Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Conservative Shangri La

The Right-Wing Supreme Court That Wasn't:

Conservatives thought this Supreme Court term would be different.

Still reeling from losses last year in major cases on health care and same-sex marriage, they welcomed a new docket in October studded with cases that seemed poised to move the law to the right.

But then came two unexpected turns of events. Justice Antonin Scalia, the longest-serving member of the court’s five-justice conservative wing, died. And Justice Anthony M. Kennedy veered left in two of the term’s biggest cases, joining the court’s liberals in significant decisions favoring affirmative action and abortion rights.

For the second term in a row, the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. delivered liberal decisions at a rate not seen since the famously liberal court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and 1960s.
And once again, the "Sphinx of Sacramento" Kennedy was at the heart(break) of the most contentious decisions.
In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the affirmative-action case, and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the abortion case, Kennedy voted for (and in the affirmative-action case, personally wrote) strongly worded opinions that suggest the Court has, in fact, moved to the left on these agenda issues.

These two votes announced this week don’t by any stretch make him a new-hatched liberal. Bear in mind that, unless something really bizarre went on behind the scenes, he voted to affirm the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Texas, the jury-rigged partisan takedown of the administration’s “deferred-action” immigration plan. And his comments from the bench during oral arguments in the public-employee union case, Friedrich v. California Teachers Association, suggest that he believes that 21st-century America is a soulless, totalitarian wasteland of federal overreach and executive tyranny. 
Yet he was in the majority of the Birchfield v. North Dakota 4th amendment decision last week that said warrantless breathalyzers are constitutional, while drawing a line on warrantless blood tests. So refusing a breathalyzer can trigger criminal penalties, but refusing a blood test can't. Weird groupings in that case. 6-2 in the breathalyzer case (two dissenters Sotomayor and Ginsburg saying they were against warrantless breathalyzers) and 7-1 in the blood test case (Thomas, natch, saying he would've forced the blood out of you anyway). 

And Kennedy sided with the hardcore conservatives against Obama's immigration ploy to legalize several million undocumented workers. I say ploy because while most people still think Obama was some champion of undocumented persons, they seem to forget he deported more people in his first six years as president than George W. Bush did in eight. I saw the immigration case as less about presidential overreach, and more about Obama trying to whitewash the record of detainee concentration camps, mass deportations and immigrant abuses that took place for most of his eight years in office.

Nonetheless, it was a surprising string of decisions which saw the court go leftward on major issues, and makes the Republican leadership in the Senate, with their current refusal to hold hearings or a vote on Obama's replacement for Scalia (Merrick Garland), look even more brain dead.

In fact, it's really not a good summer to be a Republican or conservative generally.
 In the space of just two days:
The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that Texas' onerous abortion law were an undue burden on a woman's constitutional right to the procedure.

—The House Select Committee on Benghazi released its final report on the tragic 2012 attacks that killed four Americans, finding "no new evidence of culpability or wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton," according to the New York Times.
—Donald Trump gave a speech in front a literal garbage pile in which he called for the destruction of existing trade pacts and an all-out trade war with China.

It's a political cliché that the Republican Party comprises three pillars: religious, defense and economic. In just two days, all three have been turned upside down.
The Republican convention coming up in a few weeks promises to be one for the ages, similar to how almost 50 years later, people still talk about the Democratic convention of 1968. If the party leaders don't actually attempt to steal the nomination away from Bozo, the riots and violence that promise to follow a Trump feting may be unprecedented.

Looks like the Reagan Revolution, more than 35 years on now, is dead. And conservatives need to move towards a new vision if they or their party plans to stay relevant.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Camp Orenthal Lives

I'm a little late in writing about this, but O.J. Simpson has been ubiquitous on t.v. these days, first turning up in a made for t.v. series The People v. O.J. Simpson starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. and broadcast on several cable channels during the spring.

I caught part of one episode and was nonplussed by what I saw. Having shown the Frontline documentary "The O.J. Verdict" to my classes to punctuate the racial divide in this country, the docudrama didn't tell me anything new or revelatory about the case.

So when I heard ESPN's 30 for 30 series was running a five part, ten hour documentary called O.J.: Made in America my eyes rolled back in my head and I groaned. Another documentary or show about this trial that is now 22 years removed from the public's memory? The documentary I show is an hour, what could possibly take ten hours to cover?

Turns out, quite a lot. I was riveted throughout most of it, particularly the concluding two episodes which ran this past weekend, and which cover from the end of the trial till today (the Frontline documentary came out the year before he went down in Vegas). Virtually every major player, save for the Juice himself, was interviewed today, and the footage they showed, particularly crime scene photos which had never been released before, was harrowing.

However, in all those hours of newly produced footage about him, the murder, his near or subsequent confessions, and his debauched years leading up to Vegas, very little was said or explored on the topic of race, which is astonishing. Because the only reason why Orenthal James Simpson should be discussed today in any capacity, is because of what the trial, verdict, and second trial and verdict say about race relations in this country.

In 1995 he beat the murder rap because he was a famous, wealthy, ex-athlete, tv/movie celebrity who had enough money to put the "dream team" of lawyers together, and who also happened to be black. A black guy married to a white woman who turned up brutally murdered, but who had enough money to buy an outcome that was one of the most racially polarized verdicts in history (t.v. images showing celebrating African-Americans; and angry, jaw clenched white people filled the airwaves).

Fast forward to 2008 and the Juice is just another poor black man on the receiving end of a little "white justice," as one attorney put it in the documentary. For a bungled robbery, carried out by a bunch of middle aged morons who were more laughable and pathetic than threatening, a crime that wouldn't even have generated probation, much less prison time, dude gets 33 years in the slammer, 1 year each for the $33 million verdict against him, and handed down by a white female judge who kept the jury out several days until she could announce the guilty verdict on October 3, 2008, exactly 13 years to the day he walked in 1995 (and ruining a second birthday of mine, thank you very much).

At the time I wrote about the 2008 trial (click on the OJ Again label for past posts), I don't think the sentiment among most people, black or white, was particularly sympathetic or even all that noteworthy. I did note the irony in the outcome of the two trials, but even I had lost the racial lens by which to filter the way the sentence had been handed down. The 30 for 30 documentary at least addressed that part of it, but that was pretty much the only part.

Nonetheless, slowed down by the years in prison (the picture above was from 2015 when an appeal was rejected), the Juice comes up for parole in 2017. I would have bet against him getting it before these new documentaries and movies about him, but now that interest has been generated again on a national scale, I'm not so sure he won't be back on the streets by the end of 2017.

And the reaction will still be notable to watch.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Subjects of a Carceral State

So the Supremes dropped a surprising decision yesterday (well, surprising in that Justice Breyer joined the four conservative justices) re the 4th amendment, outstanding warrants and evidence.

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that evidence found by police officers after illegal stops may be used in court if the officers conducted their searches after learning that the defendants had outstanding arrest warrants.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority in the 5-to-3 decision, said such searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment when the warrant is valid and unconnected to the conduct that prompted the stop.

Justice Thomas’s opinion drew a fiery dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said that “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.”

“This case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time,” she wrote. “It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

“The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights,” she wrote. “Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification and check it for outstanding traffic warrants — even if you are doing nothing wrong.

“If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay,” she continued, “courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.”

Justice Sotomayor added that many people were at risk. Federal and state databases show more than 7.8 million outstanding warrants, she wrote, “the vast majority of which appear to be for minor offenses.” There are, she added, 180,000 misdemeanor warrants in Utah. And according to the Justice Department, about 16,000 of the 21,000 residents of Ferguson, Mo., are subject to arrest warrants.
The majority opinion, written by Thomas in his usual stodgy, mundane, poorly reasoned manner, won't be remembered for anything or by anyone. And while the majority of the coverage is on Sotomayor's dissent, this analysis suggests that the 4th amendment, while weakened, is still intact when it comes to random stops and may not be quite as far reaching as the mainstream media analysis suggests. 

Nonetheless, it seems to me Sotomayor's "fiery dissent" was written not so much for the masses as it was a direct broadside at Thomas himself.
“The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner,” she wrote. “But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’— instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”

Few institutions in American life have grappled with race and racism like the U.S. Supreme Court, for better or worse, but rarely does it speak about it with this level of detail. Sotomayor’s dissent also ends with what could be read as a veiled nod to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated.’ They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere,” she wrote, citing a 2002 book by two legal scholars who argued abuses against people of color often foreshadow broader injustices. (One could also read it as a reference to the death of Eric Garner.)
As the legal analysis noted, no one joined part IV of her dissent, and so far I can't find much analysis about why Breyer, usually a liberal stalwart on these things, joined the majority. 

But it's a sad day when an illegal stop and any evidence of present criminality gathered, can be admitted into court by virtue of the fact that an outstanding warrant exists (unrelated to the reason you are being stopped). Post hoc ergo propter hoc, I think they call it.

Or as Sotomayor more bluntly put it, just another extension of the carceral or garrison state we live in today. Yes, the 4th amendment still lives, but barely.

The case is Utah v. Strieff (2016)

Monday, June 6, 2016

Debt Buyers and Debt Collectors: Society's Bottom Feeders

As usual, John Oliver nails the debt buying and debt collection industries to the floor in a blistering 20 minute segment. Over the years I've written about these bottom feeders of U.S. capitalism (here, here, here and here), but even I had no idea the "industry" had sunk to such ignominious depths as he outlines in this segment (debt collection from old people, dead people, out of statute debts, etc).

And considering that most debt is not credit card, mortgage or even student loan oriented, but medical-related debt, no wonder calls for this industry to be put out of business via regulation (or prosecution) are growing by the day.

Watch and enjoy...the debt collection company he started, Central Asset Recovery Professionals, Inc. (or "CARP after the bottom-feeding fish") is freaking hilarious. And buying $15 million in out of statute medical debt for less than $60,000 and then forgiving it...that's sweet.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Smoke Break: Coldplay, "Up&Up"

So I'm going to out myself as a total wuss here, but yes, I love Coldplay. And this new video from "Head Full of Dreams" is probably the trippiest thing I've seen in years. Plus, the song rawks (for Coldplay anyway). Enjoy.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Thank You Big Pharma

Yes, you read that right, I actually wrote "Thank you Big Pharma," me, who has bashed the drug pushers for almost a decade on this blog. Why the sudden change? This:

Pfizer Blocks Use of Its Drugs in Lethal Injections:

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced on Friday that it had imposed sweeping controls on the distribution of its products to ensure that none are used in lethal injections, a step that closes off the last remaining open-market source of drugs used in executions.

More than 20 American and European drug companies have already adopted such restrictions, citing either moral or business reasons. Nonetheless, the decision from one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical manufacturers is seen as a milestone.

“With Pfizer’s announcement, all F.D.A.-approved manufacturers of any potential execution drug have now blocked their sale for this purpose,” said Maya Foa, who tracks drug companies for Reprieve, a London-based human rights advocacy group. “Executing states must now go underground if they want to get hold of medicines for use in lethal injection.”
Kind of like Georgia did back a few years ago, buying drugs from the back of car in a parking lot in London for lethal injection, and subsequently getting busted for it by the DEA when they attempted to smuggle the drug back into the U.S. Or better, using the shady "compounding pharmacies" which have sprung up over the years, who mix the lethal doses of barbituates, unregulated of course.
Some states have used straw buyers or tried to import drugs from abroad that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, only to see them seized by federal agents. Some have covertly bought supplies from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies while others, including Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio, have delayed executions for months or longer because of drug shortages or legal issues tied to injection procedures.

A few states have adopted the electric chair, firing squad or gas chamber as an alternative if lethal drugs are not available. Since Utah chooses to have a death penalty, “we have to have a means of carrying it out,” said State Representative Paul Ray as he argued last year for authorization of the firing squad.
Snicker. Damn straight. Ain't gonna run outta bullets anytime soon. And compounding pharmacies, like mobile home meth labs, are springing up everywhere.

So to hide all this from the public, let's impose unconstitutional restrictions like "Lethal Injection Secrecy Acts" on the people.
A majority of the 32 states with the death penalty have imposed secrecy around their drug sources, saying that suppliers would face severe reprisals or even violence from death penalty opponents. In a court hearing this week, a Texas official argued that disclosing the identity of its pentobarbital source “creates a substantial threat of physical harm.”

But others, noting the evidence that states are making covert drug purchases, see a different motive. “The secrecy is not designed to protect the manufacturers, it is designed to keep the manufacturers in the dark about misuse of their products,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group in Washington.

Georgia, Missouri and Texas have obtained pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies, which operate without normal F.D.A. oversight and are intended to help patients meet needs for otherwise unavailable medications.
Meanwhile, some of the most sane statements on the efficacy of the death penalty have come from Big Pharma, who ironically just want to hook you to their drugs, without actually killing you (which is bad for business, natch).
Campaigns against the death penalty, and Europe’s strong prohibitions on the export of execution drugs, have raised the stakes for pharmaceutical companies. But many, including Pfizer, say medical principles and business concerns have guided their policies.

“Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve,” the company said in Friday’s statement, and “strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment.”
Again, before you stand up and cheer too much, let's remember their main motivation is just getting you hooked on drugs, not actually killing you. Because once you're dead, well, y'know...they would rather you spiral into a long, drawn out addiction, from which they can make much more money, than instantly kill you.

Nonetheless, another step in the right direction regarding the anachronism the death penalty has become in the U.S. today. Well, except Georgia, which is on track to whack more people in one calendar year in 2016 than they have since the bad old days in the 70's. I mean, c'mon, Texas is only one ahead of them so far this year (6-5 Tx).

Don't mess with Georgia. Or whatever.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

TODD Talks

John Oliver did a great bit on all the junk science out there and how, as I lecture my students every semester, it's up to you (us) to be skeptical about what you are hearing, who does these studies, and where the funding comes from. And just because it's "on t.v." or "on the interwebs" doesn't mean it's true.

But watch till the end, especially around 16 minutes or so when he says they have a new TED Talks channel for the scientifically impaired, called TODD Talks. Not exactly the way I envisioned my namesake channel (really, TODD Talks are every lecture I've ever given), but hilarious nonetheless.

I love the fact that he also disses the TED Talks phenomenon in general, which so many people fall all over themselves over swearing by, but which oftentimes are just unscientific snake oil salesmen pedaling pop psych, self-help crap.

Oh, and repeat after me ten times: correlation does not equal causation!