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Why Judges Matter

Note: For those who follow this blog on Facebook, apologies; changes by FB resulted in automatic posting failing for the last ten days. I’ve manually posted the past three; for others, you will need to access the site.

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Here in Indiana, in recognition of the pandemic, the state’s Election Commission authorized mail-in voting without excuse for the recent primary election. Thus far, they are refusing to allow no-excuse voting by mail in November.

Hey, we’re a Red state, and–in defiance of available data that says neither party benefits from voting by mail–the GOP is convinced that making it easier to vote will help the Democrats. (Besides–as I pointed out recently–mail-in ballots make it impossible to play the minority-vote-suppressing games Republicans have long played in this state.)

Given this official intransigence, several individuals and Indiana Vote By Mail have filed suit in federal court, asserting that the denial violates the constitutional rights of voters, and asking that the judge order the Election Commission and Secretary of State to authorize no-excuse mail ballots.

The complaint notes that these officials “have failed to take necessary actions to protect Indiana voters” and that as a result, many voters will have to make a choice between their personal safety and health, and exercising their right to vote. They want the court to rule that they can cast an absentee ballot “in precisely the same manner in which these same election officials have allowed in the June 2 primary election.”

The pleading points out that a majority of Hoosiers are vulnerable to COVID-19, that the disease is potentially fatal, and that it is readily spread from person to person. They offer medical testimony to the effect that it is “highly likely” to be with us in November, and that  minimizing the risk requires people to “spend the shortest amount of time in the best ventilated, least contaminated environment, where the fewest number of people are generating the fewest virus particles.”

The pleadings identify a variety of ways in which the refusal to allow absentee voting under these circumstances violates the constitution–especially Equal Protection–and cite dozens of cases in support of that argument. (Interestingly, they also cite the 26th Amendment, which prohibits abridging the right to vote due to age. Data suggests that refusal to allow no-excuse absentee voting disproportionately harms the elderly.)

It’s been quite awhile since I was a practicing lawyer, but as I read the pleadings, the plaintiffs make a strong–even conclusive– case. And here’s the “teachable moment,” as we in academic life like to say:

  • The right to vote is one of the most important rights Americans (presumably) enjoy. Every other right ultimately depends upon the conduct of fair elections in which the voice of the people–all of the people–is reflected and honored.
  • When government officials representing the executive or legislative branches act in ways that threaten American liberties–not just our right to cast ballots, but the other rights guaranteed by the Constitution–the courts are our only redress  short of violence. If the judiciary is corrupted, we’re up that creek without a paddle.

For the past three and a half years, Mitch McConnell and the GOP have been intent on corrupting the federal judiciary, confirming ideologues and partisans to lifetime positions, despite the fact that many of them aren’t qualified to be on the bench and have demonstrated no commitment to the rule of law.

Politically, arguments about the importance of the judiciary have tended to be about reproductive rights, but overturning Roe v. Wade is just a minuscule part of the damage that can be done when the courts can’t be counted on to restrain nakedly partisan infringements of the Constitution.

 

Mad As Hell And Unwilling To Take It Any More

There’s a famous scene from the movie Network in which–prompted by a furious anchorman–people lean out of their windows and scream “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Any honest American knows that racist, dehumanizing and frequently violent attacks on black people, most of whom are simply going about their business and trying to live their lives, have been a constant of American life. With the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, however, it has become much more difficult to rationalize these incidents away–to tell ourselves, well, it couldn’t have happened the way it’s being reported, there must have been more to the story, or to engage in other denial mechanisms allowing those of us privileged by our whiteness to avoid really knowing.

It’s so much easier not to know, because if we know, we will also know we should do something, even if we’re not sure what that something is.

Over the past several years, there has been a constant stream of videos documenting unjustified and frequently horrific treatment of African-Americans–too often by the police who are charged with protecting members of the public, too often in striking contrast to the way those same officers are shown treating white hoodlums, and too often encouraged by the White Nationalist currently defiling the Oval Office.

The protests underway around the country are a response to the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by a police officer; they’re the equivalent of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Those protests began as peaceful demonstrations, but a number have morphed into violence and looting.

Violence and property destruction, of course, give the Trumpers an excuse to double-down on the racism and ignore the appalling behavior that triggered civil unrest in the first place. It plays into their hands. And it is beginning to look as if some of them weren’t going to wait for black rage to ignite those fires and break those windows.

Minneapolis officials have charged that “outside forces” (mainly White Nationalists, some of whom are eager for civil war) are infiltrating peaceful protests and kicking off the violence and mayhem.

At a press conference, Gov. Tim Walls, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison alleged that outside forces infiltrated the state, and began setting fire to historic businesses in communities of color. Ellison cited a widely circulating video (cameras, again!) of a white man in a gas mask holding an umbrella who was caught by protestors on video methodically breaking windows.

The Mayor reported that every person arrested during the protests was from out of state.

Authorities will begin releasing the names of those arrested, and those individuals will be “contact-traced” to determine whether they are known members or sympathizers of the white nationalist groups that have been encouraging members to wreak havoc in Minneapolis and other cities where protests are occurring.

So here we are.

After three-and-half years in which Trump has engaged in racist rhetoric, modeled bullying behavior, and displayed contempt for the rule of law, the Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are understandably emboldened.

The people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 weren’t all racists–although a substantial proportion of them demonstrably were. In 2020, a vote for Trump or for any of the Republicans who continue to enable him will unequivocally be a vote for racism– and for the complete abandonment of what I have called “the American Idea.

 

Yes, Donald, It Is Your Fault

I still remember being furious with my middle son over something (a high school test he’d blown off, as I recall); I was beginning a long “motherly” diatribe when he absolutely shut me down by saying “yes, it was my fault.”

Admitting when one is wrong isn’t just a sign of maturity–although it is certainly that. As my son had figured out, it’s also an effective counter to other people’s anger. That’s one of the many, many things our profoundly immature President doesn’t get.

In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman recently noted an exchange between a (simpering) Maria Bartiromo and Trump, in which Trump insisted that “no one” blames him for the economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic.  And of course, he has also disclaimed any and all responsibility for the spread of the virus–it was The W.H.O. or the CDC or China, or his favorite target, Obama.

Medical professionals beg to differ.

My cousin, a cardiologist, recently blogged about a recent editorial in the Lanceta well-regarded medical journal.  The editorial pinned responsibility squarely on the Trump administration for its  marginalization of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It called the extent of that marginalization dangerous for both the U.S. and the world. In the editorial, the journal pled with Americans to put a president in the White House who will understand that “public health should not be guided by partisan politics,” and enumerated the ways in which the Trump administration had weakened the agency.

As Waldman pointed out, absolving Trump of responsibility for our economic disaster requires accepting the “misleading formulation” that we must choose between saving lives or reopening the economy. In his opinion,

this depression is absolutely Trump’s fault. He made a series of disastrous decisions that led us to this point, and other countries that have had far different experiences illustrate what might have happened if we had a president who wasn’t so utterly incompetent…we lost two months when we could have been preparing for the pandemic that would inevitably arrive in the United States. Though Trump was repeatedly warned by people inside and outside his administration beginning in early January that a pandemic was on its way, he continued to dismiss the threat, praise the Chinese government for its response and insist that there was nothing to worry about.

It is now late May, and the U.S. still doesn’t have a national testing and tracing strategy to contain the pandemic. Meanwhile, Waldman points to the experience of countries fortunate enough to have competent leadership.

South Korea saw its first case of covid-19 on the same day we did, Jan. 20. But its government acted quickly with an aggressive program of testing and tracing to contain the spread. The result is that, as of this writing, we have nearly 85,000 deaths, while South Korea has just 260.

Like us, South Korea is facing economic challenges stemming from the pandemic. But its unemployment rate in April was 3.8 percent.

To take another example, Germany has been hit harder than many places by the virus. The Germans have recorded a few less than 8,000 deaths — a lot, but still only about a third as many as the United States on a per capita basis. But because Germany had a system in place in which the government covers payrolls in an emergency, its unemployment rate is only 5.8 percent, while ours heads past 20 percent.

I have a son who lives in Amsterdam. The Netherlands, like Germany, has covered payrolls, and is projecting an eventual “cataclysmic” unemployment rate of something under 9%. (The Netherlands also keeps its infrastructure in tip-top shape, but that’s a matter for a different rant.)

Waldman says our disastrous situation could have been avoided “if Trump wasn’t so shortsighted, so ignorant, so inept and so unwilling to believe what experts were telling him.”

True. And if he wasn’t a walking, incessantly-talking illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or even if he was enough of an adult to acknowledge when he was wrong. But then, he’d be a different person.

A functioning adult.

“Becoming”– Versus Unbecoming

Indiana readers: If you haven’t already requested your absentee ballot for the June 2d Primary, don’t forget that you have to do so by May 21st. 

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After several people recommended “Becoming”–the Netflix documentary about Michelle Obama’s book tour– my husband and I watched it. Now, I’m recommending it too–albeit with a caveat.

If–like me–you are already pretty depressed about what Trump and his toxic base have done to this country, you might want to skip “Becoming,” because it was truly painful to be reminded that we recently had an administration headed by a thoughtful, caring, sane and competent First Couple.

Could you fault some of President Obama’s policy decisions? Sure. Show me the political figure with whom you agree 100%. (If there is one, you aren’t thinking, just following.) What you couldn’t fault–at least not if you’re intellectually honest–was the integrity of his approach to the office. Both he and Michelle consistently elevated the interests of the country over political partisanship. (Actually, that triggered several of the criticisms I hear about his presidency; people wanted him to “play more hardball” with Republicans, who were clearly more invested in partisanship than patriotism.)

What I found both touching and illuminating was Michelle’s response to a question about how she felt the day they left the White House after spending eight years there. Her answer: vast relief that she no longer would have every single thing she said and/or did scrutinized and criticized.

For eight years, she had tried to be perfect, to meet the onslaughts of  slander and racism by “going high.”

The documentary underscored the vast differences between the Obamas and the Trumps without ever mentioning the latter.

Both Obamas are articulate, knowledgable, and civil. From all accounts, they are truly nice people. It’s impossible to imagine either of them bullying staff members, mimicking disabled people, or calling critics offensive names. But by far the most significant difference concerns empathy.

The Obamas have it; Trump doesn’t.

Several times, the documentary focused on Michelle’s frequent sessions with young women, and her encouragement that they “tell their stories” and follow their dreams. In another example, she recounted how excited she was when the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, and how she and Sasha “snuck out” to join the celebrating throng in front of the White House (where, as many of us recall, rainbow lights played across the facade).

That celebration came just a few hours after the Obamas had returned from services for the nine African-Americans gunned down in a church during bible study in Charleston. The documentary showed footage of the part of that service where President Obama broke into an impromptu “Amazing Grace” and then left the pulpit to hug and console the survivors and family members of those who’d been killed.

It is absolutely impossible to picture Donald Trump comforting anyone. Or showing respect for others. Or speaking eloquently (or using words of more than two syllables). Or ever acting like a mensch.

The documentary reminded me of a column by a British writer, who wrote it in response to the question “Why don’t most English people like Donald Trump?” It’s been making the rounds, and you’ve probably seen it, but the first few paragraphs perfectly encapsulated the distinction this documentary highlighted.

“A few things spring to mind.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

The contrast between Obama and Trump is the contrast between self-aware, civilized behavior and immature boorishness. Dim as he is, Trump knows that Obama (a black man!!) is vastly superior to him-intellectually, morally, and ethically. That recognition eats away at him; it’s the reason he’s so fixated on destroying anything Obama did, even when dismantling Obama’s legacy will clearly hurt the country he took an oath to serve.

Watching the documentary about Michelle Obama–as classy and brilliant and thoughtful as her husband– was a stark reminder of what we’ve lost–and the disaster that is the boorish ignoramus now defiling the Oval Office.

It hurt.

WTF?

Sorry for the inelegant headline, but…

We’ve all gotten used to hearing about the continued shenanigans of this corrupt administration: the purge of federal employees who earned Trump’s enmity by actually doing their jobs; the continued rollback of environmental protections; the cushy contracts with friends and supporters; etc.

We’d have had to be blind to have missed the central policy imperative motivating Trump–overturning anything and everything Obama ever did, no matter how sane, helpful or appropriate. That’s why one of the first things he did when he assumed office was dismantle the pandemic preparation task force Obama had established.

We’re also well aware of the incredible ineptitude of this administration. Governors and public health officials are pleading for coherent policies, for protective gear, for straight talk–none of which they are getting.

Okay. So we know he’s corrupt, insanely jealous of the black guy who preceded him, and totally ignorant of how government (and much else) works. But what explains this? 

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall reports

Let’s talk about these seizures of PPE goods by federal authorities. There are a number of instances of this and as I noted in the post below a number of reasons why it might be happening. There are numerous cases where orders placed by states or hospitals have been canceled after they have been outbid by federal authorities or federal authorities have ordered vendors to sell to the federal government. According to Kaiser Health News, those compelled sales appear to be pursuant to an executive order President Trump signed on March 18th under authorities granted by the Defense Production Act.

But what I’m more interested in are reports of federal authorities confiscating physical shipments en route to states, local governments or regional hospital systems. The most publicized case of this came at some point in March when, according to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), a shipment of 3 million masks ordered through BJ’s Wholesale was seized by federal authorities in the Port of New York. Baker did not say which agency confiscated the goods or under what authority. That incident was what led to the widely reported and successful effort to fly goods in from China using the New England Patriots jet.

Another case happened just yesterday when the top county official in Somerset County, New Jersey, Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson, announced that a shipment of 35,000 masks had been confiscated by federal officials. According to this report in the Franklin Reporter and Advocate, “As of early in the afternoon of April 3, Robinson said that the county was told the surgical face masks would be delivered that day, but that the federal government had taken the N-95 masks.

Evidently, there have been a number of other, similar incidents reported, including what Marshall says is a “reliable report of a major non-governmental entity in the western United States having a major shipment seized by federal authorities at an airport in California.”

This is inexplicable–and just nuts. (Hence the “headline” of this post.) Every time Trump holds one of his briefing-cum-political-rallies,  he insists that the states are responsible for getting their own supplies and should only appeal to the federal government in emergencies. Why, then, would federal authorities be seizing shipments that states, local governments and major medical organizations have managed to locate and purchase?

As Marshall says,

In any case, we need to know more. States have been asking the federal government to take over the process of provisioning the country with these critical PPE goods. That at least would avoid states being forced to bid up prices by bidding against each other. After having FEMA swoop in and purchase ventilators that Colorado was in the process of buying, Gov. Jared Polis (D) said: “Either be in or out. [Either let] us know what we’re going to get and when we’re going to get them or stay out and let us buy them.” But these seizures of shipments are at best causing confusion for desperate states and hospitals. And they seem so haphazard that they are raising legitimate questions about whether they are being allocated to states in a preferential or politicized fashion.

If this was part of a legitimate FEMA effort to allocate supplies more equitably, the narcissist-in-chief would undoubtedly have bragged about it. So I repeat: WTF is going on?