Category Archives: Criminal Justice

The God Squad In The Courts

Rewire has a feature called “Gavel Drop,” with brief descriptions of recent lawsuits involving religion and the First Amendment, and providing links to longer descriptions of the parties and issues involved. This particular issue highlights the current (sad) state of “faith-based” America.

Allow me to share a few of the featured entries.

The Alliance Defending Freedom is now arguing in federal court to allow homeless shelters to deny services for transgender people. Downtown Soup Kitchen in Anchorage, Alaska, filed the religious freedom lawsuit against Anchorage earlier this year over the city’s nondiscrimination law; a case had been filed against the center after it denied a transgender woman admission to its shelter. The shelter director said that the woman was denied because she appeared drunk, but also that it would never accept a “biological man.”

In the linked article describing the lawsuit, ThinkProgress points out that ADF’s claim for relief  isn’t simply a request to allow this particular discriminatory act; it is a demand that the court overturn the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance in its entirety. It’s part and parcel of the Christian Right’s persistent attacks on any and all LGBTQ protections, in the name of “religious liberty.”

If a homeless transgender woman has to be thrown out into the cold Alaskan street in order to show proper deference to the religious sensibilities of the “Christians” who run the shelter, well, those are the breaks.

Speaking of religious liberty, the Gavel Drop also reported on this lawsuit from Illinois.

Illinois’ Fourth District Appellate Court upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging a state law that provides funding to Medicaid and state employee health insurance plans that cover abortion services. Anti-abortion groups, represented by the Thomas More Society, are planning to appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court.

I note that, for these “good Christians,” religious liberty goes only one way: their way. Adherents of religions that permit abortion are to be denied the liberty to follow their beliefs.

Nothing more clearly demonstrates the hypocrisy of the “religious freedom” movement as piously promoted by people like Mike Pence and organizations like ADF and the Thomas More Society than this insistence that “liberty” means their right to have government impose their beliefs on everyone else.

The theologies of these “Christian” plaintiffs prohibit abortion (for them and for any of their neighbors); but those theologies evidently do allow flat-out lying in service of their “godly” goals. Their argument against the law included the repeated accusation that the measure promoted taxpayer-funded abortion services.

“Taxpayer-funded abortion” is a myth pedaled by abortion-rights foes that feeds on public ignorance about abortion funding. Two-thirds of the public is unaware the federal Hyde Amendment prohibits paying for abortions with federal Medicaid dollars, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Also among the lawsuits listed in the Gavel Drop was yet another effort to have government endorse Christianity by displaying a cross on public property.

The city of Pensacola, Florida, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and allow a large memorial cross to remain standing on public land in Bayview Park. Earlier this month, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court judge’s ruling that displaying the cross on publicly owned land violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The city of Pensacola is represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

These public monument cases are brought repeatedly, and just as repeatedly dismissed under a long line of precedents invoking the Establishment Clause. Not only do I fail to see how moving the cross to private property violates anyone’s  “liberty,” I fail to understand why the Christian Right is so dead-set on having the government endorse their brand of religion.

Okay, that’s a lie. I do understand.

They’re theocrats, just like the Taliban. They want government to post their symbols in order to remind the rest of us that this is their country, and the rest of us are just here by virtue of their forbearance.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I really get tired of these people.

He Probably Shouldn’t Have Run For President…

If there is one thing we have learned about Donald Trump during and since the election, it is that his ego is massively bigger than his IQ. A smarter man would have realized that a spotlight comes with the Presidential territory–and that past criminal activity would eventually be uncovered.

About that spotlight:

The Washington Post, especially, has done significant work uncovering misuse of the Trump Foundation and various other Trump scams. Now, McClatchy’s Washington Bureau has weighed in with itemized evidence of the way Russian oligarchs bailed Trump out of financial difficulties with (many anonymous) cash purchases of real estate, often for dramatically inflated prices.

Aleksandr Burman, a Ukrainian who engaged in a health care scheme that cost the federal government $26 million and was sentenced to a decade in prison, paid $725,000 cash for a condo at a Trump Tower I in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla. in 2009.

Leonid Zeldovich, who has reportedly done extensive business in the Russian-annexed area of Crimea,bought four Trump units outright at a cost of more than $4.35 million, three of them in New York City between 2007 and 2010.

And Igor Romashov, who served as chairman of the board of Transoil, a Russian oil transport company subject to U.S. sanctions, paid $620,000 upfront for a unit at a building adorned with the future U.S. president’s name in Sunny Isles Beach in 2010.

Buyers connected to Russia or former Soviet republics made 86 all-cash sales — totaling nearly $109 million — at 10 Trump-branded properties in South Florida and New York City, according to a new analysis shared with McClatchy. Many of them made purchases using shell companies designed to obscure their identities.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a former federal prosecutor, has called evidence of these transactions “deeply troubling.” He also noted that there have been credible allegations of money laundering by the Trump Organization for many years. If these allegations are true, it could pose a real threat to the United States, because Russia would be able to “leverage” evidence of illicit financial transactions against the President.
“Leverage” is a polite word for blackmail.

The all-cash buyers include Alexey Ustaev, founder of a private bank based in St. Petersburg, Russia; Igor Zorin, a government official who runs a state-owned broadcasting company; the wife of hockey player Viacheslav Fetisov; pop star Igor Nikolaev; Roman Sinyavsky, a luxury real estate broker who was one of the first to sell units at a Trump’s South Florida building and Evgeny Bachurin, who Russian President Vladimir Putin fired as head of Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency before becoming a donor to a political action committee supporting Trump, according to American Bridge….

“We’ve long suspected that Donald Trump’s businesses were a front for money laundering and our research suggests it could be true,” said Harrell Kirstein, communicators director for the Trump War Room at American Bridge. “The millions of dollars in previously unreported, all-cash real estate deals we discovered raise troubling questions about who is funding his businesses, why, and what they’re getting in return.”

The linked article has much more detail, including descriptions of several more unsavory buyers, and the extent to which those buyers paid considerably more than market value for the properties.

Anyone who has worked for government at any level–a cohort that excludes Trump, whose ignorance of the most basic premises of governance and law never fails to astonish–knows that public office brings a level of scrutiny with it. Even in our current media environment, where investigative journalism sometimes seems to be on life support, Presidential candidates understand that they will be targets for searching investigation, because citizens have a right to know what sorts of people govern them. (Actually, that curiosity tends to extend well beyond what we’re entitled to know–but it legitimately includes information about dishonest personal behaviors and illegal business practices.)

Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public whetted that public appetite.

Subsequent revelations, the indictments of multiple campaign functionaries, and more recently, news of the long, cozy relationship between Justice Kennedy’s banker son and the Trump organization, have raised further concerns. (When Justin Kennedy  headed the real estate capital markets division of Deutsch Bank, he apparently authorized huge loans to Trump at a time American banks would no longer touch him).

I don’t know whether proof of Trump’s probable criminal conduct will be emerge before the midterm elections, or whether members of the cult that is today’s GOP will believe even ironclad evidence if it does. Voters can’t depend on that, or on Mueller. But there’s one thing we can depend upon: thanks to that spotlight he constantly craves, reporters will continue to investigate the multiple, credible  accusations against him.

If Trump and his family end up in prison, he’ll have only his ego and ignorance to blame.

 

Rural And Urban Realities

Evidently, urban and rural Americans live in worlds that are different in ways we haven’t previously recognized.

Recently, the Washington Post analyzed attitudes about guns and gun violence. The results of that analysis added yet another item to the growing list of experiential differences between city dwellers and their rural cousins.

The article began with a recitation of the depressing statistics we have become accustomed to reading:

On average, there are 276 gun homicides a week in America. There are 439 gun suicides. All told, there are, on average, nearly 1,200 incidents involving gun violence, every week, in America.

This landscape of gun violence — suicides, homicides, mass shootings, accidents — is not evenly distributed. Instead, it plays out over geographic and political dividing lines — and these may help explain why individual Americans see the issue so differently.

The most striking difference is also arguably the weirdest. In the nation’s cities, which are overwhelmingly Democratic (blue dots in even the reddest states), people are more likely to be murdered with a gun than they are to shoot themselves. In red America, mostly rural and mostly Republican, people are more likely to shoot themselves to death than they are to be murdered with a gun.

In other words, In the regions where most Democrats live, gun violence is more often committed against someone else. Guns are used in crimes that are likely to generate news coverage and stoke fears of victimization. In more Republican areas, gun violence is more often self-inflicted, and suicides are unlikely to attract as much attention or generate as much fear. So even though Republican areas have more gun violence than Democratic ones, the public reaction is different.

On average, there were slightly more gun deaths in Republican areas than Democratic-leaning ones in the decade from 2007 to 2016. The disparity in death rates was even greater — 5.7 per 100,000 in Republican-leaning counties, versus 4.7 in Democratic-leaning counties — due to the higher total population in counties won by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Much of the disparity comes from the fact there are so many more suicides than homicides a year, and suicides are so much more prevalent in rural areas and small towns — a phenomenon that has been explored elsewhere

Guns kill or injure more children, teens and people in Democratic districts, and mass shootings occur more often in Democratic districts.

These Republican and Democratic breakdowns correspond strongly with National Rifle Association ratings. Of the 430 for which grades were available, only 33 (7.7 percent) deviated from the simple Republicans get “A” ratings, Democrats get “F” model.

Both support for the Republican Party and gun suicides increase the farther you get from urban America. (Research has shown gun ownership correlates strongly with gun suicide.) Many–perhaps most–people don’t see suicide as a public policy problem. According to Pew, only 32 percent of Republicans see gun violence as a “very big” problem and only 24 percent think gun laws should be stricter than they are today.

It is possible suicides do not spur more support for gun control because people figure popular gun control measures, such as banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines or tracking purchases, will not affect people who use guns against themselves. Prior analysis by The Post suggests that if the U.S. had a similar level of gun availability as other Western countries, firearm suicides would decline 82 percent and overall suicides would decline 20 to 38 percent.

This is useful information, and it may explain some otherwise confounding differences in policy preferences.

It doesn’t, however, explain why so many more rural Americans than city dwellers commit suicide…

A Blow To Judicial Independence

California held its primary election last week, and among the results was a successful recall of Judge Aaron Persky.

Persky was the judge who gave a six-month sentence to Brock Turner, a Stanford athlete convicted of sexually assaulting a woman who had passed out. The sentence was seen as a slap on the wrist, and in the #MeToo era, it aroused enormous anger.

I’m not arguing that the sentence was appropriate, or the anger unjustified. But recalling a judge whose decision in a case angers the general public is a serious and damaging assault on judicial independence. The Constitution gave us three branches of government–two of which are answerable to voters. Judges are supposed to be answerable to the Constitution and the rule of law.

As a public defender wrote in a column for Vox, 

This was the first successful recall in California in almost 90 years. Though the recall only involved one judge, its impact will be felt nationwide.

It sends a dangerous message to judges everywhere: If we don’t like one decision you make, you’re out. That represents a terrible threat to judicial independence and highlights the problems with electing judges — or subjecting appointed judges to reelection. They need the protection to think independently, even if they sometimes make decisions we don’t like.

I am not arguing that Turner’s sentence was the right one. Indeed, as a public defender, I am all too aware of the racial and class disparities in sentencing that redounded to Turner’s benefit. I have previously written about the ways privileged criminal defendants often are rewarded precisely because of their privileges. (One need look no further than Harvey Weinstein, who easily posted bail and did not spend a day in jail after his arrest.) But allowing an uninformed public to punish a judge for one unpopular decision jeopardizes the integrity of our entire system.

I was living in Indianapolis when a federal court judge ruled that the city’s public schools must be desegregated. It was not a popular decision, to put it mildly–in fact, it was so unpopular that the Judge required police protection for a prolonged period. If he could have been recalled, the schools might still be segregated.

One of the reasons I oppose judicial elections is that a judge who knows he must face voters is likely to weigh the merits of a case against the probable public reaction. If you are a judge with a mortgage and a couple of kids in college, how willing will you be to buck public opinion in a high-profile case?

Ironically, as the Vox article notes, the effects of this recall are more likely to be felt by the disadvantaged than by the privileged.

Given that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and prosecutes the poor and people of color, the ones who suffer from judges feeling pressured to sentence harshly are not people with privilege like Turner, but those without privilege.

Judges have always had more incentives to punish harshly than leniently, and elections only increase these pressures. A Brennan Center for Justice study found that when judges are approaching reelection, they are more likely to impose harsher penalties. This is common sense, given that judges who have sentenced a defendant harshly rarely make the news….

When judges are looking over their shoulders, worried about losing their jobs if they enrage the public, the fairness of our system is compromised. Judicial independence is especially important because the public is often wrong, particularly on a local level.

Lawyers who actually practice in Judge Persky’s court–including the head prosecutor– report that he is a thoughtful, fair judge, and not known for leniency. In the Turner case, Persky had followed the probation department’s sentencing recommendation.

When we allow public outrage to  trump respect for judicial independence, we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Point Well Taken…

One of the websites I visit regularly is Talking Points Memo. Its editor, Josh Marshall, was a conventional journalist before establishing the online equivalent of a news site devoted to government and politics, and he employs staff reporters who are equally professional and credible.

In a recent column, Marshall reported on his participation in a CNN segment, and made a point about the accusation that this President routinely violates democratic norms–an issue that has certainly concerned me, and that has been a focus of criticisms leveled by numerous political scientists.

Marshall says we need to stop talking so much about norms.

But we need to stop talking so much about “norms”. And it’s not just CNN. The term has come up a number of times in our editorial conversations at TPM just today. I’ve talked about them. But we need to stop talking so much about norms. Because it doesn’t capture what is happening or the situation we’re in. In every kind of communication, clarity is the most important thing. By talking so much about “norms” and the violation of “norms” we’re confusing the situation and even confusing ourselves.

“Norms” aren’t laws for a reason. They are like bumpers on the roads of our civic and political life which are there to keep people of basically good faith from crossing lines they shouldn’t cross. They can also be warning posts so others can see when someone is either going down a bad path or needs to be brought back into line.

As Marshall says, that isn’t what ought to worry us.

But the problem with almost everything President Trump is doing today is not that he’s violating norms. The problem is that he is abusing his presidential powers to cover up his crimes and his associates’ crimes. Full stop. That’s the problem. The norms are just the orange rubber cones he knocked over when he drove out of his lane and headed for the crowded sidewalk.

He makes a similar point about transactions the press usually labels “conflicts of interest.”

What we’re seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They’re straight-up corruption. It’s like “norms”. Defining “conflicts of interest” is meant to keep relatively honest people on the straight and narrow or create tripwires that allow others to see when people in power are crossing the line. Nothing like that is happening here. We have an increasingly open effort to make vast sums of money with the presidency. It’s happening in front of our eyes, albeit not quite as visibly as the coverup.

Marshall’s point is important. The use of terminology that may have been entirely appropriate when applied to less venal political actors only serves to muddy the waters when we are dealing with unambiguously criminal behavior.

I understand the reluctance; we’ve never had an administration ignore the law this blatantly and proudly. But that’s what we have now, and refusing to accurately label what is obvious to anyone who is looking is akin to aiding and abetting.