Thursday, 24 June 2004

Telling It Like It Is

It struck me early on that the primary reason Al Gore chose not to run again for the Presidency might be to free himself from the shackles of having to weigh every statement and address against its impact on his electability. Whether or not that was the reason, he certainly has taken advantage of his newfound independence from the electoral process to deliver speeches like the one today with its no holds barred ... ...explication of the dangerous policies relentlessly pursued by the current administration.
If the congress becomes an enfeebled enabler to the executive, and the courts become known for political calculations in their decisions, then the country suffers. The kinds of unnatural, undemocratic activities in which this administration has engaged, in order to aggrandize power, have included censorship of scientific reports, manipulation of budgetary statistics, silencing dissent, and ignoring intelligence. Although there have been other efforts by other presidents to encroach on the legitimate prerogatives of congress and courts, there has never been this kind of systematic abuse of the truth and institutionalization of dishonesty as a routine part of the policy process.

While I'm heartened by the candor and zeal shown by Gore as he continues to stump for the truth, I'm soberly aware that he is being largely ignored as much the country is unwilling to recognize truths which are unpleasant. The sad truth is that candor is rarely rewarded on election day, and Kerry recognizes that all too well as he equivocates at every corner, making laughable the right's accusation that he is too liberal. Still he could certainly do with a better speechwriter to at least pull off the appearance of candor. My best hope is that enough truth will seep out into the mainstream to make another four years of Bush untenable to enough moderates and intelligent conservatives. Thanks Al for your contribution.

Monday, 21 June 2004

Missing the Obvious

Well, I've been falling down on the job. Three of the last four posts have favored subtlety over the obvious. In the most recent harangue about prosecutorial zealotry, I waxed on for five long paragraphs, failing to state plainly:

Innocent people don't belong in jail.

No person's pride is worth denying another person's freedom.

Rules should never prevent justice from applying common sense.

Besides that, I had started the post meaning to get around to questioning how so many victims and police, and to a lesser extent prosecutors and judges (and I hope it's a small minority, especially of those last two) get into a trap of feeling the necessity that somebody's gotta pay for a crime to the point that they talk themselves into believing the accused is guilty even when revealed truth begins to cast doubt and later even suggest otherwise. In some cases it even seems there is a willingness to keep a clearly innocent person behind bars, because to do otherwise would establish an undesirable precedent. Now that is clearly unconscionable! Look for a post in the future on the Tyranny of Precedent. [End of Post]

Sunday, 20 June 2004

Prosecutorial Zealotry

This week, the investigative show Frontline on PBS had another expose on innocents behind bars in America. This one, called The Plea, focused on the role of plea bargaining in increasing the likelihood that a defendent would either confess to a crime they did not commit, or in maintaining their innocence, increase the severity of the sentence they receive, and further tie the hands of parole boards who are enjoined not to approve early release of prisoners not showing sufficient remorse. How can remorse be genuine on the part of someone who isn't guilty?

These shows evoke a deep visceral reaction in me, beyond what is typical when I learn of other social injustices. Many would think that my reaction is out of proportion to the problem, which certainly affects a minority of convictees. I will concede that a substantial majority of convictions are of people who are actually guilty, and that the number of guilty who are suspected and not tried for lack of evidence, or who are acquitted, likely exceeds the number of innocents who are convicted. But the utter needlessness of so many of these cases being prosecuted, when the doubt of their guilt should be plainly obvious to prosecutors - if not at the outset of the trial, then at some point in the process - just raises my hackles like little else.

Especially troubling was the case of a woman whose stubbornness in refusing to plead guilty to a crime she claims not to have committed has kept her in prison through what would have been the prime of her life. There is simply no plausible explanation for a guilty person maintaining her innocence when she could have walked free after 10 years in prison simply by pleading guilty. One year ago after 26 years in prison, a clemency board refused to free her without explanation. The parole board who will hear her case next year is not expected to grant parole, since the prisoner is unlikely to express remorse for a crime she didn't commit. One can reasonably argue that such cases should be overturned simply on the basis that there is no logical explanation for such people maintaining innocence other than being innocent, never mind that the original evidence against this woman was flimsy and circumstantial to begin with. Of course the problem with that is, if it became automatic to overturn cases for illogically maintaining innocence, then maintaining innocence would no longer be illogical.

There are several organizations out there who are working this problem from different angles, so I am not alone in my concern. I've been aware for a while of The Innocence Project which has exonerated 144 prisoners using DNA evidence as their primary tool. The Center for Public Integrity has a branch which investigates prosecutorial misconduct and has discovered substantial recidivism on the part of numerous overzealous prosecutors around the country. Chicago's Northwestern University maintains a Center on Wrongful Convictions whose work in exposing and documenting cases of innocents on death row was vital in Illinois Governor Ryan's moratorium on executions.

To their credit the current House of Representative passed The Innocence Protection Act in November of last year, which grants "any inmate convicted of a federal crime the right to petition a federal court for DNA testing to support a claim of innocence.". This does nothing to help those defendants where DNA cannot help. It seems to me it's time to start retiring those prosecutors who repeatedly engage in misconduct likely to result in the convictions of innocent people. I'll not support a simplistic "three strikes" rule for firing prosecutors, because such formulas invariable inject too much luck into the process, but certainly prosecutors who have convicted multiple exonorees, or who have been censured for misconduct on multiple occasions deserve investigation with the possibility of losing their jobs. I suspect the threat of job loss for prosecutors will be a better deterrent to their misconduct than the possibility of facing the death penalty will ever be for a person considering the commission of a capital crime.

Wednesday, 16 June 2004

Spiral of Greed

So who among us denies that greed is spiraling out of control in America? Some will say it's no different than it's always been, but it seems to me a similar spiral occurred around the turn of the last century and slowly got some much needed brakes applied. No, the propensity for greed never really stopped, but over the last 25 years some very clever marketers started selling the story that the brakes on greed were deterrents to free enterprise, and that it was somehow in the interest of the common folk to scale back or remove the "awful" bureaucratic tools of regulation; of progressive tax structures; of minimum wages to keep up with inflation; and of incentives for business to act in the public good. The free market in its infinite wisdom will magically take care of everything! Huh??? And it's liberals that are naive? There are plenty of incentives for corporations out there still, but increasingly they are incentives for misbehavior. Is it really true that 60% of the biggest corporations pay zero in taxes? Where's the outrage?

I survived revisionist week in America

The last eleven days passed by without the veins popping out on my neck as I listened to yet another conservative wax nostalgically about America's great loss. The liberals were there too, noting that "in spite of ... [questionable Reagan policy of choice] ... optimism ... [likable personal attribute of choice] ..."

It's not that I don't still believe that Reagan's tax policies led to a huge reversal back toward the economic injustice that reigned at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Nor that I've come to believe that many third world innocents weren't royally screwed and often killed (or worse that they somehow deserved it) if those who represented their cause happened to have the 'wrong' economic ideology.

But in the eighties I was an angry young liberal, who when I saw an unquestionable wrong, inferred that those contributing to it necessarily were motivated by pure evil. Many of my friends at the time were inclined to believe that Reagan himself was just dumb and duped, but I correctly observed that he was actually quite intelligent, and so concluded that he must therefore be immoral. I see now, that though my leanings haven't changed, there is an awful truth that many Presidential decisions carry horrific implications regardless of the path chosen. To his credit, I think that Reagan actually did realize this, but once he decided on a course knew how to put a happy face on it and ignore the downside, causing many of his detractors to think he was just stupid.

There is an interesting parallel today, in that many are convinced of Bush's stupidity in his dogged pursuit of failed policies. An intellectual he is not, but he still must be smarter than the average Joe. I suspect (though I certainly can't claim to know it) that the younger Bush lacks the FULL appreciation of the true gravity of his responsibility, which most former Presidents including Reagan have had. It's hard to conceive that any President would not be burdened by their awesome responsibility. Reagan and Clinton both had the acting ability to hide that burden from the public. Nixon and Carter did not.

As some try to paint the Bush presidency as the extension of Reagan's legacy, much to the chagrin of Ron Reagan, Jr, liberals will usually try to deny the comparison, often avoiding emphasis on their own disagreement with Reagan, with an exception here or there.

At the end of the day, as a voter, it's not really necessary for me to know what's in Bush's brain or his heart, or how he compares to Reagan. It's sufficient to know that his policies are frightening in global proportions. As the focus turns away from the laurels for the deceased, deserved or not, I'll press forward to move for regime change here in America.

Friday, 11 June 2004

The Fight for Congress

Most pundits say there is little chance of the Democrats wresting control of the House of Representatives from the GOP this election year. The latest congressional redistricting in most states further solidified the creation of safe districts for incumbents such that very few districts are expected to be in play in any given election year. With the Republicans currently enjoying a 228-206 advantage, few have dared to suggest that the Democrats have more than a long shot chance to become the majority party. The unprecedented mid-decade redistricting in Texas alone is seen as likely to result in a pickup of 4 or 5 seats for the GOP, further widening the gap that the Demos would have to narrow. Here is one Republican's assessment of which races should be competitive in the House. More attention has been given to the Senate where the margin is much narrower, and more Demos are daring to hope for majority status.

The conventional wisdom may well turn out to be true, but here is my contrarian speculation that the House is actually likelier to change hands than the Senate. I will grant that this is partly wishful thinking on my part, as a majority switch in the House stands to create more political thunder than a switch in the Senate where greater moderation on both sides of the aisle tends to dampen the influence of the majority, especially when it's a slim one. Some may argue that the Senate is more important due to its role in confirming appointments, but it's the House where continuous control by Republicans since 1995 has resulted in partisan entrenchment and the establishment of rules creating institutional barriers to change rivaling those which the Democrats had built up after forty years of control of that body prior to the Republican Revolution of 1994. Frankly our nation would be well served by at least one switch in party control per decade to avoid that type of petty partisanship.

My inclination to believe a Democratic surprise may be in the works stems from the tide of unabashedly liberal activism, and the rising concerns of libertarians and fiscal conservatives, both of which have sprung up in reaction to the Bush administration's four-headed approach to governing by warmongering, rights abatement, deficit spending, and cultural divisiveness. This isn't to suggest that I don't believe the polls that show a closely split and increasingly polarized electorate, nor that I believe the Republican base isn't also going to vote in record numbers. But among the many constituencies which are NOT in either party's base, I suggest that those who are inclined to oppose Bush will be voting at a substantially higher rate than those inclined to support him. This is why the polls may be "lying".

While events could yet conspire for things not to turn out that way, this potential differential in who shows up in November could translate into both an unexpected landslide for Kerry, and longer coattails than have been seen in years. The reason I think the coattails might be more noticeable in the House than the Senate is largely regional. Only one-third of all Senate seats are up for a vote, and many of the closer races are for southern seats currently occupied by Democrats. The stronger cultural conservatism in the South is likely to mitigate my suggested turnout differential there, and the loss of just two or three of those Senate seats is likely to be insurmountable. In contrast, as always, every seat in the House is up for re-election, and a motivated large anti-Bush turnout could produce more surprises in House races previously not believed to be in play.

As a partisan myself, I am especially anxious to see the Democratic Leadership put more resources than they might otherwise be inclined to into House races which have historically gone Republican with percentages in the high 50s and even low 60s, especially outside of the South. One strategic arm of the Democratic establishment, the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) seemed to share my take on the unique opportunity of 2004 back in their September 2003 Board Memo:
As President Bush’s ratings continue to slip, and the Republicans continue to be wrong on the issues that matter most to people, Democratic races for the US House and Senate have become even more competitive. Principally because of 2002 redistricting there are a smaller number of competitive US House races. While it will be a truly difficult challenge to overcome a 22-seat GOP advantage in the House, a weakened Bush and discredited GOP has the potential of putting many more House seats “in play” in 2004. It is possible that by this time next year there will be significantly more competitive House races and the Democrat’s prospects of recapturing control of Congress will be much brighter.
But in their more recent winter newsletter, they backed substantially away from such optimism, only barely mentioning that:
In addition there is a strong chance Democrats will be able to pick up a couple of seats in the House of Representatives.
In contrast, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, more of a fund-raising organization dedicated to winning seats in Congress, at least officially, seems to remain more hopeful. Personally I wish that Tom DeLay could become the sort of political lightning rod for the left, that Ted Kennedy and Hillary have become for the right. "Demote DeLay" could become the generic "vote for your local Democrat for Congress" yard sign. Alas it would be lost on the average voter outside of DeLay's own district, who's not inclined to think of their vote as having anything to do with majority control of Congress.

Control of the House by the Democrats, should my November surprise actually occur, is likely to be short-lived however. If accompanied by a Kerry Presidency, the motivated electorate I'm hypothesizing to show up to turn out Bush will fall back to their usual habits in two years, and the redistricting to favor the party currently in power will not have changed, meaning the GOP would retake most of the seats they lose this time around. Even so, an interruption to a Republican majority, should be celebrated by moderates everywhere, as it should substantially quell the activist right-wing freight train being led by Hastert and DeLay.

As far as my personal druthers are concerned, I actually am hoping for my prediction not only in the House but in the Senate as well, since I see the advantage of some of the moderate Republican leadership in that body tempering possible excesses of what would otherwise be one-party control across the board. This in spite of the fact that I test to the left of Kucinich in this on-line measurement of one's political compass, though I remain very skeptical of that result.

Friday, 4 June 2004

I'm looking for feedback from readers!

A couple of posts down, after my critique of Attorney General Ashcroft, I requested links to examples of good people who are being unjustly thwarted or incarcerated due to the overzealous policies of the justice department. I'm confident examples abound beyond the recent case of the attorney from Portland wrongfully suspected of involvement in the Madrid bombing and held nearly two weeks without charge. Please comment to that post or email me if you can point me to others.

Also to the right you will notice my "Beyond the Pale" links to stories about actions of the Bush administration which warrant far more outrage than they have received. If you have further suggestions for that series, or better articles than the ones I've chosen for those stories, I want to hear about it! I'm interested in articles, preferably from the mainstream press, which focus on facts more than opinions. It seems to me the conclusions we should draw from these are pretty obvious - or at least they should be. Well, Duh! [End of Post]