Sunday, June 29, 2008

Brief overview of this year's major SCOTUS rulings

This month sees the conclusion of the Supreme Court's docket of the 2007-08 term (known as Volume 554... how did that number come to be by the by, if there's only been about 216 years or so of rulings?). Here's some of the highlights:

1) District of Columbia v. Heller - one of the last ones issued, and boy it's a bigg'un. The ruling directly involved the most contentious amendment in the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment. There's been arguments over comma placement for over a century, and now we know exactly what the rules of grammar are. Oh wait, actually the fighting was over whether or not the amendment granted citizens the right to own firearms (AK-47s for EVERYBODY!) or if the amendment allowed firearms under state-regulated militias (Gun Control! No Uzi For You!).
Heller goes with the right to own firearms, specifically handguns, under the common law right of self-defense. The ruling specifically ended an attempt by the District to ban handguns altogether from the district, and also struck down similar laws in other cities/states. However, do note that Heller doesn't grant free and easy ownership of every possible firearm: The Court decision "should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms." This does mean government can impose gun ownership restrictions where a need for public safety is obvious: preventing felons from owning guns means common sense stuff like background checks remain on the books. The Court also allowed for separate considerations for firearms, leaving handguns allowable for self-defense while putting machine guns (and other 'offense-type' weapons) on a more restricted level.
The immediate implication is that gun ownership as a right is now defined and (relatively) unshakable: it'll take another SCOTUS ruling to undo it, and the Court rarely overturns itself (it only does so over obviously stupid moves, such as Dred Scott or Plessy or Betts v Brady). Scalia's ruling doesn't have any holes to it, so overturning it would take tons of political will. Heller didn't completely close the door on the argument, so we can see more cases on gun rights heading to the courts. The political implication is that the pro-gun politicians and the Republican Party (with it's pro-gun stance) won a big victory... and possibly lost the coming election, as it means the GOP can't use the boogeyman argument of "OOOO the Democrats are gonna take your guns from ye" to keep the NRA crowd interested.

2) Kennedy v Louisiana - the case involved the Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, that it was cruel to apply the death penalty to child rapists.
Talk about a third rail. This one touched child rape AND the death penalty. The immediate reaction to the court's ruling - that Louisiana's law was unconstitutional - was swift and condemning. C'mon, we're talking about punishing child rapists! These are the guys who have a special Hell waiting for them. How else could you argue against them getting the electric chair?
By pointing out what the Court pointed out: that the law was unbalanced in punishing only one set of rapists, and by applying a punishment (death) reserved for capital cases (murder). The only way for a law imposing the death penalty on child rapists could be upheld was if they applied the death penalty to all rapists across the board. That noise you just heard was all the guys with the date rape pills gasping in horror. So then the question becomes: does the crime of rape deserve the punishment of death? Personally, I'm all for it. Not because the death penalty would act as a deterrent (it never does), but because it would remove a dangerous portion of the population from threatening innocent lives (rapists tend to leave multiple victims in their wake, and there's little evidence that rapists can be 'cured' of their... habits). the fact that some rape cases are not cut and dried or easy to prove guilt... the problems we have now of applying the death penalty in cases where the perp turns out to be innocent would get worse.

3) Exxon Shipping v Baker - basically the case where Exxon weaseled their way out of paying a $2.5 billion fine for the Valdez oil spill disaster. They now have to pay a $500 million fine instead. Considering they can make that much money in a day, without even trying, doesn't make it much of a penalty... The case does have potential impact on future lawsuits with punitive damages involved: the ruling that punitive damages be one-on-one to compensatory damages could crimp any attempt at punishing corporate criminal behavior.

4) Boumediene v Bush - the Habeus case. The ruling basically ruled unconstitutional a Military Commissions Act (MCA) that had been put in place during the War on Terror to keep suspected 'unlawful combatants' aka 'people we label terrorists' detained indefinitely without even charging them with any crime. It didn't free them: it meant they could now challenge their detention in court. But don't be surprised if the Bush admin keeps finding new ways to keep these guys detained without ever answering any call to present their case.
Boumediene deserves attention because the ruling cheesed off a lot of far right neocons who feared it will free a bunch of "dangerous and irredeemable" terrorists... almost half of whom have been proven even by our own government to be innocent (because we grabbed the wrong guys, or because we had people turning over their rivals in local tribal arguments for the reward bounties). Because we'd denied them Habeus they couldn't prove a damn thing, and have been held (and based on a lot of solid reports also have been tortured) over the past 6 years. And still the neocons are horrified... and are swearing they'll amend the Constitution itself to restrict and limit Habeus rights. Yup. They're threatening the one key legal right in the whole of Anglo-American law since the Magna Carta. Which begs the question: whose side are the neocons really on...?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Do we really need a Vice President?

With the primary cycle finished, the next phase of the prolonged Year of Election struggle to Teh White House is the selection of a co-campaigner by the two major nominees. We now await McCain and Obama to select their running mates to serve as their Vice President.

Originally, the Vice President was meant to be the runner-up, the second-most popular guy in school kinda booby prize. But this was before the Founders realized that we would form parties similar to the British electoral system, and well before they realized the Electoral College voting system could get screwed up without defining who was up for President and who was up for Veep.

Before this election cycle, I never really gave the Vice President selection process any deep thought. It was just one guy running for President selecting a backup guy to team with him and 'balance the ticket', in terms of party ideology and regional representation (President and Vice President, by law, cannot come from the same state, which is why Dick Cheney pretends he's from Wyoming). But this election cycle, after the last eight years, I'm seriously looking at how the VP process is working out. And I'm seriously arguing that, as of right now, we don't need a Vice President anymore.

Okay, we all know the duties of the Vice President are to 1) wait around for the President to resign or kick the bucket so the Veep can take over, 2) cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate if need be, and 3) protect the spacetime continuum. But the real purpose of the Vice President evolved from the political need of retaining party unity. Parties have their factions, and even with a majority faction getting their Dawg to the nomination for Prez the minority faction(s) need a bone tossed their way lest they bolt the party and vote elsewhere. Hence, Chester A. Arthur (Stalwart) balancing with Garfield (Half-Breed reformer), Teddy Roosevelt (Progressive) balancing out McKinley (pro-business), Walter Mondale (pro-labor) balancing with Jimmy Carter (pro-house building). But the flip-side problem to this was that the Vice President candidate couldn't outshine the Presidential candidate, meaning real colorless or real clueless types got dragged into the equations. Or that sometimes a Veep got added to a ticket that honestly couldn't stand the guy and ended up shipping him off to the wastelands (or worse, to foreign dignitaries' funerals), meaning the VP wasn't really part of any administration.

Historically, Vice Presidents meant so little outside of ticket balance. Few Presidents involved them in any ongoing projects within their administrations. A lot of that was because of the rise of the Cabinet: the Constitution allowed for 'advisors' to the President and from that arose the various Secretaries of departments such as State (foreign affairs), War (duh), Navy (sailing to war), Treasury (money!), Attorney General (lawsuits), and additional offices as the needs progressed. VPs were not included in that setup since their duties to the Senate could interfere, but also because early on the Presidents didn't want to hear from their Veeps that often. As a result, Vice Presidents did little. The office was pretty much where political careers went to die. Teddy Roosevelt once sent a noisy chandelier to his VP's office so it would keep him awake. The only times they ever mattered were when Presidents died. And even then, most of them found themselves alienated by their own parties because their ideologies conflicted with whatever majority remained in power (SEE John Tyler and Andrew Johnson). Few Vice Presidents distinguished themselves until Roosevelt did in the 1900s, and that was by sheer force of will on his part.

The Twentieth Century was pretty much when Vice Presidents became more important, or at least more noticeable. A lot of it had to do with the U.S.'s growing international role, especially regarding wartime. Legend had it Truman was added to the ticket in 1944 because FDR's frail health threatened to allow his then-VP Henry Wallace to perhaps succeed him and party leaders feared his pro-communist leanings. Post-WWII world politics quickly formed a new Cold War, and now all of a sudden who the Vice President was meant a lot more. The need to quickly establish a chain of succession in the face of nuclear attack meant the Vice President got invited to a few more meetings at the Oval Office than before. It also led to the 25th Amendment, which codified the Presidential succession, made the VP slot more important than ever before. Subsequent Vice Presidential candidates now had to appear qualified to lead this nation in case of catastrophe.

You'd think with everything I'd just pointed out in the last paragraph that I've just disproved my own argument against having a Vice President anymore. Well, the thing is, I've got to set up the opposing argument so I can knock it down. :-) You see, while in theory it's necessary to qualify the Vice President to be fit for office, in practice it's been more headache than anything else.

For example, the first true administration that had to deal with the 25th Amendment was Nixon's in 1968. That had Spiro Agnew as his Vice President. His qualification for the office was that he wasn't Nelson Rockefeller. His replacement was Gerald Ford in 1973, and his qualification was that he wasn't Richard Nixon. It wasn't until Mondale under Carter's administration that a VP had an office at the White House, and under Reagan Bush the Elder found things to do (although not many people would testify much about that). But otherwise those two did okay as Veeps that could, if called upon, to step up to the plate and lead.

And then Bush nominated Dan Quayle to be his Veep in 1988. I'm sorry, but... There's a Bloom County strip where they try to force Bill the Cat to sweat, and they shout "President Quayle!" at him, and of course the damn cat sweats his ass off. That's the best way I can describe this to you. Actually, there's a better way I can describe this: just take one look at George W. Bush's entire administration and picture Quayle instead of Dubya sitting there in the Oval Office. I still think Clinton won out in 1992 because he could point to his choice Al Gore and say "I chose smarter." Well, that and the fact that the anti-tax crowd abandoned Bush the Elder, but still...

The thing that has really turned me against the whole idea of there being a Vice President has been Dick Cheney's role in the Dubya administration. To be honest, has any previous Veep have this kind of control inside of a President's administration before? Worse, Cheney has used his position to hide his activities behind the President's aegis. For a time, he even argued that the Vice President's unique position of serving between the White House (as VP) and Congress (as Senate President) meant he didn't have to answer to either branch: Cheney only backed down when Congress called his bluff and threatened to de-fund his office. And even now, he still refuses to answer to anyone regarding his role in various scandals (refusal to disclose meetings with energy business leaders, the Plame incident, Torture memos, his ties to businesses involved with the Iraqi occupation, stuff like that). Under normal circumstances, his ass would have been impeached years ago. Or if Dubya had any balls ('cause if it was me, and I had an underling saying he didn't answer to anybody... I'd have called that idiot before me and said "Dude. You answer to me. You're fired."), or a sense of being his own man, he'd have reined that Dick in.

When Cheney pulled that "Vice President as a Fourth Branch" BS, I seriously wondered "do we need that job anymore?" And the more I thought about it, the more I realize we really don't need a Vice President anymore.

For one thing, the 25th amendment that established a chain of succession to the Presidency now allows others to fill the role of successor (House Speaker, Senate Pro Tempore, then the Cabinet Secretaries). You can take the VP out of that equation and nothing major would be wrong: the House Speaker may still be from an opposing party, but the Speaker is still a major elected official heading a majority party in the House so it's not as though a vastly unpopular person would take over in case of emergency. And also, if there were an attack that would have gotten both the President and the Speaker (usually at the State of the Union address), it would get the Vice President anyway since he's got to attend as well to represent the Senate. There will still be a designated survivor sitting somewhere safe and ready to go under the 25th.

As pointed out earlier, there wasn't a need for a Vice President for political input anyway: the President had the Cabinet Secretaries for that. The only reason VPs became more important during the 20th Century was due to the Cold War and the need for rapid response in the face of nuclear war with the Commies. But the fall of the Soviet Union, and the increasing odds that the major powers WON'T go to war (even war with China is unlikely, even over something like Taiwan isn't worth it), has lessened the role of the Veep as a Cold War Warrior-to-be.

The other thing Vice Presidents had as value were as ticket balancers for election campaigns. But let's face it, why bother? If someone won the nomination for the Presidency from his/her party, it was because a majority of party members liked their chances to win the office. If the minority faction, usually the more extreme elements of said party, have a problem with it they have nowhere really to go. Just look at the 1948 election: Truman's Democratic Party splintered into THREE factions that year, in the face of a relatively unified Republican campaign... and Truman still won, even with the Dixiecrats pulling Southern states away from him. You could blame the GOP for not running an effective campaign, but let's consider that the Dem factions were smaller in number and power than they thought they were. Truman was able to appeal to a broader base of voters than they could.

Another thing the extremist factions need to consider is that if they flee to a third party, much in the way Far Leftists fled to Nader for the 2000 election, it's not going to win you the White House, it may in fact hurt your original party's candidate instead and put into the Presidency a guy you would hate even more. To the Far Right people groaning about McCain, thinking you can flee to someone else come Convention time, and to the Clintonites groaning about Obama, thinking that your Holiest of Holies Hillary "deserved" the nomination, shut up. You go running elsewhere and you'll guarantee the other guy wins it.

So why even bother placating the extremists in either party with a Vice Presidency nomination? Answer: you don't need to. Your party has a candidate for President: NOW RUN! If I went to McCain and Obama and told them they didn't need to worry over a vetting process to select a running mate, and that they could run their own campaign for the Presidency without having to worry about the clueless hacks they'd otherwise put on their tickets, they'd both gladly run off to their next thousand-dollar dinner fund-raisers and never look back.

To be honest, the only sticking point about getting rid of the office of the Vice President is over the one true duty that office entails: the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Given the structure of the place (2 Senators per state) means an even count of Senators no matter what: the odds are there that ties can happen. However, there is a solution, albeit convoluted: get a Secretary from the Cabinet to serve as Senate President and perform the tie-breaking vote as needed. Given the role of the Senate in approving treaties, it makes sense the Cabinet position that could serve the role would be the Secretary of State. Other choices like Defense or Treasury are possible. In case of there being any conflict of interest, the Senate can nominate an alternate tie-breaker beforehand, such as during the nomination process of the President's incoming administration.

Viola. There's no more need for a Vice President to exist.

Doesn't it feel so much better? Like a breath of fresh air... ahhhh...

But of course nobody reads this blog and everything else I've tried to find online about other people arguing for the end of the Vice President's office can't be recovered. So that said, if I had control of the vetting process for both parties... who would I go for as VP on both tickets?

Stay tuned for the next post. This one's already too long.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Post-Primaries: Where I was right and wrong

Well, it's finally done. I've never seen a primary election cycle go this deep into the year, usually because it's all said and done by February with less than half the states having a say. So now I'd like to take a look back to what I thought about the candidates for both the Republicans and the Democrats, and whether or not I got any of it right.

I was right about declaring Huckabee a more successful dark horse candidate than Ron Paul: Huck actually won a few state primaries/caucuses whereas Paul got moral victories just by disrupting some of the last few voting turnouts after McCain had locked up the nomination. I was right about Giuliani's scandals hurting him as the primaries revved up, but even his dismal failures during the actual voting (only one time did he garner above 10 percent of a state's vote, and in half of the contests he polled below Paul) was a surprise. Rudy also managed a pretty poor campaign, focusing almost all his efforts on a handful of states (New Hampshire and Florida) and losing every one of them miserably. I was right about almost all of the third-tier guys dropping out pretty early (Ron Paul, like the mini-Rottweiler that he is, stayed in until the last one). I did think that Romney had more of a chance, though, thinking that he was the more palatable of the top choices available to the hardcore GOP constituency... which tells you I have no idea how the hardcore guys think. The Republican base took a few taste tests with the Romney brand and spat him back out. Amazingly, the guy whom the base didn't like much - McCain - was the eventual winner. It all depends on if a) the GOP Base finally woke up and realized they needed to back a guy whose reputation transcends the party and could bring the moderates and independents back, or if b) the GOP Base realized that for all the talk about being a maverick McCain was actually a hardcore conservative they could support.

As for the Democratic ticket... At one point it did become what I expected it to be: a three-way race between Clinton, Edwards and Obama. I knew that the candidates with the bigger and better resumes (Biden, Dodd, Richardson) didn't stand a chance as they lacked the one thing successful candidates have to bring to the table: charisma. I was right, and in all ways disappointed, that Edwards' media coverage was almost nonexistent, other than to mock him for $400 haircuts and for campaigning on an End Poverty platform while living in a big house (so if only poor people can campaign on ending poverty, can we therefore make it law that only poor people should run for office then? HMMM?!). And so it came down to Clinton v. Obama. Part of me dreaded a successful Clinton nomination, all because I feared how desperate and arrogant and vicious she could get about the acquisition and use of power... and as Obama kept scoring more points and securing more delegates, as Obama proved to be a better campaigner, you saw Hillary get worse, more desperate. My God, she had a sit-down with Scaife! SCAIFE! The one guy on the planet who made her life so fricking miserable during the 90s and she was actually sitting right next to him at a meeting working to earn his endorsement (which she GOT!). And Hillary's biggest fan got to be Rush Limbaugh! LIMBAUGH! And at no point did it ever occur to her or her handlers that the Far Right Noise Machine was so eager for her to win the nomination was so they could have a convenient target to aim at the next four years so they could keep their book deals going. (insert Facepalm) It was Hillary's determination that made this primary season so prolonged, where in previous years the race was done by February. It proved an exception to one of the reasons I'd been giving that a One-Day Primary was needed to give all states a say in the candidates, so thanks a lot Hillary! Grrrrr...

In the beginning I had hoped for a McCain/Edwards contest above all. Still getting McCain, and getting Obama instead. And I don't think I'm the only one who notices this plays out like the last season of the West Wing with Vinick v. Santos...

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Obsidian Wings and reforming the primaries

Back on June 2nd, the Obsidian Wings site posted a thread to debate the merits of reforming the convoluted party primary system that made the 2008 Election an excuse for taking Bayer aspirin for the rest of our lives.

I went and posted my views on the matter, pretty much restating the stuff I've said here.

Nice thing is, I did get a response. There were also a few responses arguing against a national primary day. Then the whole thing devolved into hairsplitting over whether or not "One Man One Vote" was feasible in any election. I think. At least it never got to the point where Godwin had to be invoked. :)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

What just happened the night of June 3rd 2008

I'm reminded of a moment I saw in 1994's Ken Burns PBS series Baseball, when they focused on the arrival of Jackie Robinson. I looked about online for a quote, and came up with a Google Books entry from the book Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports and the American Dream written/edited by Joseph Dorinson. It's in Chapter 9, Mah Nishtanah, by Henry Foner, who remembered watching Robinson come to Ebbets Field to play an exhibition game near about Passover in 1947. That Passover, as the youngest son in the family, it was left to Henry to invoke the four questions (fir kashes) that are asked of the holiday. He asked the first one, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" But before his father could answer, Henry provided his own answer, "Because today, a black man is playing major league baseball."

After 260 plus years, starting in 1619 with a Dutch ship reaching Jamestown with 19 indentured Africans and ending in 1865 with the fall of the Confederacy and an end to slavery, and after 100 years of Jim Crow, segregation, and lynch mobs, and after 40 plus years of fighting over affirmative action and entrenched racism we still find today in pockets of our nation, today is different from all other days. Because today, a black man is an official candidate for the office of President of the United States and unofficial Leader of the Free World.

Depending on how the election turns out, the night of November 4 2008 promises to be an even bigger moment than today.