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Archives: June 2002

Friday | June 21, 2002
Significance of Atkins v. Virginia

The Supreme Court's historic 6-3 decision prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded murderers may well signal the beginning of the end of the death penalty. With Justice Sandra Day O’Connor now firmly in the anti-capital punishment camp (a 180-degree position shift), Atkins v. Virginia continues the present day, nationwide, multi-front assault against the death penalty.

The court’s far-right Conservatives are livid, not because mentally disabled individuals can now avoid the death penalty, but because they fear for the very existence of capital punishment. This fear runs so deep that the dissenters did away with the formality of writing “I respectfully dissent”, opting instead for the terse “I dissent”. In the pedantic world of Supreme Court jurisprudence, this is the equivalent of “up yours!”

So what exactly is this decision all about?

The central tent of this decision is the 8th Amendment, which bars “cruel and unusual punishment”. According to Supreme Court precedent, “[Cruel and unusual punishments are] modes of punishment that are inconsistent with modern standards of decency, as evinced by objective indicia, the most important of which is legislation enacted by the country’s legislatures.”

Chief Justice William Rehnquist makes much hay of this, reminding us that legislation is the "clearest and most reliable objective evidence of contemporary values." Fair enough.

The majority looks at the states, and declares that there’s a national consensus against executing the mentally retarded. This sets off the court’s right wing, which can’t believe the majority is so blinded by bias. Or as Justice Antonin Scalia writes, “Seldom has an opinion of this Court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members.”

In his dissent, Rehnquist writes:

The Court pronounces the punishment cruel and unusual primarily because 18 States recently have passed laws limiting the death eligibility of certain defendants based on mental retardation alone, despite the fact that the laws of 19 other States besides Virginia continue to leave the question of proper punishment to the individuated consideration of sentencing judges or juries...
Scalia writes:
That bare number of States alone–18–should be enough to convince any reasonable person that no “national consensus” exists. How is it possible that agreement among 47% of the death penalty jurisdictions amounts to “consensus”?
What the dissent so disingenuously ignores is that in addition to the 18 states mentioned above, 13 other states bar the execution of the mentally disabled -- those that bar capital punishment altogether. Clearly, the sentiments of those 13 states have to be considered in any analysis of a “national consensus”. That means that 31 of the country’s 50 states prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded. Not quite the 18/19 (47 percent) split the dissent evokes.

But wait, there's more! When the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, Congress (which arguably is the clearest arbiter of national standards of decency) specifically exempted mentally retarded defendants. To be exact: "[A] sentence of death shall not be carried out upon a person who is mentally retarded." And when Congress expanded the scope of the death penalty in 1994, it once again specifically exempted the mentally retarded (and that was in the no-holds-barred years of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America).

Neither dissent mentions the federal laws. Nor the fact that two capital punishment states (New Jersey and New Hampshire) haven't bothered to use it in decades. Nor that Illinois has issued a moratorium on all executions.

Thus, we have 31 states AND the United States all exempting the execution of the mentally retarded, plus three states that ignore their capital punishment powers. That provides ample legal support for the majority’s contention that there is a national consensus against executing the mentally retarded.

So, perhaps sensing that dissenting on these grounds was weak, both dissenters then spend considerable efforts attacking an obscure footnote at the back of the majority opinion, which states:

Additional evidence makes it clear that this legislative judgment reflects a much broader social and professional consensus. For example, several organizations with germane expertise have adopted official positions opposing the imposition of the death penalty upon a mentally retarded offender … In addition, representatives of widely diverse religious communities in the United States, reflecting Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions, have filed an amicus curiae brief explaining that even though their views about the death penalty differ, they all “share a conviction that the execution of persons with mental retardation cannot be morally justified.” … Moreover, within the world community, the imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed by mentally retarded offenders is overwhelmingly disapproved … Finally, polling data shows a widespread consensus among Americans, even those who support the death penalty, that executing the mentally retarded is wrong … Although these factors are by no means dispositive, their consistency with the legislative evidence lends further support to our conclusion that there is a consensus among those who have addressed the issue.
This footnote is buried toward the end of the majority opinion, but to hear the dissent, the bulk of the majority’s opinion is predicated on this footnote. Rehnquist blasts any mention of international opinion: “I fail to see, however, how the views of other countries regarding the punishment of their citizens provide any support for the Court’s ultimate determination.” Rehnquist is equally disdainful on polls, demanding the majority analyze each poll for scientific and statistical validity.

Yet even he has to admit that the majority opinion is NOT based on those polls, or international opinion, or religious consensus. So why spend time attacking a minor footnote? Because that footnote is subversive, taking judicial notice of the increasing forces arrayed against the death penalty – from churches, to the public, and even to (gasp!) international opinion. That footnote gives aid and comfort to the opponents of capital punishment, and sets the stage for the next battle in this war.

The fight ahead is still long and hard. But a 6-3 Supreme Court decision is nothing short of a rout, and the legal foundation has been set for future victories, notwithstanding the hysterical shrieks from the dissent.

    | 12:36 PM | Link | Comments (2) | Email this post


Thursday | June 20, 2002
Bush's numbers still falling

The drop this week isn't monumental -- 1 point -- but Bush's 68 percent approval rating this week is still significant. Bush's handlers were shocked at Bush's 7-8 point drop last week, and had him rush out a proposal for a Department of Homeland Security (backstabbing Ridge and congressional Republicans that had fought Dem efforts to create such a department). The proposal was supposed to shore up Bush's numbers. Instead, the first poll released in the interim has Bush's numbers still dropping (albeit not as dramatically as last week's big plunge).

The poll also suggests that while people are optimistic the economy will improve, they do recognize it is currently in the gutter:

Thinking about the economy in the country as a whole, how would you rate our national economy? Would you say it is in excellent shape, good shape, only fair shape or poor shape?
Excellent shape ......... 1%
Good shape .......... 29
Only fair shape .......... 50
Poor shape .......... 20
Don't know/refused .......... 1
Thinking back over the past year, would you say that our nation's economy has gotten better, gotten worse over the past year or has it stayed the same?
Gotten better .......... 14%
Gotten worse .......... 48
Stayed the same .......... 37
Don't know/refused .......... 1
The big question, of course, is who will be blamed for the bad economy. The poll indicates that only 16 percent of people blame Bush, with 57 percent saying he has been irrelevant to the economy. It will be interesting to see if those numbers hold up in the face of increasingly emboldened Dems and skeptical press (witness the 'trifecta' controversy). The Bushies will continue to blame the war, but that may lose traction as more 9-11 revelations come to the fore, and as the public becomes increasingly skeptical of Bush's motives.

    | 05:17 PM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


Rolling back the death penalty

The US Supreme Court has ruled that executing mentally retarded murderers is unconstitutional. This decision is significant. There is palpable momentum nationwide against the death penalty, and this latest rollback is symptomatic of shifting public sentiment. In 1989, only two death penalty states outlawed execution of the mentally disabled. Now, 18 states prohibit it. Indeed, Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, pointed to this nationwide shift as evidence bolstering the courts 6-3 decision.

The dissenters made up the court's far right-wing cabal: Rehnquist, Thomas, and Scalia. And they are pissed. Get this -- instead of saying the traditional "I respectfully dissent", Rehnquist wrote the terse "I dissent." Whew! In the pedantic world of Supreme Court jurisprudence, that is a definitive "Up Yours!"

I was happy to see normally conservative O'Connor side with the majority. A former staunch supporter of the death penalty, she recently (and publicly) reconsidered her position. She is now the swing vote on similar cases, and this could bode well for opponents of the death penalty. I was a bit surprised to see Kennedy vote with the majority. I'll have to look into it a bit, but if I recall correctly, the center-right jurist has also been a solid supporter of the death penalty.

Regardless, with O'Connor now joining the court's liberal wing, it seems that the death penalty now faces fire both at the state (Illinois and others) and federal levels.

    | 08:23 AM | Link | Comments (2) | Email this post


Wednesday | June 19, 2002
Sludge is now good for fish

Just when I think the Bush Administration can't shock me anymore, they gleefully prove me wrong. You see, according to an internal EPA report, dumping toxic sludge into the Potomac River is good for fish. The sludge is dumped into the river in violation of the Endangered Species Act and Clear Water Act. The Washington Times notes:

The document says it is not a "ridiculous possibility" that a discharge "actually protects the fish in that they are not inclined to bite (and get eaten by humans) but they go ahead with their upstream movement and egg laying."
The Bush administration is a blatant enemy of environmental regulation, but the extremes they will travel to justify their polluting is bizarre. California Rep. George Radanovich, a Republican, was flabbergasted:
To suggest that toxic sludge is good for fish because it prevents them from being caught by man is like suggesting that we club baby seals to death to prevent them from being eaten by sharks. It's ludicrous. This is one of the most frightening examples of bureaucratic ineptitude and backward logic I have ever seen.

    | 11:52 AM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


Nickelodeon Ethics

Maureen Dowd is an American gem. This latest piece by Dowd is perhaps the funniest thing I've read in weeks. Poking fun at White House attempts to brand Shrub the "philosopher-president", Dowd notes:

Who would have guessed that a man responsible for immortal locutions like last week's gem about immigration -- "We need to know who's coming in and why they're not going out" -- was in fact relying upon the Tusculan Disputations and the Nicomachean Ethics? Surely no close reader of Emily Dickinson's verse had ever before detected its implications for public policy.
Bush is most effective when playing the "who would you rather have a beer with?" card. No one wants to have a beer with a philosopher. Or talk about Nichomachean Ethics.

    | 11:31 AM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


Simon's futile quest

In an interesting bit of strategery, the Republican candidate for governor in California has launched a Spanish-language ad campaign. In fact, it is Simon's first ads of the campaign, which makes his decision to launch in Spanish first quite interesting.

Now, the Latino community has always been very socially conservative (thanks to the strong influence of the Catholic church). Thus, it is not inconcievable for Republicans to make gains with the Latino electorate.

However, it is difficult to express in words just how villified the GOP is with California Latinos. After enduring a steady stream of anti-immigrant GOP-backed initiatives, it is all but impossible for a Republican candidate to attract any significant Latino support. Indeed, that is one reason for the state GOP's slide into irrelevance.

And Simon is not a new, immigrant-friendly type of Republican. Just check out the following statements of support for anti-immigrant measures, and the subsequent monumental flip-flop:

In his primary campaign as he sought to appeal to conservative Republicans, Simon made controversial statements regarding Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration measure handily approved by state voters in 1994. In a radio interview, he told KRLA Los Angeles radio host Terry Anderson that he opposed Proposition 187, though he said "I support the concept" of the measure, which in part was designed to cut off health care assistance, social services and education to millions of undocumented immigrants in California.

Simon also said that if elected he would reconsider submitting Proposition 187 to appeals courts and would "absolutely" consider placing National Guard at the borders and closing down sites where illegal immigrants get work.

But Russo said Tuesday that Simon said he doesn't support such measures and would not open 187 for legal challenge if elected governor.

    | 08:13 AM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


Tuesday | June 18, 2002
Trade war blowback

Bush's efforts to secure his electoral standing in PA and WV by imposing tariffs on imported steel have hit a roadblock. Immediately after Mr. Free Trade announced his hypocritical tariffs, the European Union and Japan struck back swiftly. The EU espcially showed sharp political acumen by threatening retaliatory tariffs on goods from politically sensitive states, such as Florida orange juice. At the same time, the administration has faced fierce criticism from domestic steel users (such as car manufacturers) who warn of layoffs and higher prices for their products.

Thus, the Bush administration is backpedalling furiously, stalling the EU sanctions by granting 61 exemptions to the tariffs back in early June, and another 46 yesterday. The EU has taken a 'wait and see' attitude on the exemptions before deciding whether to impose their retaliatory tariffs.

It'll be interesting to note public reaction to the exemptions in PA and WV, which were the intended beneficiaries (alongside Bush) of the protective tariffs. By all accounts, it looks as though Bush will have to gut the tariffs, rendering them completely impotent. That could play as a Bush betrayal of PA's and WV's struggling steel industries. Not good electoral policy.

But if he does nothing, he must then contend with punitive tariffs against key states, as well as resist a concerted counterattack by steel consuming industries in key midwestern states such as Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.

Isn't it delicious when transparantly political decisions backfire disastrously?

    | 08:37 AM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


Monday | June 17, 2002
Shooting down "intelligent design"

This is a must-read rebuttal to all those wingnuts trying to inject religion into our public school science classes. Scientific American's Editor in Chief writes "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense".

    | 01:34 PM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


Latino voters and the GOP

References to this poll have made the rounds in DC. In essence, the poll shows growing support for Bush amongst registered Latino voters. Republicans have seized on the fact that if the 2000 election were held today, Bush would draw 44 percent of the Latino vote (which is 9 points more than the 35 percent he drew in 2000).

However, the poll doesn't really indicate a mass migration of Latino support to the GOP, and recent events (such as the CIA-backed coup attempt in Venezuela) may already render some of the poll results invalid.

In short, I draw attention to the following questions:

Who is better at improving relations with Latin America, Bush or congressional Democrats?
Bush 53%
Democrats 30%
This question is a non-sequitor. Congress does not make foreign policy. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Constitution would have to answer 'Bush', whether s/he agreed with the president or not.

Yet despite the silly question, Bush is barely above 50 percent. A great deal of that 50 percent most likely comes from Mexican-Americans who witness Bush's infatuation with their country, and the Cuban Americans who approve of Bush's irrationally hard line against Castro.

Given the dominant position of those two groups in the US, I would argue that Bush's numbers should've been in the 70's, alongside Bush's approval rating in this poll. Why are they lower?

In large part, there is some concern in the Latino community that Bush's Latin American interests do not extend past Mexico or Cuba. And when he does look further south, it's not for benevolent reasons. Bush took a huge hit over his unsuccessful coup attempt in Venezuela. A large percentage of the US Latino population (including yours truly) have had first-hand experience of US meddling in Latin America, from coups throughout the hemisphere to the support of murderous regimes and rebel groups. Bush's Venezuela action shook many of us deeply, and that anger made its rounds throughout the US Spanish-language media.

If the congressional election in your district were held today, would you vote to elect the Democrat or the Republican?
Democrat 53%
Republican 23%
Despite Bush's popularity among Latinos, Congressional Republicans are polling at less than a quarter. That indicates that Bush has zero coattails. Latino support for Bush is Latino support for the human being called Bush. Not his party, not his agenda.

And, the GOP continues to put forth an ugly front against Latinos, as witnessed by the Texas GOP state convention last week. (This is particularly significant because Texas Latinos are more inclined to support Bush than any other non-Cuban Latino constituency in the US.)

Finally, the poll suffers from one last major flaw -- it doesn't address the effect of the economy. As the economic recovery fizzles, Latinos (and other minorities) are disproportionately affected, and economic distress breeds increased anti-immigrant sentiments. And, just as anti-immigrant initiatives killed the California GOP, it may well do the same in Texas, the Southwest, and the industrialized Midwest. Bush has little sway among his party's anti-immigrant wing.

So, should the Democrats dismiss this poll altogether? Obviously not. The Democrats cannot continue to presume Latino support. If nothing else, Bush's popularity may depress Latino voter turnout. Nothing motivates people to the polls more than fear, and Bush is effectively putting a happy face on the GOP within the Latino community.

    | 11:48 AM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


Ashcroft Death Watch, Part III

Ashcroft has increasingly found himself in the crosshairs of right-wing pundits and administration officials. Here's the latest installment:

Underlying much of the grumbling over Ashcroft's profile are questions about his motives. His elevated stature has kept alive speculation that Ashcroft, a former senator, governor, state attorney general and presidential hopeful, might be weighing another run for political office.

His aides have repeatedly dismissed speculation that Ashcroft is aiming for the presidency or vice presidency, or that he would like to recapture the Senate seat he lost in 2000 to the widow of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash shortly before the election.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the story is this quote:
In the Bush administration's war on terrorism, Ashcroft has served as the de facto minister of fear, issuing dire warnings of terrorist threats and announcing stringent new security measures with whirlwind frequency.
This is a news story in the Washington Post, not an opinion piece. The fact that Ashcroft is referred to as a "minister of fear" is significant. Not only does it indicate the media has completely turned against him, but that the Bush administration is no longer providing protection. He is on his own, and will flap in the wind until forced to announce his retirement to "spend more time with his family".

    | 08:41 AM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


US gives go-ahead to Chinese missile buildup

The US' long-standing efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation in the world has ground to a halt thanks to the Bush administration's obsession with the missile defense shield. (login: dailykos | password: dailykos)

Not only are commentators arguing the missile shield would encourage nuclear powers to expand their arsenals to overwhelm the new defenses, but the US is actually encouraging China to do so.

Foreign policy guru Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del) ripped the new policy:

"This is absolutely absurd. It shows that these guys will go to any length to build a national missile defense, even one they can't define. Their headlong, headstrong, irrational and theological desire to build a missile defense sends the wrong message to the Chinese and to the whole world."
If, as expected, the Chinese expand their arsenal, India will be forced to keep pace. As India boosts its arsenal, its arch-enemy Pakistan wouldn't be far behind. Russia would most likely be forced to redeploy some of those missiles put in mothballs by the latest 'treaty' Putin and Bush signed.

And, as the entire region went nuclear, there would be even more impetus for the local "rogue states" to built their own nuclear fleets.

Administration officials argue that China is modernizing its missile fleet anyway, so it's no big deal. But it is a big deal. Not only is the US going to give China the green light to build up their arsenal, but it has also signaled a desire to start nuclear testing once again, violating the signed but never-ratified Nuclear Test Ban Treaty -- giving China the diplomatic cover it needs to design, test and build even more advanced nuclear weapons.

We have gone from half a century of efforts to limit the number of nuclear-capable states, and the numbers of nuclear warheads, to a policy that would essentially defeat the entire point of a nuclear missile shield.

There are no pretensions that a nuclear missile shield could stop a full-scale assault. Indeed, every test thus far conducted indicates that the shield couldn't even stop a single warhead with full counter-measures built in. Yet, instead of working to reduce the number of warheads (thus the chances of accidental launch, or of a warhead falling into the hands of terrorists), the US has sanctioned a brand new arms race.

    | 08:11 AM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post


Sunday | June 16, 2002
Mass Dems push Romney issue

Just what exactly are MA Democrats trying to do? Just days ago, it seemed as though the stars were shinning on them, with GOP gubernatorial candidate on the defensive about his residency. Romney lies were being exposed daily, and a poll showed Romney's lead in the general election vanishing.

So the smart thing would've been to let Romney twist in the wind, spending the next few months off-message trying to rationalize his lies away. Instead, the state Democratic party challenged Romney's residency, transforming him from a shifty lier to a victim (remembe Clinton and Starr?). The MA all-Democrat congressional delegation quickly voiced its disapproval of the state party's tactics, while Shannon O'Brien, the Democratic frontrunner in the campaign, has denied any role at all in the challenge.

The spinsters in the party initially argued they were merely trying to force Romney to release his tax returns. However, that strategy was dealt a blow Friday when a judge ruled Romney didn't have to release his tax returns to prove residency. Yet, the party continues to press its challenge, making it appear petty, scared, and desperate.

    | 09:20 AM | Link | Comments (0) | Email this post