the executive branch would be able to wield over Tennessee’s judiciary if the legislature were to enact this bill.

But there is more. SB 2322 seeks to dramatically alter the nature of death penalty procedures in a way that undermines core judicial functions. Judges would not be able to extend filing deadlines in capital cases — even if such extensions were justified and necessary to ensure the constitutional rights of defendants. And judges also would be forced to meet their own deadlines for resolving capital cases, even if they were not ready to do so. Meanwhile, lawyers representing indigent capital defendants would be required to reimburse the state if they were later found to have rendered “ineffective assistance of counsel,” a requirement that would make it materially harder for indigent defendants in the state to get a court-appointed lawyer willing to take the case.

These proposed measures, too, are patently unconstitutional incursions into the judiciary’s work. But they also happen to be bad ideas beyond their constitutional dimensions. Forcing judges to rush their decisions won’t make those decisions more accurate or justifiable — and that won’t ultimately save Tennessee taxpayers from the costs of appellate work. And precluding capital defendants from seeking more time to file their court papers — so they can better evaluate evidence, for example — won’t help root out instances of false confessions, or flawed eyewitness testimony, or prosecutorial misconduct.

Experts who study these sorts of bills are, quite naturally, both alarmed and disappointed. “There’s a reason no other state in the country has such a system, Bert Brandenburg, the executive director of Justice at Stake, told me Monday. “It denies the courts the most basic of administrative functions and seeks to make our courts of law answer to politicians instead of the law.”

Tennessee’s judicial branch is not perfect. No branch of government anywhere is perfect. But it is reckless to think that the best solution to perceived problems within this state’s judiciary is to turn control of it over to the executive branch. There is a reason that our systems of government have three branches that are asked to provide checks and balances upon each other. What SB 2322 would do is upset that balance, and preclude those checks, in a way that surely would end up harming the people of Tennessee.

 

By: Andrew Cohen, The Week, January 29, 2014

January 31, 2014 Posted by | Judges, State Legislatures | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Look Back: Newt Gingrich’s Most Outlandish Policy Positions

Newt Gingrich is up 31 points in Florida, according to one poll, and he is openly predicting that he will be the Republican nominee for president.

We’ll see.

In the meantime, it’s worth revisiting some of the lesser-known areas in Gingrich’s record. In his three-plus decades in public life, the former House speaker has racked up an impressive record not only of  flip-flops, but also of policy positions that are profoundly unorthodox, some would say outlandish.

This is by no means a comprehensive list – if I’m missing any Gingrichian gems, email me or leave a comment.

1981: Gingrich co-sponsors a measure in the House “to provide for the therapeutic use of marijuana in situations involving life-threatening or sense-threatening illnesses and to provide adequate supplies of marijuana for such use.”

A year later, he writes a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association reiterating his view: “We believe licensed physicians are competent to employ marijuana, and patients have a right to obtain marijuana legally, under medical supervision, from a regulated source.” He later disavows the stance.

1994: As part of his push for welfare reform, Gingrich proposes that states end aid to poor single mothers and their children be sent to orphanages that would be built with the saved money. Responding to criticism of the plan by then-first lady Hillary Clinton, Gingrich cites a 1938 Hollywood film.

“I’d ask her to go to Blockbuster and rent the Mickey Rooney movie about ‘Boys Town,’” he says.

1995: Gingrich proposes the death penalty for those involved in the drug trade, drawing a parallel to the draconian policies of Singapore and Malaysia.

“We want to stop all drug traffic. If you bring in a commercial quantity of illegal drugs, we will execute you,” he says during a book tour (via the San Diego Union-Tribune on Nexis).

But Gingrich’s Drug Importer Death Penalty Act of 1996 ultimately goes nowhere. Asked by Yahoo News in November if he stands by this position, Gingrich responded, “I think if you are, for example, the leader of a cartel, sure.”

2005: Gingrich calls for “universal but confidential DNA testing” as part of healthcare reform, according to an account in a South Carolina newspaper. (Via National Review)

2005: During the Ward Churchill affair, Gingrich suggests tenure should be abolished at state universities.

“We ought to say to campuses, it’s over … We should say to state legislatures, why are you making us pay for this? Boards of regents are artificial constructs of state law. Tenure is an artificial social construct,” he says. “Tenure did not exist before the twentieth century, and we had free speech before then. You could introduce a bill that says, proof that you’re anti-American is grounds for dismissal.”

2006: Gingrich suggests the U.S. should pursue a counter-terrorism strategy that would curtail terrorists’ free speech rights, predicting “a serious debate about the First Amendment.”

“My prediction to you is that either before we lose a city, or if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us,” he says. (Via NR)

2009: In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) police conference, Gingrich declares an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack to be one of the gravest threats to U.S. national security. He cites a fictional thriller to bolster his case:

“What I’m about to say to you is from my heart, and from everything I’ve learned in almost fifty-one years, we are on the edge of catastrophic problems. If you get a chance, read my friend Bill Forstchen’s novel, One Second After, which describes the fate of a small town, after an electromagnetic pulse attack.”

2010: Gingrich argues that the United States should not allow construction of the “ground zero mosque” because Saudi Arabia does not allow construction of churches or synagogues – effectively endorsing Saudi-style religious discrimination.

“There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.”

2011: Angered by the liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Gingrich says he’d like to empower the president to fire judges.

“I would do no more than eliminate Judge Berry in San Antonio and the Ninth circuit. That’s the most I would go for,” he says. “But let me say this because I think this has to be part of our national debate. That’s not a rhetorical comment. I believe the legislative and executive branches have an obligation to defend the Constitution against judges who are tyrannical and who seek to impose un-American values on the people of the United States.”

2011: In an appearance at Harvard, Gingrich challenges child labor laws, floating the idea of replacing pricey unionized janitors with kids:

“Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school,” he says. “The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

 

By: Justin Elliott, Salon, December 2, 2011

December 5, 2011 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Only Conservatives Can End The Death Penalty

Every so often, one capital case makes a public spectacle of the American machinery of death. Last week, it was the controversy over Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia after years of impassioned argument, organizing and litigation.

I honor those who worked so hard to save Davis’s life because they forced the nation to deal with the  imperfections and, in some instances, brutalities of the criminal justice system.

Yet after all the tears are shed, the repeal of capital punishment is still a political question. Can the politics of this question change? The answer is plainly yes.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1966, more Americans opposed the death penalty than supported it — by 47 percent to 42 percent. But the crime wave that began in the late 1960s and the sense that the criminal justice system was untrustworthy sent support for capital punishment soaring. By 1994, 80 percent of Americans said they favored the death penalty, and only 16 percent were opposed.

Since then, the numbers have softened slightly. Over the past decade, the proportion of Americans declaring themselves against capital punishment has hovered around 25 to 32 percent. The mild resurgence of opposition — caused by a decline in violent crime and by investigations raising doubts about the guilt of some death-row prisoners — has opened up political space for action.

Liberals are not going to lead this fight. Too many Democratic politicians remember how the death penalty was used in campaigns during the 1980s and ’90s, notably by George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. They’re still petrified of looking “soft” on crime.

Moreover, winning this battle will require converting Americans who are not liberals. The good news is that many are open to persuasion. Gallup polling shows that support for capital punishment drops sharply when respondents are offered the alternative of “life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole.” When Gallup presented this option in its 2010 survey, only 49 percent chose the death penalty; 46 percent preferred life without parole.

And a survey last year for the Death Penalty Information Center by Lake Research Partners showed that if a variety of alternatives were offered (including life without parole plus restitution to victims’ families), respondents’ hard support for the death penalty was driven down to 33 percent.

If a majority is open to persuasion, the best persuaders will be conservatives, particularly religious conservatives and abortion opponents, who have moral objections to the state-sanctioned taking of life or see the grave moral hazard involved in the risk of executing an innocent person.

Despite the cheering for executions at a recent GOP debate, there are still conservatives who are standing up against the death penalty. In Ohio this summer, state Rep. Terry Blair, a Republican and a staunch foe of abortion, declared flatly: “I don’t think we have any business in taking another person’s life, even for what we call a legal purpose or what we might refer to as a justified purpose.”

Last week, Don Heller, who wrote the 1978 ballot initiative that reinstated the death penalty in California, explained in the Los Angeles Daily News why he had changed his mind. “Life without parole protects public safety better than a death sentence,” he wrote. “It’s a lot cheaper, it keeps dangerous men and women locked up forever, and mistakes can be fixed.”

The most moving testimony against Troy Davis’s execution came from a group of former corrections officials who, as they wrote, “have had direct involvement in executions.”

“No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt,” they said. “Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?”

Political ideology has built a thick wall that blocks us from acknowledging that some of the choices we face are tragic. Perhaps we can make an exception in this case and have a quiet conversation about whether our death-penalty system really speaks for our best selves. And I thank those conservatives, right-to-lifers, libertarians and prison officials who, more than anyone else, might make such a dialogue possible.

By: E. J. Dionne, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 25, 2011

September 27, 2011 Posted by | Equal Rights, GOP, Ideologues, Ideology, Justice, Politics, Racism, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

With The Death Penalty, “Probably” Isn’t Good Enough

The death penalty is a barbaric anachronism, a crude instrument not of justice but of revenge. Most countries banished it long ago. This country should banish it now.

The state of Georgia was wrong to execute convicted murderer Troy Anthony Davis as protesters and journalists kept a ghoulish vigil Wednesday night — just as the state of Texas was wrong, hours earlier, to execute racist killer Lawrence Russell Brewer.

That’s hard for me to write, because if anyone deserved a syringe full of lethal poison it was Brewer. He was an avowed white supremacist who had been convicted, along with two accomplices, of the 1998 hate-crime murder of a black man, James Byrd Jr. They offered Byrd a ride, beat him up and then killed him by chaining his ankles to the back of their pickup and dragging him for more than two miles. When police found Byrd’s body, it was dismembered and decapitated.

“I have no regrets,” Brewer said in an interview with Beaumont, Tex., television station KFDM this year. “I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”

Sweet guy, huh? Still, I can’t applaud his death at the hands of the well-practiced Texas executioners. It’s not that I believe his life had any redeeming value, just that the state was wrong to snuff it out.

The Davis case drew worldwide attention because of questions about the evidence of his guilt. Davis was found guilty of killing a Savannah, Ga., police officer, Mark MacPhail, in 1989. The conviction was based almost entirely on eyewitness testimony, and in the two decades since that trial, seven of nine witnesses have at least partially recanted.

The case became a cause celebre. Luminaries who could never be accused of being soft on crime — such as former FBI Director William Sessions and former GOP Rep. Bob Barr — argued that Davis should not be executed because of doubt about his guilt.

Wednesday night, in his last words, Davis told MacPhail’s family that “I did not personally kill your son, father and brother. I am innocent.” Then a deadly cocktail of drugs was pumped into his veins.

The Davis case makes a compelling case against the death penalty — but not because it is exceptional. On the contrary, it’s fairly ordinary.

Despite what you see on “CSI,” there isn’t always DNA or other physical evidence to prove guilt with 99.9 percent certainty. Jurors often have to rely on witnesses whose field of vision may have been limited — and whose recall, imperfect to begin with, degrades over time. Even when there’s no “reasonable doubt” about the defendant’s guilt — the standard for conviction — there’s often some measure of doubt.

And there are questions of process. Were witnesses coerced into testifying against Davis? A few say now that they were. Did prosecutors prove their case? The jurors certainly believed they did. Could racial bias have been a factor? Unlikely, given that the jury included seven blacks and five whites. Should Davis’s attorney have done a better job of presenting a defense? Almost surely.

It’s a mixed bag. I can’t ignore the fact that over the years, not one of the many judges who examined the case concluded there had been a true miscarriage of justice. This suggests to me that Davis was probably guilty.

But “probably” isn’t good enough in a capital case — and this is why the death penalty is flawed as a practical matter. Someone who is wrongly imprisoned can always be released, but death — to state the obvious — is irrevocable.

In scores of cases across the country, newly examined DNA evidence has proved that inmates jailed for rape or other sexual crimes were in fact not guilty. It is not just likely but certain that some defendants now on death row are innocent. Even if only one is eventually executed, that will be a tragic and unacceptable abuse of state power.

There was a chilling moment in a recent GOP candidates’ debate when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about having authorized 234 executions, more than any other governor in modern U.S. history. The crowd, drawn largely from Tea Party ranks, cheered this record as if it were a great accomplishment. “I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry said, referring to execution as “the ultimate justice.”

But he should struggle with it. We all should.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 22, 2011

September 23, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, GOP, Government, Governors, Human Rights, Politics, Right Wing, States, Teaparty | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Even At Guantanamo, A 9/11 Trial Can Serve Justice

It’s official. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, will be tried by a military commission at Guantanamo Bay.

He will not be tried in Manhattan in the shadow of the World Trade Center. He will not be tried before the vast majority of the victims’ families. Nor will he be tried in any federal court. Instead, he will be tried offshore in a military commission process established in 2009 and yet to be tested. It is likely that he will be convicted of conspiring to plan and commit the attacks of 9/11 and that, he, along with his four co-defendants, the other 9/11 detainees at Guantanamo, will be given life sentences, if not the death penalty.

For those of us who have fought vociferously for the use of the federal court system to try terrorism suspects, the Obama administration’s decision is, on its surface, a defeat. The numbers make it clear: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 174 individuals have been convicted of jihadi-related terrorism in federal court, an 87 percent conviction rate, according to the most recent figures from the NYU Center on Law and Security terrorist trial report card.

From the early 1990s on, the courts have learned how to handle the challenges of terrorism cases, from classified or tainted evidence to the relevance of al-Qaeda’s strategic and tactical goals. The abandonment of the hard-earned professionalism of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys is a loss.

But it is not a defeat for justice itself. It is time to give up our long-standing protest and consider the good that can come from these trials — even if they are held at Guantanamo, and even if they are conducted by the military.

In prosecuting Mohammed, we will be trying the individual without whom there presumably would have been no 9/11 attack; the fact that he is secondary to Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy does not reduce his guilt. In a sense, he is the Eichmann of the attack, and his trial is no less important than was that of Hitler’s operational director.

Trying Mohammed and his co-conspirators for a crime that took place 10 years ago can only be seen as a positive. It is unfair that the country has waited this long to bring to justice anyone directly linked to 9/11. If part of the purpose of trials is to bring closure to the open wounds that result from wrongdoing, then the trial matters more than the venue, the jurisdiction or even the system itself.

The country’s need for some sort of closure around the Sept. 11 attacks was illustrated in part by the fear of having this trial in Manhattan. Although it is likely that few victims’ families will now be able to watch the proceedings in person, they will know what is happening, and they will be able to achieve some sense of justice and begin to heal.

There is a further benefit. The details of the 9/11 conspiracy remain a mystery to much of the American public. The trial will turn mystery into fact.

At present, we know generally about bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s determination to harm the United States and the failures of U.S. intelligence. But we don’t know details about these five men and their step-by-step intersection with the attacks — details that were outlined in the criminal indictment that was unsealed in New York this past week. The indictment lists the sequence of activities that made up the attacks and highlights the criminality of the conspiracy. Presumably, those facts will be central to the evidence presented at trial at Guantanamo.

The 9/11 attacks were a carefully conceived and coldheartedly implemented plot of immense destruction. They were not the work of men with superhuman powers, as al-Qaeda terrorists are often portrayed. Better knowledge of the story will not diminish the magnitude of the harm, but it will probably diminish the powerful mystique that so often surrounds al-Qaeda. Reducing the organization to flesh-and-blood figures, to individuals rather than a vast and dangerous specter, will be hugely significant in teaching the country that, although al-Qaeda is an enemy that arguably perpetrated the worst crime in American history, it is not invincible.

Admittedly, there are numerous pitfalls that threaten the military commission system. These trials will differ from those in the federal system in several ways. They will rely on a panel of at least five military judges, and the evidentiary standards will not be the same as those in federal court, though it is unlikely that evidence attained by torture will be allowed. There will be broader allowances for hearsay, and access for families to view the proceedings will be more limited.

In addition, there are worries — which would come with any trial — about giving a platform to Mohammed and his ideological pronouncements. Even the possibility of the death penalty is problematic, as he has expressed a desire to be martyred. In addition, the judges must able to keep the defendants and the courtroom under control, and the track record of trials at Guantanamo has fallen well below standards for evidence, legal tactics and courtroom decorum.

The fact is that this trial is going to take place. It’s not ideal. I would have preferred to see the case in the civilian courts. But a military trial is far preferable to the perpetual limbo of indefinite detention without trial — the very definition of Guantanamo.

The trial of Mohammed and his co-conspirators will signify a step forward in the nation’s ability to counter terrorism in a rational fashion. Rather than assume that the proceedings will fall below the standards of federal courts, let’s expect wise judgment in place of retributive justice. Let’s look for an enlightened use of the leeway provided by the Military Commissions Act. Let’s hope that, despite the unique limitations and allowances of that law, the presiding judge will keep this trial as close to the federal standards as possible.

These proceedings, nearly 10 years in the making, are likely to set the precedent for how this country tries terrorism suspects. Although it is outside the federal justice system, this trial could begin to restore the nation’s confidence in its ability to administer justice to even the most vile criminals — a confidence that may one day return trials for detainees in the war on terror to the nation’s long-tested federal courts system.

By: Karen J. Greenberg, The Washington Post, April 8, 2011

April 11, 2011 Posted by | Democracy, DOJ, GITMO, Homeland Security, Ideology, Justice, Justice Department, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Politics, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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