AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 16:00:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 America doesn’t treat the people in its prisons like people, and everyone’s losing Wed, 01 Jul 2015 16:00:28 +0000 We don’t spend too much time thinking about women in prison. We especially don’t spend too much time thinking about whether those women are able to meet their basic hygiene necessities. And when we hear that this isn’t the case — women are in fact being systematically dehumanized in our prison systems via the withholding of hygiene products — many shrug their shoulders. Or, worse yet, tell themselves that they have it coming.

York Correctional Institute in Conneticut gives bunkmates five pads a week to split, which works out to ten per month per inmate. This is nowhere near adequate, and can lead to women being forced to wear the same pad for consecutive days (for most women, they need to be replaced after mere hours). It shouldn’t be necessary to explain why this is a serious health hazard. The health of prisoners should be taken seriously, and bodily functions do not miraculously change or cease depending on what suits the prison’s policy. Some prisons have systems where women can buy their hygiene products, but:

… most inmates can’t afford to buy pads ($2.63 for a 24-pack) when they’re spending the 75 cents they earn for a day’s work on other necessities like deodorant (which costs $1.93, three days’ pay), toothpaste ($1.50, two days’ pay), or food that’s more edible than what’s offered in the dining hall. At some prisons, prices are higher, with eight tampons costing $4.23 thanks to a privatized commissary. But even when inmates have the money to buy feminine hygiene supplies, commissaries routinely understock and women are left waiting for a week or two, rendering the pads irrelevant for another month. Toilet paper is also rationed, so crafting homemade toilet-paper pads means forgoing wiping.

Forcing prisoners to scrimp and save to afford the tools to meet their basic human needs, and routinely failing to meet the demand, is more than cruel and unnecessary. It sets them up for humiliating failure. As Ronen continues:

One among many problems listed was the jail’s refusal to provide adequate feminine hygiene products, forcing inmates to routinely bleed through their clothes and not providing them a change of clothes until laundry day. When one inmate requested supplies, an officer told her she was “shit out of luck” and “better not bleed on the floor.

Treating female sanitary products as if they are luxuries, or not necessary, is an outrage. No, they haven’t existed for all of human history and aren’t crucial to survival, but neither are clothes, beds or glasses. You would be in serious trouble for denying prisoners any of those.

criminal prison orange jumpsuit jail prisoner convict

Criminal via Shutterstock

Female hygiene products aren’t the only necessities being denied to prisoners. At a Kalamazoo County Jail in Michigan, prisoners were not given toilet paper, forcing male inmates to, in the words of one officer, “wipe it with your hands and quit crying. It could be worse.”

Sure, it could be worse. Anything in any situation could be worse. The fact that their treatment could be somehow more horrible doesn’t make its horribleness acceptable. As Timothy Hamilton, one of the prisoners involved, described:

I keep playing it over and over in my head…now I buy too much tissue so I won’t run out at home. Now mentally I have fear of running out..the officers got to the point they were like, ‘the whole (expletive) jail is out so quit (expletive) asking.”

What’s more, it’s not as if the officers were merely frustrated at their institution’s lack of resources. As if they were pulled straight from Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment, they enjoyed humiliating the inmates. As Hamilton continued, “the officers were making jokes, ‘Wipe your ass like monkeys do.’ That was very painful to hear.”

Last time I checked, judges weren’t in the habit of tacking on dehumanizing penalties in addition to prison sentences. What’s more, the dehumanization is worse than counterproductive. America has the largest prison population in the world. It is bizarre and self-defeating to treat these prisoners like animals and expect them to function as people when they reenter society.

Countries with the best rehabilitation rates, such as Norway, are countries that let prisoners keep their dignity. They are also, not coincidentally, the countries that don’t privatize their prison systems such that toilet paper — to say nothing of rehabilitated prisoners that don’t wind up back behind bars — are expenditures that put dents in quarterly earnings.

Nothing turns a non-violent offender into a violent offender faster than sending them to prison, and the subhuman conditions at American prisons are one of the reasons why. If we’re serious when we say that we want to rehabilitate the people in our prisons, we need to treat them like people while they’re there.

Jeb Bush’s tax returns tell a story he wants us to forget about early Wed, 01 Jul 2015 14:00:12 +0000 Jeb Bush released his tax returns yesterday. 33 years-worth of them. In a post on his website announcing the release of the returns, he reminded the public of the 280,000 emails he has also released from his time as governor of Florida — a large chunk, but certainly not all, of his correspondence while in office.

Bush seems to have learned from the mistakes of Mitt Romney, whose dogged refusal to release his returns, before finally acquiescing and releasing two years of them, became a narrative-confirming campaign issue in 2012. In releasing a long history of returns early in the race, Bush avoids charges of hiding his financial past from the public. And if the public finds anything in them that they’re uncomfortable with — which they will, either way — it’s better to air those grievances now than it would be just under a year and a half before Election Day.

Romney and Bush are considered analogous candidates, so much so that Bush’s entry into the race is likely one of the things that kept Romney from making a third run for the White House. Both come from powerful political families. Both have achieved varying degrees of massive wealth. Both have developed a knack for communicating rabidly conservative policies with just enough empathy so as to be considered moderate. Bush knows that the fundamentals of his candidacy embody many of the same strengths as Romney’s (a former governor from a blue-to-purple state with massive name recognition and fundraising capability), but also the same weaknesses (a privileged, ideologically impure plutocrat who the voters don’t take seriously). He aims to run a better version of that campaign: raising more money, owning his establishment identity and doing his best to avoid being seen as the shady businessman that he is.

Which is what makes the early release of an unprecedented number of tax returns particularly interesting. While Jeb unironically asserted that “Over these 33 years my income increased thanks to hard work and experience,” the returns tell a very different, very obvious story: Jeb Bush’s success came on the backs of his father’s and brother’s presidencies.

As Andrew Prokop explains in Vox:

Jeb Bush's yearly income, via Vox

Chart via Vox

Bush’s income is comparatively modest throughout the 1980s, which encompassed the initial years of the real estate business he founded with Miami developer Armando Codina. It’s even negative in certain years.

But suddenly, in 1990, the second year of George H. W. Bush’s presidency, Jeb’s income balloons. Not only was that his first year making six figures, but his income of $1.24 million also makes it his first seven-figure year…

…After he’s back in the private sector in 2007, though, the real boom times begin. Now, Jeb’s brother is president of the United States, and Jeb is viewed as a future presidential contender himself. His income soars so much in these years, particularly starting in 2011, that it dwarfs those of earlier decades, topping out at $7.36 million in 2013, the most recent year available.

You get a lot more return on your investment in “hard work” when that work involves wielding political influence. And as Mother Jones has already noted, Bush’s financial gains were in large part due to exactly that. On numerous occasions during the presidencies of his family members, Bush his companies used his name and his influence to engineer some highly suspect deals. Deals like this one:

The Bush Family, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bush Family, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1988, Bush formed a company with GOP donor David Eller to market water pumps manufactured by Moving Water Industries, another Eller business, to foreign countries. The company used Bush’s White House ties to drum up business. In 1992, at the behest of MWI, the Export-Import Bank approved $74 million in US-backed loans to Nigeria to buy water pumps from Eller’s company. The Justice Department later alleged in a 2002 civil suit that about $28 million of those loans were used to bribe a Nigerian official. Bush was not implicated, but in November 2013, a jury found MWI guilty of making 58 false claims to the Export-Import Bank on its applications for the Nigerian loans. A federal judge fined the company $580,000. Bush escaped testifying after the judge determined his testimony wouldn’t be relevant to the central issue in the case.

The political connection between Jeb Bush and the former presidents Bush will be a major theme in this election, but the financial connection between them should be one, as well. Releasing this information as early as he has means that Bush knows he has a storm to weather.

It should be a rocky one.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s lawyer: “Public officials are ministers of God” Wed, 01 Jul 2015 12:00:51 +0000 Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore isn’t one for man’s law, which is odd given that man’s law is literally his job. No, as we learned back in February, when he tried his damndest to violate Article Six of the Constitution by ignoring an order from the Supreme Court to let same-sex marriages commence in Alabama, he’s more about God’s law. Even if he’s wrong about it.

Which is why it wasn’t exactly surprising when, earlier this week, Moore toyed with the idea of staying the Supreme Court’s ruling against bans on same-sex marriage for 25 days before acknowledging that he isn’t allowed to do that. It was also unsurprising — albeit absurd and awful — that in a subsequent interview with Moore compared the Court’s decision to Dred Scott and marriage equality itself to the Holocaust. From the interview:

Asked if as the state’s chief justice he would follow and enforce the law, Moore snapped that judges do not enforce the law. Asked if he expected probate judges and other judges and state officials to obey the law, Moore used examples of men who were judged to have followed wrong and immoral laws and orders in Germany during World War II.

“Could I do this if I were in Nuremberg (war crimes trials after WW II) say that I was following the orders of the highest authority to kill Jews?… Could I say I was ordered to do so?

Told that trial was about killing human beings, not gay marriage, Moore asked: “Is there a difference?”

We shouldn’t have to take Roy Moore’s old-man-yells-at-cloud burblings seriously. We should be able invoke Godwin’s Law and move on. But we can’t. Moore may not enforce the law, but he presides over people who do. And Alabama’s court system is doing everything it can to massively resist Friday’s ruling.

Yesterday, Win Johnson, a lawyer working directly under Moore, wrote a letter to public officials in the state yesterday calling them to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling. As Johnson wrote, in part:

Public officials are ministers of God assigned the duty of punishing the wicked and protecting the righteous. If the public officials decide to officially approve of the acts of the wicked, they must logically not protect the righteous from the wicked. In fact, they must become protectors of the wicked. You cannot serve two masters; you must pick – God or Satan.

The criminal laws against homosexual sodomy are for the protection of the righteous, particularly the young, the weak, the vulnerable, who need the law to teach them right from wrong when in a vulnerable state. The U.S. Supreme Court, although it claims to have done so in 2003, cannot take something that God calls a crime and declare it not a crime…

…Public official, what will you do? Will you stand up for the law of Alabama, for the people, for the weak and vulnerable, for the law of God? Or will you capitulate? Will you become complicit in the takeover by the wicked?

“I must follow the law,” you say. Law? What law? There is no law anymore, there’s just opinion. One day this, one day that. When the law becomes merely the opinion of a handful of people on the courts, there is no longer any law. There is tyranny. There is chaos. But there is no law.

Church and State, via Shutterstock

Church and State, via Shutterstock

Johnson is the director of legal staff for Alabama’s Administrative Office of Courts, which runs the state’s court system. While the letter was addressed to all public officials in the state, a spokesperson for Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said that it was directed at him. Bentley said earlier in the week that he disagrees with the ruling personally, but that the state will comply with the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

Roy Moore is an elected judge who at least has some sort of incentive to say awful things about gay people. Win Johnson is not. Win Johnson seems to genuinely believe that Alabama is a theocracy, with bureaucrats assigned to dutifully interpret the word of the Lord and enact it in public policy. Like Rawls, but with Inquisitors.

Shortly following the release of Johnson’s letter, the Southern Poverty Law Center called for him to either resign or be fired by Moore to “maintain the integrity of the Alabama judicial system.”

As well they should have. Public officials are not ministers of God. They are agents of the state. Public officials unwilling to carry out the laws of the state are unfit to serve.

The Constitution is remarkably clear on this point.

We absolutely do negotiate with terrorists, which is good because we have to Tue, 30 Jun 2015 16:00:44 +0000 The United States does not negotiate with terrorists, except when we do. In the most recent example (that we know of), last year President Obama coordinated a prisoner swap with the Taliban, releasing five terrorists soldiers in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, a captured American soldier.

One could quibble over whether this constituted a true negotiation with terrorists, or whether Bergdahl was better-described as a prisoner of war, making the negotiation for his release more common, but that’s beside the point. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both negotiated with the Iranians, who were on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Bill Clinton met with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, which was at the time classified as a terrorist organization. Despite all of our grandstanding, the United States negotiates with terrorists when it suits us.

We allow ourselves to do this, in part, because the definition of terrorism is itself squishy, with different intelligence and security organizations in different countries coming up with different, defensible interpretations of the term. These definitions all coalesce around the theme of “non-state actors using violence to achieve political ends,” but that implies that political violence by states never counts. Ask any Palestinian if they think that makes sense.

However, the real reason we negotiate with terrorists is because we have to, as Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, argues in his new book: Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to PeaceIn the book, Powell takes on the arguments for and against talking to terrorist organizations, describes the conditions necessary for successful negotiation and examines prospects for resolving current conflicts. Drawing on his experience negotiating an end to The Troubles in Ireland, along with his experience in less-successful negotiating efforts, Powell makes the case that, like it or not, negotiation is a necessary component in ending any violent conflict — especially when the conflict is between groups with seemingly intractable differences.

Powell describes successful peace processes in Ireland, El Salvador, South Africa, Mozambique and Oslo; along with unsuccessful talks in Sri Lanka, Colombia and Angola. Each case is, of course, unique and context-dependent. A great deal of chance was involved in both the success and failure of given negotiations. However, taken together, patterns emerge. There are conditions in which negotiations are more likely to succeed, and characteristics that make negotiators more likely to bring warring parties together. Negotiation is a long, meandering, tricky, delicate and politically dangerous process. Channels are often established in secret, and negotiations must often be conducted on the terrorists’ home turf. Talks can go on amicably in private while battles rage in public. Personalities can be the deciding factor in making or breaking a peace deal, and meeting in person is often preferable to talking over the phone or through intermediaries (a finding supported by a growing literature on the neuroscience of diplomacy).

terrorists at the tableIn short, negotiations are part art and part science. We know as much about what doesn’t work as what does. However, we also know that “the biggest human-rights violator is war,” and that bloody military stalemates will rage on in perpetuity if one or both sides feel that their grievances are not being addressed.

What’s more, terrorist groups derive their power not only from guns but also from political support. Hamas is more than just a group of Islamic fundamentalists with RPGs; they are the democratically-elected ruling party in Gaza. At the height of the Troubles, Sinn Féin held over a third of the Catholic vote in Northern Ireland. Even if these groups were completely incapacitated militarily, their political grievances would still be represented in their respective populations, meaning that even if the violent conflict were to be (temporarily) resolved, the political conflict would remain.

The theoretical arguments against negotiation are so committed to strength that they betray their own weaknesses. Powell states and responds to them early on before turning to specific cases:

1. Talking to terrorists allows one to be blackmailed and encourages more terrorism.

Not so. As Powell points out, “The problem is not talking to terrorists, it is giving in to them…The British government talked to the Irish Republicans but never gave in to their demand for a united Ireland at the barrel of a gun.” A willingness to negotiate, and to walk away if necessary, is the mark of a self-confident country.

It is also held that talking to terrorists grants them their first goal: legitimacy. While that’s true, the legitimacy granted by talks is only maintained so long as groups are seen as negotiating in good faith with the goal of ending the conflict. If talks break down, and the terrorist group is seen as being at fault for the failure of negotiations, that legitimacy fades. This being the case, all there is to lose by granting terrorists legitimacy via peace talks is violent conflict. That seems reasonable enough.

2. Terrorists are irrational and therefore it is pointless to negotiate.

This is rarely true. Irrational actors are, by definition, inefficient and generally don’t last very long. Instead, as Powell writes, “Terrorist groups have their own rationality, just one that we don’t always understand immediately.” They almost invariably have material goals that they pursue in an efficient manner, the standard definition of political rationality. And since states, by definition, cannot fully understand their set of preferences and incentives, “It is impossible to untangle their rationale without talking to them.”

3. Talking to terrorists is immoral, and rewards their behavior.

It is generally held that terrorists’ propensity to target civilians is so morally reprehensible that they should be obliterated without discussion. This may be a reasonable moral reaction on a gut level, but doesn’t hold in practice. Especially when one considers that we have no problem talking to, trading with and forming military alliances with foreign (and domestic) governments that carry out similarly horrific violence against their own citizens on a larger scale.

4. The best time to negotiate with terrorists is also the best time to finish them off militarily.

In a more practical sense, governments are in the best negotiating position when terrorist groups are at their weakest. However, this would seem to also be the best time for a “surge” or “one last heave” of military effort that finishes off the terrorist group without “saving them from defeat” by granting any form of concessions in a peace deal.

However, as Powell argues, there is little evidence that this theory works in practice. There is scant evidence that terrorist organizations can ever be fully eradicated. If the underlying reasons for their existence are not addressed, even a largely defeated organization will either go underground or regroup, later returning in a slightly different form.

A variant of the “one last heave” argument is that talking to terrorists gives them time to regroup. This argument is paradoxical at best, as it it implies that a cease-fire is a bigger threat to a citizen population than continued fighting. What’s more, as Powell notes, the longer a cease-fire holds, the harder it is to resume fighting.

5. Talking to terrorists undermines moderates.

It does, in a way, and that’s fine. As Powell notes, “If you want to stop violence, then you have to talk to the men with guns.” What’s more, the most extreme groups in a given conflict are often given the most latitude to negotiate, since there aren’t any more radical groups that can accuse them of going soft. This isn’t to say that moderate groups have no part in the peace process; they do. But successful peace talks often start on the outside and work their way in, not the other way around.

6. Negotiations can lead to unintended consequences.

This is perhaps the most compelling critique of negotiations, highlighting their volatility and fragility. Powell outlines examples in which terrorist groups used secret negotiations as an excuse to escalate public violence, seeking to negotiate from a position of strength. If incentives are not properly set, this strategy can succeed. However, this is “not [an argument] against talking per se,” so much as it is an argument about how to talk. It is an admonishment to negotiate better, not to keep from negotiating at all.

Once the point is conceded that we have to talk to terrorists, the question then turns to how best to talk to them. In Terrorists at the Table, Jonathan Powell describes how (and how not) to do just that, combining his first-hand experience with the stories of other diplomats in the field. It’s a fascinating read, and it’s out today. It’s a fascinating read, and it’s out today.

America holds its own version of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. Every. Single. Day. Tue, 30 Jun 2015 15:00:09 +0000 If you have been to the grocery recently, you may have noticed a significant increase in the price of eggs. This is due to an egg shortage in the United States. A widespread outbreak of bird flu is sweeping across the midwest, mostly detected in large commercial flocks in 15 states. Iowa, the top egg producing state in the US has been the hardest hit. The United states Department of Agriculture and Plant Science Health Inspection Service has so far recorded over 48 million affected birds, all of which have either died from the disease or have been euthanized.

This outbreak of bird flu, considered the worst in US history, will cost much more than the doubled price of a carton of eggs. The Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has said that government spending to fight the outbreak may climb as high as $500 million (with the private sector spending much more than that).

While the disease spreads like wildfire through the crowded conditions of factory farms, backyard flocks have been left largely unaffected. Corinne Gould, Communications Director for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture was quoted as saying “there aren’t any large-scale commercial egg producers [in Tennessee],” a state that has not yet reported a single case of bird flu.

Consumers are noticing this discrepancy. The Guardian reported that the increased egg prices have, in fact, led to many consumers shying away from factory farmed goods and buying specialty eggs, such as cage-free and organic. The Food Marketing Institute also reported on an increase in consumer concern regarding animal welfare. According to their annual study of US grocery shopper trends:

Among other trends, shopper interest in animal welfare has been consistently growing of late and appears to be picking up momentum. Consumers increasingly indicate an interest in the way animals are treated by companies who make their food and beverage products. And among consumer expectations of retailers, when it comes to attributes beyond those that render personal benefits, shoppers prioritize animal welfare second only to employment practices. Since 2013, the number of consumers who say it is important that their grocery store practice animal welfare has grown from 17% to 21%.

This re-prioritization of values places animal welfare in the top ten “most important retailer attributes” for consumers. This means that “animal welfare must now therefore be considered as a shopper value that retailers need to manage towards, as it rivals and surpasses several environmental-orientated benefits that stores have endeavoured to make visible for its shoppers and communities.”

Retail giant Walmart has been in the news of late for acknowledging this trend in shopper values and adopting a new position on animal welfare. In a statement released last month, Kathleen McLaughlin, President of the Walmart Foundation and the company’s Senior Vice President of Sustainability, said that “Walmart is committed to selling products that sustain people and the environment. We have listened to our customers, and are asking our suppliers to engage in improved reporting standards and transparency measures regarding the treatment of farm animals.”

The flames of the animal welfare debate were further stoked this month with outcry from the West regarding the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in Guangxi, China. A petition hosted on garnered over 4 million supporters, urging the Chinese government to put an end to the event, in which dogs were skinned alive and eaten. They did not.

Factory farmed chickens, via Wikimedia Commons

Factory farmed chickens, via Wikimedia Commons

You’d be hard pressed to find an American or European who denies that the Yulin Festival is a gross practice of animal cruelty. But the moral outrage from westerners highlights an obvious hypocrisy. The Chinese citizens who took part in the Yulin Festival are conditioned by their culture, and so are we. The eating of dog meat, in general, would be frowned upon in most, if not all, western cultures as we view dogs as companions, pets and friends — not as food. However, our culture not only accepts but lionizes the eating of pigs, despite the fact that pigs are arguably just as smart as dogs. Similarly, Hindus in India would no doubt find our affinity for cow meat abhorrent. Independent from culture, it makes very little difference what kind of animal meat one chooses to eat.

Therefore, for the meat-eaters among us, the real outrage regarding the Yulin Festival is not that dogs were eaten. The outrage lies in the fact that the dogs, like our chickens, cows and pigs, were brutally mistreated before being eaten. As comedian Ricky Gervais put it, bluntly:

Americans consume over twice as much as meat per person as the Chinese. And as noted in The Huffington Post, “factory farms raise 99.9 percent of chickens for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle currently sold in the United States.” It is incredibly likely that every American citizen who eats meat has been complicit in mistreatment of animals on the order of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival.

What’s more, the Yulin Festival only happens once a year. Animals are tortured in US factory farms every single day.

Supreme Court bars states from requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration Tue, 30 Jun 2015 14:00:21 +0000 In a less-celebrated win for voting rights advocates yesterday, the Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal from Arizona and Kansas seeking to allow them to require proof of citizenship for voter registration in federal elections.

The ruling comes two years after the Court ruled that Arizona could not require citizens to provide proof of citizenship when using the “federal form,” a standard voter registration form issued by the US Election Assistance Commission, which all states are required to accept. That ruling allowed Arizona to go to the EAC and ask for special permission to implement the requirement. The state made that request, and their request was denied, prompting this latest appeal.

As the EAC noted when they denied the request, when voters register using the federal form, they are already required to swear they are citizens under penalty of perjury. Adding an additional citizenship requirement on top of that is both burdensome and frivolous.

However, as the ruling only affects voters registering for federal elections, Arizona and Kansas will now have two lists of voters: those they consider eligible to vote in all elections and those they consider eligible to vote in federal but not state elections. In their appeal, they argued that this discrepancy — of their own creation — creates a burden that the EAC can and should correct for by allowing them to require proof of citizenship for all registrations.

In short, Arizona and Kansas intentionally made it more difficult and confusing for their citizens to register to vote; the Supreme Court said that they’d have to ask the government if that was OK; the government said no; and then the states asked the government to say yes because it would be inconvenient if they said no.

And they really, really want to make sure that the white right people are voting in their elections.

Voter registration drive, via Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock

Voter registration, via Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock

Of course, the specter of illegal immigrants stealing elections is hardly enough to justify an extremely burdensome requirement on voter registration. After all, if you are an undocumented immigrant trying to avoid deportation, the last thing you want to do is perjure yourself by claiming you are a citizen on a federal form that asks for your address and last four digits of your Social Security number. To be clear, it does happen, but requiring a photocopy of a birth certificate to go along with each voter registration form isn’t an acceptable solution to the problem.

That is, if you think it’s a problem in the first place. Non-citizens are often as much a part of society as everyone else,save for their lack of official documentation. They work alongside us, their children go to our schools and many pay taxes. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to register and vote? And if we’re really so averse to allowing these employed taxpayers to register and vote because of their official status as non-citizens, let’s get them a path to citizenship. If everyone has legal status, then there aren’t any illegal immigrants registered to vote.

While this case did not directly address the question of whether undocumented immigrants should be afforded representation — either by proxy or directly at the ballot box — it comes one year in advance of a case that will. Next year, the Court will hear Evenwel v Abbott, in which plaintiffs are arguing that non-citizen populations should be excluded when drawing congressional and legislative district lines. In their view, disproportionate allocation of non-citizens leads to the districts in which they live having inflated representation, as fewer eligible voters in those districts means that each voter has a greater effect on the outcome of elections. To them, it does not matter that those non-citizens are directly affected by the decisions the representatives of those districts make.

Apparently, “one person, one vote” isn’t complicated enough for those on the right.

Supreme Court upholds independent redistricting commission Tue, 30 Jun 2015 13:00:58 +0000 In a 5-4 ruling yesterday, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the controlling opinion, the Supreme Court upheld an independent redistricting commission set up by Arizona voters via a ballot initiative in 2000.

As Ginbsurg wrote in her ruling: “Arizona voters sought to restore the core principle of republican government, namely, that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

As Greg Stohr at Bloomberg pointed out, the ruling only applies to the drawing of congressional districts, and does not affect the Arizona legislature’s ability to draw state-level district maps. What it does do, however, is allow the voters in a given state to take away their legislature’s right to draw district lines if they feel that there is another, more appropriate method. While Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution stipulates that congressional district lines are determined by “the legislature thereof” in a given state, the Court agreed with lower court rulings that interpreted that to mean all legislative actions taken within a state, including ballot initiatives. So a ballot initiative that prescribes an alternate method by which to draw district lines does not violate that Constitutional principle.

As law professor Rick Hasen notes in Slate, the case bears an odd resemblance to King v Burwell, in which the Court upheld federal health insurance subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, in that the plaintiffs’ case hinged on a head-deskingly literal translation of the statute at hand. In King, the word was whether the Affordable Care Act’s designation of exchanges established by the “State” (not “state”) meant that only states could issue subsidies through exchanges, even if the federal government organized those exchanges. In Arizona State Legislature v Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the question was whether “legislature” meant only formal state legislatures, or any binding legislative action. As argued in Ginsburg’s majority opinion, the Founders clearly did not intend the Elections Clause to allow state legislatures to override their own citizens if those citizens passed legally-binding legislation that took power away from them. The strict textualist interpretation held by the minority was, as in King, found to be unreasonable.

Currently, only two states — Arizona and California — have independent redistricting commissions with full power over drawing district lines. Eleven other states have some form of independent redistricting, but either their roles are limited or their members are appointed by politicians.

Illinois' 4th Congressional District, via Wikimedia Commons

Illinois’ 4th Congressional District, via Wikimedia Commons

If adopted nationwide, independent or nonpartisan redistricting could have far-reaching implications regarding the makeup of Congress and, by extension, what kinds of legislation lie within the realm of possibility for passage. While Democrats’ crowding into urban areas creates a natural gerrymander, Republicans’ control of state legislatures in 2010 exacerbated that trend. In 2012, Democrats received a majority of the popular vote for races in the House of Representatives but Republicans won a decisive majority of seats, and the discrepancy can be largely attributed to the way the district lines are drawn.

To that point, multiple states have had their district maps declared unconstitutional in recent years over claims that gerrymandering had been taken past the point of legal acceptability. Most recently, Virginia’s district map was ruled unconstitutional by a district court which held that Republicans in the state had used the Voting Rights Act to dilute the influence of minority voters by packing them too tightly into a small number of majority-minority districts.

Eight of Virginia’s eleven House members are Republicans, while all of its top statewide officeholders (both Senators, Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General) are Democrats. If the state had a panel like the one established by Arizona and upheld by the Court yesterday, that discrepancy would almost certainly be much, much smaller.

New bill would require employers to grant paid leave in order to vote Tue, 30 Jun 2015 12:00:16 +0000 Representative Matt Cartwright (D – PA) introduced a bill last week that would require employers to give workers paid leave in order to vote in federal elections. Cartwright’s bill has 30 cosponsors, all of whom are Democrats, according to The Hill.

The bill would require employers to grant at least two hours of paid time off in order for employees to cast their ballots without missing scheduled work hours. This would standardize what is currently a patchwork of varying state laws, some of which afford workers time off to vote and some of which do not. According to The Hill:

State laws vary on requiring employers to give workers paid time off to vote. Some states mandate that workers are allowed time to vote but don’t guarantee that their pay won’t be docked for it; others allot a specific amount of time to vote. A handful of states don’t have laws that ensure workers time to vote at all.

However, most states prohibit employers from firing or disciplining workers who take time off to vote.

Election Day, via Wikimedia Commons

Election Day, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this bill would be completely unnecessary if Election Day were declared a national holiday, or if we adopted nationwide early voting. Failing that, however, a federal guarantee that employers are not allowed to dock pay or fire employees who take time off in order to exercise their right to vote would be a small step in the right direction.

Specifics aside, however, this bill represents the latest plank on what has become a broader Democratic platform on voting rights in recent weeks. In the wake of numerous state-level reforms and an emphatic endorsement from Hillary Clinton, Democrats in Congress have introduced multiple expansions of the franchise, from automatic voter registration to nationwide early voting to a restored Voting Rights Act. Even if none of these reforms pass in the current Republican-controlled Congress, they serve as a signal that voting rights are a higher priority for Democrats now than they were in 2010, when Republicans launched a nationwide keep-in-the-vote program. The fact that there is more talk of voting rights expansions more generally means that it’s an issue on which Democrats think they can win.

That by itself is an encouraging step.

“Constitutional” conservatives are having second thoughts about Article 3 of the Constitution Mon, 29 Jun 2015 16:00:36 +0000 The word “constitutional” carries a particular kind of weight in the Republican Party. Used to connote an earlier, better time in our country, describing oneself as a “constitutional” conservative affords oneself a particular kind of ideological purity denied to those with whom they disagree. Holding the Founding Fathers as being veritable demigods, invoking the Constitution in such a way implies that the speaker does not hold moral or political convictions of their own; in their view, they have merely read the Constitution to the best of their abilities and adopted the political positions that follow, interpreted through the lens of the Founders’ original intent. And anyone who does otherwise cannot legitimately call themselves a patriot.

Which is why it was ironic, to say the least, that some of these self-described constitutional conservatives responded to the Supreme Court’s series of progressive rulings this week — from fair housing to health insurance subsidies to marriage equality — by claiming that something is wrong with the Constitution. Specifically, there’s something wrong with Article III, which outlines our nation’s court system and jurisdiction.

Plenty of conservatives met the Supreme Court’s recent rulings with simple disagreement. Few, though, went as far a Louisiana Governor and recently-announced presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, who said in the wake of Friday’s ruling:

The Supreme Court is completely out of control, making laws on their own, and has become a public opinion poll instead of a judicial body…If we want to save some money, let’s just get rid of the court.

Jindal’s solution, as simple as it is anti-constitutional, was outdone by Ted Cruz, who wrote in the National Review on Friday that the solution to what he described as the Court’s “lawlessness” — an odd accusation to make of a body whose decisions are legally binding — is to subject it to elections:

Rendering the justices directly accountable to the people would provide such a remedy. Twenty states have now adopted some form of judicial retention elections, and the experience of these states demonstrates that giving the people the regular, periodic power to pass judgment on the judgments of their judges strikes a proper balance between judicial independence and judicial accountability. It also restores respect for the rule of law to courts that have systematically imposed their personal moral values in the guise of constitutional rulings. The courts in these states have not been politicized by this check on their power, nor have judges been removed indiscriminately or wholesale. Americans are a patient, forgiving people. We do not pass judgment rashly.

The only part of that paragraph that’s correct is that twenty states have some form of judicial retention elections, which are an uncontested thumbs up/thumbs down vote on a judge following their initial appointment. The rest of Cruz’s claims are, as Justice Scalia would say “pure applesauce.” Judicial elections in all of their permutations are a disaster precisely because Americans, when told to make decisions on complex issues they know little about, are unforgiving people who pass judgment rashly. As John Oliver outlined in a recent segment on the practice:

Oliver actually understates how detrimental judicial elections can be to a well-functioning liberal democracy. The Supreme Court is the only branch of government that emphasizes the liberal nature of our country over its democratic nature. If a majority of voters elect a majority of representatives who pass laws that conflict with the values and protections outlined in the Constitution, the Supreme Court can be the only remaining check on those majorities’ power. Marginal debates about the specifics of the Court and its functionality aside, an independent judiciary is one of the things that our Founding Fathers got right.

"Constitutional," via Creative Commons

“Constitutional,” via Creative Commons

The Supreme Court has the power to interpret the laws passed by Congress, and its justices serve as long as they maintain “good behavior.” Allowing voters to determine what constitutes “good behavior” will achieve Cruz’s goal of changing how the Court interprets laws passed by Congress, which would undermine the very justification for the Court’s existence.

A true constitutional conservative can say that the Supreme Court’s rulings on Obamacare and marriage equality are incorrect (and they’d be wrong). What they can’t say if they wish to cling to their constitutional mantle is that the Supreme Court’s rulings are so bad that the Court itself needs to change.

We won on marriage. Hiring and housing discrimination are next. Mon, 29 Jun 2015 14:00:17 +0000 On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits states from denying same-sex couples the right to marry.

After a weekend of celebrating, the LGBT movement now has to remind the country that it’s not over. We won marriage equality on Friday, but we didn’t win full equality. There are a number of cultural, political and legal battles left to be waged in order to make that happen.

As Erik Eckholm outlined in The New York Times on Saturday, these next battles lie in similar forms of discrimination that lie in the hiring and firing of employees, as well as the renting and purchasing of homes:

Nationally, antidiscrimination laws for gay people are a patchwork with major geographic inequities, said Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute at the School of Law of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Those who don’t live on the two coasts or in the Northeast have been left behind in terms of legal protection,” he said.

Eckholm also quoted Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who will soon introduce legislation adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the Civil Rights Act, as saying that “People are going to realize that you can get married in the morning and be fired from your job or refused entry to a restaurant in the afternoon. That is unacceptable.”

The arguments against employment and housing discrimination are the same as those against marriage discrimination, with one possible exception. Allowing same-sex couples to marry has no impact on the lives of opposite-sex couples, no matter what claims the Heritage Foundation pulls out of thin air. However, prohibiting private companies and individuals from making business decisions based on the sexual orientation or gender identities of those with whom they do business does have a material effect on those businesses. It may be a positive effect, as many companies that have proactively enacted LGBT protections into their own hiring practices have learned, but it’s an effect nonetheless. In winning hiring and housing equality, the LGBT movement is going to have to convince the public, and the courts, that restrictions on the actions of private citizens and businesses such that they don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity are restrictions we can live with.

Of course, much of that debate has already been won. The majority of Americans already think it’s illegal to fire someone for being gay. They’re wrong, at least if they live in one of the 28 states that does not yet explicitly prohibit the practice, but as the LGBT movement directs more energy toward highlighting the stories of those who have been fired for being gay, or not hired in the first place, that will change. Bills like ENDA, which would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for businesses with at least 15 employees and has been introduced in all but one Congressional session since 1994, will attract more more attention. It will be a bigger deal when John Boehner kills it in this session than when he did in 2013.

Legislation aside, hiring discrimination could face a more complete death in the court system. As Eckholm continues:

ENDA protest, via Matt Baume / Flickr

ENDA protest, via Matt Baume / Flickr

…the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing federal law in the workplace, has determined that discrimination against gay men, lesbians and transgender people amounts to illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and it is bringing or endorsing lawsuits under that provision.

That application of existing law is still being tested in court and is more established for transgender workers than for gay and lesbian workers. In the past two years, the agency has successfully pursued 223 cases involving gay or transgender people who faced workplace harassment or other discrimination, gaining settlements or court orders, said Chai R. Feldblum, one of the agency’s five commissioners.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Friday could expedite that process. In framing his controlling opinion in the context of equal protection based on sexual orientation as opposed to, say, gender, Justice Anthony Kennedy opened — without explicitly walking through — the door of classifying LGBT citizens as a protected class. The ruling cites the 14th Amendment’s protections for “certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs.” That doesn’t go as far as to define sexual orientation and gender identity as unalterable demographic assignments establishing classes of citizens, such as race or gender assigned at birth, but future non-marriage cases could use Kennedy’s opinion as a springboard in order to convince future courts to make such a definition.

Either way, that passage should be enough to argue that firing someone, or denying them an apartment, based on their “intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs” should be illegal.

We’ll find out soon enough.

Turkish police break up Istanbul pride parade with water cannons and rubber bullets Mon, 29 Jun 2015 12:00:17 +0000 Turkish police broke up Istanbul’s Pride parade yesterday, firing rubber bullets and water cannons laced with pepper spray in order to disperse the crowd. According to Reuters, “Organizers said on Twitter they had been denied permission to hold the parade because it coincided with Ramadan this year. Istanbul Pride has been held in the past and has been described as the biggest gay pride event in the Muslim world.” In a translated Facebook post, the organizers of the event said that news of the parade’s prohibition came “without prior notice.” The parade has been held annually since 2003, growing from 30 attendees that year to over 20,000 in 2011.

Videos and pictures of the violence were quickly circulated on Twitter, with one video showing a protestor defiantly waving a rainbow flag in front of an armored police vehicle before getting knocked back by a water cannon:

Istanbul Pride in 2012, via Wikimedia Commons

Istanbul Pride in 2012, via Wikimedia Commons

It is unclear as to whether Ramadan could or should have anything to do with holding a gay pride parade under Turkish law. Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, although its penal code has vaguely-worded provisions against “public exhibitionism” and “offenses against public morality” that could be cited by religious conservatives to shut down gay pride parades in general. However, given that parades in previous years had taken place without government interference, citing Ramadan as a special reason for prohibiting what conservatives might interpret as an “offense against public morality” seems arbitrary at best. What’s more, a trans pride parade was held in Istanbul last week without incident.

A more likely, perhaps related reason for the Turkish government’s violent dispersion of the parade-goers is growing instability in Turkey more generally. In May, water cannons and tear gas were used to shut down protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on the country’s Labor Day, an extension of ongoing unrest since the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The government also passed new expansions on the police’s power to crack down on protests in March of this year.

According to VICE News, “A cameraman for the Dogan News Agency said that police seemed set on stopping protesters before they reached Taksim Square, which has been a flash point for protests in the past.”

We’re a step closer toward curing a disease caused by brain-eating amoebas Sun, 28 Jun 2015 15:00:35 +0000 A while back, I wrote about brain-eating amoebas. And it wasn’t science fiction. It was about Nagleria fowleri, a one-celled creature that is found in bodies of warm water such as lakes, rivers, streams, inadequately chlorinated swimming pools and warm water waste outflow from industrial plants. These amoebas have also been found in inadequately cleaned neti pots. In the U.S., Nagleria follow warm weather. They are more common in southern states, but can be found farther north during the summer months.

What’s the big deal about Nagleria, and some associated amoebas? For starters, they can cause primary amoebic meningitis (PAM), which is almost always fatal. To be clear, PAM is rare. There aren’t many reported cases in the U.S., but there have been some. If you swim, dive or use a neti pot, you need to be aware of it.

Nagleria fowleri, via Wikimedia Commons

Nagleria fowleri, via Wikimedia Commons

It is more common in men and boys, possibly due to doing more activities that stir up debris in water. You can’t get infected with PAM by drinking water containing these amoebas, but you can if the water containing the amoebas gets into your nose.  The amoebas swim up to the cribiform plate (the interface between the upper part of the nose and the base of the brain), and can penetrate there through a number of tiny holes that allow nerve fibers to pass out of the brain. They then enter the brain and start eating. They set up an inflammatory process and the patient subsequently dies because, until now, there was no cure.

Enter miltefosine, a drug that was used to treat leishmaniasis, a different kind of parasitic infection.  With PAM being incurable, physicians were trying other drugs that might possibly help.  They gave miltefosine a try a few years ago, with some mixed results. The drugs were hard to get, as they were manufactured in Germany, and the delay — coupled with the fact that it was a last resort measure — led to the tests being unsuccessful. However, as more cases of PAM occurred, doctors in the U.S. and other countries kept trying the drug. The results improved as more people were treated.

However, even when supplies were obtained, there were no controlled studies on miltefosine that showed, conclusively, that it did work.  So the CDC and FDA got together, and now the drug is available in the U.S., through the CDC, for the treatment of PAM and leishmaniasis, in hopes of showing that the disease can be cured once and for all.

You probably don’t use sunscreen, and you should Sat, 27 Jun 2015 15:00:22 +0000 With summer here, the need for sunscreen should be apparent to everyone. Ultraviolet light from the sun can damage skin and lead to skin cancer, including melanoma, which is a particularly aggressive form of cancer.

Before discussing the research, here’s some information on proper sunscreen use, courtesy of the CDC below.  There may be some things there that you didn’t know about the correct way to use sunscreen, like their advice that you should apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before going outdoors? That gives the sunscreen a chance to soak into the skin, decreasing the chance that it will wash off with perspiration.Some skin cancers can cause death if not found and treated early. And not just for the paler among us: People of all skin colors can get skin cancer from the sun’s UV rays. However, those who are most likely to get skin cancer from these rays have:

  • Lighter natural skin color
  • Skin that burns, freckles, gets red easily, or becomes painful from the sun
  • Blond or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • A family member who has had skin cancer.

People who spend a lot of time outdoors, either for work or play, are also more likely to get skin cancer from UV rays.Here are some more sunscreen usage tips:

  • Use a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
  • Follow the directions on the package for using a sunscreen product on babies less than 6 months old. All products do not have the same ingredients; if your or your child’s skin reacts badly to one product, try another one or call a doctor.
  • The sun’s UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. Put sunscreen on before you go outside, even on slightly cloudy or cool days.
  • Sunscreen wears off. Put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than 2 hours, and after you swim or do things that make you sweat.
  • For the average-sized, non-obese person, at least a tablespoon of sunscreen should be used to cover all exposed body areas. Of course, if you aren’t sure if you’re fully covered, use more.
Summer sun, via Pexels

Summer sun, via Pexels

It’s important to cover ALL exposed areas of skin (but be careful in applying sunscreen around the eyes). A recent study shows that very few people are using sunscreen on their faces and, of course, skin cancers and other effects of solar radiation can be found there. Men are particularly bad at using sunscreen at all, much less using it correctly, with 44 percent of men reporting that they never use it. Only about 18% used it on their faces. Women did slightly better, with 30 percent of female respondents reporting using sunscreen on a regular basis, with 43 percent using it on their faces.

Sunscreen needs to be used and reapplied frequently (roughly every 2 hours or so), and more frequently if you’re sweating or in water.

People who have a lot of sun exposure either from work, play or both, should have periodic checks by a dermatologist to look for skin cancer and precancerous lesions.  Skin cancer incidence also increases as we age.  So even for people who aren’t sun worshippers, it’s a good idea to have a dermatologist check out your skin for cancers.

BREAKING: Supreme Court makes marriage equality law of the land in 5-4 decision Fri, 26 Jun 2015 14:43:51 +0000 In a 5-4 decision this morning, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v Hodges that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, and that states must recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion, which comes two years to the day after he wrote the 2013 opinion that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act but avoided legalizing same-sex marriage outright.

As the Court held in its majority opinion, one of the core claims made by opponents of marriage equality, that the traditional notion of marriage was between one man and one woman, simply does not hold up under historical scrutiny:

The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. Changes, such as the decline of arranged marriages and the abandonment of the law of coverture, have worked deep transformations in the structure of marriage, affecting aspects of marriage once viewed as essential. These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.

Importantly, the Court based its decision in the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, making the issue one of equal protection. Citing Loving v Virginia, which invalidated bans on interracial marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy held “The fundamental liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs.

In a similar vein, he wrote that “the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples.” As Kennedy powerfully closed:

Rainbow flag, via Wikimedia Commons

Rainbow flag, via Wikimedia Commons

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

Each of the four dissenting justices, Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas, wrote separate opinions.

Not only does this case make marriage equality the law of the land, it sets strong precedent for protecting LGBT citizens across other cases. The same logic used to establish same-sex marriage could be applied to cases concerning non-discrimination or hate crimes — i.e. the next set of struggles for the LGBT movement now that the marriage issue is settled once and for all.

Jury unanimously rules JONAH conversion therapy claims fraudulent Fri, 26 Jun 2015 13:00:57 +0000 Yesterday, a New Jersey jury unanimously ruled that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) committed fraud when it guaranteed to its clients that it could “cure” them of homosexuality and gave them falsified statistics on their record of “success.”

A New Jersey judge had already ruled that conversion therapy that claims homosexuality to be a mental disorder is itself fraudulent, and every major medical organization that has weighed in on the subject has held that such claims are both baseless and harmful. New Jersey became one of the first states in the country to outlaw conversion therapy for minors in 2013.

The way in which the trial was organized hinted that JONAH was in for an unfavorable ruling. During the trial, the group was not allowed to present “expert” testimony in the case, as the judge held that it is impossible to be an “expert” in conversion therapy before comparing their planned to testimony to “expert” testimony claiming that the earth was flat. What’s more, the jury was instructed in the case to rule in favor of the plaintiffs if they felt that JONAH had “described homosexuality even as something equivalent to a mental illness, disease, or disorder,” as that constitutes a violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.

It probably didn’t help that, earlier this month, a lawyer representing JONAH called the LGBT movement Satanic.

With respect to the second charge, that JONAH misrepresented its success rate, the defendants’ claims fell similarly flat. From Zach Ford at ThinkProgress:

Anti-conversion therapy protest, via Daniel Tobias / Flickr

Anti-conversion therapy protest, via Daniel Tobias / Flickr

Though the organization unsurprisingly had no solid numbers of its success rate, founder Arthur Goldberg admitted under oath to a “general success rate” which he described as “a third, a third, and a third” — a third saw substantial decreases in their same-sex attraction, a third went completely from gay to straight, and a third saw no change. In other words, JONAH’s sales pitch was a 67 percent success rate, a claim for which it had no foundation. JONAH’s witnesses regularly tried walk a line claiming that homosexuality was only disordered from a religious perspective but that the therapy itself was legitimate and not religious in nature; they failed.

As explained by SPLC staff attorney Sam Wolfe, quoted by Ford, religious freedom claims under the First Amendment are irrelevant when considering factual claims made under the auspices of (pseudo-) scientific practice:

This is not a freedom of religion case. It is unlawful to defraud vulnerable individuals and lure them with false promises of orientation change. The lie that individuals can change their sexual orientation if only they work hard enough and pay for enough “therapy” has harmed individuals, families, and religious communities for far too long.

The ruling paves the way for more plaintiffs subjected to ex-gay conversion therapy, more accurately described as abuse when forced on minors, to file similar lawsuits.


SCOTUSblog trolls conservatives who confused them with the official Court following Obamacare ruling Fri, 26 Jun 2015 12:30:50 +0000 The Supreme Court does not have a Twitter account. SCOTUSblog, the unofficial official source for all things Supreme Court, does have Twitter account. That account takes great pains to alert users that they are “A private blog. NOT THE JUSTICES OR THE COURT.”

However, following the Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday in King v Burwell, which upheld subsidies for health insurance purchased through federally-run state exchanges, angry conservatives missed the memo, angrily tweeting at @SCOTUSblog to express their outrage over what they thought was “their” ruling.

And SCOTUSblog had some fun with them, tweetstorming some of the best messages with appropriately sarcastic replies:


To be fair, a few Twitter users who were happy with the ruling made the same mistake. They weren’t spared, either:

Perhaps the best one was from Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, whose staff really ought to have known better:

Isakson later deleted the tweet and replaced it with one using the #SCOTUS hashtag instead of the @SCOTUSblog account. At the end of the day, the exchanges — and the day as a whole — could best be summed up with this one:

And either Friday or Monday with this one:

Never change, @SCOTUSblog. Never change.

SCOTUSblog trolling, original image via Wikimedia Commons

SCOTUSblog trolling, original image via Wikimedia Commons

Big wins at the Supreme Court for Obamacare and fair housing. Is marriage equality next? Fri, 26 Jun 2015 12:00:08 +0000 The Supreme Court has a lot of deciding to do this week, with major cases touching on issues ranging from lethal injections to Obamcare subsidies to, of course, marriage equality.

Yesterday, the Court issued two major rulings. In the first, it held in King v Burwell that one typo does not a law make, declining to invalidate subsidies issued through federally-run state health insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.


Of course, King v Burwell was such a ridiculous case that it should never have come before the court in the first place. At least one of the plaintiffs in the case likely lacked standing to file the lawsuit in the first place, and the central question posed to the court was whether one semantically questionable sentence could override both the rest of the law’s text and its overall intent. As Larry Kramer, former dean of Stanford Law School, told POLITICO Magazine:

That this case was even in the Supreme Court is an embarrassment for the Court—and a sign of how ideological and politicized the federal bench has become. That we had to wait with bated breath to see whether a majority of the Justices would uphold this ridiculous challenge is an even bigger embarrassment and worse sign. At no other time in U.S. history would a challenge this frivolous to a law of this significance have been close, even for Justices whose politics were opposed to those of the President and Congress that enacted the law.

To that point, in his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts highlighted the frivolity and absurdity of the plaintiffs’ argument by citing an opinion written by Antonin Scalia in the 2012 case that upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. In that opinion, in an attempt to argue that the Court could not rule parts of the law unconstitutional — it was either all or nothing — Scalia (correctly) pointed out that without the subsidies, the state exchanges would not function. As Roberts wrote, with that in mind the idea that the administration would establish state exchanges through the federal government but prohibit the federal government from subsidizing those exchanges is implausible at best. It’s really not that complicated: As Roberts wrote, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not destroy them.”

At the end of the day, the ruling means that over 6.4 million Americans who now receive their health insurance with the help of subsidies through federally-run state exchanges will get to keep their coverage. That’s great news, but it shouldn’t have come down to a 6-3 ruling.

Fair Housing

While King v Burwell received a lot of attention yesterday, liberals saw another, less-expected, victory in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. In the case, the court held in a 5-4 ruling that the use of the disparate impact test is acceptable in fair housing cases.

The Supreme Court, via Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court, via Wikimedia Commons

What does that mean? It means that you don’t need to show explicit discriminatory intent to show that discrimination is taking place and should be corrected for. Especially on a large scale, explicit intent to discriminate is far more difficult to show than statistical trends.

But those trends are real, and carry huge consequences: The Department of Justice recently won a $335 million settlement with Bank of America after a disparate impact test found that a company the bank had bought was pushing black and latino borrowers into subprime loans, while white applicants with similar credit profiles were offered prime mortgages. There was no official policy at the company that dictated racial discrimination in lending, but discrimination occurred nonetheless. Had the Supreme Court ruled that the disparate impact test was unconstitutional, it would have effectively legalized informal or implicit discrimination in the housing market.

The Bank of America case is no outlier. As outlined by Vox:

Although it looks different now, housing discrimination remains a major problem. The National Fair Housing Alliance estimates that more than 3.7 million Americans each year are victims of housing discrimination. ThinkProgress points to a study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that found black and Asian potential homebuyers were shown 15 to 19 percent fewer homes than similarly qualified whites. A Center for American Progress/La Raza roundup of the evidence on housing discrimination reports that blacks with good credit scores were 3.5 times as likely as their white counterparts to receive higher interest rate loans, and, as recently as 2009, African Americans were twice as likely to be denied a home loan.

None of those statistics establish discriminatory intent, but under the disparate impact test that doesn’t matter. One need only establish discriminatory effects in order to show discrimination.

As Rick Hasen at Electablog pointed out, this case has implications beyond housing, as the disparate impact test could be similarly applied to cases regarding voting rights when a specific policy can be used to establish a causal arrow. In other words, you couldn’t use discrepancies in turnout rates among different demographic groups to force changes to voting laws under the disparate impact test, but you could successfully sue against new laws that can be shown to produce disproportionate changes in voter participation.

So, in a not-so-hypothetical hypothetical, if one were able to show that a state’s newly-passed restrictions on provisional balloting were directly responsible for lower voter turnout, and further showed that those restrictions disproportionally affected minority voters, the disparate impact test could be used to invalidate those restrictions.

Now, the focus turns to the decisions left for the Court to hand down. We’ll have a ruling in Obergefell v Hodges either today or Monday. Get ready.

On the courts, the Confederate flag and Jennicet Guttiérez Thu, 25 Jun 2015 19:26:30 +0000 Another day in June, another day we have yet to hear back from the Supreme Court about its decision in Obergefell v Hodges, the case that may well legalize same-sex marriage across the United States.

But another court released its decision in a case of considerable significance to LGBT rights earlier this week that warrants a look. A Sacramento County judge ruled on Tuesday that California’s proposed “Sodomite Suppression Act” — with its demand “that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head” — is patently unconstitutional and that California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris need not officially circulate the summary for the proposed Act so that it could begin gathering signatures.

I was baffled by the response across the media that Kamala Harris’ request of relief from her duty to issue and circulate proposed ballot initiatives wouldn’t make it through the courts. Writing for the Atlantic, Russell Berman cited unnamed “legal experts” who said that “Harris has no other choice but to process McLaughlin’s proposal.” When I wrote about it then, I felt so incredulous that I had to delete the lines of snark and expletives that I had typed up in response.

It seemed like an open and shut case of incitement, unbecoming of the First Amendment’s protection.

California AG Kamala Harris

California AG Kamala Harris

That was exactly what Susan Talamantes Eggman — chair of the California LGBT Caucus — was quoted as saying in the Sacramento Bee: “This measure was unconstitutional, and was itself speech inciting violence, and therefore unprotected by the First Amendment.” Kamala Harris, for her part, said it loud and clear: “this is not about whether we like something or not, or whether we simply find it offensive or troubling. In this case, we are talking about a proposal that literally is calling for violence.”

I was concerned then, as now, that this ballot initiative was far more serious and represented something far darker than a “long-shot,” “kooky” or even “offensive” idea, as Russell Berman called it. In a state and country as a whole in which right-wing terror remains a largely unacknowledged but increasingly serious threat, these suggestions cannot be ignored.

Last week, of course, America woke up to some degree about the reality of far-right extremism in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina as mainstream news outlets acknowledged the shooter’s white supremacist beliefs. Meanwhile, this same week, another black church in North Carolina burned down in an apparent arson. These attacks may or may not have been related. But evidently, both were motivated by hate. In order to fight it, we have to stick together.

We should be glad, for example, that people from all corners are calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from public places and state emblems all over the South. It’s well worth remembering, as Jeet Heer points out, that the symbol was actually resurrected in the 50’s and 60’s as a symbolic backlash to the burgeoning civil rights movement.

In explaining why he thought taking the Confederate flag down is both important and necessary, Heer switched his argument over to describing why the yearly ritual of gay pride is so important.

It follows that taking down the Confederate flag is about removing a symbol that has for decades stood as an incitement to violence against black people most specifically.

This is an important argument. Yet, as with California’s proposed “Sodomite Suppression Act,” many have rushed to the Confederate flag’s defense in the name of the First Amendment, daring to invoke its name in vain.

I assume most people reading this will get why California’s Attorney General should not have to issue and circulate a ballot measure demanding all gay people be shot in the head. I assume most people reading this will, likewise, understand why Confederate imagery must be removed from the emblems, flags, and public places of the South.

So I am wondering how our readers responded to the story of how a trans Latinx activist interrupted President Obama last night at the White House Pride reception. Demanding an end to the detention and imprisonment of all LGBTQ immigrants from deportation centers, Jennicet Gutiérrez shouted at the President — who has deported more immigrants than any President in US history — while attendees of the reception shhhhh’d and booed her.

Violence against trans people, and trans people of color in particular, is epidemic.  There were 1,359 instances of violence against LGBTQ people in 2014 alone, and that violence disproportionately affected trans people. So, though I’m not surprised Ms. Gutiérrez was escorted out, what does alarm me is the overwhelming lack of self-awareness and solidarity on display in this video.

I couldn’t say it any better than Carloz Maza put it on Twitter last night:

Maza later even tweeted a brief but excellent history lesson:

Study: Most marijuana edibles have mislabeled potency Thu, 25 Jun 2015 18:00:45 +0000 Researchers from Johns Hopkins University did a study to see if the amount of THC in edible marijuana products was the same as the amount specified on the labels. The answer was a resounding “nah, man.”

Hopkins scientists went to Colorado and Washington state, where recreational marijuana is legal, and bought a total of 75 different edible products containing marijuana. They then tested the products’ THC content to see if it matched the amount of THC that was promised on their labels.

Marijuana edibles, via Wikimedia Commons

Marijuana edibles, via Wikimedia Commons

They found that over three three quarters of the edibles did not contain the specified amount of THC, with 60 percent of edibles tested containing less THC than advertised. 23 percent of the products actually contained more THC than was claimed on the label.

The researchers state that edibles containing marijuana cannot be relied upon to give a medicinal dose to patients taking it. One researcher said, “I suspected that we would see variability, but I was shocked at how much variability there was.”

One reason may be that both states require in-state testing of THC content by local labs. These labs, and labs in general, don’t have much experience in testing for THC in substances other than serum and urine. And testing for THC in marijuana plants and oils is more straightforward than trying to test for marijuana in, say, a brownie, where there are a number of other ingredients present.

For pharmaceuticals prescribed in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration requires strict testing on drugs produced, including medications like PrEP and aspirin. But since the FDA states that marijuana is a non-medicinal drug, it has nothing to do with determining the purity or amount to THC in any marijuana products.

Another reason for the mislabeling is that the producers of medical marijuana edibles are mostly small mom and pop stores. They may not have the knowledge or skills to prepare brownies, cookies and other edibles properly or consistently. Recipes differ and how the THC is added to the mixture varies. Of course, there is also the possibility that there may be some producers who are just shortchanging the consumer to increase their own profits.

For right now at least, if you or someone you know is using medical marijuana and expecting a consistent dose, it may be much better to use it in a non-edible form.  Perhaps, over time the analytical techniques will get better, or the FDA will step in, and the THC content of edibles will be more accurate.

The Veterans Administration needs more doctors Thu, 25 Jun 2015 16:00:41 +0000 The Veterans Administration problems worsen, as do the problems of the vets seeking care through the VA. Things were already bad a year ago, with revelations that veterans were waiting an excessive amount of time to get seen (read: months), sometimes being deliberately dropped from waiting lists to artificially “decrease” wait times. VA centers were also not making timely referrals to doctors outside of the VA system, their budget was inadequate, there were too few doctors at the VA, and so on.

The VA has made an effort to improve the situation.  In the past year many more patients have been seen (or referred to outside doctors, including specialists). However, seeing and/or referring these patients has come at a cost of about $3 billion.  The VA is now short of money for this program, and is looking at hiring freezes, layoffs, restrictions on some medications and other money-saving options.  It wants to ask Congress to allow it to transfer funds from other budget areas to this program, but doesn’t expect a favorable hearing. Of course, failure to act will negatively feed back into the system, making the problem worse.

When this story broke last year, I went to the VA’s primary website, along with VA medical center websites in Arizona, California, Minnesota, Alaska, Georgia, Michigan and some other states. I specifically looked for job postings for physicians.

Doctor via Shutterstock

Doctor via Shutterstock

EVERY website was advertising for physicians. Most needed internists and family practice physicians, but a number needed specialists: surgeons, ophthalmologists, OB/Gyns, pediatricians, pulmonary doctors, psychiatrists, cardiologists, etc. It’s not just remote VA hospitals and clinics that need specialists; many located in or near large cities need them, too. In some areas, the VA had completely given up the search for permanent physicians, and was instead advertising for locum tenens doctors. These doctors will sign a short-term contract to go to a site — for example, a clinic somewhere in Arizona — and work for a mutually agreed amount of time, usually between a month and a year. When  they leave, the post is open again — maybe for months or years — until another locum takes it.

Not all of these positions are at VA hospitals. Some are at free-standing VA clinics in small towns. One such small VA clinic — either in Arizona or New Mexico, as I recall — wanted a generalist physician. He would work 8-5 Monday through Friday, seeing patients, charting, reading reports, performing minor surgeries, etc. The clinic is about a 2 hour drive from the next-largest town, which has a small hospital. The physician will have to live in the town where the clinic is located, and the clinic staff is a single medical assistant. With no local hospital, that means those in town will come calling at all hours, regardless as to whether they are eligible for VA care. So the doctor will essentially be on call 24/7 for patients who need emergency care, such as women who go into labor (no OB around) and need to be attended to until the helicopter arrives. That is, if the weather allows it to fly. Even though it’s not in the contract to take care of patients after 5 PM, on weekends, or those who are not eligible for VA care, who is going to turn those patients away?

The pay scale and benefits for locum tenens doctors are significantly less than those found when practicing at a hospital or group. And there are other downsides, like limited continuing education, vacation has to be scheduled around when (or if) they can find a doctor to replace the vacationer. The doctor has to learn the VA’s policies, medical records system and other things that are specific to the VA, which is a much more worthwhile investment of time and energy for doctors who are likely to stay for more than a year. And, of course, if the doctor needs a doctor they’re out of luck.

Not all locum tenens arrangements are this bad. A few are worse, some are better. But the better ones seem to involve a lot more paperwork, and still put pressure on doctors to see a lot of patients in a limited amount of time. And there are still restrictions on the drugs that can be prescribed, the out-of-VA specialists that can be used, and so on.

It’s no wonder that these positions go unfilled, and have such high turnover rates.

This upcoming go around with Congress looks like it will be acrimonious and its outcome may do nothing to alleviate the squeeze on VA patients, or doctors.  You can read more on the story here.