Archive for the ‘Columns’ Category

Did GM Pull A Pinto?

800px-Chevrolet_Cobalt_LT_sedan250px-Ford_PintoBelow is a slightly expanded version of my column that ran today in the Los Angeles Times on the growing scandal over the defective ignition switches on the Cobalt and other cars produced by General Motors. Just this weekend, it was reported that CEO Mary Barra received a memorandum on a steering problem with the Saturn Ion on a different problem as early as 2011, but did not order an immediate recall. What is now clear is that the company spent years discussing the defect. Two engineers were recently put on paid leave by the company — a move viewed as too little too late by many, including some who want to see criminal charges. Ironically, I have been teaching the Pinto case in my torts class this week and today I will be teaching my new material on the GM Cobalt as an extension of that material.

Some have charged that GM was aware of this defective design before it lobbied the government for a massive bailout in 2009. The government handed over $49.5 billion to the automaker and the public ultimately ate a $10.5 billion loss when our shares in “Government Motors” were finally sold off in 2013. In addition to billions in losses, the public got cars that could put their lives in danger the moment they turned the ignition key.

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220px-Nytimes_hqSupreme CourtBelow is a longer version of my column that ran today in USA Today. The column was originally written for a longer format but had to be reduced to fight the page. The column looks at state of the Fourth Estate on the 50th anniversary of the decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. I do not wish to understate the threat against the media in 1964 but it is hard to overstate the threat against the media in 2014.

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220px-US_Capitol_Building_at_night_Jan_2006248px-WhiteHouseSouthFacade.JPGBelow is my column in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. I recently testified on this issue in three separate hearings before Congress (here and here and here). Last week, President Obama proceeded to add yet another suspension order to the health care law. It is part of a broader array of such unilateral actions that raise disturbing constitutional issues under the Separation of Powers. This goes beyond the usual discretion in “filing in the blanks” or ambiguities of laws. These were not delegated or unanswered questions. These were largely core issues — dates and coverage issues — that were the subject of intense congressional debate. Indeed, in a number of cases, President Obama asked for reforms and was denied the changes by Congress — only to order the very same reforms by executive action. That is why this is not an administrative law but a constitutional law issue in my opinion.

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Below is my column today in USA Today on the ruling out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit over a ban at a California high school of students wearing tee-shirts with American flags during the Mexican heritage celebration Cinco de Mayo. The opinion is Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified Sch. Dist., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 3790.

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220px-BenFranklinDuplessisPresident_Barack_ObamaBelow is my column in Al Jazeera on the expansion of presidential powers in the United States. While there is growing recognition of the threat posed by the current powers exercised by the White House, it is important to keep the issue before the public if we are going to realign the tripartite system back to its original balance between the balances.

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220px-Christmas_in_Dublin,_CA200px-New_Year_Ball_Drop_Event_for_2012_at_Times_SquareHere is today’s column in USA Today on the hazards of the holidays. While Halloween racks up an impressive array of torts, Christmas and New Year’s Eve produce a considerable number of accidents and crimes. The difference is that the accidents are often self-inflicted — many of which I have personally experienced. Indeed, my family shudders when I pull out the Christmas decorations in anticipation of some unforeseen disaster.

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President_Barack_Obama228px-Picture_of_Edward_SnowdenBelow is my column in the Sunday Los Angeles Times on the basis for a pardon for Edward Snowden. It is clear that President Obama (and ranking congressional members) are opposed to such clemency. Snowden embarrassed a great number of powerful people in Washington, including the President. However, there is historical precedent for such a pardon and compelling arguments that such a course may be the right course for the country.

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President_Barack_Obama228px-Picture_of_Edward_SnowdenBelow is my column in USA Today on the NSA proposed reforms. I do believe that there are many worthy suggestions among the 46 recommendations, particularly the amending of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. However, what is missing is any true reform in ending this massive surveillance program since the White House panel started with the presumption that it was lawful. What remains are interesting but largely collateral changes. This includes a worthy proposal of adding an advocate to the FISA secret court. However, the panel does not (as with the program itself) seriously consider the need or the questionable legality of the secret court. Indeed, by tinkering around the edges of the program, the task force would effectively legitimize the program for the future. It will become the new normal in the President’s vision of a surveillance-friendly model of privacy.

The task force does call for serious changes in clearance rules however to avoid future disclosures of the abuses revealed by Edward Snowden. What is lacking is one measure that would go far in showing good faith by this President after years of rolling back on privacy: a pardon for Edward Snowden. Such pardons are not given because the subject is innocent or that a president agrees with his actions. They are granted in the totality of circumstances that mitigate the crime, including the disclosure of abuses that were long ignored, if not supported, by both the White House and Congress. A pardon can be legitimately conditioned on certain measures such as the return of undisclosed documents (which is a massive amount of files) and the signing of a non-disclosure agreement to allow prosecution for future disclosures. That would prevent further damage with disclosures, as suggested by at least on ranking intelligence official. I do not take violations of classification laws lightly and I understand the anger of many officials. However, the current standoff is not just undermining the credibility of the Administration but also doing little to limit further damage. I do not believe that Snowden is using the document to force such a pardon which remains unlikely. However, it is time to consider it. Despite the President’s understandable opposition to his method for raising the abuses, the Snowden disclosures have caused a comprehensive and international reexamination of surveillance rules, including new international measures to protect privacy. Perhaps it may be time to stop hunting the man and focus exclusively on the abuses that he disclosed. The column below is unfortunately limited in space, but it tries to raise some of these issues.

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hallocostumes005Students at the University of Colorado at Boulder have been told this year that some standard costumes are now deemed “offensive” and are unacceptable. This includes costumes as cowboys, indians and anything involving a sombrero. Once again, I am concerned that these rules based on tolerance values are intruding into the speech rights of students and wrongly assumes that all such outfits are derogatory to a particular race or culture.

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zimmermantrayon-martin-picture1Below is a slightly expanded version of today’s column in USA Today on the Zimmerman verdict. As I wrote before the case was sent to the jury, I saw no alternative to acquittal even on manslaughter and expected the jury to render a full acquittal. I respect the conflicting views of many on this blog on the case and how it was charged and handled. We will now have to wait to see if the Justice Department will re-try Zimmerman as a civil rights matter. I have serious reservations about such an effort, but that can be for a later discussion. For now, a few observations on the verdict can serve to as a foundation for our own discussion.

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AF cover 4Below is my column today in USA Today on the criminal complaint against Edward Snowden. I have been criticizing the charge under the Espionage Act as abusive and a mistake by the Administration. President Barack Obama has been criticized for years for his use of the controversial 1917 Act. He is responsible for six of the nine total indictments ever brought under the Act. More than all presidents before him and putting Richard Nixon to shame. He has used the act against sources for journalists and only recently was criticized for the attacks on the free press under his Administration. I do not question the basis for prosecution of Snowden for the disclosure of classified information or any theft of such documents. However, the effort to put him away for life does raise an interesting contrast with prior cases, which is the subject of today’s column (slightly expanded from the print version).

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President_Barack_ObamaBelow is today’s column in USA Today (the print version is a bit shorter). The column looks at the effort of President Barack Obama and his congressional allies to get citizens to give up privacy as they did protections of the free press, due process, and international legal principles on earlier scandals. It is truly the final measure of devotion demanded in what has become a virtual cult of personality.

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holderericHere is today’s column in USA Today calling for the firing of Attorney General Eric Holder (I have added a couple lines removed in editing). Holder is not the only individual who needs to leave federal office but he is the first. Equally responsible are his deputy, James Cole, and Ronald Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who played critical roles in the investigation of journalists with Associated Press and Fox News. Notably, Obama reportedly “fired” IRS Director Steve Miller (who was reportedly already leaving) over the IRS scandal though there is no indication of any knowledge on his part. In Holder’s case, he was personally involved in targeting journalists (in the Fox case) and launched an attack on the media that has been condemned by a wide array of public interest and media groups. Yet, Holder has been asked to hold a simple meeting with aggrieved media representatives by Obama.

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3branchesBelow is today’s column in the Washington Post’s Outlook Section on the dangers of America’s growing administrative state. Ask any elementary student and you will hear how the Framers carefully designed a tripartite, or three-branch, system to govern the United States. This separation of powers was meant to protect citizens from tyranny by making every branch dependent on each other to carry out the functions of government. These three branches held together through a type of outward pressure – each holding the other in place through their countervailing forces. Add a fourth branch and the structure begins to collapse. That is precisely what is happening as federal agencies grow beyond the traditional controls and oversight of the legislative and executive branches. The question is how a tripartite system can function as a quadripartite system. The answer, as demonstrated by the last two decades, is not well. The shift from a tripartite to a quadripartite system is not the result of simply the growth in the size of the government. Rather, it is a concern with the degree of independence and autonomy in the fourth branch that led me to write this column.

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dronetoy2220px-Red_Light_CameraBelow is today’s column on the calls for expanding security and surveillance powers in the aftermath of the Boston bombing. (An Internet version ran last week but was updated for print) [I untangled one line that was changed in editing]. My greatest concern is that the Boston response will become the accepted or standard procedure in shutting down cities and ordering warrantless searches. No politicians wants to be seen questioning the necessity or efficacy of such measures out of fear of appearing “soft” on terror.

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220px-2013_Boston_Marathon_aftermath_peopleBelow is my column today in USA Today on the Boston bombing and the call for new security laws and expanded surveillance. I have been doing interviews trying to caution against these calls for immediate action — a mantra that we hear after every attack no matter the cause. I am in Chicago today and was struck by how quickly Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel called for more surveillance cameras in a city with one of the largest surveillance systems in the United States.

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The U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court

DNA_orbit_animated_static_thumbBelow is my column this week in USA Today (the print version will run Wednesday while the web-version ran today). We have been following the increasingly draconian copyright and trademark laws used against citizens and companies — laws secured by an army of lobbyists, lawyers, and an obedient Congress and White House. The impetus of the piece is the Myriad case to be heard on Monday, where the Supreme Court will have to decide whether a company can patent human genes. The company argues that it took considerable research to isolate the genes associated with breast cancer and that patent protection gives companies like Myriad to do such extensive research and development. For many others, the patent claim represents a virtual franchising of the human body – giving companies claim to something that exists in nature. It also gives these companies a critical gatekeeper control on research into key components of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, and other health threats. While this column deals with statutory expansions of private property claims over genes, common phrases and images, there is an equal expansion occurring in the common law, including the “misappropriation of name or likeness.” Perhaps the most infamous such authority can be found in the case of White v. Samsung. In this case, Vanna White sued Samsung over a commercial that showed a robot with a blonde wig turning cards in a game show. It was an obvious parody but the federal court found the image of a blonde who did nothing but smile and turn large cards belongs exclusively to White.

This column is meant to show that there is a broader problem in the rush to claim common material, images, and terms. Perhaps it was inevitable that with the ever expanding patent, copyright, and trademark laws, mankind itself would become a form of property: the ultimate evolution from creator to object.
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220px-Richard_NixonPresObamaBelow is today’s column in USA Today. It is a follow up to my speech at the National Press Club on the 4oth anniversary of Watergate. The event included a number of Watergate figures from Daniel Ellsberg to Liz Holtzman to Alexander Butterfield and others. It was an extraordinary event organized by Common Cause.

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PresObamaAfter the Inauguration, I shared my thoughts on President Barack Obama’s address. I liked the speech but, as with many civil libertarians, I do not share the faith in his commitment to principle — at least not the principles behind civil liberties. Below is today’s print column that touches on some of the same themes with a few additional observations.

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220px-Inauguration-01-20-2009Below is my column today in USA Today on the Inauguration Speech of President Obama. Unfortunately, my family got back and reported that the Jumbotron or giant screen was malfunctioning so they missed the entire inauguration speech. Thousands of people were similarly deprived by whatever contractor was handling the screen — a terrible disappointment for thousands who came from all over the country.

Here is the column.

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600px-US-DeptOfEducation-Seal.svgBelow is my column this morning in USA Today on a campaign by the Obama Administration to pressure colleges and universities to reduce due process protections for students accused of sexual harassment and sexual violence. I have previously written a letter to my own university opposing some of these specific changes, though (like many schools) George Washington appears to be yielding to the pressure. I understand the concern of the Administration and the need to protect victims in this difficult process. We are all committed to maintaining a protective environment for both students and faculty. However, there are other ways to offer such protections without stripping away core due process protections in my view. My greatest concern is with the sexual violence cases because these adjudications will have a lifelong impact on the students (or faculty members) as well as consequences for collateral criminal proceedings. The column below is slightly expanded with material cut for space in the newspaper version.

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mosaic_anita143x176Below is my column today in the Sunday Chicago Tribune on the recent denial of review by the Supreme Court in the Illinois eavesdropping case that we discussed earlier.

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The ABA Journal has released its list of the top 100 legal blogs in the world and we are once again in this august group of blogs. Congratulations to all of our regulars contributors and weekend bloggers. We have previously taken the top spot under the opinion category in the past but the ABA has now eliminated that category. Even more ominous was the decision to put the largest blogs in direct competition under an expanded “News/Analysis” category. This includes the long dominant “Above the Law” site. We would have to punch considerably above our weight to beat “Above the Law,” which is ranking regularly in the top two most visited legal sites in the world. Frankly, it is like a dingy going up against a battleship. However, we have never flinched in the face of superior numbers. So it is time to vote! It takes a very quick registration. Just click here and cast your vote today!

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Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. This is my favorite holiday with all of the essential elements of joy: food, friends, and football. (more…)

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Below is my column today in USA Today on some of the state referendum votes last week. While the presidential election was understandably the focus of media commentary, state referendum votes held some surprises. At a time when a majority of citizens view our political system as dysfunctional and unresponsive, these referendums show that citizens can still take direct action in seeking change. Here is the column:
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Here is my column today in USA Today calling on the Olympic committee to consider an overhaul of Olympic rules to update procedures and remove archaic and discriminatory rules. While some may treat this as a call for a new Olympic legal team, it is merely an effort to get the Olympic to guarantee greater fairness with a systemic review of the rules for various sports. What bothers me is to see avoidable mistakes treated like just part of the games, even though they do great injustice to athletes who sacrificed so much to get to these cameras.

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There are news reports that Anthony Weiner has contacted former staffers to ask them to come back to work for him as he prepares to run again for office, including a possible run for mayor of New York or public advocate. Weiner left office after repeatedly lying to his constituents, colleagues, and the media about sending nude pictures of himself to women and accusing people of hacking into this phone. Women stated that they felt harassed by the photos that were sent without their solicitation or consent.

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Below is today’s column in USA Today on the health care decision. Though I support President Obama’s effort to establish health care, I have always opposed the individual mandate as a violation of federalism principles. What is fascinating is how some challengers have heralded yesterday’s decision as a victory of federalism. As shown below, I do not take that view.

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Below is my column in today’s Guardian newspaper — a further discussion of my proposal to expand the Supreme Court. While overlapping a bit with the column on Sunday in the Washington Post, the piece adds a few new details on the proposal that I first made over ten years ago.

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Below is today’s column in The Washington Post Sunday Outlook. Due to the normal space restraints, the original article had to be cut down. Given the high number of comments and questions about the proposal (which I first made years ago) for the expansion of the Supreme Court, I have posted the longer, original piece. That longer version addresses some of the questions raised by readers.

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It could all be in the hands of just one justice. After a 14-month fight in Congress and an unprecedented challenge by states to the power of the federal government, the fate of health care in this country is likely to be decided by a 5-4 vote.

The same may be true when the court rules on Arizona’s immigration law and a sweeping free speech case.

As speculation and anxiety grow over these cases, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently alluded in a speech to “sharp disagreement” in the Supreme Court’s outstanding opinions, while saying that “those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.”

It’s not terribly productive to try to guess how the court will rule in these cases — we’ll find out soon enough. It’s far more important to ask whether “those who know” are too few and whether “those who don’t know” should demand to reform the court.

The power of the Supreme Court will always be controversial because of the fact that the justices are the final word in legal disputes. Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1953, “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” An individual’s view of the court can depend on whose ox is being gored by its decisions; a “judicial activist” is often just a jurist who doesn’t do what you want. Any Supreme Court of any size will always render unpopular decisions. It is supposed to. Federal judges are given life tenure to insulate them from public opinion, so they can protect minority interests and basic liberties.

But how many people should it take to come up with the final word on such questions? Our highest court is so small that the views of individual justices have a distorting and idiosyncratic effect on our laws. The deep respect for the Supreme Court as an institution often blinds us to its flaws, the greatest of which is that it is demonstrably too small. Nine members is one of the worst numbers you could pick — and it’s certainly not what the founders chose. The Constitution does not specify the number of justices, and the court’s size has fluctuated through the years. It’s time for it to change again.

A national poll this month showed that the public overwhelmingly opposes how the court functions. Only 44 percent of citizens approved of how the court is doing its job, and 60 percent thought that appointing Supreme Court justices for life is a “bad thing” because it “gives them too much power.”

Many people started looking critically at the court’s structure after the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 — and the power that case gave to just five unelected individuals. One of the most disturbing aspects of the case was not simply that some justices appeared to depart from prior legal views but that the court insisted that its opinion could not be used as precedent and was “limited to the present circumstances.” Five justices did not want their reasoning used for anything other than selecting the next president of the United States.

The health-care decision comes 75 years after the famous “court packing” effort of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As it is today, the country in 1937 was in the midst of an economic crisis, and Roosevelt was saddled with four conservative justices — known as the “Four Horsemen” — who opposed his New Deal. Three justices, called the “Three Musketeers,” were predictably liberal but could not carry the day against the Four Horsemen and Associate Justice Owen Roberts, who was often a swing vote.

Roosevelt decided to introduce a bill to allow him to appoint up to six additional justices. This could have led to a real crisis. But disaster was averted when Roberts voted to support a critical New Deal case and “Horseman” Justice Willis Van Devanter retired — the “switch in time that saved nine” moment for the court. However, Roosevelt may have had the right idea for the wrong reason.

The nine-member court is a product not of some profound debate or study, but pure happenstance. The first Supreme Court had an even more ill-conceived number of justices: six. In fact, when the court first convened in 1790 at the Royal Exchange Building in New York, only two justices were present (fortunately, it had no cases on its docket). After that time, the size of the court expanded and shrank, largely with the number of federal circuits. Since justices once “rode circuit” and sat as judges in lower courts, Congress would add a justice when it added a circuit or reduce the number with the elimination of a circuit. Thus, when a 10th circuit was added in 1863, a 10th justice was added. In 1869, the court happened to have nine members for nine circuits. And that is where its size settled.

Justices detested riding circuit and persuaded Congress to end the practice in 1869. The court remained at nine members despite the fact that some federal courts of appeal now have as many as 29 judges. Ever since, we have repeatedly had 5-4 split decisions, with one or two swing justices dictating the outcome of cases. With the increasing longevity of justices, such divisions have become stagnant and bitter. Before Justice Anthony Kennedy was the primary swing vote, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was often the deciding vote and for years shaped the law according to her shifting views on subjects from the death penalty to privacy.

Some proposed Supreme Court reforms seek to break justices’ hold by rotating these positions among federal judges, while others call for mandatory retirement dates. But I believe that many of the court’s problems come back to its dysfunctionally small size. This is something that countries with larger high courts manage to avoid: Germany (16 members), Japan (15), United Kingdom (12) and Israel (15). France uses 124 judges and deputy judges, while Spain has 74. These systems have structural differences, but they eliminate the concentration-of-power problem that we have in the United States.

While the best number is debatable, I believe that a 19-member court — roughly the average size of a circuit court — would be ideal. Just because we settled on the number 9 arbitrarily does not mean that any number is as good as any other. A court with 19 or so members have been shown to work efficiently where a larger court would likely be unwieldy. Appellate circuits are often divided between liberal and conservative judges. Yet, it is rare that one or two of those judges consistently provide the swing votes on all issues when they sit “en banc,” or as a whole. Appellate courts of this size have proved to be manageable while allowing for more diversity in their members. More important, the power of individual judges is diluted.

The exaggerated power of each justice has also undermined the confirmation process. That, too, would improve with a larger bench. Because there are now so few positions, confirmation fights have become increasingly bitter, and presidents have become increasingly risk-averse in their nominations. Jurists are often selected because they have never said or written anything remotely provocative or even interesting. Many are chosen precisely because they are relative unknowns — such as O’Connor, David Souter, Clarence Thomas and most recently Elena Kagan. Bypassing clear intellectual leaders in courts, the bar and academia, modern nominees are picked as a type of judicial blind date. The chances that we could have a legal virtuoso such as Louis Brandeis or Joseph Story on the court in the current system are at best accidental.

How would we get to a court of 19? Gradually. If Congress ordered such an expansion, no president would be allowed to appoint more than two additional justices in a term. Once fully staffed, the court would have a more regular natural turnover. This would allow greater variety and a more consistent opportunity for each president to name members to the bench. It would also decrease the importance of individual justices hewing so closely to party lines — potentially allowing nominees with broader experience and ideas.

An expansion might also allow Congress to force justices to return to the worthwhile practice of sitting on lower courts for periods of time. One of the greatest complaints from lawyers and judges is that the justices are out of touch with the reality of legal practice. Having a 19-member court would allow two justices to sit on an appellate court each year by designation — and be forced to apply the rulings that the Supreme Court sends down.

We treat institutions such as the Supreme Court as inviolate. However, the framers not only gave us a brilliant system of government but the ability to improve it to better meet contemporary demands. The respect that most of us hold for the court should motivate us, not deter us, from reforming it. Just as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham called for “the greatest good for the greatest number,” sometimes the greatest good can be found in the greater number. When it comes to the Supreme Court, that number may be 19.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University, where he teaches a course on the Supreme Court.

Washington Post Sunday June 24, 2012

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The Washington Post has posted my column for Sunday on expanding the Supreme Court. Due to space limitations, the original piece had to be cut back significantly, so below is the longer column. I will post the actual column on Sunday.

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Below is today’s column on the continued use of state controls over alcohol in the United States. With the decision this month of Washington state to embrace the free market system and drop controls, citizens in other states are rightfully asking why officials keep this form of central planning, including officials in conservative states that purportedly favor free enterprise over government regulations.

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Below is today’s column in the USA Today on the arguments this week in the immigration case, Arizona v. United States. (Docket No., 11-182). At issue is Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (S.B. 1070) directing state law-enforcement officers to cooperate and communicate with federal officials regarding the enforcement of federal immigration law. Beyond the difficult constitutional and statutory questions in the case, there is another element to the case that could come within months of the 12th anniversary of Bush v. Gore

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Submitted by: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

At this point, to be honest, all of the back and forth regarding “evidence” in the Zimmerman Case that has occurred here over a number of threads has been mere speculation that misses the salient issues raised by this case. The real (admissible) evidence will be presented at the trial and a hopefully an unbiased jury will make its decisions. The issues that we need to discuss from my perspective are:

1. Did the Sanford Police make a mistake in releasing Zimmerman rather quickly and allowing him to retain his gun, which was potential evidence?

2. Was there undue outside influence used upon the police to end their investigation quickly?

 3. Is there a degree of probability that in many Stand Your Ground venues, had the victim been white and the protagonist of color, that the protagonist would have been immediately arrested?

4. What are the purposes of a business oriented lobbying group, like ALEC, in getting “Stand Your Ground” Laws passed?

5. Is this once again an instance where a media circus has poisoned the ability to have a fair trial? (more…)

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Below is my column this morning in The Los Angeles Times on the increasing number of cases where teachers are punished for comments or activities in their private lives — often under nebulous disruption or moral turpitude grounds. While the recent case of a teacher moonlighting as a porn star in California raises understandable concerns for school officials, most of these cases involve either past conduct or clearly protected speech. This is part of a broader number of cases that we have been following dealing with public employees ranging from city managers to police officers to firefighters. The question is how much our public employees must confirm their political and social activities to satisfy members of the public.

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Below is today’s column in The Los Angeles Times exploring the growing attacks on free speech in the West and the recent controversy of the “Zombie Mohammad” case.
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Below is today’s column in Foreign Policy magazine on Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech at Northwestern University Law School. UPDATE: FBI Director declines to answer whether the new doctrine allows the killing of citizens in the United States.

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Below is today’s column on the trial of George Huguely for the murder of Yeardley Love (shown left).

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Below is my column today in the Washington Post (Sunday) Outlook Section. The column concerns the Alvarez case to be heard on Wednesday before the Supreme Court. I have been a long critic of the Stolen Valor Act — not because I am not highly sympathetic to its purpose but because I am concerned about the means of achieving that purpose. I share the anger over people who falsely claim to be war heroes. However, the government often selects popular causes for expanding its power over speech or conduct of its citizens. The question before the Court is really not about this specific form of lying, but the legal basis for criminalizing lies generally. The Act is different in that it seeks to criminalize lies simply because they are lies as opposed to lies that are used to commit a specific crime like larceny or fraud or perjury. I also spoke to NPR on Talk To The Nation on this subject.
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Below is today’s column, which concerns the subject upon which I will be testifying this morning before the full House Judiciary Committee: recess appointments.

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Below is today’s column in the Sunday Washington Post.  The column addresses how the continued rollbacks on civil liberties in the United States conflicts with the view of the country as the land of the free.  If we are going to adopt Chinese legal principles, we should at least have the integrity to adopt one Chinese proverb: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”  We seem as a country to be in denial as to the implications of these laws and policies.  Whether we are viewed as a free country with authoritarian inclinations or an authoritarian nation with free aspirations (or some other hybrid definition), we are clearly not what we once were. [Update: in addition to the column below, a later column in the Washington Post explores more closely the loss of free speech rights in the West].
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Best wishes to everyone celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah. (more…)

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Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

It’s Christmastime again and since my childhood, long ago, the Frank Capra film “It’s A Wonderful Life” has been shown time and again in this season, providing a message of redemption, hope and joy that we associate with this time of year. You all know the plot about selfless George Bailey (James Stewart) a man who has sacrificed his dreams for others and because of his selflessness winds up running the Bailey Building and Loan Association, of Bedford Falls, NY. Because of George this institution has provided home loans for the poor of this rural community and serves as its bank. With the Company on the verge of bankruptcy, through duplicity, George is on the verge of suicide distraught over the losses to those he loves and worried by needs of the average people of his town. You all know this plot and if you don’t its summary is here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_a_Wonderful_Life#Plot . I must warn you, perhaps it’s the time of year but I choked up reading the plot, yet again, as I do every time I see this beloved movie.

This introduction has not been made because I’m about to write about banks, or the depredations of the banking industry. Others here and our host have already written extensively on the predatory nature of the banking industry and the harm it has caused to our country. My point of this opening is that we have all grown up with certain mythologies about businesses that provide financial services to the public. This film has had a place in defining that American mythology, in this instance about a bank of sorts, whose leader believes in aiding the community first and profits second. Myths shape our thinking and from my youth I still remember the ad slogan “You have a friend at Chase Manhattan”.

We’ve discovered that banks are anything but our friends. Their bottom line has surpassed service to the point that each customer is looked at as a “cash cow”, to be plundered incessantly with usurious interest and fees for what should be free services. But what about “You’re in Good Hands with Allstate”, “Nationwide Is On Your Side”, or “Like A Good Neighbor State Farm is There”?  Surely the Insurance industry supplies the safety net we want for our homes and cars. Do they? Last week I was sent an article by the Independent Claims Adjuster handling my interminable case for mold damage to my home. He’s helping greatly so this isn’t about me, but the article he sent certainly puts into context all the delays in the process and how property insurance companies are maximizing their profits at the expense of their customers. (more…)

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Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

Sometimes a story comes around that writes itself and merely needs highlighting of certain facts to make its points. This link below will provide concrete data on why this country has become a corrupted corporatist state, along with why the federal budget deficit is so high. Its title is “For Hire: Lobbyists or the 99%? How Corporations Pay More for Lobbyists Than in Taxes”

http://publicampaign.org/sites/default/files/ReportTaxDodgerLobbyingDec6.pdf

What this document clearly shows, with highly readable charts is that 30 of the top US Corporations not only pay more for lobbying than in taxes, but in fact that they receive huge tax credits, although being highly profitable. Over a three year period 2008-2010 these companies had combined profits of $163.691 billion, received tax credits of $10.602 billion and spent $475.67 million on lobbying. Only one of these companies, FedEx, actually paid taxes. They paid $37 million in taxes, on a profit of $4.247 billion and spent $50.81 million for lobbying. As you might guess the most glaring example was General Electric whose profits were $10.460 billion, received tax credits of $4.737 billion and who spent $84.35 million in lobbying.

I could certainly provide you with commentary on this report, but the starkly written manner of the report and the easily read charts do a far better job of explanation, than would my rhetoric. The next time someone comments on the “theft” that is taxes and the need to defend the 1% and their corporations from government intrusion show them this. If they defend the inequity shown here then you will know they are either part of the 1%, brain-washed or brain dead. It isn’t of course that many of us haven’t known the state of things, or these facts, we have discussed them here repeatedly. Nevertheless, each time the message of the destruction of our Constitution, our America and our people in the service of greed and ego is shown to me, my blood boils. Please check out the link and share your thoughts.

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Submitted by Mike Spindell, guest blogger                                      

“Ian Fletcher is Senior Economist of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, nationwide  grass-roots organization dedicated to fixing America’s trade policies and comprising representatives from business, agriculture, and labor.” http://www.prosperousamerica.org/2011/02/23/ian_fletcher/

Mr. Fletcher wrote an article in HuffPost this week titled Why Is the American Left So Ineffective in Economics?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ian-fletcher/why-is-the-american-left-_b_1142615.html?ref=politics&ir=Politics . On my first reading of this article, I sped through it cursorily, with general agreement and approval, book marking the link for further reference. As the day went on the article remained stuck in the back of my mind, for there was something about it that disturbed me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. I looked up Mr. Fletcher’s credentials and they seemed good and certainly not one of being a Corporatist economist. The Coalition for a Prosperous America appears a worthwhile middle-of-road organization, whose supporters include labor unions, as well as medium and small businesses. They look askance at current US trade policies and that is a view with which I agree. Mr. Fletcher has a book titled: “Free Trade Doesn’t Work” http://www.freetradedoesntwork.com/  which people I respect like Fritz Hollings and Thom Hartmann have praised. In it he discusses how there is a free-trade hegemony of both Democrats and Republicans representing the Washington establishment and marginalizing all the voices who disagree with free trade policies. This hegemony is what I describe as the Feudalist Corporatocracy. This is a man with who I’m in general agreement, why then my discomfort with his thesis in this article?

This article opens up with the following paragraph: “Anyone who’s still in a state of denial about the thesis implied by the title of this article can stop reading right here. I’ll just assume it’s obvious enough that we can take it as a given.” He’s right, the thesis implied in the title is indisputable. The Left has been ineffective in combatting the economic policies started by Ronald Reagan’s election and has been in constant retreat from the onslaught of right-wing economic policies. This has been true to such an extent that Bill Clinton reaffirmed Alan Greenspan as the head of The Federal Reserve and Barack Obama reaffirmed  G.W. Bush’s choice of Ben Bernake. Both of these men are little more than philosophical minions/co-dependents of Wall Street and the Big Banks. Where I take issue with Mr. Fletcher is in why he believes the Left’s economic weakness has come about. To me his view of the origins of this Left Wing retreat is shortsighted and ignores the 800 pound gorilla in the room. If we don’t understand the causes of problems we face, then no matter how prescient the analysis of their nature, we are almost powerless to combat them. Since the article in question is rather brief, I’m going to dispute it point by point.   (more…)

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Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.

During the Cold War a phrase “The Enemy Within” became popular. It was a reference at first to Communist subversion exemplified by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt.  Later it was used with other issues such as in Robert F. Kennedy’s book “The Enemy Within” which dealt with corruption in the Labor Movement, specifically Jimmy Hoffa and his teamsters. Recently, Michael Savage, right wing talk show host, wrote a book using that same title, though in this case referring to liberals and progressives as being seditious. The connotation of this phrase is that the group so labeled represents an internal movement that is so dangerous to the interests of the United States, that it can be seen as subversive.

Some may be shocked then by the title of this post. Almost all of us have grown up thinking of the Chamber of Commerce as a uniquely American Institution. Throughout the US whether in cities or in hamlets, the business community has banded together to promote local commerce and build interrelated networks. When we think of this, we think mainly of local small businesses, which are the backbone of this nation’s economy. To be honest until this week I’ve never give much thought to the Chamber of Commerce until as a MoveOn.com member I received a petition from an affiliated new organization called SumOfUs.

SumOfUs is a brand-new global movement of consumers, investors and workers using our collective economic power for good. Together, we will work to hold the world’s corporations accountable to the public interest and move our global economic system towards social equity, democratic principles, and long-term sustainability.” http://googlequitthechamber.org/about/

The purpose of the petition was to get Google to follow the lead of other large corporations and quit the US Chamber of Commerce. The petition made various claims regarding the US Chamber of Commerce which I’ll deal with in this post.

However, I wouldn’t present this post without doing some research on the “Chamber” and its’ activity to look into the validity of the claims being made by the SumOfUs organization. In doing this research I came to realize that in my opinion the United States Chamber of Commerce is an organization that does not act in the best interests of this country and that one can call it subversive, even though it is not treasonous. These are my reasons for this belief. (more…)

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Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

The National Review was founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley, Jr. It defined its’ purpose in a statement of intentions:

“Middle-of-the-Road, qua Middle of the Road, is politically, intellectually, and morally repugnant. We shall recommend policies for the simple reason that we consider them right (rather than “non-controversial”); and we consider them right because they are based on principles we deem right (rather than on popularity polls)…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Review

Bill Buckley, the son of an oil baron, was born to wealth and privilege. He was a lieutenant in the Army from 1943 until 1945 when he entered Yale and became a member of Skull and Bones, along with future President George H.W. Bush. In 1953 Buckley became prominent for his book “God and Man at Yale”. So when he founded the National Review he was already prominent in Conservative circles. Oh yes, it should be mentioned he was a CIA field agent under E. Howard Hunt, from 1951 through 1953.

“George H. Nash, a historian of the modern American conservative movement, believed that Buckley was “arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century… For an entire generation, he was the preeminent voice of American conservatism and its first great ecumenical figure.”[6] Buckley’s primary contribution to politics was a fusion of traditional American  political conservatism with laissez-faire economic theory and anti-communism, laying groundwork for the new American conservatism of U.S. presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and President Ronald Reagan“. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_F._Buckley,_Jr.

Whether you like the National Review or not, you must admit that it is the single most important magazine of the Conservative movement in America and has been so since its’ founding. As you can see from their mission statement above they claim to eschew popularity and polls, serving higher priciples. I was therefore interested to come across a story this week that calls into question their true dedication to higher principles, or perhaps one of their principles is merely naked greed. (more…)

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Submitted by Mike Spindell, guest blogger

Andy Warhol, said in 1968 that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Forty-Three years later the remark has become ubiquitously prescient. The world is awash in a celebrity culture and America is at the acme of this “culture”. From one perspective this is merely the harmless fluff that people use in order to distract themselves from the depressing things their lives have offered. It is the triumph of “kitsch” over substance in the business of being famous. This has been true throughout mankind’s history. The lives and activities of the powerful have been followed by the masses with avid interest and have been the fodder of discussion around what served as the ancient’s water coolers, perhaps the public wells. Without a doubt in ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh’s comings and goings were constant conversational topics. Today, in a much different context, the American multitudes avidly follow the lives of the powerful, rich and famous, via innumerable outlets including Facebook and Twitter.

The question I’m broaching here is if this is a historic human trait, are there negative aspects of it that threaten the functioning and stability of our society? My own answer is that I’m not sure one way or another, but I am concerned about what I see all around me and perhaps would like the writers here to talk me down, so to speak. Now one might rightly ask what does this have to do with the law and the other topics we treat here on a daily basis. Only this week we have had news bulletins and stories about the sentencing of Michael Jackson’s doctor to four years in prison. On that same day no doubt there were dozens of news stories that had greater effect on our lives, yet every network paid much attention to it on their nightly news. At the risk of offending Michael Jackson fans, the death of this once famous “Pop Star”, self titled “King of Pop” if you will, was hardly worth the attention paid to it, when issues of economic collapse, wars, revolutions, genocides and famines raged throughout the media frenzy. Yet, I must say that the media knew their audience and this story catered to that audience. I understand the need for, and I myself have need of distraction from the woes of the world, so it is not as if I hold myself apart from the indulgence. Frequently instances of self loathing come to the fore as I slavishly behold the spectacle that our media creates for us surrounding people and issues that embarrass our attention, as they play out before our wide-eyed gazes. (more…)

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Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

America has the world’s highest rate of incarceration, currently 738 per 100,000. Our nearest competitor for this dubious distinction is the Russian Federation with 607 and Cuba with 487. “The US incarcerates at a rate 4 to 7 times higher than other western nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany and up to 32 times higher than nations with the lowest rates such as Nepal, Nigeria, and India.”

 http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/pubs/2006nov_factsheet_incarceration.pdf                                                                                                                                           Despite possible protestations that this is because we have the best law enforcement, my sense is that the reasons lie more in the system, than those who enforce it. No one ever lost an election in America because of the perception they “were tough on crime”.

“Race: Black males continue to be incarcerated at an extraordinary rate. Black males make up 35.4 percent of the jail and prison population — even though they make up less than 10 percent of the overall U.S population. Four percent of U.S. black males were in jail or prison last year, compared to 1.7 percent of Hispanic males and .7 percent of white males. In other words, black males were locked up at almost six times the rate of their white counterparts.”        http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/pubs/2006nov_factsheet_incarceration.pdf

Despite possible protestations that this is because we have the best law enforcement, my sense is that the reasons lie more in the system, than those who enforce it. No one ever lost an election in America because of the perception they “were tough on crime”. “Race: Black males continue to be incarcerated at an extraordinary rate. Black males make up 35.4 percent of the jail and prison population — even though they make up less than 10 percent of the overall U.S population. Four percent of U.S. black males were in jail or prison last year, compared to 1.7 percent of Hispanic males and .7 percent of white males. In other words, black males were locked up at almost six times the rate of their white counterparts.”      

http://www.laprogressive.com/law-and-the-justice-system/boiling-hot-mad/.html

These two sets of statistics when viewed together tell a terrible tale of how racial oppression still exists in this country despite our Black President and Black Attorney General. This Administration hasn’t caused of this problem, but they  don’t seem to have made any progress dealing with it. We do know that there has been a widespread effort to play down the racial division that continues to plague this country. This continues despite Civil Rights Laws, Martin Luther King’s Birthday and TV beer commercials that always include at least one black male friend enjoying the camaraderie. Clearly there is a disconnect between how we Americans want to see ourselves and the reality for many Black males. (more…)

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Submitted by Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger
Last week during a long road trip, I was listening to a CD from the band The Eagles. A song came on written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey the group’s songwriters and leaders. The song is called “Get Over It”. As the autumn beautiful Shenandoah Valley landscape was passing by, a line from the song jarred me from my motoring reverie and made me think of this blog. The line was:

“The more I think about it, Old Billy was right
Let’s kill all the lawyers, kill ‘em tonight.”
(more…)

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